First draft of chapter for Sibel Arkonac (Ed.) Doing Psychology in Non-Western Societies. Baðlam Publications
BEYOND SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIONISM:
RE-THINKING AND RE-EMBODYING THE CARTESIAN SUBJECT/AGENT
“... if the body had been easier to understand, nobody would have thought that we had a mind” (Rorty, 1979, p.239).
“For more clearly (but not differently) in my experience of others than in my experience of speech or the perceived world, I inevitable grasp my body as a spontaneity which teaches me what I could not know in any other way except through it” (Merleau-Ponty, 1964, p.93).
“And what gives us so much as the idea that living beings, things, can feel?.. Only of what behaves like a human being can one say that it has pains. For one has to say it of a body, or, if you like of a soul which some body has. And how can a body have a soul?” (Wittgenstein, 1953, no.283).
“Society’s control over individuals was accomplished not only through consciousness or ideology but also in the body and with the body. For capitalist society, it was biopolitics, the biological, the somatic, the corporeal, that matter ed more than anything else. The body is a biopolitical reality...” (Foucault, The birth of social medicine, 1994, p.137).
Below, as I indicate in my title, I want to say something about a number of what I will call ‘linguistic’ versions of Social Constructionism, i.e., those that seem to treat language as a self-contained systematic means of human expression with only an arbitrary relation to the conditions of our lives. For, as I see it, although they all present themselves as having emancipatory aims, they still do not, in fact, give the people who are the subjects of their inquiries, oppressed peoples, a voice of their own, speaking in their own terms – they still only appear as specimens in the texts of academic experts, speaking in our terms. This is because, as I see it, while our (everyone’s) use of words is not wholly predetermined by an iron necessity, the degree to which we (as ordinary people or as experts) can put our words to new uses is not wholly up to us as individuals. There are limitations. In the moment of our speaking, if we want to influence those around us and/or avoid being accounted by them as strange or abnormal, we must speak in ways intelligible to them. To be able to do this, we must be able to speak, as we shall see, with the anticipation that those we are addressing will respond to us in ways that will progress our mutual attempts to communicate with each other (Bakhtin, 1981, 1986) – without such a shared background of spontaneous mutual responsiveness to each other’s voiced and embodied expressions, we would be unable to communicate. It is this background which, I think, still ignored in many ‘linguistic’ versions of social constructionism .
Before I turn to the task of describing the nature of these kinds of social constructionism, I want to explore some issues connected with the overall topic of this book: its concern with doing academic psychology in non-Western societies. For, I think, there is a very general worry here, to do with the degree to which academic psychology in all its guises – in its urge to constitute itself at least as an autonomous academic discipline, if not as a science – ignores its own relations to its own social, cultural, historical, and political context, and the degree to which it is determined by these and other such influences at work in the context of its conduct. As a consequence of all these factors, among other tendencies, there is an intrinsic tendency in Western Social Psychology (social constructionism included), wherever it is practiced, to treat the language within which it is presented (mostly in written texts), as unproblematic, as unequivocal in its meanings, and thus, as offering precisely the (emancipatory) approach to psychological inquiry it claims to be offering. But, to the extent that it ignores our spontaneously occurring, living, expressive-responsive bodily activities, it re-institutes into its inquiries, the mechanistic Cartesian world-picture – no matter how much it might protest in its theories against its adequacy and validity. But, to repeat, before I turn to this task, I want to explore how these issues relate to the current topic of this book.
Academic psychology: a parochialism of the center
In her invitation to me to contribute to this volume, Dr Sibel Arkonac made a most important observation. She suggested to me that Turkish people are often “accounted for” in Turkish academic psychology, in positivistic-empiricist terms and their associated “models,” that is, in essentially Western terms, in terms which suggest that psychology is solely an individualistic affair. This approach, of course, not only turns attention away from the possible influences exerted by the larger natural, social, cultural, and political context in determining people’s sense of their selfhood, as well as local influences – like those exerted by Western textbooks in non-Western university departments – but it also robs them of their own voice. Indeed, as she notes: “Globalization... does not remove the issues of the importation of western theories to non-western societies and voluntary transformations following that process of import” – indeed, it can easily issue in a colonization of the psyche amongst those participating in it.
It is not that Western textbooks are wholly silent about cultural influences on people’s sense of self, but they still, nonetheless, exhibit what we might call a “parochialism of the center,” i.e., a limited and self-centered view of what the nature of that influence is (or should be). We can see this exhibited, for instance, in Sabini’s (1992) textbook on Social Psychology. There he notes: “The world has, for good or ill, become Westernized. Many commentators have noticed, often to their chagrin, that cultures in contact with the West are madly importing aspects of Western culture – universities, textbooks, word processors, and even social psychology. There is nothing especially good (or bad) about this, but it highlights the fact that American culture is increasingly the culture of the world’s peoples. So the careful study of American culture is of more than passing interest (p.706) . While, on the face of it, Sabini’s remark seems reasonable – we should all do what we can to understand other cultures – not only is his silence about what in fact the influence of American textbooks might be in non-Western (and other than American) cultures is thunderous, but his ‘partisanship’ for the hegemony of academic psychology over other forms of intellectual inquiry (while again, understandable) cries out for comment.
Rosaldo (1993) describes the character of such a parocialism of the center well, I think, when he notes the tendency amongst anthropologists (including himself) to make “‘our’ cultural selves invisible” (p.198). As he sees it, this can lead us (and here both he and I mean all those who, as readers of this article, think of themselves as social analysts or social scientists) to measure others culturally against ourselves. Thus, “to the ethnographic gaze, ‘civilized’ people appear too transparent for study; they seem just like ‘us’ – materialistic, greedy, and prejudiced... [thus] ‘our’ commonsense categories apparently suffice for making sense of their lives” (p.199). It is the culture of those others who are not like us, that we need to study, if we are “figure out what the devil they think they are up to” (Geertz, 1983, p.58). This, however, can lead to a scale of differences such that “in this pseudoevolutionary ladder, people begin without culture and grow increasingly cultured until they reach that point where they become postcultural and therefore transparent to ‘us’” (pp.199-200). Thus it is only too easy for social analysts (like ‘us’) to reach a situation where “‘we’ have psychology and ‘they’ have culture” (p.202).
In other words, as I have already suggested above, ‘we’ social analysts can easily fail to attend to the influences exerted on us by the larger natural, social, cultural, and political context from within which we conduct our inquiries and write our texts. So: What are the urges and compulsions, the commitments and obsessions, we as social analysts feel honor bound to pursue? Why do we feel that explanations rather than descriptions, rules and principles rather than examples, orderly systems rather than disorderly compendiums, etc., should be the goal of inquiries?
