A Dream of Reason- VI Part 6- Personal-Interpersonal Field Revisited

The Personal-Interpersonal Field Revisited (1995)



Sorokin argues that to actualize sociology as a science requires openness to its autonomous requirements:

Many sociological empiricists still regard sociology  as an alter ego of the natural sciences, particularly of the physico-chemical sciences, in its structure, method and referential principles. If the claims advanced by this school of sociological thinkers were realizable, they would mean the complete absorption of sociology and the social sciences into the physico-chemical sciences. If socio-cultural phenomena could be adequately explained in terms of the physico-chemical sciences, this would mean that they were simply physico‑chemical phenomena and nothing more. In that case, no sociology or social science would be needed; for physico-chemical sociology would be merely another way of designating the physico-chemical sciences. No basis exists for a duplication of the same science under two different names. (1943, 3, 4)

He then specifies “the generic structure of the socio-cultural phenomena”:

Any empirical sociological phenomenon consists of three components: (1) immaterial, spaceless and timeless meanings; (2) material (physico-chemical and biological) vehicles that “materialize, externalize or objectify” the meanings; and (3) human agents that bear, use and operate these meanings through the instrumentality of the material vehicles. (4)

Yet of these three only “meanings” are unique to “the socio-cultural”. Conceived outside explicit focus on meanings, material and humans are physico-chemical and biological phenomena.[1]

Wolfgang Kohler remarks:

Phenomenally, the bodily “self” is not a physical entity outside immediate experience as is the physical organism; it is, rather, a percept of which we are aware, enriched by changing moods, attitudes, efforts and activities. Similarly “objects” are phenomenal things…. (69)

Their place is not in the “self.” Why should these percepts be localized inside another particular percept?…but in other parts of phenomenal “space,” near or far as the case may be. (69)

Does the self always play the dominant role in our phenomenal field? Undoubtedly it does not…. (86)

Often it is not the self from which vectors reach out towards other people. (87)

That which Kohler explores above is variously designated in Gestalt psychology “phenomenal field,” “behavioral field” and “behavioral environment.” We will refer to the “person-group field.”[2]

The central tendency of Gestalt psychology is to recognize, carefully reconnoiter and then refuse commitment to the person-group field as disciplinary domain of inquiry. Further exploration is subordinated to the project of the unity of science. Kurt Koffka:

We cannot accept the behavioral environment as that psychological   field which is to be our fundamental explanatory category. (46)

In our ultimate explanations, we can have but one universe of discourse and…it must be the one about which physics has taught us so much. (48)

Subject to further inquiry, we suggest that Kurt Lewin was the first in this tradition to explicitly and decisively assert the person-group field as psychology’s domain of inquiry.

“The personal-interpersonal field” incorporates the “person-group field” with inter-group and macro patterns.


According to Michael Wertheimer the principle of “pragnanz” asserts [that] the organization of the field tends to be as simple and clear as the given conditions allow” (Wertheimer 239). Facets of pragnanz include “symmetry,” “good continuation,” “fittingness,” “simple shape” and

“closure” (Koffka).

Koffka asserts that pragnanz results in either “maximum or minimum simplicity” (109):

Roughly speaking, a minimum simplicity will be the simplicity of uniformity, a maximum simplicity that of perfect articulation. (171)

Minimum simplification de-differentiates. It is a “negative dynamic.” – Maximum simplification clarifies and actualizes potentiality. It is a “positive dynamic.”


The hypothesis that clarification/actualization is the only positive dynamic suggests a personal-interpersonal world in (resisted) movement towards completed geometric figures (literally for percepts, metaphorically for other patterns).

Yet immediate lived existence is at every point an interpenetration of patterns (Znanieki 149).

Simmel explores this interplay through the hidden ambiguities (“the inner life”) of blue:

When…we represent the color blue, it is perhaps an element of the sensibly real world, which is the seat of our practical life. The picture in our imagination where we have only detached the color from the accompanying circumstances with which the world of reality has interwoven it, probably belongs to this significance of the color. Within the abstractness of the pure world of knowledge, however, blue is meaningful in quite another sense: there it is a particular oscillation of ether waves or a particular position in the spectrum or a particular physiological or psychological reaction. It signifies something else again as an element of the subjective world of feeling – in the lyrical feelings we might have in the face of a blue sky or the blue eyes of our beloved. It is the same blue, and yet, by its contextual meaning, it is oriented in a completely different way, when it belongs to the religious sphere, perhaps as the color of the Madonna’s cloak or more generally, as a symbol of a mystical world. (Weingartner 301)

Writing now in New York City in 1995, blue for me is open to this place and time: “the blues,” the flowing speaking line of Mississippi John Hurt’s guitar … blue Mondays, Picasso’s blue period,…the brilliant surreal blue of neon lights.



