Spoken paper for ISTP Annual Conference, Berlin, 27 April - 2 May, 1997


John Shotter


'I might say: if the place I want to get to could only be reached by way of a ladder, I would give up trying to get there. For the place I really have to get to is the place I must already be at now. Anything that might be reached by climbing a ladder doesn't interest me' (Wittgenstein, 1980, p.7).

In 1995 at this meeting, I gave a paper on Wittgenstein's methods, called 'From the way of theory toward a social poetics.' In it I claimed, that if we are to gain a clearer view of the complex inter-relations between our everyday, practical actions and the influences on them in their surrounding circumstances - if, for instance, we want to come to a better grasp of why certain forms of talk work to distance and alienate listeners, while others energize and involve them; to create, in conversations with others, new possible relations between things not previously considered so they can 'go on' with their lives; or, to help a group of people develop less violent, more intimate ways relating themselves to each other - then we must turn away from the way of theory and espouse Wittgenstein's new 'poetic' methods of inquiry. For their precise point is to do with 'bringing to our attention' relations between aspects of our own human activities, previously unnoticed in the everyday, background 'hurly-burly' to our lives, here and now.

But I now realize that my celebration of these new methods was somewhat premature: my claim that we must turn away from the way of theory if we are develop both new methods of inquiry and new social practices more suited to our currently more diverse and pluralistic social circumstances, simply provoked incredulity. I was insufficiently critical of the way of theory to make it clear why a turn away from it is so necessary. Here, I want to try to put that right, and to try to say why, if we are to tackle some of the most pressing problems we currently face, we must make that turn.


Let me begin by acknowledging that there is no doubt that we all share a feeling that we would like to be more 'at home' in the world, to know better our 'way around' in every region of it, at every moment. We would like to have a 'synoptic' sense of it as a 'surveyable' whole - as Wittgenstein (1980a, 1953) puts it - in a way somewhat similar to the unconfused, familiar, and intimate way we know how to conduct ourselves inside our own dwelling places. There is no doubt that we feel driven to inquire into how 'things hang together', so to speak.

In the Western world, however, although this desire has been realized in many practical ways - through exploration, and the accumulation of many forms of practical knowledge - it seems to have been primarily expressed in the urge to theorize: that is, the urge to collect diverse phenomena, to do both with our world and ourselves, together within the framework of a belief, a supposition, or hypothesis - we have been driven by the idea that there is a simple 'something' to be discovered hidden beneath or behind appearances which, in some way, works to interconnect all such phenomena into a hierarchically, ordered unity. And we dream that, if we can see into the inner workings of this logically ordered unity of dependencies sufficiently clearly (as if with a God's eye), we might be able, 'calculationally', to 'play through' possibly important sequences ahead of time, thus to be able to control them according to our own desires.

Thus, in spite of diverse appearances to the contrary, we find ourselves with the belief that the world consists not of many things but one - a belief which, as Kitto (1951) points out, Western civilization seems to have inherited from ancient Greek thought. For like the Greeks, we seemingly take it for granted that

'the universe, both the physical and the moral universe, must not only be rational, and therefore knowable, but also simple; the apparent multiplicity of things is only apparent' (p.179).

As a result of our until very recently questioned commitment to this belief in all our intellectual inquiries, we seem to have been in the thrall of what - because it involves us in a whole complex form of life (LW) with its motivations and perceptions, desires and compulsions; its ways of acting, speaking, thinking, and valuing; its basic ways of separating, and hierarchically interrelating and ordering the things it deals with, in order to simplify its vision of the world - I have called 'the way of theory.'

Our applications of the way of theory to the natural world surrounding us has brought us great dividends - no doubt about it. And I would be foolish to want to criticize its use in general. However ... when we turn the way of theory around and try to apply it to ourselves - in trying to come to an ordered, synoptic sense of what it is to be a human being, in terms of one or some of our own beliefs about ourselves, hierarchically ordered into a calculational system - then, I think, we are on very dangerous ground: for we feel that if we can simply argue, either from evidence or from supposed 'first principles' that our theories are true, then - without the need for a 'first-hand', 'on the spot', sense of circumstances - we feel justified in seeking to apply our theories in practice. And this is where the danger lies. But what are the nature of my worries here?


For the moment, I will focus just on two interrelated topics (although it will become clear that a whole complex of intertwined issues is at stake in this sphere): First, let me simply remark that the way of theory suggests to us that the primary source of all of our human activities is, supposedly, to be found in mental representations inside the heads of individuals. We thus take it that, rather than acting in response to unique and subtle details in their circumstances, people act from their own inner thoughts or ideas. Little or no attention is paid to those of our activities spontaneously 'called out' from us by the Others and othernesses in our surroundings, due to our existence in the world as living bodies. Our relations to our immediate circumstances - and their moment-by- moment, changing constitution as we consider and reconsider what is of relevance to us - are ignored.

