Paper given at the American University, Washington DC, March 26th 2000, at a Wittgenstein Conference in honor of Rom Harré, later published in Concepts and Transformations, 5(3), pp.349-362, 2000


John Shotter
Department of Communication
of New Hampshire

"Perhaps what is inexpressible (what I find mysterious and am not able to express) is the background against which whatever I could express has its meaning" (C&V, p.16). [end p.349]


The revolutionary nature of Wittgenstein's philosophy has still not been fully appreciated. We have still not been sufficiently struck by its very practical nature, by its highlighting of our ordinary, everyday ways of making sense and of understanding, and by the very different way of seeing our world and ourselves in our world that it requires of us, as well as the new methods for understanding he introduces to us. If we had been, as a group of specialists in talk and its relations to its surrounding circumstances, we would not in all likelihood be sitting here today in a conference room sitting listening to a lot of decontextualized, closely reasoned talk. We would, I think, as co-practitioners of one or another kind of social practice, be talking in the context of the practice with other co-practitioners, drawing each other's attention to previously unnoticed aspects of it, thus to elaborate and refine its character.


Indeed, we would be focusing on a number of his remarks, and reminding ourselves of where we should look if we want to see new possibilities, new beginnings, for the refining, and changing (!), of our practices, occasions when we make first-person declarations seemingly 'out of the blue':

"The origin and the primitive form of the language game is a reaction;" he says (C&V, 1980, p.31), "only from this can more complicated forms develop. Language - I want to say - is refinement, 'in the beginning was the deed' (quoting Goethe)'."

"The primitive reaction may have been a glance or a gesture, but it may also have been a word" (PI, pp.218).

"But what is the word 'primitive' meant to say here?" he asks, "Presumably that this sort of behavior is pre-linguistic: that a language-game is based on it, that it is the prototype of a way of thinking and not the result of thought" (Z, no.541).

""When I say 'I am in pain'... What I do is not, of course, to identity my sensation by criteria: but to repeat an expression. But this is not the end of the language-game: it is the beginning" (PI, nos.208, 209).

In all these remarks, he is drawing our attention to a possible role in our lives for our spontaneous bodily responses to events occurring around us or to us. He is concerned not with the beginning of our current ways of understanding [end p.350] things, but with occurrences happening for yet another first time, events unique to the unique circumstances of their occurrence.

The background: a precursor world

Illustrated here is one aspect of the new way of seeing our world to which Wittgenstein introduces us. He draws our attention to what goes on in the background to our lives, that there is a whole unnoticed world there which is a precursor to the projects and consciousness of individuals, existing prior to any thoughts, perceptions, actions, evaluations, or words of our own. In fact, as he sees it, we owe our very being as the kind of individuals we are to our embedding in a ceaseless stream of spontaneously responsive, living, bodily activity going on between the others and the othernesses in our surroundings, intrinsically relating us to them - I will call it relationally-responsive activity or joint action. "Words have meaning only in the stream of life," he claims (1990, no.913). Not only do we owe what stable forms of life we live between us to their continual reproduction in this stream of spontaneously responsive activity, but also, strangely, whatever possibilities that there are for their development and change. This background stream of activity, this "precursor world," is full of beginnings and beginnings and beginnings.

In the past, in our studies of ourselves, we have focused on two great realms of activity: (1) on behavior, on naturally happening events beyond our agency to control, to be explained in terms of natural causes; and (2) on action, on events for which we as individuals take responsibility, and explain in terms of our reasons. Further, without going into the whole Cartesian history of it, we have treated the world around us, not only as an external world, but as a dead world of mechanisms, consisting in an assemblage of externally related objective parts - parts which can exist as the entities they are whether they are a part of a mechanism or not. This precursor world of spontaneous, relationally-responsive, living, bodily activity, or joint action, constitutes a third realm of internally related activities quite distinct from these other two, a realm in which my activity only has the character it has in relation to your's, in relation to your response to it.

It is within this third realm of living, responsive activity, this background, precursor world, that I think we should see Wittgenstein's philosophy as [end p.351] operating. When he remarks that "our attitude to what is alive and to what is dead, is not the same. All our reactions are different" (PI, no.284), I think we should take him very seriously. It is precisely the move from a dead, mechanically connected world to a living world of responsive relations, that is so crucial.

