views updated Jun 08 2018


The word character, when applied to persons, has two sources, distinguished lexically in ancient Greek by the terms êthos and charaktêr. Êthos, originally referring to a disposition or custom, from Aristotle on refers to the stable dispositions that guide a person's actions and that are suitable objects of moral praise and blame. The earliest uses of charactêr in Greek, like the earliest uses of character in English, refer to an impression such as would be carved or stamped onto a coin or tablet; metaphorically, "characters" are signs (actions, facial features, social positions) that reveal something about a person's soul. During the seventeenth century, the sense of "character" in English came to include a person's psychological traits themselves.

Aristotle and Virtue Ethics

The fourth-century b.c.e. philosopher Aristotle, in Nicomachean Ethics, understands character (êthos ; or hexis êthikê, "moral disposition") to be a disposition of the appetitive and emotional faculties, which leads its possessor to act and feel in particular ways. This disposition is acquired through habituation, a process that develops the intellectual as well as the appetitive and emotional faculties. Aristotelian virtues are such dispositions informed by practical wisdoma capacity for judgment developed through experience and reflection, which guides conduct where technical knowledge cannot. This is one point of convergence between Aristotle's ethics and the thinking of contemporary virtue theorists, for as Aristotle rejects the claims of his teacher Plato (c. 428348 or 347 b.c.e.) and Sophists such as Protagoras (c. 485410 b.c.e.) that there is some art or science that can guide conduct, contemporary virtue theorists reject the claims of deontological ethics that conduct is well-guided by rules, such as "maximize utility" or "act only upon a maxim you could without contradiction will to be a universal maxim." Aristotle and contemporary virtue theorists also share the view that characters are appropriate objects of moral praise and blame; Aristotle reasons that this requires that our characters be voluntary, and argues that this is so on the grounds that our actions are voluntary and our characters are the products of our actions.

Aristotle's Ethics focuses on the cultivation (or acquisition or promotion in others) of virtuous character. When Aristotle describes the courageous or liberal person, he does so from the inside, showing us the person's concerns so that we see how, given the person's values, it makes sense for him to do as he does. But Aristotle's Rhetoric uses characterization to dispose audiences to trust a speaker, and his Poetics, to effect an appropriate fit between a person and his words and deeds; here, words and actions are signs by which we may know someone's character. Subsequently, Aristotle's student Theophrastus (c. 372c. 287 b.c.e.) sketched representative vicious types by enumerating their typical words and deeds, in a work that came to be known as the Êthikoi Charaktêres (English trans. Characters of Theophrastus, or Moral signs), which was much imitated in English literature from the seventeenth century on. In Characters of Vertues and Vices (1608), by the English prelate Joseph Hall (15741656), "character" for the first time refers to a type of person, rather than just to the signs that reveal that type. A "character" genre evolved in various directions in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, adding to moral types, types of men and women in various stations of life (perhaps influenced by the Stoic notion that human beings are given personae, or roles to play in this world), and using their sketches to satirize individuals and societies. Although this literature interacts richly with popular ideas about character, it has generally not been taken up in philosophical ethics.

Kantian Ethics

An ancient tradition in natural philosophy, and particularly medicine, sought to explain an individual's character (ēthos ) in terms of the four humors, or bodily fluidsnamely the melancholy, phlegmatic, sanguine, and choleric. In his Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, the eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant (17241804) sweeps such speculation to one side by distinguishing character from temperament: Temperament is given one by nature or habituation. People may vary in their temperaments, and indeed be classified by their dominant humors; however, character, which one either has or lacks, is the property of the will by which one binds oneself to self-prescribed rational practical principles. Kant's most influential ethical work, The Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, identifies character with the good will, a will motivated solely by duty or principles of practical reason that it legislates to itself; Kant gives character the role of making use of such qualities as courage, resolution, and perseverancewhich belong to temperament and might be bad if not in the control of a good will, the only thing good without qualification. In the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant likewise describes virtue as self-constraint, a power to withstand those of our inclinations that oppose moralitynot merely some habit of morally good actions, virtue requires acting on "considered, firm and continually purified principles."