As I see it (and I will make this more clear in a moment), while we might have rejected the Cartesian conception of the self-contained, self-certain, bodiless cogito in our theories, we still commit ourselves here in the West as social analysts to Cartesian notions of what constitutes a proper form of intellectual inquiry. This is why we still seek, as the outcome of our inquiries, the provision of representational-explanatory theories of psychological processes, working in terms of separate, self-contained elements that combine into complex structures according to rules. So although many versions of social constructionism may, overtly, have rejected self-centered forms of inquiry, and begun to base their inquiries in the dynamics of the unfolding relations between people, the moves made, and arguments presented in such inquiries, are (often) still in-formed by (constituted by) a Cartesian world-picture – and, as Descartes (1968) states it, the aim of such inquiries is to make “ourselves, as it were, masters and possessors of nature” (Descartes, 1968, p.78) .
But what is happening in Turkey and in Turkish social psychology? Are these Western aims approprate to Turkish concerns? Because of its geographical location and position, Turkey has an important and an active part of its own to play in world politics, while at the same time – partially under ‘globalizing’ influences – it is itself undergoing certain social and societal transformations. It would be most unfortunate if these transformations led Turkish people to ‘misconstrue’, so to speak, the changes taken place in their relations to themselves and to their surroundings, and thus to mystify or mislead themselves into thinking (and acting), not only as if such changes were occurring solely within themselves, but also into acting in ways wholly at odds with their own true interests.
What might help to counter the unhelpful influences of positivistic-empiricist terms and their associated “models” is this sphere? Dr Arkonac feels that Social Constructionist approaches can guide the study of “everyday knowledge practices, subject transformations, and prevailing and unprevailing discourses” – where, by ‘unprevailing discourses’, she means silenced discourses, or discourses expressed by only by maginalized people that are still ‘invisible’ publicly – and also make it “easier for us to carry out our analyses... in non-western societies.” But, what might this actually involve if, as I think is the case, Cartesian notions of the self (as intellectual inquirer, if not as everyday person), of intellectual inquiry, and of the reality being investigated, are still implicitly present in the very conduct of one’s inquiries? How can one follow a social constructionist approach in Turkey that is appropriate to local Turkish issues? How can one contrast the Cartesian subject in psychology with the non-Cartesian self or subject in Turkey, and/or, with the subject notion in Islam, if Cartesian influences are implicitly at work in every intellectual move one makes? How might a local version of social constructionism be developed relevant to such questions? What might be involved in making such a transition from current, western versions of social constructionism?
As will, perhaps, become more clear in a moment, rather than a mere matter of our knowledge (or our lack of it) being at issue here, in such questions as those above, an issue of another kind altogether is involved: an issue to do with our embodied ways of relating ourselves both to each other and to the rest of our surrounding circumstances. Indeed, as I have indicated in a number of the epigraph quotations above, it is these bodily issues – which, as we shall see, are of much greater importance that those to do merely with thoughts or ideas, etc. – that have been ignored in almost all Western conceptions of the self. In other words, the misgivings about Western Social Psychology that I want to bring out into the open, are not simply of an intellectual kind. Instead, they are, in Wittgenstein’s (1980) terms, a matter of the will, i.e., a matter of whether, as an investigator, one knows how to ‘orchestrate’ or ‘organize’ within oneself the complex sequence of ‘mental moves’ required, if one is to ‘see’ what matters in the sphere of one’s investigations. For only as an insider within a social group’s affairs, can one discriminate ‘just happening events’ from ‘intended actions’, and further, discriminate in what is said what else is not being said, i.e., Arkonac’s “unprevailing discourses.” In other words, to be able to answer any of the above questions adequately and properly, one requires the requisite “ontological skills” (see Shotter, 1984, p.71., p.86, p.123, and below), i.e., one needs to be sensitive to the local interactional proprieties in operation if, in one’s investigations, one is to judge whether the kinds of subtleties Billig (1999) investigates in the western-world transaction occurring between Dora and Freud, are at work in other non-western-world transactions, or whether they are of a quite different kind.
Indeed, Arkonac makes an important start on the complexities involved in just such issues as these, when she comments on the differing functions of the 1st-person pronoun in western languages and Turkish: “In western language with Latin origin,” she notes (Arkonac, 2004), “[an] individual as a subject [is] defined as a separate and unique entity differing from other subjects and objects. The pronoun that defines the subject is always at the beginning of the sentence... Whatever that does not belong to oneself has the position of an object and named as the other (other person or persons). Subject relating to the other as an another subject is still experienced as a problematic issue” (MS, p.7). While in Turkish, this is not so. “In Turkish, the pronoun is always hidden and rarely used at the beginning of the sentence. The reflection of being hidden in the language game in daily life is revealed as [the speaking subject] not presenting themselves as a subject overtly” (MS, p.7). But now in Turkey, as she notes, this traditional reticence, which gives the other more opportunities to take their own direction in an interpersonal exchange and not feel restricted by limits set by the other speaker, is changing. Rather than Turkish speakers being sensitive to the effects of their talk upon the other, they are now becoming more concerned with the degree to which it serves their own, speaker’s intentions. As she comments, the current “situation can be understood as the meeting of new modernist normative rules with the old local rules face to face, or in other words, [a] meeting of the traditional with the modern” (MS, p.7).
The kind of judgment that she, as an insider to Turkish social life, articulates here, can only arise out of a felt sense of what is occurring around one, in one’s own culture. For, it can only be felt from within the culture. This is why – in an attempt to say something that might be relevant to all those feeling intellectually colonized by Western, individualistic, overly intellectualized notions of the self (which intrinsically separate us from our surroundings) – I want to explore the neglected aspect of the Western self I mentioned above: the spontaneously responsive, living, expressive body. For, I feel – from what little I know of other cultures, and that only by reading (e.g., Whorf, 1956; Geertz, 1983) – that this may be helpful in providing Turkish students and other investigators with access to repressed, unexpressed, or unprevailing themes in Western discourses of the self – a kind of self not readily found in non-Western cultures. Indeed, as Geertz (1983) famously remarked: “The Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment, and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively both against other such wholes and against its social and natural background, is, however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world's cultures” (Geertz, 1983, p.59). So, what is it that we ignore in the West (that might be better expressed in other, non-Western cultural practices)?
