As Easy a 1,2,3: an Holistic Perspective on the Process of Personhood
by k s moss
Lao Tze writes, “The Way begets one; one begets two; two begets three; three begets innumerable creatures.” 1 As with many of Lao Tze’s crystals, one way to look at it is in human terms. In this light four facets of truth emerge. First, there are three aspects of human existence: man as himself a solitary being; man as conjoint with another person; and man as a member of a group, family or society. Second, each is connected with the others and in the mature person operates simultaneously. Third, there is a sequential development from the one to the two to the three. And fourth, each has its own principles of operation.
That these aspects exist has been recognized in Western academia as Psychology, which seeks to understand the workings of an individual being as distinct from and similar to other individual beings; Sociology, which focuses on social roles and pays particular attention to dyadic connections like parent-child or male-female; and Anthropology, which attempts to see a culture or sub-culture as a whole and as distinct from other cultures. Increasingly, however, a certain structural segregation has occurred with each academic department functioning as though the others did not exist. Each has developed its own jargon, its own research methodology, its own theories of development.
Sometimes each has focused so tightly on its aspect of investigation as to commit major blunders. Psychologists, for example, have developed intelligence tests that fail to consider the effect of socio-economic class, while Anthropologists have been known to discuss a culture as though its people had one basic personality. (Kardiner, Linton, etc.) The result in each case has been to promote or at least to lend support to cultural and racial chauvinism.
Sometimes it is possible by contra-posing the evidence from adjacent fields to discover the errors. Sigmund Freud examines life from the perspective of she/he who is living it. He bases his theory of psychosexual development on the self-reports of his European patients and his own introspection, then generalizes his conclusions to apply to all human beings. Margaret Mead’s work on non-European societies has suggested that some of the stages Freud outlines, notably the latency period and the Oedipus and Electra complexes are peculiar to some societies. While the evidence may not be conclusive, we know from the virtual disappearance of certain phenomena like hysteria that changes in child-rearing practices influence later symptomatology.
American experimental psychologies examine life from the perspective of those who are looking at it without participating in it. They conduct much of their research in controlled environments, effectively removing subjects from their sociological matrix. The result has been that many of their findings simply don’t work in the real world. The sociological effects of tracking, for example, the separation of students into ’homogeneous’ ability groups, have often outweighed the advantages of specialized curricula. Furthermore, these approaches have tended to obscure the socio-cultural bias of the researcher in that what is focused on, how the questions are posed, and how the responses are measured are usually thought to be value neutral when they are not. Even such an astute observer of human behavior as Jean Piaget place ’autonomy’ as the highest level of moral development while Franz Boas writes, ” I am not at all clear . . . how far the desire for independence may be simply due to our modern conditions and to a more strongly developed individualism. 2 In America we have Divas, while in Africa it is the group that sings.
The predominant use of external approaches to structure theoretical bridges between aspects of the human experience has produced some rather odd conceptions. One rather common visualization (which came into wide-spread use with John Locke and his Tabula Rasa) is of the individual as beginning separate from his environment but constantly subject to the pushes and pressures of his social, cultural and natural world.
Behaviorists, for example, experimentally manipulate behavior with rewards and punishments to demonstrate how human beings learn. Kroeber and White argue that a human being can only be understood within the matrix of his culture and that this so determines his being that the intensive study of any individual is irrelevant. Freud conceptualizes defense mechanisms as natural adaptive responses to social pressures designed to protect the ’ego.’ But the ego is itself derived as a mediator between external demands and hedonic (libidinal) impulses common to all human organisms. (In this sense Freud’s pleasure-pain principle and the behaviorists’ positive and negative reinforcement are the same.) The ego restricts libidinal expression just as negative reinforcement extinguishes a certain response set.
In each instance humans are conceived as the nexus of genetic determinants and social conditioning. Oh where, oh where did the individual go? He was reduced to the mechanistic model he had constructed. Put another way, at what point do we become our culture and as such participate in its construction? And when are we vital members of dyadic connections? When should sons be conceived as relating with their mothers rather than as objects of child-rearing practices?
This raises another issue. It is sometimes tempting and methodologically convenient to conceive each aspect as relatively stable. In the study of individuals, we call this personality. The idea is that by a certain age (for Freud as early as year five) an enduring set of responses to circumstances, value orientations, cognitive styles and the like will emerge and these will change only rarely. In the study of social interactions the same is true. Only here an individual may be expected to change roles with changes in age, or social or economic status, while the roles within a given culture remain static. In the study of cultures, norms are formally structured into institutions that remain stable over many generations.
