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Volume 1

Expanded Contents


1: Introduction [and Summary]
2: Physical Field Theories
3: Psychological Field Theories
4: Social Field Theories
5: The Field of Power
6: Field Theories in Summary
7: Perception and Reality
8: Actuality versus Potentiality
9: Manifests versus Latents
10: Latent Functions
11: Perception, Space, and Field
12: Cognitive Dissonance
13:Behavior, Personality, Situation, and Expectations
14: The Behavioral Equation: Behavior, Situation, and Expectations
15: Situation, Expectations, and Triggers
16: Person-Perception and Distance
17: The Behavioral Occasion
18: Social Behavior
19: Motivational Explanation
20: Energy and Attitudes in the Psychological Field
21: Motivation and the Superordinate Goal
22: What About Other Motivations ?
23: The Dynamic Field and Social Behavior
24: The Sociocultural Spaces
25: The Biophysical Spaces
26: Intentions and The Intentional Field
27: A Point of View
28: The Self As a Power
29: The Will As a Power
30: Determinism and Free Will
31: Alternative Perspectives on Freedom of the Will
32: A Humanism Between Materialism and Idealism
33: Atomism-Mechanism versus Organicism
35: Humanity and Nature

Other Volumes

Vol. 2: The Conflict Helix
Vol. 3: Conflict In Perspective
Vol. 4: War, Power, Peace
Vol. 5: The Just Peace 

Other Related Work

The Conflict Helix: Principles and Practices...


Chapter 34

Between Absolutism

By R.J. Rummel

... it is clear that each individual thing is one and the same with its essence, and not accidentally so, but because to understand anything is to understand its essence.
---- Aristotle, Metaphysics


A customary contemporary view of modern science and thought is that we have learned to appreciate relationships between things in contrast to the ancients, who emphasized absolutes, essences, definitions, and categories--things-in-them selves. Modern people supposedly not only embrace relativism in the natural sciences, but in history, customs, and ethics. For example, one philosopher believes that relations are the focus of science, that all scientific research reveals relations, and that to "grasp the meaning of a thing, an event, or a situation is to see it in its relations to other things. . . ."1 Another philosopher even asserts categorically that the "backwardness" of the social sciences results from their emphasis on the nature of social things and their definition.2

An example of the historical shift from absolutes--substances of things--to relationships between things can be seen by comparing modern and traditional logic. Traditional-Aristotelian-logic, emphasizes subject-predicate propositions, and the conclusion that can be deduced about a thing from premises predicating something about that thing. Modern logic, however, like its sister discipline, mathematics, has become relational. The logic of relations3 has largely replaced subject-predicate proposition, such as "China is powerful." It is now a question whether subject-predicate propositions are, in the final analysis, really a special case of relations. In mathematics also, there has been a shift from what can be predicated about things (the angles of a triangle sum to 180 degrees) to relations, which is the great modern emphasis on functions. And in physics, the great revolution wrought by Galileo, Kepler, and Newton was in replacing with functional-mathematical relationships preoccupation with the forms, or ideas, of things.4

Among the first to philosophically underwrite this shift were Locke, Hume, and Kant. In the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke argued that judgment must involve comparison between things (ideas) and that to know something is to know its relations, the most important of which are identity and causality. For Locke, however, relations were only one aspect of complex ideas, the others being mode and substance. Hume went further in making relations basic in his An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding. He argued that all that we know comes from our senses (experience) and that this experience is fundamentally the relationship of contiguity, resemblance, or cause-effect between events. Therefore, the primary components of our knowledge are relations, not substance or properties. Unlike Hume, who made relations a matter of experience, Kant considered relations a category of the mind by which we make experience intelligible. He classified judgments into quantity, quality, modality, and relation, and relations consist in part of cause to effect and predicates to subject. For Kant, Aristotle's substance became subsumed under relations.

The shift in the contemporary world view to relations is correlative with the growth in an organismic and systems perspective in science and philosophy, as discussed previously. The belief that a whole and its parts are organically related, that the whole transcends its parts, and that parts have meaning only in the context of the whole or system, emphasizes the relationship, the interdependence, between things. Absolutes, essences, things-in-themselves apparently have dropped from the philosophical-scientific view, except in the "backward" social sciences.

