Open Access

Relational Determination in Interpersonal and Intrapsychic Experience


The task of this article is to review the principle of relational determination, as described by Solomon Asch (1952) which expands over Karl Duncker’s (1939) critique of ethical relativism. Relational determination has much to offer to the therapeutic community first with regard to interpersonal relations and social relations. My main goal is to extend this relational analysis to intrapsychic life, which may expose new potentialities for internal conflict resolution and personal integration, predicated on the cultivation of relational understanding (i.e., recognition of relational determination in organization of conscious experience). But this approach is best illustrated in its application to value differences and conflict across societies, which are typically viewed from the absolutist or relativist perspective.

The principle of relationality casts doubt on elementaristic assumptions common to both (e.g., meaning constancy). Such assumptions lead to some ill-considered conclusions: of irreconcilable moral differences dividing both individuals and groups, deprived of any basis in understanding. Those views fail to consider the contexts underlying the meanings and valuations we impute. When these are taken into account, Duncker’s hypothesis of an invariant relation between meaning and value finds support. Value differences (or changes) need not represent fundamental differences in morality, but instead (factual) differences in understanding of the situation. If so, then value differences may indeed be both understandable and reconcilable. Relational determination reveals this same potentiality with regard to intrapsychic conflict, where the same presumption of irreconcilable differences must be overcome. Work by Erich Neumann provides a valuable depth psychological perspective on this inner conflict, which accords surprisingly well with the relationality principle in particular and field theory in general. From that vantage point, psychological defenses may be recognized as structural properties of yet unreconciled psychical fields. Gestalt theory’s relational view, which aligns well with Neumann’s account of a “new ethic” helps to reveal the processes by which these defensive postures might abate, as value realms that earlier dwelt in hostile opposition develop more of a conscious and respectful relation with each other, as the individual inches toward greater wholeness.