Spoken paper for SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION, CULTURE, AND THE POLITICS OF SOCIAL IDENTITY, New School of Social Research, New York, April 7th, 1995


John Shotter


'... philosophy ought only to be written as a poetic composition' (1980, p.24).
Wittgenstein's works, I would like to argue, offer us individualistic and scientistic moderns - obsessed with knowledge and with information - something radically new: a renewal of a sense of a proper connectness and relatedness, both with each other, and with our larger surroundings. They are not, however, easy to read or to understand. They are written as a sequence of numbered remarks, not always apparently connected with each other. They point or gesture toward ends that are somewhat alien to our current preoccupations. In fact, they are written in terms of 'striking similes' and 'arresting moments'; they have a 'poetic' quality; their function is 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), to leave 'everything as it is' (1953, no.124), but none the less, to 'produce just that understanding which consists in 'seeing connections' (1953, no.122). 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). Their function, I shall argue, is ontological (and in fact political) not epistemological: Their aim is not to attempt to do better what other philosophies have failed to do, but to do something else entirely: he wants to change us in our being - indeed, as I see it, the politics of our social identities is, in fact, at the heart of his 'struggl[es] with language' (1980, p.11).

Origins in reactions and gestures

Indeed, if we turn to his 'striking phrases' and 'arresting moments', to his 'poetic' ways of talking - in which, for instance, he talks about language as a 'game', as an 'ancient city', as a 'toolbox', of words as like the levers in 'the cabin of a locomotive', and so on, without any specificity as to which game, which city, which toolbox, or locomotive cab he means - the first question we might ask about such talk is: How can such vague, confusing talk, 'coming out of the blue', outside the confines of any obvious language game, without any clear understanding of what it represents or to what it refers, making no use of any particular paradigms, or rules, or other schemes or frameworks, be of any help to us at all? What is the character of such talk and writing? How should we react to it?

Well, perhaps the first thing to say, about it, is that, in being 'confusing', it is 'deconstructive': it works to destabilize the often philosophically reinforced meanings already in place in our lives. And then, perhaps, the next thing to note is that such 'deconstructive moments' are never purely textual affairs, but - especially when the 'making' of our forms of life are at stake - they are also political moments, moments of struggle, in which we have to 'work out' different versions of our relations to each other.

To see their practical, relational nature more clearly, it will be useful to remind ourselves of the very practical nature of Wittgenstein's 'world': that he is not primarily concerned with anything mysterious going on inside our heads, but simply with us 'going on' with each other, with us being able to sensibly 'follow' each other, to intertwine our activities with those of others. 'Language did not emerge from some kind of ratiocination' (1969, no.475), he remarks. 'The origin and 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' he says (1980, p.31), quoting Goethe. It is this emphasis on the reactional, relational nature of our deeds, of our social practices, and upon the poetic nature of special 'arresting moments' which create a 'space of possibilities' for their change and renewal, that makes Wittgenstein's stance toward our understanding of our own behavior (and our talk of 'things') so distinctive... and strange... even! For he is not so much concerned with us seeing the supposedly true nature of what something is, contemplatively... as with attempting to articulate how, moment by moment, we in fact conduct our practical, everyday affairs - something we usually leave unacknowledged in the background to our lives. Where their strangeness arises out of the simple fact that, in reacting to the actions of others, our replies are never wholly our own; in being always, to an extent, both reactions to their 'calls', and to the larger circumstances in which they occur, they are half 'shaped' by influences beyond our control. Thus, in such 'joint' or 'relational' circumstances as these, no outcomes can be wholly attributed to the desires or plans of any individuals involved, nor can they be attributed wholly to any outside agencies, either: As a function of the particular relations between oneself and others, any outcome is an entirely unique, novel, unforeseeable, and spontaneous creation - an unintended consequence of the struggles and tensions occurring in what we might call 'momentary relational encounters.'