Neo-Aristotelian critics have charged that Kant's emphasis on acting on principle results in his neglecting the roles character and virtue play in both a good ethical life and morally praiseworthy action, and Kantian defenders often reply by pointing to Kant's doctrine of virtue. But the criticism can be raised anew with respect to Kant's conception of character and virtue itself, for these replace appropriate feeling and the sensitivity it affords with a commitment to acting on principle. One source of apparent disagreement between Kant and Aristotle is terminological: Aristotle defines moral character as a disposition of appetite and emotion, but he insists that it cannot exist without practical wisdom. So Aristotle does not consider an act or person guided solely by appetite and emotion, however well trained these may be, to be virtuous or praiseworthy. For Aristotle, practical wisdom is necessary for appetitive and emotional dispositions to be good (this is what distinguishes virtue proper from natural virtue), just as for Kant, the good will is necessary for courage, resolution, and perseverance to be good. Still, principle is not practical wisdom, and Kant has less faith in the ability of developed capacities of judgment and feeling to result in right action, and more faith in the ability of principles to do so, than does Aristotle. This may be one reason for Kant's restriction of character to one's commitment to the ends that practical reason prescribes itself; presumably another is that, to the extent that character is the appropriate object of praise and blame, it ought to be voluntary, and Kant takes only our resolutions, but not our natural and habituated inclinations, to be voluntary.


Not himself a utilitarian, the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume (17111776) characterizes virtuous character traits as those that tend to the good, of mankind or at least of their possessor, and vicious ones as those that tend to the bad. Hume thus shares with utilitarians the view that the moral value of a character trait depends on its nonmoral value for people. Given its first widely influential formulation by Jeremy Bentham (17481832) in the nineteenth century in The Principles of Morals and Legislation, utilitarianism focuses on the rightness or wrongness of actions: the principle of utility deems that action right that, of the available alternatives in any given situation, tends to maximize the happiness of those affected. Utilitarianism's critics fault it for being insensitive to the importance of character evaluation for moral evaluation, but John Stuart Mill (18061873), a second-generation utilitarian, already stresses that acts ought to be evaluated for their consequences on character and character formation and includes as ingredients of happiness or utility such diverse intrinsic goods as friendship and virtue. A utilitarian may also subject character-traits and rules, and not only acts, to utilitarian assessment.


In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, questions have been raised about whether there is such a thing as character at all. The existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (19051980) charged that to explain a person's (one's own or someone else's) action in terms of his or her character is to assimilate the action to an event in the natural world (for which the character is an ad hoc explanation), denying the person's freedom and refusing the rational understanding that human action demands. In a separate development, a research tradition in experimental social psychology, "situationism," holds that people's behavior is not distinctive or consistent across a range of situations. These criticisms may apply more to the conception of character as revealed in signs than to the conception put forth in philosophical ethics.

See also Aristotelianism ; Good ; Kantianism ; Moral Sense ; Person, Idea of the ; Utilitarianism ; Virtue Ethics .


Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Christopher Rowe. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Bentham, Jeremy. The Principles of Morals and Legislation. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus, 1988.

Boyce, Benjamin. The Theophrastan Character in England to 1642. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1947.

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. Edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon; New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Kant, Immanuel. Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. Translated by Mary J. Gregor. The Hague, Netherlands: M. Nijhoff, 1974.

. Practical Philosophy. Translated by Mary J. Gregor. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Includes Metaphysics of Morals and Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals.

Klibansky, Raymond, Erwin Panofsky, and Fritz Saxl. Saturn and Melancholy: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion, and Art. New York: Basic Books, 1964.

Liddell, Henry George, and Robert Scott, comps. Greek-English Lexicon. Oxford: Clarendon; New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Mill, John Stuart. Essays on Politics and Culture. Edited by Gertrude Himmelfarb. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962.

. Utilitarianism. Edited by George Sher. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1979.

Railton, Peter. "How Thinking about Character and Utilitarianism Might Lead to Rethinking the Character of Utilitarianism." Midwest Studies in Philosophy 13 (1988): 398416.

Ross, Lee, and Richard E. Nisbett. The Person and the Situation: Perspectives of Social Psychology. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Anti-Semite and Jew. Translated by George J. Becker. New York: Schocken, 1948.

Theophrastus. The Characters of Theophrastus: An English Translation from a Revised Text. Translated by J. E. Sandys. London: Macmillan, 1909.

