Main Page
Alphabetical Index

Hints for prints


Core constructs
Kelly defined core constructs as those that govern people’s maintenance processes – that is, those by which they maintain their identities and existence (1955, p. 482). Kelly worked in the tradition of American pragmatism, citing the thought of John Dewey as his inspiration. Dewey was strongly opposed to Cartesian dualism, that doctrine that separates mind from body, and instead emphasised action as the focus of his psychology. The concept of action (like construing) fuses thought, emotion and behaviour in the intentional way that people approach the world. Kelly proposed the existence of core constructs having no allegiance to either mind or body that are comprehensive and consequently have a wide range of convenience. They are therefore conceived as superordinate constructs concerning the process of the self (Stefan, 1977; Butt, Burr & Epting, 1997).

Although Kelly is often characterised as a humanist in psychology textbooks, he differed from other humanists like Rogers in that while he saw the person as a centre for choice and agency, he made little reference to the self . He certainly did not conceive of an essential self that pre-dated construing and inhabited a material body. Core constructs, like all others, are the result of a process of construction . They evolve to help us anticipate a particularly important set of events – ourselves. But the self is not an internal spiritual entity, but a mind/body (or Merleau-Ponty’s "body-subject"). So Kelly drew on the concept of core structure to understand problems like psychosomatic symptoms and conversion hysteria (1955, pp. 868 –873). His analysis centres on what people may be doing with physical complaints; how they may be using them in their interaction with others and the world. His objection to dualism is nicely summed up in this quote:

The (hysterical) client translates his problem from terms which for him are ‘psychological’ into terms which for him are ‘physiological’. He thinks that makes a different problem out of it. He is able to think so because he is a dualist. If he were not a dualist, the disguise would not work. Conversion is therefore characteristically a disorder of culture groups whose thinking is dualist. (1955, p. 872)

Of course, this construing is conducted beneath the client’s level of awareness . It is also an example of pre-emptive construing , in which the mistake is to think of a phenomenon as either physical or psychological. The hysterical symptom is therefore considered to be physical and nothing but physical by the client. The job of the psychologist is to propose a useful psychological construction, drawing on the concept of core structure.

see: Core role structure


  • Butt, T. W., Burr, V. & Epting, F. (1997) Core construing: Discovery or invention? In R. A. Neimeyer & G. J. Neimeyer (Eds.), Advances in Personal Construct Theory: Volume 4.  (pp. 39-62). New York: Springer.  
  • Kelly, G.A. (1955). The psychology of personal constructs. (2 Volumes) New York: Norton.
  • Leitner, L. (1987). Crisis of the self: the terror of personal evolution. In R. A. Neimeyer & G. J. Neimeyer (Eds.), Personal construct therapy casebook  (pp. 39-56). New York: Springer.
  • Leitner, L. (1992). Sharing the mystery - a therapist’s experience of personal construct psychotherapy. In H. Jones & G. Dunnett (Eds.), Selected Papers form the second British conference on personal construct psychology (pp. 1-16). York, UK
  • Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962) Phenomenology of perception. London: Routledge.
  • Stefan, C. (1977). Core role theory and implications. In D. Bannister (Ed.), New perspectives in personal construct theory (p. 281-298).  London: Academic Press.

Trevor Butt

Establ. 2003
Last update: 15 February 2004