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The Roots of Virtue: A Cross-Cultural Lexical Analysis


Abstract and Figures

Although the notion of virtue is increasingly prominent in psychology, the way it has been studied and conceptualised has been relatively Western-centric, and does not fully account for variations in how it has been understood cross-culturally. As such, an enquiry was conducted into ideas relating to virtue found across the world’s cultures, focusing specifically on so-called untranslatable words. Through a quasi-systematic search of academic and grey literature, together with conceptual snowballing and crowd-sourced suggestions, over 200 relevant terms were located. An adapted grounded theory analysis identified five themes which together provide an insight into the “roots” of virtue (i.e., the main sources from which it appears to spring): virtue itself (the concept of it); considerateness (caring about it); wisdom (knowing what it consists of); agency (managing to be/do it); and skill (mastery of the preceding elements). The results help shed further light on the potential dynamics of this important phenomenon.
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The roots of virtue: A cross-cultural lexical analysis
Dr. Tim Lomas
University of East London
Journal of Happiness Studies
Note. This article may not exactly replicate the final version published in the Journal of Happiness Studies. It is
not the copy of record.
Although the notion of virtue is increasingly prominent in psychology, the way it has been
studied and conceptualised has been relatively Western-centric, and does not fully account
for variations in how it has been understood cross-culturally. As such, an enquiry was
conducted into ideas relating to virtue found across the world’s cultures, focusing specifically
on so-called untranslatable words. Through a quasi-systematic search of academic and grey
literature, together with conceptual snowballing and crowd-sourced suggestions, over 200
relevant terms were located. An adapted grounded theory analysis identified five themes
which together provide an insight into the “roots” of virtue (i.e., the main sources from which
it appears to spring): virtue itself (the concept of it); considerateness (caring about it);
wisdom (knowing what it consists of); agency (managing to be/do it); and skill (mastery of
the preceding elements). The results help shed further light on the potential dynamics of this
important phenomenon.
Keywords: virtue, wellbeing, cross-cultural, language.
Mainstream psychology has been charged with being rather Western-centric, influenced by
the mainly Western contexts in which it has primarily developed (Becker & Marecek, 2008).
“Mainstream” in this context refers to the field as a global endeavour (e.g., with international
journals and conferences). There have been, and still are, “ethnopsychologies” across the
globe; however, Danziger (2006) suggests that the international dominance of the United
States since the Second World War has meant that psychology as studied and practised there
has been exported globally, to the extent that it now constitutes the hegemonic “mainstream”
iteration of the discipline. Thus, concepts, ideologies, priorities, and methods associated with
American psychology have come to dominate the international scene. Furthermore, much of
the empirical work within this mainstream has involved participants described by Henrich,
Heine, and Norenzayan (2010) as WEIRD, belonging to societies that are Western, Educated,
Industrialised, Rich and Democratic. Moreover, many scholars themselves are situated within
such contexts, which will influence their perception and interpretation of the world. To give
an example that is particularly germane to the present paper, American English is the default
language in the field, and as nearly a century of extensive research on the ‘linguistic relativity
hypothesis’ has shown, this linguistic bias strongly shapes people’s psychological functioning
(e.g., perceptions of time or colour) (Lucy, 1997). Academia has developed methodological
ways of addressing such biases, including efforts towards facilitating objectivity (particularly
in quantitative paradigms), and encouraging reflexivity (especially in qualitative paradigms)
(Finlay & Gough, 2003). However, even with such measures in place, critics argue that the
field is still biased towards Western ways of thinking and understanding the world (e.g., its
emphasis on individualism) (Becker & Marecek, 2008). As such, the field would benefit from
developing greater cross-cultural engagement, awareness, and understanding. This paper aims
to contribute to this process, doing so by focusing specifically on virtue.
Virtue has been of interest to fields such as moral philosophy for centuries, and continues to
be through across diverse fields, as reflected in Snow’s (2017) recent Oxford Handbook of
Virtue (in which Pettigrove (2017, p.371), for instance, defines it as “persisting excellence of
character that could serve the good”). More recently, it has also become a focus of attention
in psychology. One of the most prominent systematic psychological approaches to virtue is
found in positive psychology, particularly in the burgeoning paradigm of character strengths,
and specifically the Values-in-Action (VIA) initiative (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). This is
of course not the only approach to virtues in the field; for instance, Haidt and colleagues have
generated a fruitful programme of enquiry in this area, which includes attempting to
understand political differences on the basis of moral intuitions (e.g., Haidt & Joseph, 2007).
Nevertheless, the VIA has attracted considerable attention, and is widely used and researched
(even if only mainly by scholars within positive psychology), which makes it of interest here.
The intention of the VIA was to create a taxonomy of strengths, described as positive
traits that a person owns, celebrates, and frequently uses (Peterson & Park, 2009, p.29). This
was envisioned as a comprehensive framework for understanding the ways people thrive and
flourish, offering a “positive” counterpart to the deficit-based classificatory systems such as
the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Over a three-year period,
researchers collaborated to arrive at a schema featuring 24 distinct strengths (Dahlsgaard,
Peterson, & Seligman, 2005). The selection was guided by 12 criteria (Peterson & Seligman,
2004): (1) ubiquity (cross-culturally); (2) fulfilling (contributes to flourishing); (3) morally
valued (in its own right, not merely intrumentally); (4) does not diminish others (evoking
elevating admiration rather than jealousy); (5) non-felicitous opposite (has negative
antonyms); (6) traitlike (an individual difference with generality and stability); (7)
measurable (empirically); (8) distinctiveness (not redundant, conceptually or empirically,
with other strengths); (9) paragons (strikingly embodied in exemplary individuals); (10)
prodigies (precosiously shown by some youth); (11) selective absence (missing in some
people); and (12) institutions (a deliberate target for cultivation by social practices and
rituals). The premise of the theory is that people are more likely to flourish if they use and
develop their particular strengths, as has been corroborated in contexts ranging from
education (Proctor et al., 2011) to the workplace (Gander, Proyer, Ruch, & Wyss, 2012).
Crucially, for our purposes here, these character strengths were selected and defined,
in part, by their implication of virtue. While moral and social desirability were not necessary
conditions for the inclusion of a strength, they were certainly key determinants (McGrath,
Greenberg, & Hall-Simmonds, 2017). This implication was highlighted by Dahlsgaard et al.
(2005), who ordered the 24 strengths according to a class of fundamental virtues. These were
assessed as having been valorised throughout history and across cultures, as identified in
foundational texts from eight moral and religious traditions (Athenian philosophy, Buddhism,
Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Taoism). Having identified six
virtues, the strengths were distributed among them as follows: (1) wisdom and knowledge
(creativity, judgement, perspective, curiosity, and love of learning); (2) courage (bravery,
perseverance, honesty, and zest); (3) humanity (love, kindness, and social intelligence); (4)
justice (teamwork, fairness, and leadership); (5) temperance (forgiveness, humility, prudence,
and self-regulation); and (6) transcendence (appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude,
hope, humour, and spirituality).
In this initial analysis, the identification of virtues, and the distribution of strengths
among them, proceeded on intuitive and theoretical grounds. Subsequently, scholars have
brought other tools to bear on the VIA, notably factor analysis. Various component solutions
have been identified. Ruch and Proyer (2015) obtained a reasonable fit for the proposed six
factor classification, while other studies arrived at five-, four-, three-, and two-factor
solutions. Five-factor solutions include: interpersonal strengths, cognitive strengths, fortitude,
temperance, and transcendence (Peterson, Park, Pole, D'Andrea, & Seligman, 2008;
McGrath, 2014); interpersonal strengths, intellectual strengths, emotional strengths, strengths
of restraint, and theological strengths (Ruch et al., 2010; Littman-Ovadia & Lavy, 2012;
Azañedo, Fernández-Abascal, & Barraca, 2014); and interpersonal strengths, intellectual
strengths, civic strengths, self-assurance, theological strengths (Singh & Choubisa, 2010).
Four-factor solutions include: interpersonal strengths, fortitude, vitality, and cautiousness
(Brdar & Kashdan, 2010); social strengths, intellectual strengths, temperance strengths, and
transcendence strengths (Shryack et al., 2010); agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness,
and theological strengths (Park & Peterson, 2005); and positivity, intellect, conscientiousness,
and niceness (Macdonald, Bore, & Munro, 2008). McGrath (2015b) and McGrath et al.
(2017) identified a three-factor solution of caring, inquisitiveness, and self-control. Finally,
Peterson (2006) obtained a two-factor solution corroborated by Ruch et al. (2010) where
the first factor contrasts strengths of the ‘heart’ (emotional expression) versus of the ‘mind’
(intellectual restraint), and the second contrasts self-focused versus other-focused strengths.
