A Definitive Formulation of Temperament

27 October 2012


A medieval illustration of the four humours: melancholic, choleric, phlegmatic, and sanguine (clockwise from upper left).

What is a definitive formulation?

Recently on my other blog I discussed the philosophical pursuit of definitive formulations. What is a definite formulation? The reader will, I am sure, immediately see that giving a concise and accurate idea of what constitutes a definitive formulation would itself require a definitive formulation of a definitive formulation.

I don’t yet have a definitive formulation of what constitutes a definitive formulation. I could simply say that it is a formulation of a concept that could serve as a definition, but this wouldn’t be very helpful. Here is how I characterized it in my other post:

“…a handful of short, clear, concise, and intuitively accessible sentences…”


“…to put this in clear and simple terms, if I have a definitive formulation, that means if you stopped me on the street and asked me to explain myself while standing on one foot, I could do it. Lacking definitive formulations, the attempted explanation would go on a little too long to be comfortable (or safely balanced) on one foot.”

Lacking a definitive formulation of an idea that is central to our thought means that we can only say what Augustine said of time in his Confessions:

What then is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not: yet I say boldly that I know, that if nothing passed away, time past were not; and if nothing were coming, a time to come were not; and if nothing were, time present were not. (11.14.17)

quid est ergo tempus? si nemo ex me quaerat, scio; si quaerenti explicare velim, nescio. fidenter tamen dico scire me quod, si nihil praeteriret, non esset praeteritum tempus, et si nihil adveniret, non esset futurum tempus, et si nihil esset, non esset praesens tempus.

In some cases, I think that we can move beyond this Augustinian limit to definition, and it is when we hit upon a definitive formulation that we are able to do this.

It seems appropriate that I should give a concrete example of something that I would identify as a definitive formulation, and since I have recently hit upon a formulation that I rather like, I will try to use this to show what a definitive formulation is.

Call it what you will… temperament, personality, disposition… but people are not all the same.

What is temperament?

I have written several posts about temperament, including Temperamental Diversity, A Third Temperament, Intellectual Personalities and Temperament and Civilization. I don’t think that philosophy, science, or socio-political thought has yet done justice to the role that temperament plays in the world.

But what is temperament? The seventh of ten definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary (which of the ten is the closest to the sense of “temperament” as I have been using the word) defines temperament as follows:

“Constitution or habit of mind, esp. as depending upon or connected with physical constitution; natural disposition”

The sixth of the OED definitions defines temperament in terms of the four humours recognized in medieval medical theory and practice:

“In mediæval physiology: The combination of the four cardinal humours (see humour n. 2b) of the body, by the relative proportion of which the physical and mental constitution were held to be determined; known spec. as animal temperament; also, The bodily habit attributed to this, as sanguine temperament, choleric temperament, phlegmatic temperament, or melancholic temperament (see the adjs.).”

In traditional philosophical parlance, a dictionary definition gives us a nominal definition, but as philosophers what we really want is a real definition. While the philosophical distinction between nominal and real definitions is ancient and widely familiar, and therefore probably ought to remain untouched, I think it is more intuitive to call these two kinds of definition formal definition and metaphysical definition. A formal definition situates the meaning of a term within a formal system, perhaps within the system of language, whereas a metaphysical definition situates the meaning of a term within the structure of the world. So I guess what I am saying here is that one function of a definitive formulation is to give a metaphysical definition — but to be able to do so without requiring the exposition of an entire metaphysical system. You can imagine why this might be difficult.

So, what would I offer as a definitive formulation of temperament, that (hopefully) goes beyond the formal (i.e., nominal) definition in the OED? I define temperament as follows:

Temperament is the intellectual expression of individual variability.

I hope that the reader doesn’t find this too anti-climactic. I’ll try to explain why I find this to be a fruitful formulation.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, former Russellian, later anti-Cantorian

The charm of an idea

A definitive formulation, as I understand it, has an aphoristic quality: it is brief, concise, sententious, and pregnant with meaning. It also has a certain indefinable “appeal” that, like most forms of appealingness, is compelling to some even while it leaves others cold.

Wittgenstein formulated this appeal by calling it the “charm” that some proofs in mathematics and the foundations of mathematics possess. The later Wittgenstein was concerned to criticize the whole Cantorian conception of set theory and transfinite numbers, and much of Wittgenstein’s later philosophical of mathematics has this purpose implicitly as the center of the exposition. (In connection with this, I have previously mentioned Brouwer’s influence on Wittgenstein in Saying, Showing, Constructing, and more recently wrote more about Brouwer in One Hundred Years of Intuitionism and Formalism.)

Here’s what Wittgenstein said about mathematical “charm” in his lectures of 1939:

“The proof has a certain charm if you like that kind of thing; but that is irrelevant. That fact that is has this charm is a very minor point and is not the reason why those calculations were made.–That is colossally important. The calculations have their use not in charm but in their practical consequences.”

