Slightly updated first draft of an essay to appear in George Yancy (Ed.) “Narrated Identities: Psychologists Engaged in Self-Construction.” London: Jessica Kingsley.


John Shotter

Emeritus Professor of Communication

Department of Communication

University of New Hampshire

Durham, NH 03824-3586



“The problems arising through a misinterpretation of our forms of language have the character of depth. They are deep disquietudes; their roots are as deep in us as the forms of our language and their significance is as great as the importance of our language” (Wittgenstein, 1953, no.111).


“... in the process of development the child begins to practice with respect to himself the same forms of behavior that others formerly practiced with respect to him” (Vygotsky, 1966, pp.39-40).


“What is most difficult here is to put this indefiniteness, correctly and unfalsified, into words” (1953, p.227).


“Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself” (Wittgenstein, 1980, p.34).

George Yancy originally asked me to contribute toward this volume as one of the originators of the movement in psychology and social theory known as Social Constructionism. However, I have to say that for me, social constructionism as been a way-station on the way to somewhere else. I have always been concerned (see below) with the larger social conditions of our lives together, and with our unresponsiveness to the obvious misery and injustices occurring all around us. And, once I had overcome my entrancement with the sheer mystery and amazingness of things and turned toward more everyday practicalities, my first forays into the social and behavioral sciences were with the aim in mind of being more responsive to such troubles and injustices. It came as something of a shock to me to realize that the very activity of pursuing good aims with a good will could still (unintentionally) result in the production of social and moral disasters (Scott, 1989; Shotter, in press a). The very activity of becoming an ‘expert’, a ‘scholar’, an ‘academic’, an ‘intellectual’, leads us so easily into a contempt for ordinary people, and into ignoring of the fact that all our claims to special knowledge – which we want to ‘give back’ to ‘them’ through lectures and special plans for their betterment – have had their origins in their activities, and in those of their predecessors. Without the benefit their company in our endeavors, our claims as experts would be completely unintelligible.

              Our immersion in this ongoing stream of collective life, our spontaneous responsiveness to events and to the activities of others around us apart from anything that we might do consciously and deliberately, is crucial. Indeed, our wanting and doing occurs, and can only occur, within this larger context of the spontaneously occurring activity between us all. It is all that just goes on, i.e., that just happens to us, over and above our wanting and doing, that has been ignored. To think we can have the kind of masterful and possessive agency dreamed of by Descartes (see below), is dangerously to deceive ourselves. Indeed, many versions of Social Constructionism still seem to me to be deeply ‘infected’ with the Cartesianism that in fact they aim to overcome. Hence, in recent times I have begun to look beyond current versions of Social Constructionism, toward the surrounding circumstances that, one the one hand, make such a movement possible, but on the other, enables it to hide its own social and historical origins. For, as I see it, many social constructionists have still not yet moved on from a world of dead, mechanically structured activities to a world of living, embodied beings, spontaneously responsive to each other. In an earlier book, Social Accountability and Selfhood (Shotter, 1984), in an effort to overcome the dead-hand of the mechanistic approach to human affairs, I called my approach a social ecological one, and it is to that approach that I feel I have now returned.

              Reflected in the comment above are two themes which, at least it seems to me, run through my life, just as much in my daily life as in my intellectual and academic life: One is the gradual emergence of disquiets arising within the context of a passionate commitment to something which at first I think is ‘it’, is ideal. Hence my title: moving on by backing out – a (trial-and-error?) process by which we can in fact slowly improve our actions while lacking a determinate goal at which to aim. The other is the instant arousal in me of indignation at injustice, whether inflicted on my own person or on others. The second, I guess, is my motivation for the passion expressed in the first: For I have always felt the need to search for a place to be where injustice is not the norm, a place where I do not have continually to justify my own very existence to others – a dream, clearly, shared by many of us (Sennett, 2003).

Early influences

Grammar school (1949-1953 and 1954-1956): An early incident will characterize the issue here: Aged 12 yrs, I was among a small group of boys ‘allowed’ into the local grammar school in virtue of having passed the 11plus exam (IQ tests) established by the post-War Labor government. The other boys in that year’s intake had attended the fee-paying Prep-school, we hadn’t. The headmaster took us on one side: “You boys are part of a special experiment. You ought not to be here, so you had better be on your best behavior.” Clearly, I never felt ‘at home’ in that school. Luckily, I had many other outside interests to sustain me. First, I was totally absorbed in making model airplanes. I then became a partially successful racing cyclist (1hr 1min 50secs for 25 miles at 15). But I left the school at 15 to work as an engineering apprentice in an aircraft factory. But returned to it later (see below), to study mathematics and physics.

              At the aircraft factory (1953-1954): The next four paragraphs in this section of this autobiographical piece are taken from the Preface to my Cultural Politics book of 1993 (Shotter, 1993a): “Two memories of [my time working in the aircraft factory] are relevant to its contents. One is to do with filing different metals in the apprentice’s workshop. I remember now the oily slipperiness of brass, the way soft aluminum tore and clogged the file, the hard crumbliness of cast iron, the utterly intransigent nature of stainless steel, but the yielding friendliness of mild steel such that file and material seemed to have been made for each other. It was as if, with the file, I could ‘feel into’ the very crystalline structure of the metals themselves. Hammering was different, and revealed different properties in the materials. Other tools worked to reveal yet further characteristics. The other memory is to do with the fact that we thousand or so workers trooped in at 7.30am, through a single, little door at the back of the factory, jostling and pushing each other to make sure we clocked in on time, as every minute late cost us 15 minutes pay. While the ‘staff’ (management, drawing office, administrative, and other such personnel) and the Royal Airforce Officer customers, came in (‘strolled in’ we thought) through big double doors at the front, up imposing steps at 9.00am. But more than that, ‘they’ had their lunch on a mezzanine floor raised five feet above ‘us’ in the lunch room; ‘they’ had waitress service and white tablecloths, ‘we’ buttered sliced bread straight from the paper packet on the Formica top of the table; and so on, and so on: ‘They’ didn’t just look down on ‘us’, ‘they’ treated us like about-to-be-naughty children. Such incidents as these were paradigmatic of the thousand other small daily “hidden injuries of class” (Sennett and Cobb, 1972), or “degradation ceremonies” (Garfinkel, 1956) that then - in the 1950's (and for the next decade) – were an integral part of the British industrial scene, marked, as it was, by a large number of strikes, and a general level of anger, resentment and widespread bloody-mindedness expressed by all.

