Originally written in 1996 for H. A. Carson (Ed.) Persons and Agents in Relationship: Essay's on John Macmurray's Contribution to a Post Modern Thought. New York: Humanities Press... never published


John Shotter

"A new philosophical form cannot be established by demonstration. It can only be exhibited and illustrated in use" (Macmurray, 1957, p.13).

"A blind investigation would be fruitless. We must bring with us an ideal - a formal notion of what would satisfy our minds if we could find it" (Macmurray, 1957, p.61).

"Philosophers discuss with one another how any of them can know that the others exist, and can find no satisfactory solution. We are so used to this that we no longer find how comical it is" (Macmurray, 1961, p.21).

"The idea of an isolated agent is self-contradictory. Any agent is necessarily in relation to the Other. Apart from this essential relation he does not exist. But, further, the other in this constitutive relation must be personal. Persons, therefore, are constituted by their mutual relations to one another. 'I' exist only as one element in the complex 'You and I'. We have to discover how this ultimate fact can be adequately thought, that is to say, symbolized in reflection" (Macmurray, 1961, p.24).

At a very late stage in his editing of this book, Professor Carson wrote to me to inquire about the relation of John Macmurray's writings to my current work (Shotter, 1993a and 1993b, 1995). For quite correctly, he had been told by a friend common to us both - Robin Hodgkin of the University of Oxford Education Department - that Macmurray had had a deep influence on my early work. That influence is most apparent in my first little 1975 book, Images of Man in Psychological Research, where there are more references to Macmurray's two books - Self as Agent in 1957, and Persons in Relation in 1961 (10 citations in all) - than to the works of any other author - H.L. Dreyfus (1967) and G.H. Mead (1934) are next (with 7 citations each), and Dewey (1896) next (with 6).

When he first wrote to me, although he had read some of my later work, Professor Carson had not read this first little, Macmurray influenced, book of mine, so I sent him a copy of it. Earlier, although he had invited me to submit a chapter to this book, I had had to decline as the deadline was too soon for me to be able to meet it. On receiving and reading the copy I sent him, however, he came back to me with, as he put it, a "brazen proposal," a suggestion that he had worked out in sufficient detail for me to be able to execute it without any extra new work at all (especially as I already had the whole of the early book on a computer disc): It was to produce an abridgement of my 1975 book that emphasized what I saw as its main focus - the introduction of a new form of psychology: its conduct as a moral science of action rather than as a natural science of behavior.

This follows in the body of the chapter below. However, as I make little attempt there to update the abridgement(1), and leave in the text some (very few(2)) statements I now think inadequate or misleading. Further, I add a Coda at the end of the abridgement, indicating how I see Macmurray's work today.



In what follows below, influenced by Macmurray's (1957, 1961) explorations, I shall attempt to distinguish three forms of order, each consisting of a system of interrelated descriptive categories: the mechanical, the organic, and the personal. Second, I shall discuss in the course of the account the different standpoints we might take while studying human beings in relation to these three forms of order. My point in doing this, as I mentioned above, will be to introduce a new form of psychology, psychology as a moral science of action rather than a natural science of behavior.

In this project, the discussion of standpoints - how we 'position' ourselves in relation to what we are studying - is perhaps even more crucial than that of the forms of order, as it has to do with the criteria we use in assessing the value of the accounts we produce. We may take a standpoint as an individual, as an external observer or spectator, and use only observational and formal criteria in testing theories for their truth or accuracy. Or we might instead, although it is not a part of science yet to do so, take a standpoint not as external observers but as agents, involved as participants in the action we are studying, referring not to observational but to experiential criteria in testing our claims to truth. We might go even further and take a standpoint, not just as individual agents, but as socially responsible agents, judging our actions by criteria shared by all others in our community. Here we would be concerned not solely with truthfulness, but with rightness or wrongness in a moral sense: with whether we do justice, so to speak, to ourselves, whether our accounts adequately capture what it is for us to be human, or whether they reduce us to something less. The move to being socially responsible agents, would shift the classical starting point for any sort of theoretical account of things, first from thought to action, and then from an egocentric to a social standpoint - a shift in standpoint, from one in scholarly reflection to one in everyday practices. As Macmurray (1961) put it in the introduction to Persons in Relation:

"The first volume... under the title The Self as Agent... was concerned to exhibit the primacy of the practical in human experience, and the need to transfer the center of gravity in philosophy from thought to action... The effect of transferring the center of reference to action..., is that man recovers his body and becomes personal... it ends the solitariness of the 'thinking self', sets man firmly in the world which he knows, and so restores him to his proper existence as a community of persons in relation. It is the purpose of this book to show how the personal relation of persons is constitutive of personal existence; that there can be no man until there are at least two men in communication" (pp.11-12).

