Senior Faculty Fellow's Lecture, Center for the Humanities, Oct 9th, 1996



John Shotter


'What we find out in philosophy is trivial; it does not teach us new facts, only science does that. But the proper synopsis of these trivialities is enormously difficult, and has immense importance. Philosophy is in fact the synopsis of trivialities' (1980... Lectures, 1930-32, p.26).

'Philosophy ought really to be written only as poetic composition' (1980, p.24).

First, as something of a new boy on the block, let me say how honored I felt to be awarded a Senior Faculty Fellowship by the Center's Advisory Board. It was wonderful to have it, and it's wonderful of you all now to be here, to hear some of the results of the work on Wittgenstein I did during it. He searched for those points in our lives where language had its 'life', moments in which amazing things happened. On the face of it, his life was terrible, and he made the lives of others' a misery - I call him the 'terrible Ludwig' - but yet, on his death, he said: 'Tell them I had a wonderful life.' And, in talking today to you about some of the very strange characteristics of conversational spaces and of the shared dialogical realities they create, I want to try to convey to you, some of that wonder, to say something about the amazing 'fractal fullness' of the momentary events occurring between us - their inexhaustible richness of detail.

Now, because of their strange character, Wittgenstein came to realize that to grasp what is occurring in such events, we need some equally strange, nontheoretical, poetic 'methods' or 'practices'. And so today, also, I want to talk about some of the special methods for investigating how we can a grasp on the nature in our everyday affairs that he brought to our attention. Where, what is special about them, is that they give us a way to grasp what it is we are doing, in our doing of it, without us distorting it by having to step outside of the ongoing flow of our activity to reflect upon it.

Central to our changed views of language, both his and mine, are, I think, four major points:

Indeed, some epigraphs from Wittgenstein relevant to my talk here today could be:

And the reference to Goethe here is important, and I will return to it later, when, towards the end of my talk, I want to talk about some 'methods' for understanding dialogical or relational phenomena. But let me first spell out some of the consequences of our turn to an interest in them, for they have a very strange nature indeed...

Dialogical phenomena: their unknowable, mixed, background nature

Consider first, the location of the influences shaping people's activities: Classically, 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 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 having 'to work it out' how to respond; and, in so doing, we relate ourselves to our surroundings, in one way or another, spontaneously. But once we allow for this possibility, once we allow people to be in a continuous, living contact with each other, we can no longer sustain the idea of ourselves as being separate, self-contained entities... or, of our world as being an 'external' world. For, when a second living human being responds to the acts of a first, and thus acts in a way that depends on their acts... then, the activities of the second person cannot be accounted as wholly their own activity. As responses to the activities of the first, the second person's activity must be partly shaped by the first's. And this is where all the strangeness begins.

For instance, in discussing the power relations in such circumstances as these - in which outcomes are jointly produced - Foucault (1980) remarks that, although no power is exercised without a series of aims and objectives, 'this does not mean that it results from the choice or decision of an individual subject; let us not look for the headquarters that presides over [a discourse's] rationality...; the logic is perfectly clear, the aims decipherable, and yet it is often the case that no one is there to have invented them...' (p.95). This is because, in such 'joint action' (as I have called it elsewhere - Shotter, 1980, 1984, 1993a and b), we must act 'into' the already existing requirements of the situation between us as much as 'out of' any prior plans or desires of our own - if, that is, we are to act in ways the others around us sense as appropriate to our common situation.

But as a result, 1) the formative influences shaping our conduct cannot be wholly 'there' within us, prior to our actions, available for discovery ahead of time... 2) But our conduct is not wholly called out from us by our surroundings either... Indeed, 3) as individuals, we must of necessity remain deeply ignorant in such circumstances of quite what it is that we - as a 'we' - are doing. Not because the 'plans' or 'scripts', etc., supposedly in us somewhere informing our conduct are too deeply hidden to bring out easily into the light of day, but because the formative influences shaping our conduct are not wholly there within us to be brought out: the momentary actions of others determine our conduct just as much as anything within ourselves.

Thus in such circumstances as these, the overall outcome of the exchange cannot be traced back to the intentions of any individuals involved at all. Thus, rather than being experienced as a product of those actually producing it, as arising in the momentary relations existing both between us and between us and our circumstances... as something created there on the spot, in the living intersection or 'space' between ourselves and our world... it is experienced as an event which just happens, as an event in 'an external world'. This is another aspect of the strangeness of the ordinary: we cannot find in our individual experiences any sense of our involvement in such joint activities - we are just like those in a Ouija board session, who look at each other asking: 'Are you doing it, because I'm not?'

Thus, as I see it, then, there is something very special about the joint, or relational, or dialogical natural of genuine social activity - that has not yet been fully appreciated either in theories of communication, or in the rest of social theory for that matter, that needs explication: and that is the character of these unnoticed background 'spaces' that appear like a 'third agency' between us in all our dealings with each other, and which 'shape' everything we do within them: that is, 'they' shape us more than we shape 'them'. To act in such a 'space' is to participate in a set of distinctive practices, to live a certain form of life, a form of life in which in which what I do at any moment is a part of what, overall, we are doing.