Of course, the character of these struggles is not Wittgenstein's primary concern. In pursuing his interest in the more practical aspects of our daily activities, he is focally interested, of course, in our voicings of our words, and in the different (practical) roles such voicings might play in the rest of our activities as we live out of our lives. He wants to be able to 'see' the possible relations and connections they might in fact have (or 'point toward') with other events occurring around them. Aware that we 'tend to predicate of the thing what lies in the method of representing it' (1953, no.104, my emphasis) - that we tend to see the world just as much through our words as through our eyes - he wants divert us from describing our practical activities as we think they must be, in terms taken from our currently established language-games, or as Foucault might say, from our dominant discourses. 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). Indeed, he wants us, I suggest, to see what our talk entwined practices in fact look like... in practice, rather than in theory.

Wittgenstein's world: 'Now I can go on'

And it is this, I think, that is precisely the reality that we are failing to see, the reality right in front of our eyes, everyday: the details of what is involved in us living out our daily lives in practice. It is this that we do not know how to see for what it is, without continually distorting it, without continually telling ourselves that it must have this or that kind of special nature to it, a nature that we feel must be captured within an orderly, explanatory theory. Thus a part of Wittgenstein's philosophy, is to do with trying to help us overcome this urge to turn to 'the way of theory,' whenever we find ourselves faced with questions as to why we act as we do. To this end, he tries to redescribe many topics and events, that we might be tempted to put into theoretical terms, more practically.

For instance, he attempts to draw our attention to the practical nature of even philosophical problems: 'A philosophical problem has the form,' he says, of 'I don't know my way about' (1953, no.154). Or, concerning the understanding of mathematical formulae, he suggests, 'try not to think of understanding as a 'mental process' at all... But ask yourself: in what sort of case, in what kind of circumstances, do we say, 'Now I know how to go on'...' (1953, no.154); that is, question yourself as to the nature of the surrounding social conditions! In other words, as he sees it, our talk of 'understanding' is not simply, if at all, related to events occurring inside a person's head; but for us, 'it is the circumstances under which he had such an experience that justify him in saying... that he understands, that he knows how to go on' (1953, no.155). Indeed, in all our practices, as he points out, saying ''I understand', like [saying] 'I can go on' is an utterance, a signal' (1980, I, no.875); such utterances work in practice to indicate to those to those around us, something of our changed relations, both to our circumstances, and to them.

Thus, in his much more practical view of our everyday world and our activities within it - although it may seem very strange to say it - he is not necessarily concerned with us 'understanding' each other in the sense of us sharing any 'ideas', nor with us 'communicating' in the sense of sending each other any clear messages, nor with us discovering the 'true' nature of our surrounding circumstances, nor with us necessarily doing anything in particular, let alone anything that is 'basic' to us being human. He is simply concerned with us being able to 'go on' with each other (1953, nos.146-155), with us being able merely to make 'followable', 'responsible', or 'answerable' sense to each other -simply reacting or responding in ways that makes it possible for us to continue our relationships is sufficient for him. To send messages; to fully understand each other; to routinely and skillfully discourse upon a subject matter; to be able to 'reach out', so to speak, from within a language-game and talk about the 'contacts' one has made, and to formulate 'theories' as to the nature of what is 'out there'; all these abilities are, or can be, later developments.

The 'site': momentary relational encounters

Thus, as I see it, his prime concern is to explore the nature of those initial, pre-ordinary, pre-intellectual, embodied responses and reactions that make it possible for us sensibly, simply to 'follow' or to 'grasp' the 'tendencies' in each other's conduct; to study those circumstances in which we can 'go on' with each other in practice, thus to socially construct our forms of life. Indeed, as he sees it, our ways of 'going on' with each other in a sensibly followable way are foundational because, it is in doing so that we can achieve all the other things we think of as being important to us. But, if we are to follow Wittgenstein, upon what should we 'focus' in our studies? 'Where' might such 'spaces of possibility' come into view? What should be the 'site' of our investigations?' And what methods might be available to us, in such investigations?

