Home > Philosophy > 1997 After Postmodernism Conference > Shotter (background)

From 'The Way of Theory' to a 'Social Poetics'

John Shotter Department of Communication University of New Hampshire NH, U.S.A. http://pubpages.unh.edu/~jds

In C.W. Tolman, F. Cherry, R. van Hezewijk, and I. Lubek (Eds.) Problems of Theoretical Psychology. York, Ontario: Captus Press, 1997.


Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations and other of his later works offer us individualistic and scientistic moderns - obsessed with knowledge and with information - something radically new: a renewed sense of our connectedness 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), that is, their function, I shall argue, is ontological not epistemological: Their aim is not to attempt to do better what other philosophies have failed to do, but to do something else entirely: to change us in our being, in our sensibilities, in the things we notice and are sensitive to, the things we seek and desire, and so on.

Thus, these works are important to us, in that they suggest a very different kind of focus for our studies than that assumed in the traditional epistemology project: i) instead of studying the inner dynamics of the individual psyche; or, ii) the supposedly already existing laws or principles of an assumed external world; iii) the central methodological assumption of both social constructionism and Wittgenstein's works, is that we should study the continuous, contingent flow of language intertwined interaction between people. For, it is in the continuously changing 'spaces' between people that everything of importance to us our studies should be seen as happening. Where, what is of importance to us there, should be seen, not in terms of pictures or representations, but in more practical terms: that is, in terms of the momentary reactions and responses, the momentary relations, the possible links or connections people continuously create both between themselves and other people, and other features and aspects of their surroundings. For, it is in these disorderly, everyday, background, conversational activities - in what elsewhere (Shotter, 1993a and b) I have called our self-other relationships - that we create between ourselves, dialogically, certain, particular person- world relations; that is, we create within these activities, different particular ways of being, in relation to our surroundings. Or, to put it another way (using the terminology made available to us in Gibson's (1979) ecological approach to perception), we 'make available to', or 'afford' ourselves certain ways of being-in-relation-to, or, of being-with, what is around us. Thus, what I want to explore below, is not so much what objectively these different relations 'are', but their related subjectivities: the different ways of being-in-relation-to our surroundings our dialogues make available to us - where, as I have already pointed out, such an exploration is an ontological rather than epistemological issue (Shotter, 1984).

Currently, however, we are still in the thrall of the epistemology project in which, not only do we take the ontological nature of our own self-centered, self-contained, individualistic subjectivity for granted as fixed, but we also take our language, our speaking, as having only a representational-referential function. As a result, we still treat our ordinary everyday, creative use of language - what we do continuously and spontaneously in our daily practical affairs - as an utter mystery, quite unamenable to any kind of rational study known to us. The idea that we make different ways of being ourselves to ourselves available to ourselves in our dialogues, is inaccessible to us. Thus Chomsky (1975), for instance, claims that: "What I have called elsewhere 'the creative aspect of language use' remains as much a mystery to us as it was to the Cartesians who discussed it, in part, in the context of the problem of 'other minds'. Some would reject this evaluation of the state of our understanding. I do not propose to argue the point here, but rather to turn to the problems that do seem to me to be amenable to rational inquiry" (pp.138-139) - and we all too easily all follow suit. And we come to treat as utterly problematic something that our everyday activities ought to convince us is not problematic at all (Hacker and Baker, 1984). For, in our everyday practical lives together, we (almost) all have no difficulty in learning to use language in the ways required to continuously create the links and relations making up our practical lives together.

How do we do it? Do we really have to wait for something - like, but better than Chomsky's explanatory analyses - that will finally explain us how to do what we already have little trouble in doing? Aren't we missing something here? As Wittgenstein (McGuiness, 1979) said about his arguments with G.E. Moore: "Can only logical analysis explain what we mean by the propositions of ordinary language? Moore is inclined to think so. Are people therefore ignorant of what they mean when they say 'Today the sky is clearer than yesterday?' Do we have to wait for logical analysis here? What a hellish idea!" (p.120). Of course we must be able to understand such propositions in practice without knowing their supposedly proper logical analysis. So: Is there must be another sense in which we can be said to understand them? And if there is, in what other terms might we articulate the kind of knowledge involved?


