Paper presented at the Second International Conference on the Dialogical Self: Meaning as Movement, Gent, Belgium, Oct 18th, 2002


John Shotter
Department of Communication
University of New Hampshire
Durham, NH 03824-3586

"The purely corporeal can be uncanny" (Wittgenstein, 1980, p.50).

There is something very wrong, it seems to me, with our current 'official' academic and intellectual forms of inquiry into our own nature and the nature of the others and othernesses in our surroundings. In still being oriented only toward claims that can be formulated in terms that necessitate our thinking of things as constituted of "separate elements of reality" that can be independently counted, measured, or weighed, we rationally-exclude the already existing relational dimensions of our world. But if life and the livingness of things is in the internal relations existing, not only spatially, between the constituent or participant parts of a living, organic whole at any one moment, but also in the internal relations existing between its earlier forms and later development, i.e., over time, then such quantitative forms of reasoning eliminate both life, and with it, true temporality, the irreversibility of time. Life is considered only in its dead forms. To radically rethink Social Constructionism and the kind of changes it can deal with, we must bring the livingness of "life" back into our considerations. This is my project here today.

I have four introductory comments to make.

The centrality of living meetings: chiasmic interweavings

As a first step, consider first just the simple activity of looking over, visually, the scene before us - with the aim in mind of readying ourselves to move about within it. As our eyes 'flick' from one fixation point to the next, looking at a distant point to the right, next at a near point to the left, we nonetheless get a sense of a seamless whole, an indivisible 'something' that is not just 'there' before us as a picture is there, but is there for us as a set of 'invitations' and 'resistances', as a set of openings and barriers to our actions - given our present 'position' within 'it'.

And further, in such involvements as these, we all - more or less - see the same whole, the same landscape, the same face, etc. So that, although I might look from the door to the left to see the window, and you might look from the window to the right to see the door, from within the overall time-space we share, everything is similarly ordered. Thus if there are some disagreements over exactly what it is before us, we can make use of what we do agree on to discuss the features we see differently.

In other words, in many temporally unfolding circumstances (but not in all), there is something special in the sequencing of our activities - not so much in how we order them, as in how the 'something' out there requires us to order them. It is as if the separate elements we encounter seem to unfold in a special way, not just haphazardly but according to a certain style. They give rise in all who encounter them, spontaneously, i.e., prior to any thought or deliberation on their part, a shared (or at least shareable) sense of the shared surrounding circumstances in which all our individual actions can be seen as playing a part, as making "a difference that makes a difference" (Bateson, 1979).

This claim, that the sequencing of our human activities is not just formless, that not just anything can follow or be connected with anything, is clearly connected with Wittgenstein's (1953, 1974) claim, that most of our activities on investigation seem to have a "grammar" to them. And as he sees it, it is their shared grammar that we must observe if our expressions and utterances are to be intelligible to those around us. It is this - not the constraints imposed on us externally by a physical reality - that makes it impossible for us just to talk as we please.

"Grammar is not accountable to any reality," he claims, "it is grammatical rules that determine meaning (constitute it) and so they are not answerable to any meaning and to that extent are arbitrary" (Wittgenstein, 1974, no.133, p.184). "Grammar tells us what kind of object anything is" (Wittgenstein, 1953, no.373).
Now to many, this may seem as outrageous a claim as the claim that there is no prior, already fixed and categorized physical reality to which to appeal in adjudicating the worth of our claims to truth. But it has at least the implication that, prior to any of the claims as to the nature of things and events in our surrounding that we might as individuals address to those around us, all such claims must be couched in a certain shared style. In other words, although there may be no prior criteria to which to appeal in judging the truth of a person's claims, there are criteria immediately available as to their intelligibility in the context of their utterance. These criteria arise out of the fact that all the elements involved are mutually determining, interwoven, or inter-related with each other in a certain way, according to a certain style or grammar.