Thus, in each form of life, there are: i) shared ways of making sense of people's utterances; ii) shared ways of making sense of perceptions; iii) shared structures of feeling, desires, cravings, impulses, forms of thought and judgment, and so on, in short, shared forms of consciousness; iv) shared ways of 'reaching out', so to speak, to make intelligible contacts with aspects of our surroundings not yet well-known; v) as well as other communal resources, such as basic 'poetic images' structuring our institutions... and so on, and so on; vi) as well as normative sanctions at work requiring everyone involved in them to properly sustain the shared ways in the form of life.

Yet what is strange, of course, is that the ways of going on, the forms of talk intertwined activities that make up a form of life, are not based on any grounds. 'It is not reasonable (or unreasonable). It is there - like our life.' (1969, no.559). Thus we cannot, as individuals, simply turn our language-games, our ways of relating ourselves to each other, into determinate objects of thought, to be explained like anything else in our world... in terms of a theory or model. For, it is only in terms of how we, as a group, work out ways to constitute something as an object, and to relate a 'theory' or 'model' to it, that we can (within the group) justifiably say what any 'theory' or 'model' is supposed to be a theory or model of!

Indeed, being able first to discuss them conversationally with each other, is a part of us being able to justify that we are indeed applying such theories or models aright, Thus theories or models can never be representative of the prior conditions for such joint discussions. Rather: they must be a consequence of them. The intelligible shaping or structuring of such discussions must be due to other means. Just our intellectual practice of always seeking theories as such, misdirects our attention. They are after the fact and beside the point: 1) we look at finished outcomes, rather than into the details of the unique, dialogical process producing them, and we describe their structure, rather than the daily human struggles, and influences at work, between us, the producers.

Indeed, once one has grasped the measureless extent of all the productive activity in the background to our daily lives, and how we are shaped by it in everything we do, then all the attempts we have been making to understand ourselves and our behavior in terms of this, that, or some other theory or model - as if one day, we might hit on the correct one - as pathetically paltry. As Wittgenstein (1953) put it: 'The real foundations of a man's inquiry do not strike him at all. Unless that fact has at some time struck him. - And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful' (no.129).

Dialogicality and joint action: 'methods' in creating an understanding

But if we cannot understand the nature of the dialogical backgrounds to our lives through theories, or in terms of models, how can we come to a grasp of them? Well: through the new 'poetic' methods - not a methodology - offered us by Wittgenstein.

Here, perhaps, a first useful method, is just to amass a number of different but particular examples to look over, to survey: So, to come to an initial grasp of the nature of dialogical relations, we can first turn to a well known example of Bakhtin's (1984, 1986):

He remarks that, 'dialogic relationships are reducible neither to logical relationships nor to relationships oriented semantically toward their referential object, relationships in and of themselves devoid of any dialogic element. They must clothe themselves in discourse, become utterances, become the positions of various subjects expressed in discourse, in order that dialogic relationships might arise among them' (Bakhtin, 1984, p.183).

And, in making clear what he means here, he asks us to consider the two sentences: 'Life is good,' and 'Life is not good.' Logically, as sentences, as thesis and antithesis, they simply negate each other, and there is nothing more to be said. But as two living, embodied utterances - the second said by someone in an argumentative response to another's utterance of the first - they constitute a living, dialogical relationship of disagreement, with all the attendant feelings and emotions, the needs and desires, people have in such circumstances... for instance, to go on arguing until all the others around them agree with them. In their dialogical collision, a living relationship is constituted, both between speakers and listeners, as well as to their common circumstances. In Wittgenstein's (1953) terms, as we have already seen, the way in which one person reacts to an other can be the beginning, the origin of a 'language-game' and a certain 'form of life' between them... where, 'the primitive reaction [with which the language-game begins] may have been a glance or a gesture, but it may also have been a word' (p.218).

Let us explore the details of the little form of life created here a little further, by questioning the 'expressive intonation' (Bakhtin, 1986, p.85), or the 'evaluative accent' (Volosinov, 1973, p.103), with which the first person utters 'Life is good.'

For it is in their intoning of their utterance, in their 'shaping' of its unfolding movement as they bodily voice it forth, that the first person 'shows' or 'displays' to the second their evaluative stance, their own relation to their own circumstances. Similarly for the second: in the tone of their reply, they also 'show' or 'display' both their stance toward both their own circumstances and toward the first person, and so on.

Hence, in practice, the living, responsive 'space' between them might take on any one of a whole indeterminable range of possible 'shapes' or 'characters', each one inviting or motivating further responses of many, uniquely different kinds. Thus, as we body forth our wordings into this space, the kind of understanding that others have of our actions, is not of an individualistic, cognitive kind, to do with having an inner, mental picture, but of a practical, dialogically responsive kind, to do with us knowing how to respond to others, with how to 'go on' with them in practice. But, we not only have a sense of how 'we stand' with them, we also have a sense of how 'find our way about', in relation to the others around us. We might call such a sense as this a 'scenic sense' of where we are - for it is as if we have a sense of a whole 'landscape' of further possibilities in relation to our own current 'positioning' on it: 'The relations between these concepts form a landscape which language presents us with in countless fragments; piecing them together to too hrad for me. I can only make a very imperfect job of it' (1980, p.78).

