personality theory’s historical forebears


A person is a stream of strong subjective life that is simultaneously conscious and unconscious, a whispering gallery where voices reverberate from the past, a gulf stream of fantasies with floating memories of the past, currents of conflicting complexes, plots and counterplots, hopeful intimations and ideals, etc. A personality is an entire Congress of orators, pressure groups, children, demagogues, communists, isolationists, war-mongers, mugwumps, grafters, log rollers, lobbyists, Caesars and Christs, Machiavellis and Judases, Tories, and Promethean revolutionaries.

1940 Henry Murray, pp. 160–61 The fact that many students and quite a few scholars believe the fundamental ideas of psychology were created and confirmed in the twentieth century—indeed, during their lifetime—is a defining feature of the modern era. Reading journal papers that are more than a few years old can be difficult for students. Yet, this is not only a trait of the young. Henri Ellenberger (1970) noted that brilliant theorists and system builders like Jean-Martin Charcot and Sigmund Freud also suffered from a startling ahistoricism in his superb history of dynamic psychiatry.He said, “These folks shared an illusion that everything they brought forth was novel, which has by no means faded today” (p. 750). This prejudice may cloud students’ understanding of the origins of modern psychology and lead them to discredit the work of the academics who established their fields. The truth is that a lot of what Charcot, Freud, and other members of the psychiatric tradition offered as their own was actually the work of thinkers, scientists, and researchers who came before them, sometimes by thousands of years.

There is a rich intellectual background behind personality theory, and if we neglect it, we will be unable to fully comprehend the guiding principles for our studies and research. People who disregard history forfeit a priceless perspective on their true thoughts. But reading history comes with its own set of issues. The writings of William James, Pierre Janet

Being temporally encapsulated means concentrating solely on the “culture of the present,” without taking into account the “cultures of the past” that have influenced it. Our understanding of a field that takes pride in its diversified perspectives on reality is impoverished by monocultural modernism.

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