To those who share this world view, I should strike a resonant note in describing our intentional field, for in the field, the elements affecting us take on importance partly as a result of their mutual relationships; the field forces affecting our potentials, dispositions, and powers fundamentally express relations between us and our body, environment, society, and culture. But to leave it at this is to be as obscure as many current relativist discussions. Moreover, as will be seen, I think the total emphasis on relations is mistaken. Clearly, the meaning of relation needs clarification. But this in turn involves considering a nest of distinct but related issues.

Essentially, these issues can be boiled down to the core historical dispute over absolutes versus relations, and four closely connected antitheses: internal relations versus external relations, definitionalism versus functionalism,5 realism versus nominalism (the central argument of medieval scholastics), and essentialism versus methodological nominalism. At the outset, the terms relation and absolute should be clarified.


 The term relation is in general indefinable.6 At best, we can say only that the term expresses something about one thing with regard to another. A relation involves three elements: a subject (that which is related to something else), an object (the something else), and a foundation. The foundation is the basis for the relationship, although it is not the relationship itself.7 For example, the United States (the subject) is similar (the relationship) to the United Kingdom (the object) in economic development (the foundation). As another example, in the proposition drinking is a cause of automobile accidents, the relationship is one of cause and effect, and the foundation is a quantitative concomitance between drinking and accidents.

Can a relationship as such exist? Some idealists (for example Hegel) and phenomenologists have believed that relations exist only in the mind, and Aristotle felt that relations are not real because they involve no generation, movement, or destruction. Now, as a term a relation is distinct from a foundation. It adds nothing new to the foundation, although a relation is identified with it. Therefore, if the foundation is objectively real (has existence apart from mind), then so is the relation. For example, in the relationship of inequality, China has a bigger population than Japan. Clearly, the populations of the two countries are the foundations for this relationship and are real. Therefore, the relationship of inequality is real. Not all relationships are real, however, as in John loves Mary, or we have a duty to preserve life.

What about the favorite modern proposition, "All is relative"? The notion here is that all we can know is of things in their mutual relations (often a supposed generalization of Einstein's theory of relativity), such as their relative motions, positions, and forces; or in the case of human beings, of their relative knowledge (relative to the social context), values, and institutions. Although attractive in the light of modern physical science and anthropology, this view is fundamentally mistaken. Although it cannot be denied that our sensory knowledge is relative to our senses and perspective, nor that our beliefs, institutions, and morality vary by culture, from this indeterminateness and variation does not follow the argument that things-in-themselves are relative.

A relationship cannot exist apart from the foundation, which in turn cannot exist apart from things. A relationship, therefore, entails the existence, in external reality or in the mind, of things to be related. The subject and object that are connected must exist apart from those relationships, otherwise the term relationship has no meaning. They are absolute in their separate existence; they exist on their own, in themselves. Thus, to say that X is related to Y is to imply an X and Y separate from that relationship. All things are not relative alone. Rather all things are both relative and absolute.

This is a verbal game, it may be argued. Given my characterization of "relation," the existence of an absolute X and Y necessarily follows. But, I think this misses the point. The view that all is relative really means that relations are necessary to characterize a thing. A thing, X, may have absolute dispositional properties; but to know X, to distinguish X from other things, to identify X whenever X occurs, requires including relational properties in the characterization of X. Thus, to use the technical term, relations are internal to things, and this is all that is meant by "all things are relative." Opposed to the view that relations are internal is the belief that things can be characterized aside from their relations, that relations are external.

One argument for the internality of relations is that of absolute idealists who argue that things can only be known relative to an absolute Mind, Spirit, Reason, God. These relations must be internal to things, therefore, for to characterize a thing necessitates expressing its relationship to the One. Another argument for intrinsic relations stems from the seventeenth-century belief that knowledge was obtained by deduction within an axiomatic system modeled after Euclidean geometry. Things are then known by their relationship to this deductive system; things are then partly characterized by their logico-mathematical relations. Yet another argument, perhaps more congenial to modern views, is that of Brand Blanshard,8 who asserts that things are in essence their relations to other things; things exist in a network of relations and to know a thing completely is to completely specify these relations.

The mistake in these arguments can be seen from my previous clarification of the meaning of relation. If relation means something about an X with regard to a Y, then there must be a kernel X aside from relations that is the subject of the relationship. Nor is it any good to say that for a particular relationship, X is characterized in part by other relations, for this would make X vary in nature by context (by relationship being considered), and this is the same as saying that X is relative to context. What then is this subject X relative to context if it is not some nonrelative X, that is, an absolute characterization?

