Final version of paper prepared for Meeting for Researchers and Therapists: 'Providential Dialogues,' Helsinki, Finland, 26th-27th Nov, 1994.

SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIONISM AND 'PROVIDENTIAL DIALOGUES'

See footnote 1

John Shotter


Department of Communication
University of New Hampshire
Durham, NH 03824-3586

'How - with no preparation - can this singular, short-lived event constituted by the appearance of an unusual poetic image, react on other minds and in other hearts, despite all the barriers of common sense, all the disciplined schools of thought, content in their immobility?' (Bachelard, 1992, p.xiv-xv, my emphasis).

'... philosophy ought only to be written as a poetic composition' (Witgenstein, 1980, p.24).

'The way music speaks. Do not forget that a poem, even though it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information' (Wittgenstein, 1981, no.160).


Consider the following circumstances: 1) We encounter an animal in the forrest... it turns to us surprised, wide eyed, ears back, our eyes meet... it is 'there' with us... it is a moment of awesome mystery... yet it does have a distinct character, a 'shape' to it, nonetheless. 2) We hold another person in our arms... feel their body respond to our touch... we experience our lover as a source 'of ceaselessly unforeseen originality' (to use a phrase of Roland Barthes's, 1983, p.34)... it is a moment of awesome mystery... who are we?... in such a moment... 3) We respond to our circumstances with a gesture... another awesome moment, the beginning of dance... 4) We respond to our circumstances with a sound... it is the mysterious beginning of music... but where are we? in what kind of space?... 5) We respond with a mark on some material before us... the beginning of painting... These are powerful and extraordinary events... they occur in those moments when we act responsively, as living beings, to what is around us... experiences such as these have been with us from the beginning of time... And since the beginning of time - sensing their 'shape', sensing their powerful and distinctive character - we have tried to articulate their nature... indeed, now, we even dream of explaining them, scientifically!!

It is mysterious moments such as these, that I want to talk about today... I want to talk about talk and its power to create such moments... about people talking, and responding to each other in a living, bodily way as they do so... Elsewhere, I have called this kind of bodily activity interwoven with talk - in which people interlace their responsive activities in with those of the others around them (as in conversation and dialogue) - 'joint action.'
Its strange... very strange properties emerge from the simple fact that one's 'reply' is always to possibilities 'shown' or indicated in the 'call' or 'gesture' of an other... thus one's reply is never wholly one's own... it is always, to an extent, 'shaped' by the others who have 'called' it out... Let me explore this further:

What I want to talk about, then, is the 'moving' power of people's bodily voiced utterances to create in joint action,... in the 'spaces' between people... 'worlds of possibility', 'worlds of meaning'... Indeed, I want to talk, not merely about the kinds of events I have just 'depicted', 'evoked', or 'called out'... but also, about how my words here, in the 'space' between us now, can have an influence of that kind on you... how they can, in fact, give you a sense both of a 'social world'... 'our world'... with certain shared 'things' within it... but also of a person's own individual world, 'my world', my 'position', my 'thoughts', my 'inner life', we might say...

Thus, I want to talk about language, not as a system, not about what linguistics has had to say about patterns of already spoken words... about those ways of talking that have been established, routinized, and regularized... those ways of talking that reproduce orders of things as they are... safe orders... but about something very different: the responsive working of words in their speaking... the working of our 'worded behavior' in practice... and our ability to create between us in our use of words, 'places', 'spaces', 'worlds' or 'realities' sometimes of fearful and judgmental power... spaces to do with the heart of our 'being'...

In other words, instead of focussing immediately upon how individuals come to know the objects and entities in the world around them, social constructionists like myself are interested in how people first develop and sustain different ways of relating themselves to each other in their talk... and in how the different talk intertwined practices we create, afford, permit, or allow us, to make a shared sense of our surroundings... Where, it is only from within different kinds of 'forms of life,' that it becomes possible for people between them to refer to, or to represent different kinds of 'things': medics to medical 'things'; physicists to physical 'things'; philosophers to philosophical 'things'; and so on...

