Friday, 23 February 2007

What does personality mean to you?

You may already have been following the excellent discussion appended to my blog post ‘On personality’. It concerns our ideas and experiences of personality.

Some psychologists, it seems, are happy to devote themselves to the statistical analysis of pre-defined traits such as neuroticism, extraversion and openness to experience. Some, like Freud (and indeed modern cognitive psychologists), recognise the importance of unconscious experience.

Does the concept of personality have room for the idea of a ‘true nature’? Is it a constant entity, or does it change over time?

And then there’s the question of what personality might be for. Does it help us move away from or cope with unpleasure? Or perhaps it’s an evolutionary adaptation with a more basic survival function. Or even (gasp), like the Grand Canyon, it's just...there.

What do you think? Come on, let rip. Remember: all ideas are good ideas.

22 comments:

Patrick said...

Philosophy has a barrel of laughs dealing with personality too. What is it that makes a 'person' the same person through time? During one's lifetime, one can conceivably change so drastically that, thoughout which, it would be no easy task to pick out features of that person that identifies them as the same person; one's looks change, one's behaviour changes, one thinks in different ways, one's name has changed, one has become a member of the opposite sex, one has suffered brain trauma....

When we inquire into someone's personality we may be asking, "what is s/he like?" However, what someone is 'like' changes regularly. We either give an ephemeral answer or pose the question differently. "What is it that we are referring to when we mention a person or their personality?"

Some (Plato, Descartes et al) go down the metaphysical route of an immortal, intangible moral agent (soul) that is merely occupying a body before proceeding to the after-life. But, to the self-respecting 'scientist', this is not a viable option. Firstly, it isn't empirically testable. Secondly, it creates a dualism - how can physical stuff and non-physical stuff interact?

Personally, I think Locke had the right idea. He saw personality as, principally, a thinking thing that sees itself as existing through time.

In this light, 'personality' is viewed very much from the first-person perspective rather than it being a congregation of outward, qualifiable and measured features.

What makes me me is not another's being able to spot the features that suggest I am the same person as before. What makes me me is the part of my conscious that is the centre of my past and present experiences. It is not the content of my memories/experience that makes me me. It is my role within my memories/experiences that highlights the me within the ball of cells, the film reel of experience and the charge sheet of deeds that is labelled "Patrick".

Lynn said...

Enjoyably eloquent post, Patrick, and enlightening to hear from a philosopher.

Your precis of Locke's viewpoint brought to mind a powerful image from a strange novel, The Wisdom of Crocodiles (also made into an - imho - eminently avoidable film starring Jude Law). In the scene, a dying man has a dream that he is clinging to the topmost twig of a barren tree, while all around him is water. He reports this to his psychoanlyst, who responds sagely that it is easier to imagine an end to the world than one's own non-existence.

Your other comments lead me to free-associate to the role of intentionality in personality (I wave cheerily as a collective groan goes up from our colleagues on the hard science bench!). I consider that in my own experience, intentionality has played a large part in my manifesting the behaviours I do. Indeed, one of the psychology papers I have recently been reading gives a nod to this when talking about people who employ repression as an anxiety-avoiding strategy, saying something like, "they clearly make an effort to maintain their emotional equilibrium." I especially like your example of becoming a member of the opposite sex, and think of the writer and retired army officer James Morris who became Jan Morris. Man's man becomes doyenne of the travel writing sphere - i'm guessing that doesn't often happen by acccident.

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