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The Psychology of Personhood: Philosophical, Historical, Social-Developmental and Narrative Perspectives.

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF PERSONHOOD: Philosophical, Historical, Social-Developmental and Narrative Perspectives by Jack Martin and Mark H. Bickhard, eds. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. 241 pages. Hardcover; $99.00. ISBN: 9781107018082.

Psychology's quest to be taken seriously as a science has included a reliance on empirical approaches to studying human behavior, a pervasive focus on the physiological factors of persons, and a reductionist view of personhood. Martin and Bickhard's book attempts to critique this reductionist view of persons as objects and seeks to invite the reader into the efforts toward a "more holistic, integrative, and methodologically open psychology." The text accomplishes some of its aim, but neglects important considerations of personhood.

The Psychology of Personhood is divided into four sections. The first discusses philosophical perspectives of personhood. Chapter one traces the varying grammatical meanings of the words "person" and "personality," and makes a strong case for the integral role that history and culture play in these considerations. The second chapter discusses how psychology's view of persons is influenced by multiple layers of historical understandings of personhood, beginning with ancient ideas. The author makes a strong case that psychologists' relative ignorance regarding historical influences on ideas of personhood leads them to think that their current ideas of humans are objective and enduring.

Part Two deals with psychology's view of persons from an historical viewpoint. This was at first confusing, because it seemed redundant with Part One. Yet the authors in this section focus more on specific theorists/philosophers of personhood. The first chapter reviews the history of the word "person" and ends with a discussion of how psychology developed a "dissected" view of persons, one that is fragmented rather than holistic. The second chapter reviews Foucault's heirs, Hacking and Rose, and their views of the historical ontology of personhood. The author makes a good point that psychologists think of personhood as a fixed concept rather than one based on the influences of a particular time and place. Yet, these two chapters were at times hard to follow due to the complexity of some of the wording. In addition, a lengthy description of human agency in the second chapter neglects to consider important new research in psychology regarding self-regulation. The third chapter reviews the tenets of "critical personalism," which assumes an enduring sense of personal qualities and characteristics without being deterministic in that it allows for "potentialities" that can go in different directions. This chapter also provides a good critique of psychology's overreliance on the empirical approach to studying humans and its neglect of philosophical perspectives of humans.

Part Three explores social-developmental and evolutionary perspectives on personhood. The first chapter discusses the development of the human sense of self and others, and presents an evolutionary view that this ability to identify the you-me distinction emerged from our primal ancestors' reciprocal altruism. Given the antireductionist aim of the book, this view is ironically reductionist and is based on naturalist accounts of humans. The next chapter reviews person exchange theory, which emphasizes that we understand ourselves and others as a result of the different positions we play in different social exchanges. Thus our impressions of self and others are not mental acts, but social processes that are a result of our evolutionary past. This chapter seemed to overemphasize the directionality of cause, assuming that social position causes our perception of self and others; it does not take into account how our sense of self (and others) may also lead to taking a different position. The authors briefly attempt to address this at the very end of the chapter, noting how social structures that do not enable people for a full range of positioning are destructive (e.g., apartheid). But this seems a weak argument for the dignity and worth of humans based on the authors' preceding discussion. The final chapter reiterates some of the main points of a transformative activist stance of personhood. This emphasizes social interaction as the most important factor in our fluid sense of self, where people "collectively create their own lives and their own nature." This chapter neglects to consider the commonalities in humans found across cultures. The author makes it seem as though our identity is infinitely malleable.

The last section of the text follows and expands upon narrative theories of personhood. Its two chapters focus on how life stories and narratives create and re-create our sense of self and others.

I applaud the editors' efforts to look critically at psychology's reductionist stance of personhood and to consider alternate ways of studying humans besides the empiricist approach. They make clear that one's assumptions of personhood are not inconsequential. Yet, the book is often hard to follow due to complex wording and long sentences. This complexity obscures what sort of audience the editors have invited to participate in the conversation about personhood. For undergraduate personality classes, this would be too difficult a text. The text seems to offer no middle ground for psychologists who are empiricists and might be interested in studying personhood from a broader perspective. The intended audience seems to be those theorists who support a more postmodern, narrative approach to understanding the human condition, so the potential influence of this book is limited.

There also are no non-Western scholars represented in the text. This is of special note, given the more communal understandings of persons that such cultures tend to embrace.

One of the most glaring omissions in this text is a neglect of theological perspectives of personhood in any substantive way. While the editors claim to be antireductionists, their overwhelming focus on social-cultural determinants of personhood without considering possible spiritual factors is itself reductionistic. The authors never mention well-known Christian scholars who have developed robust models of personality based on enduring scriptural principles, many of which contradict psychology's reductionist views. This omission of theological perspectives also applies to the emerging Islamic psychology, which offers a substantive, nonreductionist view of persons.

The editors note that there is no unifying idea of personhood that emerges from their text. This much was clear and fair enough. Yet, this reader was not left with the impression that the text made any clear case for the dignity and worth of humans either, and it is the case for the dignity of persons that will be, in my humble opinion, the most compelling argument against psychology's reductionism.

Reviewed by Angela M. Sabates, Department of Psychology, Bethel University, St. Paul, MN 55112.
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Author:Sabates, Angela M.
Publication:Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2013
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