As George Lock Land points out, we either “. . .grow or die.” 3 If an individual goes through thirty years with no basic changes in, say, values, such a person is not the same as one whose values have just been clarified. In this sense any arrest of development may be conceived as neurotic, even a kind of ’fixation.’ Intelligence tests provide an interesting illustration. While scores tend to remain constant throughout one’s lifetime, the ability to learn languages decreases radically with age. Should we say that such a person has the same verbal intelligence, and what would we mean by that?
Similarly, maintaining patterns of social interaction according to the prescriptions of given roles restricts a developing relationship. Relating to one’s father in the same way one did as an adolescent would be a ’regression.’ Furthermore, role expectations themselves undergo change in a healthy society. As circumstances change, we must adapt to them. As middle-class American women pursue professional careers, to expect them simultaneously to sustain their roles as child-nurturers raises insurmountable difficulties. Whether such women will ever conceive of themselves as before is arguable.
Even the final bastion of stability, the institution, must undergo changes if it is to survive or, at the very least, if it is to continue to accomplish the task for which it was designed and constructed. Our Declaration of Independence propounds this principle. The shark notwithstanding, change is requisite for living.
Of course social scientists recognize change. Usually this is conceived progressively as a social parallel to biological maturation. On a personal level we call this maturity; on a cultural level, we speak of our advanced or evolved or sophisticated society. It is curious that we have no term for a highly developed relationship.
There is a certain blindness inherent in such thinking that might be termed ’developmental bias.’ Biologically, it is easy to see how we might fall into this trap. After all as we age our skills improve, our knowledge increases in scope and depth, our individuation becomes more distinct, our ability to stand alone becomes more evident. Even this, however, is limited. There is no reason to assume that being ten is better than being five. Each is but a different place along a given path. Besides, for each advance something is forfeit. For each commitment any number of potentialities are let go of; for each decision there are many “ways not taken.” Commonly, however, the ten year old in our society seeks to dominate his five year old sibling.
In the social domain similar thinking has persisted until quite recently. Roles are defined with one person clearly dominant; in cases involving a young person and an older one, the latter routinely commands. Thus parent-child or teacher-student maintain their hierarchies regardless of relative abilities. Institutionally, these are formalized in many ways, for example by attaching age requisites to legal rights.
Yet if we believe in evolution each new generation will be more advanced than the preceding one, at least in the sense of greater adaptation to modern conditions. In the minds or certain youth lie the seeds of tomorrow’s new conceptions. But to assume that all cultures will follow the same sequential road and that we are therefore more advanced than ’primitive’ cultures constitutes an ethnocentric prejudice. Perhaps by industrializing first we will provide as many examples of what not to do as we have of what is possible to do. In any event dominance cannot be justified by virtue of social or economic development.
In our pursuit of social science, we have frequently sought predictions and sometimes control. We have done so partly to justify our own existence and continued financial support, and partly to verify our conclusions. Yet if we turn the question around and ask what is it which is the real basis of change, what is it whose path is not prescribed, (from whose beginning the end is not known,) the sequentialness of Lao Tze’s maxim emerges. Not only are the one two and three connected, but it is movement in the one, which creates movement in the two and three.
From the beginning of recorded history, man has acknowledged what is chosen for him as distinguished from what he chooses. “And the Lord said unto Cain, ’Thou mayest.’” It is the choosing that creates his life and by his deeds changes the world around him. This is not to say that outcomes are known. Creation is not so much planned as committed to.
Describing the essence of being, existentialist Martin Heidegger writes, “It (Dasein) comprises in itself facticity, existence and falling.” 4 By facticity he means those circumstances, including the social and cultural matrices, into which one is ’thrown.’” By existence he means that which is intentional, that to which one may commit. From circumstance emerges choices; commitment cares enough and dares enough to choose. What follows is the falling.
However, circumstance does not flash its choices; one must be open, even alert, to their perception. In practical terms this is the meaning of consciousness – to be(come) aware of one’s choices. As awareness increases, what appears predetermined unveils ever-increasing options. Yet one can never transcend circumstance altogether, for actions only exist in context. Ortega y Gasset writes, ” . . . man reaches his full capacity (only) when he acquires complete consciousness of his circumstances.” 5
In this sense, then, social science can alert man to the choices he makes. But these choices do not emerge out of nothing. The are grounded in the specifics of his natural, social and cultural world. Only by understanding the totality of our being holistically can we make our choices in full awareness, and thus only in full consciousness can we truly be said to make them at all.
1 Tao Te Ching, circa sixth century BC
2 Letter to Margaret Mead, 1925 by Victor Barnouw, (From Culture and Personality)
3 Grow or Die: The Principle of Transformation 1974
4 Being and Time, 1927
5 Meditations of Quixote, 1914
As Easy a 1,2,3: an Holistic Perspective on the Process of Personhood