In his seminal article inaugurating the social constructionist movement in psychology, Gergen (1985) states one of its central features thus:

'The terms in which the world is understood are social artifacts [constructions], products of historically situated interchanges among people... the result of an active, cooperative enterprise of persons in relationship' (p.267, my emphasis).
In other words, like Wittgenstein, Gergen also wants to argue that, instead of turning immediately to a study of how individuals come to know the objects and entities in the world around them, we should begin in a quite different way: by studying how, by interweaving our talk in with our other actions and activities, we first develop and sustain between us, different, particular ways of relating ourselves to each other - that is, that we should first study how we construct what Wittgenstein calls our different forms of life with their associated language-games. And only then, turn to a study of how we 'reach out' from within those forms of life, so to speak, to make various kinds of contact - some direct and some indirect - with our surroundings through the various ways of making sense of such contacts, our forms of life provide.

We should center our studies, then, in what occurs in the 'momentary gaps' between people as they respond to each other; while not forgetting the relation of such gaps to the surrounding circumstances in which they occur. It is in our 'momentary relational encounters' that everything of political importance to us occurs. If we are to adopt this focus of both Wittgenstein and Gergen on the relational context, however, we must note a couple of simple but crucial points:

  • 1) The first is that, seemingly, everything that we think of, and talk of, as being the case about ourselves and our language - that we have 'minds', that we 'think in our heads', that 'words stand for things', that we can 'explain' occurrences 'in the world' in terms of 'theories', and so on - all these things can only make clear and intelligible sense from within the confines of specific language-games. This does not mean that language itself is unusable outside of a language game. Far from it. But it does mean that all such talk is, by its very nature, initially, of indeterminate meaning, open to determination only in the context of its use.

  • 2) The second, is that '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); or, to put it another way, 'our talk gets its meaning from the rest of our proceedings' (1969, no.229). Thus, in our practical usage of words, they draw their influence very little from our saying of the words, in themselves, so to speak, but from our use of them at crucial moments, to make crucial differences, in the larger flow of activity within which we are involved. Thus again, it is our situated use of our words that is important, in practice. Both these points will be important below in appreciating the practical, nontheoretical nature of Wittgenstein's methods.

    Wittgenstein's methods

    Why do I say nontheoretical? Because for him, theories as such are both beside the point and after the fact:

  • 1) They are beside the point, in that they hide from us the actual forms of life from within which our talk makes sense (and whether they are, for instance, of an unequal, an equal, an official, an instrumental, a mechanical, or of a properly living and personal kind).

  • 2) And they are after the fact, in that they also divert our attention away from those fleeting moments in which the essentially ethical and political struggles are (or would be) at work in their initial formation - struggles which are not pre-linguistic, by the way, but are prior to any particular forms of life.

    Indeed, as he sees it, it is the very insistence on the classical search for an already existing order hidden behind or beyond appearances, and our belief that we ought to convince others of the truth of our claims by systematic argument, that deflects or precludes us coming to a grasp of what is utterly unique and novel in the moment by moment emergence of appearances (our voicings) as they unfold before our very eyes (or, better, in our ears). Where it is just the nature of these moment by moment 'movements' of language that is Wittgenstein's concern.

    But what, exactly, is his problem with them? What can he tell us about them that we do not already know? For although we are seeking a better understanding our everyday activities, in one sense... a spontaneous practical sense... this does not seem to be our problem at all.

    So, what kind of understanding are we seeking here? In this connection, it will be useful to remind ourselves again:

  • i) of the 'gestural' nature of our practical, embodied understandings;
  • ii) of our concern with the tensions, the struggles, and the ambiguities at work in the gaps between us;
  • iii) of the possibility of us constructing new relations between us from the resources available to us in such 'gaps'; and
  • iv) of our concern with how, in the making of such new connections and relations, we are projecting various, possibly new, forms of life.