Clearly, the solutions have considerable overlaps, and many factors actually share the
same labels. Moreover, these articles indicate that solutions other than the one settled on
could have been obtained, since determining the optimal solution is partly a judgement call
(albeit one based on well-established procedures, such as tests of model fit in confirmatory
factor analysis; Schreiber et al., 2006). For instance, McGrath (2015b) explores the merits of
one-, two-, three-, four-, and five-component solutions, before justifying his preference for a
three-factor solution. That said, he identifies, at the broadest level of analysis, a single factor
of “good character,” encompassing all elements of positive functioning. This refracts into two
second-tier components, goodness and inquisitiveness, which pertain to moral concern and
intellectual interest respectively. Goodness then refracts still further, subdividing into caring
and self-control, thereby providing McGrath’s three-component solution. Interestingly,
McGrath states he was keen to find “common ground” between virtue perspectives that are
psychological” (i.e., psychometric self-report data) and cultural” (i.e., valued historically)
(p.408). Thus, his decisions around the component solution was based partly on “intuitive
appeal,” picking a solution “consistent with culturally meaningful concepts of virtue.” For
instance, he was influenced by the Aristotelian notion of three pathways through which
excellence leads to fulfilment: social, intellectual, and productive (Curren, 2008).
So, there is a burgeoning literature on the nature and structure of virtue. However, to
some extent this literature suffers from the issue raised above, namely Western-centricity, as
the scholars involved have recognised (McGrath, 2015). That is not to say the research has
lacked a cross-cultural dimension. The original six-factor structure for the VIA was obtained
by consulting traditions from across the world (Dahlsgaard et al., 2005), while the studies
above cover numerous countries, not only the USA (Peterson et al., 2008; Shryack et al.,
2010; McGrath, 2014), but also India (Singh & Choubisa, 2010), Australia (Macdonald et al.,
2008), Germany (Ruch et al., 2010), Spain (Azañedo et al., 2014), Israel (Littman-Ovadia &
Lavy, 2012), and Croatia (Brdar & Kashdan, 2010). However, as McGrath (2015b) points
out, participants in most of those studies could be deemed “WEIRD” (Henrich et al., 2010).
Moreover, the VIA initiative is driven by a concern with developing a universally applicable
framework, featuring constructs that appear to be shared across cultures. As such, there may
be merit in also looking for virtue-related constructs that have not necessarily been shared as
such, but are potentially unique to a particular culture. Such concepts can be identified in the
form of “untranslatable” words.
Untranslatable Words
Before outlining the significance of untranslatable words, it will help to situate this paper
more generally with respect to cross-cultural scholarship. It is common to differentiate cross-
cultural research into “universalist” and “relativist” positions (with Berry, Poortinga, Segall,
and Dasen (2011) further separating these into extreme and moderate versions). The
universalist perspective evident in many studies above aims to identify universal aspects
of psychological functioning, possessed irrespective of cultural location. Such work is usually
guided by positivist epistemologies, highlighting how people globally share similarities
across human processes, including virtues and strengths (McGrath, 2015a). Conversely,
relativist scholars tend to endorse some form of social constructionism. However, many
scholars tread a middle ground, acknowledging universals, but also recognising that these can
be shaped by cultural context. This ground is reflected in Berry et al.’s (2011) identification
of moderate universalism, namely work that “emphasises that there exist both differences
and similarities in behaviour across cultures” (p.8).
One can identify this middle ground in some VIA studies. For instance, McGrath
(2015a) reviewed VIA assessments across 75 countries. Although the report largely endorsed
the universality of the VIA, it also acknowledged cultural variation in the prominence of
particular virtues and strengths. The present paper likewise aligns with this middle-ground. It
takes seriously cultural diversity, recognising variation in the way cultures experience and
understand virtue (and life more broadly). Yet it eschews the idea that people do not share
some universal qualities and concerns. Moreover, it suggests that cultures can learn from the
variation that does exist, including discovering new ideas and practices that may be relevant
to one’s own culture. One way of doing so is through engaging with untranslatable words.
Although untranslatability is a contested phenomenon, it generally refers to a word
that lacks an exact equivalent in a given other language. (Please see Lomas (in press) for a
more detailed theoretical consideration of the nature of untranslatability.) Interest in such
words is manifold. First, they can assist in understanding other culturesvalues, traditions,
and ways of being (Wierzbicka, 1997). The theoretical context here is the aforementioned
linguistic relativity hypothesis (LRH) sometimes referred to as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis,
following the influential work of Sapir (1929) and Whorf (1940) which holds that language
influences how people experience, understand, and perceive the world. As one might
imagine, within the broadly-constituted LRH are diverse positions that to an extent map onto
the universalist-relativist spectrum outlined above.
Stronger formulations of the LRH veer towards Berry et al.’s (2011) “extreme
relativism, endorsing forms of determinism whereby language inextricably constitutes
thought. In relation to untranslatable words, this view implies that only people enmeshed
within the culture that produced a given word can truly understand or experience the
phenomenon it refers to. For instance, Taylor (1985) argues there is no way out of the
“hermeneutic circle,” in which concepts can only be understood with reference to others in
that language. He writes, “We can often experience what it is like to be on the outside [of the
circle] when we encounter the feeling, action, and experiential meaning language of another
civilization. Here there is no translation, no way of explaining in other, more accessible
concepts” (p.23-24). However, other perspectives are situated further along the spectrum
towards “moderate relativism” and even “moderate universalism.” From these stances, such
words may to an extent be comprehensible to people outside the culture, holding some
universal relevance. For instance, Wierzbicka (1999) suggests we can indeed approximate a
feel for what untranslatable words refer to. One may not appreciate the full nuanced richness
of a term compared to people “inside” the culture, as “verbal explanations of such concepts
cannot replace experiential familiarity with them and with their functioning in the local
‘stream of life’” (p.8). Yet, “it is not true that no verbal explanations illuminating to outsiders
are possible at all.” Even without understanding a word’s full panoply of meanings and uses
in its original language, something of its nature may yet be appreciated.
The current paper aligns with this latter stance. And, in that sense, beyond just being
informative vis-à-vis the culture that created the word, such words can enrich other lexica.
This phenomenon of cultures borrowing words is central to language development. Indeed,
of the more than 600,000 lexemes in the OED, the percentage of borrowed words is estimated
to be as high as 41% (Tadmor, 2009). Such borrowings are known as loanwords, although
more specific terminology identifies varying levels of assimilation into the host language. Of
particular interest here is why words are borrowed. Many are what Haspelmath (2009) calls
“loanwords by necessity,” where the recipient language lacks its own word for a particular
referent (e.g., if a new practice or idea is introduced to a culture). Thus, the loanword is used
for pragmatic reasons, allowing speakers to articulate concepts they previously struggled to.
In Lehrer’s (1974) terminology, such words fill semantic gaps, namely the lack of a
convenient word to express what [one] wants to speak about (p.105). Such gaps are what
make words untranslatable, indicating phenomena that have been overlooked or undervalued
by one’s own culture, but which another culture has identified and labelled.
From that perspective, such words can enrich the English lexicon, and enhance the
nomological network in fields like psychology. This is desirable, given the aforementioned
point that academic psychology tends to be Western-centric. That is, its nomological network
largely involves concepts that have been identified in English. It would therefore be useful to
augment this network with constructs which have not yet been identified, as signalled by an
untranslatable word. Indeed, such augmentation has already occurred, in a limited way, for
decades, with psychology borrowing selectively from other languages “other” from the
perspective of English, the dominant mode of communication in the field notably German
(e.g., Gestalt), Greek (e.g., eudaimonia), and Latin (e.g., ego). (Such borrowing becomes
more extensive when you consider that much of the terminology that is regarded as English,
rather than a loanword, in fact derives from Greek, including “psychology” itself.)
That said, encouraging cross-cultural exploration of other lexica does not mean such
borrowing is straightforward. Structuralism and post-structuralism have shown that words are
embedded within complex networks that endow them with meaning, including associations
that one could only appreciate by being enmeshed within that culture (Wierzbicka, 1999). As
such, if a word is transplanted to another context, this network will not be retained. Even so,
something of its nature may yet be appraised. For instance, the Sanskrit loanword karma has
been borrowed to refer broadly to causality with respect to ethics. Most English speakers
probably do not know how it relates to other Sanskrit terms, nor its wealth of meanings in
Hindu and Buddhist teachings (e.g., in relation to the rich repository of insight and guidance
found in the dharma, the Buddhist path). Nevertheless, they evidently find the word useful,
and deploy it in ways not completely discordant with its original meanings. Moreover, in the
process of borrowing, words organically form connections with relevant concepts in the new
language (e.g., karma being understood through ideas around sin and justice).