Sociological and psychological discussions usually occur where free flow of language (language not only “working routinely,” but inventing itself: playing and dancing …rejoicing and mourning) is carefully excluded. (It is as though one would attempt to comprehend the full potentialities of humanity entirely through analysis of “office work.”)

In order to avoid this distortion we proceed in dialogue with art. Here we take our experiments in direct quotation (influenced by Pound and Eliot) to an extreme…. We need just enough of the right selections to “open” received tradition without breaking connection.


We begin with brief quotations (usually excerpts) from recent and contemporary poems in English that work through “everyday language.”


New York 1989









In the cellar

Exhalation of heat,



Passage of heat

Through pipes…


Dwellers here




Or cruel

Or fade


Or lost

Or gray


Or self ignite

Or starry night


Or moon cool ice.


William Carlos Williams:


The Great Figure


Among the rain

and lights

I saw the figure 5

In gold

On a red

fire truck




to gong clangs

siren howls

and wheels rumbling

through the dark city. (Ellman 290)


Robert Lowell:


From Skunk Hour


A car radio blasts,

Love, O careless Love…I hear

My ill spirit sob in each blood cell,

As if my hand were at its throat…

I myself am hell;

Nobody’s here. (939)


From To Speak of Woe That is in Marriage


Our magnolia blossoms. Life begins to happen.

My hopped up husband drops his home disputes,

And hits the streets to cruise for prostitutes,

Free lancing out among the razors edge. (937)


Jon Silkin:


From Death of a Son


And then slowly the eye stopped looking

Inward. The silence rose and became still.

The look turned to the outer place and stopped,

With the birds still shrilling around him.

And as if he could speak.


He turned over on his side with his one year

Red as a wound…

And out of his eyes two red tears rolled, like stones,

And he died (1279)


Wallace Stevens:


From The Idea of Order at Key West

She sang beyond the genius of the sea

The water never formed in mind or voice,

Like a body wholly body, fluttering

Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion

Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,

That was not ours: although we understood,

Inhuman, of the veritable ocean. (251)


James Joyce’s Ulysses opens:

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressing gown ungirdled was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned in introibe ad altare Dei. (2-3)

Cross is cross, large or small, composed of rough unfinished slabs of wood or intersection of mirror and razor: saturated with metaphoric and creative resonance…. Ritual as play. Play reborn in art.


I experience (or should I say I am?) a complex interplay of interpenetrating sounds, colors, scents, symbols, shaped by and shaping innumerable projects in and through infinite situations.

All historical individuals (e.g., persons, relationships, moments, orders of life) are complex constellations of interpenetrating gestalten that in pull and counter-pull, permit – at times compel – openness, interplay, improvisation and contextual creativity.

We interpret “pragnanz” as asserting the natural autonomy of all personal-interpersonal patterns (not only shaped by but shaping). Pragnanz interpenetrates potentialities for interplay and metamorphosis.


The comparative interpretation of “existential” constellations is a theoretically relevant problem exiled by social-behavioral “science’s” obsession with prediction and control.

A generating question is “What is one’s (yours or mine) unique existence in relation to species potentialities (e.g., for love, courage, justice and beauty)?”

Species potentialities can be explored through their compromised, distorted institutionalizations

(Every order of life is both a realization and a betrayal), their   ephemeral ambiguous appearances in our intimate relationships, and their relatively precise, permanent embodiments in art.

It is no more (and no less) problematic to take the position of “humanity” than of “the social system,” or any other theoretical construct.

That which is “boundary maintenance” or collapse for “the system” can be liberation or breakdown for “the person” and renaissance or regression for “humanity.”


Our mutual curiosity about each other is not limited to prediction and control.

Sometimes, especially in love, we would predict in order to guard the other from control (to “map the other’s buttons” in order not to push them).

Sometimes we would understand one another in “I –Thou terms” in order to persuade (i.e., to secure the other’s unforced and unmanipulated free assent).

Sometimes we explore to enjoy, or with no end in view… Humans pursue understanding naturally, as plants seek sunlight.


We commit sociology-psychology in the name of reason to the passion for a just, compassionate and creative personal-interpersonal existence.


In “social science” theoretical prediction and control dominate. In the sociology-psychology of our life together and apart concern with dynamics is nourished by and nourishes other voices and concerns.

Exert from A Dream of Reason by Avron Soyer, Continue Reading A Dream of Reason V. Wild Flowers Again- A Room of our Own


[1] Sorokin’s other discussions of sociology’s domain of inquiry are more useful, for example, his discussion of socio-cultural causality, space and time.

[2] Although the original Gestalt psychologists focus on the intra-psychic, their concerns extend to the group. This is carried further by, among many others, Solomon Asch and Fritz Heider.


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Writings and Interviews by Avron Soyer

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