It is the consequences of these shifts, from the theoretical to the practical, and from the 'I' in isolation, to the 'You and I' in relation, that I shall explore below.

My reason for embarking upon such a project is, as I see it, that modern psychology, especially in its more extreme mechanistic-behavioristic manifestations as a natural science of behavior, has overlooked the fact that human beings are not simply beings immersed directly in nature, but are beings 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 their '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. This changes their nature completely.

Considered objectively, people are clearly just as much a part of nature as the trees and the stars. But equally clearly, they think of themselves as being in some way quite distinct from them. To an external observer many entities may seem to be just as aware of their circumstances as human beings, just as conscious in that sense, we might say. So it must be, not just simply by the mere possession, but by the quality of the consciousness they possess, that people distinguish themselves from all else that there is. And to the extent that they can modify or transform the quality of their own consciousness, they can modify or transform themselves.

This, then, presents us in psychology with a problem. Until now, science has dealt only with objective forms and felt that it risked lapses into irrationality if it considered much else. Thus it studied only that which is 'outside' us, that which occurs independently of any responsibility that we could have for its behavior. However, in psychology we do want to understand in what way we can be responsible for the behavior of things, especially ourselves. Thus our problem is this: can we construct a human science, just as rigorous and disciplined as a natural science, but which is concerned not with discovering the order and structure of things 'outside' us, but with the order and structure of things 'inside' us, in the intersubjectively shared meanings and understandings by which we live our lives? The answer I think is 'yes'. However, we must be prepared for some surprises: not only will its method and content be different from psychology as a natural science, its goal will be different too. Rather than prediction and control, it will seek understandings; so that by understanding more clearly what we are, and the situation or 'position' we occupy, we may be able to describe explicitly the possibilities available to us all for what we might do next, for what more we might make of ourselves and our world. Thus, as a moral science of action, psychology must begin, not by doing experiments to establish 'the facts', but by clarifying our ordinary everyday concepts of ourselves and others as persons - especially so, as we shall discover below, that 'facts' are determined as they are by the conceptual frameworks within which they are gathered.

Now it is important to understand what this task of elucidating the important concepts by which we regulate our everyday life entails, because it is a task quite different from that of the experimentalists. What if we were to ask, following Winch (1958), whether the mind of man can have any contact with 'reality' at all, and if it can, what difference can we expect it to make in his life? Such a question cannot be settled by experimental methods, for it is not an empirical question in any sense. It is a conceptual one. "It has to do," says Winch, "with the force of the concept of reality. An appeal to the results of an experiment would necessarily beg the important question, since the philosopher would be bound to ask by what token those results themselves are accepted as 'reality'" (1958, p.9). Thus the task is not one of proving whether reality exists or not, but of making clear what one commits oneself to saying or doing in the future by saying now that it exists. To clarify one's concept of reality, one has to show what follows in practice, if one were to act upon it - meanings of terms are elucidated by making the practical implications of using such terms clear. So, for instance, among other things, we shall be asking below what in practice does it mean to say that people are best treated as people, rather than as organisms or as machines; it is in terms of what they imply for future action that the meanings of our terms are specified. Thus, if I am to establish that my concept of reality is in fact the same as yours, we must both check out the ways that we apply our concepts in a wide range of practical situations (both in actuality and in imagination), making sure that we do indeed both apply our concepts in the same way. If we do not agree on what counts for us as something being real, then it will be clear that we disagree as to what we think 'reality' is, and to what one should refer when one uses the term.

And many issues in the social sciences, Winch argues, belong more to philosophy than to science and are, therefore, to be settled by a priori conceptual analysis rather than by further empirical research; they are matters of ordering and clarifying what we already know, rather than matters of factual ignorance. For, after all, they bear not on matters of natural necessity, but upon what the way of going on we determined for ourselves in the past means for us now. Thus, for example, "the question of what constitutes social behavior," says Winch (1958, p.18), "is a demand for an elucidation of the concept of social behavior. In dealing with questions of this sort there should be no question of 'waiting to see' what empirical research will show us; it is a matter of tracing the implications of the concepts we use." What we talk of ourselves as trying to do in carrying on our relationships with other people - the accounts we give to others (Mills, 1940; Scott and Lyman, 1968) in justifying our actions - are an important determinant in influencing what we actually do, whether we succeed in our aims or not.

Part I:
The problems and limitations of classical approaches

Currently, theorizing in the behavioral sciences proceeds in an utterly undisciplined manner. While time and again attempts have been made to frame criteria for the formulation of scientifically adequate hypotheses, no criteria exist at all for the formulation of hypotheses adequate to our own human nature. If any rule exists at all, it is that concepts drawn from everyday modes of speech are deemed quite inappropriate to any exact grasp of the human situation. It is maintained that those who attempt to use everyday language in psychological contexts introduce unnecessary confusions and that a technical vocabulary, based on the results of an experimental analysis of "the way people work" (Broadbent, 1969, p.4), is more appropriate. Thus experimental psychologists draw concepts 'ready made' from almost any handy 'external' source but our own inner sense of our own functioning in the world; and as long as they lead to the experimental test of an hypothesis, they are deemed admissible. What such ad hoc concepts lack, however, is any suggestion of how the phenomena they supposedly explain might be related in any intelligible and responsible way to the rest of our social lives at large.