As such, untranslatable words can help psychology deepen its understanding of the
person, even if the way it defines and deploys such terms diverges from how they are used in
their original context. To that end, this paper looks to refine our understanding of virtue by
considering untranslatable words that relate to this topic. Its two research questions are: (a)
what concepts pertaining to virtue can be identified in other languages that have not been
similarly identified in English (as signalled by an untranslatable word); and (b) what are their
implications for our understanding of virtue?
Background to the Study
The context for this paper is recent work by Lomas (2016), who is developing a lexicography
of untranslatable words relating to wellbeing. The lexicography’s central premise is that such
words can enhance the nomological network in psychology, as elucidated above. In the paper
establishing the lexicography, Lomas (2016) identified 216 untranslatable words pertaining to
wellbeing through a quasi-systematic review of academic sources and grey literature (i.e.,
outside conventional academic channels, like websites focused on untranslatable words). This
original study did not undertake a conventional systematic review of its topic, mainly because
there were deemed an insufficient number of papers in academic psychology journals to
permit that. Nevertheless, it deployed a systematic search process, hence quasi-systematic.
Readers interested in this process are encouraged to consult this original paper; suffice it to
say that the process included several protocols, e.g., examining the first 20 websites returned
when entering “untranslatable words” into Google. Once the 216 words had been identified,
suitably robust definitions were sought through various means, including on-line dictionaries,
peer-reviewed academic sources (across all fields of academia), and bilingual colleagues.
The words and their definitions were then analysed using a variation of grounded
theory (GT), a qualitative methodology which allows theory to emerge inductively from the
data (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). It was a variation of GT in that it followed its three main
coding stages (open, axial, and selective). In a process of open coding, the data the words
and their definitions were examined for emergent themes. This phase was assisted by other
GT processes such as memoing and initial theorising. Then, axial coding involved comparing
themes in a process of constant comparison, and grouping these into categories based on
conceptual similarity. Six main categories were produced, which in turn paired into three
meta-categories: feelings (positive and ambivalent), relationships (love and pro-sociality),
and development (virtue/character and spirituality). Finally, selective coding saw the
identification of a single “core” category, which in that case was wellbeing. Applying GT to a
lexical data-set in this way is somewhat unconventional, and may not meet some people’s
expectations of what GT is or should be. That said, there is great heterogeneity in the studies
purporting to use GT (Cutcliffe, 2005), and arguably Lomas’s analysis is sufficiently aligned
with GT principles to be considered one such example. Alternatively, one may prefer just to
regard it as a version of thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006) that “borrows” from GT.
Subsequent Data Collection and Analysis
Subsequent to Lomas’s (2016) initial paper, the lexicography has expanded to nearly 1,000
words. This is partly through crowd-sourced contributions to a website created to host the
project (, and partly through follow-up enquiries by the
current author via what might be termed “conceptual snowballing.” Roughly, of the nearly
800 words collected since the initial paper, 500 have been provided by website visitors, and
300 through conceptual snowballing. The term snowballing derives from study recruitment,
where participants facilitate the participation of additional people. This metaphor of has been
borrowed to reflect the way enquiries into an untranslatable word might lead a researcher to
encounter related concepts. For instance, although nearly 100 languages are represented in
the lexicography, many words hail from a select group that are particularly well-studied in
psychologically-oriented literature, consisting of Chinese, French, German, Greek, Japanese,
Pāli, and Sanskrit. Thus, an enquiry into a word from these languages would often lead the
researcher to a text in which related words are discussed. Such words would then also be
added to the lexicography.
In thus adding a word whether based on a suggestion to the website, or through
snowballing the same checking procedure was followed as in Lomas’s (2016) initial paper.
Definitions were sought through various means, including on-line dictionaries, peer-reviewed
academic sources, and bilingual colleagues. Moreover, once these words and their definitions
had been added to the lexicography, they were then accessible on the website for public
inspection. In some instances, people with knowledge of the word and language in question
then provided feedback, suggesting a refined or augmented definition of the word. (At a
rough estimate, of the nearly 2,000 messages to the website so far, around 300 have related
and led to the amending of a definition.) This peer and public feedback provides in addition
to that from bilingual colleagues a further credibility check (which is valued in GT).
That said, it must be acknowledged that this subsequent phase of data collection and
analysis could not be regarded as systematic (not even in the “quasi-systematic” sense of
Lomas’s (2016) original paper). The spirit of the lexicography is an evolving resource that
will always be a work-in-progress. After all, there are some 7,000 languages in existence, and
it is unlikely that any one research project could study them all and retrieve their relevant
words. However, that does not mean one cannot usefully analyse the lexicography’s existing
words and emergent themes/categories, even if such analyses are incomplete and subject to
revision. Indeed, despite the addition of around 800 new words since Lomas’s original paper,
these have not altered the overall thematic structure created in that paper, with the words
being accommodated within its framework of meta-categories and categories. In that respect,
subsequent work on the expanded lexicography has resulted in publications focusing on four
of the six categories identified in the original paper: spirituality (Lomas, 2018a), love
(Lomas, 2018b), positive emotions (Lomas, 2017b), and ambivalent emotions (Lomas,
2018c). To that end, the current paper focuses on the category of virtue/character, which
comprises over 200 words at present.
These words were once again analysed using the GT variation developed in Lomas’s
(2016) original paper. Once again, the data comprised a set of words and their definitions.
These definitions had been refined and checked in the ways outlined above (e.g., consulting
dictionaries, peer-reviewed sources, and bilingual speakers, together with website feedback).
In the first stage of open coding, the words and their definitions were examined for thematic
content. Next, words were grouped together through constant comparison into five themes.
This process could be described as intuitive, evolving, and iterative, both in terms of how
words were aggregated into themes, and how the themes were conceptualised. In terms of
aggregating words into themes, this process could be deemed intuitive since, unlike in factor
analysis (with its recourse to statistical techniques), choosing which thematic structure
provides the “best fit” for the data mainly relies on the researcher’s informed judgement (with
the author being the sole researcher). In that respect, it was a judgement that evolved. For
instance, some themes here include subthemes, such as “considerateness” (which involves
“awareness” and “care”), and agency (which involves “willpower” and “self-control”). At
early stages in the analysis, thought was given to having these subthemes be themes in their
own right. However, aggregating them into larger composite themes ultimately seemed the
most parsimonious solution. The process was also iterative, with the thematic labels being
revised, including in response to the peer review process. For instance, the fourth theme was
initially called “autonomy,” and then “self-determination, before “agency” was settled upon
as optimal on the advice of a reviewer. However, it is acknowledged that this analytic process
is somewhat idiosyncratic, shaped by the personal inclinations and perspectives of the author.
For example, the fifth theme is labelled “skill,” mainly based on how the idea of skilfulness is
used in Buddhist teachings (as discussed below). Thus, other researchers could easily have
chosen to configure and label the themes differently, based on their own situatedness and
reading of the data. Finally, a single core category was generated, namely virtue. A version
of this core category had been in mind from the start of the analysis, so it cannot be deemed a
truly inductively-derived core category. That said, prior to the analysis undertaken for this
present paper, the category had been labelled “character.” However, subsequently it was
renamed “virtue,” as this was a better fit with the themes generated inductively here.
Results and Discussion
The words analysed fell into five broad themes: virtue; considerateness; wisdom; agency; and
skill. Collectively, one might regard these as the “roots” of virtue, i.e., the main sources from
which virtue springs. These are illustrated in figure 1 below, which is not intended to be
sequential or circular, but rather implies that all themes are interlinked (as indicated by the
double-headed arrows). The themes are discussed in turn below, featuring a selection of
relevant words.
Figure 1. An illustration of the main themes
The analysis begins with the foundational concept of virtue itself, the notion that a person can
be virtuous. This represents a meta-theme which encompasses all the specific virtues and
strengths found in taxonomies like the VIA. In that sense, it mirrors McGrath’s (2015b)
analysis, which, prior to resolving into a three-factor solution, obtained a single broad factor
of “good character.” Likewise, in a psycho-lexical analysis of the Dutch language focused
on the Big Five personality framework DeRaad and Van Oudenhoven (2011) similarly
identified a broad virtue factor. This foundational concept of virtue is reflected in terms
across cultures, each of which could be deemed untranslatable (in that they cannot be
perfectly translated as “virtue”), and so bring further nuance to our understanding of this idea.
For instance, thinkers in classical Greece emphasised the importance of arête. This was an
overarching mark of virtue, encompassing the specific qualities that constitute it (of which
various taxonomies were developed, such as Plato’s (380 BCE) valorisation of sophia,
andreia, sophrosune, and dikaiosuné, which can be rendered roughly as wisdom, courage,
self-restraint, and justice). Arête, then, would mean excelling at any or all, denoting general
excellence or quality. The term did not only apply to humans, but to anything that excelled at
its inherent” purpose (such as an athletic horse). In relation to humans, it often signified
moral excellence, although it also included meanings that would not usually be linked to
morality today, such as physical prowess. Similarly, it is often translated simply as “virtue,” a
word derived from the Latin virtus, frequently regarded as equivalent to arête. As with arête
though, virtus had certain connotations, reflective of the culture at the time, that we would not
now associate with virtue, such as manliness.