But why should we call this kind of 'mutual determination' chiasmic? In choosing this term, I followed Merleau-Ponty (1968), who called the second to last chapter of his book The Visible and Invisible - Chapter 4 The Intertwining - The Chiasm. And then I want to add to that, the fact that both he (Merleau-Ponty, 1962, 1968) and Gregory Bateson (1979) take binocular vision as paradigmatic of the special nature of our living relations to our surroundings. To quote Bateson (1979):

"The binocular image, which appears to be undivided, is in fact a complex synthesis of information from the left front in the right brain and a corresponding synthesis of material from the right front in the left brain... From this elaborate arrangement, two sorts of advantage accrue. The seer is able to improve resolution at edges and contrasts; and better able to read when the print is small or the illumination poor. More important, information about depth is created... In principle, extra "depth" in some metaphoric sense is to be expected whenever the information for the two descriptions is differently collected or differently coded" (pp.68-70).
In other words, much much more is happening here than the mere blending or interweaving of separate constituents which remain identifiably separate even when complexly interwoven. In our looking over a visual scene, in accord with the demands of the scene, something utterly new and novel is being created.

Indeed, something quite radical is entailed, as we shall see, in the recognition of the fact that our relations to our surroundings are not just simply relations of a causal kind, or of a systematic, logical or rational kind either, but are living, dynamic relations: among other things, our body is spontaneously creating for us an inner shaped and vectored sense of possible 'places' around us, for where we might move to next. And furthermore, others watching us, as we look over the scene before us can see, gesturally expressed in our looking, toward what we are addressing our looking. As Merleau-Ponty (1964) notes: "All perception, all action which presupposes it, and in short every human use of the body is already primordial expression" (p.67).

Thus, given complexities of this kind, although it may perhaps seem surprising to say it, I don't think that we have made a proper attempt at all - in either our ways of thinking and talking, or in our institutional ways of relating ourselves practically to the others and othernesses in our surroundings - to acknowledge the fact of our livingness, and the fact that we live in surroundings that contain much that is also living. We still simply pre-suppose a non-living world of earth and rocks, of oceans and gases, to which we must simply adapt or die, a world which is just 'there' independently of our living participation within it, and to which we relate, officially, in only a dead, mechanical way.

The nearest we have got to taking life and living being seriously, is in our concern with "cognitive psychology" and a "philosophy of mind." But even here, as you now all well know, we have assimilated our "mental lives" to the activity of digital computers, of dead mechanisms.

While extremely clever and ingenious, however, this work is far from convincing. Most of us, despite the vehemence of the arguments presented to us, still feel far from spontaneously compelled, on entering our places of work in the morning, to greet our computers as we greet our colleagues - certain responsive and expressive qualities still seem to be lacking in the movements of their 'bodies'. It makes no sense at all to talk in this responsive and expressive way of computers as having "bodies" at all.

The classical world:
a static pictorial world configured in terms of a set of separate 'elements of reality'

If I had to choose just two founding statements of our current, 'official' ways of knowing, I would choose the following: The first would be Socrates's claim, in book ten of The Republic (Plato, 1987), that in the face of the ease with which we can be deceived or misled by appearances, "measuring, counting, and weighing have happily been discovered to help us out of these difficulties, and to ensure that we should not be guided by apparent differences of size, quantity and heaviness, but by calculations of number, measurement, and weight... and these calculations are performed by the element of reason in the mind" (p.432). The other would be Descartes's (1968) foundational resolve "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). For such claims as these express the essential features of the world-picture that has informed our more self-conscious thought, talk, and action for many centuries here in the West. Only occasionally in the past have objections been raised to it - although much more so recently, as we shall see.

This picture of reality as made up of separate, self-contained, localized parts or elements (i.e., atoms or particles), that are connected to other such element only through various 'dynamical' effects (movements considered as changes of configuration), occurring in both space and time, thought of as 'containers' for such effects, and which are in the first instance God's responsibility, has unconsciously informed almost all our academic and intellectual enterprises until very recently. Eradicated in this Platonic-Cartesian picture - as hinted at above - are the intrinsic temporal relations in our living activities; the fact that we are always acting in anticipation of what is going to happen next, in the future. Mead (1934) nicely captures the theme of this conference, i.e., meaning as movement, in his claim that: "The mechanism of meaning is present in the social act before the emergence of consciousness or awareness of meaning occurs. The act or adjustive response of the second organism gives to the gesture of the first organism the meaning it has" (pp 77-78) - in the dog-fight example he uses to illustrate this thesis, as one dog draws back to spring at the other, the other dog acts in anticipation of the force and direction of the spring to come.