This is crucial, so let me repeat it: Everything that we think and talk about as 'facts' about our 'selves', about our 'world(s)', and about our 'language' - that we have 'minds', that we 'think in our heads', that 'words stand for things', 'things' that we can 'explain' as 'events' terms of 'theories' about 'our world', and so on - all these supposed 'facts' only make clear and intelligible sense relationally,... from within clearly established forms of life... Without such 'taken-for-granted' ways of 'going on' with each other... without being able to 'follow' each other's actions, directly, in practice, without continually misleading each other,... without having always to 'explain' ourselves to each other,... there is very little that we would be able to do or say, that the others around us would understand...

Yet... one of the mistakes we continually make, is to try to 'see' the nature of our practices in terms of one or of another set of theoretical assumptions... to 'see' all our very different practical ways of relating ourselves to each other - our different 'forms of life' - as all having certain 'supposed' structures or principles in common... But the trouble with such talk as this... talk beyond the confines of a form of life... is that it can never make unambiguous sense...

For the making of unambiguous sense, is not a matter of being able, in a classroom, to argue for a position or a proposition so successfully that no one in the classroom can raise a doubt about it, but a matter of grasping how to 'play it out', so to speak, in all the different ways in which it might be 'applied' in practice... and to do that in such a way that no one at all within the form of life will disagree... Thus, although we are continually tempted to try, we can never get to a clear sense of 'things' beyond or outside of our practices... to find a 'something' upon which our practices are based... they are based on 'nothing'!... it is 'turtles all the way down'...

Thus, the special twist that I want to introduce into social constructionism, following Wittgenstein, is to attempt to get a grasp of the nature of our practices... undistorted by the imposition of any suppositions, assumptions, or theories... upon them... But let me say again... All attempts to talk 'about' any 'things' or 'entities' as such, supposedly 'beyond', or 'underlying', or 'outside' of our forms of life in clear and non- misleading ways must fail.

This, however... and this is a very important point... this does not mean that language itself is unusable outside of such circumstances... Indeed, what I now want to discuss are precisely those aspects of language... the poetic aspects of language... that can be used between us to 'call out' different ways of being,... that can call the different 'worlds' between us, forward into existence... I want to talk about the power of our 'embodied, voiced utterances' in creating those 'worlds'...

In attempting to understand how we can do this in our talk, I have been influenced by a number of writers... all men, I am sorry to say... men like Vygotsky, Wittgenstein, Garfinkel, Bakhtin, and Mead. All of them have tried to break out of the strangle hold of the idea, that words work solely by 'standing for things;' that their function is re-productive; that they represent something already existing.

They all have something much more radical to suggest: by emphasizing the bodily, responsive nature of our contacts with each other, they see our talk as always productive, as always creative or formative of events - or, as Garfinkel (1967, p.9) puts it - as always occurring for yet 'another first time.'

Volosinov (1976, p.99) gives us a very nice example of just such 'another first time': He describes a circumstance where two people are sitting in a room. They are both silent. Then one of them says, 'Well!' The other does not respond.

To us, as outsiders, this entire 'conversation' is utterly incomprehensible. Taken in isolation, the utterance 'Well!' is empty and unintelligible. Yet, to those involved in it, this little conversation - consisting in one, very expressively intoned word - makes perfect and complete sense... Why? And how?...

Because at the time it took place, in Russia in May, both interlocutors looked up at the window and saw that it had begun to snow... Thus, both could see the snowflakes outside the window, both knew the time of year - May, and both were weary of winter and looking forward to spring... thus on this 'jointly seen', 'joint known', 'jointly evaluated' circumstance... on all this the utterance 'Well!' directly depended... all this was 'shown' in some way in its 'living shaping'. Yet all this remains without specific articulation. It is not explicitly 'said'... all this is assumed in the word 'Well!'

Indeed, there is even more: 'In point of fact,' Volosinov adds (1976, p.103), 'the intonation of the word 'Well!' voiced not only passive dissatisfaction with an occurring event (the snowfall) but also active indignation and reproach... To whom is this reproach addressed?... Clearly not only to the listener but also to somebody else...