For example, the intrinsic relations school might argue that we know government as a government by its relations (causes, consequences, effects, context, and so on) to other things. In comparison to other things, however, we find that the thing called government has a causal-functional and meaningful unity that is categorizable by genus and differentiating principles from, say, family, state, or crowd. What I am arguing is that even to assert that government is a relational term is to imply some taxonomic classification that assumes a "government" in itself9 to be identified.

In opposition to the belief that all relations are internal, some hold that no properties, and therefore no relations, are intrinsic to a thing. This is fundamentally a positivist and empiricist view associated with such philosophers as Karl Popper,10 Ernest Nagel,11 and A. J. Ayer.12 They assert things are what we find convenient or useful to characterize them as, which is a matter of language and convention. Although X does not have intrinsic properties, the properties conventionally used to designate it are not arbitrary either, but are a pragmatic matter. Thus, "government" is as we characterize it because this characterization has been useful in understanding and explaining specific sociocultural behavior.

This view has a surface plausability, but is as fundamentally untenable as its contradiction (relations are intrinsic). Consider an X that has properties assigned by pragmatic convention. Then X must consist wholly or partly of relationships with pragmatic conventions. Now X cannot be wholly a relationship, for a relationship has no logical or real existence apart from a foundation and a foundation entails some absolute X and Y. That is, if for a particular relationship, X is partly characterized in terms of other relationships, when the totality of these relationships are considered, there must be a core X which has nonrelational properties. Ultimately there is an X* without relational properties underlying the X which we consider to be conventional.


The antithesis, intrinsic versus extrinsic relations, has been seen to involve the question of whether a thing is what it is by virtue in part or in the whole of its relations. Before considering a compromise position within the context of intentional humanism, the related antitheses should be discussed, one of which is realism versus nominalism.13 Basic to this issue is the question of whether both particulars (a particular bird, human being, or war) and universals (the class of birds, humanity, or wars) exist. Nominalists argue that only particulars can have existence, such as a specific riot or a parade. Those universals by which we classify a thing as a riot or as a parade, that which is common to all like particulars, that riotness or paradeness, are only names. They are labels attached to properties abstracted from similar particulars and have no reality aside from the particulars. Most methodological individualists are nominalists, in the sense that they argue that groups or social wholes as such do not exist, but that these are terms describing particular common behavior of individuals. Moreover, those who argue that the properties of things, including their relations, are extrinsic are also nominalists.

Those who take the other side of this issue historically have been called realists. They argue that the universals and particulars are both reals; that, for example, what it is to be a cow--cowness--exists and that a cow is but a particular manifestation of this existence. Clearly, idealists, methodological holists, and those who argue that relations are intrinsic find realism a congenial position.


 Another related antithesis, one that is more implicit in the history of philosophy and the development of science than the last, is that between classification and function. Early Western philosophy and Medieval scholasticism emphasized classifying things. By knowing a thing's nature and thus being able to correctly call it a bird, democracy, or justice, we explained it. Wisdom was based upon knowing diverse things and their distinctions, and knowledge was an encyclopedic classification of things. Classification is, of course, necessary to make discrimination, but up until modern times a classification approach dominated--rather than being auxiliary to--philosophy and the natural sciences, and still plays a large role in the social and life sciences. As examples, consider comparative politics in which most energy goes into classifying and defining types of governments, their structures and their functions, and entomology wherein most research effort is similarly taxonomic.

With the growth of a mathematically oriented science manifested in the efforts of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and later Newton, a shift in emphasis took place from the nature of a thing itself to the functional relationships between things. Explanation of a thing X began to comprise showing the logical or mathematical connection of X to U, V, W, . . . , rather than displaying the essential properties of X that make it a member of class Y. Those recently attempting to apply mathematical-statistical approaches in the social sciences are trying to effect the same shift from classification (what is democracy?) to function (how is democracy related to war?).14


 Finally, the third related antithesis is essentialism versus methodological nominalism. Essentialism is a term first used by Popper15 to designate the belief in things having essential qualities-essenceness in themselves, and the resulting preoccupation with the definition and classification of things. Now, essence means that which makes a thing what it is; it is a thing's nature, its substance (as apart from its accidental qualities in Aristotle's sense), its primary qualities (as apart from secondary in Locke's sense), its being-in-itself. Essences can be real, that which actually exists apart from our mind like freedom ("our essence is our freedom of will"). For Aristotle, for example, the essence of a thing was that minimally necessary to identify it. This essence was like a Platonic form, the idea about a thing that was necessary to and unchanging in all such things. Change in things was simply the unfolding of the potentialities in this form, which itself was inherent in a thing. The essentialist view or its variants can be found implied in Socrates' what is ... queries, Plato's forms versus sensations, Locke's inner ideas definable by reflection, Kant's categories of the mind whose essence is knowable through reason, and Brentano and Husserl's phenomenological focus on the essence of judgment, belief, and feeling.

