First draft of chapter for David Bakhurst and Stuart Shanker (Eds.) Culture, Language, Self: the Philosophical Psychology of Jerome Bruner, Sage Publications, London.


John Shotter
Department of Communication
University of New Hampshire

'It is then that the reader asks that crucial question, 'What's it all about?' But what 'it' is, is not the actual text... but the text the reader has constructed under its sway. And that is why the actual text needs the subjunctivity that makes it possible for a reader to create a world of his [or her] own' (Bruner, 1986, p.37).

' event as we imagine it hasn't much to do with the same event as it is when it happens' (Kundera, 1993, p.139).

'Only in the stream of thought and life do words have meaning' (Wittgenstein, 1981, no.173).

One of our tasks in understanding an Other, is to do justice to the uniqueness of their otherness. But this is not easy, for, as we shall see, it is in how they express themselves in dialogically structured events that occur between us only in unique, fleeting moments, that we can grasp who and what they are. What is involved in us doing this, is one of the topics I want to explore in this celebration of Professor Jerome S. Bruner's work in psychology. What I think is crucial to such a process, is a recent realization or discovery which, in the words of Milan Kundera, is 'a discovery that might be termed ontological: the discovery of the present moment...' (1993, p.131), the realization of the undeniable 'thereness' of certain meanings that we live out bodily in the practical, everyday, relational activities occurring between us, and between us and our surroundings. This is a stance toward the nature of meaning not unknown to Bruner. Indeed, in his essay on Two modes of thought, he suggests that what he calls 'the narrative mode of thought' strives 'to put its timeless miracles into the particularities of experience,' and adds that 'Joyce thought of the particularities of the story as epiphanies of the ordinary' (Bruner, 1986, p.13). And in his review of George Steiner's essay ('A new meaning of meaning,' in TLS, 8th Nov, 1985), he comments that such a stance in art, is 'a belief that meaning (or meanings) lies in the work of art, embodied, incarnate, a real presence... It is a faith in meaning incarnate in the work of art that captures the 'immensity of the commonplace', that changes our very construction of reality: 'poplars are on fire after Van Gogh'... The literary artist, it would follow from this argument, becomes an agent in the evolution of mind - but not without the co-option of the reader as his fellow author' (Bruner, 1986, p.153). The strange and surprisingly comprehensive consequences of these claims of Kundera, Steiner, and Bruner - concerning 'real presences' and the 'immensity of the commonplace' - and their relation to our worry about us dialogically grasping the uniqueness of the Other in our encounters with them, will become more clear as we proceed. But let me straightaway link them to an aspect of Professor Bruner's own more recent work, and to locate him in the current dialogue on the dialogical.

In Acts of Meaning, among the other topics he explores there, Bruner (1990) discusses the problem of a 'cultural psychology,' as he calls it, would 'go about posing the problem of the Self?' (p.116). And he suggests that it would impose two closely related requirements on our studies: One would be that we must focus 'upon the meanings in terms of which Self is defined both by the individual and by the culture in which he or she participates' (p.116). But this in itself, he suggests, is insufficient. For, if we are to grasp how we each can negotiate a 'Self' for ourselves with the others around us, then we must understand the continuously changing 'opportunities' and 'constraints' presented to us by each moment as the living exchanges between us unfold. Thus, says Bruner, there is a second requirement in the instantiation of a cultural psychology: 'to attend to the practices in which 'the meanings of Self' are achieved and put to use' (Bruner, 1990, p.116) - where a focus on these practices, he adds, leads us to a much more ''distributed' view of Self,' i.e., a view of ourselves in which our dialogical relations to the others around us become more central. To these comments on the distributed, dialogical nature of our practices of Self, I want also to add his emphasis on what he calls the 'subjunctivizing' strategies (talk of possibility) we often use in our literary texts (Bruner, 1986, p.26), and to suggest that they are also of great importance in our practices of Self. For, as he points out (following Iser, 1978), in rendering what we say 'indeterminate,' the use of such strategies ''allows a spectrum of actualizations'. And so, 'literary texts initiate 'performances' of meaning rather than actually formulating meanings themselves'' (Bruner, 1986, p.25, quoting Iser, 1978). It is in such performances of meaning, in our responsive, bodily living out of our reactions and rejoinders to an Other's textual and other expressions of possibility, that we create and feel jointly with them, not only the more determinate meanings we co-perform between us, but also co-create or co-author with them new specific Selves for ourselves: 'The 'otherness' which enters into us makes us other' (Steiner, 1989, p.188).

Crossing boundaries

Epiphanies of the ordinary

These claims of Bruner's then - to do with our practices of Self and with the performances of meaning we do within them - are crucial to everything that follows below. For, in focusing our attention on our practices of Self, Bruner draws our attention to important issues which, I think, we all, in these increasingly multicultural times, must pay attention. Almost all of us are now members of more than a single active culture (Rosaldo, 1989; Gergen, 1991; Taylor, 1989). Thus the experience of having to 'cross' cultural boundaries, of having continually to 'shift one's stance', of having to view one's surroundings, fleeting aspect by fleeting aspect rather than perspectively (Wittgenstein, 1953), to make sense of what is happening around us while being ourselves in 'motion', so to speak, has now become a 'normal' activity. But what, as academics and intellectuals, must we do in the new dialogical, aspectival circumstances in which we now live, to pay attention to 'the practices of Self'? Can we just apply our old and well tried methods to this new topic of study? Or must we, if we are to grasp the nature of such practices, invent some new methods, act in some new and different ways? For our current intellectual methods require

us set ourselves apart from those we study, to view them as if from afar, to observe what is already 'out there' in the reality around us, and this requires us to view their activities as if looking back on them as already completed achievements. Can we pretend any longer to be able to do this? Don't we now need a new way in which to relate ourselves to the phenomena of our studies, one that allows us to be more aware than previously of our own relations to and involvements in what we are studying? One that recognizes the unfinished, incomplete, ongoing nature of all of our engagements?

