The Matrix of Personality: A Whiteheadian Corroboration of Harry Stack Sullivan’s Interpersonal Theo

by Thomas J. Regan

Thomas J. Regan, S.J. Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Fairfield University, Fairfield, CT 06430. He teaches courses in the areas of social and political philosophy.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp.189-198, Vol.19, Number 3, Fall, 1990. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The author addresses the ongoing dialogue between process thought and psychotherapy by corroborating some of the central features of Harry Stack Sullivan’s interpersonal theory of psychiatry in light of Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophical insights about the nature of reality.

David E. Roy’s article "The Value of the Dialogue Between Process Thought and Psychotherapy" (PS 14:158-74) ably suggested a number of significant areas where process thought and psychotherapy might interact to their mutual advantage. This essay attempts to make a contribution to that ongoing dialogue by corroborating some of the central features of Harry Stack Sullivan’s interpersonal theory of psychiatry in light of Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophical insights about the nature of reality. Surprisingly, such an effort might be welcomed by Sullivan himself. In explicating his own notion of "dynamism" Sullivan notes that, "Whitehead, among the philosophers, has conceived the universe as an organism, and certainly there is no difficulty in seeing living organisms as particular dynamisms." He then quotes from Process and Reality to illustrate his point further (ITP 102).

Whitehead did not focus to any great extent on the subject of psychology as such, but tended to discuss psychological topics more in terms of particular exemplifications of his larger schema. Nonetheless, one can find numerous insights scattered throughout his writings which coincide to a remarkable degree with Sullivan’s clinically oriented observations.1

In order to show how an understanding of each’s thought might lead to a better appreciation of both, the present article will be broken down into four parts, each dealing with a subject of mutual concern to the two respective thinkers. Part one will examine the extent to which both thinkers were influenced by the insights of contemporary physics in formulating their view of the human person. Next, after briefly outlining Sullivan’s thought-provoking stages of personality development, part two will discuss some of Whitehead’s writings on the subject, revealing the extent to which he had already anticipated many of the features that Sullivan describes. Part three will then highlight the significance that each thinker assigns to the role of language. This particular topic is singled out, in so far as it plays a key role for understanding both Whitehead’s notion of personal maturation and Sullivan’s theory of mental disorders. Finally, part four will touch on some areas of clinical interest that might profit from an application of what has been learned in this Whitehead/ Sullivan dialogue. Overall, this study reveals, as Sullivan himself recognized, the potential of Whitehead’s process philosophy as a means of providing a coherent theoretical ground for contemporary psychiatry.2


Unlike philosophers who can sometimes get lost in mazes of hypothetical ideas, psychiatrists must deal with concrete individuals. In order to treat their patients, however, psychiatrists must tacitly rely upon some operative model of the self and of the personality. This theoretical framework necessarily entails a whole matrix of assumptions and theories about what a healthy, normal human person should be, and some criteria for determining and assessing desirable modes of interpersonal relationships. For example, the model which guided Freud’s pioneering work was heavily influence by Newtonian physics, and especially by the research of Hermann von Helmholtz. This orientation enabled Freud to theorize about human persons analogically as though they were steam engines, in which finite amounts of energy had to be accounted for within a closed system. Common Freudian terms such as "resistance," ‘repression," "displacement," etc., clearly reveal his theoretical commitment.

Following classical mechanics, Freud emphasized the independence of individuals and stressed that direct contact was necessary to explain human actions. Subsequently, just as Clerk Maxwell’s field theory revolutionized the mechanical conception of physics by suggesting that action and reaction could take place anywhere within a given field of electrical energy even without the objects having to be in direct contact with one another, so too, Sullivan, drawing upon Maxwell’s in-sights, drastically challenged the underpinnings of Freud’s instinctual drive theory, by placing greater emphasis on the notions of relation and interdependence.

Rather than envisioning the individual personality as an object for study as though it were an independent, discrete entity, Sullivan believed that personality manifests itself only in relation to others. These others could be actual living persons, or else personifications derived from them, such as dream images or the characters created by a child’s imagination. To suggest, however, that an individual personality could be discussed in vacuo would be to fall prey to what Whitehead described as the "fallacy of misplaced concreteness" (SMW 75). To both thinkers, personality can only be viewed as a relational term. In Sullivan’s words, "personality is the relatively enduring pattern of recurrent interpersonal situations which characterize a human life" (ITP 110). Investigating these observable patterns constitutes the nature of the psychiatric enterprise.

