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Journal  of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, Vol. 36(4), 463-470

©2000 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

 

"A COHERENT DATUM OF PERCEPTION": GORDON ALLPORT, FLOYD

ALLPORT, AND THE POLITICS OF 'PERSONALITY"

 

IAN A. M. NICHOLSON

 

This paper examines Floyd and Gordon Allport's early work on "personality" psychology. In the early 1920s, personality was an unorthodox topic. and for the Allports it initially served as an intellectual and personal bond. lloyd proposed the subject to his brother as a dissertation topic. and the two worked closely on developing personality tests. By 1924. however, 'personality" had become the site of a dispute between the two brothers ov er the intellectual and methodological character of American psychology. The present study examines the origins of this dispute, while gauging the personal and professional ramifi‑ eations of the dispute. On a larger level, this essay explores the role and meaning of "personality" in the academic culture of 1920s America. C 2000 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

 

In 1974. Floyd Allport published a brief autobiography in the History of Psychology in Autobiography series. In addition to the customary overview of empirical and theoretical work, Allport included a telling anecdote about his brother Gordon:

 

Not long ago my brother Gordon was visiting us in California. At the breakfast table my wife took the occasion to recount to him what she considered to be certain of my "fine qualities." After her lengthy eulogistic recital my brother looked up and without a moment's hesitation added: "And is he still stubborn, lazy, and procrastinating?" what startled and dismayed me most about these words was the glibness with which he uttered them, not needing to pause for a moment's thought or recollection. (F. Allport, 1974. p. 5)

 

This surprisingly candid story encapsulates a wealth of Allport family history. The two brothers did see each other periodically as the above‑mentioned anecdote implied, and they corresponded regularly. Their exchanges, however, were frequently suffused by a subtle sense of difference, uneasiness, and tension. These feelings kept the brothers apart academically for much of their respective careers despite a wealth of mutual interests.

 

What makes the Allports' strained relationship more than a matter of purely biographical interest is that it took place against the backdrop of some very significant developments in the history of American psychology. Floyd Aliport is widely viewed as the founder of experimental social psychology (Paicheler, 1988: Post, 1980). Gordon Allport's contributions to social psychology were also impressive, including his role as the "official historian" of the field and author of a widely accepted definition of the subject matter of social psychology (Samelson, 1974, 2000; Lubek & Apfelbaum, 2000). Yet he is perhaps better known as one of the principal architects of personality psychology (Craik, 1993: Jennes, 1979: Nicholson, 1998). The relationship between these famous figures provides a revealing perspective on these larger disciplinary trends. In the present study. I shall pay particularly close attention to the development of "personality" as a category of scientific investigation.

 


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Floyd and Gordon Allport were among the earliest enthusiasts of the "personality" in American psychology (Nicholson, 1997, 1998; Parker, 1991). The two worked closely on investigations of "personality" at Harvard in the early 1920s, and together they published one of the first papers on the measurement of traits (Allport & Allport, 1921). Despite this initial collaboration, however, the brothers soon drifted apart and eventually developed different conceptions of "personality" and how the subject should be studied. A consideration of their initial interest and subsequent differences reveals a great deal about the cultural sources and ideological intentions that underlay the ostensibly objective category, "personality."

 

"PERSONALITY" AND RELATIONAL INDIVIDUALITY

 

The Allport brothers' intellectual relationship began at Harvard in 1915, the year Gordon Allport enrolled as a freshman. For the next seven years‑between 1915 and 1922‑the two pursued a relationship similar to that which they had had in their youth. Floyd assumed the role of accomplished and admired elder and Gordon acted as a kind of scholarly apprentice. In this role, the younger Allport listened dutifully to his brother's "more mature reflections on the problems and methods of psychology," and he proved an invaluable assistant in Floyd's dissertation research (G. Allport, 1967, p. 6).1 As Floyd noted in the preface of his dissertation, Gordon gave "most generously of his time both as a subject and in the laborious work of typewriting the manuscript" (F. Allport. 1919a).