This, I think, is where Kundera's comments - to do with us only very recently coming to a realization of the strangeness of the ordinary, the strangeness of the present moment in all its concreteness - are of crucial importance to us. For presently, as he points out: 'When we analyze a reality, we analyze it as it appears in our mind, in memory. We know reality only in the past tense. We do not know it as it is in the present, in the moment when it's happening, when it is. The present moment is unlike the memory of it. Remembering is not the negative of forgetting. Remembering is a form of forgetting' (p.125). Similarly, Bruner (1986, p.13) remarks that what he calls the paradigmatic or logico- scientific mode of thought, 'seeks to transcend the particular by higher and higher reaching for abstraction, and in the end disclaims in principle any explanatory value at all where the particular is concerned' (p.13).

What Kundera and Bruner are reminding us of here, is not only that our current intellectual methods are monological and individualistic, and that as moderns we only really fully alive when set over against our surroundings all alone, but that we also import into our accounts of what happens around us, mythic abstractions of our own making. Positioning ourselves as if observers from afar of someone playing a back and forth, turn taking game - tennis say - we fail to realize that we are the other players in the game, that others act in response to how we act. Lacking any intellectual grasp of the relation of their activity to ours and to the circumstances we share with them, we try to explain what we observe of their activities as if originating solely from within them as self-contained individuals (Sampson, 1993). Ignoring the 'calls' of their surrounding circumstances to which they 'answer', we invent mythic entities located inside them somewhere that, theoretically, we suppose causes them to act as they do (Wittgenstein, 1953), and set out to prove our theories true.

It is the hegemony of this method over us - that of trying to explain the causes of events in terms of our own abstractions from them - that I shall seek in what follows below to undo. However, instead of arguing like Harre' (this volume), that it is a second, discursive revolution we now need to elaborate, I shall suggest that this will still prove inadequate unless we also abandon these individualistic and monological, theory-driven methods, and the one-way relations to those we study that they imply. As I see it, only if we institute a third, dialogical revolution of a kind that calls all our previous methods into question, and suggests wholly new intellectual practices and institutions to us, can we begin to fashion forms of inquiry that will do justice to the uniqueness of the being of Others. But first, before continuing further with this project (and with some inevitable forgetting in Kundera's sense), let me recount some history - for such institutional changes have their own problems, as Bruner's own history illustrates.

The institutional dominance of the paradigmatic

I first met Jerry in 1972 when I was in the Psychology Department in Nottingham, soon after he came to England to take up the newly established Watts Professorship in Psychology at Oxford. Our paths had already become intertwined, as I had arranged for my then research student, David Wood - who had won a Nato Fellowship after his Ph.D. in 1969 - to go on to spend time with Jerry in Harvard (Wood, Bruner and Ross, 1976). Nottingham already had a lively child development research unit established by John and Elizabeth Newson (Newson and Newson, 1975). And from 1969 or so, spurred on by a feeling that when it came to real-life language use the studies of language acquisition stimulated by Chomsky's (1957, 1965) brilliant analyses of linguistic structure were somehow beside the point, we had begun to turn our attention to the close videotape analysis of mother-child interaction, of mothers simply showing their children of ten to twenty months how to put shapes into form boards. This work was pioneered by Susan Treble, later to be Susan Gregory (Shotter and Gregory, 1976). Influenced both by Vygotsky's (1962) notions of instruction, mediation, and the internalization of what was initially social, and by Merleau- Ponty's (1962) account of intersubjectivity, we had begun to talk a lot about the amazing social, joint, relational, or 'distributed' phenomena (as Bruner, 1996, p.154, now calls them) that we were beginning to notice - events that were created between caretaker and child for which neither could be seen as individually responsible.

But we were all still somewhat at sea: aware that we were not doing 'experiments' or 'testing hypotheses' as such, that we were not able to present 'measurements' or 'objective data', aware only that there was something here of great importance not captured in previous, more hard-nosed approaches, we badly lacked a leader and a protector. Jerry's arrival in England gave us the focus we needed. The Developmental Psychology Section of the British Psychology Society was formed. Nottingham, Cambridge, Edinburgh, and Oxford combined to run a kind of travelling workshop/seminar. Suddenly, the field of social-developmental psychology was up and running, and - at least to those of us within it during the short-lived period from 1972 to 1976 or so - it was the most intellectually exciting arena there was in the whole of psychology. As Jerry remarks in his autobiography (Bruner, 1983), the meetings of our workshop/seminar 'shine in memory!' (p.166).

But something went wrong with the whole movement, and for twenty years (in my estimation) it lost the shine it is only just now beginning to regain. It succumbed to tendencies which, as I have already mentioned, are at work, not just in our academic, disciplinary practices in psychology, but also in the institutions of our modernist, western societies at large: the repression of the dialogical by the monological, of the practical by the theoretical, of the particular by the universal, of the unique moment by what is repeatable. And a part of my project in what follows below, is to trace some aspects of what seems to be involved these institutional processes. This aspect of my celebration of Professor Bruner's work is thus a somewhat tricky one, for I want to use his own distinguished work and career to exemplify the workings of some of these tendencies. I must therefore beg his indulgence. For only someone who has both occupied his position of institutional prominence, but who has also been so active - and courageous - in trying to extend and to cross so many disciplinary boundaries, constitutes a fitting subject for such an examination. There are, then, tendencies at work in our current academic practices and institutions, that I want to try to bring into the open in this essay - that are inimical to just the kind of 'surprising' or 'left-handed' impulses (see Bruner 1962/1979) to do with us getting in touch with the mysterious othernesses in our surroundings, that Bruner often wants to follow, and has followed, from time to time - but which even he feels the almost immediate need to try to tame or master, rather than to discourse with further.

Although acutely aware of these tendencies, and of their conflict with those of the mainstream, he has nonetheless given expression to them. However, he has never allowed for both possibilities to be equally present in his professional thinking at once! He has in the end always, instead of, so to speak, keeping the conversation with otherness going, he has always switched to seeking 'solutions-to-problems', to quell play in favor of order, to seek the mastery of meaning by form, to let the paradigmatic dominate over the narrative mode, while not quite grasping the consequences of always so doing. Thus, although Bruner has continually identified important, new departures for our investigations in academic psychology, new topics to which we have all, sooner or later, come to pay attention. He has also (I want to claim here), too quickly sought to corral his own unruly, left- handed encounters with the particularities of strange othernesses. Thus, to use his own words in describing the paradigmatic mode of thought, in privileging explanation over description, he has sought 'to transcend the particular by higher and higher reaching for abstraction,' (Bruner, 1986, p.13). As a result, although he has hinted at, he has also drawn back from giving us the kind of dialogical, relational psychology which I think we need - a psychology in which both the left and the right hand can work in concerted joint action with each other.

