Looking back: George Kelly and the Garden of Eden

Trevor Butt finds an interesting recurring theme in the later work of the famous personality theorist

George Kelly is recognised as one of the great personality theorists of the mid-20th century. Most introductory texts in personality pay tribute to Kelly as the inventor of personal construct theory (PCT), which elaborates how each person’s action can only be understood in terms of his or her system of meaning. Less well known is his career after his success with The Psychology of Personal Constructs (1955).

Accounts of Kelly’s work often give the impression that his contribution to psychology was to somehow preserve the importance of cognitive psychology during the arid days of behaviourism. It is as though ‘personal constructs’ were a pre-scientific way of talking about cognitions. In fact, personal construct theory is firmly grounded in philosopher and psychologist John Dewey’s pragmatism (Butt, 2005, 2008; Cromwell, 2011; McWilliams, 2009; Warren, 2010). Like Dewey, Kelly clearly and emphatically rejected Cartesian dualism, and along with it the division of ‘a person’s processes’ into cognition, emotion and behaviour. All three are subsumed in what Dewey (1931/1982) called ‘action’, and Kelly called ‘construing’. Kelly’s fundamental postulate states that a person’s processes are psychologically ‘channelised’ by the way in which he or she anticipates events. The way in which we anticipate things is through our construing.

Following the publication of The Psychology of Personal Constructs, Kelly became a key figure in the development of clinical psychology in the USA. He was invited to speak all over the country and embarked on a world tour in 1961. Many of his essays, articles and talks were drawn together after his death and published by one of his ex-students, Professor Brendan Maher (1969). In these collected papers, Kelly moved to correct the growing misapprehension that construing was synonymous with thinking, and therefore the cause of behaviour. There is an emphasis on construing as action, and not in some strange way behind it. Personal constructs are not yet another way of constituting the ghost in the machine.

Although Kelly always insisted that a construct was not a concept, his 1955 definition focused on things: ‘A way in which some things are construed as being alike and yet different from others’ (1955, p.105). This allows (and perhaps even encourages) the reader to think in terms of concepts. The construct is an abstraction that differentiates between ‘things’. In what we may call the ‘later Kelly’ however, the two poles of a construct are not things, but possible courses of action. I might dig the garden or read a book. This bipolarity represents a choice that has to be made from my point of view. The alternatives are not logical opposites of course, but represent the alternative courses of action I see open to me at a particular time. Each course of action carries its own implications, and it is anticipation of these that guides my choice. Now the gnomic fundamental postulate becomes clearer: how I think, feel and act (my processes) is channelled by this anticipation.

Of course agency and choice carry with them responsibility. We are necessarily in a moral field. None of us can foretell the future. We try to anticipate it, sometimes with a great deal of reflection, but we can never know all the consequences of any action. We can do our best, but frequently make mistakes. Anxiety and guilt are inevitably bound into the human condition.

Nowhere is this mixture of action, choice and ethics more evident than in ‘Sin and psychotherapy’, a paper Kelly first delivered in 1962 at Temple University. Kelly begins by relating how a psychotherapy patient likened a particular experience of shame to being expelled from the Garden of Eden. One interesting feature of Kelly’s later papers is the recurring theme of the Garden of Eden. It is central in two: ‘Sin and psychotherapy’ (1962/1969) and ‘Psychotherapy and the nature of man’ (1963/1969), and is mentioned in passing in at least three others.

It is probable that the Eden myth represents a folk memory of hunter-gatherer societies, wistfully recalled by the Jews after the sacking of Jerusalem around 600bc. ‘Civilisation’, with its settled farming communities, brought with it some advantages and also the disadvantages of established hierarchies, conflict and wars. The interpretation of the myth has taken various forms, and the story of its being about original sin is a relatively recent Christian variant (see Armstrong, 2006).

It is this aspect of it that interested Kelly. Adam and Eve are given the opportunity by God to lead a life of obedience and passivity in the Garden. The only thing they are forbidden to do is eat from the Tree of Knowledge. This of course they do, as a result of which they understand the difference between good and evil. They are then expelled for ever from the Garden. We, their descendents carry this burden of sin; we lead lives of misery in this vale of tears. No matter how hard we might try, there can be no return to the idyllic existence of passivity and blind obedience.