If personality is a relation, then it remains to be seen precisely what is related. Confronting this topic reveals the extent to which Sullivan’s fundamental assumptions came into conflict with those of Freud. In order to explain human behavior more adequately Sullivan found it necessary to replace what he called Freud’s "mechanism" with his own concept of "dynamism." This he defined as "the relatively enduring pattern of energy transformations which recurrently characterize the organism in its duration as a living organism" (ITP 103). According to his model, personality is conceived as a dynamic living organism made up of a number of interacting dynamisms and subdynamisms recognizable by a recurring pattern of identity. To explain more fully what he meant by the term "pattern," Sullivan invoked his own original definition, namely "a pattern is the envelope of insignificant particular differences" (ITP 104). Thus, the human organism is not a fixed, static object enduring self-identically through time but rather an ongoing dynamic relationship composed of component dynamisms in a continuous state of flux or process. A sense of personal identity is preserved, albeit always in an approximate manner, because of the similarities which are manifested in the pattern over time.

Any comprehensive understanding of an individual must include the range and scope of the dynamisms and subdynamisms which constitute that individual’s pattern of life. "Any living organism," Sullivan wrote, "must be considered in terms of three ultimate factors: its communal existence with a necessary environing medium; its organization; and its functional activity" (ITP 98). By emphasizing this three-fold approach, Sullivan’s theory went well beyond Freud’s by insisting that the domain of psychiatry be augmented with insights contributed from social psychology and psychobiology. Obviously, when one expands the matrix within which personality must be situated, there are significant ramifications for clinical practice. Not only must one view the individual patient as an operating biological organism, one must also seek to understand both the environing medium for that person, which includes all other persons with whom functional activity occurs, and the specific culture that to a large extent shapes the perceptual patterns by which that individual experiences the world. Consequently, in psychotherapy, therapists and patients together must attempt to come to terms with the whole range of relationships manifested in these three areas.3

Before turning to Whitehead’s thought, it will be necessary to refer to two more concepts which will help to illuminate this brief look at Sullivan’s theory of personality. The first of these is a secondary dynamism which Sullivan ultimately came to call the self-system. Sullivan classified the self-system as secondary "in that it does not have any particular zone of interaction, any particular physiological apparatus, behind it; but literally uses all zones of interaction and all physiological apparatus which is integrative and meaningful from the interpersonal standpoint" (ITP 164).

The purpose of the self-system is to maximize the potential for well being and minimize the presence of tension or anxiety within the organism, which arises from either organic needs or social insecurity. Its development is brought about by its reflective assessment of the educative experiences of approbation and disapproval.

As the self-system emerges, three aspects of interpersonal cooperation or personifications begin to appear based upon the infant’s interaction with the mother. When interpersonal experiences result in an increase of tenderness or the expression of approval, the infant begins to develop the feeling of "good me." Conversely, if the pattern of behavior increases interpersonal tension and creates feelings of anxiety for the infant, the personification of "bad me" surfaces. The third personification, however, goes well beyond the normal levels of anxiety that would be generated by the first two personifications. This "not me" response may be encountered in a dream, in an a schizophrenic episode, or in instances of grave mental disorders. "Not me" reflects an aspect of the self that is usually poorly grasped, and that reveals elements the conscious subject finds loathsome. The way a person deals with the anxiety which accompanies this surprising revelation is simply to block it out and deny its source, thus taking refuge behind the "not me" aspect of the self-system. A healthy personality utilizes these three modes of security operations, which might also be classified as learned modes of responding, not only to seek and maintain levels of emotional stability. but to ensure that the organism continually strives for the maximization of pleasure in interpersonal settings.4

Another equally important concept for Sullivan’s overall theory is his notion of unawareness or selective inattention.5 As a person interacts with the environment, a plethora of data is available for assimilation into one’s conscious perspective. When certain elements of that data threaten to increase the person’s anxiety levels, a conscious choice may be made to unattend to what is presented and thus maintain emotional stability. Unlike Freud, who saw unconscious motivations functioning autonomously behind such a process, Sullivan believed that this exclusionary procedure was fundamentally conscious and could be revealed to be so through the simply interpersonal activities of conversation and observation. This basic concept enables one to explain why certain persons seem totally oblivious to aspects of their environment which appear obvious to others. Like the notion of the self-system, it provides Sullivan with an additional mode of explaining how the personality incorporates data into a dynamic model of experience.

