Draft of plenary address given at the "Psychology 2000 - Congress, Joensuu, Finland, Sept 1st.


John Shotter
Department of Communication
University of New Hampshire

"Man has to awake to wonder - and so perhaps do peoples. Science is a way of sending him to sleep again" (Wittgenstein, 1980, p.5).

"There is a delicate empiricism, which identifies itself with the object in the most intimate way and thereby becomes actual theory" (Goethe).

Abstract: The methods I will discuss in my paper will be drawn from Wittgenstein, Bakhtin, and Vygotsky, although all three were influenced in this respect by Goethe. Central to them, is a focus on the answering responsiveness of growing and living forms, both to each other and to the othernesses in their surroundings, along with a subsidiary focus on their own particular and unique ways of coming-into-Being. While dead assemblages (mechanisms) can be constructed piece by piece from objective parts - that is, from parts that retain their character irrespective of whether they are a part of the assemblage or not - living wholes cannot. On the contrary, they grow. In the course of exchanges with their surroundings, they transform themselves, internally, from simple individuals into richly structured ones. In this growth, their 'parts' are in a constant state of change: indeed, at any one moment, their 'parts' owe their very existence, not only to their relations to each other, but also to their relations to the 'parts' of the whole at some earlier point in time. There is thus a distinctive 'inner dynamic' to living wholes not manifested in dead, mechanical assemblages. In the past, taking its cues from classical physics, scientific psychology has not distinguished between dead and living things. Consequently, we have conducted all our studies as if investigating only dead, mechanically organized forms. We can gain an understanding of the behavior of such dead forms from a distance, in terms of objective, explanatory theories representing what we take to be the rules or principles we think of as governing their behavior. With living forms, however, a quite different kind of engaged, responsive understanding becomes available to us. We can enter into relationships with them, and from within these relationships, they can call out spontaneous responses from us in way that is quite impossible for dead forms - relational responses within which a sense of their own special 'inner dynamic' becomes available to us. It is this that makes these two kinds of understanding so very different from each other. Instead of seeking to explain a present activity in terms its past causes, we can come to an understanding of it in terms of its meaning for us, i.e., in terms of our spontaneous responses to it from within our relationships with it. This is what I think is so special about the methods of Goethe's "delicate empiricism."


Is there somewhere to go beyond Social Constructionism? Is there yet further progress to be made? I think there is. But, for all the seeming upsets to what we might call The Classical Tradition in these Postmodern times, as I shall hint at below, I think currently, we are still in the process of the continual, monological rediscovery of sameness. I think a change of a much more radical and startling kind than any in recent years is required if we are really to bring something new into existence, some new practices, some new ways of being.

For that to occur, rather than trying to move yet further forward, I think we must move backward! We must come to a much greater awareness of, or sensitivity to, the very strange nature of the relational practices already occurring in a spontaneously responsive way between us and the othernesses around us now, at this very moment. This ceaseless flow of spontaneously responsive activity is always already there in the background to everything we do and say. It is the source from which all our activities emerge and have their being, and the context to which they ultimately return to modify.

Indeed, as living, embodied beings (as 'open' systems) we cannot help but be spontaneously responsive to events occurring around us. And as a result of being responsive in this way, many strange things happen. Only very recently, with the aid of writings by such people as Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Bakhtin, Voloshinov, Vygotsky, Dewey, James, G.H. Mead, (Goethe's work is also beginning to be noticed), have we begun to pay attention to the everyday 'practicalities' of our lives together, to the character of what me might call the "responsive order" (Gendlin, 1997) existing in the background of our lives together. It is this move to a focus on our spontaneous, living, bodily responses and reactions to events in our surroundings that is central, and radical. To an extent, what I have to say today will simply be a matter of working out in detail some of the logical implications, the grammar, of such spontaneously occurring events.