As a result, psychology has been in a perpetual state of crisis: it has been unable to find theoretical entities or principles which can express the required relational unity - because, I shall argue, instead of formulating for itself a proper concept of even of organic forms (never mind of the form of the personal), psychology has always attempted to assimilate all its studies to mechanical concepts. Thus each new 'atom', each new proposal aimed at achieving unification leads, in the end, only to an aggregate of fragmented parts.

In noting psychology's lack of an "organizing principle" and in commenting upon the crisis as it then existed, John Dewey (1948/1896) admitted that "the idea of the reflex arc has ... come nearer to meeting this demand ... than any other single concept." But he still felt bound to criticize it, not "... to make a plea for the principles of explanation and classification which the reflex arc idea has replaced; but, on the contrary, to urge that they are not sufficiently displaced, and that in the idea of the sensorimotor circuit conceptions of the nature of sensation and action derived from the nominally displaced psychology are still in control" (Dewey, 1948, p.355). Dewey then proceeds to criticize "the nominally displaced psychology," and to offer his alternative in terms still valid today.

This paper of Dewey's, although difficult, is a classic, and I shall draw upon it in two ways: (1) to introduce a discussion of organic concepts to contrast with mechanical ones; and (2) to introduce the idea of a kind of knowledge which informs action - knowledge of values and meanings in contrast to our usual idea of knowledge being of objective things. And I shall suggest that objective knowledge is the kind of knowledge we have, only when we are withdrawn from action and merely contemplating or observing the world, for our knowledge in action is not like objective knowledge at all.

Now what are the nominally displaced, mechanical notions to which Dewey objects? The first aspect of it he discusses is manifested in our tendency, when attempting to explain anything, of analyzing it into its parts and classifying them as if they could all exist independently and in isolation from one another. Dewey says:

"Instead of interpreting the character of sensation, idea and action from their place and function in the sensorimotor circuit, we still incline to interpret the latter from our preconceived and preformulated ideas of rigid distinctions between sensations, thoughts and acts. The sensory stimulus is one thing, the central activity, standing for the idea, is another thing, and the motor discharge, standing for the act proper, is a third. As a result, the reflex arc is not a comprehensive, or organic unity, but a patchwork of disjoined parts, a mechanical conjunction of unallied processes" (pp.355-356).

This tendency to analyze behavior into a sequence of separate events is, of course, still with us. In discussing recent developments in Cognitive Psychology, Broadbent (1971) remarks:

"Throughout these various fields there are a number of recurrent strands of thought. One of these is the separation of the processes between S and R into successive stages: the detection of features of S, followed by the selection of some features, followed by a transformation or encoding of them, followed by a choice of action, and so on... and the stage is arrived at which a search for their physiological basis may be reasonable" (p.193).

But it is just the very separation of the process in the way that Broadbent thinks valuable that destroys, Dewey suggests, even the organic unity of behavior, never mind the personal.

As an alternative, Dewey suggests that in reality there is no sequence of separate events in organic activity at all; what happens in an organism is more like a redistribution of tensions, a transformation of its structure; and it is this transformation that determines the quality of what is experienced. If, for instance, we take the example of someone seeing something and reaching for it, then should not think of the activity as beginning with the seeing as a stimulus. We should begin with what Dewey calls a "sensorimotor coordination," with the whole movement of our body, head, eye muscles, etc., in relation to the seeing. Thus the real beginning is not with an external event, but, as Dewey says, with an "act of seeing." And it is not a matter of substituting one thing for another, a response for a stimulus, for what is seen in the act of seeing is only completed when the act of reaching is also completed - for, it is seeing-for-reaching-purposes. "The fact is", says Dewey, "that stimulus and response are not distinctions of existence, but teleological distinctions; that is, distinctions of function, or part played, with reference to reaching or maintaining an end" (Dewey 1948, p.361).

Thus, unlike objective phenomena, organic phenomena give rise to parts which although they are perceptually distinguishable are not physically separable: that is, their 'parts' are known for what they are, not in terms of their shape or any of their other formal more characteristics, but in terms of the part they play in relation to all the other parts constituting the whole. For instance, as a partial analogy, we may note that in the game of chess, as long as the pieces can be distinguished and placed in proper relation to one another at the beginning of the game, their shape is irrelevant. They are known for what they are - 'pawn', 'king', etc. - in terms of the part they play in the game, the part determined by the rules and by their positions in relation to each other at the game's beginning. Just as sounds in a language, their shape is irrelevant as they are 'reciprocally determined', not objectively but by their function in relation to others in a system. The analogy is only partial, though, for in organic wholes the parts not only owe their character to one another, they also owe their existence to one another. For in the growth of the organism, they bring each other into existence.

