Paper given at University of Calgary, Department of Communication, Sept 30th, 1994


John Shotter

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

'People know what they do; they frequently know why they do what they do; but what they don't know is what what they do does' (Foucault, in Dreyfus and Rabinow, 1986, p.187).
'What counts as its [an empirical proposition's] test? - 'But is this an adequate test? And, if so, must it not be recognizable as such in logic?' - As if giving grounds did not come to an end sometime. But the end is not in an ungrounded presupposition: it is in an ungrounded way of acting' (no.110: Wittgenstein, 1969).
'Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction' (Bakhtin, 1984, p.110).
There is something strange about language and communication: Although, in practice, we use language everyday, and manage not to mislead each other most of the time, if someone asks us how we do it, we are nonplussed. We can't seem to 'see', i.e., to say explicitly, how it works. Yet we do not feel that its nature or essence is wholly hidden from us. For, we seem aware of all kinds of hints and intimations of it as already existing somewhere, in an as yet undisclosed form, awaiting our discovery. Hence, all our unending research efforts. This discrepancy between the lucidity of the awarenesses we already possess, in practice, and our difficulty at putting them into words (in this case with respect to temporal phenomena), was expressed in St Augustine's famous saying:

'What then is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not.'
Wittgenstein refers to this epigram in characterizing the really weird nature of his own investigations into language and communication (you'll see why I call them 'really weird', in a moment): They are not concerned 'to hunt out new facts,' he says, 'it is, rather, of the essence of our investigation that we do not seek to learn anything new by it. We want to understand something that is already in plain view. For this is what we seem in some sense not to understand,' he remarks (1953, no.89). Thus, he goes on to say, 'we may not advance any kind of theory. There must not be anything hypothetical in our considerations. We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place' (1953, no.109). For anything hypothetical in our considerations, he feels, means that we are failing to take account of what is actually before our eyes, in the circumstances of our talk, and we are referring instead to nonexistent, mythical entities of our own invention.

Elsewhere, he remarks about his kind of philosophy, that it 'simply puts everything before us, and neither explains nor deduces anything. - Since everything lies open to view there is nothing to explain. For what is hidden, for example, is of no interest to us' (1953, no.126). 'How do sentences do it [i.e., manage to represent]? - Don't you know? For nothing is hidden' (1953, no.435). In other words, his concern is with a certain kind of immediate clarity or perspicuity, with the removal of 'painful contradictions' that lead one to ask 'illegitimate questions' (as Hertz put it). 'For me... clarity, perspicuity are valuable in themselves. I am not interested in constructing a building, so much as having a perspicuous view of the foundations of possible buildings,' he says (1980, p.7e).

Why his claims here are so weird - so weird that I do not expect you to understand me, or if you do understand me not to believe me, or if you do believe me not to like the consequences - is that they call not only the whole nature of what we think knowledge to be into question... they also expose us as being responsible for continually deceiving ourselves in many ways, for falling victim to temptations, for having unjustified cravings, and so on, as we shall see. Where, if the foretaste of this weirdness provided above is not enough - I mean his all but incomprehensible claim that, as 'nothing is hidden' and 'everything lies open to view,' no theories as such are required, they distort things in fact - let me just add the following remarks he makes, about where any claims we might make about 'things' are grounded: 'Giving grounds,' he says, 'justifying the evidence, comes to an end; - but the end is not in certain propositions striking us immediately as true, i.e., it is not a kind of seeing on our part; it is our acting, which lies at the bottom of the language-game' (1969, no.204). Where, 'you must bear in mind,' he continues, 'that the language-game is... not based on grounds. It is not reasonable (or unreasonable). It is there - like our life' (1969, no.559). In other words, all our talk about 'things' as such, is grounded within certain of our relational ways of talking and acting, and... in nothing more!

This may not seem weird at first sight. For we all agree -don't we? - that all our claims about 'things', all our theories, must be tested in practice. Yet this does not prevent those of us interested in studying language and communication, from still being tempted into a wholly theoretical way of talking, and thus, into searching still for a basis, a foundation for our claims to truth beyond our practical relations to each other, beyond our human histories and institutions, in a special transcendental, metaphysical, or in biological 'realities', supposedly underlying (the usual term) or hidden behind appearances: in innate grammars, in rules, in conventions of usage, and so on. But to repeat, if Wittgenstein is right, and nothing is hidden: all these theoretical entities are after the fact and beside the point; they distort the reality before our eyes.