As to what virtue consists of, Aristotle emphasised the notion of mesos, i.e., mean or
middle (with mesos the basis for these English terms themselves). In relation to Aristotle, its
importance is usually highlighted by the label “golden mean,” whereby the virtuous course of
action treads the delicate middle line between the opposing vices of excess and deficiency
(e.g., courage represents the optimal point between rashness and cowardice) (Telfer, 1989).
This is not simply an appeal to moderation, nor splitting the difference between oppositional
qualities, such as truthfulness and untruthfulness (e.g., being moderately truthful). Rather, it
means one’s reaction should be carefully calibrated based on the context, and may fall
anywhere on a spectrum as appropriate. This notion of skilfully treading a middle line is
common to many traditions. For instance, the Buddha referred to his path as the Madhyama
Marga, Middle Way in Sanskrit. That said, one must be wary of drawing false equivalences
between apparently similar ideas. In this case, the Buddhist Middle Way has been interpreted
in various ways, not all compatible with Aristotle’s golden mean, including the transcending
of dualistic thinking itself (Garfield, 1995). This point is important to bear in mind generally
throughout analysis. Just because terms have been assembled within a theme does not imply
they necessarily mesh harmoniously; on occasions, terms may be in tension or conflict.
There are then numerous appellations for people who manage to attain virtue. Some
describe exemplars who have reached specific religious/spiritual peaks. For example, the
term Buddhism derives from the honorific Buddha, given to the historic person of Siddhārtha
Gautama, which translates as Awakened one. Relatedly, arhat is sometimes used
synonymously with Buddha, with both denoting superlative human beings. For instance, the
Dhammapada describes an arhat as firm as a high pillar and as pure as a deep pool free
from mud… wholly freed, perfectly tranquil and wise” (cited in Buddharakkhita, 2008, p.44).
Most religious/spiritual traditions have similar descriptors for their exemplars, of which there
are far too many to detail here. (And again, to emphasise the point above, such descriptors are
not identical, and there may indeed be significant differences between traditions in how their
exemplars are conceived.) However, one more term does warrant mention, the Yiddish
mensch, as in addition to its Judaic religious/spiritual connotations, it more generally denotes
a good human being in its fullest sense,” and has become a loanword on that basis
(Blumberg, 2006, p.724). Added to this are words that, in different ways, describe a virtuous
person. For instance, the German adjective fein conveys bearing and grace, encompassing
nobility, honour, tenderness, uniqueness, and authenticity (Baer & Olshanskaya, 2014).
Thus, numerous words bring subtle nuances to the general notion of virtue. Such
terms then generate further questions as to its dynamics, including why a person might be
virtuous, how they would know how to, and how they would manage to. These are addressed
in the following three sections, under considerateness, wisdom, and agency respectively.
A crucial component of virtue appears to be considerateness (a term derived from the Latin
consîderâtus). It might help to think of this as a motivational aspect of virtue: although it
itself is an expression or manifestation of virtue, it arguably also plays something of a causal
role as a driving force behind its cultivation. This is the case in Buddhist teachings, for
instance, with respect to the Pāli notion of sati (Lomas, 2017a), which we shall consider
below. In terms of the VIA factor analytic components, this theme has parallels with such
factors as interpersonal strengths (Peterson et al., 2008), agreeableness (Park & Peterson,
2005), niceness (Macdonald et al., 2008), and caring (McGrath, 2015b). The latter quality in
particular was central to the analysis here. However, this theme of considerateness comprised
two essential qualities: awareness and care. That is, to care about the impact of one’s actions
(both on others and oneself), arguably one must first be aware of that impact (since logically
it is hard to care about things one is unaware of).
Regarding awareness, a notable term in this respect is the aforementioned sati. This is
a complex, polysemous term, with a rich history of evolving meanings, about which much
could be said (Lomas, 2017a). Indeed, most terms explored here justify in-depth treatments,
exploring their nuances at length; however, to achieve the comparative analysis aimed for
here requires an inevitable trade-off between depth and breadth. Thus, with sati it is sufficient
to note it is the basis as a loan translation, i.e., semantic borrowing for mindfulness, which
has become somewhat ubiquitous in the West. For instance, drawing on treatments of sati in
the Pāli canon, Kabat-Zinn (2003, p.145) defines mindfulness as the awareness that arises
through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the
unfolding of experience moment by moment. However, in its original Buddhist context, sati
had an implicit moral dimension (e.g., of the impact of one’s actions, and the extent to which
they align with Buddhist precepts), even if this dimension is not necessarily retained in
modern conceptualisations of mindfulness. In addition, Buddhism has other terms around
awareness that explicitly embed a moral dimension, like apramāda, interpreted as
“awareness… with regard to the sphere of qualities of good conduct” (Carter, 2005, p.280).
In addition to awareness of one’s actions, considerateness involves caring about their
implications, which means caring generally about others. As per taxonomies of virtue, there
are likewise numerous schemas relating to kindness and compassion. To again use Buddhism
as an example, Theravada schools valorise four brahma-vihārās, a phrase that translates as
abodes of brahma (with Brahma being the Vedic term for the creative deity). In this context
the term denotes four qualities qualified by the adjective apramāṇa, meaning immeasurable
or boundless that practitioners are encouraged to cultivate: maitrī (often rendered as
“loving-kindness”); karuṇā (compassion); muditā (sympathetic happiness); and upeksha
(equanimity). Or consider classical Greek, which had a wealth of terms relating to affection
and love as outlined in depth in Lomas (2018b) including storgē, denoting familial bonds;
philia, which pertains more to companionship; and agape, for charitable, selfless love.
These diverse forms of care might all be regarded as instances of the more general
“golden rule,” which articulates an ideal of reciprocity. This principle has been developed by
many traditions, from Confucianism to Judaism. With the former, the Analects include a
passage in which Confucius is responding to the question of whether there is a single word
that can serve as a guide to conduct throughout one's life? He replies with shù, which he
defines as “Do not do to others what you would not want others to do to you (cited in
Allinson, 2003, p.29); he then further describes this reciprocity as the very essence of rén
(humaneness). Also implicit in such terms is a sense of why one should be considerate in this
way. Concepts such as rén describe a moral sensibility in which others are deemed inherently
worthy of good treatment. Moreover, terms like apramāda embed an understanding of
processes such as karma, which in contexts like Hinduism and Buddhism describes a theory
of causality with respect to ethics, whereby ethical actions not only benefit the recipient, but
the actor too (e.g., vis-à-vis future positive outcomes and mental states) (Kang, 2009). Thus,
with apramāda, not only would a person recognise the inherent value of treating others well,
but from a perspective of enlightened self-interest, realise that they themselves also benefit.
That is not to say virtue is ego-centrically motivated; the point is just that, in addition to their
primary other-centred motivations, the virtuous actor may gain further motivation from
understanding that acting thus is also likely to assist their own flourishing (Frimer et al.,
2011). So, in various ways, considerateness helps explain why people might want to be
virtuous. It also provides people with clues as to how to act virtuously. This form of moral
understanding then comes to the fore with the third theme.
Considerateness encompasses motivations for virtue, and moreover may indicate what virtue
consists of in a given situation. This notion of understanding is then brought to fruition with
the theme of wisdom. Recall that, with respect to the golden mean, this does not simply mean
mechanically bisecting two extremes, but skilfully judging the best course of action relative
to the situation. How, then, can one judge? Here we come to the importance of wisdom and
understanding. In terms of the VIA factor analytic components, this theme has parallels with
factors such as cognitive strengths (Peterson et al., 2008) and intellectual strengths (Ruch et
al., 2010). Two important concepts from classical Greece in this respect are sophia and
phrónêsis, which Aristotle regarded as the two “intellectual” virtues (Fischer, 2015). The
former denotes a more abstract, theoretical, or even transcendent wisdom, whereas the latter
depicts a “practical” intelligence, determining ends (i.e., what goals to pursue) and the best
means of attaining them. Aristotle contrasted both with other epistemological concepts, like
episteme, which pertains to knowledge (e.g., in a scientific sense), and techne, which
concerns craft skills and practical expertise.
Terms relating to wisdom are found across the world’s languages, all with nuances
derived from their cultural context. While it is beyond the scope here to cover all such terms,
by way of example, it is instructive to consider one language that is particularly rich in this
regard. Courtesy of a rich philosophical tradition over recent centuries, German has a unique
lexicon of concepts relating to wisdom. Some began as relatively common terms in discourse,
before assuming specialised meanings in academia, particularly philosophy and psychology.