Now it is clearly tempting, lacking any clear 'picture' of organic structures (because they exist both 'in' space and 'through' time), to assimilate them to ones which we can picture, to assume in fact that they are still like mechanisms - which can be studied by the classical analytic method of taking parts in isolation from one another - but like machines in which the relations between their parts can be preserved if the relations are ones of sufficient complexity. This is essentially the hope in Neisser's (1967) Cognitive Psychology.

By the term "cognitive psychology," Neisser means both an approach and a theory. In his approach he is not a simple S-R theorist, nor is he a physiological psychologist. While he has no doubt that both human behavior and consciousness depend entirely on the brain in interaction with other physical systems, one will find little if any biochemistry or physiology in his book. "The task of the psychologist trying to understand human cognition", he says (Neisser, 1967), "is analogous to that of a man trying to discover how a computer has been programmed. In particular, if the program seems to store and re-use information, he would like to know by what 'routines' or 'procedure' this is done ... He wants to understand its utilization not its incarnation" (p.6).

This, then, is his approach. And the theory that Neisser proposes for the processes that mediate between 'us' and the world is that "seeing, hearing and remembering are all acts of construction, which make more or less use of stimulus information depending upon circumstances" (Neisser, 1967, p.10). His idea is that, in interpreting an input, one does not simply examine it and make a decision as to what it is: an appropriate schematic match for it is constructed, a 'theory' is formulated as to what it is, and sensory information is used merely as data in confirming or refuting the theory's appropriateness.

As a theory it has many attractive features, not least its emphasis upon active, organic-like, form-producing processes. However, as automatic, computer-like processes, human cognitive processes can still be analyzed, Neisser assumes, into sequences of separate, objective events: first, holistic, "preattentive processes" form the uninterpreted object, and then the constructive processes of "focal attention", themselves sequential, form another object - the uninterpreted object, that becomes known in terms of the "structured pattern" representing the transformations involved in creating a match for it. Thus, what is experienced by us as a meaningful whole, an act of perception in which we make an effort to see something, is broken down by Neisser into a sequence of events, each of which can occur automatically and in isolation from one another. Thus, even though there is a process of construction going on, it only goes on within us, 'we' are only ever given its product, and it is that which is responded to and remembered. For Neisser, 'we' are not ourselves there as agents in the conduct of these processes; seeing objects is not something that 'we' do, it is something that our cognitive processes do for us.

Indeed, although I cannot argue these points in detail here, the computer analogy, as I see it, remains unsatisfactory for at least the following four reasons: (1) computers are not living, embodied agents in the processes they execute; (2) they do not undergo any qualitative transformations in their structure, neither do they grow their own structure; (3) they are not immersed in the world in the sense of living in a state of exchange with their surroundings; and (4) they have no social character in the sense of being able to help in the completion of one another's projects by understanding one another's goals. In short, compared with organisms, never mind persons, they are still mechanisms, and as such, are somewhat limited.

Of these four reasons for the inadequacy of the computer analogy, in his 1967 paper, Hubert Dreyfus, it seems to me, argues convincingly for the first three - although he is concerned with intelligent action, he has nothing to say here about the socially responsible agent's task of acting intelligible and responsibly. There, he explores (what appears to us to be) the actual structure of our experience of ourselves. He discusses specifically: (a) the way in which we seem able to work through from a vague global meaning in a situation to a more specific, detailed one, both in pattern recognition and problem-solving; and (b) how our experience of tool using differs from our experience of observing objects. And here I shall apply what Dreyfus has to say to the first three issues above in turn.

(1) Embodied agents: In pattern recognition, Dreyfus begins by making the same point as Neisser, that in recognizing an object we at first give a global meaning to an otherwise indeterminate (but determinable) sensuous experience. And we then proceed to make this global meaning more determinate by further active exploration. The process is thus one of moving from a sense of the whole to its parts, our sense of the whole determining the significance of the parts. But for Dreyfus, an underdetermined, global meaning of a situation is given us directly by our immersion as embodied beings in a situation, and we can work from it to a determination of the specific elements of that whole. Similarly, one may work from indeterminate intention to its more determinate realization.