              Looking back upon these little degradations, I was intrigued to realize that, while ‘we’ on the workshop floor had ‘gone on’ about these and other little incidents almost continually, the staff had seemed impervious to the fact that our anger was occasioned by their behavior, their ‘perks’ (why should they care, they deserved them didn’t they?). As I came to realize, that is a part of the phenomenology of power: those who have it are least aware of it, for the world ‘offers no resistance’ to them and their desires. Only those without such power are aware of its workings ‘in’ the resistance they meet in trying to realize their desires. But I was also intrigued by the fact that, when workers had returned to the floor, seething, after a brush with management, and everyone had said “Oh, you’ve just got to complain about that,” no one ever did. In the end, it seemed too trivial, and one knew it would be useless. To complain, for instance, about the windows in the men’s toilets - put there so that the foreman could see that what was being done there was being done properly, and not wasting time - to complain just by saying “Well, I don’t like being looked at those times,” seemed both inadequate to the anger, and unlikely to be effective. But what else could one say? Our rage was impotent rage; we didn’t even know where our anger came from, so to speak. There seemed to be no adequate language within which express why we had become so angry, to explain why these little degradations mattered so much to us. And this, I suspect, made us even more angry, for we also became angry at ourselves, for trivializing ourselves at being so bothered by such trivial things.

              It was hard to realize – and to sustain ones’ excitement at the fact – that the factory was in the business of building some of the most amazing engineering triumphs of the day. I have great admiration for engineers, and I still have; some of their feats are truly heroic (as well as some of their ‘mistakes’) – no doubt about it – but I left after one year, to return to school to become a mathematician, so that I too could become one of the ‘staff’, and have some say in the ‘making’ of things. I was sixteen at the time. Then, I never thought that I would be writing a book like this, a book that in fact connects these two memories, in two different ways. One way, is to do with how i) the ‘feeling into’ the hidden inner structure of materials through the use of a tool like a file, connects with ii) sensing the (also supposedly hidden) inner structure of the social world through the use of words-as-prosthetic-devices. But that indeed, is one thing that this book is about. The other is to do with how i) our lack of words then to express how and why these ‘trivial’ things mattered so much to us, connects with ii) how we still do not quite understand how to articulate the way these small things work to influence us in our feelings as to ‘who’ we are, i.e., to influence us ‘in’ our identities. We still do not know how what one might call the self-other dimension of interaction works to ‘construct’ another dimension of interaction, seemingly independent of it, that between oneself as an individual person, and ‘one’s own world’ - such that, if one feels oneself reduced as a person, one feels oneself as living in a reduced world.

              But why do we still find it so difficult to appreciate the way in which these (horizontal, if you like) self-other interactions work to ‘construct’ for each of us, that (vertical) person-world dimension of interaction in terms of which, as individuals, we make sense of our own unique circumstances? With apologies for the ‘sexist’ (and ‘Enlightenment’) terminology within which the issue was then framed, I set the scene for this project in an earlier 1975 book as follows: “Men have created and are still creating the characteristics of their own humanity. It has been produced, not as a result of evolutionary processes - processes that produce changes of a biological kind - for men seem to have stayed biologically constant for some time. Its development must be considered to be a historical, cultural one, a matter not of natural processes but of human imagination, choice and effort. And in ‘inheriting’ this manmade nature, this ‘second nature’, men’s children do not inherit it genetically like blue eyes, but like the houses and cities, the tools and other more material artifacts they have fashioned, and besides teaching them skills at using these they teach them skills at fashioning more. Children ‘inherit’ their humanity, then, in a process of communication which takes place after birth... What has been overlooked in modern psychology, especially in its more extreme mechanistic-behavioristic manifestations as a natural science of behavior, is that man is not simply a being immersed directly in nature but is a being in a culture in nature. Thus people must not be treated like organisms that respond directly in relation to their position in the world, but as rather special organic forms which deal with nature in terms of their knowledge of the ‘position’ in a culture; that is, in terms of a knowledge of the part their actions play in relation to the part played by other people’s actions in maintaining (or progressing) the culture” (Shotter, 1975, pp.13-14).”

              My first attempt at a university degree (1956-1957): There is a whole episode to my life of great passion and anguish, of failure in one sense but success in another, that I am going to pass over pretty quickly, as its relevance to my subsequent intellectual work (although deep) is difficult to judge.

              After studying mathematics and physics at school from 17 to 19, I went in 1956 to Bristol University to study Pure Mathematics – having read Bertrand Russell (1917), I thought mathematics was the royal road to absolute truth, and also, naively, to a just world! But it was not only the year of the Suez crisis in Britain – with students marching the streets, as if in a rehearsal for Paris 1968 – but also the year in which British theater began again to flourish. Peter O’Toole had just graduated from the Old Vic Theater school in Bristol, and I saw every one of his appearances – in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Hamlet, Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, and (as Arthur Dolittle) in Shaw’s Pygmalion. I was captivated by the theater, and got myself involved doing the lighting in a student production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman The student who taught me this skill was John Barrett, who at that time was a psychology student (and later a faculty member of the Psychology department there at Bristol) – but he also gave me the psychological lowdown on Willy Loman. Wow! I had not met this kind of stuff before. This got me much closer to real life and to problems of injustice than mathematics ever could. My passion for mathematics disappeared as my passion for the theater grew. Psychology was the subject I must pursue, I thought. But as a result, at the end of the year, I failed all my maths exams and had to leave Bristol to do two years National Service in the RAF (Royal Air Force). But my success at this time was in meeting my wife-to-be Ann, to whom I was married in 1959, and who saw me through the deep anguish and unhappiness of those times. We were married for 38 years, but as two very ambitious and independent people, oriented always to ‘the-yet-further’, we finally parted to pursue our personal careers. But not before having two children of our own, and adopting two more.

