Preface to The Behavior of Persons

You hold in your hands that rarity: a true work of genius.

The Behavior of Persons is the capstone of an extraordinary construction, the summary of a life’s work devoted to a single task. What that task is, why it is worth accomplishing, and how it has been, in fact, accomplished are all matters explored at length in the book itself. This Preface is intended, not to summarize or preview the book, but rather to help the reader begin reading the book with some initial appreciation of its scope and its merit.

Peter G. Ossorio in his life’s work accomplished a monumental undertaking: he articulated the complex and fundamental conceptual structure known as the Person concept. Ossorio’s work has made it possible to talk clearly and accurately about matters of great significance: persons, behavior, community, language, and the real world within which all these have their place. All these, and more, are parts of this single conceptual structure. By articulating the Person concept in detail and with great rigor, Ossorio has laid the foundation for both a genuinely scientific study of behavior, and powerfully effective practical methods of functioning in these realms. Both of these claims are amply exemplified in this book.

Who, then, is Peter G. Ossorio? What has he contributed? How did he accomplish this monumental work? What is actually meant in calling it “a true work of genius?” And – perhaps the most obvious  question – why have you never heard of Ossorio or his work before? Let us attempt to create some understanding of these contextual questions before inviting you to begin the remarkable journey contained in The Behavior of Persons.

Peter G. Ossorio is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Colorado in Boulder. After receiving his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from UCLA in 1961, he joined the clinical psychology faculty in Boulder where he taught, supervised, mentored, wrote  and conducted research for his entire academic career, and where he founded a discipline that came to be known as Descriptive Psychology.

What is Descriptive Psychology? The short and most accurate answer is, read The Behavior of Persons and find out. But a longer and less exact answer seems called for  here. To begin with, the term “Descriptive Psychology” is a somewhat infelicitous compromise, which stuck only because no more useful or informative term could be found. Each word is both informative and misleading, to wit:

Descriptive. In his ground-breaking 1966 monograph, Persons, Ossorio found it necessary to address a prevailing misconception of the time, that “it’s all theory.” That is, anything anyone said about persons or behavior must be theoretical assertions. Ossorio vigorously pointed out that language in fact does not work that way, and further, that to make a theoretical assertion about any “something” you must first have a description of that “something” that reliably discriminates the “something” from other things it might be but is not. In other words, the task of describing accurately is a necessary precursor to theorizing – and “behavioral science” of the time had no place or method for describing behavior. Ossorio proceeded to articulate the conceptual structure within which descriptions of persons and behavior could be given, and in doing so demonstrated that, as Wittgenstein put it: “If you describe something well enough, there is often little left to explain.” So there is a point to the “Descriptive” term. But it can also be misleading. Descriptive Psychology is not essentially about giving descriptions of people and behavior (although that is done, and to good practical effect); it is more commonly and powerfully about articulating the conceptual structure and the methods available for describing accurately and in depth.

Psychology: If you were to tell someone at a holiday party that you were studying people and their behavior, chances are good they will say something like, “Oh, you mean psychology, right?” This ordinary language, common sense usage of the term is congruent with Ossorio’s approach. But the term “psychology”, as used in academic circles, carries with it a set of assumptions and commitments which are irrelevant or even antithetical to the Descriptive Psychology approach. Thus, many members of the Descriptive Psychology community find themselves in the awkward position of practicing Descriptive Psychology while at the same time needing to assert that they are not, in fact, psychologists at all.

Descriptive Psychology is an intellectual discipline, and a community of practitioners of that discipline. The discipline consists of a rigorous approach (1) to articulating the conceptual framework within which persons, behavior, language, communities and the real world can be described and understood, (2) to using that framework to in fact describe and understand, and (3) to using such descriptions and understanding to increase effectiveness in dealing within these realms.

Let us pause and reflect momentarily on the scope and import of the above statement. The actual and potential impact of  Peter Ossorio’s work, as found in this book, are indeed remarkable.

The community of practitioners of Descriptive Psychology consists of a hundred or so individuals, ranging from beginners to acknowledged masters. Ossorio founded the discipline and articulated its initial core, but many others have contributed, and continue to contribute, substantially to the substance and practice of Descriptive Psychology. This includes significant work in the fields of psychotherapy, clinical case formulation and diagnosis, the psychology of relationships, teaching of moral judgment, virtues, theology, spirituality, multicultural psychology, artistic and literary analysis, business management, marketing, organization theory and practice, artificial intelligence, and automatic document retrieval – and the list continues to grow.