In these latter contexts, many became loanwords, harnessed initially by scholars, before
sometimes becoming even more widely adopted. Weltanschauung, for instance, initially
referred to a world-view or outlook, i.e., an overarching philosophy of life. However, it also
began to be deployed by scholars, most prominently Dilthey, to articulate the epistemological
claim that people appraise the world from a particular standpoint; this notion then played a
key role in fields like psychoanalysis, hermeneutics, and critical thought (Makkreel, 1992).
Similarly influential are Gestalt and Ganzheit, which have provided the foundation for
entire paradigms within psychology. While the former initially just meant form or shape, it
was harnessed in a philosophical context by von Ehrenfels (1890), who used it to denote the
overall configuration of something, and moreover to depict the whole as being other (often
“greater”) than the sum of its parts. He further saw Gestalt processing as a fundamental
feature of the mind, whereby people grasp patterns as a whole. The concept led to paradigms
like Gestalt psychotherapy, associated with Perls (1969, p.71), who saw it as being concerned
with the total existence of a person. Similarly, Ganzheit connotes unity, completeness, and
an integrated whole,” and is often rendered as holistic (Wolvekamp, 1966, p.196). This
concept led to fields like Ganzheit Psychology, described as the “holistic study of human
nature”; indeed, when Wundt established his Institute for Experimental Psychology in 1879,
his work was often referred to as Ganzheit Psychology (Blumenthal, 1975).
The foregoing section, while obviously not exhaustive, highlights the role of wisdom
in virtue. However, in addition to striving to be virtuous (considerateness), and knowing what
it consists of (wisdom), these count for little if one cannot manage to be virtuous.
While considerateness and wisdom are necessary for virtue, in themselves they may not be
sufficient. For one must be able to be virtuous, as covered by the fourth theme here, agency.
There is a considerable psychological literature on the importance and nature of agency. For
instance, in Ryan and Deci’s (2000) theory of self-determination, agency labelled using its
near-synonym autonomy is conceptualised as one of three essential psychological needs,
alongside competence and relatedness, that “appear to be essential for facilitating optimal
functioning of the natural propensities for growth and integration, as well as for constructive
social development and personal well-being” (p.68). In the present context, agency can be
regarded as the freedom and capacity to make and pursue one’s own value-driven choices.
With respect to virtue, this appears to involve two counterpart factors: willpower (e.g.,
motivation to do right), and self-control (e.g., refraining from doing wrong).
With willpower, relevant words fall into three broad areas: energy, perseverance, and
independence. In terms of the VIA factor analytic components, these sub-themes have
parallels with factors such as fortitude (Peterson et al., 2008), emotional strengths (Ruch et
al., 2010), self-assurance (Singh & Choubisa, 2010), and vitality (Brdar & Kashdan, 2010).
Taking energy first, many languages have terms conveying vitality and passion (see Huta and
Ryan, 2010, and Vallerand, 2012, for the importance to wellbeing of vitality and passion
respectively). One of the earliest and most important is the classical Greek thumos. While
sometimes rendered as “spiritedness,” it carried many important meanings, including soul,
spirit, will, temper, and courage, and was described as the principle of life (Lynch & Miles,
1980, p.3). Similarly, there are terms expressing energy and enthusiasm, like the Swedish
verb orka, defined as to have enough energy to be able to (Johansson & Nordrum, 2016
p.186). Some terms invoke a mythological or spiritual conception of power, like orenda (of
the Huron people), and the related concept of mana (found in Polynesian languages). Both
ideas are rooted in worldviews that view the cosmos as suffused with spiritual energy/power
that can be harnessed by people, particularly in exceptional circumstances (Saraydar, 1990).
Willpower is not only a question of energy, but also perseverance. Some words here
are particularly vital, viewed as integral to or characteristic of their culture. Finnish celebrates
sisu, which, beyond mere perseverance, is exalted as a nation-defining quality of courageous
determination that has enabled the country to thrive in adversity (Lucas & Buzzanell, 2004).
Somewhat similarly, the Arabic sumud connotes steadfastness, but more deeply can describe
a determined existential struggle to persist and survive (Nassar, 2011). Added to these are
terms that further trace the contours of perseverance. For instance, three Greek terms are
deployed in the New Testament to describe the legendary forbearance of Job: hypomonē
(conveying constancy and endurance); kartería (stubbornness and toughness); and
makrothumeó (patience).
Thirdly, willpower also involves independence, as reflected in various words, some
with more positive connotations than others. Positioned as more benign are terms expressing
yearning for freedom. For instance, German has Fernweh and Wanderlust to convey longing
for distant lands and/or travel. Relatedly, the Japanese datsuzoku exalts freedom from habit
and routine, and has been embraced by traditions such as Zen (Lomas, Etcoff, Gordon, &
Shonin, 2017). By contrast, other terms walk a fine-line between admiring the audacity of
agency, while conveying wariness at excessive free-spiritedness. These include the Yiddish
chutzpah, with connotations of brazenness and nerve, and the German Willkür, which
describes following one’s own will, but with a somewhat disparaging sense of wantonly
disregarding rules and conventions.
Thus, many cultures do not view independence as an unqualified good, but recognise
it potentially leads to problematic waywardness. People can have multiple, even conflicting
drives, some benign, some malign. As such, adaptive agency needs the restraining hand of
self-control to guide it. In terms of the VIA factor analytic components, this sub-theme has
parallels with factors such as temperance (Peterson et al., 2008), strengths of restraint (Ruch
et al., 2010), conscientiousness (Park & Peterson, 2005), and of course self-control (McGrath,
2015b; McGrath et al., 2017). Various words valorise self-control, or alternatively lament its
absence. Greek is particularly rich in that regard. For instance, classical thinkers exalted
sophrosyne, which depicts excellence of character and soundness of mind, associated with
self-restraining qualities like temperance and moderation. Similarly, autexeusious describes
self-mastery, exercising agency independently of the passions/emotions. Conversely, from a
deficit perspective, Aristotle suggested that immoral people suffer from akrásia weakness
of will that prevents them acting in their best interests. However, Aristotle brought an
interesting perspective to bear on the issue of self-control. Many theories of virtue emphasise
the importance of self-control for its enactment. For instance, Baumeister and Exline (1999)
suggest that “insofar as virtue depends on overcoming selfish or antisocial impulses for the
sake of what is best for the group or collective, self-control can be said to be the master
virtue” (p.1165). For Aristotle though, that one requires self-control to act virtuously would
actually reveal lack of virtue, since a virtuous person would intrinsically want to act morally
(Telfer, 1989). This example reinforces the point above that even though a given construct or
theme may pertain to virtue, there can be significant differences in how these are regarded
across and within traditions and cultural contexts.
Finally, the outcome of the qualities featured in the four themes above is an ability to
live skilfully, as the final theme elucidates.
If one cares about virtue (considerateness), knows what it consists of (wisdom), and can
pursue it (agency), the result is a covetous capacity to live skilfully. I am not merely using
“skill” and “skilful” instrumentally here, implying a technique or ability which one might
either use or set aside as expedient. Rather, the spirit in which the term is invoked relates to
the Buddhist notion of upāya, which although usually translated as skill, refers more to a
cultivated way of being that involves the ability to live well, which in that context especially
means cultivating and enacting virtue (Pye, 2004). Thus, skill here means virtue in its
broadest sense, not just being moral/ethical, but a more general excellence (as per arête). In
terms of the VIA factor analytic components, this theme aligns most with factors such as
interpersonal strengths (Peterson et al., 2008), civic strengths (Singh & Choubisa, 2010), and
social strengths (Shryack et al., 2010), although it also contains elements not represented by
these factors (such as practical capabilities, as elucidated below). This sense of skilful living
is reflected in various French nouns based around savoir, such as savoir-faire, -être and -
vivre (Sercu, 2002). Savoir is one of two French verbs meaning to know, and denotes
knowing how to (in contrast to connaître, which refers more to knowing someone or
something). Each compound term thus traces different nuances of this notion of skilfulness.
Perhaps most well-known is savoir-faire, featuring the verb faire, meaning to make or
do. This conveys knowing how to behave in a given situation, and is often described using
synonyms such as diplomacy, finesse, and poise. It can also refer to practical, technical, or
problem-solving skills. These varied meanings are captured in a range of words. Skilfully
undertaking a task is reflected in the Greek praxis, which can simply mean deed or action, but
in philosophical terms describes the process through which a theory or skill is enacted or
embodied. Greek also featured kairos, signifying the right/opportune time to do something, or
also the right measure in doing it. Kairos was a central topic in Greek literature and rhetoric,
as seen in the proverb attributed to Hesiod (circa 7th Century BCE): Observe due measure,
and proportion [kairos] is best in all things (Kinneavy, 2002, p.58). This ideal of kairos also
pertains to the theme of wisdom, particularly the golden mean. (This kind of coding dilemma
is common in qualitative analysis, where codes can often be situated within multiple themes.)