Rachana Kamtekar


views updated May 08 2018


Character is a psychological, philosophical, and a literary concept. A distinction needs to be drawn between this concept and the metapsychological aspects of character and its relation to symptoms and neurosis.

There are two main ways of defining it, which are interconnected. Concepts of character are designated on the one hand by the metapsychological aspects that are intrinsically connected with developments in theory and, on the other hand, by the distinction between normality and pathology and, specifically, the convergence between character and the major concepts of neurosis, psychosis, and borderline conditions.

The concept of character appeared as early as 1900 in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), in connection with the importance of mnemic traces. The role of fixations emerged more clearly in 1905 in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), emphasizing the role of sublimation in character formation; Freud wrote: "A sub-species of sublimation is to be found in suppression bb reaction-formation" (p. 238). He then described various character types associated with the partial drives in "Character and Anal Erotism" (1908b) and "Some Character-types Met with in Psycho-Analytic Work" (1916d). It was in 1913, in "The Disposition to Obsessional Neurosis: A Contribution to the Problem of Choice of Neurosis" that he most sharply differentiated symptom and character: "the failure of repression and the return of the repressedwhich are peculiar to the mechanism of neurosisare absent in the formation of character. In the latter, repression either does not come into action or smoothly achieves its aim of replacing the repressed by reaction-formations and sublimations" (1913i, p. 323).

In 1923, with the introduction of the structural theory, character is located in the ego and the importance of identifications is emphasized: "an object which was lost has been set up again inside the egothat is, an object-cathexis has been replaced by an identification....We have come to understand that this kind of substitution has a great share in determining the form taken by the ego and that it makes an essential contribution towards building up what is called its 'character'" (1923b, p. 28). Character thus comprises the history of object-choices that have since been abandoned. However, the earliness of these identifications should not allow us to forget that the earliest identifications with the parents are those that influence the constitution of the superego rather than the ego (Lecture 32, New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, 1933a). Here the function of character traits as resistance is frequently emphasized: "we may now add as contributions to the construction of character which are never absent the reaction-formations which the ego acquiresto begin with in making its repressions and later, by a more normal method, when it rejects unwished-for instinctual impulses" (p. 91).

Freud saw a degree of overlap between character and symptom in spite of their differences and maintained that it was the failure of the defensive function of character that led to repression and neurosis; in "Analysis terminable and interminable," he demonstrated that: "the defensive mechanisms, by bringing about an ever more extensive alienation from the external world and a permanent weakening of the ego, pave the way for, and encourage, the outbreak of neurosis" (1937c, p. 238).

The "libidinal types" (1931a) have been considered a development of character theory. However, these are in fact an attempt by Freud to attribute a key role to the agencies of the structural theory (id, ego, and superego) in a psychoanalytic nosography.

The study of character has been continued by various authors but it has been overtaken by the subject of character resistance and the associated problems of technique. Karl Abraham emphasized the importance of fixations, although he cautioned against the notion of a fixed nature as something that is disproved by modifications in character ("A Short Study of the Development of the Libido," 1924/1927). He set out to establish a semiology of psychic material and emphasized the earliness of object relations involved in symptom-formations and character-formation. Wilhelm Reich is known mainly for the modifications in technique that he advocated with patients who presented him with "character armor." This means avoiding interpreting drive impulses before having interpreted and overcome this resistance, layer by layer. In their demonstration that a large number of muscular reactions are designed to prevent the breakthrough of emotions, excitations, or anxiety, these descriptions are reminiscent of Pierre Marty's discussions of rachialgia (1963).

In The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (1945), Otto Fenichel also demonstrated the need to resolve the conflicts between the drives and defenses. Raymond de Saussure considered character as a developmental stage in which the subject has become stuck and not as a type that is established for a lifetime.

Jean Bergeret (1976) described character and structure by distinguishing three levels of character: Character, as an emanation from the deep structure in relational life, traces the progress or failure of the structural development; character traits, elements of the fundamental character, are often associated with elements of other forms of character, compensating for deficiencies in fundamental character through adaptive requirements, and can thus appear in a different structure from the one from which they derive. Character pathology, on the other hand, corresponds to the "borderline" economy and its decompensation leads to a deformation of the ego, with the onset of more or less severe forms of splitting.