How can one discipline – no matter how broad its conceptual scope – be useful in such a variety of realms? Understanding this requires us to dig a bit deeper into exactly how Ossorio approached his undertaking, and what his accomplishment amounts to.

Peter Ossorio did not invent the Person concept; he did not create it, nor did he discover it in any usual sense of that term. Ossorio has often used the example of language and grammar to illustrate what he was up to. The English language was not invented, created or discovered by grammarians – it existed in full long before anyone attempted to formulate or write down a grammar for it. Similarly, the Person concept has existed literally as long as there have been persons, and long before anyone tried to articulate it. In both cases, what observably and inarguably existed was competence: the competence of native speakers in speaking the language and recognizing both correct and incorrect usage, and the competence of persons being persons in a world of persons and their ways.

What Ossorio set out to do – and accomplished – was to articulate the conceptual structure implicit in this competence of persons. His consistent appeal in doing this work was not to authority or tradition or aesthetic standards or accepted methodology. His constant appeal was to our shared competence as persons ourselves, and from this he built the extraordinary structure contained in The Behavior of Persons. And it is within his choice of approach that Ossorio’s true genius lies.

I want to make very clear the sense in which I am using the term “genius” to assess Ossorio and his work. I do not use that term lightly. Current usage of the term “genius” has become debased over time through progressive inflation. Like the dollar, which once got you a complete meal and which will now not even buy a cup of coffee, the term we once reserved for the likes of Bach and DaVinci and Einstein is currently applied to football coaches who discover a new wrinkle in pass coverage or any musician whose second CD goes platinum. In assessing The Behavior of Persons as a work of true genius, I am using the term in its older, more significant usage.

Let me be more exact. In music, composers were traditionally called “genius” in one of two circumstances. Either their work was accomplished within the forms and conventions they inherited, within which they created masterworks – J.S. Bach is an example of this type of genius – or else they reinvented the forms they received, shattering conventions and creating works unlike any heard before, and once heard, impossible to ignore. Beethoven is the classic example of this type of genius.

I believe Ossorio will prove to be the Beethoven of behavioral science. Once you have read The Behavior of Persons, you will never again see the tasks or substance of behavioral science in the light you see it now – nor will you be able to ignore his example. That is a mark of true genius.

We are left with one last question: if this is such revolutionary stuff, why have you never heard of it before now? The answer to that question says very little about Descriptive Psychology and a great deal about the state of academic behavioral science over the past forty years. Ossorio himself addressed this issue in detail on a number of occasions, particularly in his seminal work “What Actually Happens”: The Representation of Real World Phenomena. It would be tedious and essentially pointless to reiterate those arguments here. For our purposes, let the following metaphor suffice.

The American composer Phillip Glass as a student became enamored of Ravi Shankar’s Indian classical music. This music was performed, not written, so Glass attempted to write it down using the centuries-old Western notational devices. He found that he could not do it – somehow, the music didn’t fit. He consulted Shankar himself about his dilemma; the Indian master suggested that he write down the music without using the traditional lines on the score breaking the music into measures. This was literally nonsense to Glass: all the music he had ever seen was written down in measures. Everyone knew that without measures there was no music. He tried, failed, and abandoned the attempt.

Years later, when Glass broke with the compositional traditions in which he had been trained and began to compose in a new form, he found that the only effective way to notate the music he was composing was to eliminate the lines between measures.

Peter Ossorio began, metaphorically, by eliminating the lines between the measures. To academics of his time, this was literally nonsense – everybody knew that you can’t do behavioral science without measures. To which we can now simply reply: actually, you can. Here it is.

“What Actually Happens” begins with the intentionally provocative line: “Sometimes it is better just to make a fresh start.” In that and other works Ossorio made that fresh start. In The Behavior of Persons, we have his report of the completed undertaking. Ossorio has done his work. It is now up to the rest of us to build on it.

I invite you to join us in doing so. The book in your hands is a great place to start.

Anthony O. Putman, Ph.D.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
March, 2006

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