              Electronics in National Service, and in the Phonetics Department at University College, London (1959-1963): As a consequence of taking ‘aptitude tests’, I was assigned in the RAF to be trained in radar. But before I could go to the Radar School, I had to do six weeks of ‘basic training’. This was a nightmare. Why it is thought that continual humiliation and degradation builds character among those continually humiliated and degraded beats me – sooner or later they get their revenge (no matter what Festinger’s (1967) Cognitive Dissonance might predict). The incompetence, vindictiveness, and total confusion that the military seemed to be in as to what its role in the world was at that time, was of course captured brilliantly well in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. My Catch 22 incident goes as follows: We all failed our first few multiple-choice exams in the radar school. The officer in change bowled into the class-room furious and said: “Tell me what you don’t know!” I was the idiot who replied: “The trouble is, sir. We don’t know what we don’t know.” “Are you trying to be clever, sonny.” I was a marked man after that.

              But all things pass, and in 1959, I began to work as an electronics technician in the Phonetics Department in University College London– a department that once had as its head, Professor Daniel Jones [1881-1967], who was famous for being originator of Received Pronunciation (RP), and (so I was told), for being the model for Professor Higgins in Shaw’s Pygmalion. At the time, besides all the purely phonetic research, there were a number of electronic projects: both speech analysis (with the hope of building a speech-recognizer-typewriter) and speech synthesis, as well as an experiment on “auto-correlation” – in which white noise was fed directly into one ear, and after a slight delay (10 msecs or so) into the other ear, to give rise to the experience of the noise as coming from a specific direction. Amazing stuff, and I learnt a great deal from it all. There is something very special about living processes that, it still seems to me, simply cannot be captured in a priori notions of the relations between cause and effect. Some other kinds of relations, still quite mysterious to us, are at work (see Liberman et al, 1967).

              During this time, I was very fortunate in being introduced to Basil Bernstein, who had just then begun his work on “speech codes” (Bernstein, 1971). Basil had a passion I appreciated (and I mourn his passing). He introduced me – with: “You must read this” – to G.H. Mead (1934), Ernst Cassirer (1953, 1955, 1957), and Luria (1961). The Luria stuff was especially important. Working with children in Moscow, brain damaged due to starvation during the WWII, he was showing the power of speech to mediate the development of voluntary movement where none had previously existed. Children told to press a rubber bulb when they saw the color yellow, could do it when the color was the color of a dominant figure in the foreground, but not when it was merely a background color. However, when told a little narrative about a red aeroplane: “The plane can fly when the sun is shining and the sky is yellow, [but] when it’s rainy the plane can’t fly and has to be stopped,” the results are quite different. Then they could then easily direct their attention to the background color. In other words, beginning with the way in which a person’s behavior can be directly influenced by another person’s speech – which works to direct their attention, to command them to act or stop acting, to sequence their acts, or to do ‘this’ but not ‘that’, and so on – we can ourselves come to use another’s speech to organize and structure our own activity into complex forms. As Luria (1961) puts it: “What he could only with adult help, he is [later] able to do unassisted. This fact becomes the basic law in the child’s development” (p.2). And it became, also, the basic theme in all my subsequent work as well.


My research program: its background and current directions

Overall, my research is marked by two major themes:


            (1) Negatively, I have been trying to express, not just the technical inadequacy of the Cartesian mechanistic paradigm in the human and behavior sciences, but its pernicious moral effects – the undermining of our intrinsic human relatedness.

            (2) But positively, since around 1980, in relation to the concept of “joint action,” I been exploring the philosophical, empirical, and methodological consequences of the (essentially Vicoian and Vygotskian) assumption that, as living embodies beings, we cannot help but be spontaneously responsive to both the others and othernesses in our surroundings. In this work, I have focused most intensely on the writings of (initially) Vygotsky and Vico, especially on Wittgenstein, but also (more recently) on Voloshinov and Bakhtin, as well as on Gadamer and Merleau-Ponty.

              Let me comment on the negative aspects of my research program first: Two major themes in Cartesianism have always bothered me: One is to do with Descartes’s (1968) pronouncement that his aim is to seek a “practical philosophy” which, if we had it, then “knowing the power and the effects of fire, water, air, the stars, the heavens and all the other bodies that surround us, as distinctly as we know the various trades of our craftsmen, we might put them in the same way to all the uses for which they are appropriate, and thereby make ourselves, as it were, masters and possessors of nature” (p.78). Just to be an unconfused participant in the world along with others, has always seemed to me to be a good enough aim in life. The aim of mastery and possession was an overweening arrogance. The other theme that bothered me was Descartes’s (1968) determination, “to speak only of what would happen in a new world, if God were 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 to let her act according to his established laws” (p.62). To start from “colorless, atomic movements” in trying to understand the complexity of people’s behavior, as advocated, say, by Hull (1943), always seemed to me an aspect of the craziness that a strict adherence to ‘rationality’ can induce. Clearly, this is to deny, if not the wholistic nature of our own experience of our shared lives with the others around us, then to deny whatever pre-existing character it must have for us to experience ourselves as (at least to an extent) living in a common world.

              More recently, it has occurred to me, that we need to add another theme: our belief that the goal of our research into our own human affairs must be, to identify a single central agency, a “system of rules,” that is responsible for the order observable in our lives. Our search for a God-like agency at the center of our lives arises, I think, from Descartes’s thinking thus: Although he thinks of himself, because of his doubts, as an imperfect being, he can still nonetheless find within himself certain things, perfections, which he cannot even conceive of doubting. And it is on the basis of these perfections that he feels able to follow the “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,” he says (Descartes, 1968, p.55).

