Research Early Career Research Spotlight: Joseph Stenberg

Early Career Research Spotlight: Joseph Stenberg

This installment of the early-career research spotlight series looks at the work of Joseph Stenberg, who is beginning the second year of a two-year Humboldt Research Fellowship for Postdoctoral Researchers at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Stenberg received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2016, where he wrote a dissertation on Thomas Aquinas’s account of happiness. He specializes in medieval philosophy and the philosophy of religion, and also has interests in ethics, early modern philosophy, and ancient philosophy. His published work has appeared most recently in Res Philosophica, Recherches de Théologie et Philosophie Médiévales, and in American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, as the winner of the ACPQ Rising Scholar Award. He is presently working on a monograph tentatively entitled, Aquinas on Happiness and Ethics.

In one of your papers on Aquinas you say understanding what he means by happiness hinges on understanding the concept of humankind’s “ultimate end.” You put forth an “attainment plus” interpretation in opposition to the more conventional “actualization” interpretation.  Can you explain each of these interpretations, why you argue for the former, and what led you to that conclusion?

First, I should say that, as Aquinas thinks of it, happiness comes in two basic varieties: the perfect happiness that the saints enjoy in heaven and the imperfect happiness available to us here and now. It is in thinking about Aquinas’s account of perfect happiness that thinking through humankind’s ultimate end is absolutely vital because he tells us that “the ultimate end is called ‘happiness,’” where it’s clear that ‘happiness’ here refers to perfect happiness (ST IaIIae q.3 a.1 co.).

But, according to Aquinas, what is the ultimate end? It turns out that there are quite a few right answers to that question because Aquinas thinks that ‘ultimate end’ has different, albeit connected, senses. In one sense, every existent thing’s ultimate end is its complete perfection or complete actualization as a thing of its kind. In another sense, God is the ultimate end of every last thing that exists from pebbles to people. And, in still another sense, every rational creature’s ultimate end is to know and love God.

According to the actualization interpretation, the sense of ‘ultimate end’ that plays the fundamental role in Aquinas’s account of perfect happiness is the first of these senses, having to do with complete actualization. According to the attainment plus interpretation that I defend, the sense that plays the fundamental role is the last, having to do with attaining to God in a special way – namely, through knowledge and love.

Quite a few things led me to this way of understanding Aquinas. Maybe the biggest thing is that Aquinas explicitly tells us that thinking about being united to God in knowledge and love brings us “closer to a consideration of happiness” than thinking about being fully actualized (Super Sent. lib.4 d.49 q.1 a.2 qc.2 co.). But, if we think about it, I don’t think we should be all that surprised that this is the sense of ‘ultimate end’ most relevant to happiness. After all, Aquinas thinks that only rational things can be happy and there is only one sense of ‘ultimate end’ in which we have a vastly different ultimate end than sub-rational things. Everything has its complete actualization as its ultimate end. So too everything has God as its ultimate end. It is only in the attainment plus sense, connected with knowing and loving God, that humans have a different ultimate end than, say, oak trees.

I think that one thing that has led to interpretive troubles here results from how deeply these different senses of ‘ultimate end’ are connected. It turns out that, according to Aquinas, a human being is completely actualized when she knows and loves God in God’s essence. So both of these interpretations get the extension of perfect happiness right. Where they differ is only on what it is that Aquinas treats as most fundamentally relevant to perfect happiness: actualization taken more generally or knowing and loving God in particular (which, on Aquinas’s account, is itself a kind of actualization).

You’ve also written in several places about the importance Aquinas places on developing more than just an intellectual relationship with God.Can you elaborate on the specific relationship Aquinas recommends you develop with God?  How does what Aquinas describes compare with what you see in the Catholic religion today?

Aquinas is perhaps best known for his Five Ways, which are arguments for the existence of God. It is unsurprising, then, that Aquinas thinks that we can know that God exists without having any sort of genuine relationship with God. But Aquinas believes that God is radically devoted to having genuine relationships with us. Indeed, Aquinas goes so far as to think that God desires to become friends with us. God desires this not because it helps God in any sense, but because God cares for us and wants us to be perfectly happy, which is only possible for us if we are God’s intimate friends.