In other words, what is clearly and crucially missing from the Platonic-Cartesian picture, is life, the activities of living, embodied beings, and the fact that for us here on earth, life does not come from a mysterious god on high, but only from other life, in an unbroken chain of creativity that occurs whenever two or more living forms meet, and actively 'rub up against' each other, so to speak. No wonder that Heidegger (1977), in his essay The age of the world picture, presents our present intellectual commitments as follows: "world picture, when understood essentially, does not mean a picture of the world but the world conceived and grasped as a picture" (p.129).

If we are to extricate ourselves from the continual re-inscription of this picture back into our practicers of intellectual inquiry, we must, I think, we move from considering ourselves and the world around us as constituted by dead, mechanically-structured processes to considering them as living, chiasmically(1)-structured ones. But to do this, we must be prepared for changes everywhere and in everything.

To begin with, we cannot any longer begin with theories, with pictures, with theoretical representations or principles. We must begin with our bodily responsiveness to events occurring around us. Thus, if I had to adopt a single foundational statement to mark the new approach to our intellectual inquiries that I would like to adopt below, it would be this remark of Wittgenstein's (1953): "Our attitude to what is alive and to what is dead, is not the same. All our reactions are different" (no.284).

In other words, instead of our coming to know the others and othernesses in our surroundings in terms of concepts, theories, representations, and all the rest of the mediatory paraphernalia introduced by philosophers, both ancient and modern, to explain our understandings - the meaning for us of the actions and events occurring around us - we are coming to realize that through or from within our embodied, spontaneously responsive and expressive lives together with them, we already know of these others and othernesses in a quite another way. Our involvements with our surroundings do not need explaining, they need first to be acknowledged (i.e., noticed) - "Knowledge is in the end based on acknowledgment" (Wittgenstein, 1969, no.378). That is, they need to be placed or contextualized, i.e., understood in terms of their intrinsic living connections both with other noticeable events and also with (and this is the main theme of my whole essay here, and of this special issue) the whole invisible background to our everyday lives together.

The 'agency' of real but invisible presences

But how shall we talk of it, how shall we - not picture it or view it, for that again will lead us back into all the difficulties of timelessness we must avoid - but, express a sense of it in some way? And what does it mean to say that such a world is populated with agencies over an above the individual agencies of the individual people around us? How can something like a text - that seems to be a dead thing in itself - exert an invisible influence upon us? What does it mean to talk of real but invisible presences influencing the style of our lives at any one moment?

Well, strangely, there is no shortage of familiar, everyday activities, which only take place over time, to which we can refer as paradigms in orienting ourselves as to what is entailed in identifying the nature of felt understandings, what it is to have a shaped and vectored sense of a circumstance without in fact having a visual or pictorial image of it.

Consider, for instance, the simply activity of another's question to us; or that of reading and understanding a piece of writing; or, to take Wittgenstein's example, listening with understanding to a piece of music.

Well, strangely, there is no shortage of familiar, everyday activities, which only take place over time, to which we can refer as paradigms in orienting ourselves as to what is entailed in identifying the nature of felt understandings, what it is to have a shaped and vectored sense of a circumstance without in fact having a visual or pictorial image of it.

Consider, for instance, the simply activity of another's question to us; or that of reading and understanding a piece of writing; or, to take Wittgenstein's example, listening with understanding to a piece of music.

1. Music: Let us first consider a piece of music, a simple melody unfolding in time: The first point to make, is about its successive nature, and the sharp distinction between the internal relations involved in an unfolding temporal succession and the external relations constituting a structure formed by juxtaposing a set of parts in space. As long as its 'movement' continues, the musical expression remains incomplete. At each particular moment a new tone is added to the previous ones, or more accurately, each new moment is constituted by the creation of a new musical quality. A picture, a spatial array contemplated at any given instant is complete, it is a static structure with all its parts are given at once, simultaneously. Our experience in listening to a piece of music is very different. In spite of the irreducible individuality of each new tone, its quality is 'tinged' or 'colored' by the whole preceding musical context into which its 'strikes', and which in turn, its retroactively changes by contributing to the emergence of a new musical quality.