              Thus this claim – that it is the work of an other or of an otherness within himself, more perfect than himself – is crucial in providing Descartes with the foundational point of departure for all his other claims to truth. It enables him to locate within himself a certain, a priori “ordered necessity,” a self-discovered inner certainty, against which all the apparent contingencies of life may be judged. Thus strangely, central to our acceptance of ourselves as primarily thinkers, as mechanically organized bodies animated by an immaterial rational mind, is Descartes’s account of our souls and of God’s role in their operation. As imperfectly intellectual beings, it is only through God’s agency (i.e., the workings in us of a reality utterly independent of our opinions about it) that we can find within ourselves both certain basic undeniable truths, and a capacity for reasoning, thus to grasp in certain basic respects the nature of the world around us. However, as Wittgenstein (1981) sees it, “we are under the illusion that what is sublime, what is essential, about our investigation consists in its grasping one comprehensive essence” (no.444). Thus, as I see it, the compulsion we currently feel in the human sciences, to seek single systematic theories to explain the particular action before us as one instance of a general, underlying, hidden, scheme of things, is still to seek a single God-like being located somewhere beyond our everyday lives together. This, it seems to me, is a distraction, an aim which stands in the way of our being able to help ourselves refine, elaborate, and develop of our own lives.

              To turn now, in the light of the above, to the more positive aspects of my research program: As I intimated above, after an initial excursion in the computer simulation of language acquisition (see below), I then turned to an approach fundamentally influenced by Vygotsky (and Luria), and later, more and more, by Wittgenstein’s later philosophy (see Shotter, 1970). In general, my stance toward all these problems can be described as social constructionist (Harré,1983; Gergen, 1982, 1985), although in my 1984 book (Shotter, 1984), I called my approach social ecology, and, as I mentioned above, I would now like to return to that designation. What strikes me as wrong with current social constructionist approaches, is their still Cartesian, (post) structuralist, dualistic approach to language and to our surroundings – as if we are only in an external relationship to them both, rather than having our having our very being within them. Other social constructionist approaches still take the referential-representational function of language as central, and, so speak, merely reverse its direction – i.e., instead of our representations being of reality, they take it that they are constitutive of our realities. Whereas, I have taken the central function of language to be of a relationally-responsive kind. It is in being directly responsive to the bodily expressions of others, we enter into one or another kind of living relationship with them.

              In my two 1993 books, I explored what I then called a rhetorical-responsive version of this approach, concerned with studying that dimension of everyday, spontaneous but contested interpersonal language use, that works to ‘construct’ or ‘constitute’ the style of our social relations, the grammars of our forms of life. And how these in turn, are formative of our different experiences of both ourselves as individuals, and of the supposed ‘realities’ surrounding us.

              The main influences upon my thought then, were drawn from Wittgenstein, Vico, Vygotsky, Mead, Bakhtin, Billig, and MacIntyre; then my main interest was in what could be called “traditions of argumentation,” and in how viewing social life as constituting such a living tradition - rather than a static structure - opens up a whole new range of phenomena for study. In particular, it brought into focus that aspect of cultural politics to do with those activities in which people are able to play a part in the constructing of their own way of life: being able to voice (or not, as the case may be) the character of one’s concerns, and have them taken seriously by the others around them, is an essential part of being a citizen and having a sense of belonging in one’s society.

              More recently, however, I have moved away from argumentation and debate as a source of cultural change and growth, and – under the influence of Bakhtin, Merleau-Ponty, and that aspect of Wittgenstein’s work to do with our spontaneous reactions – toward both a much more complex but more practical, nonreflective form of social change. Influenced at first by Bakhtin’s dialogic notions, but now also by Merleau-Ponty’s chiasmic Endnote notions, I have begun a whole new descriptive, participatory approach to an understanding of social life – drawing heavily on Wittgenstein’s ‘poetic’ methods of inquiry. Central here is the concept of “real presences” (Levy-Bruhl, Steiner), a concept very similar in intent to Raymond William’s (1977) “Structures of feeling” (see Shotter, 2003). Recently, this work has resulted not only in the outlining of a new set of methods for action research – the methods of a “social poetics” which focuses on the new responses that can function as “the prototypes for new language-games” (Wittgenstein) – but also on new styles of writing: participatory (“with-ness”) writing rather than representational (“about-ness”) writing (Shotter, 1998).

              Beginnings 1964-1984: Very originally, back in 1964-65, my research was on the computer simulation of language learning – with a computer model in which a ‘mother’ who already knew a set of ‘linguistic’ rules, transmitted them to a ‘child’, and my first published paper is in Nature upon this topic (Shotter, 1966). A central theme in the Labor government of the time, was the improvement of our lives through “the white heat of the technological revolution,” and I absolutely thought of myself as contributing to that. However, through difficulties arising from within this project, I came to realize that it was not the following of rules that made linguistic meaning possible for people, but being able to mean – due to people’s spontaneous living, bodily responsivity – that made it possible for people to follow rules. Rule-following is a consequence of meaning, not its cause. In this, I was influenced by a phrase in Vygotsky (1962), in which he noted that “consciousness and control appear only at a late stage in the development of a [higher mental] function, after it has been used and practiced unconsciously and spontaneously” (p.90). And I switched to the video-tape study of the interactive activities between actual mothers and children. At that time, in 1975, I outlined my research project as that of attempting to understand the question “What is it in the everyday interaction with the others around one, that makes it possible for us to develop into morally autonomous persons?” In other words, my project was that of trying to understand what enabled the shift from acting in response to events in one’s circumstances, to acting in response to events occurring within onself – to events occurring in oneself as a result (as I would say later) of events occurring within one’s own inner dialogues. And in the studies I did in the 1970's, I began to map out arguments for ways of interpreting observations made in the video-tape studies, as relevant to that question Endnote .

              Besides Vygotsky (1962), central influences at this time came from Dewey’s (1896), The concept of the reflex arc in psychology, and from Dreyfus’s (1967), Why computers must have bodies in order to be intelligent, while the work of John Macmurray (1957, 1961) and of Charles Taylor (1971) was also important inj emphasizing the moral dimension. I first outlined all these concerns in Shotter (1970), in relation to George Kelly’s (1955) psychology of personal constructs.

              The main theme in my 1975 book, Images of Man in Psychological Research, is the distinction between behavior and action, between events that are caused to happen outside of our agency to control, and events which we as agents make happen. As I saw it, this distinction is crucial, not only in our everyday lives, in which we hold each other accountable for our actions, but in science, where it is fundamental. For scientists unable to discriminate between just happening events and those happening only in accord with their manipulations would be unable to do experiments to test their theories. People’s responsibility for their actions is, thus, basic; it cannot be ‘explained’ causally. Thus as I saw it then, this meant that psychology could not be a natural science of behavior, but must be a moral science of action. This, I believe, is still a point of importance, for it means that weighing, counting, and measuring cannot simply be taken as so basic that we can root our claims about human psychology in their results as they stand; as social activities, they are all still dependent on shared human judgments occurring with shared forms of life Endnote .