Psychology technicalized and demoralized

We can find his unruly, 'left-handed' tendencies most clearly at work right at the beginning of his 1990 book, Acts of Meaning. Bruner starts it with some strong and critical statements. As one of the progenitors of what is now hailed as 'The Cognitive Revolution' - the most long-lived and successful of all of psychology's revolutions (Baars, 1986; Gardner, 1987) - he first points out that its original intention was 'to bring 'mind' back into the human sciences after a long cold winter of objectivism' (Bruner, 1990, p.1). But he then goes on to remark that, at least in his view, it 'has now been diverted into issues that are marginal to the impulse that brought it into being' (Bruner, 1990, p.1). For, as he and his friends began to think in the late 1950's, and what he and George Miller sought to realize in setting up the Harvard Center for Cognitive Studies in 1960, was 'to establish meaning as the central concept of psychology - not stimuli and responses, not overtly observable behavior, not biological drives and their transformation, but meaning' (Bruner, 1990, p.2). Thus, in attempting to bring 'mind' back into psychology, he didn't want just to add 'a little mentalism' to behaviorism, but to do something much more profound: he wanted to discover and describe 'what meaning-making processes were implicated' (Bruner, 1990, p.2) in people's encounters with the world; its aim was 'to prompt psychology to joining forces with its sister interpretative disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences' (Bruner, 1990, p.2).

Indeed, although he admits that 'we were slow to fully grasp what the emergence of culture meant for human adaptation and for human functioning' (Bruner, 1990, p.11) - to contrast with what he calls computationalism - he goes on to outline in this and in his latest book, The Culture of Education (Bruner, 1996), a 'second approach to the nature of mind - call it culturalism. It takes its inspiration from the evolutionary fact that mind could not exist save for culture' (p.3). As he remarks in Acts of Meaning: 'What was obvious from the start was perhaps too obvious to be fully appreciated, at least by us psychologists who by habit and by tradition think in rather individualist terms. The symbolic systems that individual used in constructing meaning were systems that were already in place, already 'there', deeply entrenched in culture and language. They constituted a very special kind of communal tool kit whose tools, once used, made the user a reflection of the community... As Clifford Geertz puts it, without the constituting role of culture we are 'unworkable monstrosities... incomplete or unfinished animals who complete or finish ourselves through culture'' (Bruner, 1990, pp.11-12, quoting Geertz, 1973, p.49).

But even in the early stages of the cognitive revolution, he notes, 'emphasis began shifting from 'meaning' to 'information', from the construction of meaning to the processing of information. These are profoundly different matters' (Bruner, 1990, p.4). And in Acts of Meaning, as well as in The Culture of Education (1996), he begins to outline how he thinks that original impulse can be recaptured and revitalized. For, as he sees it, the revolution in psychology 'has been technicalized in a manner that even undermines that original impulse' (Bruner, 1990, p.1). But how can it be recaptured? By, I suggest, attending to many points that Bruner himself has made, but without succumbing to his temptation to turn too early to the requirements of our current institutionalized academic practices, to try to explain what makes our performances of meaning possible.

The 'movements' at work in our dialogic encounters with an Other

Performing meaning: unique, variational meanings in practice

To refer to issues he has brought to our attention, let me now return to Bruner's (1986) account of narrative modes of thought in his 'Two modes...' essay, for it is central my whole approach here. The way in which it is central, is exemplified in a story he quotes there: In the story, Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan of a stone bridge, describing it stone by stone. But Kublai Khan gets impatient and seeks what some of us would now call 'the bottom line', and asks what supports the stones? 'The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,' Marco answers, 'but by the line of the arch that they form.' Then 'Why do you speak to me of the stones?,' Kublai Khan demands. 'Without stones there is no arch,' Polo replies - for the arch is 'in' the relations between the stones. And as Bruner goes on to point out, in their reading of the story, the reader 'goes from stones to arches to the significance of arches to some broader reality - goes back and forth between them in attempting finally to construct a sense of the story, its form, its meaning' (p.36). Sometimes in reading stories, we can attend from the relations among their particularities to something much more general. But, what kind of textual structures allow or invite such a move? How is the sense of a more general significance achieved? And 'in' what does that more general significance consist?

It is only in our reading of texts of a narrative kind, Bruner maintains, that we can encounter others or othernesses that are strange and novel to us. In reading such texts, individuals begin to construct what Bruner (1986) a 'virtual text' of their own - where it is as if readers 'were embarking on a journey without maps... [Where] in time, the new journey becomes a thing in itself, however much its initial shape was borrowed from the past. The virtual text becomes a story of its own, its very strangeness only a contrast with the reader's sense of the ordinary... [This] is why the actual text needs the subjunctivity that makes it possible for a reader to create a world of his [or her] own' (Bruner, 1986, pp.36-37). To repeat: It is the way in which such texts 'subjunctivize reality' - or traffic 'in human possibilities rather than settled certainties,' as he puts it (Bruner, 1986, p.26) - that makes the co-creation of such virtual worlds between authors and their readers possible.

But by what means can such a trafficking in possibilities be occasioned? By making use of the maxims, conventions, and regularities that are constitutive of our cultural being, he suggests - but not in any kind of mechanically repetitive way! But in another, much more unexpected way.