Thus what makes people different from computers, Dreyfus suggests, is that not only do people as embodied agents have a continual sense of their own practical functioning, but they also possess needs and interests in terms of which they structure their experience of their situation and their actions in it. Their embodied needs give them a sense of what is relevant and what is irrelevant. A machine, at best, can be set to attain a required 'target' state and, on the basis of objective information, compute whether it has attained that state or not. People, however, have a much more flexible criterion of whether they are fulfilling their own expectations. They need not keep stopping to check whether they are meeting certain objective requirements in their actions (although they may if necessary), for they are able to sense in the course of their activity whether, on the basis of their needs and interests, they are coping with their situation. Where 'coping' is defined here, not in terms of any specific characteristics, but in terms of how what they have done relates to their knowledge of what still needs to be done. Thus, whereas present computer programs call for a machine to recognize an object in order to decide how it should be manipulated, people may manipulate objects in order to recognize them, to recognize what they are in relation to their own needs and interests - Dewey also makes the same point in other terms.

(2) Structural extensions: tool using: If mechanisms are to be given a continual sense of their own functioning, what would be the nature of the knowledge of their own 'bodies' that they would require? We can approach this problem via a discussion of tool using.

Polyani (1958) has argued that our knowledge of something as a tool is quite different from our knowledge of it as an object: we learn, for instance, about a hammer as an instrument while using it to knock in nails, but we learn about it as an object by examining it itself - by operating on it rather than with it. Or, again, the blind man using his stick does not discover the stick as an object in his investigations, but the objects that are in the world around him. And similarly, just as we may know the hammer both as a tool and as an object, so we may know our own bodies in the same way: one finger may be used as an 'instrument' through which to explore another. We can direct it in such a way that the investigatory process in which it is involved eventuates in knowledge of the other finger as an object. And in talking too, we can use our words as instruments in 'pointing to' (gesturing toward) our meanings. To do this, we need a knowledge of things - hammers, sticks, fingers, words, etc. - not as objects, but as 'tools' - knowledge of quite another kind than objective knowledge, knowledge of a way to go about doing something.

For computers, there is only one kind of knowledge, one way to deal with 'information': it must be presented as an object for the processor. But, as Dreyfus points out, for embodied agents there is a second possibility: they can build up skills and assimilate instruments as extensions of their bodies. Thus embodied agents can dwell in the world in such a way that they need not know everything ahead of time, objectively, in order to know how to act. Since they can use things to satisfy their needs, they need knowledge of things only as means, as ways of going on, not as ends; ends will arise within them as they live out their lives.

(3) Immersion in the world: Finally we may remark that, as embodied agents immersed in the world, we cannot help but be in both continual and immediate contact with our surroundings in one way or another. Our sense of our situation may very well be vague and ill defined, but this is not to deny either its reality or its determinability. Thus the image of man that Dreyfus leads us to, then - in contrast to the discrete state, precise, sequential operation, digital computer - is of a being of at least partially indeterminate structure, to a degree influenced by and to a degree influencing its surroundings, which develops in successive stages, states of increasing refinement and detail. But Dreyfus has nothing to say in all of this about our relations to other persons or about the nature of responsible actions.

Part II:
An alternative view:
taking the Macmurray turn to the relational

A basis in our sense of our own responsibility

If psychology is to be a moral science of action, rather than a natural science of behavior, then we must try to understand the nature of the responsibility that we can have for the behavior of things, especially ourselves.

The classical, natural scientific view of things may capture a large body of our significant experiences of what we call our 'external world' - that portion of the world which we do not inhabit as an agency but which may nonetheless be made to yield to our manipulations. However, it utterly fails to capture our experience of our functioning in such a world. Because of this and the frankly speculative nature of the self-concepts to which it gives rise, I would like to suggest an alternative basis for our investigations into psychology: a basis in the sense of responsibility which we all can have for (at least some) of our own actions. On such a basis, psychology immediately becomes the study of action rather than behavior, concerned with things people sense themselves as doing, rather than with observed patterns of movement said to be caused by external events.

If we take the view of external observers, as indeed we must in a classical natural science, we must regard man as a natural object differing only in complexity from other natural objects, his parts subject to the same laws and principles as those governing the rest of the material world. His behavior is then constituted for us as a pattern of events (to the extent that we can perceive, classify and characterize it as a pattern, that is), and it is on the basis of this and this alone that we must decide what he is doing. But such external observations of men's behavior must miss some crucial distinctions which men themselves can and do make in their own experience of what they do: we all distinguish, and indeed if we are to be accounted as persons by others we must be able to distinguish between that for which we as individual personalities are responsible and that which merely happens irrespective of our agency. In other words, we ourselves do not do all that we may be observed to do, and although this may be apparent to us it is not apparent to merely external observers (although it can be apparent, as we shall see, to those who instead of merely observing us involve themselves in exchanges with us). Instead, then, of taking the standpoint of the behaviorist, who, in just viewing people's activity from the outside, ignores the distinction they can make between what they as persons do and what merely happens irrespective of their agency, we must take a more personal standpoint. We must study what people themselves do rather than, so to speak, what their nervous systems or cognitive processes do for them.

