Historical Context

Kelly's life and work followed almost exactly through the first half of the twentieth century—from the time of his birth in 1905 until the time of his death in 1967. This man who was born in the early days of the automobile, only two years after the Wright Brothers' attempt at flying, was already four years old when he went with his parents by covered wagon to settle land in eastern Colorado. He was someone whose place in history might be difficult to fathom for anyone who came of age by the turn of the next century. He was truly a child of the period of time that would come to be known as the "American century."

Kelly grew up through World War I, in which modern warfare technology began to change the face of war. The methods used to wage war using gas as a weapon brought a new horror to the future. Kelly came of age during the 1920s, when technological inventions were transforming industry and society at a rate previously unseen. The beginning of his professional career in western Kansas during the darkest days of the Depression, in an area that suffered perhaps more intensely due to years of drought, was directly affected by the cases he handled. He wrote that during that the 12 years he spent at Fort Hays that he head "several more priceless opportunities to revise my outlook." He recalled that "It was a time for a teacher to talk of courage and adventure in the midst of despair." Still, Kelly would be the first to say that it was not really the circumstances, or that he felt any calling to do what he did. And by that time, he decided that if it was he who initiated his own actions, why would others not do the same?

Even if he wanted to talk more about what he did with how he was raised, Kelly's childhood clearly provided a fascinating historical context for the person he would become as an adult, and ultimately as a psychologist. He emerged from the sort of rugged individualism for which a young country was still known. Kelly understood the principles of self-determination from his father, who gave up a career in the Presbyterian ministry to follow the life of a farmer. His mother was the daughter of an adventurer. She chose to be a Midwestern farmer's wife at a time when America's increasing urbanization might have provided her with a world of culture and society instead of rural isolation. Kelly's early education was an example of determination to learn without the early formality of schooling. His university life would unearth so many matters of interest that it was almost enough to cause concern that he would settle into a stable way to earn a living.

Yet the education he chose did lead to the psychology he would create. As an engineering student who majored in mathematics and physics, it was the scientist in him that would direct his future and provide the motivation for a new way to look at human behavior. As a mathematician, Kelly would find inspiration in the straightforward system of the ancient Greek scholar Euclid who had published a simple book on geometry centuries earlier. The way in which he prepared his 1,000 page manuscript was presented as postulate and corollaries—the same structure Euclid used. In the essay on Kelly for the International Handbook, Fransella and Neimeyer did point out that Kelly's reliance on mathematical theory was such that he pointed out that "Johann Herbart's work on education and particularly mathematical psychology influenced me. I think mathematics is the pure instance of construct functioning—the model of human behavior."

The more positive influences on Kelly did come from various areas of philosophy, as well. He was known to cite John Dewey, the religious thinker and follower of pragmatism. He was also influenced by his study of phenomenonology. Another influence was the linguistic philosopher, Alfred Korzybski, who suggested the idea of "constructs" as interpretations that reveal as much of the humans who utilize them, as about the objects they describe. Hans Vaihinger was a philosopher who proposed the "as if' proposition as he built his own brand of constructive alternativism— already noted as the philosophy on which Kelly began to build his own psychology.

What perhaps influenced Kelly in a negative way was the contemporary popularity of behaviorism and the psychodynamic approach to psychology. He reacted so strongly against that notion that he felt compelled to pursue his own idea that humans were more in charge of themselves than either of those two methods implied. When Kelly published his work on April 15, 1955, America had already entered the age of the atomic and nuclear bombs. The country was also in the midst of the "Red scare" during the Cold War against the Soviet Union and the other Communist countries. School children were practicing air raid drills, people were building bomb shelters, and anxiety over the possibility of nuclear holocaust loomed. It was the era of the "Beatnik," and the gradual evolution of a new kind of individualism. The rumblings of the Civil Rights movement had begun in earnest among black Americans—a time when an oppressed people were speaking up, marching, boycotting, and saying they were no longer going to be victims of a two-tiered justice or social system. The world was in the early dawn of the computer age, as well.

Kelly's work was well received for the most part though it was clearly seen as a major departure from the behaviorism so widely practiced. Indeed, with all of the work he and other psychologists were doing to establish the right of clinical psychologists to separate from the medical profession, and to receive acceptance as scientific practitioners, his work began to pave the way into an age of information technology when even the average person was called on to partake of science. Kelly's system was an obvious beginning to a whole new direction in research of the human psyche and the behavior it produced.

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