Beyond Individual and Group Differences: Human Individuality, Scientific Psychology, and William Stern's Critical Personalism


James T. Lamiell

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    In May of 1984, I participated in a symposium that was part of the program of the Second European Conference on Personality, held at the University of Bielefeld, in what was then West Germany. My invitation to the conference was extended by the symposium organizer, the late Professor Jean-Pierre DeWaele of the Free University of Brussels, and was prompted by an article I had published in the American Psychologist in March of 1981 under the title “Toward an Idiothetic Psychology of Personality.” The paper I presented at the Bielefeld conference was essentially an elaboration and extension of the ideas I had set forth in the 1981 article.

    After my presentation, during discussions with German colleagues Lothar Laux and Hannelore Weber, I was asked if I was at all familiar with the works of William Stern. “Oh sure,” I quickly replied, “he was the IQ guy.” Showing patience for which I shall be forever grateful, Laux and Weber explained to me that Stern's contributions to psychology actually extended quite a bit beyond the invention of the intelligence quotient and that, given my own developing perspective on the field, it might be well worth my while to familiarize myself more extensively with Stern's ideas.

    Back home in the United States some weeks after the conference, I received a mailing from DeWaele that included photocopies of some pages from a work by Stern that had been published in 1906. In an accompanying note, DeWaele directed my attention to some mathematical expressions that appeared in Stern's work, noting the striking formal similarity between those expressions and equations which I had used to convey some of my own nascent ideas in the domain of personality measurement. I think it was exactly then when I decided that, for me at least, familiarity with Stern's writings was not merely an option but a necessity.

    Unfortunately, I had long since passed up the opportunities presented to me during my student years to learn German, and the obstacle left before me by that youthful decision had not yet been overcome as I was writing The Psychology of Personality: An Epistemological Inquiry, which appeared in 1987 (Columbia University Press). Hence, that work contains no references at all to Stern or to that comprehensive system of thought he articulated over the course of his illustrious career, under the name of critical personalism. However, by the time I arrived in Heidelberg in January of 1990 to begin a semester's sabbatical there, I had advanced with my study of German sufficiently to begin reading Stern's works. The project I launched then has been a continuing one ever since, and I was able to progress significantly with it during a second sabbatical semester, spent at the University of Leipzig in 1998.

    With this book, I hope to awaken a wider appreciation for Stern's perspective on human individuality and for the proper place of personalistic thinking within scientific psychology. I regard this contribution not as the completion of my project, but only as its culmination as I have been able to advance with it thus far.

    In my 1987 book, I argued that as the basis for a scientific psychology of personality, the long-dominant and still hegemonic individual differences research paradigm is logically flawed in ways that are both fundamental and irremediable from within that paradigm. The present work underscores and further elaborates that same thesis. Going well beyond the earlier book, however, I have a great deal more to say here, both about the historical emergence of the paradigm that has dominated the thinking of mainstream personality psychologists for most of the 20th century and about the considerations that in my view should guide a reconceptualization of the basic issues in the 21st century. The largely ignored or forgotten contributions to psychology that William Stern made between 1900 and 1935 figure prominently in both lines of discussion.

    Chapter One offers a biographical sketch of Stern's professional life. The remaining nine chapters are evenly distributed over three parts.

    In Part I, I concentrate on the historical roots of modern correlational studies of individual and group differences in the subdiscipline of “differential” psychology that was formally proposed by Stern in 1900. Chapter Two treats of the emergence of Stern's proposal and its early development against the background of the turn-of-the-century general/experimental psychology typified by the research programs of prominent figures such as Wilhelm Wundt and one of Stern's own mentors, Hermann Ebbinghaus.

    Chapter Three focuses on developments within differential psychology that considerably narrowed its scope relative to Stern's initial vision. There, the discussion highlights the influential ideas of E.L. Thorndike and Hugo Münsterberg, and considerable attention is devoted to Stern's ever-growing concern over the untoward influence that the ideas defended by those thinkers were having on differential psychology.

    Following Stern's death in 1938, the most prominent spokesperson for views similar (though not identical) to his own was Gordon W. Allport. Accordingly, Chapter Four is concentrated on Allport's efforts to maintain among scientific psychologists an appreciation for many of the concerns that Stern had voiced previously. Because Allport's efforts in this regard were articulated mainly in terms of the distinction between nomothetic and idiographic personality studies, I concentrate in Chapter Four on the major contours of the debate fueled by Allport's writings on the topic.

