Prologue to a paper in progress


This version as of June 13, 1996

Andrew Lock

The world has changed somewhat since I was a lad. Something peculiar happened in 1964. A lot of people blame the Beatles, but it seems to me it was something else. There was a meeting of Commonwealth Prime-Ministers in London - in 1964, I think - (they were always in London in those days, I think) which was dominated by a dispute between the British Government of Harold Wilson and the Rhodesian Government of Ian Smith, which had recently made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence, claiming no longer to be a British Colony but a sovereign state in its own right. There had been some 'gunboat' diplomacy and intimidation to no avail; sanctions were imposed; and Harold Wilson was apparently acting beligerently at the Commonwealth Conference to get all countries to toe the British line and introduce economic sanctions. His beligerence was reported as collapsing when Jomo Kenyatta said to him: 'Look, Harold, it's not your Commonwealth anymore'. We stopped getting half-days off school for 'Commonwealth Day' after that.

This was perhaps a decisive point in a long trend, a point when 'we' could no longer assume 'we' held hegemony over the 'truth'; were no longer the voice of authority. It was a point when 'we' began splitting into 'us' and 'them': when members of my generation stopped identifying ourselves with the hegemonic culture of our post-war childhoods; when 'we' began to gain some inkling of what we were being 'subjected' and 'subjugated' to; when we began to explore a 'subjectivity' of our own. We'd been brought up knowing that the sun never set on the British Empire, but we hadn't till then heard that it was because God wouldn't trust an Englishman in the dark. 'Our' views were being contested from all around.

Can you imagine the shock of going from reading 'Scouting for Boys' to 'The Little Red Schoolbook'? Of 'My Generation' making heroes out of the p-p-p-people our mothers warned us about? Of our parents getting the opportunity to take holidays in Spain, only to find they had to get up at 6 in the morning to reserve a pool-side seat, otherwise the bloody Germans would have them - remember the Germans, they were the ones who lost the war - and who, after Basil Fawlty could forget this? It was a point when the promises of the modern age began to look a bit warn. It happened in lots of other Western cultures too.

One characterisation of this change has been offered by Dick Higgins (quoted in McHale, 1992, pp, 32~33), a sometime poet and performance artist, (and as an artist he is able to date it as happening a little earlier than us ex-spotty teenagers do):

The Cognitive Questions

(asked by most artists of the 20th century, Platonic or Aristotelian till around 1958) :
'How can I interpret this world of which I am a part? And what am I in it?'

The Postcognitive Questions

(asked by most artists since then):
'Which world is this? What is to be done in it? Which of my selves is to do it?'

McHale (op. cit.) suggests that the terms 'epistemological' and 'ontological' should be used to construct the division between the two eras, and Higgins' questions indicate why: that is they shift from epistemological questions of how we can know the world to ontological ones of what world(s) we exist in, what we can do, etc. Now, artists may have begun to look at the world in a new way back then, but psychology went on largely unfazed. Until recently, when what have been dispersed voices at its margins have begun to attain some significance.

Psychology is perhaps the broadest of all academic disiplines. You will find work in contemporary University department's that stretches all the way from the minute chemistry of neural events through to broad issues of philosophy. The hegemonic value tends to be that of science, founded in a perspective that goes back to Locke and Gallileo. This science omits secondary (subjective) qualities which reside only (internally) in the consciousness of 'individuals', and is concerned only with primary (objective) qualities existing in a common (external) world.

Now, if you were a botanist, this would be a sensible tactic. Afterall, no-one can ever know what it is like to be a tree. But if you are a human being, then you have a very direct knowledge of what it is like to be a human being - you in particular. But this is a subjective view, isn't it? Therefore, scientific psychology decrees you must ignore this potential source of data, and it is only legitimate to study people from the outside, as objects to be scrutinized from the third-person, objective standpoint. The norms of psychological science emerge in a similar fashion to those of other sciences:

'the gradual elimination of the subjectivity and personal history of the investigators, and the gradual production of a description of nature in the ahistorical terms of form and structure' (Bazeman (1988), Shaping Written Knowledge:The Genre and Activity of the Experimental Article in Science. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, quoted by Shotter, 1993:157).

On the other hand, one could take the view that in outlawing this particular domain of knowledge one is wantonly throwing away a lot of data (or maybe the ontological baby with the epistemological bathwater).