What we need is a way of seeing, or an aid to seeing, that so far we have failed to see the need for: 'How hard I find it,' he says, 'to see what is right in front of my eyes!' (1980, p.39). The aid to seeing he offers us - to help you, and himself, to notice what so far we have failed to notice - are simply special ways of talking that draw our attention to connections between phenomena that we would otherwise let pass us by, special ways of talking that he simply calls 'reminders' (1953, no.127)... where sometimes they are as simple and as brief as saying (if you happen to think that all games must have something in common): 'don't think, but look!' (1953, no.66)... just as he remarks about Indian mathematics saying at a crucial point in a proof 'Look at this' (1953, no.144).

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

But how should we react to such 'reminders'? What are they meant to remind us of? For a philosopher so concerned with clarity, what he has to say seems peculiarly difficult to understand. He seems unable to talk about anything directly; nothing is fixed or finalized. He even finds it difficult to say with any directness, what his aim is: 'What is your aim in philosophy?,' he asks himself, 'To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle,' he replies (1953, no.309). But he makes no strong arguments, comes to few if any conclusions, and presents no theories or models. Indeed, as we have seen, he rails against such ways of proceeding: they introduce something 'illusory' that goes beyond and distorts the 'reality' that is actually 'there' before us, like the already open way out of the fly-bottle - if only we could 'see' it.

The reality that we are failing to see, the reality right in front of our eyes, everyday, is, I want to claim, the reality of us living our 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 of that kind of nature to it.

But if we are even to begin to 'see' this, to see why he talks as he does, we need an 'optic' to view him, an 'hermeneutic' through which to read him: that hermeneutic, I claim, can be found in such remarks as the following: that 'understanding is like knowing how to go on, and so it is an ability: but 'I understand', like 'I can go on', is an utterance, a signal' (1980, I, no.875); that it is 'particular circumstances, which justify me in saying I can go on,' (1953, no.154); or, 'a philosophical problem has the form: 'I don't know my way about' (1953, no.154). Here we can see him trying to put issues, that we might be tempted to put into 'theoretical' terms, more practically. Why? Because he wants to avoid what he calls a 'general disease of thinking which always looks for (and finds) what would be called a mental state from which our acts spring as if from a reservoir' (1965, p.143, my emphasis), and it is precisely this - talk of any 'thing' that we cannot in some sense actually point to - that he wants to avoid.

Thus in his investigations, although it is strange to say it, he is not necessarily concerned with us 'understanding' each other, nor necessarily with us sharing 'agreements', with us 'communicating' with each other (i.e., sending each other messages), discovering the 'true' nature of our surrounding circumstances, or with us necessarily doing any 'thing' in particular, let alone anything that is 'basic' to us being human. For, as he sees it, communication - as a special, but as yet not fully explained unitary process - cannot be considered as basic to us being human: 'Not: 'without language we could not communicate with one another' - but for sure: without language we cannot influence other people in such-and-such ways; cannot build roads and machines, etc. And also: without the use of speech and writing people could not communicate' (1953, no.491). 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' or 'responsible' sense to each other - simply reacting or responding in ways that makes it possible to continue our relationships is sufficient for him. To communicate (i.e., 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; all these abilities are, or can be, later developments. Thus, as I see it, his prime concern is to explore the nature of those initial 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. 'It disperses the [mental] fog,' he says, 'to study the phenomena of language in primitive kinds of application in which one can command a clear view of the aim and functioning of the words' (1953, no.5). 'Bring this,' 'Look at that,' and so on. For, although we assume that we do in fact communicate with each other pretty well, and that our task as academics is thus to explain how we do it, to repeat, he does not assume that at all: he assumes that in our 'goings on' together, we often mislead and misunderstand each other (Taylor, 1992). Thus his concern is with seeking ways of talking in which we can avoid such confusions and misunderstandings, in which we can avoid inventing mythologies and empty theories - or the 'bewitchments of our intelligence by means of language' (1953, no.109), as he calls them. It is with this project in mind, that he is interested in the embodied knowledge we exhibit both in our more orderly social practices, and in the more disorderly activities of our lives together when simply in conversation with each other -where, as far as he is concerned, there is no one single order to be discovered in our lives or in their surroundings.