The living, expressive, spontaneously responsive body:
meetings and relationally-responsive understandings
The words to focus on in Geertz’s account of the Western self above, are the words “bounded,” and the phrase “set contrastively against.” They relate, as I see it, to the Cartesian focus on a world of separate, independently existing, atomic parts, related to one another externally, only in terms of laws of motion, rather than to a world of participant parts, related to each other internally, in virtue of their living relations to each other (see the account of the Cartesian world picture below). In other words, what we ignore, I think, is our living, expressive, embodied, spontaneous responsiveness – and, as we shall see, this leads us on to ignore all the living, human phenomena to do with our intrinsic, ineradicable, dynamic relatedness to our surroundings. Our ignoring of these phenomena is strange, for, as living, embodied beings, we cannot not be responsive in some fashion to the expressions of others, and to other kinds of events, occurring in our immediate surroundings.
Indeed, we cannot not be responsive both to those around us [others] and to other aspects [othernesses] of our surroundings. Thus, in such spontaneously responsive sphere of activity as this, instead of one person first acting individually and independently of an other, and then the second replying, by acting individually and independently of the first, we act jointly, as a collective-we – our actions are neither yours nor mine; they are truly ‘ours’. And we act in this joint fashion bodily, in a ‘living’ way, spontaneously, without us having first ‘to work out’ how to respond to each other. This means that when someone acts, their activity cannot be accounted as wholly their own activity – for a person’s acts are partly ‘shaped’ by the acts of the others around them. But, because the overall outcome of any exchange cannot be traced back to the intentions of any of the individuals involved, the ‘dialogical reality or space’ constructed between them is experienced as an ‘external reality’, a ‘third agency’ (an ‘it’) with its own (ethical) demands and requirements: “The word is a drama in which three characters participate (it is not a duet, but a trio)” (Bakhtin, 1986, p.122). A third agency is at work in dialogical realities. Again, as Bakhtin (1986) puts it: “The author of [an] utterance, with greater or lesser awareness, presupposes a higher superaddressee (third), whose absolutely just responsive understanding is presumed, either in some metaphysical distance or in distant historical time (the loophole addressee). In various ages and with various understandings of the world, this superaddressee and his ideally responsive understanding assume various ideological expressions (God, absolute truth, the court of dispassionate human conscience, the people, the court of history, science, and so forth)” (p.126). In other words, ideals, aims beyond the present moment toward standards which do not yet exist, are intrinsic to such joint action. This is where all the strangeness of the dialogical begins: both in the lack of any individual accountability for such outcomes, and in its orientation toward such not-yet-existing possibilities (see remarks on “joint action” in Shotter, 1980, 1984, 1993a and b).
In other words, as I see it, all our communication begins in, and continues with, our living, spontaneous, expressive-responsive (gestural), bodily activities that occur in the meetings between ourselves and the others and othenesses around us – thus it is only in such meetings (and not in the heads of individuals) that we can find the starting points for our analyses. For it is in such meetings that we can find the beginnings of our language games.
As Wittgenstein (1980) puts it: “The origin and the primitive form of the language game is,” he says (p.31), a reaction; only from this can more complicated forms develop. Language – I want to say – is a refinement, ‘in the beginning was the deed’ (quoting Goethe)’.” And he notes elsewhere that, “the primitive reaction may have been a glance or a gesture, but it may also have been a word” (1953, p.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” (1981, no.541). In other words – and this is a point of especial importance to practitioners – it is in the once-off, fleeting reactions occurring at the beginning of our meetings with others, that we can find the beginnings of the uniquely new ways of thinking required if we are to come to a grasp of the particular, concrete, never-before-encountered person or circumstances now confronting us. For we need to know them, not just in terms of what they share with other similar persons or circumstances, but precisely also in what they do not share. Indeed, it is just in these moment-by-moment changing differences – what Voloshinov (1986) calls “specific variability” (p.69) – that people can express both their selves, and their unique relations to their own circumstances.
As Bakhtin (1986) notes: “Any word exists for the speaker in three aspects: as a neutral word of a language, belonging to nobody; as an other's word, which belongs to another person and is filled with echoes of the other's utterance; and finally, as my word, for, since I am dealing with it in a particular situation, with a particular speech plan, it is already imbued with my expression. In both the latter aspects, the word is expressive, but, we repeat, this expression does not inhere in the word itself. It originates at the point of contact between the word and actual reality, under the conditions of that real situation articulated by the individual utterance. In this case the word appears as an expression of some evaluative position of an individual person (authority, writer, scientist, father, mother, friend, teacher, and so forth)...” (p.88, my emphases). In other words, in it is in our capacity to be ‘moved’ by the unfolding ‘contours’ of an other’s embodied, expressive activities, that we can get a sense of their meaning, i.e., what they as 1st-persons uniquely mean by their verbal expressions, their utterances. It is our noticing of these kinds of subtle differences that are of importance to us in our practical everyday human affairs.
Thus central in my approach, is a focus on the spontaneous, expressive-responsivity of growing and living forms: they are both responsive and expressive to each other, and, responsive to, and expressive of, the othernesses (the ‘things’) in their surroundings. For it is in this fluid back and forth flow of living activity that a certain kind of understanding becomes available to us, that was quite unrecognized in Descartes’s mechanistic account of our relations to our surroundings (as I will make clear in a moment). While we can come to an understanding of dead forms or states of affairs in terms of objective, general, explanatory theories representing the sequence of separate events supposed to have caused them, a quite different form of engaged, responsive understanding becomes available to us with living forms – if we can engage ourselves in a ‘living’, flowing interaction with them over an extended period of time. For they can, as a consequence of our actions toward them, call out spontaneous reactions from us, in a way that is quite impossible for dead forms.
It is this that makes these two kinds of understanding so very different from each other. While we can study already completed, dead forms at a distance, seeking to understand the pattern of past events that caused them to come into existence, if we can enter into a (close and personal) relationship with a living form and, in making ourselves open to its movements, we can find ourselves not only spontaneously responding to it, but spontaneously responding to it in anticipation of what it might do next. In other words, instead of seeking to explain a present activity in terms the past, we can directly understand it in terms of its meaning for us, i.e., in terms of what, for us, it ‘relates to’ or ‘points to’ beyond itself, especially in terms of its point for us in the future. To contrast this kind of spontaneous understanding with the kind of representational-referential understanding more well known to us in our conscious reflections as intellectual and academic individuals, we can, following Bakhtin (1986), call it a relationally-responsive from of understanding.
As he puts it: “All real and integral understanding is actively responsive... And the speaker himself is oriented precisely toward such an actively responsive understanding. He does not expect passive understanding that, so to speak, only duplicates his or her own idea in someone else’s mind... Rather, the speaker talks with an expectation of a response, agreement, sympathy, objection, execution, and so forth...” (Bakhtin, 1986, p.69). Thus, among the other features of such responsive talk, is its orientation toward the future: “The word in living conversation is directly, blatantly, oriented toward a future answer-word; it provokes an answer, anticipates it and structures itself in the answer’s direction. Forming itself in an atmosphere of the already spoken, the word is at the same time determined by that which has not yet been said but which is needed and in fact anticipated by the answering word. Such is the situation of any living dialogue” (Bakhtin, 1981, p.280, my emphasis). It is this determination of the present by our anticipations and expectations of possible next occurrences, our sense of there being a grammar at work, that makes relationally-responsive understandings so special.