To a third participant - to a third-person Other. But 'Who is this third participant?', Volosinov asks, 'Nature? Fate, perhaps?' Although 'IT' does not have a full and definitive shape, and changes as circumstances change, 'IT' is nonetheless 'there' also... Where, as we have already seen, 'IT'... the 'space' itself... is like a 'witness and a judge,' like an ethically sensitive being making rulings as to what should or shouldn't happen within it... including a limit on the 'allowable' forms of address...

These, then, are the special, extraordinary 'spaces of possibility' we must investigate... this is where we can find the 'grounds' of our being, so to speak... We must study the 'seen but unnoticed' everyday 'background' activities

within which our more self-conscious activities have their 'life'... such 'spaces' as these are what we must understand, if we want to understand the 'providential' nature of dialogue - that is, if we want to understand its ability to make available new possibilities over and beyond the 'obviously' existing, empirical possibilities of the moment,... those that make sense in the dominant discourse... We must attend to, and articulate, those unique, 'seen but unnoticed' (Garfinkel, 1967, p.41) events that occur in front of our noses... the novel and singular events that we 'show' in our talk... for it is these events that are at work in 'shaping' the 'movement' of our talk (as in both Volosinov's 'Well!' example, and in much more complex utterances)... yet, they are so ephemeral, that we don't at all know how to acknowledge them... or at least, not in any orderly, logical or supposedly rational way...

This, however, is what all the writers I mentioned a moment ago have in common: they all claim that, if we are to understand how our talk works in practice, then, we must understand the ways in which we simply react or respond to each other's bodily voiced, living activity in some way... As Wittgenstein (1980) puts it, 'the origin and primitive form of the language game [and we shall come back to precisely what he means by the term 'language game' in a moment] is a reaction; only from this can more complicated forms develop. Language - I want to say - is a refinement, 'in the beginning was the deed',' he says (1980, p.31e), quoting Goethe. Or, as Mead (1934) puts it, 'the mechanism of meaning is present in the social act before the emergence of consciousness or awareness of meaning occurs. The act or adjustive response of the second organism gives to the gesture of the first organism the meaning it has' (pp 77-78)... It is this living, gestural, responsive, or practical meaning of words that we must understand...

Attending to our use of words in practice, is where Wittgenstein's work becomes especially relevant for us: so let me outline some of the methods he provides for drawing our attention to events within our practices that we often fail to see...

First, we must be aware of the misguiding 'temptations' or 'cravings' we feel: for instance, always to see what is before us, in terms of what we think must be the case, or, what ought to be the case, to see it as something normal, or ordinary... Indeed, this is, of course, what makes Wittgenstein's work so weird, so extraordinary, and so easily misunderstood... For normally, we feel we must search for 'something' orderly, for 'something' special, 'hidden' behind the scenes, 'something' that can be explained in terms of a theory.

However, if we give up the search for something special, hidden behind the scenes, and accept that everything we need to understand, is out there, in the 'spaces', in the 'moments' in the 'time-spaces' between us, in our utterance-interwoven-activities,... 'Nothing is hidden' (Wittgenstein, 1953, no. 435)... then, what 'instruments' or 'devices' has Wittgenstein to offer us that might help us in that task? Why, just those similar to the ones we offer our clients... various ways of talking!

Besides trying to 'cure' us of the misleading 'wants', 'cravings', and 'temptations' I mentioned above, many of the other methods he offers us, emerge from us simply coming to appreciate some of the more varied uses to which we can put our own talk... Indeed, everyone will recall, I'm sure, his famous maxim, that: 'For a large class of cases - though not for all - in which we employ the word 'meaning' it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language' (1953, no.43, my emphasis). Thus, as he sees it - instead of words, solely and simply, standing for things - there are 'countless different kinds of use of what we call 'symbols', 'words', 'sentences'' (1953, no.23).