 

The mentor/understudy relationship continued largely unaltered into Gordon's own graduate study from 1920 to 1922. Floyd had in fact played an important role in his younger brother's decision to go to graduate school in the first place, and he remained an important influence throughout the course of Gordon's dissertation research (Nicholson, 1996). Floyd's influence was reflected in both the topic his brother selected‑personality‑and in the philosophical rationale on which the study was based. Indeed, a considerable part of Gordon's dissertation may be viewed as an elaboration of Floyd's research program.

 

At this juncture, the philosophical nuances of Floyd's program are less important than the technological ideal of science on which his research rested (see L. Smith. 1992). Like John B. Watson (1919), Floyd was convinced that human nature was accessible, knowable, and ultimately controllable. There was nothing inherently mysterious, majestic, or distinctive about human experience. Human nature was simply a complex form of animal nature and was thus subject to the same discipline and the same scientific calculus. For Floyd, that calculus was a behavioristic one. "From among the currents and undercurrents of psychology of that day," he later recalled, "I seized onto behaviorism" (F. Allport, 1974, p. 7). In good behaviorist fashion, Floyd eschewed philosophical discussions, and he dismissed the "inner life" as inconsequential. He argued that "explanation is not derived from desire, feeling, will, or purpose . . . . but from the sequence of stimulation‑neural transmission‑and reaction" (F. Allport, 1924a. p. 2).

 

Floyd may have revered the ideal of an "objective psychology," but as Danziger (1992, 2000) has pointed out, the elder Allport's psychology was not politically innocent. His psychological theorizing took shape against the backdrop of rapid industrialization and urbanization. The profound social changes engendered by these developments were reflected in

 

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1. The much older Floyd Allport had graduated from Harvard in 1913, but as he later noted, by 1915 he returned to Harvard as one of those "unspeakable fossils known as graduate students" (F. Allport, 1917). Floyd was a confident and erudite graduate student: an accomplished musician and a sharp dresser (G. Allport. 1952). To his younger brother, he was a truly admirable figure, and as an undergraduate Cordon was happy to be a kind of understudy.

 


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Floyd's psychology in the form of two broad political themes. The first of these as been aptly described by Bakan (1966) as a "vaulting urge towards the mastery of other human beings" (p.12). Like other behaviorists, Floyd situated his psychology in relation to the social dislocations of the day: "marriage and family problems, ...social movements, social control and government, [and] rural problems" (F. Allport, 1920, pp. 91‑92). He was convinced that these problems could be alleviated by subjecting them to controlled experiment and scientific measurement.

 

In Floyd's psychology, the desire for order‑so characteristic of the Progressive Erawas accompanied by an equally strong yearning to protect the individual from the impersonality and alienation of American mass culture. In his early work, Floyd made repeated reference to the ease with which individuality could be submerged beneath the categories and experiences of modern life. In his dissertation, he illustrated this point with an example of a crowd at a football game:

 

Every human soul is carried aloft by the mighty power of the sound [of the crowd]. Every being is exalted to a rage of ecstasy, thrice redoubled and surpassing any joy or madness he has ever known. All else is put aside: thoughts of dignity, of personal feeling, even of individual existence are effaced and submerged in the all‑filling flood of emotions. Sober mothers and fathers, yes, even staid grandmothers are caught up in the whirl and are blown like leaves in the passion of the tempest. Gray haired professors who seldom smile, and never shout, and who expressed merely a placid satisfaction at the signing of the armistice, are now leaping and throwing hats in maniacal frenzy. Joy, mad, hilarious joy, is the one supreme fact of the universe. Nothing else exists. (F. Allport, l9l9a, p. 4)

 

In his experimental psychology, Floyd set out to control individuality while simultaneously liberating that individuality from an homogenizing mass culture. The logic of behaviorism provided the link between these two projects. Behaviorism brought the individual within a scientific register by revealing the fundamental "biological and mechanistic" processes on which action is based. At the same time, behaviorism provided a staging ground from which to rescue the individual from the cultural forces that threatened it. The behaviorist emphasis on the processes of individual adjustment‑as in an organism's reflex or conditioned responses to stimuli‑led Allport to conclude that the individual was the basic unit of analysis: the "true organism" (F. Allport, l924a, p. 10). Social organizations, cultures, and groups were not "elementary facts," according to Allport (F. Allport. 1919b). They were simply amalgams of individuals. "Only within the individual," he argued, "can we find the behavior mechanisms . . . which are fundamental in the interactions between individuals" (F. Allport, 1924a, p. vi).