In other words, rather than giving outward expression to already existing mental states hidden within individuals, by indicating possible future actions, such talk can work to help people inter-relate their activities with those of others. But – to emphasize my central point here – it is only from within those of our ongoing living involvements with our surroundings over or through time, that this kind of meaningful, responsive understanding of people’s next possible actions becomes spontaneously available to us. Indeed, to go further, irrespective of whether people’s expressions are accurately linked to a mysterious inner realm or not, what their spontaneous expressions can tell us, is what their anticipations and expectations ‘are’; that is, they can tell us how we should or could ‘go on’ with them, how we should respond to them, or treat them as being. In other words, from within our ongoing living involvements with them over or through time, we can in fact get a sense of their ‘inner lives’, their thoughts and feelings.
But, if we are to experience this kind of responsive understanding of people’s expectations and anticipations – that suggests to us how we should ‘go on’ with them, how we should treat them as being – then it is only from within our ongoing living involvements with other people that it becomes available to us.
We can only do this, however, if we adopt a certain style of talk with them, a style that allows the occurrence of such mutual expressive-responsiveness: we must adopt a dialogical rather than a monological attitude or stance toward them. For, in Bakhtin’s (1984) words: “Monologism, at its extreme, denies the existence outside itself of another consciousness with equal rights and equal responsibilities, another I with equal rights... Monologue is finalized and deaf to other’s response, does not expect it and does not acknowledge in it any force” (pp.292-293). While, by contrast: “The single adequate form for verbally expressing authentic human existence 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 eyes, lips, hands, soul, spirit, with his whole body and deeds” (p.293).
In other words, what is special about our dialogically-structured relations with the others and othernesses around us, is that they are present only in the unfolding dynamics of those exchanges through or over time, in what we might call the tone, style, pacing, or intoning of our expressions – in what Bateson (1973) called (mistakenly, I think ) the “meta-linguistic” aspects of our talk, i.e., those features of our talk that are expressive of its relational aspects. They cannot be captured in finished, finalized forms or patterns, i.e., in static, ‘picturable’ or ‘spatialized’ forms.
It is people’s living movements that are expressive in this way – it is their words in their speaking matter, not the patterns to be found later in their already spoken words. It is their words in their speaking that matter, because, to the extent that all such expressions issue from living beings that possess, so to speak, an identity preserving continuity and thus a certain style of expression, we can respond to them in anticipation of what they might do next. While understanding the past causes of their actions might enable us to manipulate them, it is being able to understand their expressions as indicative of possible future actions that enables us to co-operate with them, and inter-relate our actions in with their’s. But it is precisely this living, dynamic, spontaneous, relationally-responsive understanding that is denied us if we approach our inquiries in academic psychology in the thrall of the Cartesian world-picture. Thus, to understand why, we must examine what that world picture is.
The Cartesian world picture
In his Discourse on the Method of Properly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences of 1637, Descartes (1968) set out a characterization of our “external world,” and a method for thinking about its nature, that has influenced our thought about ourselves, our surroundings, and the relations between the two, ever since. In order, he says, not to be “obliged to accept or refute what are accepted opinions among philosophers and theologians, I resolved to leave all these people to their disputes, and to speak only of what would happen in a new world, if God were now to create, somewhere in imaginary space, enough matter to compose it, and if he were to agitate diversely and confusedly the different parts of this matter, so that he created a chaos as disordered as the poets could ever imagine, and afterwards did no more than to lend his usual preserving action to nature, and let her act according to his established laws” (p.62). Thus here, he establishes the view (which we have taken for granted ever since) that the subject matter of our investigations can be analyzed into a set of systematically related, separate, self-contained parts, subject to a certain set of laws or principles governing how they combine into larger wholes – an essentially cause and effect, mechanistic view of reality.
Intrinsically, it assumes that all the changes that might take place in our meetings with each other are of a kind in which, so to speak, a continuity of reference to all the participants involved is possible, i.e., that as all the participants come together, we can follow step-by-separate-step the ‘moves’ or ‘movements’ that each contributes to the interaction, and that when they all depart from the interaction they are still the same individuals as when they first met – only now in possession of some new knowledge in their heads. In other words, the Cartesian world picture assumes that what Bakhtin (1984) outlines as the sui generis nature of dialogical relations – i.e., relations in which there is no continuity of reference because everyone’s actions are responsively shaped by the actions of others, and everyone leaves a changed person – are not in fact sui generis. It assumes that all living processes can be adequately and fully analyzed as an ordered sequence of stationary states, related in a cause and effect to each other .
Also in establishing his method of inquiry, as we know, Descartes thought of us as only a thing that thinks; our bodies are irrelevant to the issue of finding a basis for certain knowledge. Thus, “even bodies are not strictly perceived by the senses or by the faculty of imagination but by the intellect alone, and that this perception derives not from their being touched or seen but from their being understood” (Descartes, 1986, p.22). He thus excluded all our bodily activities, our bodily doings, sufferings, and respondings from consideration: “This ‘I’, that is, the mind, by which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from the body,” he said (Descartes, 1968, p.54).
Thus only our minds, not our bodies, can be our organs of understanding – hence, our need to rely on the inner mental representations they provide us with, for our understanding of the ‘outside’ world. This focus only on the mind, thus turns our attention away from those events known to us from within our spontaneous bodily involvements with them, and from within our agentic attempts to cope with them. Our attention is turned instead, toward a realm of events known to us only in terms of our reasonings about them, while completely withdrawn from responding to them.
Thus in Descartes’s (1968) view of our existence, we are self-conscious, self-contained, and self-controlled subjects, i.e., wilful but disengaged, disembodied, and immaterial beings, set over against an objective, mechanically-structured, external, material world. And in seeking knowledge of its nature, we must use methodical thought modeled on Euclid’s geometry. For it was Descartes’s great belief that it was indeed possible to translate, methodically, all that was unknown into the realm of indisputable common knowledge. Starting from “what presented itself so clearly and so distinctly” (p.41) to his mind, and then proceeding by way of those “long chains of reasonings, quite simple and easy, which geometers are accustomed to using to teach their most difficult demonstrations” (p.41), gave him cause to think, he said, “that everything which can be encompassed by man’s knowledge is linked in the same way” (p.41). In other words, we should seek to represent everything theoretically within a single order of connectedness. For by the use of such a method, “there can be nothing so distant that one does not reach it eventually, or so hidden that one cannot discover it” (p.41). Indeed, such a method of reasoning – in which we must “borrow all the best from geometric analysis and algebra” (p.42) – could, he suggested, lead us to the discovery of God’s already established and eternal laws, “thereby mak[ing] ourselves, as it were, masters and possessors of nature” (p.78).