To those familiar with Whiteheadian metaphysics, Sullivan’s views may seem quite familiar. By virtue of his own research Sullivan arrived at the same fundamental vision about the nature of reality that Whitehead professed and molded it quite independently into a viable personality theory, suitable for use in psychotherapy. Sullivan’s model can easily be restated using Whitehead’s conceptual terminology of concrescences, actual entities, societies and nexus. Essentially, in conceptualizing the human person, Sullivan, like Whitehead, rejects a model of personality which relies upon a "morphology of stuff" and insists on one that accentuates the dynamic theme of process. Moreover, by emphasizing the notion that personality was the sum total of its constitutive relationships and was subject to the interpersonal forces at work in a given field of energy, Sullivan was expressing in psychological terms the more complicated notions entailed in Whitehead’s discussion of the extensive continuum.6

When encountering Sullivan’s three dimensional understanding of the human person, a Whiteheadian might immediately recall a similar triad in Religion In the Making where Whitehead suggests that religious self-consciousness dawns when an individual consciously realizes the confluence of three allied conceptions, namely,

(1) that of the value of an individual for itself; (2) that of the value of the diverse individuals of the world for each other; and (3) that of the value of the objective world which is a community derivative from the interrelations of its component individuals, and also necessary for the existence of each of these individuals. (RM59)

This similarity of thinking and mode of expression reflects not only Whitehead and Sullivan’s general affinity of thought, it reveals on a much deeper level their mutual commitment to the same view of the human person. Where Sullivan speaks of the body in terms of interacting dynamisms and subdynamisms, Whitehead says, "the body is composed of various centres of experience imposing the expression of themselves on each other" (MT 32).

Sullivan’s notions of the self-system and of selective inattention bring to the fore two other Whiteheadian notions which might be singled out. Each relies on the presupposition that the present moment contains within it the sum total of the past to that point. For Whitehead, as indeed for Sullivan, the present always seeks to maximize the greatest actualization of value which can be attained from the data available in that actual world.

A fuller understanding of what Whitehead means by "actual world" would help one to contextualize the matrix within which the formation of security operations by an organism occur. Governed by its subjective aim, a concrescence will naturally follow the historic routes which have led to previous satisfactions and avoid those which have minimized or trivialized value realization. Sullivan’s sympathetic view of Whitehead’s model might be suggested by his frequent use of the term "prehension" to explain how an organism reacts to the data of its past (see ITP 28n, 76-77, 141). Furthermore, his concept of unawareness or selective inattention represents a creative clinical application of Whitehead’s notion of negative prehension.

The enumeration of similarities between Sullivan’s and Whitehead’s thoughts on personality could easily go on, but it seems unnecessary to belabor the obvious. While both men sought to implement a dynamic view of experience, Whitehead chose to focus on the microcosmic level which resulted in his philosophy of organism, whereas Sullivan devoted his efforts to the particular realm of human existence which yielded his interpersonal theory of psychiatry. One can therefore read Sullivan’s theory as a subset of Whitehead’s ontology or conversely see it as a concretization of what is only implicitly stated in Whiteheads vision. In any event, there appears to be good reason to believe that a study of both will further enhance one’s understanding and appreciation of each’s respective theory.


One of the features of Sullivan’s theory that substantially departs from that of Freud’s is his approach to the stages of personality development. Here too, one can see a real affinity between Sullivan’s thought and the sentiments expressed in Whitehead’s philosophy of organism. After briefly highlighting the Sullivanian stages, we will consider relevant views of Whitehead which must be garnered from references scattered throughout the entire corpus. In the face of both thinkers’ categorical denial that there is any such thing as a substantial self which endures throughout the constant process of transition, our task at hand will be to present their developmental insights in a language and style which truly captures the dynamic thrust of their views.

