This is the second in a series of Sunday posts about Kazimierz Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration, using as a starting point the recently released edition of his 1967 book, Personality-Shaping through Positive Disintegration, available in paperback and ebook. All quotations from Dabrowski in this post are from this 2015 paperback edition.

Dabrowski’s work may have greater significance now than ever. This past week, two Princeton economists, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, published the results of their analysis of data from the CDC and national surveys showing a trend of both increasing mortality and increasing morbidity (disease, disability, poor health) in US whites ages 45–54. These are just a  few of their findings and discussions (read the full report):

  • “After 1998, other rich countries’ mortality rates continued to decline by 2% a year. In contrast, US white non-Hispanic mortality rose by half a percent a year. No other rich country saw a similar turnaround.”
  • “This turnaround, as of 2014, is specific to midlife.”
  • “Although all three educational groups saw increases in mortality from suicide and poisonings, and an overall increase in external cause mortality, increases were largest for those with the least education.”
  • “[A]ll 5-y age groups between 30–34 and 60–64 have witnessed marked and similar increases in mortality from the sum of drug and alcohol poisoning, suicide, and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis over the period 1999–2013; the midlife group is different only in that the sum of these deaths is large enough that the common growth rate changes the direction of all-cause mortality.”
  • “The mortality reversal observed in this period bears a resemblance to the mortality decline slowdown in the United States during the height of the AIDS epidemic, which took the lives of 650,000 Americans (1981 to mid-2015).”
  • “A serious concern is that those currently in midlife will age into Medicare in worse health than the currently elderly. This is not automatic; if the epidemic is brought under control, its sur- vivors may have a healthy old age. However, addictions are hard to treat and pain is hard to control, so those currently in midlife may be a ‘lost generation’ whose future is less bright than those who preceded them.”

I must emphasize here that my point in referring to this study is not to imply that because the focus is on white populations, the urgency is somehow greater than before. An important aspect of the research is one of questioning the use of the benchmark of US whites in the previously reported “narrowing of the black−white gap in life expectancy.” The mortality rate for middle-age blacks remains significantly higher than for whites. [Note added 11/12/15: See this article for more information on criticism and further analysis of the study, which does not lessen its import.]

How does this pertain to Dabrowski? The Theory of Personality Development, as a complement to public policy and medical advancements, addresses many of the disintegrations of modern middle-age, not as a panacea or even an alternative therapy, but as a window to hope, understanding, and meaning (see, for example, the discussion of Dabrowski in James T. Webb’s Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope).

Contemplation” by Simon Powell (CC BY 2.0). Cropped for header

And now, on to this week’s topic: Dabrowskian Personality.

Attitudes and Qualities of Personality

“Personality is a synthesis of the most essential human values embodied in an individual.’” ~ Kazimierz Dabrowski, Personality-Shaping Through Positive Disintegration, p. 2

Before we delve into disintegration or levels of development, it is good to spend some time on Dabrowski’s specific use of the word personality. In fact, the definition of personality is the topic of the first chapter of Personality-Shaping.

Dabrowski used individuality to refer to what we tend to think of broadly as personality, such as “temperament and character qualities,” which can be both positive and negative. In this sense, everyone has individuality, but not everyone has personality.

Dabrowski reserved the term “personality” for the last level of development, the fully integrated person:

an individual in whom all the aspects form a coherent and harmonized whole, and who possesses, in a high degree, the capability of insight into his own self, his own structure, his aspirations and aims (self-consciousness), who is convinced that his attitude is right, that his aims are of essential and lasting value (self-affirmation), and who is conscious that his development is not yet complete and therefore is working internally on his own improvement and education (self-education). (p.2)

Those on the path of development have what he called a personality ideal against which they can judge their own progress (more on this later in the series). The personality ideal is unique to the individual. Personality, however, is predicated on several attitudes and qualities, outlined below (pp. 7–33).