This leads on to a second point, a worry to do with the forming of human communities: For the way of theory suggests to us that they come into being through the forming of rational agreements - Rousseauian 'social contracts'. In other words, it suggests that new forms of social relations can be argued or administrated into existence. But, as Richard Bernstein (1983) remarks, all attempts to implement 'the idea that we can make, engineer, impose our collective will to form [new] communities... have been disastrous' (p.226). Indeed, as Sir Isaiah Berlin remarks, while many of our 'great liberating ideas' initially open up a surge of new opportunities, they 'inevitably turn into suffocating straitjackets, and so stimulate their own destruction by new, emancipating, and at the same time, enslaving, conceptions' (Berlin, 1981, p.159).

Why is this? Because, as Bernstein points out: 'A community or polis is not something that can be made or engineered by some form of techne or by the administration of society. There is something of a circle here, comparable to the hermeneutical circle. The coming into being of a type of public life that can strengthen solidarity, and a commitment to rational persuasion presupposes the incipient forms of such communal life' (p.226, my emphasis). In other words - and this is my central point here today - there is something in the very nature of human relationships that so far we have failed to recognize and to acknowledge, something that is prior to everything we think of as being of importance to us as individual human beings: Our personal and social identities, our awareness and conceptions of the world about us, our forms of rationality, our ability to theorize, and so on, are all made possible and emerge out of the fact, that we are spontaneously responsive to each other, bodily - we cannot not be, although we may fail to notice and rationally to acknowledge the fact that we are.


It is this failure of acknowledgement that is crucial. For, as Wittgenstein (1969) brings to our attention: 'Knowledge in the end is based on acknowledgement' (no.378) - if initially we fail to notice a phenomenon, clearly, we shall fail to take it into account in any of our further inquiries. Given our concerns here, this in fact very deep remark is of importance to us in at least two ways:

1) For first, it suggests to us that all our different forms of knowledge, or ways of knowing, emerge from within our different ways of relating ourselves to the Others and othernesses in our surroundings - the ethics and politics of our ways of relating are prior to all our forms of knowledge, to our knowledges (as Foucault might say). 2) But second, it raises for us the complex and unending question of quite what it means for us to make such acknowledgements - 'What happens in a person when, for instance, they acknowledge that what you have just said to them has brought them to see the error of their ways?' 'What do they now feel the need to do that they had not done before?' 'How have their relations of obligation to you and to Others changed?' We encounter a stranger in the Park, our eyes meet, we acknowledge them, and we now feel obligated to them in ways quite different had we just passed them by, unacknowledged - Indeed, Latane and Darley (19??) are said to have 'empirically proved' this: although without our prior sense of an obligation to strangers, our seeing of their studies as constituting a 'proof' of this would be impossible.

These are deep issues. But let me return to the one simple point that I want to emphasize here: It is only from within our relations to the Others and othernesses around us, that our different knowledges emerge. And, although there is no requirement or necessity for us to make any responsive acknowledgements of new aspects of these relations, nor any guarantees as to their outcome if we do, it is only on the basic of such acknowledgements that we can create between us, possibilities for their further development - possibilities which, because they build, not on hypothetical but on actual events, we can call providential possibilities (Shotter, 1993, Ch.3).

We respond to the stranger's fleeting eye contact with our's as a vague - but nonetheless clear (!) - sign of annoyance at us having 'accosted' them (this is Big City stuff), and we walk on in anxiety lest they go on to 'make something of it'. This is how our relations begin, in such unique and fleeting moments as these. Indeed, as Wittgenstein puts it: 'Language did not emerge from some kind of ratiocination' (1969, no.475). 'The origin and primitive form of the language-game is a reaction [a response]; only from this can more complicated forms develop. Language - I want to say - is a refinement, 'in the beginning was the deed' [Goethe]' (1980, p.31). 'The primitive reaction may have been a glance or a gesture, but it may also have been a word' (p.218). In other words, no acknowledging responses from others, no emergence of language.


But if this is the case, if all our relations with each other (and from within them all our dealings with the world) only begin in these pre-theoretical, radically contingent, non-hierarchically ordered forms of activity, why do we still persist in claiming that our ways of relating ourselves to each must be a matter of ratiocination, of rational planning, a matter of fitting our human relations into hierarchically ordered, calculational schemes? Why do we still persist, in our attempts to regulate our social lives, in the few try to devise beliefs, hypotheses, or principles for implementation by the many? Why do we remain so blind to the nature of our basic, living, bodily relations to the Others and othernesses around us?