[Note 1: Even in the Tractatus (1988 [1922]), he is convinced that 'There is no order of things a priori' (T: 5.634); that 'at the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena' (T: 6.371). And in the Investigations, while he is concerned 'to establish an order in our knowledge of the use of language: an order with a particular end in view; [it is] one out of many possible orders; not the order,' (PI: no.132) - because there is no such single order to be had. Whatever orders there are, are orders that we ourselves make...]

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 - including the constructing of theories in terms of which we claim to be able to explain the nature of the things around us. But how we do this, how we 'social construct' or 'develop' different possible talk intertwined ways of 'going on' with each other... well, that is up to us to work out. We do not need to find some already existing but hidden 'laws of social relation' to which to submit ourselves. 'To invent a language could mean to invent an instrument for a particular purpose on the basis of the laws of nature (or consistently with them); but it also has the other sense, analogous to that which we speak of the invention of a game...' (1953, no.492). Indeed, how we talk about how-we-talk-in-'going-on'-with-each-other is up to us. If, then, this is his project - attempting to draw our attention to our embodied use of words in our everyday, background ways of 'going on' with each other - we must note a number of important features of this activity to which he draws our attention.

Features in our 'background' ways

For a start, this activity (of 'going on') is in itself fluid, indeterminate; it points toward possibilities in excess of actualities, so to speak; it is 'playful' and is the proper preliminary to the playing of games (Shotter, 1973). While it may seem to be a 'basis', or to provide a 'grounding', for many of our more definite forms of talk, it also provides the 'grounds' for many other much more indefinite forms too. It seems to be an inexhaustible source of new possibilities, and all attempts to give it any final, definitive articulation, in itself, seem to fail. Indeed, they must fail, for, our 'going on' with each other is, like life itself, unending, unfinalizable. We are continually doing the things we do, so to speak, 'from within the stream of life'. So, although we may invent all kinds of 'theories' as to what it is that we are doing - 'idealist', 'materialist', 'social constructionist', 'realist', 'communitarian', 'intentionalist', or whatever - no theory as such could ever be a final account of what it is that we are in fact doing in simply 'going on' with each other. Indeed, any theories as such will only have their sense, their 'life', within the 'ongoing' stream of social life from within which they arise and within which they have their application. They cannot be turned around to depict or portray the 'stream' itself. Thus, attempting to attribute the nature of this embodied, practical use of words in 'going on' with our activities to any specific kinds of 'knowledge' inside the heads of individuals, leads us either into an infinite regress of interpretation, or, into geometrically expanding accounts of contextual detail. For our ways of using words in doing what we do are 'countless' (1953, no.23); there is no single, principled way in which we must talk. Indeed, how we name or describe what we are doing as we relate ourselves to each other and our surroundings through our use of words, well... that too is up to us also. So although we may formulate what we call 'theories', 'laws', 'principles', 'propositions', 'beliefs', 'ideas', 'rules', 'conventions', etc., and claim to be acting 'in accord' with these 'inner' things - as if our practices must be dependent upon them - Wittgenstein would claim, rather than this way of talking about ourselves being dependent upon, or, representing mysterious things hidden within us, its meaning is already dependent upon our existing practices. These terms cannot actually refer to any 'things'. Their use is perhaps best thought of as poetic, as again, drawing our attention to features in the circumstances of their use that we would otherwise not notice. 'When philosophers use a word - 'knowledge', 'being', 'object', 'I', 'proposition', 'name' - and try to grasp the essence of the thing,' he comments, 'one must 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). What are the different particular actual uses of these abstract terms, in practice, in different particular situations? That is what we must study.

What Wittgenstein brings to our attention, then, is the extent and power of the taken- for-granted, usually unnoticed, 'background' activities constituting the everyday lives we live as non- intellectualizing, non-deliberating, embodied beings reacting and responding to those around us - the 'things' we just do because of the forms of social life within which we have grown up. In this kind of activity - what elsewhere I have called joint action (Shotter, 1980, 1984, 1993), and what here we can just call our responsive ways of 'going on' - what we do is 'shaped', not so much by us acting 'out of' our own inner plans or desires, as by us acting 'into' the social circumstances into which we must fit our actions. So, although participants respond to each other in a 'fitting' manner, to the extent that they influence each other's actions in a moment-by-moment fashion, its nature is intrinsically unpredictable and indeterminate; none of the participants will contain within themselves a complete grasp of its nature.