Amongst these countless uses, are ways of using our talk 'directively' or 'instructively'... by our words, we can 'shape' people's 'perceptions' and their 'conduct'... For instance, in just saying, 'Stop', 'Look', 'Look here', 'Notice the difference', 'Think what you are saying', 'Remember last year, when we...', and so on... we can have a crucial influence on each other's (and on our own) behavior... But more than this... We can shape the 'imaginary spaces' they inhabit... For instance, we can create a certain space of possibilities ('It was winter, the small figure hesitated before the iron gates...'). Or: by the mere speaking of other kinds of words, we can, for instance, suggest the creation of a character ('I am a sick man... I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man. I think there is something wrong with my liver. But I don't understand the least thing about my illness...' - Dostoyevsky); and so on.

In all these examples, we are 'moved', or 'instructed', in certain ways, by the 'voicing' of these words. They 'call out' certain responses, certain expectations and anticipations, from us; they 'call forth' an 'imaginal world' between us... and it is precisely these kinds of powers of language that Wittgenstein also uses to help us appreciate those self-same powers...

So, besides the 'devices', the 'ways of speaking', he uses to draw our attention to aspects of our own activity that would otherwise go unnoticed, he uses yet others - especially the notion of language-games, but also many other metaphors, similes, and other arresting phrases - to draw our attention to comparisons. Where, the differences emerging from such comparisons, seem to help to create a sense of an order in practice in our use of language: 'an order with a particular end in view; one out of many possible orders; not the order' (1953, no.132). For instance, he compares languages in general with a great city, or with a toolbox,... or in detail, with especially invented 'simple' language-games. Where all the methodologies he offers us are, so to speak, of a pre-theoretical kind, and are aimed at helping us to avoid misleading ourselves, in fact, in our everyday practices.

Like therapeutic talk, in which we offer ourselves reminders - like: 'Careful now, remember how easy it is to be misled by one's language here': or, when we make use of new metaphors or similes, like: 'How is it if see it as a 'story' rather than as a 'system'? - he does not offer us a single sure-fire method. Indeed, as he says: 'There is not a philosophical method, though there are indeed methods, like different therapies' (1953, no.133)... For, as he sees it: 'The philosopher is the man who has to cure himself of many sickness of the understanding before he can arrive at the notions of the sound human understanding' (1967, no.302)...

But what is the sound human understanding? Again, as he sees it - and is this surely the case in psychotherapy too - the task is not to explain 'How we got here?'... But to understand practically 'How to go on.' Where: 'A philosophical problem has the form: 'I don't know my way about'' (1953, no.123)... We want to go on without being at odds with ourselves, without giving others confusing indications as to what our next actions might possibly be. In other words, rather than passively 'seeing' what something 'is' (in the terms of a supposed theory), Wittgenstein seeks a much more active kind of understanding in practice... one which will allow him to anticipate what appropriately should 'flow' from what, thus to 'go on' in an activity, or, to 'follow' another's actions, in an unconfused, concerted manner (without it being necessary for panels of expert witnesses to have to argue the case in a court of law).

So... what does all of this mean for the kind of talk in which people can change their lives... in what circumstances can the poetic power of our embodied speakings 'call forth' between us, new 'worlds of being'?

Of particular importance here, are what we can call, people's first-person speakings... their 'expressions' or 'utterances'... they have a very strange status in our everyday social lives...

Let me illustrate: 1) If I say to someone about someone else: 'He's in love with her,' and someone says to me 'How do you know?,' and I reply, 'Because I never see them apart'... that's perfectly OK... I justify my claim by giving evidence... 2) But strangely, if I say to someone, 'I'm in love with you,' and they ask me, 'How do you know?,' and I reply, 'Because I never find myself apart from you,'... that's not OK at all... neither the question, nor the answer... Why?

Because first person 'tellings' play a very different part in our everyday social lives from third person 'reports' or 'descriptions'... They cannot be justified by evidence, by being checked out in terms of some other, independently existing events or processes... they seem to 'come out of the blue!'... So, what is the meaning, what is the use of such talk... how do we make sense of it?...