As I have already mentioned, Kitto claims that our sensitivities - the things we notice and acknowledge as well as the things we fail to notice - have their roots in forms of life which have been developed from those of the ancient Greeks: central to which is the tendency, let me repeat, not to relate one's actions to one's immediate circumstances, but to a system of simple, unifying beliefs. Indeed, in discussing the contemporary style of Thales's thought, Kitto comments: 'Could Thales have meet a nineteenth century chemist and heard that the elements are sixty-seven (or whatever the number is), he would have objected that this was far too many. Could he have met a twentieth-century physicist and heard that these are all different combinations of one thing, he might reply, 'That's what I always said'' (pp.179-180).

Importantly, Richard Webster (1996) in psychologizing this urge to ground our actions in simple, systematic unities - in his book Why Freud was Wrong - notes its relations to the essentially religious need to reduce the rich and complex problems of the human soul to simple matters of belief. He quotes Jung's (1963) characterization of Freud's following of the way of theory as reflecting this: 'In place of the jealous God he had lost,' says Jung of Freud,

'he had substituted another compelling image, that of sexuality. It was no less insistent, exacting, domineering, threatening and morally ambivalent than the original one... The advantage of the transformation for Freud was, apparently, that he was able to regard the new numinous principle as scientifically irreproachable and free of all religious taint' (p.179, quoted in Webster, 1996, p.379).

And indeed, Webster goes on to note that Jung himself, 'instead of dismissing religion as part of the problem, ...saw it as a potential solution and as a source of healing' (pp.386-387) - the problem of 'finding a religious outlook on life' (Jung, 1960, p.264) was, he claimed, central for all his patients in 'the second half of life.' Cast into an intellectual environment of rationalistic positivism that, ostensibly is hostile to all forms of religious belief, many western intellectuals still feel themselves, as Webster (1996) puts it, 'under a profound psychological compulsion to immerse themselves once more in belief' (p.384). Rorty (1980, 1989) also notes, and wants to try and cure us, of our complusive need to try to find a basis for our actions somewhere 'beyond history and institutions' (p.198), and to 'eternalize' or 'divinize' the ideology of the day in our quest for it - a lesson all those currently indulging in the triumphalism associated with cognitive science might do well to note. Religious zealotry and fundamentalism can be found just as much outside as inside churches.

This compulsive psychological aspect of the way of theory noted here by Webster and Rorty is, I think, worth taking seriously (Wittgnestein too talks of our 'cravings' and 'impulses,' and sees his philosophy as 'therapeutic' in its function of 'curing' us of them). For, if nothing else, it helps to explain why the difficulties associated with current attempts to move away from the way of theory - away from forms of life in which the few with clear convictions and beliefs, are appointed to devise 'theories' to be 'put into practice' by the more wayward many - are not all simply intellectual difficulties. For the way of theory is a part of our social identities, a part of who we in the West take ourselves to be.


Yet, in committing ourselves to a form of inquiry that can only be conducted from within the framework of an intelligibly shared belief or hypothesis, we limit our inquiries to phenomena that can only appear within such frameworks - and what is excluded in such inquiries is, of course, just the very phenomena that are now of interest to us in these postmodern, social constructionist times: otherness, diversity, differences, multiplicity, duplicity, instability, and the nature of the complex, joint, creative, disorderly, dialogical processes involved in socially constructing our frameworks of belief, and forms of order in the first place. In other words, we overlook just those events to do with what Bernstein calls 'the incipient forms of communal life' upon which the development, of a type of public life in which all are committed to rational persuasion instead of violence in settling their affairs, depends.

Thus, if this is our desire, our pursuit of it through the way of theory is now, as I see it, both beside the point and after the fact:

1) It is beside the point in the sense that the way of theory is aimed ultimately at justifying or legitimating a proposed action by providing it with an already agreed grounding or basis. Whereas, what we require in our daily affairs, is not so much legitimation in terms of an already agreed status quo, as clear guidance in how to act in unique and novel circumstances: we wish to know in an unconfused, incontestable sense, in this or that particular, never-before-occurring situation, what is the right thing to do. (The practitioner's problem - and they make us only too well aware that they find our theories of little help in their daily practices.)

2) The way of theory is thus after the fact in the sense of that its focus is retrospective: from within it, we look back on successfully completed events with the aim of finding an order or pattern in them that can be instituted mechanically, unthinkingly, according to rules or recipes. Whereas, in our daily affairs, we need to focus, not on their final outcome, but on the particular, moment-by-moment unfolding, constructive details of our practical activities. We need to come to a grasp of all the influences that might be at work in any one moment as we make our way toward such outcomes. To represent this loose-textured, temporal, disorderly process - in which many possibilities are considered but few are chosen - as an already orderly and coherent process is to hide from ourselves the character of the social negotiations, navigations, and struggles productive of its order.