The dialogical

Recently, this third realm of spontaneously responsive activity has come to the fore in the work of Voloshinov (1986, 1987) and Bakhtin (1981, 1984, 1986), and their emphasis on the dialogical, and dialogically-structured relations -- and I would like to construct an optic, so to speak, based on their work, through which to see Wittgenstein's philosophy in the light of the dialogical. Let me do it simply by listing a number of crucial points about it:

  • -As soon as a second living human being responds to the activities of a first, then what the second does cannot be accounted as wholly their own activity - for the second acts in a way that is partly 'shaped' by the first (and the first's acts were responsive also)
  • -Thus, what I do now is related to what, overall, we are doing - it is internally related to it.
  • -Further, activity of this kind between us, is not your's or mine but our's... and this is where all the strangeness of the dialogical begins ("joint action" - Shotter, 1984, 1993a and b).
  • -What we produce between us is a very complex mixture of not wholly reconcilable influences - as Bakhtin (1981) remarks, at work within it are both 'centripetal' tendencies (inward toward order and unity), as well as 'centrifugal' ones (outward toward diversity and difference).
  • -Influences from vision, touch, hearing, taste, and smell, as well as our body senses, our own and our responses to those of others, are all mixed in together -- any bodily activities to which others might respond can become sign material.
  • -Joint action is in fact a complex mixture of many different kinds of influences.
  • -This makes it very difficult for us to characterize its nature: it has neither a fully orderly nor a fully disorderly structure, a neither com[end p.352]pletely stable nor an easily changed organization, a neither fully subjective nor fully objective character.
  • -Indeed, we could say that it is its very lack of complete specificity, its lack of any fully-determined human order, and thus its openness to being specified or determined yet further by those involved in it, in practice, that is its central defining feature.

Wittgenstein, of course, understood this, and remarked on the partially-this-partially-that, always unfinished character of our socially created realities thus: "What is most difficult here is to put this indefiniteness, correctly and unfalsified, into words" (PI, p.227). Or: "Mere description is so difficult because one believes that one needs to fill out the facts in order to understand them... - Whereas I want to say: Here is the whole. (If you complete it, you falsify it.)" (RPR, I, no.257). No wonder that he said that "When you are philosophizing you have to descend into primeval chaos and feel at home there" (C&V, p.65).
Awaking to wonder

In saying this, he is suggesting that previous philosophers have come on the scene far too late and have looked in the wrong direction for the wrong thing: currently, we have started as self-conscious, intellectual individuals, trained in an academic tradition, and we look back in its terms to discover supposed already existing, but hidden sovereign centers of influence as giving our activities their organization. Further, we are trained as children in doing Euclidian geometry, and in developing a sense of what certainty in formal reasoning - working in terms of 'seeing' that two formal patterns, although located at different places at different times, are identical - feels like. Hence, later, we find it 'natural' to accept Descartes's (1968) appeal to a self-given certainty and his resolve "to study no other science than that which [he] could find within himself or else in the great book of the world" (p.35). Whereas, says Wittgenstein, [end p.353] "I want to regard man here as an animal... As a creature in a primitive state... Language did not emerge from some kind of ratiocination" (OC, no. 475). He wants to consider people's activities in the background, precursor world, prior to their individual willful and intellectual acts; and further, rather than inward and backward, he wants to look outward and forward, toward how we responsively create and establish between us, in our spontaneous and non-deliberate acts, ways to 'go on', ways to act intellectually and willfully.

In moving to a new starting point, and in reorienting himself toward influences which determine the structure of our expressions, internally, from within the event and moment of their expression, he introduces us bit-by-bit to an aspect of the world between us that, although it is our world, we have not previously noticed it in this way before.

But in what way? How should we see it, if we are not just to see it as merely the place within which we can live our lives? Not as something to be explained, nor to be coped with, nor to be used as material in our projects, but as something to wonder at, to celebrate, to be startled at or struck by, in which to find new beginnings and beginnings and beginnings. We must be ready to "awaken to wonder" (C&V, p.5).
What is striking about the dialogical?