Otto Kernberg's work on character forms part of his studies of borderline functioning. In "A psychoanalytic classification of character pathology" (1970), he proposed a classification of character pathologies with three levels of severity, corresponding to the level of development of the drives, the superego or the ego, or the more or less pathological nature of the character traits. The three levels of severity that he distinguishes are reminiscent of the levels of mentalization in Pierre Marty's theory of character neurosis.

The issues raised by character traits continue to be of interest to the French psychosomaticians among others. In "Névrose de caractère et mentalisation" (Character neurosis and mentalization) for example, Michel Fain (1997) argued that the disappearance of a character trait indicates a dementalization occurring in an essential depression rather than the resolution of a neurotic process.

Robert AssÉo

See also: Anal-sadistic stage; Character Analysis ; Character formation; Character neurosis; "Confusion of Tongues between Adults and the Child"; Countercathexis; Dependence; Ego; Eroticism, anal; Eroticism, urethral; Failure neurosis; Fate neurosis; I; Identification; Indications and contraindications for psychoanalysis for an adult; Orality; Paranoia; Psychic structure; Psychological types (analytical psychology); Reaction-formation; Sex and Character ; Sublimation; Transference neurosis; Transgression.


Abraham, Karl. (1927). A short study of the development of the libido. Selected papers of Karl Abraham. London: Hogarth. (Original work published 1924)

Bergeret, Jean. (1976). Personnalités normales et pathologiques: Les structures mentales, le caractère, les symptômes. Revue française de psychanalyse, 40 (2), 351-370.

Fain, Michel. (1997). Névrose de caractère et mentalisation. Rev. française de psychosomatique, 11, 7-17.

Fenichel, Otto. (1945). The psychoanalytic theory of neurosis. New York: W. W. Norton.

. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4-5.

. (1905d).Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.

. (1908b). Character and anal erotism. SE, 9: 167-175.

. (1913i). The disposition to obsessional neurosis: A contribution to the problem of choice of neurosis. SE, 12: 311-326.

. (1916d). Some character-types met with in psychoanalytic work, SE, 14: 309-333.

. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.

. (1931a). Libidinal types. SE, 21: 215-220.

. (1933a). New introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. SE, 22: 1-182.

. (1937c). Analysis terminable and interminable. SE, 23: 209-253.

Kernberg, Otto. (1970). A psychoanalytic classification of character pathology. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 18, 800-822.

Marty, Pierre. (1963). La psychosomatique de l 'adulte. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Reich, Wilhelm. (1945). Character analysis: Principles and technique for psychoanalysts in practice and in training (Theodore P. Wolfe, Trans.). New York: Orgone Institute Press. (Original work published 1933)


views updated May 11 2018


In the world of the early Republic, every man active in politics worried obsessively about his "character," although not in the sense in which one would use that word in the twenty-first century. In the eighteenth century, character referred almost entirely to one's public reputation—an extrinsic, rather than intrinsic, quality. Character was something that one fashioned and held, so that one would speak of "acquiring" a character. In the early years of the new nation, the word took on tremendous political importance as leaders attempted to construct a distinctly American political tradition.

The founders' political reliance on notions of character was the product of the American Revolution, which had tarnished their most important political model, Great Britain. After spending much of the century striving to become more like their English cousins, Americans found themselves thrust into a political wilderness of their own making. The Revolution added a further stumbling block to their efforts to create a new political world. The unity of the Revolutionary cause, always problematic given that roughly a third of the population remained loyal to England, at least at the beginning of the war, had given way to the bickering and squabbling of thirteen individual states with differing and sometimes conflicting ideas about what sort of nation they were creating. But the founders still clung to the ideal of unity and continued to have exalted ideas about the necessity of working toward the public good. This Revolutionary legacy gave them a repugnance for politics as usual. Politicians and party politics were anathema to their ideas of good government, and they expressed disgust with the idea that they had risked their lives to found a nation that would become the tool of self-interested and self-serving politicians.