Skilful problem-solving is reflected in the Portuguese desenrascanço, roughly translatable as
disentanglement, which describes imaginative resourcefulness in the face of new/unexpected
situations or problems. Likewise, the Italian verb arrangiarsi means to make do or get by
often prefixed by l'arte d' (the art of), as is desenrascanço particularly in difficult
circumstances. (That said, it sometimes has negative connotations, e.g., something achieved
through underhand methods.)
The second savoir term is savoir-être, which appends “to be,” thus implying knowing
how to “carry” oneself. This has similar connotations to savior-faire, with both described
using terms like diplomacy, tact, and social grace. However, savoir-être has an even greater
emphasis on interpersonal skills (in contrast to the more practical qualities implied by savior-
faire). Such skills are reflected in the Greek eunoia, from eu (good, well, beautiful), and noia
(mind, thinking). This not only depicts an inner quality of mind, but an interpersonal
phenomenon, whereby a person transmits goodwill, empathy and approval to others, and
inspires these in others in return. Or take the German Konfliktfähigkeit, which denotes an
ability to manage interpersonal conflict constructively (e.g., without becoming personally
embroiled). Capturing more a sense of open-mindedness and flexibility is kokusaijin, which
rose to prominence in Japan towards the end of the 20th Century. Meaning “international
person,” it describes someone who is cosmopolitan, usually well-travelled, and generally
adept at engaging with other cultures (Yoneoka, 2000). Savoir-être can also connote grace,
charm, and elegance, depicting a beautiful character. This is reflected in the Italian noun
leggiadria described as poetry in motion(Fermor, 1998, p.124) which played a key role
in Renaissance art, encompassing such qualities as gracefulness, loveliness, prettiness and
elegance. On a somewhat different note, one finds valued aesthetics associated with Japanese
culture, and Zen in particular, such as shibumi and shizen (Lomas et al., 2017). The former
articulates a simple, unobtrusive, and effortless beauty, while the latter relatedly identifies
beauty with naturalness, an absence of pretence, contrivance, or premeditation. Such qualities
are prized, not only in artworks, but especially in people, where they are seen as embodying
the kinds of insight and practice that Buddhism upholds, such as disavowing attachments, and
cultivating a life that is simple, clean and pure.
The third French compound term is savoir-vivre, which deploys “to live” to articulate
knowing how to live well. Indeed, France’s reputation in excelling thus is reflected in several
terms embraced as loanwords/phrases that embody this ideal. For instance, joie de vivre
articulates a zest for life; it is, as Harrow and Unwin (2009) put it, a Weltanschauung, a
behavioural mode and form of practice. It is joy generalised, a result of many experiences, a
sustained and boundless enjoyment of the here and now” (p.19). Similarly, bon vivant
describes someone who enjoys and appreciates the good life, as do equivalents in other
languages, like the Swedish noun livsnjutare. It is also reflected in expressions that encourage
people to live fully and/or have a good time, like the Hebrew la’asot chaim, which literally
means “to do or to make life.” Perhaps here too one could include words that convey the
attainment of purpose in life, such as the Japanese ikigai, which translates as a reason for
being, reflecting an appraisal that life is good and meaningful (Yamamoto-Mitani &
Wallhagen, 2002, p.399).
This paper was guided by a twofold research question: (a) are there concepts pertaining to
virtue in other languages that have not been similarly identified in English (as signalled by an
untranslatable word); and (b) what are their implications for our understanding of virtue? The
analysis itself was driven by (a), and, following an adapted form of GT, the result was an
appraisal of (b). In that respect, the analysis identified five key interlinked themes which
together might be regarded as the roots of virtue the main sources from which it springs,
illustrating why a person might aim, and then actually manage, to be virtuous. The first theme
denotes the idea of virtue per se that one can be virtuous (regardless of which specific
behaviours constitute virtue). Next, considerateness explains why one would want to be,
involving two essential qualities: awareness (of the impact of one’s actions), and care (being
concerned about any such impact). The third dimension, wisdom, covers knowing how to be
virtuous, including faculties of judgement and understanding. Fourth, agency addresses the
issue of managing to be virtuous, involving the willpower to be virtuous, and the self-control
to carry it out. The final dimension is skill, reflecting the notion that successfully enacting the
preceding qualities would result in living skilfully, not only with respect to morals/ethics, but
more broadly attaining “excellence” (as per arête).
It must be noted that this schema as illustrated in figure 1 above is simply a
representation of the themes identified in the data. It cannot be regarded as a fully-fledged
theory or even a model of virtue; that would be beyond the remit of the analysis here. For a
start, the lexical search undertaken remains partial and a work-in progress, given that the
lexicography currently only features around 100 languages, out of some 7,000 in existence.
There are thus likely to be many relevant terms included neither in the analysis above, nor the
lexicography as it stands. Moreover, some cultures and traditions have been considered in
more depth than others (e.g., Buddhism), which reflects the personal interests of the author,
which drove the conceptual snowballing in certain directions. Moreover, of the words that
have been included, their analysis has been inevitably restricted, limited by attempting to
convey an overarching comparative analysis within the constraints of an article. Moreover,
given that translation is a problematic exercise, it will not have been possible to arrive at
definitions that would satisfy all speakers of the donor language. Given the fluidity and
complexity of language use, there are always many ways of interpreting a given word. Thus,
the descriptions here are merely one way of elucidating these terms, and ultimately are based
on the author’s interpretation of the source material. That said, dictionaries and scholarly
sources were consulted in the aim of arriving at valid descriptions.
As such, the analysis is not a complete account of all the potential untranslatable
words that exist pertaining to virtue. It is rather an imperfect snapshot of the current state of
the lexicography with respect to virtue, one that is partial and subject to revision. However,
that does not mean it is without value; even without being “complete,” the analysis may still
shed further light on virtue, highlighting nuances and complexities that may be missing from
accounts that are only in English. In that respect, the analysis may augment the factor
analyses of the VIA adumbrated above, although it cannot determine which solution is
optimal. The themes have resonances with all the solutions, and yet the analysis does not
align perfectly with any, even five-factor ones. Take Peterson et al.’s (2008) structure of
interpersonal strengths, cognitive strengths, fortitude, temperance, and transcendence. The
only close matches are that the themes of considerateness and wisdom overlap with their
factors of interpersonal strengths and cognitive strengths respectively, while agency appears
to encompass two of their factors (fortitude and temperance). Other than that, the theme of
virtue is more of a general component (mirroring McGrath’s (2015b) single broad factor of
“good character”), and skill perhaps interweaves all of Peterson et al.’s factors, while their
factor of transcendence does not match any theme. However, to reiterate, the analysis is not a
refutation of any factor analytic solution. The point of the paper was not a comprehensive
assessment of virtue, since that is beyond its scope. Rather, its more modest aim was simply
to shed light on aspects of virtue that might be overlooked within current theorising (due to a
concept not being identified in English).
In sum, the results do not constitute a new structural model of virtue or strengths that
could supplant existing factor-analytically-derived models. Rather, it offers a different “take”
on the dynamics of virtue that researchers in the field might find useful. And in that respect, it
corroborates Ruch and Proyer’s (2015) contention that there are other means of exploring the
structure of virtue and strengths besides factor analysis (which in their case meant harnessing
expert ratings). That is, researchers investigating the VIA taxonomy may find conceptual
“food for thought” in the present analysis as they interpret their data. For instance, the five-
fold thematic structure here may be relevant to theorists making judgements regarding the
factorial solutions to their data (as we saw above with McGrath, 2015b). However, it bears
emphasising that the analysis here is provisional and partial, and will benefit from being
refined through further empirical research, both qualitative and quantitative. With the former,
the thematic structure identified here would be strengthened (or challenged) by the inclusion
and consideration of many more untranslatable words than the 200-or-so included here. With
the latter, it might be feasible to develop a psychometric scale based on the schema developed
here, and then subject this to factor-analysis or other such procedures (e.g., expert ratings as
per Ruch and Proyer, 2015). This scale and the resulting analysis could then be more directly
compared with established factor-analytic solutions to the VIA classificatory schema (beyond
the tentative links drawn throughout the paper). Even as it is, though, the analysis may
hopefully prove useful to those studying virtue, and can feed into future such work on this
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... As noted above, in the initial GT analysis of 216 words that established the foundation for the lexicography (Lomas, 2016b), I identified six main categories. With the gradual addition of over 1,400 new words to date, it has been possible to conduct and publish analyses of each category separately, revealing their internal structure: positive feelings (Lomas, 2017a), ambivalent feelings (Lomas, 2017b), love (Lomas, 2018c), prosociality (Lomas, 2018b), character (Lomas, 2019c), and spirituality (Lomas, 2019a). In addition, the new words have also led to the identification of six further categoriesstill within the three meta-category structureas illustrated below in Figure 1. ...