But in the past few decades, the bases from which Descartes provided the celebration of individuality from which doubt could be dispelled and truth established - his conclusion Cogito ergo sum; I reason therefore I am; I cannot doubt that I am the one who doubts - have themselves become increasingly doubted (or contested), such that we might seem to be in a soup of uncertainty again. These doubts form the central planks of what has come to be called, for shorthand, 'postmodernism'. From these doubts, the project of the social sciences, in general, has shifted. This shift is very much centred in our 'grasp' of language and the problems that we have faced in coming to terms with how, as we used to think, language related to reality; and thus it is linked to our understanding of 'reality'; and finally, to our understanding of 'ourselves'. The project has shifted from an attempt to

'locate an already determined real world beyond the social and historical, and to attempt to discover this world in the depths of either people's organic or psychic nature. [Once] it was the task of language to represent the reality of these [hidden] worlds. But now, many take seriously Foucault's claim (1972: 49) that our task 'consists of not - of no longer - treating discourses as a group of signs (signyfying elements referring to contents or representations) but as practices that systematically form the objects of which we speak' (Shotter, 1993: 38).

Our understanding of 'language' has itself shifted from the idealised pole of Saussure's distnction - langue - to the reality of performance - parole. And the term 'language' has been gradually replaced by that of 'discourse'. And we find that

'discourse is not the possession of a single individual. Meaningful language is the product of social interdependence. It requires the coordinated actions of at least two persons, and until there is mutual agreement on the meaningful character of words, they fail to constitute language. If we follow this line of argument to its ineluctable conclusion, we find that it is not the mind of the single individual that provides whatever certitude we possess, but relationships of interdependency. If there were no interdependence - the joint creation of meaningful discourse - there would be no "objects" or "actions" or means of rendering them doubtful. We may rightfully replace Descartes's [sic] dictum with communicamus ergo sum.' (Gergen, 1994, viii)

We communicate, therefore I am: and

'I am conscious of myself and become myself only while revealing myself for another, through another, and with the help of another . . . every internal experience ends up on the boundary . . . The very being of rnan (both internal and external) is a profound communication. To be means to communicate . . . To be means to be for the other; and through him, for oneself. Man has no internal sovereign territory; he is all and always on the boundary . . .' (Bakhtin, 1984:287)

In this communlcational view of ourselves, then, the current view we have of persons, is an illusion, maintained by the institution between us of certain special forms of communication. There has emerged a major shift, in some quarters at least, that: human reality is a conversational one: For example:

The primary human reality is persons in conversation. (Harre, 1983: 58)

Conversation, understood widely enough, is the form of human transactions in general. (MacIntyre, 1981: 197 )

If we see knowing not as having an essence, to be described by scientists or philosophers, but rather as a right, by current standards, to believe, then we are well on the way to seeing conversation as the ultimate context within which knowledge is to be understood. (Rorty, 1980: 389)

The actual reality of language-speech is not the abstract system of linguistic forms, not the isolated monologic utterance, and not the psychophysiological act of its implementatlon, but the social event of verbal interaction implemented in an utterance or utterances. Thus, verbal interaction is the basic reality of language. (Volosinov, 1973: 94)

If we pursue recent work further, then we find that a lot of the ground has been cleared in charting the characteristics of Sausurre's delineation of 'la parole' as it has been transformed into a notion of discourse. Drawing on Ian Parker's (1992) summary list:

a) a discourse is anything that humans do in their everyday lives that involves speaking.

b) traditionally, speaking has been downgraded to language, which has been taken as a representative system that has reference. However, neither 'representation' nor 'reference' are properly understood in either psychology or philosophy. In a discourse sense, speaking is about the world, but not in a one-to-one relationship with it: some of the objects we talk about are constituted by the ways we speak about (and with) them. We can even take our speaking as an object, and study it.

c) similarly, it is speaking that acts to constitute the speaker as a subject. Speaking creates positions from which to speak; and positions that one is also subjected to (and in). All those who speak - have a voice, share in a dialogue with, etc. - share the same characteristics as biological objects (we are all the same species: Homo sapiens sapiens,) but as discourse (human) subjects they are all very different.