For a start, not only is there a complex intertwining of our own outgoing responsive activities with those coming into us from our surroundings in such events, but within this intricate intertwining, an 'indivisibly interconnected space' with a 'depth' (of living human possibilities) to it is created around us. As soon as I interchange looks with another person - and I shall return again to this elementary example - and I see them looking in a certain way at me-looking-at-them-in-a-certain-way, a little ethical and political world is created between us. We each look toward the other expectantly in ways we carry over from our lives so far. Indeed, at the point of living contact between any two or more different forms of life, yet another form of life emerges, a collective form of life, a form of life shared between them with its own unique character, its own unique world. In other words, in our contact with an other or otherness, our mere surroundings are transformed into a world, a momentary world with a culture to it, a particular, unique world within that culture, containing a certain set of interconnected things, with certain values to them, in which I take up a certain character: I am a mathematician surrounded by mathematics, a painter surrounded by the world of art, a musician, a student of history, a psychotherapist, etc.....

The idea of 'going back' to gain an awareness of our embedding in this primordial responsive order, this ceaseless flow of spontaneously responsive activity between us, and the style of inquiry required if we are to do this, will be central to everything I want to say here today. Indeed, it is 'going back' in this way that requires us to wholly re-figure the character of our intellectual lives.

Currently, we take our intellectual task as being that of offering views, as offering representations of states of affairs, and of then providing argument or evidence as to their correctness or truth. Hence our feeling that it is OK for us as a bunch of academics and intellectuals, just to talk in a conference hall or seminar room, and to feel no need in the course of our talk to gesture toward particular details or concrete events in our surroundings, to intertwine our talk with the rest of our proceedings. As intellectuals, we feel no need to base our talk in our everyday lives. Whereas, if I can be successful in my talk today, I hope that you will come to agree with Wittgenstein (1969), that:

"Giving grounds,... justifying the evidence, comes to an end; - but the end is not in certain propositions striking us immediately as true, i.e, it is not a kind of seeing on our part; it is our acting, which lies at the bottom of the language-game" (no.204).
In other words, we are always acting out from within one or another kind of living, embodied, responsive relation with our surroundings. And what we do or say can only be appropriately understood from within that relationship. Our talk has its meaning from how, in its precise intertwining into our other activities, it points or gestures beyond itself to something in its surroundings, directly related to our activities at that moment. These precise, intricately coordinated relationships are crucial, as is our inner sense of their 'orchestration'. Any attempt to divorce our talk from the surroundings in which it has its life, leads us into misunderstandings and confusions. In Wittgenstein's (1953) terms, it leads us into talking non-sense: our words and world have no clear relation to each other. This living, orchestrated relation between our words and our other involvements with the others and othernesses in our surroundings, is of an utterly different kind to that of mere representation. As Wittgenstein (1953) puts it: "There are... countless different kinds of use of what we call 'symbols', 'words', 'sentences'..." (no.23).

But more than just our view of talk as merely representational must go. Currently, especially as intellectuals, we view ourselves as subjectivities looking out on our surroundings as something objective. This is something else we must relinquish. If what I want to propose today is accepted, then we must treat that account of ourselves as an emergent outcome of other, much more intricate kinds of involvement with the others and othernesses around us. It is the special nature of this flow, and the strange nature of ourselves within it, that we must now explore.

Some of Wittgenstein's remarks bring out the special nature of our embedding within such a flow of activity in a number of ways. I will mention two here:

It is not the proposing and debating, the testing and evaluating, of different speculative views that matters, but the character of our living reactions to events occurring in our surroundings, if we what to understand our own natures better. For a form of engaged, responsive understanding becomes available to us with living forms quite unavailable to us with dead ones.

While we can only study dead forms by observing them from a distance, seeking to understand the pattern of events in the past leading up the present form of their existence, with living forms, we can enter into a relationship with them, and, if we open ourselves to their movements, find ourselves spontaneously responding to them. In other words, instead of seeking to explain a present activity in terms the past, we can understand it in terms of its meaning for us, i.e., in terms of the spontaneous responses it 'calls for' from us, in the present moment.

Although activity of this kind is utterly everyday and commonplace, there in the background to everything we do, conceptually and academically, it is utterly strange to us. Currently, we lack the publicly shared intellectual resources to characterize its nature fully and appropriately.