But note the role of God in all of this: God is necessary to Descartes’s philosophy, for, although as a bodiless, thinking substance, he knows himself to be an imperfect being (because of his doubts), Descartes nonetheless still finds within himself certain things, perfections, which he cannot conceive of doubting. He thus feels able to follow a “a general rule that the things we conceive very clearly and distinctly are all true” (p.54). But from whence could such a confidence issue? “It must have been put into me by a being whose nature was truly more perfect than mine and which even had in itself all the perfections of which I could only have any idea, that is to say, in a single word, which was God” (Descartes, 1968, p.55). In other words, in speaking of God here, Descartes locates within himself a certain, a priori “ordered necessity,” a self-discovered inner certainty, a touchstone, against which all the apparent contingencies of life may be judged. This claim by Descartes – that this inner sense of necessity is the work of an other, or of an otherness within himself, more perfect than himself – is crucial in providing him with the foundational point of departure for all his other claims to truth. And Western intellectuals, as we shall see, still call on certain notions as, so to speak, God-ideas which they think of as underwriting all their other claims to truth.
Many such Cartesian influences are still at work in our disciplines in the human and behavioral sciences. As a “form shaping ideology” (Bakhtin, 1984, p.83), or as a “structure of feeling “ (Williams, 1977), or as a “thought style” (Fleck, 1979), they still selectively determine both our aims and the phenomena to which we attend in our inquiries in the human and behavioral sciences. Oriented only toward what we see as objective or real in our surroundings, we attend away from the ‘shaping’ influence of such a background set of felt influences, of such spontaneously expressed responses or inclinations in our inquiries. And in almost all our professionally institutionalized inquiries, we proceed on the assumption that we already know how best to visualize and represent the basic, general nature of ourselves and our world, and not only how to choose the relevant elements of our study, but also how to link them together into a systematically interconnected unity of some kind.
But to do this, we must employ a writing style in which the most abstract philosophical principles and concrete factual details must be melded into a unity of tone and viewpoint, a rhetorical style in which we as authors disappear, and in which objectivity as such is pervasive. It is a form of writing within which we claim that “the facts speak for themselves.” However, in reality, the matter is otherwise.
As Kant (1970) put it in 1781, if we are to follow “the true path of a science” (p.17), then we must function only as “an appointed judge who compels the witness to answer questions which he himself has formulated,”and we must refuse to allow ourselves “to be kept, as it were, in nature’s leading-strings” (p.20). But in seeking only mastery and in refusing to allow ourselves to be led by (to be spontaneously responsive to) nature in any way, we restrict ourselves to acting only in terms of our own wants, desires, or reasons. To repeat, we ignore an importance source of knowledge: our spontaneous responsiveness to the others and othernesses around us. In other words, the form shaping ideology implicitly at work in such a style of writing is, as Bakhtin (1984) terms it, one of a monological kind. In transforming the world into a representation arrived at only as the result of deduction, we “inevitably transform the represented world into a voiceless object of that deduction” (p.83). We make ourselves “deaf to the other’s response” (p.293).
How might our disciplinary lives might change if we were to adopt a very different “form shaping ideology” in our inquiries in the human and behavioral sciences? What if, rather than as Descartes’s self-centered and self-controlled, subjective minds, ‘standing’ (if that is the right word to apply to such disembodied entities) over against a voiceless, objective world, we begin to view ourselves as living, embodied, participant parts of a larger, ongoing, predominantly living whole? Then, as merely participant parts within such a whole, rather than seeking exclusively to be “masters and possessors” of it, we might also find ourselves subjected as respondents to ‘its’ requirements as much as, if not more than, we can subject it to our’s. If that were so, while still perhaps seeking mastery of some of its aspects – seeking to understand how we might use them as a means to our own ends – we would also need to seek another quite different kind of understanding. We would need to understand ‘its’ expressions, respond to ‘its’ calls, and so on. For, as an other or otherness to which we must, unavoidably, respond, we would need to develop forms of response in which we can collaborate or participate in with ‘it’ in achieving our goals.
Now the quest for mastery is usually expressed in the desire for explanations; we seek sure-fire ways in which we can intervene in ongoing activities causally, i.e., in a one-way, mechanical cause and effect fashion, to influence their outcome in predictable ways. Or, to put it another way, we seek to reduce the unfamiliar to the familiar. The desire to understand, however – as a matter of understanding how to respond to the uniquely expressive physiognomic aspects of our surroundings, for this once and never to be repeated time – is much harder to describe. It is not a matter of something happening to us intellectually. In what follows, I will try to explicate it in practical, Wittgensteinian terms, in which “a philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about’” (Wittgenstein, 1953, no.123), and in which an understanding enables one to say and to act in a way one can justify to others, that “Now I know how to go on” (no. 154).
In other words, such a form of understanding is something that we show, manifest, or display in our everyday practical activities when, for instance, we tell someone that we have understood their spoken street directions, how to follow a cooking recipe, how to execute a piece of carpentry, or how to play a piece of music well, or in telling someone else what another has told us, or of what we have read in a book. Rather than precise factual information, in such a form of understanding we gain an orientation, a sense of where and how we are ‘placed’ in relation to the others around us within the landscape of possibilities within we are all acting. We might call them orientational-understandings. But, to repeat, such understandings – which have, I suggest, a relationally-responsive form to contrast them with the representational-referential forms much more familiar to us in our intellectual lives – do not make themselves readily available to us in our intellectual reflections. Just as our understanding of questions posed to us is expressed in our answers to them, so is our relationally-responsive understanding of other events occurring around us manifested or displayed in the responses we give to them.
As George Mead (1934) puts it: “The mechanism of meaning is present in the social act before the emergence of consciousness or awareness of meaning occurs. The act or adjustive response of the second organism gives to the gesture of the first organism the meaning it has” (pp.77-78, my emphasis). Prior to our conscious awareness of our actions as having meaning, prior to our establishing of any social conventions, our acting in accord with the rule-like requirements of our surrounding circumstances is something we do – difficult though it may be to accept the fact – spontaneously, without choice. It is as if there is an extra voice, an authoritative voice, situated in our surroundings, ‘telling’ us what next to do. In his investigations into the question, “How am I able to obey a rule?,” Wittgenstein (1953) describes our acting according to a rule as follows: “When I obey a rule, I do not choose. I obey the rule blindly (no.219). It is as if we hear the ‘voice’ of the rule and “... we do what it tells us” (no.223). So that when we see a series of numbers, we see it in a certain way, “...algebraically, and as a segment of an expansion... we look to the rule for instruction and do something, without appealing to any thing else for guidance” (no.228) .