 

For Floyd Allport, then, behavioristic psychology served to confirm the authenticity and primacy of the individual while providing a technology for managing that individual. In this respect, Floyd was following the lead of Watson, and, like the famous behaviorist, the elder Allport made extensive use of the category "personality" (S. Smith, 1994, p. 274). Following Watson's lead, Floyd inserted "personality" into a behavioristic discourse of biological adaptation (F. Allport, 1924a). In so doing, he hoped to escape the moralism that he believed had handicapped nineteenth‑century discussions of "character" (see Susman, 1979). In actual practice, however. Floyd succeeded only in replacing the morals of one era with the values of another. Thus, the categories that had accompanied Victorian discussions of character‑duty, honor, self‑sacrifice‑‑found no place in his system. His construction reflected the new realities of American mass culture. In this anxious, crowded world, individual showmanship had replaced moral commitment as the defining mark of selfhood (Smith, 1994; Susman,


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1979). Success in the changing world of 1920s America meant that one needed to stand out from the crowd, and in his conception of "personality," Floyd provided readers with categories to assess their performative relationship to the group. Binary pairs such as ascendancesubmission, expansion ‑reclusion, extroversion‑introversion allowed one to gauge the extent to "which an individual stands out among his fellows" (F. Allport, l924a, p. 121).

 

One need not look far for signs of Floyd's influence on Gordon's dissertation. The younger Allport celebrated the technological prowess of the laboratory while refusing to speak of an "inner life or selfhood" (G. Allport. 1922. p. 11). Like Floyd, he viewed human nature as a transparent and controllable product of the interaction between the demands of the environment and a set of simple reflexes rooted in the "innate systems of nervous organization" (p. 24). Again like Floyd, Gordon made distinctiveness the hallmark of his model of personality. "It is this distinctiveness of each individual's adjustments," he wrote, "which furnishes us the conception of personality" (p. 31).

 

As a graduate student. Gordon's orientation may have been heavily informed by his brother's behavioristic vision, but Gordon's was not without its own distinctive features. The most notable difference between the two concerned the mindset with which they confronted modern America. Although Floyd had been described by his mother as a "seer" and had been reared with ministerial expectations (F. Allport, 1974, p. 27), he quickly developed what essayist Joseph Wood Krutch (1929) would later describe as a "modern temper." For Floyd, as for the moderns of Krutch's famous book, God was indeed dead. So too was faith, in all its secular varieties. Moderns lived in an uncertain world, full of existential doubt and anxiety. Ideals were illusions, as were time‑honored distinctions between humans and animals and matter and spirit (see Slater, 1981). As Floyd Allport later noted, modernity was a vision without "solace nor the warmth of personal devotion; and he who pursues it is condemned never to know repose" (F. Allport, 1930. p. 366).

 

The easy confidence with which Floyd embraced modernity did not come quite so readily to his younger brother. In carefully prescribed research situations, Gordon felt comfortable enough with materialism, determinism, and the essential uncertainty that formed the core of Floyd's worldview. As a general statement of life, however, these doctrines seemed to come up short. The younger Allport yearned for the certitude and existential comfort that both he and Floyd had experienced in their youth. Like many of his contemporaries. Gordon found what he was looking for when he was in graduate school. He found solace, however, not in the psychological laboratory. but in the "ritual and sacrament" of high Anglicanism. Turning 1920s secularism on its head, he went "heart and soul" into the church, where he found an "indescribable release for [his] spirit" (G. Allport, 1923). As we shall see, this religious turn was to have important implications for the younger Allport's subsequent psychological theorizing.