              In the1975 book, I had talked vaguely of people being ‘positioned’ in social life in some way, and of their actions being understood only socially and culturally, in terms of the part they played in them maintaining, developing, and transmitting their group’s culture in their actions. This lead in 1977 to another book, with Alan Gauld as first author, to the outline of an hermeneutical approach to psychological investigations, i.e., to the claim that interpretation was central to all our understandings of each other’s activities. Central to that book were two topics that have remained central in all subsequent work: (1) One is that what is important about all human activities is that they work in terms of anticipations, they ‘point to’ or ‘relate to’ aspects in their surroundings ‘other than’ themselves. (2) And the other is that, to the extent that all human activities occur and have their meaning within a larger whole, not only must others understand their meaning in terms of their relations ‘within’ that whole (i.e., meaning is a relational notion), but that complex meanings can be ‘played out’ or ‘specified’ step-by-step over time.

              However, I soon began to realize that the distinction between action and behavior, between events happening within and outside of our agency to control, was not at all clear. For there are many events that occur only within and as a result of human involvements, but which those involved have no clear sense of having directly produced, let alone intended. Further, the notion of understanding set out in the 1977 book was, to the extent that it focused on interpretations, an inter-individual notion. It depended on events occurring within the heads of individuals. I needed to return to the beginnings occasioned in me by Vygotsky, Dreyfus, and Dewey.

              In articles written between 1978 and 1980, I introduced the term “joint action” (stolen from Blummer, 1965/1966) to account for a special ‘third’ form of social activity (i.e., activity that cannot be accounted as either individual action done for a reason, or as behavior with an outside cause), activity that cannot be attributed to any of the individuals involved in it, but which is itself productive not only of the ‘situation’ that they are in, but also provides them with resources for their continued action within it.

              While the notion of “joint action” remains central to my whole research program, my conception of social life at large has gradually grown more and more complex. And in my 1984 book, I began to talk of everyday social life as possessing a “moral ecology” – as if people acted from within a landscape of ethically defined but still contestable rights and duties. Where that landscape contained a “political economy of developmental opportunities,” with certain regions of it containing more such opportunities than others, with different people having a differential access to such opportunities. In that book, I also explored further the whole social ontology of a world in which it was possible for human actions to make a real difference to its future – a world of becoming rather than merely of being.

              Cultural politics 1984-1990: What then became of interest to me, was why it was so difficult to introduce the study of “joint action” and other “developmental” processes into psychology as a discipline: processes within the discipline itself seem to render them “rationally-invisible,” few were prepared to treat these issues as important. In developing the theme of joint action further, I began to use it not only to provide a critique of the (one-way, monological) methodology in experimental psychology, but also to provide a positive account of people’s social development – with the eventual aim of giving a comprehensive account of human personhood, i.e., what it is to have a voice in influencing the conditions of one’s life. Indeed, then, my work was focused on the nature of disciplinary writing and research, and the way in which it worked to silence important marginal ‘voices’.

              This work led to my appointment in 1987, as a full professor, to one of the three directorships of a new General Social Sciences program, with special reference to Language, Thinking, Perception and Culture, in the Rijksuniversiteit Utrecht, The Netherlands. The overall theme of the Utrecht program was Citizenship and Development, and it was thought, and I agreed, that that should indeed be the main thrust of my work there. And it has continued to a main focus of my work ever since. But it was at this point that I began to reorient away from academic psychology (and my critique of its misformulation of its problems) and toward the communication discipline.

              Influenced both by events within the interdisciplinary program in which I was involved, and on the Continent of Europe itself, my work began to take a more practice-situated turn. I became convinced that my original way of formulating the problems to do with self-determination and moral autonomy was still far too general and abstract, insufficiently political or historical, and far too centered in ahistorical, individualistic, systematic Enlightenment notions centered around “the nature of Man.” Further, theoretical work both on the nature of deconstruction and rhetoric in literary theory, upon historical traditions of argumentation in moral philosophy, and upon Bakhtin’s notion of utterance, voice, and speech genres, have lead to a whole new, rich, and active field of problems to do - not just with personhood - but with identity and belonging, with issues of citizenship, and that aspect of politics present in interpersonal relations to do with ‘whose’ way of life is the one that is currently being developed in an interaction.

              Further, these much more practical concerns have led me also to a focus on that special kind of knowledge – knowledge that is neither theoretical nor technical, but which is a third kind of knowledge – the kind of knowledge one has from within a way of life, to do with knowing how to conduct oneself prudently within it. And it is to the nature of this third kind of (cultural-participatory) knowledge that I have given most of my attention in recent years.

              Whereas, in the past, we have thought of knowledge as something that – in making its initial appearance in observations – can be written down in books and texts and collected on library shelves, this kind of knowledge is quite different. It is not a retrospective knowledge of already existing facts, and of the principles in terms of which orders and patterns among them can be described, but the unique knowledge of a prospective kind that appears only to (socially accountable) individuals from within their active involvements with the others and othernesses in their surroundings – a knowledge which, although inaudible and invisible to all others at the moment of its emergence is nonetheless, due to people’s necessity of acting in a socially accountable manner, of a kind sharable with others.

              “Real presences” in the unnoticed background, and consciousness 1991-2002: Levy-Bruhl (1926) and Cassirer (1957), in their studies of mythical thought, call those influences which, although inaudible and invisible to all others at the moment of their emergence, are nonetheless influential in the behavior of unique individuals in certain special circumstances, “presences.” Rather than providing an objective knowledge of a situation or circumstance, such presences seem to function as expressive personages, as if, in their silence and invisibility, they still had a voice and a face, a physiognomy expressive of their meaning. George Steiner (1984, 1989), more concerned to describe the power of a literary text to create – in our responsive, interactive reading of it – a felt meaning, calls such agentic influences “real presences.”

