(Paper given at the ISTP Annual Conference, Berlin, 27 April - 2 May, 1997). Now published in W. Maiers, B. Bayer, B. Duarte Esgalhado, R. Jorna and E. Schraube (Eds.) Challenges to Theoretical Psychology. North York, CA: Captus Press.


John Shotter


"I might say: if the place I want to get to could only be reached by way of a ladder, I would give up trying to get there. For the place I really have to get to is the place I must already be at now. Anything that might be reached by climbing a ladder doesn't interest me" (Wittgenstein, 1980, p.7).
"How small a thought it takes to fill someone's whole life!... If you want to go down deep you do not need to travel far; indeed, you don't have to leave your most immediate and familiar surroundings" (Wittgenstein, 1980, p.50).

In 1995 at this meeting, I gave a paper on Wittgenstein's methods, called "From the way of theory toward a social poetics" (1997). In it I claimed, that if we are to gain a clearer view of the complex inter-relations between our everyday, practical actions and the influences on them in their surrounding circumstances, then we must turn away from the way of theory and espouse Wittgenstein's new 'poetic' methods of inquiry: For their precise point is to do with bringing to our attention, the living, responsive-relations between aspects of our own human activities, previously unnoticed in the everyday, here-and-now, background 'hurly-burly' to our lives.

        However, I now realize that my celebration of these new methods was somewhat premature: my claim that we must turn away from the way of theory - if we are develop both new methods of inquiry and new social practices more suited to our currently more diverse and pluralistic social circumstances - simply provoked incredulity. I was insufficiently critical of the way of theory to make it clear why a turn away from it is so necessary. Here, I want to try to put that right, and to try to say why, if we are to tackle some of the most pressing problems we currently face, we must make that turn.


Let me begin by acknowledging that there is no doubt that we feel driven to inquire into how 'things hang together', so to speak, that we all share a feeling that we would like to be more 'at home' in the world, to know our 'way around' inside it, in every part at every moment, somewhat better. We would like to have a "synoptic" sense of it as a "surveyable" whole - as Wittgenstein (1980a, 1953) puts it - in a way somewhat similar to the unconfused, familiar, and intimate way we know how to conduct ourselves inside our own homes (see Bachelard, 1992, for an account of how the house is "the human being's first world" (p.7)).

        In the Western world, however, although this desire has been realized in many practical ways - through exploration, and the accumulation of many forms of practical knowledge - it seems to have been primarily manifested in an urge to theorize: that is, in an urge to collect diverse phenomena (to do both with our world and ourselves) together within a framework of belief. We have been driven by the idea that somewhere, there is a simple 'something' to be discovered hidden beneath or behind appearances which, in some way, will work to interconnect diverse phenomena into a hierarchically ordered, timeless unity. And we dream, that if we can gain a cognitive grasp of this hierarchically ordered unity, if we can see into its inner workings sufficiently clearly (as if with a God's eye), then we might be able, 'calculationally', to 'play through' possibly important sequences ahead of time, thus to know what to do to control them according to our desires.

        As a result of our until very recently questioned commitment to this belief in all our intellectual inquiries, we seem to have been in the thrall of what - because it involves us in a whole complex form of life (LW) with its motivations and perceptions, desires and compulsions; its ways of acting, speaking, thinking, and valuing; its basic ways of separating, and hierarchically interrelating and ordering the things it deals with, in order to simplify its vision of the world - I have called "the way of theory."

        Where, by the "way of theory," I mean, the urge i) to bring a unity to things ii) in terms of a belief, supposition, hypothesis, or theory, iii) formulated in terms of a small set of hierarchically related formal elements, iv) thought of as representing states of reality, v) which can be cognitively manipulated to produce other representations of logically possible states. With the whole enterprise, as Rorty (1980, 1989) points out, undergirded by a simple, often literalized, image (currently in psychology, the computer).


Now our applications of the way of theory to the natural world surrounding us has brought us great dividends - no doubt about it. And I would be foolish to want to criticize its use in general. Indeed, there are also ways in which it is useful for us to use it to elaborate in more technical detail some of our already developed forms of life.

        But it is when we try to turn the way of theory around upon ourselves and to use it to come to an ordered, overall, synoptic sense of what it is to be a human being, in terms of one or some of our own beliefs about ourselves, hierarchically ordered into a calculational system, or, when we try to use it to develop new forms of life, utterly new ways of relating ourselves both to each other and our surroundings - it is then, I think, that we are on very dangerous ground. For, if we feel that we can simply argue, either from evidence or from supposed 'first principles' that our theories are true, then - without the need for any 'first-hand', 'on the spot', sense of the relevant circumstances - we feel justified in seeking to apply our theories in practice. And this is where the danger lies. In trying to make manifest my worries here, let me focus on three issues (although it will become clear that a whole complex of intertwined issues is at stake in this sphere). The issues are to do with: i) locating the origin of all human activities in mental representations in the heads of individuals; ii) attempting to form human communities by 'putting theories into practice'; and iii) conducting the behavioral 'sciences' as if they are religions!


i) First, let me simply remark that the way of theory suggests to us that the primary source of all of our human activities is, supposedly, to be found in mental representations inside the heads of individuals.