As he points out, the existence of conventions and maxims that are constitutive of a normative background to our activities, 'provides us with the means of violating them for purposes of meaning more than we say or for meaning other than what we say (as in irony, for example) or for meaning less than we say' (Bruner, 1986, p.26). This background, and the possibility of us deviating from it, is crucial to his whole approach. Indeed, he emphasizes it again in Acts of Meaning, where he comments on his efforts to describe a people's 'folk psychology' as follows: 'I wanted to show how human beings, in interacting with one another, form a sense of the canonical and ordinary as a background against which to interpret and give narrative meaning to breaches in and deviations from 'normal' states of the human condition' (Bruner, 1990, p.67). It is the very creation of indeterminacy and uncertainty by the devices people use in their narrative forms of thought and talk, that make it possible for them to co-create unique meanings between them as their dialogical activities unfold. 'To mean in this way,' suggests Bruner (1986), 'by the use of such intended violations... is to create 'gaps' and to recruit presuppositions to fill them' (p.26). Indeed, our own unique responses to our own unique circumstances are 'carried' in the subtle variations in how we put these constitutive forms of response to use, as we bodily react, and thus relate ourselves, to what goes on around us. This is what it is for us to perform meaning. And we 'show' our understanding of such 'performed meanings' in our ways of 'going on' with the others around us in practice - to put the matter in Wittgenstein's (1953) terms. I shall call the kind of meaning involved here, that are only intelligible to us against an already existing background of the activities constitutive of our current forms of life, joint, first-time - or only 'once occurrent' (Bakhtin, 1993, p.2) [See footnote 1] - variational meanings, that are expressive of the 'world' of an unique 'it' or 'I'.

This emphasis of Bruner's, on living, responsive, 'played out' forms of understanding, besides being central to Wittgenstein's whole approach, are also central to Bakhtin's (1986) and Volosinov's (1986) dialogical approach to speech communication. I will not pursue these links further here (but see Shotter and Billig, in press). What I do want to pursue further, however, is the non-referential, non-representational, non-conceptual, 'moving', 'poetic' nature of these more practical forms of meaning and understanding.

In exploring the problem of how it is possible to perform meaning in practice, of how, say, the process of intending might work, Wittgenstein (1981) suggests that we might feel tempted to say that such a process 'can do what it is supposed to only by containing an extremely faithful picture of what it intends.' But having said this much, he goes on to point out: 'That that too does not go far enough, because a picture, whatever it may be, can be variously interpreted; hence this picture too in its turn stands isolated. When one has the picture in view by itself it is suddenly dead, and it is as if something had been taken away from it, which had given it life before... it remains isolated, it does not point outside itself to a reality beyond. Now one says: 'Of course, it is not the picture itself that intends, but we who use it to intend something'. But if this intending, this meaning, is in turn something that is done with the picture, then I cannot see why it has to involve a human being. The process of digestion can also be studied as a chemical process, independently of whether it takes place in a living being. We want to say 'Meaning is surely essentially a mental process, a process of conscious life, not of dead matter'... And now it seems to us as if intending could not be any process at all, of any kind whatever. - For what we are dissatisfied with here is the grammar of process, not with the specific kind of process. - It could be said: we should call any process 'dead' in this sense' (no. 236). 'It might almost be said,' he adds: 'Meaning moves, whereas a process stands still' (no.237).

Meaning as movement

In other words, instead of meaning being a cognitive process of statically 'picturing' something, Wittgenstein sees it here in a quite different light: as part of an ongoing, dynamic, interactive process in which people as embodied agents are continuously reacting in a living, practical way, both to each other and to their circumstances. Thus, even as a person is speaking, the bodily and facial responses of the others around them to what they say, are acting back upon them to influence them moment by moment in their 'shaping' of their talk as it unfolds. In such circumstances as these, we are inevitably doing much more than merely talking 'about' something; we are continuously living out changing 'ways of relating' ourselves to our circumstances, of our own creation; or as Wittgenstein (1953) would say, we are creating certain, particular 'forms of life [ See footnote 2]'

Thus, in practice, as we tack back and forth between the particular words of a strange, newly encountered, meaning- indeterminate story or text, and the whole of the already ongoing, unsayable, dynamic cultural history in which we all are, in different ways, to some extent, immersed, we perform meaning. In so doing, in 'bridging the gaps' with the responsive movements we make as we read, we creatively 'move' over what Bruner (1986) calls the 'landscapes' of a 'virtual text.' And what is general in our reading, what we can 'carry over' from what we do as we read into the doing of other activities, are these responsive 'ways of moving' of our own spontaneous creation - ways of 'orchestrating' our moment by moment changing relations to our past, our future, the others around us, our immediate physical surroundings, authorities, our cultural history, our dreams for the future, and so on, relating ourselves in these different directions perceptually, cognitively, in action, in memory, and so on (Vygotsky, 1978, 1986). We can 'carry over' into new spheres of activity what is 'carried in' our initial ways of bodily responding to a text in the first place.

Viewed in this way, as calling out from us possibly quite new, first-time responsive movements, rather than as being about something in the world, such meaning indeterminate texts can be seen as a special part of the world, an aspect of our surroundings to which we cannot not - if we are to grasp their meaning for us - relate ourselves in a living way. So, although such texts may seem to be not too different from those presented as being 'about' something - that is, from texts with a representational-referential meaning that 'pictures' a state of affairs in the world - their meaning cannot be found in such a picturing. We must relate ourselves to them in a quite different way. For their meaning is of a much more practical, pre-theoretical, pre-conceptual kind: to do with providing us with way or style of knowing, rather than with a knowledge or 'picture' of something in particular. To put it another way: in its reading, such texts are exemplary for not of a certain way of going on. It is exemplary for a new way of relating ourselves to our circumstances not before followed; it provides us with new poetic images through which, possibly, to make sense of things, not images or representations of things already in existence.

Concerning the creative effects of certain styles or genres of writing on us, or works of art in general, Susan Sontag (1962) has written: 'To become involved with a work of art entails, to be sure, the experience of detaching oneself from the world. But the work of art itself is also a vibrant, magical, and exemplary object which returns us to the world in some way more open and enriched... Raymond Bayer has written: 'What each and every aesthetic object imposes on us, in appropriate rhythms, is a unique and singular formula for the flow of our energy... Every work of art embodies a principle of proceeding, of stopping, of scanning; an image of energy or relaxation, the imprint of a caressing or destroying hand which is [the artist's] alone'. We can call this the physiognomy of the work, or its rhythm, or, as I would rather do, its style' (p.28). Where the function of such a 'moving' form of communication is, not only to make a unique other or otherness we have not previously witnessed, present to us for the very first time, but to provide us with the opportunity to embody the new 'way of going on' that only it can call out from us. But to do this, to come to embody its 'way', we must encounter and witness its distinct nature in all its complex detail. If we turn too quickly merely to its explanation, not only do we miss what new it can teach us, but the turn is pointless: for, literally, we do not yet know what we are talking about.

