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by Jessie Mannisto / January 18, 2022

Authentic Conscience: Unpacking Dabrowski’s Third Factor

The theory of positive disintegration emphasizes authenticity. So what if someone’s authentically a jerk?

The question nagged at the author early in her study of Dabrowski’s theory. With a reframing of the third factor, however, it became clear why no one’s personality ideal is to become a supervillain.

Editor’s Note: This was originally published five years ago on my personal blog. I’ve edited it slightly because of the changing context, but the core content remains the same.

Back in 2017, I ran a personal blog in which I often talked about Kazimierz Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration (TPD). There, I had posted a question I’d had for a while: given that authenticity is a core component of positive disintegration, what does it mean if someone is authentically a jerk?  The idea of a personality ideal to which one aspires is the guiding light of TPD, so could someone have, effectively, a negative personality ideal?

Thanks in large part to the great discussion that unfolded on that post, I can now better articulate why a negative personality ideal doesn’t make sense after all. It all has to do with that dynamism after which I’ve since named a magazine: the third factor of development.

For those who haven’t heard this a hundred times before, Dabrowski identified three factors of development that constitute a person’s overall developmental potential.  The first factor is our physiological makeup (i.e., nature) and the second factor is our environment and socialization (i.e., nurture).  TPD adds a third factor that emerges from but transcends the first two factors and that “determines the direction, degree, and distance of [a person’s] development” (Dabrowski 2016, p. 39).  Dabrowski also refers to it as “self-determination by a number of autonomous dynamisms” (1996, p.  27).

That’s the type of jargon that makes Dabrowski’s work a challenging read.  Self-determination is clear enough.  But if you don’t know what dynamisms are, then it’s not evident that self-determination couldn’t lead a person to become some kind of comic book supervillain, if that’s what he or she authentically wanted to be.  Hey, I do know what dynamisms are, and I still entertained the idea.

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If you break down the complex ideas packed into TPD’s terminology, however, you’ll come to see why that can’t happen.  One of several perceptive comments on that post was by fellow TPD enthusiast AishDos, who made the abstraction of the “third factor” a bit more concrete.  As he wrote:

The third factor often referred to as an individuals ‘inner drive’ or autonomous thinking distinct from first and second factors. I have found this a confusing term as it alone may overlap with first and second factors. What we may see as new independent thought could very well be just first and second factor tendencies re-adjusted to new external influences.

I have come to understand the following: If first factor is ego-centric; the second factor is ethno/socio-centric; then I would term the third factor as conscience-centric.

AishDos

Aha!  I said.  That‘s the simple explanation for why no one’s authentic personality ideal (in the Dabrowskian sense of that term) is to be a supervillain.  In fact, conscience seemed to address the question so well that I wondered why I hadn’t seen it said in any of writing by or about Dabrowski before.

What is Conscience?

Before we go further, let’s agree on a definition of conscience for this post.  I pulled this one from Dictionary.com:

Conscience [kon-shuh ns], noun:

1. the inner sense of what is right or wrong in one’s conduct or motives, impelling one toward right action.

2. the complex of ethical and moral principles that controls or inhibits the actions or thoughts of an individual.

3. an inhibiting sense of what is prudent.

Based on this definition, it seems safe to assert that conscience is an essential part of the third factor of development. Moreover, there’s a lot that’s Dabrowskian about this definition.  (I put some important stuff in bold.  But I’ll come back to that in a moment.)

On the other hand, if the third factor were just conscience, wouldn’t Dabrowski have just said that?  Did he really just love making up impenetrable terminology that much?

To answer that, let’s compare the above definition of conscience to this description of the third factor from the 1996 edition of Dabrowski’s Multilevelness of Emotional and Instinctive Functions:

Third factor. A dynamism of conscious choice by which one sets apart both in oneself and in one’s environment those elements which are positive, and therefore considered higher, from those which are negative, and therefore considered lower.  By this process a person denies and rejects inferior demands of the internal as well as of the external milieu, and accepts, affirms and selects positive elements in either milieu. […] Third factor is a dynamism of valuation, i.e. of developing consciously an autonomous hierarchy of values.  One could say that third factor decides upon what subject-object in oneself has uncovered, while inner psychic transformation is the process by which the decision is put to work.  Third factor is the par excellence dynamism of self-directed development. (p. 38)

—Kazimierz Dabrowski

In the passage above, I used bold-face text to highlight everything that I think is essentially conscience. The amount of bold in this passage strongly supports the argument that conscience is a foundational element, even though Dabrowski doesn’t expressly use the word “conscience” anywhere.

Note that I said foundational. But TPD goes on to build something on that foundation.

