Gordon Allport: The 20th Century's Psychologist (Pt 4)

The life project of Letters from Jenny

… Continued from Part 3.

“How should a life history be written?”

This was in many ways the refrain of Allport’s career. The question kept coming up because it was the one problem he could never seem to make any progress on. In an autobiographical essay, published in 1967, the year of Allport’s death, he called this his “perennial question.”

Allport framed the problem as a tension between two poles, what he called the nomothetic and the idiographic. He got the terms from his days as a young man studying in Germany, but they represented ideas that were broadly familiar. Nomothetic approaches describe things in general. In terms of C.P. Snow’s two cultures, this is the way of the scientist. In the field of psychology, the flagship camp of this position was Behaviorism. Meanwhile, idiographic approaches describe things in particular. This is the way of the humanist. It is also how Sigmund Freud addressed his questions of interest: through interpretation rather than experimentation. Throughout his career, Allport maintained that any adequate account of human behavior would have to have a firm grasp of both the nomothetic and the idiographic.

The issue for Allport was that his field had a relatively strong idea of how to do nomothetic techniques but tended to undervalue the idiographic. He advanced the notion that psychologists ought to do more on the idiographic front on pretty much every occasion which anyone would listen. But he only got around to making a meaningful attempt to do so once, in a book called Letters from Jenny, published in 1965.

The book was based on a collection of 301 letters, written by a middle-aged woman named Jenny Gove Masterson. The letters, penned over a period of twenty years, were addressed to two of Jenny’s friends: Isabel and her husband, Glenn, who had been the college roommate of Jenny’s son, Ross. Allport was drawn to the letters as an account of the concrete details of a life as it played out through the course of living. The letters provided a record of both a story and the protagonist’s feelings about it. And in contrast with an explicitly autobiographical memoir, they were delivered without pretense. Allport wrote that “Although she herself is a lover of literature, Jenny seems unaware that she possesses literary talent. Her ability to set forth her perceptions and her feelings is fired by hot necessity, unmonitored by self-consciousness.” He used the letters in his Harvard courses, claiming that they were the most fruitful material he’d come across for generating class discussions about the nature of personality.

One of the tricks to this endeavor was to interpret an individual’s behavior without pathologizing it. Freud had paved the way for an interpretative (that is, idiographic) approach to studying the mind. But he had done it for cases where something was obviously the matter, when the patient presented some form of neurosis. This turns out to be a consistent stumbling block for anyone examining behavior through a hermeneutic lens: it’s a lot easier to talk about instances where things have gone wrong, rather than run-of-the-mill quotidian activity. Pathological behavior poses the question “why?” much more blatantly than typical behavior. Deviation from the norm calls out for explanation. Adherence to it does not.

Another thing that made the project tricky was overlaying the abstract principles of personality psychology onto the lived experience of an individual life. “Psychologists are on safe ground,” wrote Allport, “so long as they talk in abstractions about personality-in-general. Their real test comes when they attempt to explain (or guide or therapeutically treat) a single concrete life.”

The Letters detail twenty year’s worth of Jenny’s life problems. A representative instance is when she falls out with her son’s fiancé, which causes her to fall out with her son. She has trouble holding down relationships with non-family for any long period of time—except for Isabel and Glenn, who, crucially, live in a different state and communicate with Jenny almost exclusively through written correspondence. The meat of the book comes from Jenny’s Letters, which have been abridged. To this is added a brief preface, as well as an analysis of their contents, first in an informal perspective from Isabel, who engaged with them over the course of their composition. In the final quarter of the book, Allport gives his own analysis.

But the odd thing about Allport’s analysis is that it’s not really his analysis. He begins the section with a kind of apology, inspired by a felt need to explain his audacity in having undertaking the endeavor of “explaining” this woman’s personality in the first place. He gives accounts from three different schools of thought, about what an expert trained in such a perspective would say if she had in fact studied the letters. It’s less an explanation, more a series of hypotheticals.

The perspectives Allport offers are what he calls: the existentialist approach (more or less a close reading of the Letters; “What did the author intend when she wrote a given line?”); the depth approach (that is, psychoanalysis; “What can these letters tell us about what’s going on below the surface of consciousness?”); and the “structural-dynamic” approach (the closest to Allport’s own academic work; “How can Jenny be fit into mainstream psychological boxes, like personality traits?”). At no point does Allport seem convinced by any of his own hypothetical explanations.

For that matter, he doesn’t even seem convinced that psychology can say much of anything at all about an individual life. He takes as a baseline the natural disposition toward what he calls “humanism”—essentially whatever it is that people are doing when they read a good novel. “A humanist (by which we mean the average reader) has the faculty of putting himself under the skin, in the heart, and in the muscles of another, and of reacting in his mind as the other would. Can we improve on humanism, on the art of empathy?”