d) speaking, or rather 'discoursing' is - usually and remarkably - blessed with coherence. That is, to be taken as 'discoursing' rather than just using words senselessly, incoherently, as a result of a stroke, as a computer simulation; to be taken in such a way a speaker conveys some form of 'connected' sense. Successful film-makers, novelists, advertisers and politicians have this off to a fine art; unsuccessful ones do not have it off to such a fine art; and concensus is possible as to what films, novels etc are more successful than others: 'It was a dark and stormy night ... ' has not gone down well in the annals of critical appreciation, for example, as an opening sentence for a novel. The task of the discourse analyst is to elucidate the often implicit coherence of speaking, and the categories that it is classified into. Challenging the coherence that is so found is the job of the critical psychologist.

e) while coherence is not well understood, it has been claimed - and a lot of people go along with this one - that a deal of the coherence of discourse comes from its relation to other discourses. That is, discourses get their meaning their value out of their relation to other things that have been said, not said; or even could have been said (and probably have been). Somehow or other, we also have a sense of which of these discourses are hegemonic, allowable or out-of-bounds (otherwise we would not be able to distinguish genius from madness - and we do appear to have some useful, though unarticulated, agreements in place to categorize 'wierdness' into 'nuts', 'dangerous', 'worthy of seeing a psychiatrist and being locked up for everyone's peace of mind - like recidivist multiple rapists', 'the mad professor', 'walkabout', PeeWee Herman, etc., (such things used just to be assumed under 'badness'; now we can articulate them a bit better). This is all quite remarkable, and to elucidate how we do it this is the goal of one branch of 'critical psychology'.

f) our speaking tends, very often, to be reflexive, contradictory and to otherwise exhibit, spontaneously, all the varieties of 'tricks' that have been identified as being deployed in rhetoric (irony, hyperbole, etc.). (Refs). Now, there are a lot of things going on here; a lot of 'work' is being done. Why should we be contradictory? We are supposed to be rational beings. Our demonstrable contradictoriness in what we say at different places on the same topic is quite remarkable and clear: we really, each of us, and without lying, contradict ourselves consistently more than we don't. A notice on a colleague's door sums this up quite well:

    Student's bring joy to this room.
    Some when they enter;
    and some when they leave.

From these points, it will be clear that the basic phenomena dealt with in a critical approach are of a different nature from those that are held to be at the basis of empirical psychology. That is, the 'facts', for want of a better word (inverted commas and disclaimer illustrating the rhetorical nature of this discourse just noted), to be 'discovered' in investigation are nowhere near as clear-cut as those experimentalists believe they are uncovering. Determining exactly a psychophysical threshold is theoretically and methodologically possible; discovering exactly what someone meant exactly is theoretically and methodologically impossible. This leads to the next point:

g) speaking is historically situated, since many of the things we talk of, and the ways we accept for talking about them, result from practices established in the histories of our particular cultures, traditions, sub-cultures and the like. But in addition, speaking has a wider temporal context than just the history in which it is situated, for speaking itself constitutes the present; and the relation between different present discourses patently affects the future course of human relationships.

h) speaking creates and supports social institutions. This paper is one such institution.

i) speaking involves the definition, reproduction and transformation of power relations. This is very important in the context of the professional accreditation of academic degree programmes. Accreditation is a very clear example of 'policing boundaries'. The current professional 'rules' make it very difficult to get the kind of psychology programme Nepean is proposing given an 'acredited' status. Politically, the path being proposed is a breath of fresh air; pragmatically one comes face to face with an understanding of 'power', since the power being wielded by these professional codes is concretely,palpably real.

j) speaking is an ideological practice. This is too difficult a notion to unpack here, but I mention it so as to make explicit the inherent politicality of discourse research, the fact that it has the character of a moral science rather than a natural science.

l) finally, speaking is constitutive of our selves. Almost 40 years ago, the American anthropologist A. Irving Hallowell described basic orientations that a culture, in present terms, a body of speaking, provides to locate and constitute human selves with respect to what was and was not self; what objects were to be valued; where and when one was; etc. His work is central to today's concerns.