 

PERSONALITY AND PURE INDIVIDUALITY

 

The pressures of graduate school kept Gordon's burgeoning religious romanticism safely compartmentalized. In his scientific life as a psychologist he and Floyd spoke with a similar modernist voice. Then, in the fall of 1922, the intellectual affinity between the Allport brothers began to unravel. At that time. Gordon went to Germany on a postdoctoral fellowship (G. Allport. 1967). After a brief and unsatisfactory stay in Berlin, he settled in Hamburg where he began an intensive course of study with William Stern (Nicholson, 1996). An accomplished philosopher and a distinguished psychologist (Hardesty, 1976; Kreppner, 1992), Stern quickly dislodged Floyd as Gordon's main intellectual mentor. The strength of his appeal lay not in


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the depth of his philosophical cultivation, nor in the sophistication of his scientific procedures. What captured the younger Ailport's fancy was the project toward which Stern's psychology was directed.

 

Like Floyd Allport's, Stern's psychology was the product of a sharply felt sense of social dislocation (see Ringer, 1969). He viewed the rapid industrialization and urbanization of Germany with alarm, and, again like the Allports, the individual became the focus of his anxiety. In his autobiography, he noted that his main scholarly goal was to develop an understanding of "individuality" (p. 347). This interest spawned well‑known psychometric innovations such as the intelligence quotient (see Fancher. 1985). More significantly, however, his focus also fostered a searching examination of precisely what was meant by "individuality." Stern eventually concluded that there were essentially two kinds of individuality: relational and "real." Relational individuality he defined "in terms of a host of deviations from corresponding norms that are themselves determined by a kind of averaging of those deviations" (Leys. 1991, p. 9). In contrast, "real," or pure, individuality referred to a kind of unique, "spiritual" unity that defied scientific capture (Stem, 1930, p. 347). By the time Gordon met him in 1923, "real individuality" had become Stern's main intellectual preoccupation. He wanted to show that human experience was characterized by a "synthesizing higher unity. Not a complex of differential forms of psychical phenomena, but a genuine individuality, something indivisibly singular, a personality" (Stern. 1930, p. 348).

 

Stern believed that his "personalistic psychology" contributed toward this uplifting end, and in the young Allport he found a receptive audience for his message. Gordon rapidly assimilated the broad outline of Stern's program (Nicholson, 1996). In 1924, he put these new insights into practice in the form of a published article. "The Study of the Undivided Personality" (G. Allport, 1924a). The central argument of Gordon's essay was that "personality" could not be completely captured by the language and methods of natural science. This argument was multi‑sided, but at its heart lay the idea that personality consisted not only of individual traits, but also of a pattern or "form‑quality" that joined the traits together. Scientists could devise methods to measure individual traits, but Allport insisted that the formquality was "irretrievably lost in any scheme for the analysis of personality" (G. Allport, 1924a, p. 140). The only way to proceed when studying this unity was to abandon "experiment and testing" (p. 138) in favor of an "intuitive apprehension."

 

Gordon was savvy enough to know that his new conceptual and methodological acquisitions did not square well with Floyd's approach to personality. The elder Allport viewed individuality in a relational sense, and although his psychology was driven by a fear of mass culture, that psychology had a technological potential. By construing personality as a diverse assembly of calculable deviations from the norm, psychologists could develop a potentially unlimited array of pragmatically motivated measurements of personality traits (Danziger, 1997). As a graduate student, Gordon had been at least partially enamored with this approach to individuality. By the end of his year in Germany, however, he was ready to break with Floyd and the relational model of individuality that he represented. In a letter to Harvard psychologist Herbert Langfeld, Gordon described the "Undivided Personality" as "an attack on the position of [Floyd's] chapter on 'Personality.' though it was my position too when I wrote the thesis" (G. Allport, 1924b; F. Allport. l924a, pp. 99‑125).

 

The younger Allport made no secret of his new found sense of difference. After presenting a version of the "Undivided Personality" at the British Psychological Society meetings, he sent the paper off to the editor of the Journal of Abnormal & Social Psychology for possible publication. The editor of that journal just happened to he Floyd Allport (see Barenbaum, 2000). For Gordon, this may have been a calculated act designed to underscore his


 

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distinctiveness, or he may simply have viewed the JASP as the best outlet for his work.2 Either way. the significance of Gordon's paper as a statement of intellectual independence was not lost on Floyd. To his credit, Floyd agreed to publish the paper. He was quick, however, to comment on the obvious difference of opinion that had developed between him and his younger brother. "You seem to be developing a type of Psychology somewhat different from mine," Floyd wrote (F. Allport, 1924b).

