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The history of the self studies continuities and changes in ideas about and experiences of the individual mind through time, attending to questions of individuality, identity, stability, self-possession, and interiority. Traditionally, this subject has often been approached as an intellectual history, analyzing philosophers’ explicit writings about the self. Through the work of people such as René Descartes, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant, scholars have traced a growing sense of individuality and self-possession since the 16th century, and an increasing feeling of inner depth since the 18th century. The focus on intellectual sources of the self has been criticized, however, by scholars who stress the importance of practices and of social differences. They have broadened the scope of the field by looking at cultural sources, such as autobiographical writing, literature, art, rituals, and festivities. Still other historians have criticized the absence of power in many accounts of the history of the self and stress the institutional and political sources of the self, including religious institutions, schools, and legal systems. Throughout these different approaches, debates continue about whether a “modern self” can be traced, and when such a modern self can be situated. While many recent scholars stress the need to examine different cultures of the self at any given time in their own right, others argue that it remains important to trace grand shifts in this history.


Raymond E. Fancher

Gordon W. Allport was a prominent Harvard University psychologist during the mid-20th century, notable both for his early and effective promotion of “personality” as an important psychological subdiscipline, and in his later career as a social psychologist for works on several issues of major social importance. In 1921 he and his older brother Floyd Allport jointly proposed the study and measurement of traits as the foundation of a new subdiscipline of personality psychology, with Gordon’s Harvard doctoral research a pilot study demonstrating the feasibility of the approach. On a subsequent postdoctoral fellowship in Germany Allport became impressed by William Stern’s “personalistic” psychology, which held that a person’s “individuality” could be defined in two ways: relational individuality, comprised of the particular combination of numerous measurable traits manifested by a subject in studies such as Allport’s thesis; and real individuality, a Gestalt-like conception of a personality that is more than just the sum of its parts, and discoverable only through a qualitative analysis of the traits’ role in an overall life history. These ideas inspired in Allport a conception of personality as a broad and independent psychological field that would incorporate both the “nomothetic,” experimental methods of the natural sciences in measuring and studying personality traits, and the non-experimental “idiographic” methods utilized in the historical and humanistic fields for providing conceptions of wholly integrated, unique personalities. Noting that Anglo-American psychology was heavily dominated by the former approach, he became an outspoken advocate of the latter as a necessary complement to it. Allport taught undergraduate seminars promoting this conception at Harvard and Dartmouth between 1924 and 1930, before returning permanently to Harvard in 1930. There, both independently and in collaborations with others, he conducted and promoted seminal personality research employing both nomothetic and idiographic methods. His comprehensive and authoritative 1937 textbook, Personality: A Psychological Interpretation, was a landmark in establishing personality as a major psychological discipline. With enhanced reputation, Allport became a leading institutional figure in American psychology. For the rest of his career he continued to advocate an inclusive, “eclectic” approach to personality psychology, while also turning attention to important social issues such as wartime morale and propaganda, the influence of radio as a mass medium, the role of religion in personality and society, and with particular impact the nature of prejudice.