              In the past, two great realms of activity which have occupied our attention in the social sciences, in social theory, and in philosophy: the realms of action and behavior. Action can be studied and explained in terms of an individual’s (culturally conditioned) reasons for his or her actions, while in the study of behavior we seek the (natural) causes of an individual’s movements. But between these two great realms, containing a mixture of both cultural and natural influences, is another great realm, activity of a third kind, sui generis. In Vygotskian developmental psychology, it occurs in a region called the ZOPED (in the zone of proximal development), but this is not to give it its full importance as the “inexpressible” background flow of everyday practices “against which whatever [we] could express has its meaning” (Wittgenstein, 1980, p.16).

              Its complex, mixed, chiasmic character arises out of the fact that, as soon as a second living human being spontaneously responds to the activities of a first, what the second does cannot be accounted as wholly their own – for they act in a way partly ‘shaped’ by the first’s actions (while the first’s actions, in being addressed to the second person, were also responsive to their very presence). Thus what happens between people, between you and me, is neither wholly your’s nor mine, but our’s – but neither wholly our’s either, for we must be responsive to those over there too. In other words, the results of joint action are public property, so to speak. But more than that, such activity is always intrinsically creative, for people’s activities are not only uniquely responsive to each other’s, but also to particular events occurring in the rest of their surroundings. Such chiasmically structured activity is thus full of unique, “first-time” forms of interaction which, if those involved in them continue to be responsive to them, can be developed into, to use a Wittgensteinian term, new “forms of life.”

              It is our embedding in this unbroken stream of spontaneously responsive, bodily activity, it can be argued, that makes everything else we do as the self-conscious, culturally conditioned, individuals we grow up to become possible. This third realm of activity is currently being explored by a number of contemporary philosophers (e.g., Dreyfus, Searle, and Taylor) in terms of the concept of “the background.” Its very strange character is only just beginning to become apparent. Rather than upon the theories and mental processes supposedly hidden inside people’s heads, it focuses on our social practices, their beginnings, their sustaining, and upon their further refinement, elaboration, and development. It is in this sphere of social practices that my work has its application, for rather than theories of their nature, I have focused on certain special methods for their development – methods, but not a methodology, got from following Wittgenstein’s (1953) methods in his philosophical investigations.

              What is so special about these methods is that they work in terms of what Wuttgenstein (1953) calls “reminders” Endnote , i.e., philosophical utterances that, if uttered to onself at the appropriate moment on encountering a difficulty in one’s involvements, ‘move’ or ‘direct’ one to act in a particular way.

              The importance of such self-directed utterances – such “inner speech,” in Vygotsky’s (1962) terms – can be understood in relation to two of his claims: (1) That our ‘higher’ mental processes are developed from our learning how to marshal, deploy, and direct our already (biologically provided) ‘lower’ mental processes so as to ‘orchestrate’ them, so to speak, into complex sequences; and (2), that a spoken word – which might later become a symbol, i.e., have a representational function – “at first plays the role of means in forming a concept” (1962, p.56) Endnote . This is because in their expressive-responsive function, words spoken to oneself can enable one to direct one’s attention to an event, select distinctive features within it, and to inter-relate such features with others in other events.

              In other words, as I see it, there is a direct connection between Wittgenstein’s (1953) philosophical methods of investigation and inquiry and the part played in them by the power of the living, human voice, and the methods we all as parents and teachers use in helping our children “grow into the intellectual life of those around them” (Vygotsky, 1978, p.88), as outlined by Vygotsky. Thus, Wittgenstein’s (1953) methods should not be thought of as methods of research aimed at discovering already existing facts, but as concerned with exploring possible next steps in the development of our already existing forms of life Endnote .

              Important academic involvements 1991-2003: Indeed, from the time of my appointment to Utrecht onwards, with further scholarly work on Vico, as well as on Wittgenstein, Vygotsky, Bakhtin, Voloshinov, and recently on Goethe (who was influential on all these writers, except, of course, Vico), I have begun to outline the nature of a comprehensive account of such developmental practices – methods of (dialogical) inquiry aimed at clarifying the possibilities existing for further development of our forms of life – all the way from an individual’s growth toward personal autonomy, to psychotherapeutic forms of development, to the Swedish “Learning Regions” project (see below).

              It was also during my time in Utrecht that Ken Gergen invited me to start with him, the Sage Series Inquiries in Social Constructionism. I had first met Ken in 1979 at the British Psychological Society Models of Man Conference (Chapman & Jones, 1980). We immediately fell in with each other, as we were both being heavily attacked, he in America, me in England, as dangerous ‘heretics’, bent on destroying (as our attackers saw it) the scientific credentials psychology had worked so hard to achieve. Although we do not always agree, and often have different agendas, and want to apply our work in different spheres, Ken and Mary Gergen have always been staunch friends and allies in times of need. Indeed, let me add here that Rom Harré has also provided this kind of encouragement in dark times (see Shotter, 1990, for an account of his work and my relation to it).

              I first came to the Department of Communication at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) in 1991. The original enticement was an offer to help begin a Graduate Program here. That, unfortunately, was overtaken by the financial stringencies that struck the university about that time. Thus my supervision of Ph.D. research, instead of continuing at UNH, was cut short. However, while at UNH, my scholarly writing continued, and I was also blessed there by a couple of enthusiastic colleagues in social constructionism – both strong scholars in their own right: Sheila McNamee and Jack Lannamann. I was also able to do some collaborative work within the research projects of other colleagues.

              One of these arose out of one of the books I published in 1993, Conversational Realities, in which I discussed extensively a dialogical approach to social scientific research. In 1992, Professor Bjorn Gustavsen, originally an industrial relations lawyer, but at this time the director of the Worklife Research Institutes of both Norway and Sweden, published a book, Dialogue and Development (Gustavsen, 1992). In it, he outlined a way out of the adversarial strife between unions and management in European work life, through the use of more dialogical forms of enterprise development. He was also the architect of the Swedish “Learning Regions” project, based in the idea of “dialogue conferences” amongst regional stakeholders, as well as other similar Norwegian projects. He contacted me, and this has been one of my main research involvements in recent years.