    Once Allport finally had been persuaded by his many intellectual adversaries to “cry uncle and retire to his corner” (as he himself put it), the way was effectively cleared for the vast majority within the mainstream of personality psychology to prosecute, virtually unopposed, a strictly “nomothetic” discipline tethered securely to the correlational research methods that had been pioneered by Francis Galton and Karl Pearson in their studies of individual differences in intelligence. By this time, the rest of the considerably broader vision of differential psychology that Stern had set forth in 1911, together with critical personalism, had vanished all but entirely from the disciplinary landscape.

    Coeval with and indeed indispensable to these historical developments was the wholesale investment by scientific psychologists in general—including, but not limited to, those investigators proclaiming specific interest in the psychology of personality—in a research paradigm guided by the principles of statistical thinking. Part II of this book is organized around this enormously consequential fact.

    Chapter Five treats of the historical emergence during the 19th century of statistical thinking itself and of the infusion of that style of thinking into scientific psychology. The discussion points to the ascendance among 19th-century scholars of two competing views of the nature of the knowledge generated when aggregates of individuals sampled from populations are examined statistically—a form of inquiry known originally as “political arithmetic”—and explains why one of those two competing views, but not the other, was serviceable to mainstream psychologists as they effectively reinvented their discipline during the first third of the 20th century.

    Chapter Six is a rudimentary methodology. Through the introduction of simple, hypothetical research examples, it offers an exposition of the basic design and data analysis principles defining the procedural canon that continues to guide inquiry at the interface of what Lee J. Cronbach identified in 1957 as scientific psychology's “two disciplines.” Major emphasis is placed here on the statistical methods that structure such inquiry, in an attempt to make clear how contemporary mainstream trait psychologists see those methods as serving their professed objectives of predicting, explaining, and understanding individual behavior.

    In Chapter Seven, the canon described in Chapter Six is subjected to close critical scrutiny. My intent is to establish beyond all further doubt that the study of variables marking individual and group differences fails to advance scientific understanding of the behavior and psychological life of individual persons, and why this is so. Through an attempt at the beginning of Chapter Seven to set the record straight on what the German philosopher Wilhelm Windelband actually said in 1894 when he drew the distinction between nomothetic and idiographic knowledge objectives, I try to make clear why modern “nomothetic” personality psychology could not possibly be a truly nomothetic science of persons in the sense of nomothetic that Windelband originally intended. Pointing back to the “findings” of the hypothetical investigations introduced for illustrative purposes in Chapter Six, I then try to show why statistical knowledge of the sort issuing from studies of individual and group differences fails logically, and hence necessarily, at every turn as the basis for claims concerning the scientific prediction, explanation, and understanding of individual behavior.

    Part III addresses the challenge of rethinking the problem of human individuality within scientific psychology, and in this section of the book, the historic contributions of Stern return to center stage.

    Chapter Eight offers an introduction to critical personalism. In the first half of the chapter, the major concepts of that system of thought are introduced, following the lead provided by a monograph written by Stern himself for just such purposes and published in 1917 under the title Psychology and Personalism. In the second half of Chapter Eight, I have sought to illustrate several features of personalistic thought through a discussion of parts of a work completed in 1909 by William Stern in collaboration with his wife, Clara, titled Recollection, Testimony, and Lying in Early Childhood.

    In Chapter Nine, two models of personalistic inquiry taken from the contemporary literature are introduced. The first of these is provided by experimental research on the psychology of subjective personality judgments that I have carried out in recent years in collaboration with various students. The findings of that research mount a direct empirical challenge to the long-standing belief that it is meaningless to characterize individuals without comparing them to one another. The same research also illustrates how quantitative methods can be implemented in research that is nevertheless fundamentally personalistic in nature. The model offered here is one I call “neo-Wundtian,” and it is just such a model that I believe should guide the needed reconceptualization of the problem of individuality within scientific psychology.

    The second example of personalistic inquiry discussed in Chapter Nine, illustrating nonexperimental work of a decidedly qualitative nature, is provided by Steven R. Sabat's recent investigations into the experience of Alzheimer's Disease (AD). Based on extensive interviews with AD sufferers, this work beautifully illustrates what can be accomplished when research “subjects” are regarded as persons rather than as mere instances of diagnostic categories such as “mildly” or “severely” cognitively impaired.

    Chapter Ten concludes this work with a general discussion of the potential of personalistic thinking both as a foundation for personality theory and as a framework for social thought. Of surpassing importance in the former regard is an appreciation for the fact that meaningful characterizations of individuals not only can be achieved wholly apart from between-person comparisons but indeed must be achieved for there to be any such comparisons. To see this is to grasp the logical possibility of dispensing with between-person comparisons altogether in the scientific study of personality. This is the conceptual passageway leading out of the long-dominant but fatally flawed paradigm and into a framework decidedly more hospitable to the philosophical and theoretical tenets of Stern's critical personalism.