Our focus upon the strange nature of these 'joint' or 'dialogical' forms of activity is perhaps blurred, however, both by our tendency as academics to take our own individual intellectual activity as paradigmatic of all 'normal' activity, and by the fact that Wittgenstein himself also often chose to study seemingly individual intellectual activities - like the continuing of number series, or the theorizing of philosophers. Whereas, the complexity of what we 'just do' spontaneously, without any prior deliberation, problem- solving, interpretation, or other inner intellectual 'working out', might have been more forcibly brought home to us, if he had noted the nature of some of our more complex, but less orderly, bodily, social activities: simply activities like hand-shaking, or dancing, or negotiating other people's movements upon side-walks or at door-ways; playing ball and racquet games; or, how we maneuver furniture with the help of others, for instance.

[Note 2: Helen Keller somewhere talks of being able to recognize a person (remember that she was both blind and deaf) from their hand-shake up to two years after first meeting them.]

Following rules

I make these comments because, central to Wittgenstein's investigations is the notion of 'following a rule'. Indeed, more than us merely 'following' rules is at stake, for he is concerned with us 'being irresistibly inclined to say' (1953, no.299) certain things in certain circumstances - the 'rules' in question (if such they be) have a strange power over us: we can in some circumstances be 'charmed' or 'bewitched' by them. His talk of 'rules' here is thus, not easy to follow. In some of our more orderly, 'established' or 'institutionalized' activities, it is as if we are (or could be) following general rules of a fixed kind, existing prior to the practice - as if the general rule 'causes' or 'determines' the particular activities making up the practice - in other circumstances, there could be no such fixed, prior, external rules. In these other more 'spontaneous' or 'everyday' circumstances, whatever sense of 'rightness' there is in the activity in question, flows from a practical understanding that is as yet unarticulated, that is employed in the doing of the activity.

So, although we may talk of ourselves as if we are following rules in our practices, whatever rules we might formulate as characterizing our practices, the knowledge we make use of in our practices, he points out, goes way beyond them: ''But how can a rule show me what I have to do at this point? Whatever I do is, on some interpretation, in accord with the rule' - That is not what we ought to say, but rather: any interpretation still hangs in the air along with what it interprets, and cannot give it any support. Interpretations by themselves do not determine meaning' (1953, no.198). 'To think one is obeying a rule is not to obey a rule' (1953, no.202). 'My symbolical expression ['explaining' how it seemed to me that I followed the rule] was really a mythological description of the use of a rule' (1953, no.221). For the fact is, '... 'obeying a rule' is a practice' (1953, no.202). Giving reasons is not enough, for '... my reasons will soon give out. And I shall then act, without reasons' (1953, no.211). ''How am I to obey a rule?' - if this is not a question about causes, then it is about the justification for my following the rule the way I do. If I have exhausted the justifications I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: 'This is simply what I do'' (1953, no.217, my emphasis), 'I obey the rule blindly' (1953, no.219). This, in practice, is simply how it is (it cannot be explained further, except... by relying upon it again, in practice.

Yet, in all the everyday activities I mentioned above, there is a changing, moment-by- moment sense of 'getting it right', and a sensing of differences and discrepancies, that flows out of and accords with the 'situation' in which the activity occurs. It is as if 'it' - the 'situation' - is a third agency on the scene that is, as Bakhtin (1986) puts it, 'the witness and the judge' (p.137) of what occurs. And those involved in the above kinds of 'joint' activities, sense their involvement in these kinds of 'common moments' - what could be called 'interactive moments' - moments in which one just knows that the other is bodily involved at the same time as one's self, in which a 'jointly' shared 'situation' is involved. Thus in these circumstances, obeying 'rules' - that is, following the 'requirements' of the 'joint' situation or circumstance (actual or imagined) in which one is involved - does not involve ultimately anything intellectual. Indeed, '...just where one says 'But don't you see...?' the rule is no use, it is what is explained, not what does the explaining' (1981, no.302). Although we may be tempted to say something about mysterious process in people's heads - that 'He grasps the rule intuitively', for instance - we could equally well say simply that 'He knows how to continue', 'how to go on', that he has learnt a practice.

In other words, we act as we do because it is implicit in the kind of people we are; it has become embodied in the character of our being in the world, not simply through what we have been told, but because of the doings we have done as a result of such tellings. And our task, then, becomes that of attempting to formulate or to articulate the as yet unarticulated background ways of 'going on' with each other that we have invented, or might invent, for ourselves between ourselves, to make linguistically explicit that which is implicit in our embodied forms of life.