As this stance toward meaning as living, only once occurrent, joint, variational movement, is still very unfamiliar to us, let me explore its nature yet a little more: Remarking further about the living nature of meaning, Wittgenstein (1981) comments that he wants to say that ''When we mean something, it's like going up to someone, it's not having a dead picture (of any kind)'. We go up to the thing we mean' (Wittgenstein, 1953, no.455). For instance, as we view, say, a picture such as Van Gogh's Sunflowers, we can enter into an extended, unfolding, living relation with it, one that ebbs and flows, that vacillates and oscillates, as we respond to it in different ways. What we sense, we sense from inside our relations to it: 'It is as if at first we looked at a picture so as to enter into it and the objects in it surrounded us like real ones; and then we stepped back, and were now outside it; we saw the frame and the picture was a painted surface. In this way, when we intend, we are surrounded by our intention's pictures, and we are inside them' (1981, no.233). Indeed, he says elsewhere: 'It often strikes is as if in grasping meaning the mind made small rudimentary movements, like someone irresolute who does not know which way to go - i.e., it tentatively reviews the field of possible applications' (Wittgenstein, 1981, no.33).

The novelist John Berger (1979) has also written about the act of writing in a similar fashion:

'The act of writing is nothing except the act of approaching the experience written about; just as, hopefully, the act of reading the written text is a comparable act of approach. To approach experience, however, is not like approaching a house. 'Life', as the Russian proverb says, 'is not a walk across an open field'. Experience is indivisible and continuous, at least within a single lifetime and perhaps over many lifetimes. I never have the impression that my experience is entirely my own, and it often seems to me that it preceded me. In any case experience folds back on itself, refers backwards and forwards to itself through the referents of hope and fear; and, by the use of metaphor, which is at the origin of language, it is continually comparing like with unlike, what is small with what is large, what is near with what is distant. And the act of approaching a given moment of experience involves both scrutiny (closeness) and the capacity to connect (distance). The movement of writing resembles that of a shuttle on a loom: repeatedly it approaches and withdraws, closes in and takes its distance. Unlike a shuttle, however, it is not fixed to a static frame. as the movement of writing itself, its intimacy with the experience increases. Finally, if one is fortunate, meaning is the fruit of this intimacy' (John Berger, 1979, p.6, my emphases).

In other words, in approaching an experience to write about it, or in going up to someone to meet them, or in our intense looking over a painting or other work of art while exploring what its meanings might be for us, in all these acts, in practice, there is an oscillating, shifting, fluid kind of inner complexity to them that until recently psychology has ignored.

Describing (and explaining?) the dialogical: 'the difficulty here is: to stop'

The temptation to explain

Why is this? Because, I think, it is terribly difficult to focus on the details of doing of a practice in the course of one's doing it. Crucial in the early work we did in Nottingham in our mother-child studies of developmental interaction - and in the workshops that, as Professor Bruner put it, shine in memory - was our use of video- tape recordings. We became used to watching the same fleeting moments over and over again to capture each time more and more detail; and once we had learned 'to see' such events on videotape, we learnt to see them out in the everyday world as well. Ethnomethodoloy also, could not, I feel, have got under way without audio tape recorders. For the crucial events in our encounters with each other and our surroundings not only flit by so quickly, but are also 'distributed' between us to such an extent that we have no distinct sense either of their effect on us or our effect on them. Thus it is no wonder that we find it difficult to focus on us doing or performing meaning as a social practice, to focus on such 'events of meaning' as they are. Thus, thinking that there must be something mysterious and hidden within them that is impossible for us to observe, we talk instead of how we theorize them as being! This, I think, is where Wittgenstein's (1953) work is of such importance: for he draws our attention simply to the role in our ordinary, everyday social practices, of us drawing each other's attention to aspects of our own ongoing practices, especially to its crucial role in us learning our social practices in the first place. Hence his admonition 'don't think but look!' (1953, no.66), when we feel tempted to say that our practices must have a certain character to them.

Although such a way of looking for the fleeting, only once occurrent details of our interactions is not easy to implement, it is of the crux. For, as he puts it, the problems we face are not empirical problems to be solved by giving explanations: 'they are solved, rather, by looking into the workings of our language, and that in such a way as to make us recognize those workings: in spite of an urge to misunderstand them. The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have already known' (no.109) - but which so far, has passed us by in our everyday dealings with each other unnoticed. Thus, as Wittgenstein (1953) sees it, although not easily accomplished, the task is not to imagine, and then to empirically investigate possible 'mechanisms' within us responsible for us being able to mean things to each other, but to describe how we in fact do do it in practice. Indeed, to repeat Kundera's (1993) remark above: 'an event as we imagine it hasn't much to do with the same event as it is when it happens' (p.139) - for we can only theorize events as distinct upon their completion, after they have made one or another kind of sense, once they have an already achieved meaning. Something incomplete, something that we are still in the middle of, something that we are still involved in or 'inside of', cannot properly be described in a theoretically distinct way. Thus, if we still nonetheless attempt to do so, we will miss out - or better, we will tend to overlook - many of its most significant details; and in so doing, we will find ourselves puzzled as to how we do in fact manage the doing of meaning between us. There must - we will say to each other - be something else that we have missed, something hidden in what we do when we mean things to each other, that needs discovering and explaining. But, suggests Wittgenstein (1953), in asking and answering his own question: 'How do sentences do it [i.e., manage to represent something]? - Don't you know? For nothing is hidden' (no.435).

And if we do begin to look into the different ways in which we make use of words and other signs in making sense to each other, we find that there is no single, fixed way in which we must do it. But that: 'There are countless kinds: countless different kinds of use of what we call 'symbols', 'words', 'sentences'. And this multiplicity is not something fixed, given once for all; but types of language, new language-games, as we say, come into existence, and others become obsolete and get forgotten' (no.23).

