What is Descriptive Psychology?

Ossorio: Here is another question for you. [Laughter] "How do you answer the question ĎWhat is Descriptive Psychology?í when posed by a layman, that is, somebody who is not particularly dissatisfied with traditional psychology? There is a comment that says I take it that many beginning psychology students are like this and beginning is underlined.

Would you believe it has been many years since anybody asked me that question? So when it comes to how do you, I donít, because I donít get the question. However, if we allow ourselves to slip into the subjunctive, and say how would youÖ Let me give you the kind of answer that appeals to me most right now.

Oh, by the way, I was wrong. I have gotten the question, "What is Descriptive Psychology?" from laymen. I just say, "It is a kind of psychology." Period. And that satisfies them, because what would they know? [Laughter]

Audience: You are being deceptive.

Ossorio: No, it is a kind of psychology.

Audience: Are you comfortable that it is psychology?

Ossorio: No. [Laughter] Yes and no. It is psychology, in that you can use it to do the work of a psychologist without changing it. Itís already in that form. So, why not say it is a psychology? On the other hand, since you can also use it to do all kinds of other things, in that sense it is not just a psychology. I think of it more as an intellectual discipline, a way of thinking rather than a subject matter.

Let me tell you the kind of answer that appeals to me. Philosophers particularly have always bugged me and it always comes out in the same form. Where does this theme you call Descriptive Psychology fit in the scheme of things? And until fairly recently, I just give them the back of my hand. I say "Forget that shit. Here it is." [Laugher] You can do it if youíve got tenure. [Laughter]

But, if you think of the general nature of status dynamics and the dramaturgical model, the central notion is the place that something has in the scheme of things. And that to me legitimizes that question on their part that theyíve been asking down through the years and Iíve been sloughing off. And in the last, maybe half dozen years, I have tried to think of what would be a good story line that would tell them where it fits in the scheme of things or at least give them something that satisfies them on that score. And the best thing I have come across, and I think it is reasonably good, is to compare it to somebody who is writing the grammar of English.

See, natural language has this peculiar feature that you have two year olds and three year olds running around speaking English. Itís that easy. Itís that universal. Kids know how to speak English by age three. On the other hand, if you ask yourself, "What is it that they know when they know how to speak English?", you wind up with a tome that thick and you still havenít finished.

I would say the situation is parallel when it comes to being a person. Those of you who have kids will recognize that infants become kids even sooner than they learn to speak. They become visibly human even earlier than the ages of which they learn to speak and they continue to develop as persons. Obviously they werenít born with it. Itís not an instinct. Itís not simply a matter of maturation. Obviously itís something they learned. And they learned by growing up among persons. Now, like language, itís easy, so easy that every kid does it essentially. But, what happens when you try to say what was it that they learned that enables them to be persons? Once more you wind up with a tome and itís not finished yet.

So the task is to systematize in the form of knowledge, what we already have in the form of competence. We already know how to do it. We already know how to be persons but, when it comes to what is it we know, thatís where the task is. So, one of the major characteristics of Descriptive Psychology is undertaking that task of formulating what it is that kids acquire that makes them persons, and that is the Person Concept. Secondly, the other half of Descriptive is applying that formulation to deal with problems. So thereís at least these two major pieces: the formulation piece and continually working on refining, extending, etc., and applying it to problems of real life importance.

I take that back. Let me pull a switch on you and talk about something else for a minute. My company is what is known as a Web company. It does Internet work, and it does Internet work on a business to business basis. And what our CEO says is something like this: "We donít solve problems that companies have. We show them how to make more money by doing business on the Internet. You donít have to have a problem. Weíll show you how to make more money on the Internet." So weíre not just a problem solving company. There is a positive end to it.

Well, similarly when it comes to applying Descriptive Psychology. Itís not just problem solving. There is a positive end to it. Itís for self affirmation or liberation, those kinds of things. Once youíve shown the fly the way out of the fly bottle, the skyís the limit. So thatís the other half. There are these two major pieces in Descriptive Psychology. I think that the notion of writing the grammar of English is almost perfect as the parallel. Itís not even a metaphor. Itís almost exactly the same task.

Now one of the values of that is it answers an implicit question. In fact, it answers several. One is "Why is it so difficult and complicated?" Well everyone knows how complicated the grammar of English is and language is only a piece of the picture of persons. So if that one piece is as complicated as we know it to be, just imagine how complicated the whole thing is.

Secondly, it answers another implicit question, namely, "Who the hell do you think you are to sit down and write down what you claim is the grammar of persons?" And again the precedent is in the grammar of English because the ultimate criterion for the grammar of English is the native English speaker. Itís all in his head. Any one of us has it all in our heads. Any one of us could sit down by ourselves and write the grammar of English because we have it in our heads. Itís just as I sometimes say itís not there in computer readable form. [Laughter]

Audience: Thereís no theory.

Ossorio: Right. So it is a kind of task that in principle is all in somebodyís head and it only remains to pull it out and put it in the right form.

Audience: Nevertheless, that type of talent for inventing symbolic representation for competence is very rare.

Ossorio: No, not many people would dare write the grammar of English just by sitting down and writing it. But, in principle you see any one of us could. In effect the logic of that gives any one of us the authority as a native English speaker or as a person to say "Here's the rules of the game". The closing sentence in the introductory chapter in The Behavior of Persons is, "In these matters, I speak for us." I have the authority to speak for us because Iím a competent player of the game. Anyone of us has that authority. Any competent player of the game has that authority.

Now once you get beyond that you get into the details of "Yeah, but you know you can have disagreements", and "Sure, there are ways of resolving them." Itís not as though everything goes smoothly.

Audience: [inaudible]

Ossorio: Yeah, and sometimes you find out the hard way that you were wrong, but thatís why you have peers. Thatís why you need a social group. Everybody acts as a check on everybody. Nobody is just out there in left field by himself.

Audience: What was the question again?

Ossorio: What is Descriptive Psychology?

Audience: And the answer? [Laughter]

Audience: He very nicely led us down a similar path.

Audience: If you were to do it all in one sentence, what would that look like?

Ossorio: Itís another psychology. [Laughter]

Audience: Descriptive Psychology is the grammar of being a person?

Ossorio: Yeah.

Audience: I like that.

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© 1999 Peter G. Ossorio