So what is striking about the dialogical, about our spontaneous relationally-responsive activity? Well, one thing that is striking is that, because the activity between us is not your's or mine but our's, what we jointly do is 'out there' in public space. As Wittgenstein remarks: "Nothing is hidden" (PI, no.435). Thus, although I respond to another's words as their words, to an extent also, I must respond to them as our words, as just as much their's over there as your's and mine here. In growing up among a crowd of others already reacting and responding to each other in their practical, everyday affairs in characteristic ways, like a professional tennis player condemned to practice 24 hours a day, I too become practiced in anticipating their responses to my expressions. And what I first do spontaneously in response to their 'calls' upon me, I later come to do deliberately, in response to my own 'commands' (Vygotsky, 1986).

Indeed, although I am always putting to use public property in my [end p.354] speaking, to an extent, I can put it to use in my own way: "Life's infinite variations are essential to our life. And so too even to the habitual character of life" (C&V, p.73). Thus, it is not in our repetition of linguistic forms, our use of them according to an already established system of rules, that we give our words their meaning, but in how we make varied use of an already existing, public set of anticipated responses, to provoke to an extent novel responses in those we address. We express our meaning, our own unique meaning, in the use we make of our utterances in the circumstances of their use.

But in varying our use of words, juxtaposing them in our own combinations, pausing, intoning, unfolding our speech in a responsive movement characteristic in some way of our own unique circumstances, we cannot just speak in any old way we please. Why not? Because - and here, perhaps, we come upon an even more striking aspect of joint action or the dialogical - it seems as if there is a third living agency at work in the space we create between us in our interactions, beyond the other person immediately before me, an agency that 'calls upon' us with demands of its own, a public evaluator who 'calls' me to use to use our words as we use them. Bakhtin (1986) calls it the "superaddressee" (p.126) or "a superperson, a supra-I, the witness and the judge of the whole human being" (p.137). Wittgenstein too remarks in a similar fashion that symbols "appear of their nature to be unsatisfied," and he goes on to remark about a proposition, that it "seems set over against us as a judge and we feel answerable to it. - It seems to demand that reality be compared with it" (PG, no.85, p.132).

Obeying rules and obeying 'calls upon us'

Given our rationalistic, Cartesian heritage, we find it easy to assimilate this aspect of our shared activities - that we cannot just act in relation to the others around us as we please - to the pre-existence of a set of shared rules, existing in some hidden, transcendental, platonic world somewhere, to which we must conform, if we want the others around us to follow us. We feel, like Saussure (1959) and Chomsky after him, that because an individual speech act "is willful and intellectual" (p.14), it can only be properly meaningful and understood by others if it is properly ordered. And to do this we must explicitly or tacitly refer to an inner mental representation of a rule system in structuring it. [end p.355]

But as Wittgenstein remarks, we hardly ever speak in this self-conscious way, with an inner, intellectual reference to a system of rules. Mostly for us, "obeying a rule is a practice. And to think one is obeying a rule is not to obey a rule... otherwise thinking one was obeying a rule would be the same thing as obeying it" (1953, no.202).

Indeed, if we did, we would still have to interpret how to apply the general rule in this particular situation, and where might we find the rules to do that? In finding ourselves in a situation which seems to require a certain kind of response from us, stating rules as such doesn't seem much of a help - What "I should have said," says Wittgenstein, in response to such a circumstance, is that "This is how it strikes me. When I obey a rule, I do not choose. I obey the rule blindly" (1953, no.219). A rule as a patterned form is no help; it lies 'dead on the page, so to speak. It is a matter of me responding to a public situation with the kind of publicly anticipated responses into which I have been trained. "What this shows," he suggests "is that there is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation, but which is exhibited in what we call 'obeying the rule' and 'going against it' in actual cases" (no.201). Most of what we do is not done by us deliberately and intellectually, by reference to an already existing, framework of rules, external to our current circumstances, but in spontaneous response to 'calls' upon us from within our immediate circumstances.