He sets his own endeavor against the idiographic gold-standard: literature. What exactly can psychology do that literature can’t? Literature (more informally: story telling) is the discipline that has longest had its finger on the pulse of human experience. It is also the one that is most comfortable dealing with humans idiographically. Whereas psychology, as a field, is much more at ease dealing with humanity in the abstract—if you get a hundred people to follow a given procedure, the psychologist can figure how the majority of them will tend to behave on average. Psychology talks about humans experiences in general. It is only literature that talks about the experiences of specific humans. “Throughout the ages the riddle of individuality has been explored by the giants of literature,” wrote Allport. “Tardily the psychologist arrives on the scene (someone has said, two thousand years too late).” He adds that “when psychology deals with human personality it says only what literature has always said, but says it less artfully.”

And yet for all his embarrassment about the limits of psychology, Allport exhibits a more or less complete naïveté about anything not immediately psychological. He seems to believe a one-to-one mapping can be made from the contents of the Letters to the contents of Jenny’s mind. There is no comparison with contemporaries of similar background. No account of wider events taking place in the world. No analysis of Jenny’s cultural inheritance. He admits up front that psychologists are “two thousand years too late.” But at no point tries on any perspective not overtly psychological. What he fails to grasp is that sometimes—in fact, usually—the best way to understand a person is not to look directly at the person, but at their context.

Yet misunderstanding was probably not the main cause of Allport’s falling short of the goal he set himself. The greater cause is that he was attempting to do a legitimately hard thing. “The simple truth is that two authentic methods exist for the study of human personality—one in literature, the other in the science of psychology. A student of human character does well to follow both pathways.” Straddling this line was not just a problem for Allport. It was at the core of the Social Relations1 endeavor.

Another way to frame this problem is that while there may be two distinct intellectual cultures, there are three distinct goals.2 The two cultures are the sciences and the humanities. The goal of the former is to describe the way things are. The goal of the latter is to describe what things mean. The third goal is to describe how people behave, and it requires a mix of both of the other approaches: the nomothetic and the idiographic. The problem faced by Allport—and pretty much everyone at Soc Rel generally—was how to make statements about what things mean that would impress people interested in the way things are. This was the tension between the professional and the scholarly aims of psychology. It wants to be a science. It doesn’t always study things that are happy to sit still for scientific inquiry. The same was true of every area within the Department of Social Relations.

Allport concludes his analysis in Letters from Jenny with the disclosure that “no psychologist has a completely convincing answer to the riddle. Why does Jenny—why do many of us—persist in self-defeating conduct, no matter how many times we are punished for it? In extreme cases (Jenny’s included) we label the tendency neurotic. But a label does not explain.” Personally, I think Allport sensed the flimsiness of his enterprise. That after so many years of classroom discussion he was no closer to being able to put together a satisfying account of Jenny’s personality based on her Letters than he was after first reading them. Despite his keen desire, he could never quite put his finger on how to do it. If he had, maybe he would’ve been better equipped to make sense of the behavior of those in his more immediate vicinity. For instance, Harry Murray.3

In his own autobiographical writings, Allport motivates his professional life with Henri Bergson’s concept of a “personal idea”—that for every intellectually driven individual, there is one underlying idea at the core of their pursuits. “What then is my personal idea? I suppose it has to do with the search for a theoretical system—for one that will allow for truth wherever found, one that will encompass the totality of human experience and do full justice to the nature of man.” In other words, to give account of the personality system4 as it is embodied by an individual personality.

How should a life history be written?


Thanks for reading. I’m Cody Kommers, and this is my Substack in which I write about psychology, travel, and the science of meaningful experience. I’m a PhD student in social psych at Oxford. If you liked this piece, please consider sharing or subscribing. It’s a huge help in supporting this content. I really appreciate it.



When I wrote this piece, I intended it as part of a larger project on an interdisciplinary endeavor at Harvard, begun in 1946, called the Department of Social Relations. Allport was one of the founders. The point of Social Relations was, essentially, to address the problem Gordon was working on with the Letters: to capture the broadest, most humanistic understanding of a person in their social context. The Department was meant as a kind of end-all-be-all of the behavioral sciences, combining all Harvard’s best people from psychology, sociology, anthropology, as well as clinical work. I got a ways into the project before realizing I was neither willing to go the distance with it, nor fully capable of telling the story as I really hoped to. More on Social Relations to come.


I appropriated this idea from Louis Menand.


About whom much more, in my next biographical sketch.


This essay was original entitled “The Personality System”: one third of the tripartite division of topics at Social Relations, alongside the Social System and the Cultural System. As you may have noticed from the lack of reference to the “personality system” throughout, it wasn’t really a concept Allport bought into.


That’s it on my four part Gordon Allport bio sketch. I found him such an inspiring figure. From how much he despised graduate school, to his formative experiences abroad, to his dissatisfaction with psychology as “just” a science and his drive to connect it with a broader, more humanistic understanding of the person—he embodied so much of what I believe a psychologist should be. I’d love to know what you think. Reply to this email or leave a comment to let me know :)