As Aquinas thinks of it, in an individual’s life, friendship with God comes in two main stages, which are quite a bit like getting engaged and then getting married. Both stages crucially involve knowing and loving God. In the engagement stage, which begins – according to Aquinas – with the advent of God’s grace at baptism, a special relationship with God starts, made possible by Christ. As Aquinas thinks of it, God gives us a number of gifts to kick off the engagement: a participated divine nature (!), infused virtues, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Together, these make it possible for a person, first, to have a genuinely mutual loving relationship with God and, second, with God’s help, to sustain it. Such a person is further helped in keeping that relationship strong by God’s work through the sacraments of the Church. We might think of the sacraments as akin to pre-marital counseling, which helps us in various ways to sustain and deepen what is still, in many ways, a precarious relationship – after all, according to Aquinas, just like any engagement, a person can freely end this relationship at any time by turning away from God. So too ordinary Christian practices, such as prayer, meditation, fasting, almsgiving, and worship, undertaken in love for God, are a chance to further deepen one’s relationship to God. I don’t want either to oversell or undersell how reciprocal this relationship seems to be to ordinary Christians, on Aquinas’s picture. It is clear that he thinks God is truly present with Christians in a special way and that God truly interacts with them, in some sense, through the gifts of the Holy Spirit. But it also seems clear that he thinks Christians’ knowledge of their special relationship to God comes mostly indirectly in this life. However, according to Aquinas, that changes in stage two.

Life with God in heaven is stage two. And, like in marriage (ideally!), according to Aquinas, our relationship to God in stage two is made permanent as well as deeply intimate. In heaven, God is known directly and profoundly and the love that we have for God, built up over a lifetime on earth, expresses itself in unimaginable enjoyment.

The basic orienting framework in Catholicism is the same today as it was for Aquinas. For example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church begins, “God…in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own happy life (vitae Suae beatae). For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, and to love him with all his strength… To accomplish this, when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son as Redeemer and Savior. In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his happy life.” So Aquinas and today’s Catholic Church are in basic agreement about what sort of relationship with God we should be after, what sort of relationship God is after, and what makes that relationship possible.

Your answers to questions one and two are quite complete, but I would like you to expand on a concept that underlies your explanations in each.  Specifically, what types of happiness a human is capable of, and what relationship with God one can develop, are dependent upon one’s nature as human.  This was a big question in Ancient Greek philosophy, and the answers of scholars like Aristotle influenced Aquinas.  Can you talk about how Aquinas’ concept of human nature conditions the discussions of God and happiness you give above?  How did Aquinas develop earlier concepts of human nature in writing his treatises on these subjects?

Big question! At a very general level, Aquinas’s account of human nature follows Aristotle’s hylomorphic account. Aquinas argues for something between thinking of human beings as wholly material beings and thinking of them as identical to immaterial minds. On his account, like on Aristotle’s, human beings are body-soul composites – every human being is one unified thing comprised of a single, human substantial form and some prime matter. Those body-soul unities have a whole host of abilities stemming from a whole host of faculties and organs. In general, we can digest food, grow, reproduce, sense things in the world, be motivated by everything from hunger, to anger, to justice, and intellectually grasp everything from the nature of helium to moral truths.

Now, according to Aquinas, there are two faculties that we have which fundamentally explain why, in principle, we can be perfectly happy, but things like dogs and oak trees can’t –  namely, intellect and will. These faculties are some serious hardware, according to Aquinas. In principle, the intellect is capable of grasping not just this truth or that truth, but Truth itself – that is, God in God’s essence. And, in principle, the will is capable of loving and enjoying not just this good thing or that one, but Goodness itself – again, God in God’s essence. However, according to Aquinas, we have what might loosely be described as a software problem: although by its very nature our hardware is capable of grasping and loving God in God’s essence, our natural software isn’t up to the task of actually knowing and loving God in God’s essence. And, indeed, as Aquinas thinks of it, this is not some oversight in our design. No purely natural software could possibly be up to that task, according to Aquinas. So, if we are to reach perfect happiness, God has to add to our natural software something of God’s self (in the form of grace), which ultimately allows the intellect and will to operate at the very limits of their potential.