    The distinction between person characterization, on one hand, and between-person differentiation, on the other, is also significant for the consideration of critical personalism as a framework for social thought. Within this framework, individuality is understood not in terms of behavioral “traits” seen to set one individual apart from others, but rather in terms of personal values that distinguish what an individual's character is from what it is not but would otherwise be were the individual's personal values other than they are. In this view, one's individuality cannot somehow be compromised by being like others in certain respects, because one's individuality does not hinge on being different from those others to begin with.

    By embracing a conception of person characterization that sets aside considerations of between-person differences, it is possible to embrace individual-ity without endorsing individual-ism. In this light, critical personalism emerges as a framework nurturant of community in ways that, arguably, the contemporary emphasis on what separates individuals and groups from each other is not. This suggests that personalistic thinking may have something very important to offer as we seek, in this postmodern age, to come to terms with the various social issues raised by considerations of diversity and multiculturalism.

    As the foregoing suggests, this book engages issues and incorporates material cutting across several subspecialties within contemporary psychology. In the main, the concerns of this work are philosophical and theoretical, but in the service of those concerns, the perspective adopted is in some parts historical, in other parts methodological, and in still other parts empirical. I recognize that in presenting for consideration such a work as this I have run the risk of disappointing, frustrating, and perhaps even losing altogether those readers who do not think of their interests as transcending the boundaries of these various perspectives.

    Nevertheless, it has seemed to me that for the task at hand, this sort of multifaceted treatment is what is called for, and I can only hope that readers who come to this book with concerns that do not seem to articulate with all of the aforementioned facets of the material will invest the effort to engage the entire work nonetheless. For if nature herself cannot be partitioned as our universities are (I believe it was C. West Churchman who once said or wrote words to this effect), nor can every conceptual problem in 21st-century scientific psychology be relegated neatly to just one or another of the field's currently recognized subspecialties.

    This much said, the multifaceted character of the book's contents has mandated some concessions by the author as well. For example, although I have written for an audience primarily comprising advanced students and established academic psychologists, the very specialization to which I have just alluded means that even among readers who are highly knowledgeable in the philosophical, theoretical, and historical areas of the field, there will be many whose familiarity with statistical concepts is quite limited. In an effort to accommodate these readers, I have written of technical matters in a way that might in places seem pedestrian to readers who are already relatively sophisticated in this subject. I must therefore beg the indulgence of those readers and invite them to skip over parts of the discussion that seem too elementary.

    With regard to the historical aspects of this work, I recognize that the present treatment cannot be regarded as complete. For reasons indicated above, my focus has been on William Stern's identification of the “problem of individuality” within scientific psychology, on critical personalism as the system of thought in terms of which he proposed to engage the relevant issues, and on certain intellectual developments within psychology before, during, and soon after Stern's time that were of direct relevance to the fate of his ideas vis-à-vis mainstream 20th century thinking about individuality. Unquestionably, there is much more that could be said to augment the history I have traced here, and I hope that my work will heighten interest in furthering this line of historical inquiry beyond the limits of the present account.

    In July of 2002, I participated in a symposium that was part of the program of the Eleventh European Conference on Personality, held at the University of Jena, in eastern Germany. The conference program was replete with papers discussing empirical findings issuing from studies of individual and group differences, carried out in full accordance with the procedural principles and interpretive traditions that have dominated thinking within mainstream personality psychology for nearly 100 years. Ubiquitous throughout the conference facility and its proximate environs were posters trumpeting the 5-day event and featuring a lengthy passage taken from William Stern's 1911 text, Methodological Foundations of Differential Psychology (quoted in the original German even though the official language of the conference was English).

    Through its contents, the Jena conference program enabled participants to reinforce, both in themselves and in one another, long-standing and widely shared convictions concerning the aptness of modern differential psychology as a vehicle for advancing the scientific understanding of human individuality. What was more, the conference participants could do this while still invoking symbolically, through a quoted textbook passage displayed prominently throughout the conference venue (though opaque to a great many of the participants), the intellectual patronage of differential psychology's acknowledged Founding Father.