In shifting attention away from our theoretical talk, and directing it more toward the practical nature of our as yet unarticulated background ways of 'going on' with each other, my concern has been to direct attention toward those moments in our talk that are of very great importance to us: those moments in which we as ordinary people can participate in the constructing of our own realities -so that we do not have forms of life constructed by elite-others imposed upon us.

For at the moment, it is only too easy for us to accept that, when we talk of such things as 'speech', 'language', 'thought', 'perception', 'desire', 'the individual', 'the self', 'identity', the 'person', 'power' (even!), 'society', our 'biology', etc., in our disciplines, that such things exist, and that were we to plan a research project into any one of them, we would all know perfectly well what the 'it' is that we were researching into. We find it unthinkable that 'objects' such as these are not already 'out there' in the world in some primordial, naturalistic sense, awaiting our study of them. The idea that stable reference to such objects is only possible from within an already agreed, disciplined and ordered language game - a language-game ordered in terms of the values and preferences of a certain elite group, namely, us - does not occur to us. In thinking of ourselves as simply seeking after the truth, we are not always aware of Descartes's aim in the setting out of his 'method' - that if we had it, 'we could be masters and possessors of Nature,' that is, that it has the domination of that to which it is applied as one of its core values.

Still less are we aware of the possibility that, like a good piece of science fiction, our mere talk of such entities as those I've mentioned, can create an illusory or imaginary sense of their reality in us - a state of affairs we can easily fail to detect, if we are satisfied with truth as being a kind of seeing on our part. The idea that all such concepts as those I've mentioned are 'essentially contested concepts' (Gallie, 1962), that they have a whole range of possible meanings, and that they only come to make a definite kind of sense as we develop them in living out the discourse into which they are interwoven, in practice, is, to say the least, something of an unusual notion for us. For, to repeat, it is a kind of seeing on our part that we value, that we think of as being at the end of our labors. 'We feel,' he remarks, 'as if we had to penetrate phenomena: our investigation, however, is not directed towards phenomena, but, as one might say, towards the 'possibilities' of phenomena' (1953, no.90) - it is this contrast that I think is the key to the practical importance of his work. For, if we study our use of our words with the task in mind of describing the different possibilities they create for how one might 'go on' with the others around us in the circumstances of their use - then we can begin to see how, in practice, we might create with them new ways of 'going on'. For instance, by talking about understanding as not being a process inside the head of an individual, but as a practical social phenomenon, between people, to do with them knowing how 'to go on' with each other, we can create a new form of understanding between us, in practice. But to work in this 'vague' or 'blind' kind of way, as Wittgenstein seems to recommend, is hard for us to imagine, for us to envision, to stomach even. But this is precisely Wittgenstein's point in bringing all the messy details of our practices to our attention: he wants to remind us that all these properties of our understanding(s) in practice, are in fact already familiar to us. For instance, just as we can 'get into' the new and strange practices of mathematics at school by learning what is being proved in being put through the activity of doing proofs, so we can also 'get into' new ways of talking in the same way: we must 'let the use of words teach you their meaning,' he says (1953, p.220e). We must continually 'discover' the meaning of our words to ourselves in their use, whether the uses are new or old uses. While it may seem that certain usages in some contexts are fixed and finalized, this is only so by human effort to make it so - this is where politics and power is at work. But there is no end to the possibility of finding new meanings (uses) for old words, when new circumstances arise - including different new meanings (new uses) for the words 'meaning', for instance - to do with our ability to 'call out', or simply 'say', new forms of human life, with their associated 'world's and 'ways of being', into existence between us. Currently our 'obsession' with theoretical talk obscures the practical nature of the dialogic talk between us within which we jointly construct the 'realities' in which we find ourselves 'placed' as individuals, and into which, and out of which, we situate much of our talk and action. We do not yet know how to explore what is involved, practically, in opening up new spaces, new possibilities for being human, between us. As professional academics, we must find ways to extend our grasp of what goes within relationships, to extend our grasp of what might on within individuals 'positioned' or 'placed' within them - even if it means giving up the theories we can each get inside our own heads. Only then, can we help to create a truly dialogic 'space' within which, not only the creation of new meanings will be possible, but within which everyone (not just the 'seeing' elite) can participate in the interplay of voices.

