Book Review: Transactionalism: An Historical and Interpretive Study

The zero-sum, winner-take-all, business-as-usual approach has reached its endgame. We now believe in our bones that the onus is on us—faculty and alum—to bring our unique business philosophy to the wider world. So, what is transactionalism, and why does it get a bad rap? While what we teach can be quite heady, true transactionalism is just as much a matter of the heart.

What is true Transactionalism?

Human life, asserts John Dewey, “depends on transactions with other human beings, non-human beings, and things acting together in order to survive. From birth to death and beyond our lifetimes, we are all part of, and are constitutive participants in, an extensive body of transactions on which life itself depends.”

John Dewey, American Philosopher and Educator, The Pattern of Inquiry

Book Review:

Transactionalism: An Historical and Interpretive Study

By Trevor J. Phillips, Foreword by Kirkland Tibbels

Book review by Barry Anderson (September 2021)

Mr. Anderson is an Influential U member in our elite program, MAP2: PSTI. He resides in Victoria, Australia.

Transactionalism…a primer for a TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) world

What is Transactionalism? The philosophy is broadly influential on multiple fields of study (Political Science, Psychology, Education, and more), yet at the same time only fuzzily understood by most.

The term “transactional” is typically used today as a synonym for “quid pro quo”, which is to spectacularly miss the point. The purpose of true Transactionalism is perhaps best captured by Fredrick Barth (a social anthropologist): “It’s trying…to create a satisfactory life, a rich mutual life together” (p. 15).

This article is intended as a brief appetizer to Transactionalism, An Historical and Interpretive Study by Trevor J. Phillips (to which all page numbers refer) – a thesis that serves as both guide and tasting menu to the work of John Dewey and Arthur F Bentley among others, as well as to the work done in the Influential U curriculum, allowing us to translate this philosophy into success in our day-to-day lives.

But why even be interested in Philosophy? I mean in our fast-paced world, we barely even have time to think, let alone think about thinking. Philosophy is “the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence” (Oxford Languages via Google), and if our actions are always correlated to the way the world occurs (that is, we act in response to a perceived world), surely it’s important that our perception is accurate, lest the actions we take not only fail to produce the results we’re committed to, but worse still, damage our prospects of achieving our aims.

Self-action, Interaction, and Transaction

Three possible approaches to action

Self-Action (the view of the overlord) “ignores the interconnections which exist, asserting instead that each substantial thing is complete in itself…entities… have inherent capacities for activity which enable them to act under their own powers” (p. 53). An example of the type of speaking given by this worldview is “I alone can fix it…”

Interaction…(a cause and effect view) is a point of view that maintains that action occurs among independent entities, themselves unchanging and unchangeable” (p. 54). Example: Newton’s 3rd law of motion – that action and reaction are equal and opposite.

Both prior approaches share common ground in that both hold the participants as essentially unchanged by events. With the transactional view of action, however, “…phenomena came to be viewed less as the behavior of static entities and mutual isolates, and more as aspects of events in the process of becoming. A transaction, then is a creative act, engaged in by one who, by virtue of his participation in the act – of which he is always an aspect, never an entity – together with the other participants, be they human or otherwise environmental, becomes in the process modified” (p. 76). Another important tenet of the transactional view is that “all phenomena can be made to yield to description, however tentative such description may be” (p. 55). The tentative or preliminary nature of the descriptions is, in fact, a key aspect of the transactional view and arises from the work of Charles Sanders Peirce on Inquiry, where he articulated blocks to developing a more accurate understanding of a subject, namely the belief that either:

  • We know what there is to know on a subject; or
  • The truth of a given subject is unknowable.

The Role of Action

One of the basic tenets of transactional psychology is that, “Through action, assumptions are validated or modified; without action ‘knowledge’ remains untried, unproven, mere information” (p. 161).

Transactionalists in the field of psychology also believe that real change requires action:

  1. Thwarted purposeful action, that is, action the results of which have failed to fulfill the purpose of the action.
  2. The process of inquiry to determine “why” the action failed to produce the desired results;
  3. further purposeful action, modified according to the (tentative) new information resulting from the inquiry, the results of which fulfill the original purpose;
  4. an alteration of the assumptive world (all that a person assumes to be true about the world and themselves) as the result of the experience of this action (p. 152).