The 'building' or 'construction' of a musical phrase over time is thus very different from the construction of a structure in space. Even the most complex of 'man-made' systems, machines for instance, are constructed piece by piece from objective parts; that is, from parts which retain their character unchanged irrespective of whether they are parts of the system or not - this is what is meant by saying that they are static structures constructed from externally related parts. Such structures only have their character when they are complete: we put in the last engine part, switch on, and drive away; any attempt to drive a car before all its parts have been installed is the court disaster. But in something like a piece of music, all its 'participant parts' all have a living relation with each other; that is, as we noted above, they constitute a dynamically emerging or growing structure, a structurizing structure one might say. As such, they develop from simple, already living individuals, into richly structured ones - they do not have to wait until they are complete before they can express themselves. They develop in such a way that their 'parts' (if we are still justified in using such a term?) at any one moment in time, owe not just their character but their very existence both to one another and to their relations with the 'parts' of the whole at some earlier point in time. In other words, their history - i.e., where they have come from and where they have been headed - is just as important as the instantaneous logic, in their growth.

2. Questions: To get a handle on what is at issue here, let me ask you to consider two preliminary orienting pieces of material:

I quote this to make the point, already made by Wittgenstein above, that meaning begins with our spontaneous responsive reactions. Such reactions can be thought of as beginning a sequential process of differentiation, of specification, of making something within a still undifferentiated array of possibilities clear and distinct - while still, of course, embedded within that same array. To appreciate what is at stake here, also consider reading an article on social constructionism, and coming across a sentence expressing this rhetorical question: While we hold the question 'in mind', so to speak, as 'point of orientation' as we mentally assemble the landscape within which we are going to attempt to answer it, without being able to articulate its influence, we keep 'hearing its voice' and 'answering to' its calls.

The question works as an invisible but real, agentic presence to provide both a provocation and a guide. In the jargon I have been using currently, it provides us with a shaped and vectored sense of the landscape in which we must make our 'moves' if we are to respond to the questioner as he or she already anticipates and expects(2). For there is in the very asking of the question in those terms a veritable grammar determining what will count as an acceptable answer or not.

In other words, prior to us having any clear conscious awareness of events our surroundings exerting specific, describable influences on our conduct, such influences are there (as Mead puts it) "before the emergence of consciousness or awareness of meaning occurs," and we crucially need to take note of this.


Social constructionism still insufficiently radical: What I have been arguing here today, then, is that previous accounts of social constructionism have been nowhere near radical enough.

Today I have sought to counter that suggestion.

There are shared, foundational, "forms of life" in our meetings: Although we can agree that there are no prior justifications to which to appeal for one's claims to worth, to agree that there is no prior shared background structure of feelings of anticipation and tendency - even if that background is one without a long history, but is only created at that moment of meeting when one living being acknowledges the presence of another - would be to agree that there is no shared basis in judgements in terms of which to form agreements.

But what exactly is the reality in which we live? Like St Augustine, when asked about time, we know perfectly well in our everyday practices what it is, most of the time - else we would spend even more of our time in chaos and confusion than we do - is only when we try to formulate its nature that we run into trouble.

It cannot be pictorial: But now, due to recent understandings from Wittgenstein, Bakhtin, Merleau-Ponty, etc, we know some of the causes of our self-generated confusion. In our studies of language, for instance, as long as our attention is shifted from our actual experience of "words in their speaking" to the patterns of "already spoken words," the static shapes and forms we put down on a page - whenever we shift our attention from our lived experience of a temporally forming whole to its static, pictorial representation - such self-generated confusion is inevitable. Disciplined to think logically, to think that geometry and arithmetic and other forms of calculation are the only properly disciplined modes of thought, we have given ourselves over to the authority of single, hierarchically structured forms of disengaged thought.

Disciplining ourselves to think in an engaged way: But here, I have been exploring what it might be like to discipline ourselves to think in an engaged fashion - in a way which follows the contours, so to speak, of the shaped and vectored sense one has of the particular situations in which one might find oneself embedded in one's meetings with others.