1. What is a critical approach in psychology?

There is no single form of 'critical' psychology. We could distinguish 'discursive psychologies' of varying varieties, eg Harre and Gillet (1994) The Discursive Mind; Parker (1992) Discourse Dynamics; Edwards and Potter (1992) Discursive Psychology - all of which have different standpoints; and then 'social constructionist' psychologies of varying varieties, eg Harre (1986) The Social Construction of Emotions; Shotter (1984) Social Accountability and Selfhood; Gergen (1991) The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life; which we could then split into separate camps - the 'representational-referential', such as Gergen (1994) Relationships and Realities, drawing on the writings of Saussure, Deridda, Lyotard and Rorty - and the 'rhetorical-responsive', such as Shotter (1993) Social Constructionism, Rhetoric and Knowing of the Third Kind; Billig (1991) Ideology, Rhetoric and Opinions. This latter grouping draw extensively on the writings of Bakhtin and Volosinov from the Russian tradition that influenced Vygotsky's conception of developmental psychology, which is presently represented in this critical sphere by the work of Wertsch, eg (1992) Voices of the Mind, who might not wish to align his position with either social constructionism or discursive psychology at all. And I've yet to mention Foucault's oeuvre; feminism; Althusser; Wittgenstein.... This is a tough topic - 'the critical approach' - to take on. It is a topic that is itself thoroughly contested.

So, let me offer a caricature: a list of some things that would generally be taken as going along with being labelled as a member of the 'critical' camp. I draw on Gergen (1985) in the first instance.

1. A critical stance towards 'taken-for-granted knowledge': do not accept that the categories that we use to apprehend the world - either derived from our untutored, common-sense grasp (which is culturally relative to the historical situation of the traditions we grew up in) or from science - necessarily refer to real divisions that exist in 'reality'. Numerous philosophies have grappled with the problem of 'reference' - how what we say might 'code' something 'out there' in a clear one-to-one mapping, and none have resolved the issue. The 'categories' that we think about are not clearly anchored in reality as natural givens with salient values that leap out at us from the world; but our categories have a relation to our 'purposes'. For example, does nature 'force' us to take for granted different forms of personhood based on distinctions between genitalia (man vs woman); or colour (black vs white) rather than ears (lobed vs unlobed)?

2. Historical and cultural specificity: ways of understanding are culturally and historically specific. This means that one cannot assume that one's own assumptions about the nature of the world are any nearer the 'truth' than anyone else's.

For example, Lienhardt (1961) has written about the world view of the Dinka (Souther Sudan), and how it is imbued with external spirits that have powers to affect them. Thus, if a Dinka adult went to Khartoum, was mugged, got home and the next night awoke from a nightmare, their explanation would be couched in terms of the bad spirits that were present when they were attacked had followed them home and attacked them again in their sleep. By contrast, if any of us were to get mugged in Kings Cross tonight, and wake up reliving the event in a nightmare tommorrow night, then we would give a very different account, in which the active agents were located internally within our memory, the gates of which were released under the influence of sleep (is sleep something you do, or something which happens to you?): I challenge you to empirically disprove one of these accounts.

3. 'Knowledge' is sustained by social processes: if our knowledge is not sustained by it's correspondence to 'natural reality', then the only other conclusions are solipsism (individual delusion) or social life (communal practice). Well, whatever philosopher's might have difficulty proving, it is quite clear to me that the world is not a complete figment of my imagination (which is a rationally- contestable claim), and I doubt that many would disagree. Thus our knowledge has to be sustained by our communal practices. Now, there are many possible social worlds, out of which many 'social constructions' as to its 'nature' are possible. And each construction brings with it, or invites, different ways ways of acting and being human, and different ways of conceptualizing. Thus, the view that knowledge is constructed and sustained by social interaction.

4. Knowledge and social action go together in practice: as stated, this sounds just trite. But, many now take seriously Foucault's (1972: 49) claim that our task 'consists of not - or no longer - treating discourses as groups of signs (signifying elements referring to contents or representations) but as practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak.'

Let me draw two of the features that distinguish a critical approach from a traditional approach in social psychology.

a. Realism is contested: we still lack an understanding of 'reference'. It really is unclear how words relate to 'reality' in any one-to-one correspondence. In fact, those in the critical perspective would, in large measure, go along with the view that we 'create' our own versions of reality amongst ourselves. Two quotes:

Conversation flows on, the application and interpretation of words and only in its course do words have their meaning. Wittgenstein, 1981: no. 135

In rejecting realism, I reject the idea that there are discoverable, indisputable 'foundations' , or 'standards', or 'limits' in term of which claims to truth can bejudged. Yet, I do not of course want to go so far as to say that, so long as one can tell a good story in its support, then just 'anything goes' . (Shotter, Conversational Realities;13)

The tensions here further problematize the notion of 'truth' as something that can be elucidated by a psychological science; it makes the attainment of an all-encompassing 'grand narrative' a chimera; and it means that critical psychologists will claim they are pursuing other goals:

The [critical social psychologist] is little likely to ask about the truth, validity, or objectivity of a given account, what predictions follow from a theory, how well a statement reflects the true intentions or emotions of a speaker, or how an utterance is made possible by cognitive processing. Rather, for the [critical social psychologist], samples of language are integers within patterns of relationship. They are not maps or mirrors of other domains - referential worlds or interior impulses - but outgrowths of specific modes of life, rituals of exchange, relations of control and domination, and so on. The chief questions to be asked of generalized truth claims are thus, how do they function, in which rituals are they essential, what activities are facilitated and what impeded, who is harmed and who gains by such claims? (Gergen, 1995: p.53)

b. Essentialism is contested: There exists no primordial human nature to be discovered. Similarly, there is no 'true' person or personality to be discovered. Who is the 'real' you? Are you the same person to all people: partner, child, parent, colleague? Which one of the accounts these different people could give is correct? or wrong? This is a radical view, one that would even challenge some true radicals, e.g.:

No short-haired, yellow-bellied,
son of Tricky-Dicky 's
gonna Mother Hubbard soft soap
me
for just a pocket full of dope;
its money for rope
All I want is the truth, man
Just give me some truth, man
(John Lennon, 1971)

2. To transform psychology

A lot of what I have just been saying is anethmatic to the mainstream academic psychologist today. But one way of demonstrating the relevance of the discursive realm to the goals of academic psychology is to demonstrate its crucial role in defining the terrain of empirical psychology. The point is that the 'human abilities' which cognitive psychologists study have been made possible by discursive, rather than biological, means. The evidence - and by 'the' I mean evidence that counts as evidence in the terms of empirical psychology - points to the conclusion that modern brains existed well before they were used to support 'modern' human behaviours. Now, modern human abilities as so conceived are universal, and that this is the case provides a foundation for liberal humanism - the enlightenment project - within which scientific psychology conducts its business. Humans have been doing modern things for at least 40,000 years, while, as a species they have existed for much longer than that, when they exhibited cultures that did not have modern characteristics. Thus, species-typical behaviour has changed without being predicated on any genetic change. As a result, and here I make a bit of a jump in the explicit chain of reasoning (but the bases for this claim are outlined elsewhere), it is very likely that our brains are wired-up quite differently from what they were as a result of the new forms of social practices and discursive resources that they have come to partake in, or provide the substrate for.

This conclusion means that, horror of horrors, the issues that are dealt with in this anethmatic form of psychology are - in fact, of themselves - the 'phenomena' that are responsible for the 'phenomena studied by mainstream cognitive psychologists', for without discursive social practices there would be nothing for cognitive psychologists to study. And once this is admitted, then Pandora's box is truly opened, for we are back to the issue of 'realism' again. Do cognitive abilites 'really' exist, for our present understanding of discursive practices - which certainly play a role in the conduct of mainstream psychology (as they must in any cultural enterprise) - has problematised the entire foundational project of 'realism'.

The dilemma is this. On the one hand, we need to take seriously the pragmatic point stated by Marx in his Theses on Fuerbach, variously restated by psychologists of the critical ilk (e.g., Gergen, above, 1995: 53, and Shotter, 1993a: 37-8) that 'the Philosophers [including the natural philosophers - scientists - of the empirical persuasion] have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it'. An example of what it means to take this seriously is explicitly given by Michael White with respect to his practce of narrative therapy. On the other hand, we need to explore further the issues of realism and the problematic nature of 'reference': have 'cognitive abilities' actually been instantiated or constructed in our biological substrate so as to make possible the practices (not the contents) of our ways of life, or are they just chimerical artifacts of those practices? Is it the case, as Harre has claimed, that

'as far as anyone has ever been able to ascertain, there are only two human realities: physiology and discourse (conversation) - the former an individual phenomenon, the latter collective' (1990: 345)?

The general line I am going to follow from here is that the structure of relations between people and the properties of the discourses and practices they engage in constitute the conditions that enable their discovery of the unintended properties of the systems of symbols, social relations and discourse practices their modes of life constitute. These 'discoveries' then constitute the phenomena that have been subsumed and conceived under the terms of the cognitive project.

An idea of where this line is going is outlined in a discussion of Norbert Elias' view of the construction of emotion and personality in Western cultures.


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