              Another set of involvements has been in the medical sphere: With a colleague, Dr Arlene M. Katz in the Harvard Department of Social Medicine, we have published a number of papers together on diagnostic interviewing, mentorship programs, and psychotherapy Endnote . Indeed, following the leads provided by Wittgenstein’s (1953) philosophical methods, we have begun to develop what we call the methods of “a social poetics,” a set of methods that work by focusing on unique and fleeting, but nonetheless, striking moments to which participants involved in an interaction respond – moments that Bakhtin (1993) calls “once-occurrent events of Being” (p.2). The aim of these methods is to make visible the uniqueness of another person’s life, what matters to them. For this is the kind of understanding that is required by practitioners, who face everyday the practical task of deciding how to treat this particular person. Working with yet another colleague, Dr Ann L. Cunliffe, then from the Whittemore Business School at UNH (and now working in Califorina), we showed how these methods – for the refinement and elaboration of people practices from within the practices themselves – could be applied to management (see especially Shotter and Cunliffe, 2003).

              Consciousness 2002-2003: Finally, to return to my present scholarly work on the implications of our embedding in an unbroken background stream of spontaneously responsive bodily activity: I have finished a long, but rough first draft, a paper entitled: “Spontaneous responsiveness, chiasmic relations, and consciousness: the realm of living expression,” in which I explore the relevance of (chiasmically) intertwined activity for an understanding of consciousness (see Shotter, 2002). In the paper I suggest that our ways of talking are not just simply a matter of representing, or picturing a state of affairs, so that how others act in relation to what we say is a matter, always, of interpretation, a matter of inference or hypothesis formation. Rather, an important aspect of people’s verbal communication is their possession of the right, as 1st-person agents, to express themselves, to make certain expressive bodily movements. Such expressions are living movements which, as elaborations of our natural, spontaneously expressed responses to events occurring around us, work in a gestural fashion to communicate our own unique orientation, our own unique relations to our surroundings. Further, in not being simply changes in the position of our bodies in space, but physiognomic changes within our bodies themselves, such gestures ‘point’ for others to aspects of what we call our ‘inner lives’. As parents, we make use such expressions, and of our children’s spontaneous responses to them, in teaching them the practices instituted in our society, so that they become trained into spontaneously responding to the expressions of those around them in a con(withness)-scientia(knowing) manner, a manner shared in by, or sharable with, others. Such bodily expressions are connected with bodily feelings in such a way that all ‘feelings’ (unless one has learned to suppress them) have their characteristic expressions.

              This account draws heavily on Wittgenstein’s later work. Two themes are central to it: (1) One is, to repeat something already mentioned above, that rules are a result, not the prior cause, of our being able to mean things to each other in our living bodily expressions – enabling us to move from communication in which we develop meanings over time, to one-pass, skillful communication. (2) The other is, that consciousness – con(withness)-scientia(knowing), i.e., knowing along with others – is a social phenomenon from the start; and “the world of consciousness” is not to be found hidden away, privately, inside the heads of individuals, but is ‘out there’ between us, emerging each time afresh in our meetings. This is, I believe, is my most important piece of scholarly work to date. A shorter, more manageable versions is Shotter (in press b).

              What marks this work is, that it makes no attempt to answer (to me, the seeming metaphysical question) “What is consciousness?” But it is oriented more toward the kind of exploration of consciousness that Nagel (1982) set out in his famous paper: “What is it like to be a bat?” In setting out the question in this form, he opens up the possibility that “there is something that it is like to be that organism – something that it is like for the organism” (p.392). For, as Nagel realizes, when we confront other living beings, we confront beings which, in relation to us, clearly have ‘a life of their own’. But what I think Nagel misses in that paper, is that there is a clear difference between questions like: “What is like to be a bat?” and “What is it like to be a mathematician?,” or even, “What is it like to be a blind or a deaf person?” For, we can ask mathematicians, blind persons, and deaf persons, to tell us of their lives in a way that we cannot ask bats. And they can at least try to tell us of the nature of their world (according to their own degree of eloquence) in their own terms. The question now is, what kind of stance – ethical and otherwise is required – if we are to open ourselves to them as they tell us of themselves, and allow their otherness to enter us and to make us other than we already are.

              In raising this possibility, I have in mind some comments of Merleau-Ponty (1962) who, in discussing the role of expressive-responsive bodily activity in our communication with each other, says this: “There is, then, a taking up of others’ thought through speech, a reflection in others, an ability to think according to others which enriches our own thoughts. Here the meaning of words... their conceptual meaning, must be formed by a kind of deduction from a gestural meaning, which is immanent in speech. And as, in a foreign country, I begin to understand the meaning of words through their place in the context of action... in the same way an as yet imperfectly understood piece of philosophical writing discloses to me at least a certain ‘style’... which is the first draft of its meaning... [Thus] I begin to understand a philosophy by feeling my way into its existential manner, by reproducing the tone and accent of the philosopher... There is thus, either in the man who listens or reads, or in the one who speaks or writes, a thought in speech the existence of which is unsuspected by intellectualism” (p.179). In other words, we do not (pace Wittgenstein) – when faced with that of which we cannot speak – have to pass over it in silence. We can both gesture toward it (indicative) and round about it (mimetic), i.e., we can allude to it; and it is in the expressiveness of such allusive forms of talk, in the ‘contours’ of our expressions as we perform them, that others can gain a sense of who we are, i.e., what it is like to be us. My current work continues in this direction.

Concluding remarks

Above, then, is the major distinction between a focus on words in their speaking, and the analytic focus we all too often adopt in our ‘scientifically’ oriented research into communication on patterns or forms of already spoken words. If we are to work inside the moment of speaking – which we must, if we are to say anything of use to others in the practical living of their lives – it is the former focus we must adopt. We must orient ourselves to beginnings and beginnings and beginnings, for it is only here – not in repetitions and regularities – that we can find the uniqueness of the others around us expressed.