Such a distinction, besides being crucial in everyday life, is crucial in the conduct of science, absolutely crucial: for it is only because we can sense, when acting in accord with theories of what the world might be like, whether the results of our actions accord with or depart from the expectations engendered by the theories, that we can ever put such theories to empirical test - this is the only way of establishing the nature of a theory's purchase on reality. If people were unable to distinguish between what happened as a result of their intentional activity and what just happened, by itself, there would be no basis for scientific inquiries at all. Thus, no other more fundamental basis for deciding the truth of empirical matters exists; nor will one ever be found - not as some have proposed, in the organizational complexity of matter - for how could it ever be established as a true basis? While scientific psychologists may feel that, ultimately, self-conscious acts will be shown to be mechanical events, though perhaps more complex than other kinds of mechanical activity, they can only propose that as a theory needing empirical test. And any validity that such a hypothesis might have would still rest, like the validity of any other scientific hypothesis, upon our ability to recognize the consequences of our own actions. So, although we may feel that experimental methods function to establish the truth and nothing but the truth, we must realize that they do not establish the whole truth: they merely establish what we can and cannot expect to do on the basis of our theories, i.e. in terms of the way in which we 'see' or interpret the nature of the world around us. There is thus more to our experience than we can ever 'observe'.

Our sense of our own responsibility is, then, not only a central part of everyday life - it is at the heart of science itself, and is quite irreplaceable. Scientists without any sense of their own functioning would be unable to do experiments.

I shall take it then, that it is a fundamental fact of human life that, without quite knowing how it is that they can do it, people can themselves be responsible for at least some of the things they do. That is, no matter what metaphysical notions one may have about everything being caused by other things external to them, the future being determined like the past, etc., people can (in an everyday sense of the word) cause at least some of their own motions.

Macmurray and an indeterministic world

I can move my finger. I can do it, without being caused by anything else to do it, for no other reason than just to demonstrate that 'I' can do it. Now, undoubtedly, a necessary condition of my being able to move it is that I possess the appropriate muscles and nerves, bone and brain, etc., and that furthermore, when I move it, they all work in an orderly and consistent fashion. Indeed, if they did not, how could I acquire any skills at anything and come confidently to expect to be able to express my intentions without being continually surprised at the result. For me to be free to act as I want, it is necessary for the behavior of all my parts to be lawful. But the fact remains that it is not my muscles and nerves, etc., that cause me to move my finger: I do it. In the past a mysterious chasm has separated our experience of ourselves from our knowledge of our bodies, a chasm that seemingly could not be bridged. Thus many, alive to the facts of physics on the one hand and to the facts of experience on the other, have felt driven to say, as Schrodinger (1967) does, that:

"The only possible inference... is, I think, that I - I in the widest meaning of the word, that is to say, every conscious mind that has ever said or felt 'I' - am the person, if any, who controls the 'motions of atoms' according to the Laws of Nature" (p.93).

The mystical nature of this conclusion can be dispelled if one realizes, as we have already mentioned, that whenever we speak of atoms and of the laws of nature, we are speaking of what we mean by the expressions 'atoms' and 'laws of nature'. They are expressions associated with a particular way of us relating ourselves to and 'seeing' the world, and of us manipulating it by the means that it provides.

We have taken it to be a fundamental fact, then, that people can, without being caused by 'external' events, be themselves responsible for at least some of their own movements. We can say that it is 'within' their agency to control themselves so. However, for this to be possible the world must be talked about as a very different place from that pictured by Descartes as consisting of elementary particles in blind but lawful motion - the 'picture' to which behavioral scientists think all our motions must be reduced. Within this classical, deterministic, billiard ball universe, there is no way in which any processes could go on within a particular segment independently of any external influences upon it. In other words, a self-acting billiard ball would not just be surprising, it would be inconceivable in principle: activity intrinsic to an organized and self-organizing system, activity formed from within by a 'mentality', can be no different within such a perspective from an external, mechanical motion. Indeed, as in this classical conception of things, with only one future state of affairs being able to succeed a particular present state of affairs, any genuinely creative, constructive, or spontaneous, just-happening events are inconceivable in principle. They would seem to have occurred without a cause at all, and that would be incompatible with the idea of a world operating according to established laws. Agents are thus unable to make anything happen in such a world.

