ORGANISMIC THEORY

A holistic theory of personality developed primarily by Kurt Goldstein (1879-1965).Organismic theory views the individual as a totality and emphasizes the integration of personality. Although its roots go back to Aristotle, the modem formulation stems largely from two sources: the Gestalt approach in general and, more specifically, a study of brain-injured soldiers during World War I. Gestalt psychology holds that the mind has a basic tendency to organize experience into patterns and configurations, and Goldstein applied this principle to the study of personality when he found that the symptoms of braindamaged individuals could be understood only when they were viewed as a manifestation of the organism as a whole, and not as products of a particular lesion or illness. This observation led to the more general theory that any event whatever, either psychological or physiological, occurs within the context of the total organism and must be viewed in a holistic light.Goldstein was basically opposed to the atomization of experience into reflexes, stimulus-response bonds, or any other isolated components. He believed that the key to the normal personality lies in its unity, consistency, and organization; in contrast, the pathological personality is fragmented and disorganized. The unity that resides in any particular individual can only be appreciated and understood by seeing every aspect of his functioning together: his performances (conscious, voluntary activities); his attitudes, feelings, and inner experiences; and the way his body functions. According to Goldstein, more is to be gained from an intensive, holistic study of a single individual than from any statistical study of groups, a point of view that has made his approach more popular among clinicians than among experimental psychologists.Organismic theory explains personality largely in terms of one basic principle: human beings are guided by a sovereign drive for self-actualization or self-realization. Goldstein maintained that each individual tries to fulfill his inherent potentialities in the most complete way open to him. Like Rousseau, he believed that natural man is good, but his environment can be a detriment since it often prevents him from acting according to his inherent nature. Yet in spite of obstacles, the human being has an urge for self-realization which gives unity and direction to his life, motivating him to select activities and experiences which contribute to his growth.The master motive, self-actualization, underlies all other drives. According to the organismic theory it is the only motive we have, but it is expressed in many ways because different people have different innate potentialities and develop within different cultures and environments. Thus any drive that fulfills and replenishes the individual is a form of self-actualization, whether it be sex, hunger, power, or achievement, but each person develops his own pattern of drives to call upon as he needs them. According to Goldstein, this process is largely a conscious one. He views the unconscious as primarily an area to which these drives recede until they again become useful for self-realization (Goldstein, 1939).Although self-actualization is primary in the organismic theory, a second concept also plays an important part. To explain the coherence, consistency, and orderliness he found in the human personality, Goldstein invoked the principle of equalization. He believed the organism has a basic tendency to maintain an average, balanced state—for example, if we hear a noise to the right of us, we turn in that direction in order to equalize the distribution of energy which was upset by the noise. Similarly, we bring ourselves back to a normal temperature by turning on an electric fan when it is hot; and in the emotional sphere, we let off steam by talking a blue streak when we are tense. In each of these instances disturbing influences throw us out of gear and we do what we can to regain our equilibrium.Both of these concepts, self-actualization and equalization, recognize the importance of the environment. It is the medium which provides both the obstacles and the opportunities affecting growth. We must “come to terms” with our particular environment—on our own terms or on its terms. The more effective individuals are able to master their environment and utilize it for growth and self-realization; the less effective merely accept it and adjust to it. The process of growing and mastering the environment is not a static affair, however, for in the course of our development we go through different stages, face different tasks, and have to reorganize our attitudes and behavior according to new requirements. This calls for a flexible but integrated approach to life if we are to remain normal. The pathological individual isolates one process from the total pattern of life and develops a fixed habit, for instance, of aggression or submission, which he employs in all circumstances, whether it is appropriate or not.Many criticisms have been leveled at the organismic theory. The concept of self-actualization is too general and cannot be put to experimental test. The inner growth and maturation of the individual are stressed so much that the effects of learning are minimized. The emphasis on uniqueness of personality and on qualitative evaluation precludes the use of standardized objective tests. Nevertheless, the general approach of holism is widely employed today, and Goldstein has undoubtedly contributed greatly to its acceptance. It is largely due to his work that clinicians recognize the value of an intensive study of the individual patient in his natural setting instead of limiting themselves to the usual diagnostic tests.

Cite this page: N., Pam M.S., "ORGANISMIC THEORY," in PsychologyDictionary.org, November 28, 2018, https://psychologydictionary.org/organismic-theory/ (accessed May 19, 2019).
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