... The former does not refer to character in the sense of personality (i.e., personal characteristics), but rather in the sense of morals and virtues (i.e., being of 'good' character). In this respect, five themes were identified, as shown below in Figure 10, and articulated in Lomas (2019c). Together, Running head: A CROSS-CULTURAL LEXICAL MAP OF WELLBEING 23 these themes might be regarded as the dynamics by which one may manage to attain good character. ...
... The second is relationships, featuring love (Lomas, 2018c), prosociality (Lomas, 2018b), and now also ecoconnection (Lomas, 2019b) and aesthetics (Lomas, forthcoming a). And the third is personal development, comprising character (Lomas, 2019c), spirituality (Lomas, 2019a), and now also competence (Lomas, forthcoming b) and understanding (Lomas, forthcoming c). ...
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Positive psychology has been critiqued as Western-centric, influenced by the mostly Western contexts in which it has developed. English is its dominant mode of discourse, for example, which has shaped its understanding of its subject matter. To generate a more comprehensive cross-cultural 'map' of wellbeing, the author is creating a lexicography of relevant 'untranslatable' words (without exact translation in English). An initial analysis of 216 words, published in the Journal of Positive Psychology in 2016, identified six main categories: positive feelings, ambivalent feelings, love, prosociality, character, and spirituality. Subsequently, over 1,400 more words have been added to the lexicography to date. As a result, analyses have been published of each category separately, revealing their internal structure. In addition, six further categories have been identified: cognition, embodiment, aesthetics, eco-connection, competence, and understanding. This paper summarises these analyses, and outlines their significance in terms of augmenting the conceptual map in positive psychology.
... On that note, one of the team (Lomas) has for several years been assembling a cross-cultural lexicography of "untranslatable" wordsi.e., without exact equivalent in Englishrelating to flourishing. One of the main categories of the project is character and virtue, and in that respect an analysis of this categoryusing qualitative methods, specifically Grounded Theoryrevealed interesting crosscultural nuances in how these topics are experienced and understood in different cultures and languages (Lomas, 2019). However, this research also highlighted significant points of commonality across diverse cultures. ...
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We discuss certain critiques of the research literature on flourishing. We fully agree with calls for greater attention to qualitative work, to cultural differences, and to questions of power and justice concerning flourishing. We argue, however, that in spite of notable differences in understandings of flourishing across cultures, there is also a great deal that is held in common, including on topics considered by some as more controversial, such as character and virtue. We also argue that while qualitative research and understanding is important, it is likewise important not to be dismissive of rigorous quantitative research even if certain groups find its results to be unappealing. We further propose that the best way to navigate diverse understandings of flourishing in pluralistic contexts is to identify those aspects of flourishing which are in fact held in common, and to promote these together, but then to acknowledge that certain understandings of flourishing will vary by culture or religious tradition, and to allow and enable each community to exposit, study, and promote flourishing, as it understands it, in critical dialogue with others.
... Indeed, with the new words, the thematic structure in the original paper has been updated. The six categories initially identified are still present, and moreover have been enriched by the additional words, with analyses published on each: positive feelings (Lomas, 2017a), ambivalent feelings (Lomas, 2017b), love (Lomas, 2018b), prosociality (Lomas, 2021a), character (Lomas, 2019c), and spirituality (Lomas, 2019a), plus a theoretical paper on the project itself (Lomas, 2018a). However, six new categories have also been identified, as summarized in a more recent overview (Lomas, 2021b). ...
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Vitality has been underappreciated and underexplored by academia at large. This oversight is potentially explained by the Western-centric nature of most fields, with vitality having been comparatively neglected in the West relative to elsewhere. One explanation for this lacuna is that vitality is not easily pigeonholed within the ontological categories dominant in the West, such as mind and body. This paper therefore aims to learn from cultures that have cultivated a greater understanding of vitality, doing so by engaging with relevant 'untranslatable' words (i.e., those without exact equivalent in English), thus enriching our conceptual map of this topic. Over 200 relevant terms were located and analyzed using an adapted form of grounded theory. Three themes were identified, each with four subthemes: spirit (life force, channels, soul, and transcendence); energy (fortitude, channeling, willpower, and recharging); and heart (desire, passion, affection, and satisfaction). The paper thus refines our understanding of this important topic and provides a foundation for future research.
... In addition, it's valuable to add that some cultures have words that relate to peace that might be distinct for that culture or that offer an important nuance of peace for further investigation. For example, the German word Konfliktfähigkeit refers to the ability to manage interpersonal conflict constructively and not become personally upset (Lomas, 2019) and the Danish term, tilfreds, means to be satisfied and 'at peace' (Lomas, 2016); these might offer important character strengths insights for relational peace and personal/ inner peace, respectively. ...
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Positive psychology has been largely distant from the substantial science of peace studies. This is unfortunate as the mutual synergy between these fields holds vast opportunity. Misconceptions and obstacles underlying this gap are highlighted, alongside counterpoints for each. The purpose is to lay a foundation for the integration of the science of character strengths and peace psychology, across levels of peace, namely personal/inner peace and relational peace with ramifications for intragroup and intergroup peace. To enhance the understanding of this integration, a convenience sample of 25,302 people was examined. Percentages of the participants’ perceived highest strengths used for building inner peace and relational peace and for managing political/religious conflict were calculated. Examples of respondents’ strategies for using strengths across levels of peace are offered. Among the various findings, perspective, kindness, and honesty were in the top 10 across all three levels. Limitations and future directions for this integration are discussed.
... In fact, human beings arrive at accurate judgments of trustworthiness with a 100-ms exposure to a facial photograph (Todorov, Pakrashi, & Oosterhof, 2009). Lexical studies have identified hundreds of virtue terms in many languages (Lomas, 2019). Therefore, it does not seem possible to entirely eliminate the question of evaluation from psychological science. ...
Numerous scholars have claimed that positive ethical traits such as virtues are important in human psychology and behavior. Psychologists have begun to test these claims. The scores of studies on virtue do not yet constitute a mature science of virtue because of unresolved theoretical and methods challenges. In this article, we addressed those challenges by clarifying how virtue research relates to prosocial behavior, positive psychology, and personality psychology and does not run afoul of the fact-value distinction. The STRIVE-4 (Scalar Traits that are Role sensitive, include Situation × Trait Interactions, and are related to important Values that help to constitute E udaimonia) model of virtue is proposed to help resolve the theoretical and methods problems and encourage a mature science of virtue. The model depicts virtues as empirically verifiable, acquired scalar traits that are role sensitive, involve Situation × Trait interactions, and relate to important values that partly constitute eudaimonia (human flourishing). The model also holds that virtue traits have four major components: knowledge, behavior, emotion/motivation, and disposition. Heuristically, the STRIVE-4 model suggests 26 hypotheses, which are discussed in light of extant research to indicate which aspects of the model have been assessed and which have not. Research on virtues has included survey, intensive longitudinal, informant-based, experimental, and neuroscientific methods. This discussion illustrates how the STRIVE-4 framework can unify extant research and fruitfully guide future research.
... Such words indicate phenomena and insights which have not yet been lexicalised in English, and hence tend to be overlooked by psychology, to its detriment. By analysing these words thematically it has been possible to augment the field's current conceptual 'map' of various topics, including positive emotions (Lomas, 2017b), ambivalent emotions (Lomas, 2017c), prosociality (Lomas, 2018b), love (Lomas, 2018c), spirituality (Lomas, 2019a), eco-connection (Lomas, 2019b), and character (Lomas, 2019c). ...
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The development of academic fields is often described through the metaphor of ‘waves.’ Following the instantiation of positive psychology (the first wave), scholarship emerged looking critically at the notions of positive and negative, becoming known as its second wave. More recently, we discern an equally significant shift, namely scholarship that in various ways goes beyond the individual and embraces greater complexity. This includes going beyond the individual person as the primary focus of enquiry to look more deeply at the groups and systems in which people are embedded. It also involves becoming more interdisciplinary and multicultural, and embracing a wider range of methodologies. We submit that these interrelated ripples constitute a form of epistemological ‘broadening’ that merit the label of an incoming ‘third wave.’ This paper identifies the key dynamics of this wave, allowing appreciation not only of the field’s leading edge, but also its developmental potential into the future.
... Indeed, with the addition of the new words, the thematic structure outlined in the original paper has been updated. The six categories initially identified are still present, and moreover have been enriched by the additional words, with thematic analyses published on each (positive feelings [35], ambivalent feelings [36], love [37], prosociality [38], character [39], and spirituality [40]), plus a theoretical paper [28] and monograph [41] on the lexicographic project itself. However, the additional words have also led to six new categories being identified. ...