        We thus take it that, rather than acting in response to unique and subtle details in their circumstances, people act from their own inner thoughts or ideas. Our relations to our immediate circumstances - and their moment-by-moment, changing constitution as we consider and reconsider what is of relevance to us, in what we might call the dialogical moment - are ignored, suppressed in fact. No attention is paid to those of our activities spontaneously 'called out' from us by the Others in our surroundings, due to our existence in the world as living bodies. Instead of as a radical otherness, occupying a 'world' radically different from our own, an Other is treated as simply yet another in 'the world' like ourselves.

        This leads on to a second worry, a worry to do with the forming of human communities: For the way of theory suggests to us that - given that, though we may have different beliefs about it, we are all nonetheless already in the same world - they come into being through the forming of rational agreements, through Rousseauian 'social contracts'. In other words, it suggests that new forms of social relations can be argued or administrated into existence.

        But, as Richard Bernstein (1983) remarks, all attempts to implement "the idea that we can make, engineer, impose our collective will to form [new] communities... have been disastrous" (p.226). Indeed, as Sir Isaiah Berlin remarks, while many of our "great liberating ideas" initially open up a surge of new opportunities, they "inevitably turn into suffocating straitjackets, and so stimulate their own destruction by new, emancipating, and at the same time, enslaving, conceptions" (Berlin, 1981, p.159)1.

        Why is this? Because, as Bernstein points out: "A community or polis is not something that can be made or engineered by some form of techne or by the administration of society. There is something of a circle here, comparable to the hermeneutical circle. The coming into being of a type of public life that can strengthen solidarity, and a commitment to rational persuasion presupposes the incipient forms of such communal life" (p.226, my emphasis).

        In other words - and relates to my central point here today - there is something in the very nature of human relationships that so far we have failed to recognize and to acknowledge, something that is prior to everything we think of as being of importance to us as individual human beings: Our personal and social identities, our awareness and conceptions of the world about us, our forms of rationality, our ability to theorize, and so on, are all made possible and emerge out of the fact, that we are spontaneously responsive to each other, bodily, in a dialogical fashion - we cannot not be, although we may fail to notice and rationally to acknowledge the fact that we are. This, as I shall argue in a moment, is where all that is of importance to us in our social lives together begins.

        But if this is the case, if all our relations with each other (and from within them all our dealings with the world) only begins in these pre-theoretical, radically contingent, non-hierarchically ordered forms of dialogical activity, why do we still persist in claiming that our ways of relating ourselves to each must be a matter of ratiocination, of rational planning, a matter of fitting our human relations into hierarchically ordered, calculational schemes? Why do we still persist, in our attempts to regulate our social lives, in the few try to devise beliefs, hypotheses, or principles for implementation by the many? Why do we remain so blind to the nature of our basic, living, bodily relations to the Others and othernesses around us?

        iii) This brings me to my third worry about the way of theory, to do with it working in terms only of beliefs: As Kitto (1951) (along with many other commentators) claims, our sensitivities - the things we notice and acknowledge as well as the things we fail to notice - have their roots in forms of life which have been developed from those of the ancient Greeks. Central among them is the tendency, in spite of diverse appearances to the contrary, to believe that the world consists not of many things but one. Like them, we also seemingly take it for granted that: "the universe, both the physical and the moral universe, must not only be rational, and therefore knowable, but also simple; the apparent multiplicity of things is only apparent" (p.179).

        Indeed, in discussing the contemporary style of Thales's thought, Kitto comments: "Could Thales have meet a nineteenth century chemist and heard that the elements are sixty-seven (or whatever the number is), he would have objected that this was far too many. Could he have met a twentieth-century physicist and heard that these are all different combinations of one thing, he might reply, 'That's what I always said'" (pp.179-180).

        Richard Webster (1996) - in his book Why Freud was Wrong - psychologizes this urge (to ground our actions in simple, systematic unities), and notes its relation in 'scientific' psychology to the essentially religious need to reduce the complexities of the human soul to simple matters of belief. He quotes Jung's (1963) characterization of Freud's following of the way of theory as reflecting this: "In place of the jealous God he had lost," says Jung of Freud,

"he had substituted another compelling image, that of sexuality. It was no less insistent, exacting, domineering, threatening and morally ambivalent than the original one... The advantage of the transformation for Freud was, apparently, that he was able to regard the new numinous principle as scientifically irreproachable and free of all religious taint" (p.179, quoted in Webster, 1996, p.379).
And indeed, Webster goes on to note that Jung himself, "instead of dismissing religion as part of the problem, ...saw it as a potential solution and as a source of healing" (pp.386-387) - the problem of "finding a religious outlook on life" (Jung, 1960, p.264) was, he claimed, central for all his patients in "the second half of life."