“It is quite different if the main role or sole interest is this charm — if the whole interest is showing that a line does cut when it doesn’t, which sets the whole mind in a whirl, and gives the pleasant feeling of paradox. If you can show that there are numbers bigger than the infinite, your head whirls. This may be the chief reason this was invented.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Wittgenstein’s Lectures on the Foundations of Mathematics, Cambridge, 1939, edited by Cora Diamond, University of Chicago Press, 1989, p. 16

With this in mind, I am well aware that the “charm” that I find in my definitive formulation of temperament may well be lost on others. The fact that an idea that has a certain charm for one person has none for another is itself a function of temperament. Individuals of different temperaments will find an intellectual charm in different formulations.

Theoretical contextualization

Part of the charm that a formulation has (or fails to have) is the connections that it forges to familiar theories. A definitive formulation, among its other functions, contextualizes a less familiar or less precise concept in an established theory or theories, enabling a systematic exploration and exposition of the idea in relation to familiar and therefore more thoroughly explored theories. Well known theories provide clear parameters for an idea, which, when formerly known only in a vague and imprecise form, had no clear parameters.

In formulating temperament as the intellectual expression of individual variation I am contextualizing human temperament in evolutionary theory, and thereby suggesting an interpretation of temperament based in and drawing upon evolutionary psychology. Thus evolutionary theory provides the parameters for temperament understood as the intellectual expression of individual variability.

Individual variability is one of the drivers of natural selection. When distinct individuals have distinct properties, a selection event may favor (select for) some properties while disfavoring (select against) other properties. Usually we think of the properties of an organism as being structural features of an organism: one finch has a longer beak than another, or one ape is better at walking on two legs than another. These differences might disappear into the dustbin of natural history if no selection event comes along that favors one or the other. But if a selection event does occur, and it favors some structural attribute of an organism that varies among individuals, the favored individuals will go on to experience differential survival and reproduction.

While we usually think of selection in structural terms, a selection event can also select for behaviors. Organisms can adapt to their environment through behaviors just as certainly (and much more rapidly) than through structural changes in their bodies. Behavioral adaptation is no less significant in natural history than structural adaptation.

At very least with the emergence of human beings, and probably also with other species, both hominid precursors of homo sapiens and other large-brained mammals, mind emerged in natural history. With the emergence of mind, there emerged also a novel basis of selection. Some minds are constituted in one way, while other minds are constituted in other ways. In other words, the same individual variability we find in bodies and behaviors are also to be found in minds.

If a selection event occurs that should happen to favor (or disfavor) any one kind of mind over any other kind of mind, those possessing the favored minds will enjoy differential survival and reproduction. With individual variability of minds represented in a sentient population — individual temperaments that lead individuals to think in different ways, and value things in different ways, and deliberate over alternatives in different ways — there is the continual possibility of natural selection.

The more variety of minds that there are, the greater the number of alternatives amongst which a selection event can select, the greater the likelihood that some one temperament is more fitted to survive the particular conditions that obtain than other temperaments.

Thus to formulate temperament as the intellectual expression of individual variability is to place mind within natural history.

To place mind within nature is a metaphysical formulation.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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One Response to “A Definitive Formulation of Temperament”

  1. Very interesting post (very charming blog entirely, actually!)

    I have some friendly objections (or contributions?) — (and it’s possible that I might be misinterpreting you here.)

    It’s interesting that, with regards to temperament , you emphasize the evolutionary history of humanity. But you also emphasize the Intellectual as determining one’s temperament .

    I could be misinterpreting what you’re saying here, but the emphasis of the Intellectual seems too overly emphasized. Not everyone is inclined for intellectuality — most people aren’t — and not everyone undergoes conscious intellectualization/rationalization in order to live in the world. People don’t really embody the Intellect, and the fact that there’s often dissonance between what one rationalizes of themselves, and what one does actually does (for eg., hypocrisy and double-standards), seems to indicate that one would have to broaden a definition of temperament .

    I’m positing here that the Intellectual isn’t a precondition for temperament.

    It seems that one must have a certain temperament for intellectual activity, eg.,: a certain psychological profile, a particular upbringing, susceptibility, a certain ethos, and cognitive equipment for focusing on abstractions and pondering. The capacity for Intellect is preconditioned by our shared biology as human beings (lizards don’t philosophize, and boulders don’t carry out deductive reasoning.) It seems unlikely that our earliest hominid ancestors had quite the same capacity for Intellect as well — though, with the appearance of art, I can *definitely* see where Intellectual capacity would determine individual variability. Even so, not all cavemen were artists.

    Still, Intellectuality seems to be the byproduct of spontaneous, biological mechanisms — and I’d include “temperament ” to that list. One must be predisposed and ‘tempered’ to intellectual matters.

    Perhaps a definition of temperament should be drawn from psychology?

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