acquiring character

In this atmosphere, character became inordinately important as a means of insuring that only the right sort of men would stand at the helm of the ship of state. But how did one gain the proper character? That in itself was part of the problem. There really were no clear standards or codified rules. At the most basic level, political leaders were supposed to be gentleman, but even this standard proved problematic in an American context. Unlike their British counterparts, who could count on the aristocracy to provide a continuous standard to which other British gentlemen aspired, American society was much more fluid, and the differences between the highest and lowest of society were not that large. Because of this, young, ambitious, talented men such as Alexander Hamilton (a penniless newcomer who was an illegitimate child) could rise to prominence in just a few short years through their service during the war and could be accepted as men of character. Even as men such as Hamilton were accepted into the political leadership, though, many, including Hamilton himself, began to complain that the door had been thrown open too wide and that men without the proper character were becoming political leaders. In addition, people argued about which qualities constituted the proper character. At stake was nothing less than what sort of political world they were trying to create as well as how inclusive the political realm would be.

Losing one's character was as problematic an issue as gaining it. One could certainly lose one's character through obvious acts of corruption, such as stealing public money, although even areas like this were more ambiguous than might be imagined. At the time, there was no clearly established boundary between public and private life, which is one of the reasons why character itself was so important and yet so problematic. Robert Morris, the superintendent of finance for the Continental Congress during the early 1780s, used his position for both the public good and private profit, something that loose eighteenth-century notions of conflict of interest allowed.

Despite their abhorrence of politics as usual, political leaders necessarily became enmeshed in political activities, such as organizing allies, attacking foes, counting votes, and contesting elections. Yet even as they strayed from their ideals in their own actions, the founders would have bridled at the suggestion that they were politicians. For most, this tension between word and deed led them to cling to and insist on their own characters even more fiercely and to denounce the characters of their enemies even more viciously. One of the reasons that other founders repeatedly criticized Aaron Burr as a scoundrel unfit for public life was that he not only dirtied his hands in politics but reveled in it and did not even make an attempt to hide his delight.

national character

Further complicating the issue, when the founders talked about character, they were talking not only about their own personal character but about the character of the nation as well. The founders were obsessed by the challenge of how to establish a proper character for the nation. They believed that the success of the nation hinged on these efforts. As George Washington warned in 1783 after the Treaty of Paris had ended the war, "this is the moment to establish or ruin … national Character forever…. It is yet to be decided, whether the Revolution must ultimately be considered as a blessing or a curse: a blessing or a curse, not to the present age alone, for with our fate will the destiny of unborn Millions be involved."

Eventually, this reliance on character gave way to an acceptance not just of politics but of politicians and even political parties. Character came to be seen as largely dependent on one's actions in private life. And politicians would be rewarded or punished by how well they served the party's interest. Common origins were celebrated, not shunned, and the door to political life was thrown open to all—at least ostensibly.

See alsoFame and Reputation; Politics .


Adair, Douglass. Fame and the Founding Fathers. Edited by Trevor Colbourn. New York: W. W. Norton, 1974.

Freeman, Joanne. Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001.

Trees, Andrew S. The Founding Fathers and the Politics of Character. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Andrew S. Trees


views updated Jun 27 2018


A term derived from the Greek χαρακτήρ, meaning engraving. Since the engraving on an object originally showed the worth of the thing, moralists use the term character to designate the moral worth or value of a human person. In a wider sense, character has come to mean any distinctive sign; psychologists use the term in this sense to designate particular dispositions of an individual or of a group that account for their distinctive modes of behavior.

In a broad sense, character signifies a strong adherence to principles that can be morally good or bad. Taken in this meaning, a strong character enables a person to do what he wants and to dominate over his environment and other individuals; in this understanding, a person with a strong character can be morally objectionable. More properly, however, character signifies the good moral values manifested in a person's deliberate actions. An individual has a strong character if his responsible actions are in accord with objectively good moral principles. A man of character consistently lives up to moral norms as he knows them. His subjective knowledge of what is morally acceptable concurs with objective norms given by nature and God's revelation. The remainder of this discussion is concerned with character in this more proper meaning.

Role of Will. In character, the will plays a leading role. Although the will is a spiritual faculty of the soul, it is nevertheless indirectly influenced by an individual's physical disposition and temperament. Native physical endowments of temperament affect the acquisition of a good character. Moreover, the environment of family and other social relationships, by affording favorable opportunities, provides wholesome influences in the formation of character. Although heredity and environment can give a suitable background, the formation of a good character develops from personal efforts required in doing what is known to be right. Undoubtedly an individual can surmount the unfavorable moral circumstances of family and environment and acquire a strong moral character.