As a result of his work with schizophrenics, Sullivan gradually rejected not only Freud’s emphatic insistence on the exclusive causal role of libidinal energy but also his stages of personality development. To Sullivan’s mind it is interpersonal relationships, not the flow of sexual energy, that play the crucial role in the formation of ones personality, and continue to do so well beyond the limited timeframe envisioned by Freud.7 The first crucial stage in a person’s development Sullivan terms infancy which lasts from birth up to the appearance of articulate speech. During this period, the importance of the maternal relationship, especially with respect to the beginnings of the self-system, cannot be underestimated. This stage is followed by childhood, which persists until the infant manifests a need to move beyond the immediate parental relationship to seek other children as playmates. The juvenile stage, which is characterized by a need for more extensive relationships among one’s peer group, then takes over and dominates personality development throughout one’s early years in school up to and including the initial awareness of one’s sexual identity.

In a series of lectures given in 1939, Sullivan broke down his fourth stage of adolescence into the three subcategories of preadolescence, early adolescence, and late adolescence. The first stresses the need to move beyond mere peer relationships to the formation of an intimate friendship with a person of the same sex. Sullivan emphasizes the importance of this friend by taking the common word "chum" and making it a clinical term.8 By calling this relationship an "intimate" friendship, Sullivan means that the well-being of the other person is perceived to be as important as one’s own. The self-confidence that one gains in this stage serves as a great resource when the need for intimacy takes on a heterosexual focus as puberty ushers in the beginnings of early adolescence.

Unlike Freud, Sullivan thought that it was not until early adolescence that sexuality began to play a major formative role in shaping personality. Consistent with his dynamic orientation, Sullivan speaks of the lust dynamism as a means of conveying the whole range of sexual feelings and urges which begin to influence the organism. He points out, however, that this dynamism is but one of several operative forces and must be augmented with others -- the development of the interpersonal skills necessary to form relationships with persons of the opposite sex being perhaps the most important.

The transition into late adolescence comes not when some level of biological maturation or chronological age has been reached, but rather when an individual achieves and masters those stable patterns of sexual fulfillment and interpersonal relationship which Sullivan thought characteristic of mature adulthood. For some this transition is never made successfully and life in an adolescent mode persists.

In keeping with his dynamic views, Sullivan believed that personality was never fixed and was always subject to the modifications occasioned by new interpersonal settings. He claimed, however, that the patterns which were established in the four stages outlined above did have significant effects on how the dynamisms of personality subsequently related to the environment and how the organism as a whole was able to process data. Any major inability to negotiate these stages or to experience in a positive manner the specific interpersonal dimensions demarcated by each stage became the material for psychiatric investigation.

While a full exposition of Sullivan’s developmental stages lies well beyond the scope of the present essay, it would be beneficial here, in concluding this precis of Sullivan’s theory, to stress that the fundamental process of normal interpersonal development continues into the late twenties and possibly into one’s early thirties. On this point, Whitehead and Sullivan would be in complete agreement, as evidenced by the following quotations, which perhaps can serve as a convenient opportunity to turn to a consideration of Whitehead’s thought. In his presidential address to the Mathematical Association of England in 1916, Whitehead offered these two observations: "We have to remember that the valuable intellectual development is self development, and that it mostly takes place between the ages of sixteen and thirty," and "It is not what they are at eighteen, it is what they become afterwards that matters" (AE 1).

Although most philosophers would generally be familiar with the stages of romance, precision, and generalization, espoused in Whitehead’s philosophy of education, few would tend to think of him as a developmentalist. Nonetheless, having seen his affinities with Sullivan’s thought in part one, there should be no surprise to learn that there is ample evidence scattered throughout his writings to suggest that Whitehead, himself, envisioned an approximate schema of personality development.

Like Sullivan, Whitehead stresses the importance of interpersonal relations in one’s overall development. But in keeping with his more ontological focus, he appears to be far more sensitive to the need for integrating all the environmental factors. Regarding specific stages based on the text, or what Whitehead might prefer to call "rhythmic cycles" one might argue for the following configuration, which appears very Sullivanian in character: Infancy, Adolescence, Youth, Particularized-Self-Transcendence, Peace. According to Whitehead, present within each of these cycles are the stages of romance, precision, and generalization.

