As a technology of the self, the language of type does not just liquidate the individual. It liberates her too. Armed with a powerful vocabulary of self-consciousness, unshackled from conventions and inertia, she begins to understand herself—her personality—as the master and the arbiter of her destiny. In this sense, type is just the latest iteration of a human maxim as old as the letters carved into the Temple of Apollo at Delphi—("Know thyself"), the confessions of Saint Augustine ("Return to yourself; truth dwells in the inner man"), the epigrams of Shakespeare ("To thine own self be true"), and the philosophical meditations of Hegel ("Self-consciousness is the fount of truth"). Yet the scale at which type has ensnared the popular imagination is unprecedented and astonishing. Type is a $2 billion industry of the self that spans twenty-six countries and more than two dozen languages, from Afrikaans to Cantonese. Whether one encounters it among the ministers of Melbourne, the factory workers of Tokyo, or the psychoanalysts of Buenos Aires, the claim for its importance remains consistent: true self-mastery can proceed only through true self-knowledge. To learn how to speak type fluently is to learn how to wield this knowledge to cultivate a shared ethos of self- contemplation, an inward gaze that many people once looked to religious institutions and religious authorities to provide.
If the idea of self-mastery through self-knowledge has served as a linchpin of Western philosophy, from the ancient Greeks to Foucault, nowhere is it more apparent than in the biographies of Katharine and Isabel: two women of their own invention struggling to lead purposeful, creative, and self-directed lives amidst the upheavals of the twentieth century. The fact that they were wives, mothers, and struggling artists—and the fact that many proud "type watchers" I have encountered while writing this book are—is no coincidence. For men, especially Katharine's and Isabel's contemporaries, the road to self-discovery was paved with advantages: easy access to higher education and employment, freedom from the burdens of housework and childcare, a general atmosphere of social and political permissiveness. For women, who were often asked to place the needs of others above their own, the contemplation of the self and its desires often took more surreptitious or compromised routes. Katharine, whose life's work spanned the first half of the twentieth century, was attracted to type's mystical powers: the way it could grant her access to her soul and the souls of her children, bringing them closer to God and the man she took to be God's representative on earth, Carl Jung. Isabel, a novelist who assumed her mother's mission after World War II, gravitated to type's modernizing prospects: how it seemed to offer a perfectly rational, yet inspirational, system for managing people across very different domains of society, from her modest four-person household to the entire U.S. workforce. Throughout the history of type, the convergence of the mystical and the modern, the spiritual and the secular paints the illusory picture of what Jung called a "more perfect type of man": a man whose knowledge of himself directly serves the ends of society and its institutions.
In the quest for a more perfect type of man (or woman), the story of personality assessment exceeds Katharine and Isabel in fascinating, unpredictable, and disturbing ways. It collides with some of the twentieth century's most famous personality theorists and practitioners: Henry Murray, director of the Harvard Psychological Clinic; Edward Northup Hay, one of the first personality consultants in the United States; Donald MacKinnon, military psychologist and founder of the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research; and Henry Chauncey, the founder and first director of the Educational Testing Service. It touches the lives of other forgotten women in the history of psychology, who also saw personality testing as an opportunity for individual empowerment. It perpetuates a very particular culture of capitalism, colonizing people's psychological livelihoods by encouraging them to work more and work harder by "working at the things that are right for them," as Isabel liked to say. It promotes many disingenuous and dangerous ideas about race, gender, class, and social perfectibility, ideas that have motivated, and continue to motivate, terrible forms of bias and discrimination.
Just as the type indicator leaves home during World War II to traverse America, from its East Coast boardrooms to its West Coast communes, so too does this book accompany type on its journey away from Katharine's and Isabel's homes and into the major institutions of modernity: the military, the corporation, the university, the hospital. It is in these institutions that type finds a captive audience before exploding into the popular consciousness in the 1980s and 1990s, when the acronym "MBTI," fully detached from its origins as Katharine and Isabel's brainchild, begins to take on an avid, cultish following. More than just a biography, and more than just a philosophical inquiry, this book narrates how two women's remarkable and uncharted lives prefaced the type indicator's exposure as a mass cultural phenomenon. Only by interlacing the private and the public histories of type can we begin to understand why, and in what forms, personality assessment endures to this day.
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I will confess that, at many points in writing this book, I wanted it to be a story of feminist triumph. There was a time, right after my son was born, when my initial stance of principled disbelief toward type and its communities began to soften. I experienced this first as a growing sympathy for my historical subjects, Katharine and Isabel. They were, after all, wives and mothers who yearned to transform their daily domestic labors into occasions for creative self-actualization—to make the home into an institution not unlike a psychiatrist's office or a scientist's laboratory, where their work could be taken seriously. I understood that impulse just then. I still do. Then there were the people I spoke with—mostly women, but some men too—who explained to me in no uncertain terms how type had saved their lives. It had rescued them from dead-end jobs and unhappy marriages. It had helped them come to terms with their parents and children. It had given them the courage to accept who they were and what they wanted out of the life that stretched before them, newly pregnant with possibility. Nearly all of them acknowledged that the liberation they felt was mass-produced but that they still felt it intensely and sincerely. I wanted to do justice to these experiences of individual transcendence, even if I found it hard to disentangle them from the dubious and often exploitative social histories of type that I had uncovered along the way. I wanted to tell all sides of the story in a way that was critical but fair and, most of all, disinterested. I did not want to be swayed.