Mental Qualities

  • Multilateral knowledge
  • Independent value judgment, feeling, and action
  • Self-knowledge and knowledge of others

Moral and Social Qualities

  • Truthfulness and honesty toward oneself and other people
  • Courage
  • Love
  • The desire to perfect ourselves and others

Religious Qualities

  • Religious attitude
  • The feelings of reverence, inferiority, guilt, and humility
  • Adapting oneself to suffering and death
  • Contemplation and mysticism

Esthetic Qualities

  • Art
  • The drama of man’s attitude toward life

In addition to the above general human qualities, chapter one offers a discussion of individual qualities of personality: “a sense of ‘otherness’ with respect to the common, everyday, familiar states,” “susceptibility to non pathological disintegration,” “interests and capabilities,” “lasting emotional bonds of love and friendship,” and “a certain specific, unique tone of the spiritual” (pp. 33-34).

Below are just a few thoughts on what strikes me as interesting and useful in this first part of chapter one of Personality-Shaping, both for adults and for the education of children.

Multidimensional Knowledge

In his discussion on the importance of being multidimensional, Dabrowski stressed the difference between knowledge and understanding:

Knowledge is usually unidimensional and understanding multidimensional: Knowledge is based on perception and judgment, understanding involves also experience and intuition which add depth to the perception and judgment. (p. 8)

Similarly, creativity experts such as Dan Pink and Tina Seelig have emphasized the importance of cross-pollination, symphony, and boundary-crossing in learning and problem-solving. One could argue that such multidimensional understanding is easier now than in years past (whether we always take advantage of the opportunity is another matter), as technology allows us to learn about fields and topics far outside our own areas of expertise.

Dabrowski’s focus on the long-term education of a child, not just for tests but for life and development, is an important reminder for parents caught up the quest of seeking the best school or environment or teacher for sensitive and bright children.

The fundamental educational requirements cannot be satisfied either by the best family, the best school, the best mental life, or by the most moral environment; they can be satisfied only by all the factors of direct and indirect education combined into an organic whole. (p. 8)

Love

Dabrowskian development is aspirational. We don’t simply wait for changes to happen; we participate in them and strive for something bigger and better, even to the point of overcoming biological and societal forces. Consider his discussion on love as a moral and social quality of personality:

The love of our fellow creatures cannot be the kind that ends within the bonds of our family and individual relations with our neighbors. We should embrace with it the society in which we live and the whole of humanity. (p. 18)

Well before evolutionary biology reached wide popularity, Dabrowski understood that loving our family, our neighbors, even our enemies is different from an all-compassing “social love of our fellow creatures,” a higher form of development. Not that such love is always easy. The theory of kin selection tells us that what we think of as altruism is often self-interest in disguise, as we subscribe to an evolutionary drive to propagate our own genetics. (For those interested in thinking more about this topic, read the sad story of George Price.)

Supersensual Reality

Dabrowski’s references to religion may be off-putting to some, but in essence I understand his quality of religious attitude to be one of openness, awe, wonder, and existential questioning, all of which can exist with or without formal religious faith and practice. In terms of personality development, the “best religious attitude … is one that draws knowledge from many sources” (p. 21) and is bound up with a multidimensional approach to life. He also referred to the religious dimension as supersensual reality.

A Central Role for Art

Art, aesthetics, and creativity take a central role in the Theory of Positive Disintegration, not only in terms of art appreciation and creation, but also in seeing one’s own life as an unfolding drama that we can influence. As we begin to realize the possibility of our own personality, “there occur fundamental convulsions in the internal life”; “spiritual crises resulting from the struggle between sets of various tendencies”; “namely the struggle between good and evil, with the tragedy-swollen feeling of the necessity of selecting and deciding” (p. 31).

This drama of one’s life is not unlike Joseph Campbell’s monomyth of the hero’s journey.

“It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life.

Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.

The very cave you are afraid to enter turns out to be the source of what you are looking for. The damned thing in the cave that was so dreaded has become the center.”

~ Joseph Campbell (A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living, p. 12)

What are your thoughts on Dabrowski’s attitudes and qualities of personality?