Thus, the turn I want to take here, toward accepting ourselves as primarily living bodies, related directly to our surroundings by our spontaneous responsiveness to them, is more than just the turn away from treating ourselves as disembodied minds, related only indirectly to our surroundings by inner, mental representations of it. It is also a turn away from the focus on thoughts and beliefs as being central to our intellectual lives, toward a central focus on our spontaneously performed activities and practices. In other words, to repeat, it is a turn toward a participative and dialogically-structured world in which meanings arise inevitably and inexorably in people’s living, responsive reactions to the ‘callings’ of events occurring around them. As such, it is a turn in which few of our current disciplinary attitudes and inclinations, the disciplinary resources upon which we draw in our intellectual inquiries – shaped as they still are by an unidentified and thus remitting Cartesianism – can remain unchanged. Indeed, as I will argue in a moment, we will need a new kind of understanding of a new world, a world that might be called the precursor world to Descartes’s external world. We need to know, as participants within it, our way around inside of what is variously called “the Background” (Searle, 1983; Wittgenstein, 1980), or the “primordial” (Merleau-Ponty, 1962, 1968). Elsewhere (Shotter, 2003), I have called it a “precursor world,” as we within it, we find ourselves as already involved in executing spontaneously within it, precursors to, or, in Wittgenstein’s (1981, no.541) terms, “prototypes” of all our later more deliberately performed, intellectual activities.
‘Linguisitic’ social constructionism: its characteristics and alternatives
Human realities and languages are, then, if the above is correct, constituted in and by the meaningful relations both drawn upon and created in our spontaneous, bodily expressive and responsive, inter-activities. Thus, in my view, there is no gap between language and life, with language being related to living events in a representational fashion. Language and life are inextricably intertwined. People’s expressive-responsive vocalizations are, as they body them forth, an intrinsic aspect of their very being-in-the-world. They are expressive of who they are. That is, both the person’s self, and their linguistic representations of their selves in language, are not related as two, externally related, self-contained entities, that can each be independently characterized. Rather, who a person ‘is’, and their ways of expressing themselves, are internally inter-related, in that they each owe their character to their living relations to the other. Indeed, this relationship is so deep that, in many difficult circumstances, we only discover our own values and thoughts to ourselves in our own practical responses to a practical circumstance. As Wittgenstein (1953) remarks: you must “let the use of words teach you their meaning” (p.220).
It is precisely the view of language as self-encapsulated system, with not only its division into a set of separate and arbitrary entities, i.e., into a set of externally related, separate word-forms, amenable to easy rearrangement, but also with its separation from the rest of our living activities, along with the view that all our acts of speaking are purely individual, that I suggest is crucially misleading. Like Descartes’ separation of our minds from our bodies, it ignores all the already existing relations (both those of an idiosyncratic kind and those of a more cultural and historical kind) between our living, spontaneously expressed, active responses to events occurring in our surroundings; and it positions us once again as having to think of ourselves as starting all our living activities from thoughts occurring inside our heads as individuals.
Indeed, with respect to a fundamental tenet of social constructionism – that certain ways of talking, particular idioms, commit speakers to certain “forms of life” (Wittgenstein, 1953) and to ‘going on’ within them in a specific way, these versions can still engender – it is a way of talking that, I suggest, fundamentally misdirects us in our attempts to understand our practices. It still leads us to treat them as a matter of “putting theory into practice.” Further, the focus on ‘language as a system’ leads us to consider words, not only as forms, but of identical forms, and utterances as patterns of word forms. Thus, in our inquiries into, say, why one interpersonal exchange turned out differently from another, we study, as it were, patterns of already spoken words, instead of, as we will suggest in more detail later, the whole embodied, expressive-responsive activity of words in their speaking.
Social constructionism may very well have turned our attention away from the self-encapsulated mind, inside the individual’s head, and toward the active, relational nature of all our mental activity, but it has left our methods of inquiry untouched (Shotter and Lannamann, 2002). As a consequence, we tend to think of our theoretical structures, and the individual words in which they are formulated, as not embedded in the same already existing, dynamically unfolding flow of relational activity, within which our mentalities and subjectivities are formed and determined. And we talk in terms of the meaning of certain separate signifiers, and of discovering the rules or principles connecting them to others.
In the new, much more practical approach to social constructionism I want to take here in this article, I want to renounce the prior seeking of general explanatory theories before turning to a focus on our practices. Instead, I want to make our activities and practices our primary focus. And, instead of theorists, I want to place the needs of practitioners first – who, in turn, must place the needs of their clients first. I am then concerned to show, not only how our practices can be improved from within our own conduct of them, but also to show how criteria can be found within them also, for justifying claims that the improvements are indeed improvements. It is not because a special technique or methodology has been employed that gives the therapeutic moves made, questions asked, or actions taken, that gives them their intellectual legitimacy – that is to be found, as we shall see, in the closeness of the contact, the degree of responsively expressed ‘in-touchness’, of the relevant expressions with the ‘contours’ of their surroundings (Shotter, 2004).
Thus, in taking this approach, I am not be emphasizing any special methods or methodologies. Indeed, I am making a special effort to avoid what is called ‘naturalistic’ forms on inquiry (Chomsly, 2000, pp.37-45), that is, that the meaningful activities constitutive of human realities are really something else, something can only be properly described when viewed with the point of view developed by modern natural sciences. Instead, I am emphasizing the very varied and unsystematic methods of conversational inquiry used by ordinary people in their everyday lives. For, strange though it may be to say it, it is the very diversity and subtly of these methods (as Wittgenstein, 1953, shows) that allows us to cope with the uniqueness of the nuanced subtleties and complexities we express in our responsive relations to the unique others and othernesses around us. Scientific methods are far too inflexible.
To make this claim is not to reject the value of science in our lives. But, we need to take note of the fact that, we do not need to be able to explain our everyday actions scientifically, i.e., analyze them into a certain set of elements that combine in repetitive patterns to produce observed outcomes, to be able, through everyday reflection and inquiry, to improve them, to gain a more deliberate command of them. Parents can, for example, without having any idea of the laws by which their children’s minds and bodies are governed, teach them not only their mother tongue, but also countless other aspects of acceptable and intelligible behavior in the course of their everyday involvements with them, in being spontaneous responsive to their actions in a living, bodily, expressive manner. In other words, at work here in the spontaneous, living bodily interactions occurring unceasingly between all of us, not just parents with their children, is another kind of process of understanding and of acting expressively, quite different from that at work when we act deliberately and individually as scientists – a process that comes into play in, and can only come into play, in our living meetings with the others and othernesses around us, a dialogical form of understanding. Scientific understandings do work in terms of static, picture-like, inner mental representations, but our everyday, spontaneous, living understandings do not seem to work in this way.
