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Kelman, H. (1952). Rational and Irrational Authority a Holistic Viewpoint. Am. J. Psychoanal., 12(1):50-61.

(1952). American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 12(1):50-61

Rational and Irrational Authority a Holistic Viewpoint

Harold Kelman, M.D.

This is an attempt to define authority. Certain definitions are essential. Authority may be rational or irrational. When the terms “rational” and “irrational” are used I mean “predominantly,” “on the whole” and “for the most part.” It is of course clear that absolute or perfect rationality is not humanly attainable and therefore does not exist; absolute or perfect irrationality is also not humanly possible. If a person were to approach that imaginable but not actualizable ultimate he would cease to exist as a living human being.

As essential background to this discussion of authority, I will discuss in sequence the terms rational and irrational, what I mean by “holism,” “system thinking” and the importance of the concept “position” in system thinking. Of necessity, comments on these concepts will have to be brief but I hope sufficient to indicate their meaning. An understanding of these concepts is basic for comprehending how I arrive at the posing of fruitful questions regarding the notion authority. Also at this point I want to make explicit that I am only discussing personal authority; i.e., a feeling a person derives from his evaluations of his feelings, thoughts and actions and those of others. I am not discussing functional authority; i.e., authority which derives from hereditary lineage, from a vested position in a group or organization, from acquired information, wealth or by virtue of a special competence, talent or gift whether innate and developed or acquired.

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