“Discoveries”: Some Thoughts on Language

Mario Sikora
Aug 28, 2012

Before we begin–please forgive my churlishness. Like Melville’s Ishmael, on occasion I need to drive off the spleen and regulate the circulation. The temptation Ishmael feels to step into the street and methodically knock people’s hats off is all too familiar. Unfortunately, I am unwilling and unable (but mostly unwilling) to take to sea; so instead I occasionally vent my pet peeves via a blog. It is a healthy substitute for pistol and ball….

Today’s great white whale is language-related–particularly, it’s the lack of caution about language that some display when making assertions about the Enneagram.

Here’s an example: I just read about someone claiming that their research indicates that Ennea-type appears to be “genetically determined.” This is a bold claim; saying something is genetically determined implies that it is linked to our genes and that a connection has been found to a specific gene or set of genes. This is a HUGE claim; perhaps even a Nobel prize-worthy claim. In the case of the Enneagram, it is also a false claim, or at least careless claim. To my knowledge, no link between our genes and Ennea-type have been found.

Perhaps what the claimant meant to say was that Ennea-type appears to be “innate,” which means existing in, belonging to, or determined by factors present in an individual from birthThis is a somewhat-supportable hypothesis that has great face validity with any parent who is familiar with the Enneagram. However, even this claim needs to be held very, very lightly; personality is complicated and the science is still out on how any number of aspects of personality come to be. Some elements of personality may well be affected by our genes, others may be shaped by in utero forces independent of our genes, still others may well be formed during the early days following birth for all we know. The claim that  Ennea-type appears “genetically determined,” however, has no evidentiary support despite the huge leaps of inference that some might make to build that case.

In the past, I would occasionally get into discussions with people at workshops who asked if Ennea-type is innate or developed over time. Anecdotally, it seems that it is–at a minimum–formed early, if not innate (I have four young sons who provide a natural laboratory–at home I feel like Jane Goodall in more ways than one). However, my assumption is very speculative and, to my knowledge, no controlled studies have been done on infants and Ennea-type. When asked now about this issue now, however, I say that my purely anecdote-driven hypothesis is that Ennea-type seems to be innate, but the question of whether it is innate is the wrong question to be asking. The purpose of the Enneagram is not to tell us how we come to be who we are from a biological perspective (the biological sciences do a FAR better job of that); it is to show us the ways we go to sleep to ourselves and how to get back on track. The question we should be asking is, “How can I be more awake and adaptive?”

Would it be interesting to find the biological underpinnings–let alone any genetic roots–of Ennea-type? You bet! Such a finding about the Enneagram (or any other personality model, for that matter) would advance the field immeasurably, giving it tremendous credibility beyond existing circles. But finding such links will require rigorous, controlled studies and at least enough research savvy to use the correct terms.

Speaking of “correct terms,” another tendency that sets my teeth on edge is when people talk about their Enneagram “discoveries.” Some people really seem to enjoy creating constructs and then referring to them as “discoveries.” These are of course two very different things and using the two as if they were interchangeable muddies our understanding of the Enneagram.

The word “discover” implies that one is seeing something that already exists, and that it exists objectively and independent of the discoverer. Columbus “discovered” the New World, but Amerigo Vespucci constructed a map of it. Madame Curie discovered radium but constructed a theory of radioactivity. In other words radium already existed independent of her discovery, but she created a model to help explain the phenomena she labelled “radioactivity.”

Discoveries are the un-covering of things that exist; constructs are a way of explaining phenomena in a way that is understandable to others. By their nature, constructs are representational, and they may be incorrect or they may only partially explain a given set of phenomena. Calling a construct a discovery blurs a categorical line, confusing the map with the territory. It can also appear to be an attempt to claim a greater degree of legitimacy than one (or one’s idea) deserves: If my theory is actually a “discovery,” it must be true, after all; whereas my construct or map is by definition an incomplete representation of the real thing.

I once saw an Enneagram teacher on Facebook condescendingly dismiss a commenter who suggested that there might be an alternative way of looking at a situation within the construct the teacher had created. The teacher responded with something to the effect that “I discovered this phenomenon, therefore I know better than you.” I was amazed by the juxtaposition of terms–he claimed that his construct was a discovery (thus implying that it was independently true independent of the discoverer), but then implied that he was the ultimate arbiter of what was true about the discovery and what was not. It was as if Columbus refused to hear anyone else’s thoughts on the characteristics of the New World or Madame Curie refused to learn anything about radium from later scientists.

Of course, even if this Enneagram teacher had admitted that his discovery was actually a construct–a map rather than the territory–it is still pretty presumptuous to assume that no one else might offer an insight that improves or corrects the construct. An argument from authority is always a weak argument; it is particularly egregious when one sites oneself as the authority.

Still on this idea of discovery, I recently heard about another Enneagrammer’s claim to have made a discovery, which was “also discovered by Claudio Naranjo and Oscar Ichazo,” of an idea that has been taught and written about by numerous teachers for years. The brain spins, not only at the conflation of discovery and construct, but at the willingness to claim to have discovered something that you admit others discovered decades prior. It made me wonder how my father would have been viewed if, walking down the gangplank of the ship that brought him to the US in 1959, he claimed to have “discovered” the New World while simultaneously admitting that Columbus had “also discovered” it.

Odd, indeed.

The Enneagram is a map of, I believe, objectively occurring phenomena. It is a system of understanding our world–particularly our inner world–that I believe has no equal. It is also a system that grows and evolves as people gather insights and add them to the collective construct. Some of these additions will ultimately fade away as wrong, imprecise, or in other ways unsupportable while other additions will stand the test of time. In between, there will be tension in the system as people wrestle with the insights of others, struggling to separate the wheat from the chaff. That is the beauty of the system–it is a map nonpareil, but while the phenomena it describes exist objectively, the map(s) that help us navigate the discovered territory do not have the same automatic objective legitimacy. We must clearly define our terms and test our theories with all the vigor we possess.

Perhaps I am being unfair in my critiques; I do believe that, for the most part, people make these mistakes in good faith and they really do have a desire to advance the field. However, these errors of language and less-than-rigorous claims can undermine the field rather than advancing it. Other fields have pretty strict expectations about use of language, and for very good reason. We must be careful about our language and rigorous in our claims if we want to shed light rather than sow confusion.

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