But what if our belief in a causally predetermined future is mistaken? What if we are unable to predict the future in principle: not because we are ignorant, not because we have not yet done enough research, but because the future has not really been determined yet? What if we live, not in an all-ready-existing world of inert matter in mechanical motion, but in a developing world in which things emerge into existence and pass out of it again, a world in which there are agencies with powers to make things happen (as Harré, 1970, suggests); a world in which irreversible and qualitative changes take place as well as reversible and quantitative ones; a world in which true novelties are possible? As Macmurray (1957) characterizes it, if we are to act as agents able to make a genuine difference to the world around us, the world must be in itself indeterminate. For:

"Action... is the determination of something not in theory, but in actual fact. To act is to make something other than it would have been if we had not determined it. In knowing an object we make no difference to it: in acting upon it we do make a difference to it. Now our actions, as events in the world we know, must be completely determined as everything else. But in action we presuppose that we determine the world by our actions. The correlative of this freedom is that the world which we determine in action must be indeterminate, capable of being given a structure that it does not already possess" (p.55).

Let us now turn to see what might happen when we act in our new indeterministic world. Firstly, we must point out that, irrespective of whether we stop to deliberate before we act or not, any sort of action in an indeterministic world involves selection or choice. For, as William James (1917) remarked, realizing one among a set of possibilities excludes the rest; to do anything in such a world is to do this and not that. And this is a point which creates difficulties for any thoroughgoing empiricists determined to couch all their accounts only in terms of what they can observe, in terms of the already realized world. In an indeterministic world, the meaning or significance of people's actions can only be assessed in the context of what they might have done but did not actually do - in such a world "actualities seem to float in a wider sea of possibilities from out of which they are chosen; and, somewhere indeterminism says, such possibilities exist, and form a part of truth" (James, 1917, p.151).

In the classical world it was man's task as a thinker to gain intellectual mastery over it, in the hope that this would lead in many cases to a technical mastery also (the power to rearrange what already exists). But in an indeterminate world, as may be expected, many of the sharp distinctions possible in theory are blunted in practice - mind and body, subject and object, self and other, even personality and personality, interpenetrate one another everywhere and continually - and it thus becomes man's task to make what is indeterminate determinate in whatever ways he can, according to his own needs and interests. In an indeterminate world man's central task becomes that of giving form to the act of living itself; it is up to him to imagine the new possibilities for being human, new ways of how to live, and to attempt to realize them in practice - and this is essentially a moral (and a political) task, not just an intellectual one.

Indeed, it is as we pass from aspiration to achievement, from possibility to actuality, that we express ourselves: time is thus the essential psychological medium. And just as we have already lost the sharp distinction between body and mind, subjectivity and objectivity, and so on, so we also lose the sharp distinction between 'inner' mental activity and 'outer' bodily activity. Treating time realistically, not simply like a fourth dimension of space, but as the passage from possibility to actuality, suggests that our thoughts and feelings are not wholly private expressions, contained just within our bodies, but that we can (and usually do) show our thoughts and feelings, moods, beliefs, intentions, desires, etc., 'in' our bodily activity - it is only at a relatively late age that we learn to dissemble and keep our thoughts to ourselves. All that we express 'out there' in the world is informed one way or another by our mentality; even 'doing nothing' may express a meaning.

However, categorizing such activity in order to make sense of it and account for it presents problems. For, as there is always more to come of processes in time, such activity is always intrinsically incomplete. It would seem that, in attempting to decide to which intersubjective categories such activities should be assigned, we should refer not only to spatial but to temporal criteria. Such temporal criteria, however, would be contingent; that is, they would be essentially incomplete, and determining them (making them 'as if' complete) one way or another is a matter of human choice. Thus if they are to be made 'logically adequate', to have the same kind of formal quality as spatial criteria, then negotiation with others as to the nature of their completed form is necessarily involved. Space prevents fuller discussion of this issue, but some discussion of it can be found in Harré and Secord (1972) and Shotter (1974). Suffice it here to say this: to structure our perceptions of a person it would seem that we must specify a set of both spatial and temporal categories and place or position the person in relation to them. In categorizing persons spatially, we can determine the nature of their objective structure and locate it, outside ourselves, in space. In categorizing them temporally, we can determine their mental structure ... but where should we locate it? This is what has always puzzled us about mental activity: because there is nowhere precisely in space to locate it, neither in the observer nor the observed, it seems to float ethereally somewhere in between, and, lacking any substantiality, seems to have no real existence. In the classical world of matter in motion it has no place. But in an indeterministic world developing through real time it has its location in time. It can be located in people's shared history, and it is that which is amenable to specification. Thus it is via the structuring of our history that we can attempt to determine our future; but if we are concerned to act always responsibly, in a way that makes sense to others, then how we do structure it is not a matter entirely up to us alone - we must negotiate it with others.

Macmurray, Vygotsky, and Mead: becoming more than we are

I want to discuss in this section what I feel is the whole point of psychology as a moral science of action: the extension of our ability to decide for ourselves how we will act by making clear to us the nature of the goals (reasons) available to us, so that we may choose what to do next. In other words, its concern is with how we can come to act deliberately rather than spontaneously, as we ourselves require rather than our circumstances determine. But how might we study such a transition from the spontaneous to the deliberate?