At this juncture, it is worth pointing out that our sense of ourselves as self-centered, self-contained, individualistic subjectivities - the Cartesian paradigm of the self - although not actually taught us, is implicit in most of what is actually taught is in our academic disciplines. In Wittgenstein's (1922, 1953) terms, although not 'said, we 'show' it (the Cartesian paradigm) to ourselves in most of our disciplinary sayings and doings. And furthermore, if we are not careful, although we might talk very skillfully about our subjectivities relationally, it is only to easy for us still to do so in ways 'in-formed' by the self-same Cartesian paradigm as before. For, to understand and argue for a concept intellectually, is not equivalent to us 'dwelling in' (Polyani, 1967), or 'living out', the differences and distinctions involved in its practical application. If we are to switch not just the focus of our studies - from what is 'in' or 'outside' people, to what is 'between' them - but also to begin to think and to act dialogically and relationally in our practices, then a new, relational paradigm must come to inform our basic ways of knowing and acting, practically. Thus, instead of, as in the past, turning immediately to a study of how individuals come to know the objects and entities in the world around them, we should now, perhaps, attempt to bear a quite different paradigm in mind - one much more to do with the relations between people - and to studying how to play it our in practice. We should focus on how, by interweaving our talk in with the other activities between us, we first develop and sustain different, particular ways of relating ourselves to each other - that is, we should first study our constructing of what Wittgenstein calls our different forms of life with their associated language games. And only after that, once we properly understand the nature of these relational forms, should we then turn to the study of how we can 'reach out' from within them, so to speak, to make various kinds of contact - some direct, some indirect - with our surroundings through the various ways of making sense of such contacts, the resources our forms of life provide.

In this relational paradigm, among the first things we come to recognize, is the way in which other people 'move' in relation to us, whether they are friendly or hostile, strange or familiar, inviting us to act in certain ways or obstructing, or silencing us; later, we come to sense, when someone asks us a question, what kind of utterance would be answer to it, and so on, relating ourselves to them and to our surroundings in certain subtle and nuanced ways in the process. Indeed, in simply learning just to be this, that or some other kind of person in our own culture, in learning to live as if in an "immense landscape" (as Wittgenstein, 1980, p.56), puts it), we acquire certain sets of sensibilities. Indeed, 'shown' in what we say or do, are certain different ways of sensing differences and distinctions in our surroundings, certain ways of being-with, or of relating-to, them - where the switch from one way of being-with to another, is a switch of possibilities in relation both to the others around us, and to the rest of our surroundings. Hence the complexity of the fluid, complex, continuously changing landscape of everyday life... that, in fact, is perhaps best thought of as a seascape requiring navigational skills!

This new dialogical or relational paradigm puts the primary emphasis on our knowing of other people, where, as Lorraine Code (1991) suggests, "it is surely no more preposterous to argue that people should try to know physical objects in the nuanced way that they know their friends than it is to argue that they should try to know people in the unsubtle way they know physical objects" (p.165).


If we now turn to this paradigm, the task of us constructing meaningful and worthwhile relationships between us, seems to consist in the task of making connections between things that might, at first sight, seem to have no connection at all: new connections and relations between ourselves and different kinds of others (or Othernesses); between us and our past or our future; between us and what we talk of as merely the imaginary, or the transcendental; and so on. But, if who we are, or can become, depends on how we can relate ourselves to each other, and through these forms of relation to other aspects of our surroundings, then our practical exploration of these relational possibilities becomes a startling new task - requiring, in all likelihood, new methods yet to be invented. For the required methods must have at least these four features:

  1. they must be 'practical' methods in the sense of changing, not just people's thoughts and ideas, but their actual way of being in the world - that is, they must be capable of changing people's spontaneous, taken for granted, embodied, 'natural' ways of reacting and responding to their surroundings and to each other;
  2. to do this, they must not be Utopian, i.e., they must not seek ideal connections of an impossible kind, but realistically possible connections and relations that in a sense already exist, unnoticed, in our current circumstances;
  3. but also, if they are to work, not just on our 'minds' but on our embodied sensibilities, they must to an extent work in the same way as our ordinary everyday developmental practices 'create' us as the specific adults we now are, from the multipotentialed children we once were;
  4. indeed, it must be possible for us, as ordinary people, to participate and to be affected by such methods, without first having to learn a special or particular discipline, or to meet standards, or to pass exams set by those already acknowledged as experts.

In being multidimensional, indeterminate, fluid, flexible, unfinished, contested, changeable, and still developing, the kind of knowledge involved must, in itself, be unamenable to disciplinary confines: that is, these practices must be continuous with, and work from within, our ordinary everyday practices, without it being necessary, so to speak, to step outside them. Hence, theoretical explanations are not only unnecessary, but inimical to what is required. Their aim is simply to make the subtleties and nuances we sense, in dealing with the unique relational moments in which are involved, rationally-visible to us. But how might we do this? How can we reveal the nature of these - in one sense, already known - subtleties to ourselves?

