Monday, 23 January 2012 00:21

George Kelly: Men Of Ideas

Written by 

Kelly contributed one salient idea to psychology, the idea that personality is a personal construct, that the individual, acting as a creative agent, utilized his inherited biological constitution and social experiences to construct his self concept and self image.


Ozodi Thomas Osuji

George Kelly (1905-1967) was an American psychologist. He is known for one idea and one idea only, his contention that it is the individual who, behaving like an engineer (Kelly was trained as a physicist and engineer before becoming a psychologist), takes strands from his biological make up and social experience to construct his self concept, his personality. As it were, the environment is a building block with which each of us builds his idea of who he is. The individual uses his inherited biological datum and social experience to construct his self concept and self image. He is a creative person, a constructionist and constructs himself.

Other people influence the individual in the sense that they provided him with the social material with which he constructs his self view.

The critical point that Kelly is making is that each person is a creative agent and is responsible for how he constructs his self concept and its self image. No other person constructed your self for you, you did. Of course, you are not an island, not an independent agent for your inherited body and social experiences played a role in how you construe yourself to be.

If Kelly is right, if you had a different set of genes and social experiences you would probably construct a different personality for yourself.

No one can argue with Kelly’s postulation. It is very simple, direct and to the point. It is actually a scientific idea in that it is testable and verifiable. We can ascertain the social forces that impinge on us and the biological constitution that we inherited and also postulate that an unknown aspect of us used both to construct our personalities. Can yon deny this proposition?

Kelly was sick and tired of the Freudians and behaviorists making reductionistic noises that no one can ever verify or falsify. Freud can say all he wants to stay about sexual instincts determining behavior but the fact is that it is myth and not verifiable. If you choose to believe in mythology it may seem true to you but that dos not make it true.

Behaviorists were annoying in always telling us that we are the product of our learning. As they see it, behavior is learned, personality is learned. Clearly, we do learn an awful lot of things, but who is doing the learning? How did the sense of self come into being? Is it learned?

The sense of self is, of course, influenced by ones interaction with other people for, as Rogers pointed out, we are in a behavioral and perceptual field and interact with other people, influence them, as they influence us. The self is shaped by social interaction. But that is not all there is to the self, is it?

Social interaction did not produce consciousness. How did the conscious awareness of the self as a separated being come into being?

A look at Western ideas, philosophy and religion, shows that the West seldom wants to understand how the self came about. Much of Western philosophy concentrated on what the self does but not the self itself. In so far that the West belatedly thinks that there is a self in us it thinks that it was shaped by external factors, society and biology. Hence in trying to improve the self it concentrates on understanding the social and biological factors that allegedly produced it. Where the self appears to be sick, as in neurosis and psychosis, the West gives the individual either social talk therapy or medications and the idea is that if you change those two external factors, society and biology, that you would change the self. Clearly, medications that calm the human body tends to calm the individual’s thinking but obviously do not change his self, for we have not understood the nature of the self and where it came from.

It is safe to say that no Western psychotherapy and medications has healed one sick self; the West talks a lot but does not cure those with disorders of self.

You cannot heal what you do not understand, the self. The West has no clue what the self is.

Easterners, unlike the West, made vigorous attempts to understand the origin and nature of the self. Hinduism, a four thousand years system of inquiry, postulates that the self is a spiritual being. In its creation mythology, Hinduism says that Brahman, God, is infinite in numbers’; each of Brahman’s parts is called Atman. Brahman/Atom is the same and coequal. Somehow Brahman/Atman cast Maya on itself and went to sleep and in its sleep dreams this world. This world may seem solid hence real but does not exist because it is a dream. What is real is Brahman/Atman. Each of us, Atman, forgot that he is part of Brahman, God, and dreams that he is a separated ego self, a self housed in body. The earthly self, the ego, is a dream self; it is not real. If one denies the earthly self and negates its world, which is the aim of meditation, one awakens in the real self and real world, Brahmaloka, which is a formless spirit self and formless spirit world. For our present purposes, the East sees the self as spirit and as inside us, interior, whereas the West sees the self from an exterior perspective.

