Sorting the Self

Article by Christopher Yates: “We are unknown to ourselves, we knowers…and there is good reason for this. We have never looked for ourselves—so how are we ever supposed to find ourselves?”1 Much has changed since the late nineteenth century, when Nietzsche wrote those words. We now look obsessively for ourselves, and we find ourselves in myriad ways. Then we find more ways of finding ourselves. One involves a tool, around which grew a science, from which bloomed a faith, and from which fell the fruits of dogma. That tool is the questionnaire. The science is psychometrics. And the faith is a devotion to self-codification, of which the revelation of personality is the fruit.

Perhaps, whether on account of psychological evaluation and therapy, compulsory corporate assessments, spiritual direction endeavors, or just a sporting interest, you have had some experience of this phenomenon. Perhaps it has served you well. Or maybe you have puzzled over the strange avidity with which we enable standardized tests and the technicians or portals that administer them to gauge the meaning of our very being. Maybe you have been relieved to discover that, according to the 16 Personality Types assessments, you are an ISFP; or, according to the Enneagram, you are a 3 with a 2 or 4 wing. Or maybe you have been somewhat troubled by how this peculiar term personality, derived as it is from the Latin persona (meaning the masks once worn by players on stage), has become a repository of so many adjectives—one that violates Aristotle’s cardinal metaphysical rule against reducing a substance to its properties.

Either way, the self has never been more securely an object of classification than it is today, thanks to the century-long ascendence of behavioral analysis and scientific psychology, sociometry, taxonomic personology, and personality theory. Add to these the assorted psychodiagnostic instruments drawing on refinements of multiple regression analysis, and multivariate and circumplex modeling, trait determination and battery-based assessments, and the ebbs and flows of psychoanalytic theory. Not to be overlooked, of course, is the popularizing power of evidence-based objective and predictive personality profiling inside and outside the laboratory and therapy chambers since Katherine Briggs began envisioning what would become the fabled person-sorting Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) in 1919. A handful of phone calls, psychological referrals, job applications, and free or modestly priced hyperlinked platforms will place before you (and the eighty million or more other Americans who take these tests annually) more than two thousand personality assessments promising to crack your code. Their efficacy has become an object of our collective speculation. And by many accounts, their revelations make us not only known but also more empowered to live healthy and fulfilling lives. Nietzsche had many things, but he did not have or…(More)”.

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