I quite enjoyed Kristin Arthur’s recent article in Nine Points “Essence and the Enneagram, Revisited: A Reply to Mario Sikora’s ‘Endless Forms Most Beautiful’” but it seems Kristin made a few leaps of inference that don’t quite reflect my views.
It is incumbent upon the writer to ensure that the reader understands the writer’s points; I clearly failed to do so in my original article and I would like to offer a few clarifications regarding what I wrote in “Endless Forms Most Beautiful: Essence, Teleology, and the Enneagram.”1
- Yes, I did write that, like the concept of “species” in biology, the concept of “type” is a useful fiction, but I hardly call for abandoning or “excising” the term (or concept) from our discussions of the Enneagram. In fact, I find nothing as wearisome as the ongoing social media debates where people shout loudly about the evils of the word “type.” I very comfortably use “type” or “Ennea-type” in the colloquial manner because it seems pretty silly to have a conversation about the Enneagram without acknowledging that there are different “kinds” of people. “Type” is an imperfect concept, but it is the least imperfect concept I can think of when discussing people who share particular habitual tendencies.
My point is that we have to be careful in making strong claims that these are capital “E” Essential, ontological categories—let alone existing perfectly and eternally unchanged in some undefined realm (as Ichazo would seem to have it). The reality is that we don’t fully understand the mechanisms that result in the creation of Ennea-type. Human nature and the roots of our behaviors are incredibly complex and start long before birth (Robert Sapolksy’s “Behave” does a good job of pointing this out and every “Essentialist” should read it). Because of this, I suggest that the neo-Platonic explanation of our nature should be put into a historical context rather than used as an explanatory mechanism as it flies in the face of what we know through science.
Further, in the spirit of Kristin’s reference to McAdams and Pals and the “’canon’ in personality psychology”, we should embrace the dichotomy that we both are a “type” and we are also so much more. If one needs spiritual support for this idea, we can lean on Sunryu Suzuki’s aphorism that “the first mistake is to believe that there is a Self; the second mistake is to believe that there is not.” From a philosophical perspective we can turn to David Hume who, to grossly paraphrase, said that he went looking for a real self but could only find sensation (i.e., it was turtles all the way down), but that it is silly to act as if there is not a coherent and consistent self. Or, if we prefer cognitive science, we can use Michael Gazzaniga’s idea of the Interpreter Module, which serves to put coherent narratives around otherwise-incoherent aspects of the human condition.
All this to say that while the concept of “type” is merely a useful fiction, it would be silly to ignore it or try to get rid of it. Further, as these examples show, this is hardly an original insight.
- One might infer from Kristin’s article that I suggested that theological, philosophical, spiritual, or other “non-scientific” insights are of little value regarding the Enneagram and that the Enneagram must be “scientific.” I am not suggesting this at all and I stated the opposite explicitly in the original article. In fact, we are so far from a “scientific” explanation of the Enneagram that I personally have little interest in finding one. I applaud the work of others to find such an explanation, and in the spirit of searching for truth I will also point out when such explanations are flawed.
My view is that we need to ensure that we do not make fact claims or fail to let go of treasured hypotheses when science shows them to be false. Ichazo’s embrace of literal neo-Platonism and Wilber’s refusal to correct his errors regarding Darwin are examples of otherwise-powerful bodies of knowledge being undermined because of an unwillingness to acknowledge what we know through science and to revise assertions accordingly. I would also suggest that the holding on to outdated ideas is one of the reasons that both Wilber’s ideas and the Enneagram are not more-broadly accepted.
The Enneagram does not have to be “scientific” to be useful but any claims we make about it should not violate what we know through science. I have taught the Enneagram to skeptical audiences on five continents over the last 20 years and people embrace the model not because it is “scientifically proven” but because it is empirically true—people can see evidence of it in their daily lives. And given that I work with highly educated, data-driven, and pragmatic people, it helps that I don’t make claims that fly in the face of science. 2 For me, the Enneagram is akin to gravity—I don’t understand why it works and science has no good explanation for it, but I see it all around me and it seems crazy not to acknowledge it. When someone finally explains why gravity works the way it does I’ll think, “hmm, that’s interesting,” but life won’t change much; I feel the same about the Enneagram.
Beyond these two clarifying points, I applaud Kristin’s attempt to place the Enneagram in more-modern psychological theories of development. While it is not my personal goal to find an “explanation” for the Enneagram, I am happy that people are searching for one in thoughtful ways since I find those speculations that currently hold sway to be so unsatisfying. I have long been frustrated by the view “that a child is born in essence – receptive and nonreactive – and then develops a personality type as a defense or accommodation to the world” even when lip-service is paid to “built-in mechanisms.” Anyone who has been a parent, let alone read the current literature, knows that the roots of temperament are really, really complex and that much of who we are is baked in.
I’ve also long been troubled by the idea that there is a “false self” and a “real self,” which strikes me as overly simplistic and unnecessarily dualistic. Here’s hoping it ends up in the dustbin (or to be more generous, archives) of intellectual history.
Further, I’m often frustrated about how dogmatically some of these developmental hypotheses are grasped onto by their proponents when the claims they are making are so clearly non-falsifiable. Fact claims that can’t be tested and potentially proven to be untrue (i.e., falsified) are mere beliefs. As the late Christopher Hitchens was so fond of saying, opinions offered without evidence can be dismissed without evidence, and if the Enneagram tells us anything it is that we should be willing to let go of our beliefs.
In the meantime, as new ideas such as those of Kristin or Jack Killen et al are developed, we should keep in mind that many hypotheses regarding development may have very powerful metaphorical value, but we should hold our beliefs lightly and if we seek value beyond the metaphorical we should test any fact claims or speculations against what we know from science and abandon those that don’t make the cut.
1The article originally ran in the 2013 Enneagram Journal and can be found at http://www.awarenesstoaction.com/blog-enneagram-learning-international/?p=857&lang=en.
2For more on this, see my article “Matters of Objective Truth: Science and the Enneagram” here at Nine Points (http://www.ninepointsmagazine.org/matters-of-objective-truth-science-and-the-enneagram-mario-sikora/)