    As I observed all of this, it struck me that the Jena conference could serve as the raison d'etre, in microcosm, for this book. First of all, the prevailing consensus among the Jena conference participants (as in the field at large) that statistical knowledge of the kind generated through studies of individual and group differences advances the scientific understanding of individuals’ personalities is ill founded, and needs to be challenged anew. Second, had William Stern been present in the flesh at Jena, he would have rejected the suggestion, implicit in the conference posters, that he concurred with the prevailing consensus. Stern never embraced that view. Indeed, could he have attended the Jena conference himself, the Founding Father of differential psychology would have voiced dissatisfaction with virtually the entire conference program and would have urged instead a careful consideration of his other—and to his own thinking vastly more important—intellectual “child,” critical personalism.

    My mission in writing this book has been to explain thoroughly both that and why all of what I have said in the immediately preceding paragraph is so.


    In completing this project, I have received help from many quarters. Through the Georgetown University Graduate School, I have been supported by two summer research grants and a Senior Faculty Research Fellowship. I have also benefited greatly from a sabbatical granted to me during the Spring 1998 semester. A Fulbright Senior Scholar Award enabled me to spend that sabbatical semester in Leipzig, Germany, where I could make extensive use of the superb library facilities there. Most of the historical research that has gone into this book was completed in Leipzig.

    I would like to thank Alison Kuhl for her help in compiling the bibliography, and for her technical assistance with the tables as well as Melisa Breiner-Sanders's.

    I am grateful to Franz Samelson and Kurt Danziger for their critical comments on my initial ideas about this work. My Georgetown colleagues Norman J. Finkel and Steven R. Sabat provided very helpful feedback on some chapters. Beyond this, Norm and Steve have lent friendly support and encouragement over the entire duration of this lengthy project.

    Through the earliest stages of the journey that has led to this book, my former departmental colleague Daniel N. Robinson was a valuable source of support, encouragement, and intellectual inspiration.

    Several colleagues in Germany have assisted me in many ways, large and small, direct and indirect. Werner Deutsch, Siegfried Hoppe-Graff, and Frank Radtke deserve special mention in this regard.

    As the project neared completion, my wife, Leslie, spent many hours scanning figures and helping me organize the electronic files that had to be created for transmission of the material to Sage. Leslie lent her assistance cheerfully, over and above the countless hours of patience and moral support that could come only from a true partner.

    I am enormously grateful to the talented and consummately professional Ms. Carla Freeman for her thorough and sensitive copyediting.

    Had I to thank the Senior Editor at Sage, Jim Brace-Thompson, only for his confidence in and backing of this project, my task would be quite large enough. But when our collaboration began, neither of us could have known that with several chapters of this work still to be written, much of my time and attention would be diverted to the care of my dying mother. Jim Brace-Thompson's message to me was clear and unambiguous: “Take all the time you need, and treasure all of it that you have. The book will wait, and Sage will wait for it.” I cannot find the words to convey the full measure of my gratitude to Jim Brace-Thompson for his patience and understanding through that challenging time.


    To my son Kevin, to my daughter Erika, and to the memory of my mother, Rita Jacobs Lamiell (1916–2002)

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    Author Index

    About the Author

    James T. Lamiell is Professor of Psychology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Born and raised with his eight sisters in Canton, Ohio, he earned a Bachelor of Liberal Studies degree at Bowling Green State University in 1972, concentrating in psychology and philosophy. He pursued his graduate studies in psychology at Kansas State University, earning his M.S. degree in 1974 and his Ph.D. in 1976. After 6 years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he joined the Georgetown faculty in 1982. A two-time Fulbright Senior Scholar to Germany, Lamiell has held guest professorships at the University of Heidelberg (1990) and at the University of Leipzig (1998).

    Lamiell is the author of The Psychology Of Personality: An Epistemological Inquiry (Columbia University Press, 1987) and translator of Clara and William Stern's 1909 monograph, Erinnerung, Aussage und Lüge in der ersten Kindheit, published in English as Recollection, Testimony, and Lying in Early Childhood (American Psychological Association Books, 1999). His numerous scholarly publications have primarily to do with theoretical and philosophical issues in the psychology of personality, and he has lectured on these topics at many universities both in the United States and in Europe.

    Lamiell has served as Associate Editor of the Journal of Personality and the Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology. He was elected Fellow of APA Division 1 (General Psychology) in 1987, and Division 24 (Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology) in 1988. He was the honored recipient of the Psi Chi Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching at the University of Illinois in 1979, and of the Edward B. Bunn Award for Faculty Excellence at Georgetown University in 2001.

    In his spare time, Lamiell enjoys picking bluegrass banjo and long-distance bicycle touring. He lives in Oakton, Virginia, with Leslie, his wife of 30 years. Together they have raised a son, Kevin (26), and a daughter, Erika (24).

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