Kelly proposes a personal construct analysis of the myth in which personal constructs are focused on action and choice, not mere cognition. There are three choices: companionship versus loneliness, knowledge versus obedience, and good versus evil. The author of Genesis, Kelly says, recognised these as central to the human condition; each of us is confronted with such choices. We might try to evade them, in what he sees as abortive attempts to return to the Garden. And the ultimate choice is between good and evil.

Faced with this, we might imagine that we can do nothing, but of course doing nothing is itself a choice. So, for example, the person who does not intervene to expose cruelty or corruption is indeed making a choice, doing something, no matter how much they might tell themselves otherwise. Looking the other way is indeed a moral choice. Echoing the work of Mowrer and Szasz (although he mentions neither), Kelly argues that psychiatry tries to redefine sin in medical terms. Indeed scientists and philosophers also try to avoid the good/evil issue, but it is in the end inescapable.

One of Kelly’s students, Professor Rue L. Cromwell, maintained an extended correspondence with Kelly from 1952 until Kelly’s death in 1967. This has been an invaluable resource to me in research in this area. After reading ‘Sin and psychotherapy’ he wrote registering surprise that Kelly appeared to have abandoned what in 1955 he called his ‘philosophical position’: constructive alternativism. This stated that any events in the world were open to alternative construction. But it now appeared that good versus evil was a choice that wasn’t open to reconstruction.

Kelly replied that we should constantly revise how we construe good or evil (which of course we do), but that the construct itself is indispensable. So Cromwell was surely right; Kelly believed that the construct of good versus evil transcended human construction and ultimately could not be avoided. In the article he lists common strategies for avoiding the choice – obedience to a superior authority and rule following, for example. But the evasion of personal responsibility can never be so simple. Being human means that each of us makes active choices, without ever knowing all the consequences of them. Sin is a constant risk, and anxiety and guilt are inevitably woven into the human condition.

Perhaps Kelly’s main message in the paper is that we cannot define sin by referring to any sacred text or indeed any other authority. Sin is defined personally and is to be understood in terms of deviation from one’s core role. For Kelly, ‘role’ referred to any personal construction undertaken in the light of what we see as others’ perception of us. Core role concerns how we evaluate ourselves in the light of the perception of others that are central to us. In the article he asks the reader to compare how they would feel differently if they had an accident, and if a child in their care had one. The second is likely to produce guilt if one feels they have fallen short of the child’s expectation of care and protection. This individualised definition of sin and guilt perhaps reflects Kelly’s roots in Protestantism. His father was a Presbyterian minister and he attended a Quaker college in his youth. Indeed he ends the paper saying that he is merely elaborating what Jesus said about sin: ‘Go and sin no more’. Repentance (as opposed to atonement) means resolving to act differently in the future.

The focus on inevitable choice, anxiety and guilt in the human condition raises the question first asked by Holland (1977) of whether Kelly should be considered an existentialist. Certainly Kelly’s catalogue of strategies for avoiding the choice between good and evil echoes Sartre’s (1965/1995) notion of ‘bad faith’. And there are clear similarities in the foundational tenets of personal construct theory and existentialism. In each there is no essence to individuals, no internal gyroscope or inner self that silently guides them – people do not ‘discover themselves’, but are self-inventing. Both see people as agents that choose between courses of action, and not driven by internal or external forces.

But as we have already noted, Kelly’s theory is firmly rooted in American pragmatism. There are parallels in the development pragmatism the USA and the philosophy of existence in continental Europe (see Butt, 2008). But there are also differences in both content and tone. So, for example, pragmatism is more optimistic in its belief in human progress; Dewey made the scientist something of a moral hero, emphasising the importance of experimental venture. To claim that pragmatism is really a form of existentialism is like claiming that a lion is really a tiger. There are evident structural similarities, but the differences reflect their evolution in separate cultural climates.

I think the main reason why PCT is marginalised today is that it is seen as such an oddball theory. It is cast in a vocabulary strange to contemporary psychology. As Kelly warns the reader in his preface to The Psychology of Personal Constructs, there are none of the landmarks familiar to the psychologist in it: no emotions, cognitions, learning, motivation, reinforcement or unconscious (1955 p.x). Perhaps it will be appreciated better if contemporary psychologists recognised it as pragmatism. Dewey had focused, among other things, on education, and Mead on social psychology. Kelly’s contribution was to elaborate pragmatism as an approach to personality and clinical psychology.

Trevor Butt is Emeritus Reader in Psychology at the University of Huddersfield


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