In the search for a suitable vocabulary, we might turn to Bakhtin. For one way of capturing the complexity of the responsive intertwining involved here, the style of activity, is to say, as Bakhtin (1981, 1984, 1986) does, that it is activity of a dialogical kind.

Such activity as this cannot be described in merely causal terms, nor can it be understood logically or rationally, in terms of people's reasons for so acting. As an utterly distinct third kind of activity, dialogic or dialogically-structured relations are, as we shall see, very strange. They are relations of a two-way kind which can arise only between the outgoing activity of a living, embodied being, and the responsive results coming back to it from its surroundings- where the precise timing of their interlacing is crucial. They become especially strange when they occur between two or more human beings. Then, although all the individuals involved may be very different from each other, they can nonetheless form a true, indivisble unity. However, as Bakhtin (1984) oxymoronically puts it, it is "a unity of unmerged consciousnesses or voices."

It is like the complex unity produced in the intertwining of different instruments in an orchestra playing a symphony; each plays their own part in responsive relation to all the others playing their part.

But how can such a unity be formed from unmerged constituents. Shouldn't we more properly call it an amalgam? Like splitting atoms, a contradiction in terms seems to be involved. What could a living unity of unmerged entities or activities be like? And how is a living relation different from the dead, mechanical, logical relations we familiar with?

Merleau-Ponty (1964) takes the spontaneous intertwining of the two monocular views from our two eyes as a paradigm for what can happen when two separate activities intertwine in a living relation to each other. As we know, rather than a blurred and averaged and still two-dimensional view, in the intertwining we become the beneficiaries of a three dimensional, binocular view of the scene before us, not blurred view but one in fact with a greater resolution to it. We can pick out details in it more easily because in fact we see 'a space in depth'. But more than that: it is a space to which we have an active, living relation; it 'calls' on us to act in certain ways within it.

We can take this as a metaphor for what occurs in all such intertwinings: Just as two different, 2-D monocular points of view are not merged into another 'averaged' two-dimensional point of view, but into a binocular three dimensional world with depth - a world that both offers us certain opportunities for our own chosen actions while also exerting certain 'calls' upon us to which we must, spontaneously, respond - so similar such 'worlds' with a 'depth' (of human possibilities) to them are created in all our relational practices.

This, I think, is amazing!

As soon as one living being spontaneously responds to the activities of another, and thus acts in a way that depends on their acts, then their activities become intertwined and cease to be wholly their own. The influences shaping their activities are distributed out in the relations between them and their surroundings. But, as we have seen in Merleau-Ponty's example of binocular vision, they are not distributed in such a way as to form an amalgam of merely externally related (glued together) parts, but to form an intricately structured, uniquely detailed, indivisible, infinitely dimensioned, unity - a dialogically-structured unity of internally related participant parts.

This dialogically-structured form of activity is a form of activity quite different from any that we have so far studied in the Social Theory and the Human Sciences. There, the two great realm of activity which have occupied our attention so far, are those of Behavior and Action.

What is produced is a strange, third realm of dialogically-structured activity of its own unique kind.

Recently, this third realm of spontaneously responsive activity has come to the fore in the work of Voloshinov (1986, 1987) and Bakhtin (1981, 1984, 1986). Let me simply list a number of its crucial features:

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

But we can gain access to its nature. Indeed, to do it here, I have been merely talking of things with which we all have a ready familiarity, and I have been trying to talk in ways which 'invite' or which 'call for' an everyday, direct responsive understanding on your part. I have carefully avoided talk that would tend to drive you back into The Classical Tradition of debate and argumentation 'about' speculative theoretical representations of states of affairs. Rather than inviting you to 'enter into' and to share a dialogical space with me, here, now, that would have forced you to disattend to your reactions and responses, the spontaneous feelings aroused by my words, and to think through your repertoire of possible theoretical frameworks in terms of which to interpret my talk.