If this is the case - both that 'nothing is hidden', and that there are 'countless' ways of doing meaning - how can we describe these ways? Only from within our different ways of doing meaning themselves - and then, only in the much more indeterminate, 'poetic' forms of talk we ordinarily use in our everyday activities, in which we use a great deal of first-person, only once-occurrent, variational, dialogical talk (Shotter, 1996). Thus, when it comes to us gaining a grasp of our own practices (as I have indicated above), we have to be content with merely trying to point out crucial aspects of them from within our own ongoing involvements in them - according to what, in this, that, or some other practical context we are attempting to achieve with our pointings out. And once such pointing out has achieved its practical purpose - although it is extremely difficult to accept this fact - there is nothing more that can be said with any clarity or distinctness. Thus, the crucial aspects of a practice that make it the practice it is cannot be explained, they can be only be described, i.e, pointed our in the course of our talk of them: for intelligible explanations can only be provided from within the confines of already established forms of life with their associated language-games. Where 'you must bear in mind that the language-game is so to say something unpredictable. I mean; it is not based on grounds. It is not reasonable (or unreasonable). It is there - like our life' (Wittgenstein, 1969, no.559). Once we go beyond the confines of established language-games, we are once again in the realm of the indeterminate, where are meanings are ambiguous and can only be made determinate by us 'playing them out', so to speak, within a practice. Our language-games cannot themselves be explained, as they are the bases in terms of which all our explanations in fact work as explanations.

Dwelling on joint action instead of trying to explain it

It is this temptation to explain that, I think, Bruner finds hard to resist, or he seeks, I also think, primarily to be a scientist. Thus, to apply what he says about the paradigmatic or logico- scientific mode of thought to his own tendencies: he ultimately 'seeks to transcend the particular by higher and higher reaching for abstraction, and in the end disclaims in principle any explanatory value at all where the particular is concerned' (p.13). We can see this, I think, at many points in his work. For me, with my interest in joint action (Shotter, 1980, 1984, 1993a and b, 1995), nowhere is this tendency more apparent in his work than in this sphere.

In Acts of Meaning, he draws the following crucial distinctions between three spheres of activity: 'The division between an 'inner' world of experience and an 'outer' one that is autonomous creates three domains, each of which requires a different form of interpretation... In the first domain we are in some manner 'responsible' for the course of events; in the third not,' he writes (Bruner, 1990, p.40). What he says here strikes me as utterly correct and uncontroversial; so does the first half of his next sentence, that: 'There is a second sphere of events that is problematic, comprising some indeterminate mix of the first and third.' It is how he continues from that point onward that I want to contest. For he writes about what I would call joint action as follows: that '... it requires a more elaborate form of interpretation in order to allocate proper causal shares to individual agency and to 'nature'. If folk psychology embodies the interpretative principles of the first domain, and folk physics- cum-biology the third, then the second is ordinarily seen to be governed either by some form of magic or, in contemporary Western culture, by the scientism of physicalist psychology or Artificial Intelligence' (p.41).

Why I would contest what he says here, is because, rather than treating joint action as a source of new bodily reactions and responses to be noticed as the possible origins of new language- games within which we might co-create or co-author new Selves for ourselves, for instance, he treats it as a problem to be solved. In his view, it is to be solved by extending our 'folk psychology' - which must be at the base of any cultural psychology' (Bruner, 1990, p.39) - into what he suggests could be called a 'folk human science' (Bruner, 1990, p.67). This is to be done by accepting all the ordinary everyday mental-terms within which we currently talk of psychological things in our culture, and by seeking empirically to discover both how we live out our lives in these terms, and how we as children acquire a knowledge of the use of these terms. Thus, he views us as structuring our psychological lives in terms of 'beliefs', and 'desires', in the following sense: '[That] we believe that the world is organized in certain ways, that we want certain things, that some things matter more than others, and so on... [And moreover], we also believe that people's beliefs and desires become sufficiently coherent and well organized to merit being called 'commitments' or 'ways of life... [While] personhood is itself a constituent concept of our folk psychology...' (Bruner, 1990, p.39). And to account for how we develop our knowledge of such a 'folk psychology,' how we make our 'entry into meaning,' he hypothesizes that, like adults, even very young children possess to some extent a 'theory of mind:' 'Nobody doubts,' he says (Bruner (1990, p.75), 'that four- or six-year-olds have more mature theories of mind that can encompass what others who ar not engaged with them are thinking or desiring. The point, rather, is that even before language takes over as the instrument of interaction one cannot interact humanly with others without some protolinguistic 'theory of mind'' (p.75).

Bruner is not the only originator of these proposals, as he is the first to admit. Consequently, the fact that they are now at the heart of a major tradition of empirical research in child psychology, cannot (for good or ill) be accredited wholly to his work. Indeed, we can now see, I think, how the institutional structure of our current academic and intellectual methods and practices 'require' such notions. The research is thought necessary, because it is assumed (to quote from a leading source in the field), that: 'perceptions, emotions, physiological states, and more - are a part of the web of psychological constructs used [by adults and children] to understand and explain action and mind... [and they] are centrally organized by consideration of the actor's thoughts and desires. These two sorts of generic mental states are, of course, internal and unobservable. But unobservable mental states can often be inferred...' (Bartsch and Wellman, 1995, p.6). And it is also further taken for granted, that the everyday talk of adults 'about' mental states is unproblematically definitive of our adult 'commonsense conception of mind' (p.5). Thus, when as adults we distinguish between, say, desires as implying a subjective connection to an external object without necessarily implying the possession of an internal cognitive representation of it, while beliefs as such always involve an inner representation, we always do so in terms of what 'can logically be said' on the basis of our own supposed commonsense theory of mind. Given these assumptions, in this tradition of research, records of children's everyday talk are studied inferentially for what they reveal 'about' children's knowledge 'about' such theoretical states - both in themselves and in others. Where a typical hypothesis under study, is the suggestion that 'children go from understanding subjective connections to a later understanding of representational mental states' (Bartsch and Wellman, 1995, p.14) - as if a 'proper' or 'natural' set of developmental stages is 'already there' awaiting discovery.

However, if Wittgenstein (1953) is right, then this kind of research is utterly misguided. Our beliefs and desires are not, as Bartsch and Wellman (1995) claim, 'of course, internal and unobservable,' but are in fact shown in our acting. And the things we 'show' in our actions cannot be explained: they are a part of the background making explanations possible. It is just that we have not yet taught ourselves to see such fleeting 'showings'.