This, I think, is where Wittgenstein's studies become of very great relevance to us: In his investigations, as we all know, he does not propose any particular theories of language or communication, for he is explicitly not concerned to find or to discover anything utterly unknown to us. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that he is not concerned "to hunt out new facts; it is 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). He wants simply "to give prominence to distinctions which our ordinary forms of language easily make us overlook" (1953, no.132), but nonetheless, to leave "everything as it is" (1953, no.124). Indeed, his kind of philosophical work "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" (no.126). "if it is asked [for instance]: 'How do sentences manage to represent?' - the answer might be: 'Don't you know? You certainly see it, when you use them'. For nothing its concealed... nothing is hidden..." (no.435). It is clearly something that, in practice, we have learned to do without it being problematic to us (hardly) at all.

So what is it that he wants to say to us? If nothing is hidden, what is it that he still thinks worth saying? Well, his concern is not with finding anything radically new, but with seeing something that is difficult to see for other reasons: either i) because "... like a pair of glasses on our nose through which we see whatever we look at. It never occurs to us to take them off" (1953, no.103); or ii) because it all "'...goes by so quickly, and [we] should like to see it as it were laid open to view'" (no.435), thus to be able to survey it at one's leisure, reflectively; or iii) because it seems "inexpressible" as it is in the "background against which whatever I could express has its meaning" (1980, p.16); or iv) because it is "a difficulty having to do with the will, rather than with the intellect" (1980, p.17), for example, at the moment, we willfully look for general theoretical principles hidden behind appearances, instead of particular practical details we use in following the immediate activity between us. Where it is precisely the details that are always before us, the details we fail to notice, that he wants us to study.

In other words, what Wittgenstein wants is to study what Chomsky (and many others) think is unstudiable: our language intertwined creative performances, in the course of our performance of them! And Wittgenstein's achievement is to show us how in fact we can do this. We can study the incomplete and the momentary without in fact stepping out of the moment in question, without feeling that the next moment is the location from which we must study the previous moment, looking back on it retrospectively as something now complete. And what he also shows us further, is that in so doing, we can develop (from an already old kind of understanding) a further, new kind of understanding: instead of seeking something hidden, something that will explain a circumstance to us, intellectually and passively, he provides us with a more active kind of practical understanding, an understanding that will allow us to 'go on' in an activity in a socially concerted and unconfused manner, in practice. It is this emphasis on our social practices that makes Wittgenstein's stance toward our talk of things, and our understanding of our own behavior, so distinctive... strange even! For, he wants us to see what our talk entwined practices in fact look like in practice... rather than in theory. But how can he achieve this? What are his methods?


If we turn to his works, he find him writing 'poetically', in terms of 'striking phrases' and 'arresting moments'. He talks of 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. Thus, 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 both 'deconstructive' and 'revealing': it both works to destabilize the often philosophically reinforced meanings already in place in our lives, thus to see their practical, relational nature more clearly.

Indeed, in this respect, 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. And it is this emphasis on the reactional, relational nature of our deeds, of our social practices, 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.

Thus a part of 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 - including both our subjectivities and the 'point' of our talk! For, in joint action, rather than us existing as already fixed subjectivities stating and fixing the objective content of our utterances, monologically, we have between us to 'dance' or to 'navigate' toward the common point of our dialogue - and toward our 'positions' in relation to it and to each other.

It is such joint activities as these that, in wanting us to see what our talk entwined practices in fact look like in practice (rather than in theory), he wants us to notice. For it is activities such as these that we do not know how to see for what they are without continually distorting them, without continually telling ourselves that they must have this or that kind of special nature to them, 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, "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.

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?


As I have already indicated, his concern in studying our actual practices or forms of life, is with understanding how we can 'reach out' from within them, through the various ways of making sense of things they provide, to make contact with our surroundings. And what Wittgenstein draws to our attention in his methodological suggestions, is that in studying how we do in fact do such things, we can make use of the very same methods we use in doing them in the first place! Indeed, as he remarks at the outset of his 'later' philosophy: "One thing we [i.e., LW] always do when discussing a word is to ask how we were taught it," (1966, p.1). For such a consideration brings to our attention the way in which words are used as "a characteristic part of a large group of activities... the occasions on which they are said..." (1966, p.2). This, then, gives us with an important first clue as to the nature of his methods. For, although they are as many and as various as those we use in life itself, they all have something in common: they all work in just the same way as our 'formative' and 'instructive' forms of talk in everyday life work. 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 forms of talk in everyday life work.