The tasks of infancy are first to learn the differentiation of objects; second to master spoken language; and third, to be able to use that language for a classified and enlarged enjoyment of objects (see, AE 31). A child is approximately eleven years old when the three phases of the first cycle are completed. Then, writes Whitehead, "The first cycle of infancy is succeeded by the cycle of adolescence, which opens with by far the greatest stage of romance which we ever experience" (AE 33-34). The importance which Whitehead attached to this phase for the overall development of one’s personality can be gauged from his remark, "How the child emerges from the romantic stage of adolescence is how the subsequent life will be molded by ideals and colored by imagination" (AE 34). This second cycle comes to an end around the age of fifteen, when the cycle of youth makes its presence felt. A discussion of this cycle occupies a good portion of the closing chapter in Adventures of Ideas. "The deepest definition of Youth is, Life as yet untouched by tragedy . . .[it] is distinguished for its whole hearted absorption in personal enjoyments and personal discomforts. In other words, immediate absorption in its own occupations" (AI 369-70).

It is perhaps only natural that as youths initially experience their sense of independence and self-individuation that for a time their focus should be absorbed in this new discovery. But as Whitehead and Sullivan theorized, no person is self-contained, and gradually the lure of the next cycle makes its attraction felt. "Youth forgets itself in its own ardor. Of course, not always. For it can fall in love" (AI 371).

The final two cycles, which are here called particularized-self-transcendence and peace, reflect the degree to which personality encompasses the full range of relationships that ultimately constitute it. Whitehead points out that youth, "is particularly liable to the vision of that Peace, which is the harmony of the soul’s activities with the ideal aims that lie beyond any personal satisfactions" (AI 371). Although youths may be "liable to the vision," grasping it takes time, which is why Whitehead seems to insist on an intermediary stage. While the love of a particular person or thing may bring a youth beyond immediate self-absorption, and reflect the beginnings of a process of self-transcendence, "This aspect of personal love," Whitehead says, "is simply a clinging to a condition for selfish happiness. There is no transcendence of personality" (AI 373).

For Whitehead, the ultimate stage of fulfillment towards which an individual can strive reflects the same ideals and goals which Sullivan envisioned for mature, well adjusted adults. To this perspective, Whitehead gives the name "Peace" and says,

It results in a wider sweep of conscious interest. It enlarges the field of attention. Thus Peace is self-control at its widest, -- at the width where the ‘self’ has been lost, and interest has been transformed to coordinates wider than personality...It is the barrier against narrowness (AI 368).

The personality which develops throughout these cycles of transition is not a substantial "self’ but rather a dynamic "nexus" or "pattern" that continually incorporates experiences while gradually expanding its conscious awareness of, and response to, the relational factors which constitute it. Contributing to this expansion are not only the physical growth of the bodily organism and one’s interpersonal relationship, but also the dynamism of the self-system. While Sullivan considers the latter to be driven by security needs, Whitehead discusses the same dynamic by placing an emphasis on the realization of aesthetic value to be achieved by the given nexus.

Up until now, the discussion of personality development has focused almost exclusively on the ideal realm where the presumption has been that everyone becomes a healthy, mature adult, capable of realizing the vision of Peace. In order to provide a more balanced portrayal of the way humans actually develop, it is necessary to begin augmenting what has been said. One way of doing this, which will shed some light on the whole topic of arrested development, is to examine the function of language in both Sullivan’s and Whitehead’s thought.


In addition to outlining the various stages of personality development in his theory, Sullivan also speaks about three modes of "thinking" by which human beings perceive and evaluate their experiences. The Greek etymology of the names that Sullivan gives to these three modes helps to indicate their meaning, namely, prototaxic, literally a first-ordering; parataxic, a side-by-side ordering or arrangement; and syntaxic, a putting together in order.

The prototaxic mode describes the manner in which an infant first encounters experience as a random blurring of stimuli, disconnected and without logic or reason. The infant prehends the world as a discrete series of momentary states in which there is no immediate differentiation of self from others or self from the world.