The Pattern of Inquiry

The process of inquiry mentioned above does not appear in Phillips’ Transactionalism, but was formulated by Dewey in Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (and is emphasized by Influential U in all of its advanced programs) and comprises 5 steps:

  1. Identify the problem or breakdown as an inquiry
  2. Clear articulation of the problem
  3. The determination of a Problem/Solution
  4. Reasoning
  5. Testing

Creativity and Intelligence

One of the basic tenets of transactional philosophy is that “Human behavior is a trans-dermal affair [through the skin]; intra-dermal [within the skin/skin-bounded] and extra-dermal [outside the skin] factors are to be viewed as aspects of the total behavioral event” (p. 112). Transactionalism accordingly rejects the notion of creativity and intelligence as intra-dermally located endowments or gifts, maintaining that they are effects of the adequacy of perception, which comes from a rich variety of experiences transacting with one’s environment.

“The process of living, transactionally defined, is primarily a creative process” (p. 196).


According to Dewey, to say that something is satisfactory is to assert the judgment that it “will do” in meeting a particular set of conditions, not only now but in the predicted future (p. 105), but the accuracy of our judgments is a function of the adequacy of our perceptions. Accordingly, in studying with Influential U, we deliberately practice transacting repeatedly, that we might improve the accuracy of our perceptions and the effectiveness of our actions, leaving us, at the end of the day, with both professional growth and personal satisfaction.


Additional Notes by Co-Founder John Patterson


As Influential U Co-Founder, Kirkland Tibbes wrote: This book is the result of what started out to be a simple search to find an answer to what I thought was a simple question: “What is transactionalism?” When I began my inquiry, I expected to search the internet and find everything I needed to know, like most subjects, nicely bundled into categories that would lead me to the most general and introductory information, then into the more advanced and highly specialized. What I was looking for was the former; what I found was the latter. It seemed odd at first, that a subject so widely utilized and referenced in so many discourses lacked an easy-to-find introductory source. Yet there were none.

It became abundantly clear that this curious layman was not going to get a simple answer.

Like Dewey, Bentley, Oerter, Barth, Bruner, and too many others to mention in this forward, a great fortune is there to be mined, but digging it out is not going to be an easy task. “The accessibility of transactionalism is limited,” Ms. Aldrich points out, as she acknowledges the “Herculean task…” scholars have before them.

With the help Dr. Phillips provides in this thesis, and with the help of many other committed professionals, the aim of creating a single reference as well as a source for the continued development of the philosophy of transactionalism is made possible.

“Perhaps the work starting here can lead to an entirely new modern philosophy, or if not something so ambitious, perhaps a framework to ground our thinking and acting. One that supports the inescapability each of us face in confronting the conditions of human life in our highly complex, often indifferent, technologically socialized existence. Maybe, as we pursue a good and satisfying life for ourselves and those for whom we care, we, in our own way, contributing as we are able, might arrive at a place, together, where we recognize and respect the diverse positions and worldviews that make up our global society. Transactionalism confronts the notions that keep us separate from each other and our environment. It offers a perspective and potentiality of action that embraces our role as participants in the creation of our current existence, especially in this highly advanced age where we are so willing and ambitiously testing the limits of our natural and social constraints. If we can…if we are willing, we could bring into existence a satisfying condition of life that recognizes and honors the individual as a natural part of something significant, universal, and complete. The opportunities and advantages available to us are great if, through cooperation, we are able to coexist, help, be helped, and heed the words of Barth and Bruner and – face the facts of our transactional selves.”

Foreword, Kirkland Tibbels, Ojai, 2014

Transactionalism on Wikipedia

In April 2016, the first article on the subject was entered into Wikipedia. Prior to that, odd as it was, there was no definition to be found there. Since then, the article on Transactionalism has been grounded in definition, background, and five philosophical tenets. The citations number in the hundreds and the term and philosophy are now substantiated by most dictionaries, schools, and other philosophies across the landscape of philosophy.

Link to the article

Quid pro quo is a Latin phrase used in English to mean an exchange of goods or services, in which one transfer is contingent upon the other; “a favor for a favor.” Phrases with similar meanings include: “give and take,” “tit for tat,” “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours,” and “one hand washes the other.”

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