That, however, is perhaps more easily said than done. For, in practice, the temptation to try to solve the puzzles we face by seeking explanations is not at all easy to avoid; it is difficult to recognize the character of the puzzles we face. Thus, as a result, not only is such a task not on the agenda in current psychological research, but, as Wittgenstein (1953) puts it, this, that, or another theoretical picture of how we imagine inner mental processes as working, 'stands in the way of us seeing the use of [a] word as it is' (no.305).

About the difficulty in avoiding the temptation to try to explain both supposed hidden mental processes and how we come to mean things in our speakings, Wittgenstein (1981) remarks: '...the difficulty - I might say - is not that of finding [a] solution but rather that of recognizing as the solution something that looks as if it were only a preliminary to it... This is connected, I believe, with our wrongly expecting an explanation, whereas the solution of the difficulty is a description, if we give it the right place in our [dialogical] considerations. If we dwell upon it, and do not try to get beyond it. The difficulty here is: to stop' (1981, no.314, my alteration and addition). Instead of attempting to see either behind or beyond an event or phenomenon, seeing it merely as an indicator of something supposedly hidden, we must see it in another way. If we dwell on it and look ceaselessly over it, and, as a result, continually respond to it, bodily and dialogically, we can continuously create within ourselves, not new insights, but new responses and reactions - new origins for new language-games, new forms of life, and, as a result, new movements of thought. Indeed, instead of in a protolinguistic theory of mind, it is in such reactions and their refinements that we can find the origins and beginnings of our children's entry into meaning: 'It is so difficult to find the beginning,' says Wittgenstein (1969). 'Or better: it is difficult to begin at the beginning. And not to try to go further back' (no.471).

If we express ourselves, not by simply reproducing the 'normal' background activities constitutive of the kind of people we are, but use them to 'carry' our unique, joint, first-time, deviations and variations from them, then our task is not that of trying to develop 'a more elaborate form of interpretation in order to allocate proper causal shares to individual agency and to 'nature'' (Bruner, 1990, p.41, my emphasis). Instead, we must simply attend to the detailed character of such beginnings, and not be distracted from that task by trying to explain them by in theoretical terms. This is the importance of Wittgenstein's way of talking, the point of his remarks: their function is, he says, to change our 'way of looking at things' (1953, no.144), to give 'prominence to distinctions which our ordinary forms of language easily make us overlook' (1953, no.132). Indeed, as he says, he is not concerned 'to hunt out new facts; it is, rather, of the essence of our investigation that... we want to understand something that is already in plain view. For this is what we seem in some sense not to understand' (1953, no.89). And, through his 'poetic' remarks, he wants to draw our attention to 'observations which no one has doubted, but which have escaped remark only because they are always before our eyes' (1953, no.415).

And what Wittgenstein draws to our attention is that, strangely, that we can gain the new kind of practical understanding required by the use of many of the self-same methods as those we use in gaining this practical kind of understanding in our everyday lives in the first place - the methods that those around us used in our childhood, in 'instructing' us in how to be the kind of persons required in our community (Vygotsky, 1978, 1986; Shotter, 1974, 1984, 1993a and b). So although his methods are as many and various as those we use in life itself, they do in fact all have something in common: they all work in just the same way as our 'directive', 'instructive', 'organizational', and 'educative' forms of talk in everyday life work. For example, we 'give commands' ('Do this,' 'Don't do that'); we 'point things out' to people ('Look at this!'); 'remind' them ('Think what happened last time'); 'change their perspective' ('Look at it like this'); 'organize' their behavior ('First, take a right, then...'); and so on. All these instructive forms of talk 'move' us, in practice, to do something we would not otherwise do: in 'gesturing' or 'pointing' toward something in our circumstances, they 'move' us to relate ourselves to our circumstances in a new ways, to 'orchestrate' our ways of relating in novel and complex ways. Where it is the gestural function of these instructive forms of talk that is their key feature: it is this that gives them their life, their function within our lives in 'calling out' new, dialogically responsive reactions from us of a kind shared by the others around us. These are the reactions from which more complicated 'ways of going on' can be developed.

In this, it seems to me, Wittgenstein's remarks aim at a target very similar to Bruner's, but in a very different way: for both feel that prior to any attempt to explain a person's actions, we must first come to an overall grasp in some way of what Wittgenstein calls their Weltbild - 'the substratum of all my enquiring and asserting,' as Wittgenstein says of himself (1969, no.162). We must somehow characterize the overall style of the 'terrain' or 'landscape' shaping the movement of the flow of activity between us. For it is only within this 'already shaped movement', that all our arguing, our testing of hypotheses, our claims to truth and our assessment of the evidence in their support, and so on, have their life - they exist as further differentiations and variations within it. It is the character of this background 'bustle of life' (1980, II, no.625), 'the whole hurly-burly' (1980, II, no.629), that is basic for us. Literally, we do not know how intelligibly how to doubt it, for all our intelligible doubts must be formulated in its terms. Further, to the extent that it contains all the original forms of expression against which the adequacy of our concepts may be judged, this means that all our concepts - if they are not to be mere irrelevant inventions - must be further differentiations, so to speak, within this basic flow of activity. In practice, our concepts are 'carried in' certain of our embodied ways of responding to our surroundings that we 'carry over' from other spheres of activity. This means, however, that concepts as such cannot be of any help to us in grasping the nature of our own humanly constructed institutions and practices, for they are an outgrowth, not the basis, of the everyday, background flow of activities between us.


In the past in social theory, two spheres of activity have occupied our attention: people's individual actions, and their behavior. But now, dialogical phenomena - and what Bruner focuses on as narrative phenomena - seen as occurring in a sphere somewhere in between these other two, are coming to constitute a distinct, third realm of activity requiring its own distinct kind of attention. Such phenomena cannot be accounted for simply as actions (for they are not done by individuals, thus they cannot be explained by giving a person's reasons), nor can they be treated simply as 'just happening' events (to be explained by discovering their causes). Indeed, as Bruner himself points out, such events occur in a chaotic zone of indeterminacy or uncertainty in between these other two spheres, and as such, although they contain aspects of them both, occurrences in this sphere do not seem amenable to any clear characterizations at all. Yet, although Bruner (1990) is at pains to point out that these joint, first-time, variational activities consist in 'some indeterminate mix of the other two,' i.e., of actions or happenings, he does not in the end treat them as consisting of a distinct third realm of events, as an otherness to be endlessly dwelt on, if justice is to be done to its uniqueness. In his folk human science, he seeks a specific, explanatory account of such a sphere of activity.

