SOME ASPECTS OF THE PHENOMENOLOGY
OF THE PERSONALITY


by Mary Henle (1962)
(fn 1)

(first published in: Psychologische Beiträge, Band VI, Heft 3-4, 1962, S. 395-404)

First part

Professor KÖHLER (1947, p.3) has observed: "There seems to be a single starting point for psychology, exactly as for all the other sciences: the world as we find it, naively and uncritically." It needs hardly be mentioned that our own personality is an important part of this world as we find it. This paper will begin to apply to the psychology of personality the approach that Professor KÖHLER recommends as the starting point for psychology in general.


But as soon as we have formulated our task, a question arises: Is it not anachronistic to look for a starting point for a theory of personality? The widespread interest and vast accumulation of knowledge in this field are among the most impressive characteristics of the current psychological scene. And yet, personality theorists are not satisfied with the state of their science. "Not much, I believe, is known about man." wrote Gardner MURPHY in 1947 (p.IX). "It is precisely here" (in relation to the formation and development of human personality) "that our ignorance and uncertainty are greatest," ALLPORT said in 1955 (p. 18). "We are on the boundary of knowledge," remarks NOTCUTT, "and the hills are hidden in mist" (1953, p. 21). McCLELLAND points out that "We have very little available in the form of 'hard facts' or 'systematic knowledge'" (1957, p. 356). Most theories of personality "lack explicitness", state HALL and LINDSEY (1957, p. 15). BRUNER´s remark (1956, p. 466) that FREUD´s is a prototheory rather than a theory of personality might equally well be applied to other theories in this area.


There seems, then, to be room for an additional approach to the psychology of personality. It will be suggested below that a phenomenological method (fn2) may throw light on a number of still obscure problems in this field.


Since the naive experience of the self is the most obvious source of facts about the personality, its neglect by personality theorists is at first astonishing. The omission seems to be the consequence of the preoccupation of personality psychologists with unconscious processes, as well as of the preference of many theorists for behavioral data. An example to follow will, however, suggest that an implicit use of naive phenomenology underlies some theoretical formulations.


Let it be clear at the outset that the present approach is not to construct a psychology of consciousness only. It is merely suggested that, to start with, phenomenal data may be fruitful. As KÖHLER has shown in another connection, experience itself may refer to some "transphenomenal reality" (1938, pp. 113 ff.). That experience is incomplete is, in other words, itself a phenomenal datum. A psychology of personality must encompass not only the phenomena, the facts of behavior and experience, but also the functional relations which are responsible for their occurrence and nature. These, to a large extent, transcend phenomonology.


It must also be understood that the purpose of this paper is not to make final and definitive statements about the experience of the self, but rather to explore an approach. The difficulties of naive phenomenal description are well known. The efforts of any one investigator need to be tested by others; and the statements about the phenemenology of the personality to be made below might perhaps best be regarded as hypotheses. And many problems remain that cannot be treated here: for example, the question of how far it is useful to carry the analysis to be begun here; or that of the conditions and criteria for checking such phenomenal descriptions.


The most obvious fact about the self as we experience it is the multiplicity of aspects it presents. We do not ordinarily appear to ourselves as an undifferentiated "I".


The experienced differentation of the self is implicit in a remark that PLATO, in the Sophist, puts in the mouth of the Stranger: "Is not thought the same as speech, with this exception: thought is the unuttered conversation of the soul with herself?" (JOWETT trans., vol. 3, p. 504). MONTAIGNE likewise observes that "we have a soul that can turn upon itself, that can keep company with itself; it has the wherewithal to attack and defend, to receive and give..." (TRECHMANN trans., vol.1, p. 238). A more recent illustration is attributed to George Bernard SHAW: "On one occasion, when in debate a critic had said, "Mr. Shaw, you seem to talk like two people", Shaw answered, "Why only two?" (WALLAS, 1926, p. 164). Once more, HESSE remarks:


When Faust ... says: "Two souls, alas, inhabit in my breast!" he has forgotten Mephisto and a whole crowd of other souls that he has in his breast likewise. The Steppenwolf, too, believes that he bears two souls (wolf and man) in his breast and even so finds his breast disagreeably cramped because of them. The breast and the body are indeed one, but the souls that dwell in it are not two, nor five, but countless in number (1957, p. 81).


It is unnecessary to multiply examples, since the reader can easily confirm for himself the experienced multiplicity of the self (or usually, as will be indicated below, the experienced duality of the personality at any given moment). It is more important to begin to identify the aspects of oneself that present themselves for observation. What are the various meanings of the "I"? A simple method enables us to approach our problem. We may start with a number of commonplace sentences in which "I" or "me" is used:

"I think I dialed the wrong number."

"I blame myself for what happened."

"I don´t know what got into me."

"I didn´t let on how I was really feeling."

"I´ll give myself ten minutes to get out of bed."

"That´s an idea of mine I don´t take particularly seriously."

"I wonder if I´m doing the right thing."

"I was lost in thought."


Even a hasty consideration of these sentences suggest that the repeated "I" does not refer to the same thing. It seems that even when we confine ourselves to what is phenomenally present, the self consists of a variety of functions. Let us begin to enumerate them. Although we often tend to personify them, actually they are functions, not entities.


Let us start with a very simple example: "I think I dialed the wrong number." The one "I" is clearly standing off and observing the other. The observing I is not entering into the action in this case, but simply watching it. We distinguish here between the observer and the actor.