Invisible 'presences'

But how can this be? How can it seem that there is a third agency making demands on us like this, when we are in interaction with our surroundings? Because, as we saw above, the outcome of a second person's spontaneous responses to the expressions of a first can be attributed to neither of them; what is produced is public property, it is their's, or to put it another way, it belongs to their world. Further, because it has been 'shaped' by their responsive reactions, both to each other and to their surroundings, it shows intelligence in its calls, in its requirements; it offers them 'invitations', so speak, as to their next possible steps. Indeed, it seems to show - to display [end p.356] or manifest in the unfolding contour of our expressions in response to it - the presence of an invisible "field of force," so to speak. It is as if in moving about in the dialogically-structured 'spaces' we create between us (in our spontaneous, relationally-responsive activities) a shaped and vectored sense of a dynamic landscape possible places to go next. Just as in driving down a multi-lane interstate highway, we sense those cars here as near, and those there as far away, this one as requiring us to move away as it is moving too close, and possess a synoptic sense of how at any one moment we are placed, so we can come to such a synoptic grasp of how "to go on" in a skillful way many other spheres of our lives. Similarly, after enough experience in tramping the streets of our own home town, we can bring a synoptic sense of its interconnected streets to mind, if someone stops us to ask directions. Although invisible, its "presence" is shown in the directions we give.

I emphasize the notion of "a presence" here because, as we move away from the idea that we can locate what we feel to be important about language in a single (hidden) center of organization, in "one comprehensive essence" (Z, no.444), in a theory or in a set of rules, we must rethink the whole nature of our intellectual inquiries into humanly organized wholes.

Rather than thinking that it is the discovery of a hidden system of rules, say, that is needed to join the infinite possibilities of language into a finite whole, another tack entirely is needed. We can come to a recognition of the workings of our language as a whole, "not by giving new information," he notes, "but by arranging what we have always known" (PI, no.109) - and as we do this, we come to realize that there is no one single source of the meaning of our words, but that "language is variously rooted; it has roots, not a single root" (Z, no.656). Indeed, as we move around 'inside' such an arrangement of facts, as we move from fact to fact, a sense of a characteristic something 'there' begins to make itself felt. We can create a way of looking such that, as we look over each part of what is publicly 'there' before us, we can begin to see each part as owing its character and its existence to its relations to all the other parts in constituting a unified whole. We can look from one to the next with an anticipatory sense of their connectedness, a sense of their grammar. Thus once this occurs, our actions can become informed, not by an inner hidden center of influence, but by the unseen presence of such a whole. It is of this kind of "clear view of the use of our words," that Wittgenstein speaks. He seeks "just that understanding which consists in 'seeing connections'" (PI, no.122) - a whole ramifying, [end p.357]unending, unfinished system of links, connections, and relations, all known from within our living involvement with them.

Poetry and drama

How might we do this? How might we achieve such a view, such an understanding? Indeed, what does Wittgenstein do in his writings? It is here that Wittgenstein's philosophy is clearly a philosophy of beginnings, for he wants to move us on to doing something quite new, but not just once for a very first time, but again and again for a first time - if, that is, we want to live more than just a life of mindless routines. Hence his claim that "... philosophy ought really to be written only as a poetic composition" (C&V, p.24) - acts of poeisis, of making, of creating, of bringing something new into existence, rather than merely discovering already existing things is involved. For every instance of us being able to 'go on' in our practical lives, is an act of this kind. And what poetic uses of language can do, is by juxtaposing words in unusual combinations, cause us to pause, to cease our current project for a moment, to put reality on 'freeze-frame', so to speak, to look over the circumstances before us in a new light. At the heart of his style of writing is the realization that the linear, static, 'geometrical' structure of rational argumentation is quite inadequate to display, to show, the dia-logical grammar of the primeval, chaotic world he has come to inhabit. He needs a way to express, and to show in his expression, the configurations of a mobile, open reality in which contradictory events are co-implicated in a steady, ongoing, conversation between all concerned.

Central to his methods, then, is a concern with striking, moving, or arresting moments, with first times, with beginnings - where, as we have noted, the beginning of something new, a new language game, is in a reaction. To refine or elaborate our forms of life, we must be struck by something that has not struck us before. Where, being struck is, as he remarks, a complex phenomenon. "Is being struck looking plus thinking?" he asks. "No," he replies, "Many of our concepts cross here" (PI, p.211).

With the Cartesian idea of a self-given certainty, in which we take it that "a kind of seeing on our part... lies at the bottom of the language-game" (OC, 204), we have sought general, foundational principles of a metaphysical kind. But what Wittgenstein suggests to us, with his descent into the [end p.358] primeval chaos of the world that is a precursor to the world of our self-conscious and intellectual projects, is that "it is our acting, that lies at the bottom of the language-game" (OC, no.204). In other words, the real foundations of our inquiries can only be found in unique, fleeting, only once-occurrent, dialogically-structured moments, in specific concrete circumstances, when in responsive contact with others around us. It is this which has not struck us before.

