Plans of the Psyche

People carry around a lot of different mental models of what “a person” is, and frequently resort to diagrams to explain themselves.

The most common one I encountered while growing up was a series of concentric circles neatly dividing a person into separate realms of “body”, “soul” and “spirit”.

Simple Trichotomy
Simple Trichotomy

What intentional and unintentional statements does this diagrams make? For example, what exactly are we supposed to learn from the Spirit being a small circle inside of the Soul? Are we supposed to think the spirit is a subset of the soul? If so, how do we know this? If not, isn’t the diagram somewhat deceptive?

Here’s one which moves the elements around a bit and attempts to fit in the concepts of “Mind” and “Heart” too.

Human Reshuffled
The Soul Reshuffled

As you might be able to tell from the terms in the labels, Christians often use these diagrams as “Biblical” explanations of particular teachings; but although the Bible differentiates between some of these terms in some cases, there is nothing about “the soul” or “the spirit” or “the heart” to be found in it which resembles these or any other diagrams.

Antoine Fabre d’Olivet thought about it and came up with this:

Constitution of Man according to d'Olivet

Whether intentionally or not, all these diagrams look like products of mathematics and geometry. Except that the statements being made are about things which, unlike math and geometry, do not have observable proportions or relationships.

Psychologists have their own famous diagrams:

Freud's diagram of the Id and Ego The Jungian Psyche

These don’t seem as much like graphed equations. Maybe they’re supposed to be like anatomical drawings?

Drawing from Kaishi Hen (Analysis of Cadavers), 1772
Drawing from Kaishi Hen (Analysis of Cadavers), 1772

Or perhaps they’re like metaphysical “maps”:

Map of Antelope Springs Cave in Fillmore, Utah Map of Cave Rat Cave in Pendleton County, West Virginia

But both anatomical and cartographical drawings depend on some kind of measurable observation. We still have no objective way of surveying the psyche. Supposing we could, the very act of doing so would alter its landscape.

In the end, there’s no way I, or anyone, can come up with a “plan” of all the metaphysical aspects of a person that will be of any use to you except as an illustration of my own very subjective ideas.

And perhaps that’s all that Freud and Jung and the Christians were trying to do with these diagrams; maybe they just wanted to illustrate their ideas about our spiritual/psychological makeup. The problem is in dressing up their subjective ideas in the visual style of objective science, when they were not scientifically derived.

There is a better language for creating these kinds of subjective illustrations. It’s called Art.

'The Thinker' by Renoir
‘The Thinker’ by Renoir

'Monk by the Sea' by Caspar David Friedrich
‘Monk by the Sea’ by Caspar David Friedrich

A person’s psyche1 is a changing mix of thousands of ingredients, including past versions of itself. It may not be possible to diagram a person’s psyche in the same way you would diagram their kidneys — I certainly don’t think it is. It may only be possible to describe it “in portrait,” from select angles. By resorting to art for this purpose, rather than to science, we are being honest with ourselves; we admit that our perspectives on people are limited, complex, and coloured.

I believe that if you could sit and contemplate either of these paintings2 (or high-quality reproductions), you would learn truer things — maybe not about all human souls, but about at least two particular souls — than you would from any pseudoscientific diagram.

  1. That is, the whole conscious and unconscious being of a person — everything not physically observable. When Christians say “soul” or “spirit”, they generally mean the same thing that Plato meant by Psyche. 
  2. I’m not trying to convey anything terribly nuanced by using these two particular paintings; I just selected two that had individual (vs group) subjects and whose perspective seemed personal and emotional. 

Plans of the psyche based on scientific data can be traced back to Francis Galton1, whose work on individual differences eventually led to the development of psychometrics , or psychological measurement. While Galton focused on intelligence, other researchers started to construct inventories of words that described how we differ in our behaviors, or our personalities.

The main insight of 20th century research is that personality is not typological: rather than introverts and extraverts2, introversion–extraversion is a continuous dimension. That is, there are a few on the extremes, most of us fall somewhere in the middle. While there is still debate on the exact number and nature of these dimensions,3 contemporary research has settled on just five: neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.

These dimensions, while fundamental to our behavioral dispositions and our reactions to situations, do not capture everything that it is to be a person. One theory4 holds that these basic tendencies feed into other aspects of who we are, including characteristic adaptations (our motivations and social roles) and self-concepts, which in turn create or shape our personal histories and identities.5

These scientific plans of the psyche are still crude6, yet to me they convey their own precise beauty.

1 Galton, F. (1892). Hereditary genius: an inquiry into its laws and consequences. London, Macmillan.

2 While in everyday usage the spelling is extrovert, corrupted presumably by the intro- prefex, psychologists still retain the original spelling.

3 GS Acton, Great Ideas in Personality: Five-Factor Model and PEN Model

4 RR McCrae, The Physics and Chemistry of Personality, Theory & Psychology, 2009; McAdams, D., & Pals, J. (2006). A New Big Five. American Psychologist, 61, 204–217.

5 See a schematic of this theory at my blog.

6 For example, they don’t describe very well how personality grows and is shaped by experience.

Mark Adams

Possibly the most explicit connection that has been attempted between the soul and a mathematical representation: Diagrams from Geometrical psychology, or, The science of representation: an abstract of the theories and diagrams of B. W. Betts (1887) by Louisa S. Cook, which details New Zealander Benjamin Bett’s remarkable attempts to mathematically model the evolution of human consciousness through geometric forms.

Source: The Public Domain Review; view the diagrams or read the full book.

Joel Dueck (Author)

In this piece I propose that Art is the best way to illustrate subjective ideas about our spiritual or psychological makeup. I have made use of this concept in another post, Your Choice, in which abstract paintings are used as visual metaphors for how people’s desires and motivations are layered, varied, complex, and occasionally conflicting.

Joel (Author)