Because real or logical essences exist, essentialism emphasizes defining a thing in terms of these essences. Induction then involves intuiting what these essences are, which then implies that we have some faculty for grasping them. Because what we sense--our empirical world--gives us only particulars with an their accidental and ephemeral qualities, there must be an approach to things giving us knowledge of essences apart from our senses, and this is a rational-intuitive-insightful faculty.

A definition is then basic to the essentialists' view of knowledge, for a definition gives the essence of a thing. Truth is then correct definition, and since science is (for essentialists) deductive, arriving at truths from axioms stating the essence of things, definitions lie at the core of science. Scientific knowledge then comprises encyclopedic classification according to correct definitions, and explanation means proper classification. There is an absolute knowledge to be found based on the correct definition of things, an ultimate explanation which forever settles a question.16 In summary, essentialism implies that the goal of knowledge is to uncover the essence of things, such essence is given by a thing's definition, and definitions can be arrived at intuitively.

Methodological nominalism stands in opposition to this view. Believing that essences are obscure, that their emphasis hinders the growth of knowledge and encourages enshrining tradition and authority, methodological nominalists take an instrumental view of definitions. What we call a thing is a matter of convenience and of the role such things play in our theories. Given a thing we do not ask for its essence; we call it Y and then we try to explain Y by its relationship to other things. Moreover, because essences have no function in science according to these nominalists, scientific truth is contingent and scientific progress depends not on cataloguing but on theoretical speculation and testing. This position is currently fashionable and stands at the core of the Anglo-Saxon empirical tradition. This nominalism, however, involves a number of difficulties, not the least of which is the essentialism of its own central ideas (science is ... ; explanations are ... ; laws are ... ).17 But a discussion of this will take us too far into epistemology for my purposes here.


 So far we have considered briefly absolutism versus relationism, realism versus nominalism, and essentialism versus methodological nominalism. The discussion of these antitheses should have shown the similarity among them. Although distinct in concept, the different polar views have a close relation to each other. Realists tend to view relations as intrinsic, to emphasize essential properties, to be concerned with definition and classification, and to believe in an absolute nature of things aside from their relations. For nominalists, however, things are generally known by their relations, which like all properties are extrinsic, and to emphasize functions rather than definitions.

Between these opposing views there is middle way, strewn with qualifications to be sure, consonant with the spirit of intentional humanism. While things must have an absolute character, an essence aside from their relations, for the reasons I discussed previously, this does not mean that we must be essentialist in our approach to the world. What is important about things to us is the meaning they have pragmatically and contextually for our lives. Therefore, while an X exists in and of itself as potentials18 it is the relationship of X to us that actualizes these potentials, that gives them meaning for us.19 Therefore, relative to us, there are intrinsic relations; these relations are the meaning added to X by our perspective, our interests, and needs. Thus, to us there are really only Y's, where each Y equals an absolute X plus an intrinsic relation to us. For example, a stream has potentials in itself as a thing aside from us, but to a boy, a stream is a swimming hole; to a fisherman, a challenge; to a farmer, a source of water.

In that things do have essences, essentialism has a point. But to focus on these essences alone leads to sterile scholasticism and irrelevant knowledge. What is important about these essences is what is added to them in their relation to us, pragmatically. In this relation definitions and classifications are necessary but subordinate to explaining things. Although granting the existence of essences, by this relation science and its explanations need not become absolute and authority need not have the final word, for our interests and needs are constantly changing, and the final test, necessarily a contingent one as our values and perspectives are in continuous flux, is the ability of science to provide answers to our problems.