For example, we 'point things out' to people ("Look at this!"); give them 'commands'; 'remind' them ("Think what happened last time"); 'change their perspective' ("Look at it like this"); and so on. All these instructive forms of talk 'direct' or 'move' us, in practice, to do something we would not otherwise do: to relate ourselves to our circumstances in a different way. Wittgenstein uses these forms, in drawing our attention to what is there, in the circumstances of our talk, before our eyes, that we fail to see. He calls them "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).

His methods, then, are as follows: They work, first: i) To arrest or interrupt (or 'deconstruct') the spontaneous, unself- conscious flow of our ongoing activity; they provoke us into examining whether there is 'more to it' than we expected. ii) Then, by the use of certain 'instructive' forms of talk, they aim at giving "prominence to distinctions which our ordinary forms of language easily make us overlook" (1953, no.132). As 'instructive gestures', they provoke us into attending to aspects of a circumstance, and to ways of relating ourselves to them, that otherwise would go unnoticed. iii) Next, by the careful use of selected images, similes, or metaphors, he suggests new ways of talking that can lend or give a first form to such sensed but otherwise unnoticed distinctions, thus to make reflective contemplation of their nature possible. And finally, iv) by the use of various kinds of comparison with other possible ways of talking ("other "language games"), he establishes "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) - thus to position these new possibilities, these otherwise unnoticed distinctions in our activities and practices, in relation to others, and to render them publicly 'do-able', discussable, and teachable.

To appreciate further what Wittgenstein was after here, it might be useful at this stage also to mention Vygotsky's project: As is well-known, he discussed what he called "an enabling theory- method" (p.8), a method that is "simultaneously prerequisite and product, tool and the result of the study" (p.65). Where, such an enabling theory-method consists simply in an 'instructive' way of talking in relation to development such that: a) as a tool, it will lead us "to concentrate not on the product of development but on the very process by which the higher forms are established" (p.64), i.e., it will give prominence to distinctions our ordinary forms of language easily make us overlook; and ii) as a product, it will itself be "a qualitatively new form [or practice] that appears in the process of development [or research]" (p.65) - a new practice that will, of course, now work to further direct our attention and to guide our conduct in new ways.


This, then, is the challenge in Wittgenstein's work: He seeks - what for us professionals, but not for us as everyday, ordinary human beings - is a new kind of understanding - "just that kind of understanding which consists in 'seeing connections'" (1953, no.122). Rather than simply passively seeing what something 'is' in terms of a 'picture' - for the trouble with mere pictures (or representations) is that "when one has the picture in view by itself it is suddenly dead... it remains isolated, it does not point outside itself to a reality beyond" (1981, no.236) - he seeks a much more active kind of understanding, in practice. We want to grasp, in practice, how to anticipate what appropriately should 'follow' from what, thus to 'go on' with others in an immediate, unconfused, concerted manner (without it being necessary to have to argue or to have to give evidence as to what is the 'right' interpretation of their actions).

So, although it will not be possible to use his methods to 'say' explicitly what the nature of the supposed 'processes' actually involved (either in us, or between us) 'are' - and the nagging feeling that there 'must' be explanations to be found 'somewhere' will still remain - people will nonetheless be able to use his methods to 'instruct' others as to how, in practice, to 'see' their nature from within their own practices. Where, to do this, we do not need any new theories as the nature of our talk, but new practices. Thus, 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 so as to see them practically, as being embedded in a network of possible connections and relations with their surroundings, and as 'pointing toward' the possible roles they might play in our lives.

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 new relational understandings. And what is new in all of this, is us coming to a more direct and immediate understanding of how to deal with our practices in practice - using methods that by-pass the whole attempt to first understand them in terms of theories (as at present we feel we must). 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, by us being different kinds of person, we might relate ourselves to our surroundings differently - how, by being different in ourselves we can live in different kinds of worlds.


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1.Geertz's (1979, p.229) characterization of the Western conception of the person - "... as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational center of awareness, emotion, judgment, and action, organized into a distinctive whole and set against a social and natural background" - is now taken as almost canonical.

[After Post-Modernism Conference. Copyright 1997.]

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