Not in our stars

As a footnote to the previous post, I’d like to consider the attempt to provide an objective basis for variation in personality. The locus classicus is Theophrastus’s Characters, which might perhaps be better titled Caricatures. It’s like a catalogue of comic types, or patterns of comportment to avoid. This fits in with the idea that we tend to enumerate the qualities of others mostly to lay blame. Astrology, at least these days, is mostly used as a tool of self-understanding, rather than to predict future events. Its causal model draws on a superseded cosmology, so it is obviously false, yet its popularity endures. We hunger for an objective foundation for “what we are like”; astrology is sufficiently complex to support a rich self-understanding, because the twelve basic types can be modulated at will by secondary aspects, Ares with the moon in Pisces, or whatever. This way of thinking sometimes has a real value, allowing the articulation of a positive and rich sense of self.

Is the scientific study of personality any better? Phrenology in the nineteenth century was used to pathologise the individual, and justify the harsh treatment of criminal “types”, whether capital punishment or their permanent removal from society. The putative causal model was far thinner than that of astrology, and it seems incredible it could have been accepted so recently. Nowadays, the same result is achieved through statistics, populating the mind with notional black boxes: if a way of measuring it can be found which produces consistent, significant results, then there must be something real “in there”; and this accords with the everyday sense that people are different, for example, introversion versus extraversion. The purposes to which these tools are put are not much different either; for example, by human resources. But they also have a large following as a parlour game. Psychology is much more of a popular science than sociology, and it’s easy enough to play it at its own game and speculate on the reasons why. Because it locates the cause within the individual, rather than in social relations, it gives a sense of “ownership”, while at the same time eliding political questions that might be raised, or the pursuit of remedies on the collective level. For instance, I dare say it’s uncontroversial that people of lower socioeconomic status tend to be more socially conservative, something that colours the whole of our politics.

Let us return to the question of character in personal life. Are we not like onions? Don’t we show different faces to different audiences, family, work, friends, lovers? To one’s parents, and to one’s peers? From one day or decade to the next? Clearly — for the sake of argument — I am “introverted”, or “garrulous”, but to what question is that the answer? The fact the answer can seem so surprisingly right doesn’t tell us what to do with it.


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