Being a scholar of medieval philosophy is becoming more rare, as with many areas of the humanities.What drew you to this career path, and what relevance does medieval studies have to the contemporary world?

I enjoy research, but, at heart, I’m a teacher. Immediately after college, I spent two years teaching special education at an elementary school through Teach for America. I loved the kids and I mostly enjoyed the teaching. But as my commitment was drawing to a close, it became clear to me that, for the long haul, I wanted to teach something that was challenging and meaningful not just for my students, but also for me. That led me to graduate school in philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I actually had little background in philosophy before graduate school – I was a history major, who became interested in philosophy through a course in historiography. From there, it was a combination of my antecedent interests in history and Christianity, my Aristotelian predilections, and the superb teaching of Bob Pasnau that led me to the serious study of medieval philosophy.

When it comes to the relevance of medieval studies or medieval philosophy in particular for our world today, I think it’s worth noting that the late medieval intellectual world could teach many of us a thing or two about trying to understand people with importantly different points of view. Today, I think many people are too quick to stop listening to people they disagree with. This is in contrast to someone like Aquinas, who made a real effort to understand in a deep way a wide array of people with different beliefs – from Aristotle and Epicurus, to significant Arabic thinkers like Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd, to important Jewish thinkers like Maimonides.

More generally, there are obviously different attitudes about what makes studying a period of history, or its philosophy in particular, worthwhile. On one extreme, there are those who treat the history of philosophy as worthy of study entirely for its own sake – it is worthy of study because knowledge of intellectual history is valuable in itself. On the other extreme are those who treat the history of philosophy like a mine, which is generally dark and musty, and only valuable when we can extract an occasional gem to bring back with us to address some philosophical problem we have today. From where I’m sitting, I’d say that people studying medieval philosophy are in an enviable position. They don’t really need to choose between breaking new ground in intellectual history for its own sake or focusing on something likely to help address some problem today. Whatever one is interested in, there are loads of texts and authors – many of whom remain largely unknown and unread – that cover the whole gambit of philosophy. And, as is increasingly appreciated, we have every reason to believe that there are philosophical gems aplenty. So whether one is interested in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, philosophy of religion, or philosophical theology, there’s reason to start digging.

You’ve taught or been the teaching assistant for several philosophy of religion classes.In your experience, what is the best way to introduce first-time students to this topic in a way that piques their interest?

When teaching the philosophy of religion, you’ve got two things going for you right off the bat. First, religion is interesting or at least important, whether you’re religious or not. Second, students come into the classroom with (often passionate) views about religion. So the foundation for student interest is there from the beginning. I tend to think that turning piqued interest into deep student engagement is mostly about dealing with the things that have the potential to hinder open conversation. So I have a two-pronged strategy for creating an environment in which student interest can turn into open, constructive conversation.

First, from the beginning I do everything I can to set up a classroom culture that can respectfully handle disagreement, even disagreements about deeply-held core beliefs. I do this in a number of ways. Perhaps the most important is by explicitly teaching intellectual empathy very early in the semester. I introduce it as a critical thinking skill whereby we can come to understand from the inside, as it were, what someone who disagrees with us believes and why. Because it is so crucial not only for critical thinking, but also for constructive conversation, we explicitly practice intellectual empathy almost daily.

Second, I use a number of strategies as I teach that keep us focused on ideas and arguments rather than those who put them forward. Here are some of them: I often initially force everyone to take the same side on an issue and then I force everyone to take the opposing side (I tell them, “No matter what you believe you have to use intellectual empathy at some point today”); I always try to draw out the best version of every side in a dispute; and I keep a tight leash on enforcing shared standards for discussion, which we develop together on the first day of class.


You can ask Joseph questions about his work in the comments section below.


The purpose of the early-career research spotlight is two-fold. First, the aim is to bring attention to an early-career APA member who is doing some interesting research. Second, the hope is to generate discussion about the spotlighted work. Feel free to ask our spotlighted researcher questions pertaining to the work discussed in the post. Comments must conform to our community guidelines and comment policy.

If you know of an early-career researcher doing interesting work, nominate them for our research spotlight series through the submission form here. Our goal is to cover early-career research from a broad array of philosophical areas and perspectives, reflecting the variety of work being done by APA members.


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