The will is the faculty of choice. In its act of choosing, the will prefers one course of action from the several motives proposed by the intellect (see motive). When the choice of the will is expressed externally, the character of the person is manifested. If the choices are consistently bad morally, the character is noted as bad; if the choices are good, the character is likewise good. If a choice is a departure from the usual pattern of morality, it can be said that the act is not characteristic of the individual.

Frequently the will is presented with several possible courses of action of which some may be morally bad. It is the will that must choose either to follow an easier but morally wrong course or to adhere to principles that assure good moral conduct. This dilemma of the will takes place under temptation when there are alternatives either of pursuing the advantage of the moment when to do so is not morally good or of choosing what conscience dictates as morally right. Although actual grace from God gives supernatural assistance in such a choice, the inherent strength of will provides the natural dispositions for God's grace. The choice that the will makes remains the responsibility of the individual. A strong moral character enables the person to cooperate more easily with the helping grace of God.

Character Formation. Because the will is the most important factor in the formation of a good moral character, the will must be made strong. Strength of will is acquired through the practice of virtues, while natural virtues result from repeated and consistently good actions. It is the purpose of a virtue to give an added power and inclination to a faculty. The will is given this power when it has become qualified by the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Growth in these virtues is essential for building a strong and good character. Catholic theology rightly asserts that the cardinal virtues are infused and remain with sanctifying grace; however, promptness and facility in the use of these virtues comes only from putting them into practice.

prudence is a virtue of the practical intellect that inclines one to choose the most suitable means to effect a good result. However, prudence also has a definite effect on the choices of the will. It trains one to think before making decisions, and it inclines him to be firm in carrying out what has been sufficiently deliberated. Prudence is the director for the other cardinal virtues. This direction makes a person's choices reasonable so that they escape the pitfalls of both foolish excess and regrettable deficiency. A good moral character must have the balance afforded by prudence.

justice plays an important part in character, for it directly inclines the will to respect the rights of other persons. The man of character is truthful and honest because others have the right to be dealt with truthfully and honestly. He is habituated to act justly: this course of action is his mark or characteristic. Temperance brings to the will an added impetus to control the concupiscible emotions that pull toward isolated sense pleasures that sometimes are contrary to the total moral good of the person (see temperance, virtue of). Although the desires and aversions of the senses tend to what is good, their goals are limited goods that must be reconciled with the entire pattern of life. A man of character is strong enough to resist the advantage of the moment. Fortitude, or courage, when it has been acquired through practice, enables the will to use the strong irascible emotions rather than take the line of least resistance (see fortitude, virtue of). This virtue urges a person to pursue a good course of action despite the difficulties encountered.

See Also: habit.

Bibliography: thomas aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1a2ae, 4989. r. allers, Psychology of Character, tr. e. b. strauss (New York 1939). g. w. allport, Pattern and Growth in Personality (New York 1961). e. b. barrett, Strength of Will (New York 1915).

[j. a. burroughs]


views updated May 23 2018

char·ac·ter / ˈkariktər/ • n. 1. the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual: running away was not in keeping with her character. ∎  the distinctive nature of something: gas lamps give the area its character. ∎  the quality of being individual, typically in an interesting or unusual way: the island is full of character. ∎  strength and originality in a person's nature: she had character as well as beauty. ∎  a person's good reputation. ∎ dated a written statement of someone's good qualities; a recommendation.2. a person in a novel, play, or movie. ∎  a part played by an actor. ∎  a person seen in terms of a particular aspect of character: shady characters. ∎ inf. an interesting or amusing individual.3. a printed or written letter or symbol. ∎  Comput. a symbol representing a letter or number. ∎ Comput. the bit pattern used to store such a symbol.4. chiefly Biol. a characteristic, esp. one that assists in the identification of a species.• v. [tr.] archaic inscribe; engrave. ∎  describe; characterize.PHRASES: in (or out of) character in keeping (or not in keeping) with someone's usual pattern of behavior.DERIVATIVES: char·ac·ter·ful / -fəl/ adj.char·ac·ter·ful·ly adv.char·ac·ter·less adj.ORIGIN: Middle English: from Old French caractere, via Latin from Greek kharaktēr ‘a stamping tool.’ From the early sense ‘distinctive mark’ arose ‘token, feature, or trait’ (early 16th cent.), and from this ‘a description, esp. of a person's qualities,’ giving rise to ‘distinguishing qualities.’


views updated May 23 2018


General term in psychology used to describe behavior motivations and personality traits that make each person an individual.