"The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something - because it is always before one's eyes.) The real foundations of his enquiry do not strike a man at all. Unless that fact has at some time struck him. - And this means; we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful" (1953, no.129).

But if he is in his writings to strike us in ways in which we not been struck before, besides being poetic, Wittgenstein must also be dramatic. More than merely touching on a 'something' and then moving on, as we do in our daily routines, he must make the invisible currents, the dynamic structures in the streaming of our lives, visible to us in some way. He must, as in an artistic presentation or performance, dramatize them in some way. For what is done in a dramatization, is to foreground and make sensibly graspable the shape and character of a 'presence' a 'something' which, nonetheless, still remains invisible - its presence as a unitary whole is portrayed, displayed, or shown in one's performance (just as Marcel Marceau 'shows' the existence of an invisible wall in his hand movements as he struggles to find an opening in it). If one is primordial enough (in one's stance) and original enough (in one's words), then one can express the fleeting presence of new possibilities merely glimpsed at in such a way that others cannot only glimpse them too, but dwell on them long enough to make them items of public discussion and attention. To do that, we have to describe them in memorable ways, in ways that enables all of us to notice them too.

Concluding comments: the practicality of Wittgenstein's philosophy

With this task in mind, let me end here with two relevant remarks: The first is to do with our inital orientation to our tasks in philosophy: [end p.359]

"... the difficulty - I might say- is not that of finding the solution but rather that of recognizing as the solution something that looks as if it were only a preliminary to it... This is connected, I believe, with our wrongly expecting an explanation, whereas the solution to the difficulty is a description, if we give it the right place in our considerations. If we dwell upon it, and do not try to get beyond it" (Z, no.314).

Being able to stop the background flow, to look over what is before us, and to see in it relational possibilities not seen before, is what is at stake here. But the task is not to do this in general, for all time, but in this and that particular circumstance: to see where one is now, and to see it afresh, with wonder: "...the place I really have to get to is a place I must already be at now. Anything that I might reach by climbing a ladder does not interest me" (C&V, p.7).

This relates directly to my own practical interest in Wittgenstein's methods. Arlene Katz and I (Katz and Shotter, 1997, 1997; Shotter and Katz, 1997; Shotter and Gustavsen, 1999) have been engaged in outlining how a group of practitioners - such as doctors, workers, managers, stakeholders in regional development, etc. - can, while in fact still engaged in their practices, draw each other's attention to new facets of each other's activities, which, once noted in public space, can become a shareable resource by all. Indeed, once noticed, being 'struck by' such facets can by 'carried over', so to speak, from one to another context of the practice. And, just as Wittgenstein (1969) remarks, "not only rules, but also examples are needed for establishing a practice. Our practice leaves loop-holes, and the practice has to speak for itself" (OC, 139), so we find that talk of 'striking events' helps in establishing a new practice. The new practice 'tells' us of its own basic nature in how such examples strike us: they establish a basic way of seeing, a form of perception, for use in making sense of all the other "objects" we encounter in the sphere of the practice.

This kind of small scale development in our practices was suggested by Wittgenstein thus:

"Disquiet in philosophy might be said to arise from looking at philosophy wrongly, seeing it wrong, namely as if it were divided into (infinite) longitudinal strips instead of into (finite) cross strips This inversion of our conception produces the greatest difficulty. So we try as it were to grasp the unlimited strips and complain that it cannot be done piecemeal. To be sure it cannot, if by a piece one means an infinite longitudinal strip. But it [end p.360] may well be done, if one means a cross-strip. - But in that case we never get to the end of our work! - Of course not, for it has no end. (We want to replace wild conjectures and explanations by the quiet weighing of linguistic facts) (Z, no.447).

Here we are back, as philosophers, to being co-practitioners with a group of others, and to a set of methods that may be of help to them in elaborating, refining, and sustaining their practice from where they already are, at any one moment, within it. Again, as always, the task is to move from what is done spontaneously, and unthinkingly, to what might be done willfully and intellectually. It is the removal of Wittgenstein's philosophy of beginnings and beginnings from the academy and its re-situating out in the everyday world, that is the truly revolutionary move I am advocating here.


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