Methods for further grasping and investigating the character of conversational realities

Now, in the past in social theory, two spheres of activity that have occupied our attention: people's individual actions, and their behavior. Dialogical phenomena constitute a distinct, third sphere of events, occurring somewhere in between these other two. For, i) they cannot be accounted simply as actions (for they are not done by individuals, thus they cannot be explained by giving a person's reasons), nor ii) can they be treated as simply 'just happening' events (to be explained by discovering their causes). iii) They occur in a chaotic zone of indeterminacy or uncertainty in between the two. As such, although containing aspects of each of the other two categories, occurrences in this sphere do not seem amenable to any clear characterizations at all.

Indeed, 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, all unawares, in practice, that is its central defining feature. And: it is precisely this that makes this sphere of activity interesting... for at least two reasons: one is to do with the ways available to us for talking of the activities within it; the other is to do with our more practical investigations of their nature.

1) Turning first to our practical inquiries: It is this lack of specificity that opens up such joint activity to practical inquiries:

- and so on.

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 study how they themselves manage to specify and determine them.

This is where all the practical payoffs of this approach lie, but it is not where the most radical changes lie: they will lie in our changed attitude 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. Where these are '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.

2) His provision of a set of 'methods' for talking of our practices from within our practices themselves, is, I think, Wittgenstein's central achievement: so let me turn now to what I think is the strangest, most radical, most ordinary aspect of his work.

If we are to notice this, we need an accepted way of characterizing the very special kind of understanding involved here: for we do not want to grasp what something 'is', as an instance of a general category, we want an understanding of a quite different kind, we want 'just that understanding which consists in 'seeing connections'' as Wittgenstein (1953, no.122) puts it. We want, as I called it above, a relational-responsive kind of understanding. But how are we to arrive at it?

Goethe, in his study of plant forms, thought that all plant- life could be studied in an orderly fashion if all plants could be seen under the aspect of a single Gestalt, a single form of arrangement, an Urphänomen, of which all instances of a type could be seen as metamorphoses. In the case of plants, this Urphänomen would be the Urpflanze (the 'original' plant) - an imaginative creation within oneself that gives us an übersicht (a 'synoptic' view) of the whole field of plant-life: as developing from the leaf-form through a series of intermediate forms.

'The Urpflanze is going to be the strangest creature in the world, which Nature herself shall envy me,' said Goethe (1970, p.310). 'With this model and the key to it, it will be possible to go on inventing plants and know their existence is logical; that is to say, if they do not actually exist, they could.'

Thus, one can put the Urpflanze up against Nature as a measure of its possibilities.

This is what Wittgenstein is after in his philosophical practice: to produce that kind of understanding that allows us to grasp the real possibilities available between us, in our practices, in our lives now, instead of us continually trying to 'market' spurious 'theories' that impose this, that, or some other individual's single order upon us.

There is so much more to say here. I have barely begun to discuss the enormous 'landscape' of possibilities this work begins to open up. But, let me end with another reference to Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia:

Among its many comparisons - between 1809 and the present day, for instance - is the difference between the contemporary literary academic's, Bernard Nightingale's, orderly 'methods' in arguing for plausible, but - as we see in the play - totally spurious 'truths', and thirteen year old Tomasina's 'methods' in 1809 arising out of her being 'struck' by certain wondrous facts.

She has been 'struck' this phenomenon: 'When you stir your rice pudding, Septimus, the spoonful of jam spreads itself round making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas. But if you stir backward, the jam will not come together again... Do you think this is odd?' (pp.4-5). Septimus, her tutor, who is teaching her mathematics, doesn't. But she does... and she mediates on it.

'Septimus,' she says, 'if there is an equation for a curve like a bell, there must be an equation for one like a bluebell, and if a bluebell, why not a rose?...' And she goes on to say, 'I will start with something simple. I will plot this leaf and deduce its equation' (p.37)... And later, she talks of her 'rabbit equation... [an equation that] eats its own progeny' (p.77)...

Later, two present day researchers are talking: 'lend me a finger,' says one to the other, and he puts her finger on a certain key on a computer keyboard. 'See?,' he asks, 'Patterns making themselves out of nothing. I can't show you how deep it goes. Each picture is a detail of the previous one, blown up. And so on...' Indeed, its an example of the 'fractal fullness', I mentioned above... 'Interesting. Publishable,' the researcher continues... but its not his: 'Its Tomasina's,' he says.

'I just pushed her [rabbit] equations through the computer a few million times further than she managed to do with her pencil' (p.76). 'She didn't have the maths, not remotely. She saw what things meant, way ahead, like seeing a picture... Like a film' (p.93). 'What did she see?' the other asks. 'That you can't run the film backwards...' (p.93)... 'And everything is mixing the same way all the time, irreversibly...' (p.94).

And the play ends with Thomasina and Septimus waltzing.

'Except for the point, the still point,

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance' (T.S. Eliot)

If your head is now full of a myriad possibilities, new images through which to see new possibilities, then that is the kind of poetic-relational understanding that I have been trying to talk about today.