Let me end by gesturing toward what I think are a number of the properties of that 'space', the conditions making it possible. They are as follows:

  • 'Voices' become the loci of linguistic agency; and problems of agency - who is responsible for what - become problems of whose voice is being heard.
  • Subjects (and objects) are not ontologically prior to people's linguistic activities; indeed, no such 'things' are, or can be prior. For although we may say that our surroundings stay materially the same from one moment to the next, that is a way of talking, and no way of talking is ever an innocent matter of mere description: all our ways of talking are the product of quite peculiar kinds of disciplinary discourses, with their own cultural, ethico-political, and historical dimensions.
  • Thus, the instability of a word's meaning is not in the 'free play of signifiers', but in the ethico-political interplay of voices in the different circumstances of life.
  • Instabilities are decided in practice, however. And it is just at that moment of uncertainty - in 'joint action' at the 'interactive moment' - that a politics of ethics (to do with whose being is respected, and whose form of life is to go on), that politics is at its most intense.
  • Indeed, to the extent that our 'inner' lives are not a matter of tranquil, private calculation within already decided systems of meanings, but reflect in their functioning the same ethico-political and rhetorical considerations as those influencing our transactions with others out in the world, they too are not exempt from the same conflicts and struggles.
  • Thus, the center of gravity, so to speak, of what we talk of as our thinking, is not deep within us at the center of our being, but at its boundaries. Where, the way in which we are a responsive addresser of others (actual or imagined), 'shapes' how we 'answer' for our sense of our own position in our relations to those others.
  • Thus in this sense, our use of psychological terms does not work by reference to an already existing inner state, but, as Mills (1940) put it so long ago, as an indicator of possible future actions, as a gesture toward the future that allows others (or not) to coordinate their actions in with ours.
  • But, 'monologism, at its extreme, denies the existence outside itself of another consciousness with equal rights and equal responsibilities, another I with equal rights (thou). With a monologic approach (in its extreme form) another person remains wholly and merely an object of consciousness. Monologue is finalized and deaf to the other's response, does not expect it and does not acknowledge in it any decisive force' (Bakhtin, 1984, pp.292-93). In the past, however, it has been the task of professional elites to produce such monolgues (Bauman, 1987); now our task is changing.
  • 'The single adequate form of verbally expressing authentic human life is the open- ended dialogue. Life by its very nature is dialogic. To live means to participate in dialogue: to ask questions, to heed, to respond, to agree, and so forth. In this dialogue a person participates wholly and throughout his whole life: with his or her eyes, lips, hands, soul, spirit, and with his or her whole body and deeds' (p.293).
  • The institution of a dialogic practice, entails a new focus (upon the 'interactive moment'), a new method (Wittgenstein's methods for directing our attention), a new basis (in the conversational realities of everyday life), and a new politics (in the interplay of voices).
  • For, in our talk, we are concerned i) to be responsive to what has gone before; ii) to appropriately address those around us; but also iii) to be answerable for our own unique position in the world, and to have it make a difference in the world we share with others.

    These are just some of the conditions necessary, it seems to me, if we all, both those of us here in this auditorium, and those others our in the world at large, are going to be able to participate in the discursive construction of knowledge.

    In setting them out, rather than attending to language considered in terms of previously existing patterns or systems, formed from 'already spoken words', I have focused upon the formative uses to which 'words in their speaking' can be put. My concern has been with the nature of the relationships and relational situations thus created between those in communicative contact with each other in their speakings. Such a focus attends precisely to the political influences at work in deciding the form of connections and contacts made, the possibilities and tendencies they open up, and those they close down. Within systems of already spoken words (in what one might call already-decided- forms-of-talk), those tense moments of uncertainty and instability, when the constructing of those possibilities is decided, is ignored. We study only what has been done, the implications in the system of possibilities already decided - and we can do that as isolated individuals. But we were excluded from the originary interplay of voices that decided the system; if we are not content to live out, or 'work out', its possibilities, we find ourselves powerless to do other than complain. Thus, if we want actively to enter into the constructing of our own forms of life, then we must both: i) locate those sites, those moments when, in the interplay of voices, our voice can count; and, ii) increase our grasp of what what-we-do does (with apologies to Foucault, 1982, p.187). And my concern here today, has been with the ways of talking, the practical means appropriate to a more dialogical way for us, still as professional academics, of conducting our affairs that is not so exclusive of all the others around us.


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    Department of Communication, University of New Hampshire
    last changed Friday, 27 October 1995
    Copyright © 1995 John Shotter

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