    Where, what Wittgenstein draws to our attention in his remarks, strangely - in talking of 'words as instruments characterized by their use' (1965, p.67) - is that in gaining this practical kind of understanding, we can make use of the very same methods we used in gaining that practical kind of understanding in the first place - that is, he can use the self- same methods for drawing our attention to how people draw each other's attention to things, as they themselves (we all?) in fact use!

    This, then, gives us a clue to Wittgenstein's methods. For, although they are as many and as 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 cause us to relate ourselves to our circumstances in a different way - as if we are continually being 'educated' into new ways. Where it is the 'gestural' function of these 'instructive' forms of talk that is their key feature, that gives them their 'life', that gives them their function 'within' our lives.

    He calls the forms of talk, the remarks he uses to draw our attention to what is, in fact, already know to us, 'reminders:' For, 'something that we know when no one asks us, but no longer know when we are supposed to give an account of it [cf. Augustine], is something we need to remind ourselves of' (1953, no.89), he says.

    Their function as 're-minders', as 'mind-making' remarks, gives us some further set of clues as to his 'poetic methods'. They work, first:

  • 1) To arrest or interrupt (or 'deconstruct') the spontaneous, unself-conscious flow of our ongoing activity, and to give 'prominence to distinctions which our ordinary forms of language easily make us overlook' (1953, no.132). Thus his talk is full of such expressions as 'Think of...,' 'Imagine...,' 'It is like...,' 'So one might say...,' 'Suppose...,' and so on, all designed 'to draw someone's attention to the fact that he [or she] is capable of imagining [something]' (1953, no.144); that is, they show us other possibilities present in a circumstance. Where, in imagining something new, a person is 'now ... inclined to regard a given case differently: that is, to compare it with this rather than that set of pictures. I have changed his way of looking at thing' (1953, no.144), he says.

    This suggests to us a second aspect of his methodology that is sometimes important:

  • 2) By the careful use of selected images, similes, analogies, metaphors, or 'pictures', he also suggests new ways of talking that not only orient us toward sensing otherwise unnoticed distinctions and relations for the first time, but which also suggest new connections and relations with the rest of our proceedings. Here, his notion of a 'perspicuous representation (portrayal) = Ger: bersichlichte Darstellung)' is central: 'A main source of our failure to understand is that we do not command a clear view of our use of words. - Our grammar is lacking in this sort of perspicuity. A perspicuous representation [portrayal] produces just that understanding which consists in 'seeing connections'' he says (1953, no.122).

    Thus, if we are 'to find our way about' inside our own linguistic forms of life, we need to grasp their inner 'landscape', their 'grammatical geographies', so to speak. This brings us to a third aspect of his methodology: 3) By the use of various kinds of objects of comparison, e.g., other possible ways of talking, other 'language games' both actual and invented, etc., he tries 'to throw light on the facts of our language by way of not only similarities, but also dissimilarities' (1953, no.130). For, by noticing how what occurs differs in a distinctive way from what we otherwise would expect, such comparisons can work, he notes, to establish 'an order in our knowledge of the use of language: an order with a particular end in view; one of many possible orders; not the order' (1953, no.132).

    A social poetics

    The importance of the use of comparisons cannot be overemphasized. They work to create 'dimensions' in terms of which differences can be both noticed and articulated: here, we use our words 'like' this; there, we use them 'like' that. Indeed, there is no end to such an investigatory practice as this. Unlike our attempts to 'place' something within a closed framework or system, such a method is open to extension, as long as we can find or create new metaphors and images through which to discover yet further contrasts and distinctions. Thus, in the new practice to which he introduces us, as we cross boundaries and 'move' from functioning within one language game to an other, we can experience the changed commitments, urges, wants, desires, and temptations, as well as the ways of handling, looking, and evaluating, associated with each.