If Bakhtin (1986) is right, they work in terms of in inner, dialogically-structured movements, a dialogical dynamics, that gives rise to distinctive ‘movements’ whose shape can be felt or sensed but not pictured, i.e., not known in a propositional form. Indeed, it is precisely the very heterogeneity evident in our speech – its many-sided and heterogeneous nature, its lack of any seemingly pre-determined unified order, that Saussure felt precluded its scientific study – that leaves it open to being further specified or determined by those involved in it in practice.
Now, I do not wish to enter into a comprehensive and detailed account or criticism of any one particular version of social constructionism here, for, as is already clear, my purpose is to introduce a very different set of foci into the social constructionist arena from those suggested by its current ‘linguistic’ focus. But I want to list some of the general the features of what we can call linguistic-monological (L-M) versions of social constructionism, both to contrast them with the corporeal-dialogical (C-D) version I want to suggest here, and to bring out how – as a form-shaping ideology (Bakhtin, 1984) – the Cartesian world picture is still at work within them. As I see it, most linguistic versions of social constructionism, following Saussure’s (1911) structuralist account of language, make most or all of the following claims:
1) In L-M versions of social constructionism, little distinction is made between language (as a static systematic body of knowledge) and speech activity taken as expressive of this knowledge – indeed, the responsiveness of our utterances expressed both in the sequential, responsive unfolding of their intonational contours and responsive choice of words used, is ignored. – While C-D versions of social constructionism attend to the spontaneous expressive-responsiveness of bodily activities.
2) Secondly, our speech, our talk, is taken as making use of particular signifiers drawn from language as a self-contained system of separately existing signifiers, where, as a self-contained system, there is a ‘gap’, so to speak, between the words used and the mental representations they represent – which are now, not taken as corresponding with reality, but as constitutive of a particular reality. Indeed, many version follow Saussure in taking it that signifers have only an arbitrary relation to what they signify. – While in C-D versions, words have at least an ‘allusive’ relation to the surrounding circumstances of their use (see Merleau-Ponty, 1964).
3) Thus a third claim made by L-M social constructionism, is that, in principle at least, any word can stand for any signified – any object, person, or events. The meaning of a person’s utterance is thus always a matter of interpretation.– In C-D versions, although their initial meaning may be vague, we can respond to people’s utterances directly, in ways which are not an interpretation (see Wittgenstein, 1953, no.201).
4) Fourthly, and this I feel is the most important of all of Saussure’s claims about language as a self-contained system, L-M social constructionism takes it that language itself, or as “a discourse,” has its own internal logic, that can be characterized in terms of a grammar or syntax, or as a system of sequencing rules, i.e., rules of what can follow what. – In C-D this is expressed by the claim that, indeed, there is something like a ‘grammar’ influencing our sense of what follows what, but it can never be emptied out into an explicit system of rule statements.
But here, we must be very careful. In line with the remarks I made above, about who a person ‘is’ and their ways of expressing themselves being inter-related internally rather than externally, so we find Saussure making a similar remark about linguistic units. Indeed, as he sees it, there are no separately existing, self-contained elements in [a] language, They all have a purely differential existence and defined not by their positive content but negatively by their relations with other terms of the system. In short, their most precise character is in being what the others are not. Hence his (in)famous remark that: “Everything that has been said up to this point boils down to this: in language there are only differences. Even more important: a difference generally implies positive terms between which the difference is set up; but in language there are only differences without positive terms” (Saussure, 1911, p.120). But let me repeat: as he sees it, language is a complete system in itself which contains no self-contained positive terms without ineradicable, intrinsic relations to other terms. This formulation of Saussure’s, although I am still critical of it for the way in which it treats language as a self-encapsulated system, and as thus still externally related to reality, is, I think, quite brilliant. Its emphasis on language as only an internally related system of participant parts is often forgotten – the Cartesian world picture of separately existing parts stands in the way of our taking its wholistic, indivisible nature seriously.
But what if there were no ‘gap’ between the words we use and the particular reality they in some way express? What if there was a direct, responsive relation between the ‘shape’ of our utterances and the ‘shape’ of the circumstances to which they are responsive? Would we not then find that many claims made by L-M social constructionism would need re-thinking? I think so, and I will say something about that task in the final section of this article, but here I want to outline a few more crucial features of L-M social constructionism that, I think, still reflect features of the Cartesian world picture.
5) I emphasized the point above – about internal relations – because in some versions of L-M social constructionism, it is claimed that Derrida’s (1977) account of language, as a system of differences, suggests that “language is not like a flowing stream, but is divided into discrete units (or words). Each word is distinct from all others” (Gergen, 1999, p.27). This, however, is to ignore the fact that the differences in question are meant to be differences without positive terms. That is, even if it is a matter of interpretation as to what a person means in their utterances, we cannot just take their utterance alone as a self-contained unit of language divorced from its context of expression. Our task is not just to offer interpretations of their words in our terms, but to respond to their meaning in their use of words. – C-D versions take it that words are never “discrete units;” they must each always (in their saying) ‘point to’ yet to be said, answering words (Bakhtin, 1981).
6) Sixthly, we need to point out that Saussure (1911) ignored speech in his inquiries, not only because of its complexity, but because, as he put it: “In separating language from speech we are at the same time separating: 1) what is social from what is individual; and 2) what is essential from what is accessory and more of less accidental. Language is not a function of the speaker; it is a product that is passively assimilated by the individual. It never requires premeditation, and reflection enters in only for the purposes of classification. Speaking, on the contrary, is an individual act. it is wilful and intellectual” (p.14). In other words, as he saw it, it is a shared grammatical system existing more or less similarly in the brains of each individual in a social group that makes it possible for them to communicate; without it, communication would be impossible. It is this grammar or system of rules that we must discover in our L-M driven research if we are to get to the bottom of people’s real meanings. But let us point out once again, this is to ignore, of course, the importance of our spontaneous (anticipatory) reactions to other people’s bodily gestures and other bodily expressions, the sponataneous reactions into which we have been trained as we “grow into the intellectual life of those around [us]” (Vygotsky, 1978, p.88). – C-D versions focus on words in their speaking, and only turn to patterns of already spoken words in relational to institutionalized forms of speech (Voloshinov, 1984).