In this, I have been trying to follow lessons learned from Wittgenstein (1953) to do with re-figuring our intellectual practices. For he writes in such a way that responsively involves us. He leads us into playing a participatory role in a conversation in a specific circumstance. For example, in discussing what might go on as we read printed words, and whether it can be explained in terms of a special mental process, he talks to us as follows : "I said that when one reads the spoken words come 'in a particular way': but in what way? Isn't this a fiction? Let us look at individual letters and attend to the way the sound of the letter comes. Read the letter A. - Now, how did the sound come? - We have no idea what to say about it..." (no.166). It is from within our involvements in such circumstances as this one, that we come to realize that the speculative theories in terms of which The Classical Tradition conducts its inquires, are nonsense, i.e., are non-sense in that they have no clear application to our circumstances. All our everyday activities are much, much more complex and varied that we at first imagined. There is no simple, in principle way to explain them.

Rather than simply standing over against a static and dead 2-D picture, at which we can only stare blankly - as we view theoretical representations within The Tradition - when we actively look over the scene before us in our everyday lives, we find our bodies spontaneously constructing for us, a shaped and vectored sense of how we are placed in relation to a whole range of other possible places in our surroundings that we might move to next. Indeed, more than that, as we all know from our experience as car drivers, not only do we find the space around us offering us 'openings' for our movements, but we also find it issuing 'compellent calls' to us to act - 'avoid that car which is coming toward us too fast and over the center line' - 'calls' to which we spontaneously react. More than just being a space of possibilities open to our actions, it also has its own requirements.

This difference - between standing in front of a 2-D picture (i.e., treating the world as in fact a picture), which we must actively, cognitively interpret as meaning something to us, and spontaneously finding ourselves required to answer the 'calls' coming to us from our surroundings - can give us a clue to the re-figuring of our forms of inquiry.

Currently, as Wittgenstein (1981) remarks, we feel an overwhelming temptation, when unsure as to how to answer the 'compellent calls' coming to us from our surroundings, to treat our uncertainty as a 'problem' to which must find a 'solution' in terms of an explanation. Whereas, he suggests, "the difficulty... is not that of finding the solution but rather that of recognizing as the solution something that looks as if it were only a preliminary to it... This is connected, I believe, with our wrongly expecting an explanation, whereas the solution to the difficulty is a description, if we give it the right place in our considerations. If we dwell upon it, and do not try to get beyond it" (1981, no.314).

In other words, when faced with a disorienting circumstance, a circumstance in which we do not know how 'to go on', rather than turning away from it, and burying ourselves deep in thought in an attempt to mentally and imaginatively construct a way to explain it in ways already familiar to us, we should stay 'with it'. We should look it over as we look over a painting or a sculpture in an art gallery. We should respond to it from up close, from a distance, from this angle and that, until we can begin to gain a shaped and vectored sense of the space of possibilities it opens up to us in the responses it 'calls' from us. And we should do this in collaboration with the others involved with us in the practice in question.

This kind of collaborative 'surveying' of our activities and practices from within our conduct of them is a quite different kind of activity from thinking about them theoretically. It leads also, to a quite different way - a way I have in fact been using - for us to communicate between us about our practices. To allow ourselves to be influenced in this way, is to follow an utterly different set of methods. It is to follow a set of methods first developed by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe [1749-1832].

Descartes (1968) in 1651 had talked of us as making ourselves "masters and possessors of Nature" (p.78). While in 1781, Kant (1970) urged that we must function only as "an appointed judge who compels the witness to answer questions which he himself has formulated" (p.20), and to refuse to be led by nature's "lead-strings," if we are to ever follow to true path of science. Goethe, however, saw Descartes's and Kant's scientist as "the task-master of nature, [who] collects experiences, hammers and screws them together and thus, by 'insulating the experiment from man,... attempt[s] to get to know nature merely through artifices and instruments... [and never leaves] the gloom of the empirico-mechanico-dogmatic torture chamber" (Goethe, quoted in Heller, 1952, pp.17-18).

Goethe sought a more gentle approach, a less Ramboesque way of conducting our intellectual inquiries. As he put it, he sought "a delicate empiricism which makes itself utterly identical with the object, thereby becoming true theory... The ultimate goal would be to grasp that everything in the realm of fact is already theory. Let us not seek for something beyond the phenomena - they themselves are the theory" (Goethe (1988) p.307, quoted in Brady, 1998, p.98).