        And cast into an intellectual environment of rationalistic positivism that, ostensibly is hostile to all forms of religious belief, many western intellectuals still feel themselves, as Webster (1996) puts it, "under a profound psychological compulsion to immerse themselves once more in belief" (p.384).

        Rorty (1980, 1989) too notes this, and wants to try and cure us of our compulsive need to "eternalize" or "divinize" the ideology of the day in our quest for a basis for our actions somewhere "beyond history and institutions" (p.198) - a lesson all those currently indulging in the triumphalism associated with cognitive science might do well to note. Religious zealotry and fundamentalism can be found just as much outside as inside churches.


This compulsive psychological aspect of the way of theory noted here by Webster and Rorty is, I think, worth taking seriously (Wittgenstein too talks of our "cravings" and "impulses," and sees his philosophy as "therapeutic" in its function of "curing" us of them). For, if nothing else, it helps to explain why the difficulties associated with current attempts to move away from the way of theory - away from forms of life in which the few with clear convictions and beliefs, are appointed to devise 'theories' to be 'put into practice' by the more wayward many - are not all simply intellectual difficulties. For the way of theory is a 'sacred' part of our social identities, a part of who we in the West take ourselves to be.


Yet, in committing ourselves to a form of inquiry that can only be conducted from within the framework of an intelligibly shared belief or hypothesis, we limit our inquiries to phenomena that can only appear within such frameworks - and what is excluded in such inquiries is, of course, just the very phenomena that are now of interest to us in these postmodern, social constructionist times: otherness, diversity, differences, multiplicity, duplicity, instability, and the nature of the complex, joint, creative, disorderly, dialogical processes involved in socially constructing our frameworks of belief, and forms of order in the first place.

        In other words, we overlook just those events to do with what Bernstein calls "the incipient forms of communal life" upon which the development, of a type of public life in which all are committed to rational persuasion instead of violence in settling their affairs, depends. Thus, if this is our desire, our pursuit of it through the way of theory is now, as I see it, both beside the point and after the fact:

- 1) It is beside the point in the sense that the way of theory is aimed ultimately at justifying or legitimating a proposed action by providing it with an already agreed grounding or basis. Whereas, what we require in our daily affairs, is not so much legitimation in terms of an already agreed status quo, as clear guidance in how to act in unique and novel circumstances: we wish to know in an unconfused, incontestable sense, in this or that particular, never-before-occurring situation, what is the right thing to do. (The practitioner's problem - and they make us only too well aware that they find our theories of little help in their daily practices.)
- 2) The way of theory is thus after the fact in the sense of that its focus is retrospective: from within it, we look back on successfully completed events with the aim of finding an order or pattern in them that can be instituted mechanically, unthinkingly, according to rules or recipes. Whereas, in our daily affairs, we need to focus, not on their final outcome, but on the particular, moment-by-moment unfolding, constructive details of our practical activities. We need to come to a grasp of all the influences that might be at work in any one moment as we make our way toward such outcomes. To represent this loose-textured, temporal, disorderly process - in which many possibilities are considered but few are chosen - as an already orderly and coherent process is to hide from ourselves the character of the social negotiations, navigations, and struggles productive of its order.
Thus, it is in at least these two senses that theories are beside the point and after the fact. To orient ourselves intellectually in relation to such phenomena, we require another mode of inquiry. But where might we begin our explorations in the search for it... if we cannot begin from assumptions and suppositions?


Classically, in the way of theory, we have thought of ourselves as being influenced by the objects and events around us monologically, that is, we have thought of ourselves as self-contained individuals (Sampson, 1993), related to our surroundings as if viewing them from a distance - almost as if viewing them through a plate-glass window that prevented us having any actual, living contact with them. And this has led us to think of the world around us as being an external world.

        However, as I have already noted, as living, embodied beings, we cannot not be responsive to the world around us. Unlike computers and other machines, we must continuously react to our surroundings directly and immediately, in a 'living' way, without us first having 'to work it out' as to how to respond; and, in so doing, of necessity, we relate ourselves to our surroundings, in one way or another, spontaneously.