7) Next, this emphasis on shared assumptions, a shared grammar, suggests that what needs explaining in our communications with each other, are our failures to communicate. – Whereas, in C-D, we would want to suggest that partial communication is normal. Partial misunderstandings or divergence in our understandings of an event are not aberrations, but are to be expected (Taylor, 1992).
8) Linguistic patterns in L-M versions are mainly spatial forms or static patterns that can both be completed and pictured. – While in C-D versions, the focus is on always unfinished, temporally unfolding patterns that cannot be pictured, only sensed in a felt way. See Wittgenstein (1953) on the musicality of language: “Understanding a sentence is much more akin to understanding a theme in music than one may think” (no.527). “Doesn’t the theme point to anything beyond itself? Yes, it does. But that means: – it makes an impression on me which is connected with things in its surroundings – e.g., with our language and its intonations; and hence the whole field of our language games. I say for example: Here it’s as if a conclusion, here as if something is being confirmed, this is like an answer to what was said before...” (Wittgenstein, 1981, no.175).
9) In L-M, certain ideals (God-ideas) are taken for granted, for instance, it taken for granted that rules or logical systems underlie (or make possible) our being able to understand each other in our communications, where such rule-systems act in some way to join or externally relate the otherwise discrete units (words) in our utterances. Thus our task in the social sciences it to find and make explicit such systems of rules. – Whereas, in C-D versions, although there are such God ideas (see Shotter, 2003), they take the form of Bakhtin’s (1986) superaddressees or Steiner’s (1989) “real presences,” and act from within our involvements as, so to speak, “action guiding advisories.” In other words, rather than mysterious influences from ‘outside’ our joint activities, they are routinely immanent within them.
In summary then, although L-M social constructionism is aimed at replacing the Cartesian notion of the self-contained, self-certain Self, in theory, in practice – because it is still oriented toward conducting its inquiries within a world dominated by the Cartesian world picture, it still ignores our spontaneously responsive, living, expressive bodily relations to our surroundings, and, the internal relations already existing between the bodily activities occurring between us and the others and othernesses around us. But more than that, by failing to focus on our living expressions, and by treating our words (utterances) as made up of discrete, self-contained units, it ignores their ‘directed’ nature – the fact that in their dynamic unfolding, our expressions necessarily have both a temporal as well as a spatial aspect and thus, by their very nature, ‘point’ both from a past and toward a possible future. So, while we can study already completed, dead forms at a distance, seeking to understand the pattern of past events that caused them to come into existence, we can enter into a relationship with living forms, and, in making ourselves open to their movements, find ourselves not only spontaneously responding to them, but spontaneously responding to them in anticipation of what they might do next. In other words, instead of seeking to explain a present activity in terms the past, we can directly understand it in terms of its meaning for us, i.e., in terms of what, for us, it ‘relates to’ or ‘points to’ beyond itself, both in space and in time.
In my estimation, the social constructionist movement has been the single most important development in our inquiries into the nature of our own human nature in recent times. Instead of what happens hidden inside the heads of individuals, it has led us to focus on what happens in relationships out in the world between people, to focus on language rather than thought, on others rather than ourselves, on otherness and difference rather than sameness and similarity, on possibilities rather than actualities, and, perhaps most importantly, on absent-presences or on the unnoticed background to all our interactive activities. But in their development, many versions of social constructionism have been closely associated with Postmodernism, Post-structuralism, and Deconstructionism (see Gergen, 1999, pp.24-29, for an account), which in their turn, have been influenced by Saussure’s (1911) ‘structuralist’ account of language as a self-contained system of signs or signifiers with a representional relation to a set of signified. They have thus been characterized as exhibiting a “linguistic turn” (Rorty, 1967) or “interpretative turn” (Rabinow & Sullivan, 1987). However, Saussure’s account of language was fashioned within the discipline of Linguistics, with the academic and intellectual (and scientific) aims relevant to that discipline in mind, aims that were shaped by aspects of the Cartesian world picture I outlined above – aims that many current versions of social constructionism still seem oriented toward satisfying. But in all these versions, truth is in trouble, as Rorty (1979) puts it, “‘objective truth’ is no more or less than the best idea we currently have about how to explain what is going on” (p.385).
My aim above, then, has been to set out some of the central features of that world picture, and to outline how it still influences many of our intellectual inquiries. And also to set out some of the features of an alternative, corporeal-dialogical (C-D) version. My main aim in doing this has been, to divert attention away from academic theorists proposing and arguing about theories, and to direct attention toward those of our ordinary everyday practices in which we are involved along with the ordinary people around us. For, it seems to me, that no matter how emancipatory our theories might be – no matter how we might subvert the dominance of the male gaze, or of the core self, of the Cartesian agent in theory – we are still reiterating the dominance of academic institutional power over those one is studying in our practices of inquiry. Thus we are still trying to capture the nature of another life in another world independent of us, which is in fact to try to get to know about it in our terms. Whereas, I have been attempting to outline something of what is involved in ‘entering into’ an other’s world, and getting a sense of that other as a ‘something’ with a life of its own, not independent of us, but in relation to us – that is, to get to know ‘it’ in its own terms rather than in our terms, to let ‘its voice’ be heard speaking within the accounts we write of our inquiries into ‘its’ form of life.
Above, I noted Rosaldo’s (1993) comments on the tendency of social analysts to take themselves as the basic paradigm of what it is to be human, and only to refer to cultural influences in attempts to explain the differences between ourselves and others – thus, ‘we’ have psychology, while ‘they’ have culture. But as Rosaldo (1993) observes, “in practice, this emphasis on difference results in a peculiar ratio: as the ‘other’ becomes more culturally visible, the ‘self’ becomes correspondingly less so” (p.202). Hence social analysts often mock their own culture, suggesting that subordinate groups speak in vibrant, fluent ways, while suggesting that they talk in an etiolated, over-controlled manner. “Yet,” remarks Rosaldo (1993), “analysts rarely allow the ratio of class and culture to include power. Thus they conceal the ratio’s darker side: the more culture one has, the less power one wields. If ‘they’ have an explicit monopoly on authentic culture, ‘we’ have an unspoken one on institutional power” (p.202). In other words, while the voices of those silenced by powerful others may now be appearing in many social constructionist inquiries into their lives, in practice, they are still not being responded to and taken seriously as meaning something in their own terms – they still often appear in our work as specimens, exhibiting possibilities of interest to us, that we formulate in our terms. If this is to change, a quite different form of conversational or dialogical inquiry must replace our present forms (see Shotter, 2002; Shotter and Lannamann, 2002; Shotter, 2004; Katz and Shotter, 2003), for, as I see it, they are still dominated by a Cartesian world view, and its goal of our being “masters and possessors of Nature.”
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