I do not have the time left to go fully into the details of Goethe's methods. So let me try to bring out their nature by a comparison between their responsive nature, and the sequence of steps derived from the dominance of Rampant Reason in The Classical Tradition. The sequence of steps in the classical tradition goes like this:

We thus arrive at what we call a 'solution' to the problem. Following Bakhtin (1984), we could call this process; the continual, monological rediscovery of sameness.

The sequence of steps followed in the less rampant, more delicate empiricism of Bakhtin and Wittgenstein, perhaps under Goethe's influence, goes like this:

Rather than a solution, rather than further information, what gain in this process is orientation: We gain a shaped and vectored sense of how 'to go on' in relation to the otherness concerned. Indeed, rather than bringing what was 'a problem' to us wholly to an end, the process above gives us only beginnings and beginnings without end - with solutions to this to that particular problem, but no overall final solutions, in principle. But gradually, with patience and persistence, we can come to feel more 'at home' with what was at first a radically strange other or otherness. We can come to feel 'at home' in the primeval chaos of everyday life!!!

Indeed - and this is yet another aspect of the complexity of our spontaneous responsiveness to our surroundings - in reacting to events in our surroundings, others may see us only as gesturing toward them, as drawing attention to previously unnoticed details. This, we could say, is an outward aspect of our responsiveness. And it is this, that plays a crucial role in Wittgenstein's philosophy, it is one of his central methods. But there is another, more inward aspect of our responsiveness. In responding to another's responding, we come to incorporate the structure of their activities into our own. We dance as the movements of our dancing partner 'invites' us to dance; some friends 'call' us to talk with them in ways quite different from other friends; we come to embody a way of walking down the stairs in our own homes such that the stairs are 'in us' - we 'live' their configuration in our running down them. The gentle empiricism of a participatory, dialogically-structured mode of inquiry, to repeat Goethe's words, "makes itself utterly identical with the object, thereby becoming true theory." In other words - and this is perhaps another strange realization - as participant parts in one or another living whole, we become so infused with influences from the others and othernesses around us, that they are all constitutive of who and what we are: Walt Whitman's claim: "I am large, I contain multitudes," perhaps, needs now to be taken seriously.

But I must stop and draw my talk to a close before it all gets even more strange!!!

The Ramboesque application of the classical tradition in so many spheres of our relations to the others and othernesses around us, has produced a dominant world-picture of not only dead and mechanical things, but of fragmented and separated things, a world in which nothing new ever occurs - the continual rediscovery of sameness, as already noted. Things have fallen apart.

What would the world around us look like if we were re-figure it in Bakhtin-Wittgensteinian-Goethean terms? If we able to find a way to put all the parts back together again? What would be involved in taking a number of our grand terms - like Truth, Consciousness [con=with scio=knowing], Idea, Knowledge, and so on, and re-visioning them as having their use within a new living world of unceasing, spontaneously responsive relationships? What would such a world be like, a world in which indivisible unities were formed and held together for a moment by their participant parts, parts which called to each other just for a while, and which then, at the next moment, regrouped to form a new unity, and so on?

What an amazing world!! Just, in fact, like our world, the everyday conversational world of our relations with each other, with our past and with our future, and with our hopes and dreams.

The re-figuring of all of our grand terms in dialogic-poetic terms would, I think, awake us (as William Blake put it) from "single vision and Newton's sleep." And this is the crucial point in my talk today - if we can just desist for a while from asking questions as 'appointed judges', and allow ourselves to be responsive to the others and othernesses around us, the world suddenly becomes a wondrous place. Is there still a task for university intellectuals in all of this? You bet! But rather than the noble seclusion of the ivory tower, they will have to open themselves up to world around them if they are to undertake it. People must use their intellects to "bring back words from their metaphysical to their everyday use" (no.116), to root the living of their lives in their lives, rather than in what is left behind after they have withdrawn from life. Let the re-figuring being...


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