One of the observer of this observer was THOREAU. He writes:


With thinking we may be beside ourselves in a sane sense ... I ... am sensible of a certain doubleness by which I can stand as remote from myself as from another. However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but a spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it, and that is no more I than it is you. When the play, it may be the tragedy, of life is over, the spectator goes his way. It was a kind of fiction, a work of the imagination only, so far as he was concerned. This doubleness may easily make us poor neighbors and friends sometimes (1950 ed., p. 122).


The observer may stand in any relation to the actor, from relative detachment to considerable involvement - precisely as we may relate to a work of fiction. Thus we say: "I watched myself as if it were a dream," or "as if it were somebody else." Or on the other hand, "I saw with dismay that I was doing so-and-so." Sometimes the actor steals the show during the action, and allows scope for the observer only afterwards, when we have the illuminating hindsight. In other cases it is the observer who takes over, paralyzing action and preventing the outward turning of interest, as THOREAU hints.


Closely allied to the observing aspect of the person is a critical one. While our observations of ourselves may be objective, non-evaluative and dispassionate, they are more likely to contain a critical note. T.S. ELIOT, in 'The Elder Statesman' (1959, p. 44), has Lord Claverton ask:


What is this self inside us, this silent observer,

Severe and speechless critic, who can terrorize us

And urge us on to futile activity,

And in the end, judge us still more severely

For the errors into which his own reproaches drove us?


In the course of observing and criticizing, we either accept or reject what we find in ourselves. "We all have flaws," said the Duke, "and mine is being wicked" (THURBER, 1950, p. 114). Being human, he knows himself to be imperfect, but he can accept himself with his "flaw". On the other hand, we may reject, saying: "That wasn´t like me," "I can´t understand how I could say such a thing," "I´m not myself today."

Do we need to postulate additional functional variables with their phenomenal counterparts to account for such experiences? It may be that the rejection of aspects of the self is a function of the critic, while in acts of self-acceptance we get a first glimpse of the inner friend, who will be discussed below.


We may pause for a moment and consider that, without going beyond phenomenal experience, we have distinguished several functions of the self in addition to the actor: the observer, the critic, the friend, and possibly a functionally distinct rejecting aspect. These functions have already been brought to our attention in FREUD´s concept of the super-ego. Our discussion suggests the considerable extent to which FREUD must have relied on phenomenal evidence in arriving at this concept. A quotation will confirm the impression that the super-ego is more a phenomenal report than a psychological theory:


One group of [psychotics] suffer what we call delusions of observation. They complain to us that they suffer continually, and in their most intimate actions, from the observation of unknown powers or persons, and they have hallucinations in which they hear these persons announcing the results of their observations: 'now he is going to say this, now he is dressing himself to go out,' and so on. Such observation is not the same thing as persecution, but it is not far removed from it. It implies that these persons distrust the patient, and expect to catch him doing something that is forbidden and for which he will be punished. How would it be if these mad people were right, if we all of us had an observing function in our egos threatening us with punishment, which, in their case, had merely become sharply seperated from the ego and had been mistakenly projected into external reality? (1933, p. 85).


So far, then, we have not gone much beyond FREUD´s phenomenal observations. And yet there are certain advantages to our more modest procedure. The functions mentioned above are separate, thought relates functions; this is clear since they may appear separately - the observer without the critic, etc. If we throw them all into a super-ego, it is more difficult to distinguish them. There may, indeed, be antagonisms among them, for example between the observer and the rejecting function; these are lost if we speak only of the antagonisms between the super-ego and other parts of the person. FREUD´s super-ego neglects the positive accepting function. And most important, if we deal with the problem in the manner suggested here, it is much easier to see these functions for what they are, namely phenomenally present functions, not as hypothetical agencies of the mind.


To return to the inner friend, this function is phenomenally present whenever we find in ourselves a source of comfort or encouragement. Coming to a new understanding or reaching a decision is often preceded by real discussion within the self - an "inner dialogue", as JUNG calls it (e.g., 1960, p. 89). The gift to oneself likewise refers to the inner friend, since giving implies a duality, a donor and recipient, "a soul that ... has the wherewithal ... to receive and give," in MONTAIGNE´s word. (Cf. JUNG on the friend, e.g., 1959, p. 133).


But the most significant of the inner friend has been mentioned above, that of self-acceptance. Although it is not possible here to discuss this problem, its importance may be referred to by way of a remark of JUNG´s: "Acceptance of oneself is the essence of the moral problem and the acid test of one´s whole outlook on life" (1958, p. 339).


Phenomenally distinct from the aspects of the personality so far mentioned are various impulsive functions. We say: "I don´t know what made me do it," or "I don´t know what got into me." It is the observer or critic who raises the question, while the actor appears as the tool of an often unknown, but phenomenally important, impulse. Or else, the impulse may be clearly recognized, but still experientially distinct from the doer, for example the "irresistible impulse." It might be thought that we are now discussing the Freudian id. But it must be remembered that the id is unconscious, while we are dealing here with facts of conscious experience, facts which may, but need not, refer to transphenomenal data.

-->go to 2nd part


  Notes

(1) This paper was written when the author was a Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation [back to text]

(2) As will be evident from the discussion, the term "phenomenology" is not used in the sense of HUSSERL´s theory of intentionality, but rather to refer to a description of experience as naive and unprejudiced as possible. [back to text]


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