Dynamic chiasmically-organized wholes: Like any dynamic whole, the reality created within such meetings will exhibit a synthesis of unity and multiplicity, of continuity and discontinuity; but it cannot be the unity of an undifferentiated, instantaneous spatial whole, nor can it be a plurality of merely juxtaposed units. Further, although is has continuity, it lacks continuity in the mathematical sense of infinite divisibility (for many of the phenomena important to us are only realized over a certain period of time), but it certainly doesn't have the discontinuity of self-contained, rigid, atomic particles. Its continuity is of a chronotopic kind, of a time-space kind, but quite what that is remains, perhaps, open to further articulation - in other words, I cannot claim here by any means to have given a definitive account of chaismically organized realities.

Languaged realities: The positive significance of our "turn to language" in social constructionism, is not just in the way in which it has released us from the need to give prior (foundational) justifications for all our claims, but for the ways in which it has begun to orient us toward our experience of word use, and in particular, toward our detailed sensing of the temporally unfolding experience of the chiasmic interweaving of our voicing of our words in with the events occurring at the moment of their voicing. This has led some of us right away from abstract theorizing, to the discovery of the nonvisual dynamical patterns actually occurring with us as we speak and listen. Thus, rather than merely gaining a sense of that reality over there from a set of pictures that we might view in an art galley without ever going out into the actual world at large, the nonvisual dynamical patterns that we can come to embody, in following Wittgenstein's methods, can help us in actual fact to come to be more 'at home' in our own human world.


Bateson, G. (1979) Mind in Nature: a Necessary Unity. London: E.P. Dutton.
Capek, M. (1961) The Philosophical Impact of Contemporary Physics New York: Van Nostrand.
Descartes, R. (1968) Discourse on Method and Other Writings.Trans. with introduction by F.E. Sutcliffe. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Goffman, E. (1967) Interaction Ritual. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Heidegger, M. (1977) The age of the world picture. In Heidegger, M. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. W. Lovitt. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc..
Macpherson, C.B. (1962) The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mead, G.H. (1934) Mind, Self and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962) Phenomenology of Perception (trans. C. Smith). London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1964) Signs, translated by Richard M. McCleary. Evanston, Il: Northwestern University Press.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1968) The Visible and the Invisible. Evanston, Il: Northwestern University Press.
Peat, F.D. (1990) Einstein's Moon: Bell's Theorem and the Curious Quest for Quantum Reality. Chicago: Contemporary Books.
Rorty, R. (1989) Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Sacks, O. (1985) The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. London: Duckworth.
Shotter, J. (1974) What is it to be human?. N. Armistead (Ed.) Reconstructing Social Psychology. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Shotter, J. (1984) Social Accountability and Selfhood. Oxford: Blackwell.
Shotter, J. (1998) Telling of (not about) other voices: 'real presences' within a text. Concepts and Transformations, 3, pp.77-96.
Whitehead, A.N. (1975) Science and the Modern World. London: Fontana.
Wittgenstein, L. (1953) Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Blackwell.
Wittgenstein, L. (1974) Philosophical Grammar. Oxford: Blackwell.
Wittgenstein, L. (1980) Culture and Value, introduction by G. Von Wright, and translated by P. Winch. Oxford: Blackwell.
Wittgenstein, L. (1981) Zettel, (2nd. Ed.), G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H.V. Wright (Eds.). Oxford: Blackwell.


1. In using the term chiasmic, I am following the lead of Merleau-Ponty (1968) who entitles chapter 4 - in his book The Visible and the Invisible - "The Intertwining - The Chiasm." I cannot yet here pretend to say what "chiasmic or intertwined relations" in fact are. But what is clear, is that here is a sphere of living relations of a kind utterly different from any so far familiar to us (such as causal or logical relations) and taken by us as basic in our intellectual inquiries. All I can do here, is to begin their exploration.

2. As is well known, Bakhtin (1986) also makes this point thus: "...when the listener perceives and understands the meaning (the language meaning) of speech, he simultaneously takes an active, responsive attitude toward it. He either agrees or disagrees with it (completely or partially), augments it, applies it, prepares for its execution, and so on. And the listener adopts this responsive attitude for the entire duration of the process of listening and understanding, from the very beginning - sometimes literally from the speaker's first word" (p.68).