Personality: Complexity, Ideas, Aproaches

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The nomothetic law-seeking scientist will agree that the heart of man calls for pictures. “But if we are to have pictures,” he says, “let Michelangelo paint them. Let Beethoven or Wagner or Tchaikovsky tell us how the divine message came to him. But,” he adds, “scientists have a different task—indeed the universal task—of observing, generalizing, formulating principles.” It is because the nomothetic scientist recognizes the limitations of abstract science that he insists so vigorously that it shall do all that it can do, while recognizing the precious role sustained by the idiographic.

Even if I had the supreme gift of a great biographer, my message would not be quite the one demanded on an occasion like this, in which laws of personality formation and functioning are, I believe, sought conjointly by the various sciences of man. I believe that when the story is all told the nomothetic effort will give not a small, but a large place in personality study to the researches into history, literature, and the arts, and also a deeper intuitive grasp of what it is that Euripides, Dante, Shakespeare, and Walt Whitman had to say about their own experience as they lived through it, or as they put it in eternal form through the mouths of their characters.

The scientific effort to study personality has proved to be extraordinarily difficult. It is a labor fraught with conflict, frustration, the discovery of one’s limitations and mistakes, the endless necessity for backtracking and doing over, and the certainty that one will not only fail one’s contemporaries, but fail oneself in the process. Of course, anyone who talks about personality is going to fail. But Boswell, while he failed, made for himself a glorious place as a father of biography. William James (H. James 1920), as we learn from his letters, could discover the richness of human interchanges in a manner which he knew he could never write into a systematic psychology. During the last few centuries, many men of wisdom, like Im-manuel Kant and William James, have met the effort towards a scientific psychology with utter incredulity. “A nasty little science,” said James. Such men are sure that the world of abstractions, laws, and principles applies only to inert matter, or at best to those aspects of “matter in the living state” which are closest to physics and chemistry; and of all the searching words of scepticism or hostility they have directed to the efforts to make a science of psychology, they have been most profoundly and earnestly hostile to the attempt at a science of personality. Those of us who believe that such a science can be coaxed into existence and given a dignity and even a meaning worthy of a philosopher are out of step with contemporary science in many ways.

The trouble lies partly in the fact that personality is far more complex than most of the phenomena of the life sciences; another lies in the fact that there are profound cultural biases in each period which cause person-ality to be looked upon in a way plainly reeking with all the difficulties of the sociology of knowledge and cultural relativity; and third, plainly and patently, that the conscious and unconscious dynamics of the individual investigator of personality wreak havoc with his most devoted and rnost disciplined scientific efforts. All of the pitfalls which the various kinds of relativity have pointed out, the fact that—as Einstein says—there is no “privileged position,” the fact—as Freud made clear—that one cannot outgrow one’s own deeply ingrained personal outlook when one looks upon either persons in general, or the theory of the person in particular—all this makes the challenge peculiarly severe. There are culturally ingrained and personally colored considerations which determine what can and what cannot be done with the concept of personality, and if we know that our theory is sound, we know that its very soundness inexorably rules out the possibility of our achieving the objectivity which we seek.

No less obvious, however, is the fact that the challenge must be accepted. We live in an era in which we are learning a great deal about the facts that belong to the physical sciences, while we still know tragically little about the facts that have to do with human psychology, and least of all about the facts that have to do with the individuality from which growth, creativity, and leadership must spring. Mallory said that he climbed Everest because it was there. The psychologist must study personality first of all “because it is there.”

This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 21st, 2009 at 9:35 am and is filed under Psychology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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