Conscience Plus: What the Third Factor Adds

Conscience, after all, can take a purely second-factor form. That would be along the lines of I learned that these are the rules, and I need to follow the rules. And that’s not a negative thing, or at least not most of the time.  Remember, the first and second factors aren’t bad per se.  Overexcitability is a first factor (i.e. physiological) trait, and it can give rise to plenty of good things. Manners are generally something we’re taught (i.e. second factor), and I am personally a fan of manners.

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It’s probably best to obey this sign. But maybe there’s more to the picture than we see.

What the first and second factors don’t account for, however, is self direction. In other words, agency. The individual’s active choice. (To respond to a common question: the third factor does emerge from the first and second factors. Dabrowski said as much. A person without the right nature and nurture isn’t going to develop it. But we’re not biologists. For a person living her life, a lens that reminds her of the potential power of agency is a useful thing to have. A person is not utterly doomed to be someone she doesn’t want to be because of her genes or how she was raised. There is room for self direction.)

Let’s look back at Dabrowski’s definition again. Here, I used orange to highlight the element of self-direction.

Third factor. A dynamism of conscious choice by which one sets apart both in oneself and in one’s environment those elements which are positive, and therefore considered higher, from those which are negative, and therefore considered lower.  By this process a person denies and rejects inferior demands of the internal as well as of the external milieu, and accepts, affirms and selects positive elements in either milieu. […] Third factor is a dynamism of valuation, i.e. of developing consciously an autonomous hierarchy of values.  One could say that third factor decides upon what subject-object in oneself has uncovered, while inner psychic transformation is the process by which the decision is put to work.  Third factor is the par excellence dynamism of self-directed development. (p. 38)

The third factor is a conscience that comes not from fear of social sanction or from memorizing rules, but of really thinking things through.  As with a second factor-based of conscience, you think through your own impulses and you reject them if they’re not good enough; but now you also think through the second-factor rules and other elements of socialization and reject them if they’re not measuring up.

The third factor is a conscience that comes not from fear of social sanction or from memorizing rules, but of really thinking things through. 

How Do You Know If You Can Trust Yourself?

How, though, can you trust yourself not to justify something horrible in your analysis?  Well, because you made (and are probably still making) a sincere effort to look at both yourself and your surroundings objectively, while also trying to envision others’ subjective experiences and understandings.  That’s the process represented by the Level IV dynamism subject-object in oneself, the level IV dynamism that puts the third factor in control.  And the odds are good that you practice to subject-object because you’ve experienced the level III dynamism of inferiority toward yourself—a sense that you’re not living up to your own ideal of who you could and should be.  So you start inhibiting those behaviors, qualities, and values in yourself that don’t line up with that ideal, and promoting those that do.

You know, despite his talk of authenticity, Dabrowski was actually big on inhibition.  Remember that in TPD, authenticity, which is also a dynamism, doesn’t just mean following first factor impulses.  This is particularly important for overexcitable people, though it’s often left out of discussions of overexcitability.  OE, after all, is a disintegrating force.  And while it generally gives rise to a positive disintegration, the goal is not to stay disintegrated, as though it were some sort of badge of honor. Dabrowski was clear that learning to inhibit overexcitability when appropriate is part of reintegrating at a higher level, as is learning how to channel its expression in support of one’s personality ideal.

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Dabrowskian authenticity, then, means that you autonomously programmed your conscience through that rigorous practice of subject-object. It wasn’t passively dictated by second factor forces.

Without conscience—without making yourself an object and others a subject—you could indeed pursue a hostile end, but it wouldn’t be a Dabrowskian personality ideal at all.

After much pondering of how I might explain the third factor in a simple but concrete way, I’ve come to think the best way to briefly describe third factor is that it is an authentic and autonomous conscience.  Without conscience—without making yourself an object and others a subject—you could indeed pursue a hostile end, but it couldn’t be a true personality ideal at all, at least not in the language of TPD.  You’d just be a garden-variety psychopath, mucking about at the bottom of level I, totally failing to look objectively at yourself and envision others subjectively.

And, lo and behold, in preparing for this article, I did finally stumble across the word “conscience” in Dabrowski’s writing on the subject!  There it is, on page 43 of the 2016 re-release of Positive Disintegration:

The third factor appears embryonically in unilevel disintegration, but its principal domain is multilevel disintegration.  Disintegration activities are related to the activities of the third [factor], which judges, approves and disapproves, makes a choice, and confirms certain exterior and interior values.  It is, therefore, an integral and basic part of multilevel disintegration.  It is a sort of active conscience of the budding individual, determining what represents a greater or smaller value in self-education, what is “higher” or “lower,” what does or does not agree with the personality ideal, and what should be the course of internal development.

We do love our abstractions here at Third Factor, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned as an editor, it’s to look for the simple, powerful truth that we bury in our complex language.

The third factor is hard to live by, but it’s simple to explain. It’s an autonomous, authentic conscience.

That’s the process we’re here to explore.

Image credits: Gellinger, StockSnap, Lockie, and PIRO4D at Pixabay

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