 

Floyd tried to view this development in a positive light. In his letter, he suggested that a difference of approach "is a good idea so that people will not get us mixed up in reading our various contributions" (F. Allport, 1924b). Floyd's magnanimity, however, was undercut by several expressions of a long‑established fraternal superiority. Shortly after commenting on his brother's new approach, Floyd paid Gordon a backhanded compliment by suggesting that "it is the next best thing to mine." Further into the letter, Floyd made light of his brother's Germanic interests. He suggested that Gordon had created an atmosphere of "Gestalt' and pretzels." and he cautioned his brother not to become "a sponge for absorbing all the Germanic ways" (F. Allport. 1924b). These ill‑chosen words marked the beginning of a gradual process of intellectual disengagement between the two brothers. When Allport returned to the United States in 1924, the two maintained a cordial relationship; but their scholarly contacts were comparatively few in number. They did publish one final study together in 1928 (Allport & Allport, 1928), but the bulk of the material was based on work done when Gordon was a graduate student.

 

CONCLUSION

 

In a recent discussion of the history of psychological categories, Danziger (1997) argued that there is a definite "politics of psychological language" (p. 184). The basis of this argument is that psychological categories are not neutral descriptions of natural objects. They are in some sense normative prescriptions, and as a consequence they are suffused with a particular set of social values. All too often, however, these values go unnoticed; what is in fact a cultural prescription comes to be construed as an inevitable description of a natural kind. This tendency gives psychological descriptions their political potential. As Danziger (1997) noted, seemingly objective descriptions of human nature "often provide a resource for justifying particular social arrangements and legitimizing social practices" (p. 185).

 

The Allports' early research offers a revealing perspective on the normative world of "personality" and the political and cultural ends to which this research might be devoted. Throughout the 1920s, Floyd and Gordon insisted that "personality" was a "coherent datum of perception": an objective, devaluated essence (G. Allport, 1930, p. 127). Yet the Allports' use of the term "personality" suggests that the category was in fact remarkably fluid and that it was informed by the social values of the period. In the case of behavioristically oriented Floyd, those values revolved largely around a language of self‑presentation and social effectiveness (F. Allport, 1924a). Gordon's psychology also drew on this language, but the younger Allport's disciplinary vision was more culturally ambitious. In addition to valorizing a theatrical self, Gordon also hoped to protect what was essentially a romantic conception of the self (G. Allport. 1924a; Gergen, 1991). This was a self of mystery, dignity, and timeless

 

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2. Barenbaum (2000) notes that, in the early 1920s, "personality" was viewed as a subtopic of abnormal and social psychology. Thus, the recently renamed Journal of Abnormal & Social Psychology would have seemed an appropriate venue for both Allport's developing formulations.


 

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authenticity. For the younger, phenomenologically minded Allport, "personality" was an identity to be encountered and experienced intuitively rather than an object to be calculated and explained.

 

The differences between these two conceptions of "personality" were considerable, but it is important to emphasize their shared social heritage. Both of these "personalities"‑the performative and the romantic‑were driven by a fear of mass culture. The central question was, how was individuality to be protected from the rapid march of consumption, bureaucratization, and urbanization? The Allport brothers arrived at two very different solutions to this question, and yet significantly they did so within the framework of a single category: "personality." For Floyd, the best way to safeguard individuality was to appropriate the methods and language of the very forces that threatened individuality. Thus, floyd inserted "personality" into a materialistic language of calculation and manipulation. Gordon ultimately did not completely disavow the behaviorist idiom that he had learned from Floyd. His embrace of this language, however, was tentative at best. For the younger Allport, authentic individuality was best served by demonstrating the essential indiscipline and uncapturable distinctiveness of the human subject.

 

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the annual meeting of the Canadian Psychological Association. Toronto, 1997. I would like to thank Nicole Barenbaum, Ian Luhek, and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback.

 

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