Who is correct, West or East?  For our present purposes, let us just say that we do not know what the self is and that there is no use reducing what we do not know to spurious explanations:  Freudianism and behaviorism.

Kelly cut through the noise of psychoanalysis and behaviorism and posited a simple idea that to him is observable and measurable. He wanted to remove observer bias.

Psychoanalysts project their mythological approach to their clients and define the individual as neurotic in terms of their apriori presupposition of what neurosis is. If their methodology is wrong their definition of the individual is wrong.

Behaviorists define the individual as their methodological approach to human beings predetermine that they see him. Are they therefore seeing the individual as he is? Of course, not; they are seeing what they want to see.

So, how do we get to know the real human being without coloring our perception of him with some group reference point, intellectual framework of what mental illness is or is not?

The idea of metal illness itself is an idea, a culture based idea. How do we know what is mental health and its absence, mental illness?

Western psychology has a tendency to pathologize what it does not understand, what seems different from the norm.  Consider the idea of ego ideal.  Some people, this writer included, find themselves since childhood idealistic.  Is idealism pathology?

The West says yes, I say no. Let us see. By age nine I was aware that I did not like my body. I hated my body with venom.  I did not like other people’s bodies either. I wished that I had a different and better body and that other people had different and better bodies. Later, I wished that human beings did not have bodies. To me, body seemed repulsive.

I would see a person and quickly appreciate his strength and weakness. I would then wish that he were different from the way he is. I would imagine him ideal. What I did to people I did to non-sensate objects. If I saw a tree I would imagine it a better tree. If I saw a car I would imagine it a better car. If I saw a house I would imagine it a better house. If I saw social institution I would imagine it better.

Simply stated, nothing as it is impressed me. I invented ideals of what is but knew that my ideals were mental constructs, fictions, my wishes, but not reality. Reality is that people are imperfect and there is nothing that you can do to make them perfect. People are nothing but meat waiting to decay and smell to high heaven.

The salient point is that some folk, right from childhood, reject the so-called real self and real world and seek idealized versions of them. Is this a malady, the West says yes.

But this process is a type of thinking that follows certain brain types. It is not a malady.

The idealistic person is not sick though he could become sick if he tries to actualize his ideals. Ego ideals are fantasies and cannot come to be. Life is not art, reality is not fiction. Real people are imperfect and cannot be perfect.

As long as people live in bodies they must be imperfect and you have to accept them as they are. Idealizing how people could become is wishful thinking.

Wishes are not reality.  Wishing that we lived in a socialist society where (Karl Marx wishes) from each his ability and to each his needs isn’t going to bring socialism into being. Why? People are competitive in nature and there would always be winners and losers. Of course the winners can help the losers but the fact is that not all of us can run the hundred meters dash in tens seconds. There are smart folk, there are average folk and there are dumb folk; it is probably because of their inherited bodies that people are as they are, and there is nothing any one can do about it. Wishing that all folk be bright will not make them bright.

It is the brain, an inherited property that makes a handful of people idealistic. Idealistic persons can become neurotic but neurosis is not their inevitable end.

I could go on and on but I am not here to correct the spuriousness of Western psychology but merely to note that George Kelly observed that much of Western psychology is speculative and not testable hence not a science.

Kelly sought a psychology based on science and the only thing he could say is that the self is a mental construct. The self is the construction of the individual using his inherited body and social experiences to do so.

Unfortunately, like most Western thinkers, Kelly did not ponder where the creative energy, the person using body and social experience to construct an earthly self, came from. He did not understand the nature of the self as.

No Western psychologist has understood the nature of the self. Therefore, no Western psychotherapy can heal pathological selves, for you cannot heal what you have not understood. Western psychologists make a great deal of noise about self and especially pathological selves but are talking nonsense.


Kelly, George (1955) The Psychology of Personal Constructs.  New York: W. W. Norton.

Read 9794 times
Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176