The parataxic mode allows the child to make some connections, but they are usually haphazard and lack any logical basis. A post hoc ergo propter hoc argument represents a parataxic mode of reasoning, as does the comic element behind the game of "peek-a-boo," which takes advantage of the fact that at that stage children lack what Piaget called a "conception of object permanency.

The syntaxic mode allows the child to begin forming a realistic understanding of the world and of the relationships which constitute it. Although each respective mode of relating tends to dominate sequential phases of a child’s development, they are by no means mutually exclusive. The two primitive modes of thinking may reappear throughout subsequent stages of development, and influence an individual’s reasoning process during times of stress, fatigue, psychiatric illness or periods of dreaming.

Sullivan thought that language plays a crucial role in understanding how these three modes of thinking function. In his writings, the word "language" is used to convey the whole range of symbol-making activity essential to the process of socialization. The mastery of language, Sullivan claims, enables the child to fuse various conflicting personifications in one healthy self-concept (see ITP 172-189).

In addition to a communicative role, language can serve a defensive one as well. As the child’s unbridled curiosity begins to encounter the world, sources of anxiety can threaten to curtail that curiosity. Here, according to Sullivan, language functions to protect the self-system by concealing and distorting the perception of reality in order that anxiety may be minimized. The child learns quickly when and how to use this defensive posturing.

Sullivan discusses this interpersonal phenomenon when describing a process which operates within the syntaxic mode of experience. This process, which he calls consensual validation," enables individuals to corroborate their feelings, perceptions or relationships by having those views validated by the consensus of others. In interpersonal settings which are relatively free of anxiety, "healthy" persons are able to express themselves in a manner which corresponds to the way things actually are.

In settings where anxiety levels run high, either from the immediate context or from the painful memories which that context evokes, some individuals find it necessary to engage in what Sullivan calls "parataxic distortions" whereby the self-system distorts reality in some way to offset the anxiety. The clinical phenomenon of "transference" represents such a case of parataxic distortion, in so far as the patient tends to treat the therapist as though he or she was the person of their memory.

Whereas the effectiveness of communication and interpersonal relationships are obviously enhanced by one’s honest command of the syntaxic mode, parataxic distortions cause one to misconstrue the actual nature of experience and thus can hamper healthy living. According to Sullivan, one of the main tasks of psychiatry, therefore, is to identify and then to eliminate such parataxic distortions.

For Whitehead too, language plays a crucial role in understanding human experience. He calls language "the systematization of expression," and claims that "of all the ways of expressing thought, beyond question language is the most important" (MT 48). Although he does not speak specifically of prototaxic, parataxic, and syntaxic modes of experience, the same sequential patterns are reflected in his description of the first cycle of intellectual progress, which runs "from the achievement of perception to the acquirement of language, and from the acquirement of language to classified thought and keener perception" (AE 31).

Whitehead’s specific explorations into the nature and function of language form the core of his lecture "The Creative Impulse" in Modes of Thought and of the several lectures which comprise Symbolism. In keeping with his ontological focus, White-head describes the role of language in the former lecture as that which forms the link between one’s past and the present. Language organizes and makes intelligible the fragmentary flux of experience. Whitehead considers the command of language such a crucial element for self-identity and understanding that he writes, "The account of the sixth day should be written, He gave them speech, and they became souls" (MT 57).

For both Sullivan and Whitehead, language takes on the role that it does precisely because of its social function in mediating forms of interpersonal expression. From a psychological perspective, the more fully one can express and interpret the operative factors that shape the realm of interpersonal discourse, the more one is likely to be aware of the causal dimensions that constitute the matrix of one’s personality. Just as the naming of things represents a child’s first act of classification and an ability to share in social conventions, the naming of factors that shape one’s experience is the first step towards understanding how those factors influence one’s thought and behavior. By highlighting the importance of language in the development of personality, both Sullivan and Whitehead demonstrate not only the extent to which they had grasped this significant therapeutical insight, but how they were able to incorporate it into their dynamic view of the human person.