With this discussion in mind, we can now again consider a major perspective of intentional humanism and that guiding this work on conflict and violence, throughout, that of our intentional field. What is the essence of this field? First, it consists of us in our interdependent biopsychological, sociocultural, and ecological systems. Second, the field embodies their relationships; it is their relationships that define the field and its forces (powers). These forces are both physical and mental. They are cause-effect and functional relationships between the elements of the field and our dispositions and powers (our dynamic field) and their manifestations. Here, the important thing to note is that the intentional field consists of essential properties and mutual relations and that these relationships, some of which are field forces, are defined relative to us-in-the-field, that is, relative to the whole which is the field. These relationships are therefore intrinsic to the field in their qualities. Moreover the intentional field itself is absolute as bounded biopsychological, sociocultural, and ecological potentialities. Their actuality is their transformation by our reason and intuition, our values and norms, our loves and hates, our traditions and history, our hopes and desires, our future. 


* Scanned from Chapter 34 in R.J. Rummel, The Dynamic Psychological Field, 1975. For full reference to the book and the list of its contents in hypertext, click book. Typographical errors have been corrected, clarifications added, and style updated.

1. John Dewey, How We Think (New York: D.C. Heath and Co., 1933): 137.

2. I have in mind Karl Popper who makes this point consistently in his books. See especially, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol. 2 (New York: Harper & Row, 1963): 9-21.

3. See, for example, Alfred Tarski, Introduction to Logic and to the Methodology of the Deductive Sciences (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), Chapter 5.

4. Ernest Mach (The Science of Mechanics, trans. T. J. McCormack, Chicago, 1893) went so far as to require that every statement of physics be relational and that subject and object be observables.

5. By functionalism I mean the emphasis on explaining a thing in terms of its relationship to (function of) something else.

6. It can be given a specific definition, however, as I did in Equation 17.1 of Chapter 17 for the relation between personality and situation.

7. C. N. Bittle, The Domain of Being (Milwaukee, Wis.: Bruce Publishing Co., 1939), Chapter 20.

8. The Nature of Thought, Vols. 1-2 (New York: Macmillan, 1940).

9. My language does not imply real existence. A thing can exist in itself as a logical being, such as an idea, construct, or form. "Love" should suffice as an example.

10. See his discussion of methodological essentialism, The Open Society, op. cit., passim, and The Poverty of Historicism (New York: Harper & Row, 1964).

11. Sovereign Reason (Chicago: Free Press, 1954).

12.Language, Truth, and Logic (New York: Dover, n.d.).

13. The debate between realists and nominalists has been a major continuing philosophical issue. In the words of the third-century Neo-Platonist Porphyry, "First of all, as to what concerns genus and species, the question is to know if they are realities subsisting in themselves, or are merely simple conceptions of the mind, and supposing them to be substantial realities, whether they exist separately or only in sensible things and with regard to them" (quoted in Anne Freemantle, The Age of Belief, New York; The New American library, 1954: 20).

14. This movement has so far emphasized functions to the detriment of substance (classification), resulting in mindless mathematical models and quantitative analyses, and sterile, or at most trivial, functional relationships. The virtues as well as the vices of the classificatory approach have been thrown out, while the vices as well as the virtues of functional approaches were embraced.

15. Popper, The Open Society, op. cit.

16. Perhaps many readers will smile at this "absurdity." But consider that logic and mathematics were once the sciences and are still the queen sciences to many today. And are not logico-mathematical theorems, once defined within an analytic system, absolute? Once we know the correct essence of a theorem, such as (X - Y) (X + Y) = X2 + Y2 in algebra, do we not know this absolutely, forever without change and without need for further checking? Of course, analytic truths are different from empirical ones, and to be sure Godel's incompleteness theorem and the recent writings of Quine have raised questions about the absolute nature of analytic truths, but I am only trying to show that there is more to the essentialists' position than a contemporary wave-of-the-hand dismissal would allow.

17. Popper inveighs against essentialism in the same book, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (New York: Harper, 1965), in which his major concern is to define the principle of demarcation between the empirical sciences on the one hand and metaphysics and the analytic sciences (e.g., logic) on the other, and finds its essence in falsifiability. Were Popper to argue that this principle is really nominal (instrumental), then I would be forced to ask for the higher principle guiding his choice of this one. If an infinite regress is to be avoided, at some stage a stand must be taken on the basis of the thing-as-it-is-in-itself, which is what Popper ultimately does in his influential book.

18. See Chapter 7.

19. This position differs from the pluralism of Bertrand Russell (The Problems of Philosophy, New York: Oxford University Press, 1912) only in accenting the relation to human beings. Russell also believed that things have irreducible absolutes--which he felt was a necessary metaphysical condition. However, he also argued that analysis that makes our experience understandable is relational.

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