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The environment is widely recognised to be in peril, with clear signs of a climate crisis. This situation has many dimensions and factors, but key among them are the often-destructive ways in which humans interact with the natural world. Numerous cultures-particularly more industrialised and/or Western ones-have developed predatory and disconnected modes of interaction. In such modes, nature tends to be constructed as a resource to be exploited (rather than, say, a commonwealth to be protected). However, many people-especially, but not only, in less 'developed' nations-have cultivated less destructive modes of relationship. These bonds may be broadly encompassed under the rubric of 'eco-connection'. In the interests of exploring these latter modes, an enquiry was conducted into adaptive forms of engagement with nature across the world's cultures. The enquiry focused on untranslatable words, i.e., which lack an exact translation in another language (in this case, English). Through a quasi-systematic search of academic and grey literature, together with additional data collection, over 150 relevant terms were located. An adapted form of grounded theory identified three main dimensions of eco-connection: sacrality, bonding, and appreciation. Such analyses have the potential to promote greater wellbeing literacy with respect to our relationship with nature, both within academia and beyond in the wider culture. This includes enriching the nomological network in psychology, and more broadly building a nature-related vocabulary that is more sustainable and harmonious. In doing so, there may also be benefits to public health, in that developing such literacy could possibly influence people's engagement with nature itself, leading to more adaptive forms of relationship.
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Art and aesthetics have long been understood as central to human well-being and flourishing. However, the academic study of these phenomena has been critiqued for its Western-centricity and general lack of cross-cultural engagement. As such, this article aims to broaden our appreciation of the contours of aesthetics by engaging with relevant “untranslatable” words (i.e., without an exact equivalent in English), thereby enriching our conceptual map of this arena. Over 300 relevant terms from 24 languages were located and analyzed using grounded theory. Four main metathemes were identified, each with several themes: stimuli (spanning the sensory modalities of sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, and the mind), qualities (harmony, naturalness, simplicity, prettiness, and shock), dynamics (appreciation, understanding, and inspiration), and modes (modalities, movements, and techniques). The article therefore adds to our understanding of this vital arena of human well-being and flourishing, though, as ever, further work is needed.
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The past 150 years have seen remarkable advances in the study of wellbeing. To appreciate the value and significance of these developments, this paper offers a historical perspective on their dynamics, arguing that we have seen four great waves of wellbeing scholarship in the modern West. I begin by exploring the wave metaphor itself, and then propose that these waves have been unfurling in a Western cultural ‘ocean.’ As such, I then explore key historical currents that have shaped this ocean, including Greek philosophy, Christianity, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment. From there, the narrative considers the emergence of the first wave (psychiatry and psychotherapy), second wave (humanistic psychology), and third wave (positive psychology). The paper concludes by suggesting we are seeing an emerging fourth wave of ‘global wellbeing scholarship,’ in which these Western waters are beginning to intermingle with other regional oceans (which have likewise progressed through their own developmental currents and waves), creating a more globally inclusive picture of wellbeing.
Conference Paper
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Although London’s multicultural nature is often celebrated, this ideal has come under challenge, especially post-Brexit. Consequently, there is need for a greater appreciation of the nature and value of cultural diversity in London. An innovative means to achieving this is through studying untranslatable words, which reveal phenomena that have been overlooked in English but identified by other languages. Over the past three years, the author has been constructing a lexicography of untranslatable words relating to wellbeing ( Building on this on-going project, this presentation showcases the results of a new BA/Leverhulme funded study conducted across 2018-2019. The study involves the elicitation of videoblogs from speakers of the approximately 300 languages in London about untranslatable words in their language(s) relating to wellbeing, plus in-depth interviews with select speakers, with blogs and interviews analysed thematically, thereby providing a conceptual ‘map’ of the data. The research will enhance our understanding of linguistic and cultural diversity in London, as seen through the prism of wellbeing.
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Mainstream psychology can be regarded as largely Western-centric, with its concepts and priorities biased towards Western ways of thinking and understanding. Consequently, the field would benefit from greater cross-cultural awareness and engagement. To that end, this article offers one means of engagement, the study of “untranslatable” words (i.e., terms without an exact equivalent in another language, in our case English). A key function of language is that it offers a “map” that allows us to understand and navigate the world. In that respect, such words point to cultural variation in the maps we use, and even to variation in the actual territory mapped. The paper concludes with suggestions for why and how psychology could benefit from engaging with such words.
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The notion of spirituality is increasingly prominent in academic and cultural discourse alike. However, it remains a nebulous concept, capable of diverse interpretations, particularly cross-culturally. In the interest of exploring this diversity, yet also with the aim of identifying common themes, an enquiry was conducted into conceptualizations of spirituality across cultures. Specifically, the enquiry focused on so-called untranslatable words, i.e., which lack an exact equivalent in another language (in this case, English). Through a quasi-systematic search, together with conceptual snowballing, over 200 relevant terms were located. A grounded theory analysis identified three key dimensions: the sacred, contemplative practice, and self-transcendence. Based on these, a conceptualization of spirituality was formulated that may be valid cross-culturally, namely: engagement with the sacred, usually through contemplative practice, with the ultimate aim of self-transcendence.
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Linguists have often remarked upon the polysemous nature of love, whereby the term encompasses a wide diversity of emotional relationships. Several typologies have been constructed to account for this diversity. However, these tend to be restricted in scope, and fail to fully represent the range of experiences signified by the term ‘love’ in discourse. In the interest of generating an expanded typology of love, encompassing its varied forms, an enquiry was conducted into relevant concepts found across the world's cultures, focusing on so-called untranslatable words. Through a quasi-systematic search of published and internet sources, 609 relevant words were identified. These were organised through a version of grounded theory into 14 categories, representing 14 different forms or ‘flavours’ of love. The result is an expanded theoretical treatment of love, allowing us to better appreciate the nuances of this most cherished and yet polysemous of concepts.
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Although wellbeing tends to be associated with positive affect, the phenomenological terrain in this regard is often poorly differentiated. In the interest of bringing further granularity to this area, an enquiry was conducted into relevant concepts found across the world’s cultures, focusing specifically on so-called untranslatable words. Through a quasi-systematic search of academic and grey literature, together with conceptual snowballing, 134 relevant terms have been located so far (with the process of enquiry ongoing). Through a process of grounded theory analysis, seven main themes were identified: peace/calm; contentment/satisfaction; cosiness/homeliness; savouring/appreciation; revelry/fun; joy/euphoria; and bliss nirvāṇa. The analysis highlights the need for a more expansive and granular conceptualisation of positive affect, one that recognises the depth and breadth of the subjective terrain that it covers.
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Although wellbeing tends to be associated with positive affect, theorists have suggested it might also involve more ambivalent emotions. Scholars have further argued that although such emotions are somewhat overlooked in Western societies, other cultures are more attuned to them. In the interest of exploring the value of ambivalent emotions, an enquiry was conducted into relevant concepts found across the world’s cultures, focusing specifically on so-called untranslatable words. Through a quasi-systematic search of academic and grey literature, together with conceptual snowballing, 30 relevant terms were located. A process of grounded theory analysis identified five main themes: hope, longing, pathos, appreciation of imperfection, and sensitivity to mystery. The analysis highlights the need for a more expansive conception of wellbeing, going beyond an exclusive identification with positively valenced emotions to incorporate more complex and ambivalent processes.
This book is the first work to address the question of what kinds of words get borrowed in a systematic and comparative perspective. It studies lexical borrowing behavior on the basis of a world-wide sample of 40 languages, both major languages and minor languages, and both languages with heavy borrowing and languages with little lexical influence from other languages. The book is the result of a five-year project bringing together a unique group of specialists of many different languages and areas. The introductory chapters provide a general up-to-date introduction to language contact at the word level, as well as a presentation of the project's methodology. All the chapters are based on samples of 1000-2000 words, elicited by a uniform meaning list of 1460 meanings. The combined database, comprising over 70,000 words, is published online at the same time as the book is published. For each word, information about loanword status is given in the database, and the 40 case studies in the book describe the social and historical contact situations in detail.The final chapter draws general conclusions about what kinds of words tend to get borrowed, what kinds of word meanings are particularly resistant to borrowing, and what kinds of social contact situations lead to what kinds of borrowing situations. © 2009 by Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co. KG, 10785 Berlin, Germany. All rights reserved.
In this famous excerpt from The Republic, Plato develops and explains the allegory of the cave. In the cave are people who have lived their entire lives chained to the cave, and they have only been able to watch the shadows that are projected onto the walls in front of them. Plato surmises that the people in the cave would assume that the shadows on the wall constitute reality. Plato then supposes that a person leaves the cave and steps out into the sunshine. Once his/her eyes adjusted, s/he would see that the things around him/her were real, while the shadows would appear fake. Plato likens this to the search for Truth that he advocates. He argues that once one sees the Truth, all other ideas will be no different than shadows on a cave wall.