In contemporary Western societies, discussions of "well-being" seem ever-present. Government organizations show increased concern for their citizen's well-being (e.g. Administration for Children and Families, 2012; National Institutes of Health, 2017), professionals offer strategies for increasing one's own well-being (e.g. Tartakovsky, 2016; Whitbourne, 2013), and researchers continue attempts to precisify this seemingly unwieldly concept (e.g. Amerijckx & Humblet, 2013; Jones, LaLiberte, & Piescher, 2015). In A Philosophy for the Science of Well-Being (2017) Anna Alexandrova, philosopher and Senior Lecturer in the Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, offers a timely and wide-ranging investigation into the nature and science of well-being.
A Philosophy for the Science of Well-Being is composed of six chapters, split evenly across two sections. With a brief afterward, the book runs a brisk 156 pages (excluding two short appendices, an index, and a lengthy, expository introduction). Section 1 explores the philosophy of well-being; asking the reader to ponder just what it is that we are referring to, when using the term "well-being". Chapter 1 considers whether well-being is a single concept or something more complex. Chapter 2 asks whether there is a single, overarching theory of well-being. In Chapter 3, having argued for a contextual view of the concept of well-being and against a grand, high-level theory of well-being, Alexandrova explores the utility of mid-level theories, using the case of "child well-being".
Section 2 explores the science of well-being. Chapter 4 considers whether well-being can be objectively investigated. Chapter 5 engages with a prominent argument against the measurability of well-being. Alexandrova responds optimistically to these questions, from her contextualist vantagepoint. Chapter 6 explores the strengths and limitations of psychometric research; explicating three conditions for a more fruitful validation of well-being concepts.
As a social scientist, I found both sections to be of tremendous value. Being trained in standard psychometric methodology, Alexandrova complemented my background knowledge from a philosophical perspective. Section 1 expanded my view of the "well-being" debate, introducing me to oft neglected questions about the viability and utility of high-level theories. This consequence is undoubtedly intentional. As Alexandrova notes, "[T]his book is a proposal for reform in both directions: The science of well-being should never pretend to do without philosophy and philosophy should…provide usable tools for science" (p. xvi). In my estimation, philosophers and social scientists will find themselves having a similar experience upon reading the book; a consequence which will only benefit future work on well-being.
With these comments in mind, I can strongly recommend A Philosophy for the Science of Well-Being. The book will yield its greatest returns among two groups: Those within the field of philosophy (primarily interested in moral philosophy and/or the philosophy of science); and researchers in the social sciences (primarily those interested in social welfare and social policy; as well as measurement). Those outside these two groups will find much benefit from the arguments presented within, but may find discussions of certain topics (e.g. differences in high-level theories of well-being; or components in the evaluation of psychometric research) alien. Fortunately, Alexandrova writes in a clear and coherent fashion. Topics and themes are carefully re-introduced (without redundancy) throughout the book, gently guiding the reader toward new concepts and new connections between topics.
© 2018 Daniel J. Dunleavy
Daniel J. Dunleavy, M.S.W., Doctoral Candidate; Florida State University, College of Social Work
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