    In particular, as we move from the 'inside' to the 'outside' of a disciplinary system, it becomes possible to sense how - from within the system - its (metaphorical) ways of talking seemingly entraps those within it in 'its' reality. For, in these disciplinary circumstances, in which we use our words in a wholly lifeless, monological, decontextualized manner, and seek only a passive, representational kind of understanding, there is a built-in exclusion of more active, responsive understandings: we must bridge all the gaps in our talk in terms of a certain theoretical order. Thus, in our disciplinary forms of talk, 'a picture [holds] us captive. And we [can] not get outside it, for it [lies] in our language and language [seems] to repeat it to us inexorably' (1953, no.115).

    Thus: 'When philosophers use a word - 'knowledge', 'being', 'object', 'I', 'proposition', 'name' - and try to grasp the essence of the thing, one must always ask oneself: is the word ever actually used in this way in the language-game which is its original home? - What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use' (1953, no.116), within a form of life.

    But if we are to attend to these everyday 'gestural' forms of talk, we must attend to our own 'spontaneous' reactions and responses, to what seems 'real' for us in the circumstances of our talk with the others around us, to how we actually do act and respond to our circumstances, in practice. To do this, as he sees it, we do not need any new theories as the nature of our talk, but a new practice: instead of helping us 'find' something already existing but supposedly hidden behind appearances, his methods help us grasp something new, as yet unseen, in the emerging articulation of our speech entwined activities as they unfold in our very ears (if not before our very eyes!). His similes, his 'perspicuous representations,' etc., work to draw to our attention aspects of our own activities with which we are already in fact conversant, but for which they act as 'reminders'. And they 'move' us toward a new way of 'looking over' the 'play' of appearances unfolding before us, such that, instead of seeing the events concerned in terms of theories as to what they supposedly 'represent', we see them 'relationally' - that is, we see them practically, as being embedded in a network of possible connections and relations with their surroundings, 'pointing toward' the (proper) roles they might actually play in our lives.

    Thus his reminders work by creating special, extraordinary, 'deconstructive' moments in which already established regimes of representational meaning are rendered inapplicable, and we are momentarily exposed again (whether we like it or not) to the vague, gestural meanings of specific words in specific contexts. Hence, his fragmentary style of writing: for, although he made 'several unsuccessful attempts' to weld his results together into a natural, orderly whole, he realized that it was in the 'very nature of the investigation' that he would 'never succeed' (1953, p.ix).

    Indeed, wishing to call attention to the fact that there are always other processes that could possibly be at work in a circumstance than the one we originally thought of, and wanting to remind us of our struggles with language, he realizes that the very form of systematic argumentation traditional in philosophy is inimical to his aims. Already established 'pictures' embodied in such systematic forms of talk, force particular applications of our words on us, and divert our attention from others. By creating breaks, gaps, or discontinuities in all established orders of things, he creates moments of real indeterminacy where, even though we may be confused as to how actually to 'go on' with him, we realize that we cannot 'go on' as we previously thought: what we thought must be the case, turns out in fact not to be so; other possibilities clearly exist.


    We can call his concern here, then, a concern with a 'social poetics' - where, rather than simply with the spontaneous occurrence of 'arresting', 'destabilizing', 'originary' moments in individuals, he is interested in the deliberate creation of the social circumstances conducive to such moments occurring between us; and with the further task, of also creating new networks of connections and relations between the events within them, thus to give those events new roles, new parts to play in our lives. Thus, instead of seeking what might be called representational understandings, such a social poetics would be concerned with seeking what we can call relational understandings. Where again, it is worth reminding ourselves that we are not seeking, as already developed individuals, to discover what something is, but different possible ways in which we might relate ourselves to our surroundings - how to be different in ourselves, how to live in different worlds. Where the aim in such discussions as these is never merely theoretical, but in always being to do with implementing one or another form of life between us, is always to do with the politics of our social identities.

    Comments to jds@hopper.unh.edu
    Department of Communication, University of New Hampshire
    URL: http://www.massey.ac.nz/~ALock
    last changed Monday, 6 November 1995
    Copyright © 1995 John Shotter

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