              Above, I have charted a course that, so far, has stretched over nearly fifty years – but clearly, it is not over yet. My hardback copy of Wittgenstein’s Investigations (now held together by duct tape), has: Nottingham 1968 inscribed inside the front cover. But even now, it is still not a matter of me thinking that I am at last beginning to understand it fully and authentically. Something else is at work. At last I am beginning to see how the remarks in it can indeed work, at crucial moments in one’s own involvements, as ‘reminders’. Like Vygotsky’s (1962) “inner speech,” that we can use to instruct ourselves in the conduct of complex actions, so we can use Wittgenstein’s words (his utterances, his ‘voice’) in the same way: First, they can halt us in our tracks (halt the spontaneous, routine flow of action), then direct our attention, not only to previously unnoticed features of our immediate surroundings, but also to links and connections between them and other mattering aspects of our lives.

              But more than that, his methods get us up close to the details that matter to us in our lives, put us, so to speak, so closely ‘in touch’ with them, that we can get a feel for how we can ‘go on’ in our practical affairs with a sure sense of where our next step is coming from and going to: “In order to see more clearly,” he remarks, in commenting on the complexity of what occurs, even in the simple activity of describing an array of colored squares, “here as in countless similar cases, we must focus on the details of what goes on; must look at them from close to” (Wittgenstein, 1953, no.51). And when we do, it is in terms of everyday details, accessible to all of us, that he is able to bring out into the light of day, distinctions of importance to us, distinctions that we do in fact use without being aware it. Without taking the trouble to pay such close attention, we can easily ignore such facts, and jump to false conclusions as to how we must be acting to accomplish such achievements. It is this aspect of Wittgenstein’s work, its ability to enable us to get ‘inside’ the ‘moment of acting’, that makes it so powerful in relation to my concerns – along with Vygotsky, Vico, Bakhtin, Merleau-Ponty, and all the others I have mentioned above.

              However, let me add here that, among all the questions George Yancy addressed to me was the following: “Given your emphasis upon the notion of ‘the background’, to what extent has the work of Martin Heidegger impacted your work, particularly given his ontology of the structure of care and the idea that we enact our being-in-the-world against a background of practices that can't ever be completely thematized? Please elaborate.” The question is highly relevant, and it stopped me in my tracks. Why not Heidegger? I’ve certainly read some Heidegger, and been intrigued by some aspects of it. But I have been repelled by others, and thus not read on. George Yancy’s question made me ask myself “Why?” I was repelled by Heidegger’s writing, I think, by the lack in it of just what I see as positive in Wittgenstein, i.e., by Heidegger’s lack of ordinariness, by his portentous tone, by his urge for grandeur. James Joyce is reported somewhere as saying: “My heart soars when I read Vico in a way that it does not when I read Freud.” Strange though it may be to say it, my heart soars when I read Wittgenstein in a way that it does not when I read Heidegger – for me, Heidegger is just hard work, while Wittgenstein opens my eyes and enriches my life.

              This is because, instead of a special, high sounding vocabulary, Wittgenstein’s (1953) appeal is to what we say in our ordinary, everyday talk to each other. And the question there, in our everyday use of words, is not so much to do with what a person’s words mean, as with what the unique person uniquely means in saying them – the sense in which their words are an expression of what matters to them in their own inner worlds, their own inner lives. Whereas, I get the feeling when reading Heidegger, that he wants somehow to go beyond the everyday into a deeper realm, to find an authority over and above that which Wittgenstein finds distributed amongst us all. It is this urge to go beyond the ordinary that puts me off. As Wittgenstein (1981) puts it: “What determines our judgment, our concepts and reactions, is not what one man is doing now, an individual action, but the whole hurly-burly of human actions, the background against which we see an action” (no.567). I get the impression that Heidegger, to repeat Wittgenstein’s (1981) remark above, is still “under the illusion that what is sublime, what is essential, about our investigation consists in grasping one comprehensive essence” (no.444) – a single source of authority to be found in the shared background to our lives somewhere to which we all ought to submit. But for Wittgenstein, not only is it the case that “nothing is hidden” (1953, no.435), but also, that “language is variously rooted; it has roots, not a single root” (1981, no.655) – that is, there is no such single essence, laying beyond what we can find already present in our ordinary, everyday, human realities to be found.

              If this is so, what Wittgenstein provides us with here is not so much with some new information, but with a new orientation, a new style or manner of approach to the circumstances that trouble us. And for this, it seems to me, we should be thankful. For such a re-orientation releases us (or can release us) from being in thrall to the claims of experts. For currently, they are of course only too ready to tell us, with utter conviction, that the royal road to success in our lives, lies in a special single sublime essence (a God-idea) that only they, with their special analytic techniques, can detect hidden behind appearances. They degrade our practical-moral reasoning to merely technical control, and our special relations with people to the general relations we have with things – the drift I began to feel myself guilty of in my 1960's work contributing toward the “white heat of the technological revolution.” In one’s enthusiasm for achievement, it is only too easy to deceive oneself that one is acting for the greater good of everyone.

              Indeed, I now feel that all our academic and scholarly training to do with human affairs, has been and still is, wrongly oriented. In being modeled on ‘scientific’ styles of inquiry, it orients us toward focusing on an already determined set of fundamental entities, and on the merely causal relations between them. This, as I indicted above with respect to our inquiries into communication, it leads us to ask questions only about the patterns discernable in completed actions. Or, to put it another way: it orients us toward the scene of inquiry at much too late a stage, and then leads us to look in the wrong direction, with the wrong attitude. That is, not only do we only arrive on the scene after we have passed our exams and adopted certain already agreed versions of what is supposed to be occurring out in the world between us – officially, everything of importance is hidden in the heads of individuals. But then, not content with that, we look back toward past accomplishments, toward already existing actualities to find a causal pattern in them, seeing them as mechanisms external to ourselves, rather than looking forward toward the new possibilities provided to us from within our relational involvements. And we do all this with the wrong attitude. For we seek a static, dead picture, a theoretical representation, of a phenomenon, rather than a living sense of it as an active, authoritative and action-guiding agency in our lives.

              Clearly, what I have been trying in my allusive, linguistic gesturing above, is to lim out the character of something-yet-to-be-achieved, something about which I still feel disquiet, a something-not-right with how we currently are with ourselves. In short, my life has been, and still is, a process of moving on by backing out.



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