Character is most often used in reference to a set of basic innate, developed, and acquired motivations that shape an individual's behavior. These qualities of an individual's motivation are shaped during all stages of childhood . By late adolescence , around age 17, the traits that make up individual's character are normally integrated into a unique and distinctive whole. The term character is sometimes used as roughly synonymous with the term personality , although such usage does little to reduce the imprecision of either term. Some psychologists believe that differences in character among individuals largely reflect affective, or emotional, differences, that are the result of biochemical or other organic variations. Many psychologists claim that character, to some extent, is a function of experience. These psychologists, generally, believe that, as the early behavior of an individual directed toward a primary, instinctive goal is modified by environmental circumstances, the motivational system of the individual is also modified, and the character of the individual is affected. There is some dispute among psychologists about whether, or to what extent, character may be controlled by conscious or rational decisions, and about whether, or to what extent, character may be dominated by unconscious or irrational forces. At the same time, there is widespread agreement among psychologists that, while much research remains to be done to delineate the genetic, instinctive, organic, cognitive, and other aspects of character, the development of a reasonably stable and harmonious character is an essential part of a psychologically healthy existence.

Character education, a periodic but recurring theme for schools to teach basic values and moral reasoning to primary and secondary students, attracted renewed popularity in the 1990s. Character education initiatives have developed at the local and state levels, but reflect a national trend. In 1995, President Bill Clinton and the U.S. Congress declared October 16-22 "National Character Counts Week." In character education, teachers confront students with moral dilemmas and ask them to formulate and defend courses of action.

Many prominent educators, politicians, and academics support character education. Opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union, object to character education because it could lead to teaching religious beliefs. Some religious groups oppose it as well, since public school teachers must avoid teaching religion and could make character a virtue that is anti-religious.

See also Personality development

Further Reading

Lockwood, Anne Turnbaugh. Character Education: Controversy and Consensus. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press, 1997.

Murphy, Madonna M. Character Education in America's Blue Ribbon Schools: Best Practices for Meeting the Challenge. Lancaster, PA.: Technomic Publishing Co. Inc., 1998.


views updated Jun 11 2018

Character ★★ Karakter 1997 (R)

Based on the 1938 novel by F. Bordewijk, which follows the troubled relationship of young lawyer Jacob Willem Katadreuffe (van Huet) and his overbearing father in 1920s Rotterdam. Dreverhaven (Decleir) is a powerful baliff who has an illegitimate son with his servant, Joba (Schuurman), who turns down his marriage proposal. Still, Dreverhaven is determined to control his son's life, even if it means ruining him first. No wonder the old man gets murdered. Dark and unsentimental. Dutch with subtitles. 114m/C VHS, DVD . NL Fedja Van Huet, Jan Decleir, Betty Schuurman, Victor Low, Tamar van den Dop, Hans Kestig; D: Mike van Diem; W: Mike van Diem; C: Rogier Stoffers; M: Paleis Van Boem. Oscars ’97: Foreign Film.


views updated Jun 11 2018

1. An element of a given character set.

2. A subdivision of a word in a machine, usually comprising 6, 7, or 8 bits. This is also called a byte.

3. The smallest unit of information in a record.


views updated Jun 11 2018

character distinctive mark XIV; graphic symbol XV; sum of mental and moral qualities XVII; personage, personality XVIII. ME. caracter — (O)F. caractère — (mostly late) L. charactēr — Gr. kharaktḗr instrument for marking, impress, distinctive nature, f. kharássein scratch, engrave.
So characteristic XVII. — F. — late Gr. characterize XVI. — F. or medL. — late Gr.


views updated May 14 2018

character (trait) A distinctive inherited feature of an organism. Organisms in a population may display different aspects of a particular character, e.g. the A, B, and O human blood groups (see ABO system) are different aspects of the blood group character.