In The Psychiatric Interview, Sullivan outlines what he perceives as the four stages of the therapeutic process: the inception; the reconnaissance; the detailed inquiry; and the interruption or final termination. Throughout these four interpersonal phases, the therapist comes to participate in the patient’s world by getting to know as much as possible about the patient’s history and mode of relating to others. Based on the verbal and nonverbal data that can be acquired in therapy, the therapist must continually test out various hypotheses as to the real nature of the patient’s illness in an attempt to help the patient better cope with his or her world.

In Whiteheadian terms, the psychiatric interview represents the therapist’s controlled attempt to treat a patient by assimilating, as far as possible, the patient’s actual world. From this perspective, the therapist can then share with the patient an alternative subjective aim, or else an awareness of the extent to which negative prehensions might be excluding relevant factors of the patient’s experience. Although a full articulation of Sullivan and Whitehead’s position lies beyond what is possible here, one may simply make the claim that, since the therapist’s view is less likely to be hampered by the same parataxic distortions which curtail the patient’s ability to see the world, both Whitehead’s philosophy and Sullivan’s psychology offer the same clinical methodology for confronting and treating the source of a patient’s anxiety.

One of Sullivan’s major contributions to psychiatry was to expand the theoretical parameters for discussing personality theory well beyond the limits of Freud’s intrapsychic realm into the arena of interpersonal relations. This essay has sought to indicate not only numerous points of agreement between Whitehead and Sullivan, but also the valuable theoretical contribution which Whitehead’s philosophy of organism can make to the ongoing development of personality theory. By further exploring the expanded relational matrix within which both thinkers envisioned personality to be shaped, therapists and theoreticians alike may derive a fuller and more adequate understanding of their subject.

Subsequent to Sullivan’s pioneering work, the direction of personality theorizing has continued to rely extensively upon the assumption that personality is essentially a relational concept. The primacy of interpersonal forces in forming personality has served as an important foundational assumption in the work of such eminent contemporary theoreticians as D.W. Winnicott, H. Loewald, W.R.D. Fairbairn and H. Kobut.9 Their writings, like those of Sullivan’s, independently corroborate the extent to which Whitehead’s philosophical insights might serve as an adequate hermeneutic for contextualizing and informing current clinical psychiatric practice.



ITP -- The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry. Ed. Helen Swick and Mary Ladd Gawel. New York: W.W. Norton Company, Inc., 1953.



1. One of the earliest considerations of Whitehead’s writings from a psychological perspective is Percy Hughes’ "Is Whitehead’s Psychology Adequate?" in P.A. Schlipp, ed., The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, (New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1951), pp.275-99.

2. In her introduction to one of Sullivan’s works, Helen Swick Perry recounts how Sullivan had been stimulated by the ideas of Whitehead, Pavlov, Freud and Malinowski. See Harry Stack Sullivan, Personal Psychopathology (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1972). p. xxiii.

3. The joint inquiry by therapist and patient highlights one of Sullivan’s lasting contributions to psychiatry, namely that of the therapist’s role as "participant observer." For a full discussion of this concept see ITP 13-14; pp. 175-76; and Harry Stack Sullivan, The Psychiatric Interview, (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1954), pp.19-25.

4. A further discussion of the roles and differentiations of these personifications can be found in A.H. Chapman, Harry Stack Sullivan, His Life and His Work (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1976), pp. 145 ff..

5. Sullivan’s full exposition of the concept of "selective inattention" can be found in Harry Stack Sullivan, Clinical Studies in Psychiatry (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1956), pp. 38-76.

6. An understanding of Whitehead’s concept of the extensive continuum would surely aid psychiatrists in coming to a better appreciation of the scope and dimensions of the matrix within which personality is ultimately situated.

7. For all intents and purposes, Freud envisioned that the formative events which shaped personality occurred between a child’s birth and age five.

8. Most psychologists, in rejecting the emphasis which Sullivan placed on his concept of the "chum," think that he based its foundation more upon autobiographical data than on clinical observations.

9. For a superb summary of how the concept of relation functions within contemporary personality theory see, Stephen A. Mitchell, Relational Concepts in Psychoanalysis (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988) and Jay R. Greenberg and Stephen A. Mitchell, Object Relations in Psychoanalytic Theory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983).