Yet, if we do dwell on its otherness for a while, we find that it is its very lack of specificity, its lack of any pre-determined order, and thus its openness to being specified or determined by those involved in it, that is its most interesting feature - for at least the following two reasons: While we, as academics, may not be able to specify and make determinate the forms of people's self- other relations ahead of time, we can empirically study how they themselves manage to specify and determine them for themselves (for instance see Jacoby and Ochs, 1995, and Katz and Shotter, 1996). And this is, perhaps, where all the practical payoffs of this approach lie. But it is not where the most radical changes lie.

The most crucial changes will lie, I think, in our changed attitudes to our talk of certain things - and I mean talk 'of' not talk 'about' - things such as: our talk of language, of persons (and their psychological 'make-up'), of society, culture, etc., and in all those things that are an other or otherness to us. These are all things or activities that are ongoing and unfinished, that we either seem to be 'inside of' or they seem to be 'inside of us', things of which we cannot seem to form a single, fixed and distinct picture upon which to base a practice, 'things' that are always inadequately represented in our theories 'about' them. And this is where, I think, Wittgenstein's central achievement lies: for he has provided us with 'methods' for talking of our ongoing, unfinished practices from within our practices themselves. In so doing, he has brought to our attention, how we have misled ourselves in the past in our attempts to explain them. Indeed, he makes it clear to us that the technologizing of psychology, and other such practices, is not simply a consequence of us having selected 'technical', 'mechanical', or 'computational' theories in our attempts to explain human phenomena - as if switching to other, possibly more humane kinds of theoretical concepts, such as narrative or hermeneutical notions, would make all the difference. It would be of no avail. For the fraction and technicalization of psychology stems not from the style of our theories, but from a certain set of very general intellectual moves embodied in our intellectual practices, all embodied in the urge to explain: the move to focus on fixed forms and patterns, on what is stable and repeatable; the search for stable unities, for a static overall order and coherence; the urge to construct undeniable, incontestable, intelligible systems of thought, and to write them up in textbooks that can be grasped by individuals sitting at their desks all alone. It is difficult to imagine, never mind to implement, a 'moving' alternative, to see that we can only do just to the being of an Other in endless, ongoing, moving, dialogical encounters with them. Yet this is what Bruner in his twists and turns has attempted to do.

Thus, in celebrating aspects of Professor Bruner's own work and distinguished career, I have sought to display what, it seems to me, are some of the inevitably contradictory and irresolvable tendencies at work in these twists and turns of his. But as I see it, these contradictory tendencies are not simply at work solely in his efforts, but are at work in all our efforts, for they are present in our institutional practices in academic psychology (and the rest of the social sciences) currently. But, I think, the full, contradictory nature of these tendencies are only felt (and thus expressed and displayed in one's work) if, like Jerome Bruner, one lives one's professional psychology in one's everyday life in a morally engaged way. And clearly, Bruner does take psychology seriously in this way. He not only takes it seriously as an academic discipline, but also, in seeing it as one of our hopes in passing beyond 'the malaise of futurelessness... the unspoken despair in which we are now living' (Bruner, 1986, pp.148-149), he not content with it in that guise alone. On the horizon of his understandings, determining how he positions himself in relation to it, is his concern with our human condition. Hence his worry over it becoming too technicalized: for it will then call us once again to treat the cultural knowledge of ordinary people as 'just a set of self-assuaging illusions, [rather than as] the culture's beliefs and working hypotheses about what makes it possible and fulfilling for people to live together, even with great personal sacrifice' (Bruner, 1990, p.32). This is why he sees the denigration or the ignoring of cultural knowledge as disastrous.

In outlining its strange nature, he draws our attention most crucially, not only to the importance of the realm of first-time, variational events - to our violations of the normal! - but also to the fact that such 'violations' only have their significance against the constitutive background of our normative activities. If we lose our grasp on this background, then anything goes! We will lack a shared, living basis in terms of which to judge the adequacy and relevance of people's claims to knowledge. But for us to get and to retain a grasp of its nature, for us to get an insight into our practices of Self, along with many of our other practices, is not easy. To repeat: Instead of a theoretical, explanatory account of their workings, we need first to come to a practical understanding of the joint, dialogical nature of our lives together. And if we are to do that, if we are to see, as Bruner (1986) puts it, the ways in which we 'violate' the norms of our institutions, then, we also must violate the norms of our institutions. And this is what Bruner has done over and over again... while at the same time always wanting to make amends... while still, luckily, not being quite able to prevent himself from yet further violations!


Footnote: 1
[1] Bakhtin (1993) writes: 'An act of our activity, of our actual experiencing, is like a two-faced Janus. It looks in two opposite directions: it looks at the objective domain of culture and at the never-repeatable uniqueness of actually lived and experienced life. But there is no unitary and unique plane where both faces would mutually determine each other in relation to a single unity. It is the once-occurrent event of Being in the process of actualization that can constitute this unique unity; all that which is theoretical and aesthetic must be determined as a constituent moment in the once-occurrent event of Being...' (p.2).

Footnote: 2
[2] Intertwined into our different forms of life are different 'language games' - where, as he says, 'the term 'language-game' is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or a form of life' (1953, no.23). The playful or game-like nature of our forms of talk, are much more apparent at those points in our lives when we are first learning or first developing new language-games. Especially important at this time, when meanings are vague and require more working out as one goes along, are gestures and other more bodily forms of expression. Crucial, is the way in which we cannot not be spontaneously responsive to the bodily activities of those around us, and are thus always in a living relation of some kind or other to our surroundings. Indeed, such relations constitute the source of all our later, more deliberate activities. We can thus agree with Wittgenstein (1980) when he says that: 'The origin and the primitive form of the language game 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'' (p.31).


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