Thus, it is in at least these two senses that theories are beside the point and after the fact. To orient ourselves intellectually in relation to such phenomena, we require another mode of inquiry. But where might we begin our explorations in the search for it ... if we cannot begin from assumptions and suppositions?


Classically, in the way of theory, we have thought of ourselves as being influenced by the objects and events around us monologically, that is, we have thought of ourselves as self-contained individuals (Sampson, 1993), related to our surroundings as if viewing them from a distance - almost as if viewing them through a plate-glass window that prevented us having any actual, living contact with them. And this has led us to think of the world around us as being an external world.

However, as I have already noted, as living, embodied beings, we cannot not be responsive to the world around us. Unlike computers and other machines, we must continuously react to our surroundings directly and immediately, in a 'living' way, without us first having 'to work it out' as to how to respond; and, in so doing, of necessity, we relate ourselves to our surroundings, in one way or another, spontaneously.

But once we allow for this possibility, once we do notice, do acknowledge the fact that people are intrinsically in a continuous, living contact with each other, we can no longer sustain the idea of ourselves as being separate, self-contained entities, nor that of our world as being an 'external' world. For as soon as a second living human being responds to the acts of a first, that is, as soon as I act in a way that depends on your acts... then my activities cannot be accounted as wholly my own: as spontaneous responses to the activities of an Other, my activities must be partly shaped by their otherness, by their difference from me. And this is where all the strangeness of our dialogically responsive relations to each other begins.


A whole new realm of study can open up to us with this entirely non-necessary acknowledgement of people's responsive relations to each other. In the way of theory, we tend to assume that what explains our openness to our surroundings, are fore-structures of pre-understandings we already possess (to use Gadamer's, 1975, terms); these are what determine to what we can or cannot be responsive. But this is why I think the remarks in Wittgenstein's late philosophy are so important to us: his words can - as a first step - 'call out' new responses from us to our surrounding circumstances, responses that go way beyond our current, intellectual, pre- understandings, which confront us both with new mysteries as well as with hints as to how to develop our relations to them further. Like the stranger's responses to us in the Park, they work to specify a circumstance partially - an annoyance - but leave it open and still somewhat mysterious as to how we might 'go on' with them, but yet again, not so open that we find ourselves hopelessly disoriented. No wonder that in grappling with these issues, without the resort to simplifying and limiting theoretical frameworks of belief, Wittgenstein (1953) groaned to himself: 'What is most difficult here is to put this indefiniteness, correctly, and unfalsified, into words' (Wittgenstein, 1953, p.227). Without a framework of belief, we at least need an orientational landmark or two to return to every so often in one's explorations of the vast landscape now opened up, one would soon become disoriented and confused.

Such an initial landmark can be found, I believe, in a focus on our simple, responsive relations to Other's (as in the stranger across the Park example I have used here), on what in the past I have called 'joint action' (Shotter, 1980, 1984, 1993, 1995). Indeed, if we do re-image to ourselves the meeting of the eyes of a stranger across the Park, if we do acknowledge how the presence of an Other can 'strike' us and become 'a presence' in our presence, and we pause there for a while to dwell on the richness (the 'fractal fullness') of what can be found in such a fleeting moment, then, I think, we will be forced to admit that, although we can formulate what occurs in this way and that according to one or another of our own schemes of interpretation, the event still nonetheless has its own in exhaustible character. Yet, on the other hand, as both Bakhtin (1986) and Levinas (1969) point out - and we have seen with the Park stranger example - once we do acknowledge an Other's presence, we find ourselves obligated to them in some mysterious way. And here, I want to add that, it is only from within this obligation that we can begin to discover the unique nature of their 'inner world' - that is, we can only fully experience the complex and rich diversity of reality through the ethical relations established in our initial acknowledgements of the Others around us. Ethics is prior to, not a consequence of, our knowledge.

This, I know, is not a place to end this talk. Indeed, the claim that ethics is prior to, not a consequence, of knowledge, remains an empty claim, until we can begin to see how the beginnings of new practices of inquiry can grow out of the kind of fleeting acknowledgements I have alluded to here - examples are provided in Katz and Shotter (1996, 1997) and Shotter and Katz (1997). But my main point here has been, that as long as we persist in the way of theory we will remain blind to this fact, and unaware of the kind of explorations we in fact require, if we are to develop our own practices of intellectual inquiry further - and of especial importance to us, instead of more democratic forms of relation, we will still persist in the attempt to organize our social lives in terms of simple systems of belief imposed on the few by the many.


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