It is a matter of ethics: For the fact is... the whole of our everyday social life is built upon people's first-person right to talk in this way... 'out of the blue'... about themselves, and to have what they say taken seriously by others... It is to do with people telling each other about 'their worlds', about 'what it is like to be me'... (and often asking, perhaps, 'Will you join in!')... For instance, a young delinquent boy talks (to David Epston) of his anger 'as like thorns... as like Cactus,' and of the Cactus as 'irritating his heart' (Epston, pers. comm.)...

In such poetic talk as this, 'indications' as to the nature of a person's 'world of meaning' are 'shown' or acknowledged, in practice... 'connections' between features of that 'world' are explored, in practice... such talk is, so to speak, 'continuous with their being' in that it 'moves' them, they can actively and bodily 'respond' to it in some way... people can recognize themselves in such talk in a way that they cannot in theoretical talk (in which they are represented by those at a distance from them)... they know 'how to go on' with it...

But such new, poetic uses of words as these, can never be justified or grounded... nor 'explained'... there is no point to asking, 'How do you [or we] know Cactus irritates your heart?'... In being unjustified, inexplicable, such talk is, seemingly, on the edge of nonsense... what is said sometimes 'connects up with a person's practices in certain ways... but sometimes it doesn't... there are no rules... Yet paradoxically, it is just through the use of novel and all but nonsensical phrases such as these, that people are able to convey their experiences to each other... Where the importance of this kind of talk, is in how it is 'played out' in practice, what it 'leads forward to' in the circumstances of its use...

And this is the kind of talk that 'called forth' our well established practices, our disciplinary forms of life, into existence in the first place... this is what it is difficult to accept... we are continually tempted to try to find 'something'... some 'thing'... upon which our practices are based... But they are based on 'nothing'!...

All our talk - whether about 'things' as such, or our more poetic talk that creates new possibilities between us - is simply rootede or grounded in our own interwoven ways of relational talking and acting, and... in nothing more!... It is grounded between us, in our practices, in structures of passion and feeling, in a certain sensibility, in certain senses of significance, of what is similar to what else, of fulfillment and of humor,... of what is outrageous, of what a rebuke, what forgiveness,... of when an utterance is an assertion, when an appeal, when an
explanation,... and so on, and so on... upon all these common practices... As Stanley Cavell (1969, p.52) remarks, 'it is a vision as simple as it is difficult, and as difficult as it is (and because it is) terrifying.' Yet, if this is the case,... and the basis of all that we are to each other is in what we 'call forth' from each other between us... then what matters to us, is simply that we 'get on' with each other... for that is the basis of everything we are, and can be... there are no final answers...


References

Bachelard, G. (1992) The Poetics of Space. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Bakhtin, M.M. (1986) Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans. by Vern W. McGee. Austin, Tx: University of Texas Press.

Barthes, R. (1983) A Lover's Discourse. New York: Hill and Wang.

Cavell, S. (1969) Must We Mean What We Say? London: Cambridge University Press.

Garfinkel, H. (1967) Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.

Shotter, J. (1993) Cultural Politics of Everyday Life: Social Constructionism, Rhetoric, and Knowing of the Third Kind. Milton Kenynes, UK: Open University Press; and Toronto:

Toronto University Press.

Volosinov, V.N. (1976) Freudianism: a Critical Sketch. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (1953) Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Blackwell.

Wittgenstein, L. (1980) Culture and Value, introduction by G. Von Wright, and translated by P. Winch. Oxford: Blackwell.

Wittgenstein, L. (1981) Zettel, (2nd. Ed.), G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H.V. Wright (Eds.). Oxford: Blackwell.


Notes

Footnote: 1 [1] The term 'providential' resonates with the notion of 'providential spaces' I introduced in my 'Cultural Politics...' (Shotter, 1993). For me, its provenance was in Vico's writing, in the idea that the development of human societies is not random, nor is it determined by the 'iron chain of necessity,' but it is a matter of 'divine providence.' Where by that, he does not mean that is it effected by an outside god, but that it is a matter of the provisions (or resources) available to us for next possible developments, that we ourselves create, unknowingly, in the present moment, as a natural consequence of our interactions with each other. Where such resources are discovered. or brought to light, in 'the science of divination,' i.e., hermeneutically.