        But once we allow for this possibility, once we do notice, do acknowledge the fact that people are intrinsically in a continuous, living contact with each other, we can no longer sustain the idea of ourselves as being separate, self-contained entities, nor that of our world as being an 'external' world. For as soon as a second living human being responds to the acts of a first, that is, as soon as I act in a way that depends on your acts... then my activities cannot be accounted as wholly my own: as spontaneous responses to the activities of an Other, my activities must be partly shaped by their otherness, by their difference from me. And this is where all the strangeness of our dialogically responsive relations to each other begins.


A whole new realm of study can open up to us with this entirely non-necessary acknowledgment of people's responsive relations to each other. Indeed, as Wittgenstein (1969) brings to our attention: "Knowledge in the end is based on acknowledgment" (no.378) - if initially we fail to notice a phenomenon, clearly, we shall fail to take it into account in any of our further inquiries.

        In the way of theory, we tend to assume that what explains our openness to our surroundings, are fore-structures of pre-understandings we already possess (to use Gadamer's, 1975, terms); these are what determine to what we can or cannot be responsive. But this is why I think the remarks in Wittgenstein's late philosophy are so important to us: the radical otherness of his words can - as a first step - 'call out' new responses from us to our surrounding circumstances, responses that go way beyond our current, intellectual, pre-understandings, which confront us both with new mysteries as well as with hints as to how to develop our relations to them further.

        Like a stranger's responses to us across a Park, they can work to specify a circumstance partially - an annoyance, say - but leave it open and still somewhat mysterious as to how we might 'go on' yet further with them, but yet again, not so open that we find ourselves hopelessly disoriented. No wonder that in grappling with these issues, without the resort to simplifying and limiting theoretical frameworks of belief, Wittgenstein (1953) groaned to himself: "What is most difficult here is to put this indefiniteness, correctly, and unfalsified, into words" (Wittgenstein, 1953, p.227).

        But without a framework of belief, we at least need an orientational landmark or two to return to every so often in one's explorations of the vast landscape now opened up, one would soon become disoriented and confused: Such an initial landmark can be found, I believe, in a focus on our simple, responsive relations to Others (as in the stranger across the Park example I have used here), a focus on what in the past I have called "joint actions" (Shotter, 1980, 1984, 1993, 1995).

        What has always struck me about joint actions, is that they contain an ethics: only if you respond in a way sensitive to the relations between 'mine' and 'your' movements can 'we' act together as a 'collective we': in dancing, say, or moving furniture, or what ver. If I sense that you are not interrelating your activities in with mine - if another person is looking at their own reflection in my eyes, rather than looking at 'me', we not only can sense it immediately, but we feel offended. Goffman (1967) talks of these as offences against one's "involvement obligations," and Garfinkel (1967) talks of the "righteous hostility" occasioned people's transgression of the "seen but unnoticed" interpretational co-operation they feel entitled to expect from others.

        Indeed, if we do re-image to ourselves the meeting of the eyes of a stranger across the Park, if we do acknowledge how the presence of an Other can 'strike' us and become 'a presence' in our presence, and we pause there for a while to dwell on the richness (the 'fractal fullness') of what can be found in such a fleeting moment, then, I think, we will be forced to admit that, although we can formulate what occurs in this way and that according to one or another of our own schemes of interpretation, the event still nonetheless has its own in exhaustible character. Yet, on the other hand, as both Bakhtin (1986) and Levinas (1969) point out - and we have seen with other examples - once we do acknowledge an Other's presence (even a stranger across the Park), we find ourselves obligated to them in some mysterious way. And it is only from within this obligation that we can begin to discover the unique nature of their 'inner world' - that is, we can only fully experience the complex and rich diversity of reality through the ethical relations established in our initial acknowledgments of the Others around us. Ethics is prior to, not a consequence of, our knowledge.

        This, I know, is not a place to end this talk. Indeed, the claim that ethics is prior to, not a consequence, of knowledge, remains an empty claim, until we can begin to see how the beginnings of new practices of inquiry can grow out of the kind of fleeting acknowledgments I have alluded to here - examples are provided in Katz and Shotter (1996, 1997) and Shotter and Katz (1997). But my main point here has been, that as long as we persist in the way of theory we will remain blind to this fact, and unaware of the kind of explorations we in fact require, if we are to develop our own practices of intellectual inquiry further. And of especial importance to us, instead of more democratic forms of relation, we will still persist in following the way of theory, we shall still find ourselves trying to organize our social lives in terms of simple systems of belief imposed on the few by the many - with all the forms of exclusion associated with trying to maintain such systems from being subverted by non-believers.


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1. Many of our political 'discussions' - even so-called 'discussions of the issues' - rather than to do with detailed inquiries into actual, prevailing circumstances and the opportunities they may (or may not) afford for any new steps forward, are in fact unresolvable arguments over beliefs. Once in power, governments act, not in accord with their professed beliefs, but pragmatically, in accord with current circumstances and the received ideology of the day - hence, all their supposed 'broken promises'.