Undoubtedly, as living organisms existing in a state of exchange with their surroundings, presumably everything that around us causes some detectable change in our bodily state. But, because an experimenter can detect a differential response in, say, a child's behavior to an environmental circumstance, does that mean that the child him- or herself can do so? For others to observe and characterize a baby's motions, does not enable one to say that the babies themselves have any knowledge of what they are doing. Something more is involved in people acting in the knowledge of who and what they are, and what they are trying to do in relation to the others with whom they share their lives, than merely behaving in ways others can recognize - one must be able to make sense of one's own behavior it in the same way oneself.

Thus, it is one thing for infants's activities to be thought of as a momentary result of a system of interdependent, interacting parts, and quite another for it to be considered as something for which they themselves are responsible. While they might be considered by an outside observer to be organisms, acting as they must according to their bodily make up, they must also be considered as persons. For a forceful characterization of the distinction between the organic and the personal here, we may turn to Macmurray (1961):

"In general, to represent the process of human development, even at its earliest stage, as an organic process, is to represent it in terms which are equally applicable to the development of animals, and therefore to exclude reference to rationality in any of its expressions, practical or theoretical; reference to action or to knowledge, to deliberate purpose or reflective thought. If this were correct, no infant could ever survive. For its existence and its development depend from the beginning on rational activities, upon thought and action. The baby cannot yet think or act. Consequently, he must depend for his life upon the thought and action of others. The conclusion is not that the infant is still an animal which will become rational through some organic process of development. It is that he cannot, even theoretically, live an isolated existence; that he is not an independent individual. He lives a common life as one term in a personal relation" (pp.49-50).

For evidently on some occasions at least infants can act, not as their immediate bodily states demand, but on the contrary in relation to needs and interests which must be characterized in other people's terms, not just their own. To become socially responsible agents, children must learn, then, not just to control their own behavior and to control it intelligently in relation to his own needs, but to control it intelligibly and responsibly. They must learn to control it in a way that makes sense to others and relates in some way with what, overall, others are trying to do in their lives.

Like Macmurray, G.H. Mead (1934) has also discussed extensively the distinction between merely intelligent conduct on the part of animals and people's socially responsible conduct. And like Vygotsky (1978), he too sees our relations to the others around us of crucial importance. He discusses the distinction is terms of conscious and self-conscious conduct. While animals may be aware of and respond to each other's activities, it is, for Mead, being able to respond to our own actions in the same way as others respond to them (respond reflexively, that is), that makes our actions self-conscious. "The apparatus of reason would not be complete," Mead (1934) suggests, "unless ... the individual brought himself into the same experiential field as that of the other individual selves in relation to whom he acts in any given social situation. Reason cannot become impersonal unless it takes an objective, non-affective attitude toward itself; otherwise we have just consciousness, not self-consciousness. And it is necessary to rational conduct that the individual ... should become an object to himself" (p.138).

To plan what I might do in the future, I must be able, in theory at least, Mead suggest, to place myself, just as much as other things, in positions other than that I currently occupy. Thus my self must have a strange dual nature, that is, as both agent and other in action, and subject and object in thought - it is, after all, a reflexive term. And Mead continues by describing the situation in which such a condition arises: "... one may hear without listening; one may see many things that he does not realize; do many things that he is not really aware of. But it is where one does respond to that which he addresses to another and where that response of his own becomes a part of his conduct, where he not only hears himself but responds to himself, talks and replies to himself as truly as the other person replies to him, that we have behavior in which individuals become objects to themselves" (p.139). Where the aspect of my self that becomes known to me as an object in all of this, which Mead terms the 'me', becomes known to me in terms of the responses of others to my actions - with different groups of others calling out different 'mes' from me. Thus for Mead, the 'me' is the passive, objective, empirical, relatively stable aspect of ourselves existing for others. While the 'I' is the unique, active, idiosyncratic, subjective and essentially indeterminate aspect of an individual personality, the source of our sense of freedom, initiative, and puzzlement as to the extent of ourselves. The 'I' is thus clearly the 'leading' part for Mead (1934), as he says, "the 'I' both calls out the 'me' and responds to it... If [the self] did not have these two phases there could not be conscious responsibility, and there would be nothing novel in experience" (p.178). But given our dual nature, we can, so to speak, have conversations with ourselves, through our different 'mes' - where "the very process of thinking is, of course, simply an inner conversation... of gestures which in its completion implies the expression of that which one thinks to an audience" (pp.141-142).


Above then, I have discussed three forms of order: the mechanical, the organic and the personal. In discussing these three forms of order I have, following Macmurray (1957, 1961), suggested that instead of taking the classical standpoint of the egocentric, outside observer, we adopt the standpoint of the socially responsible person, immersed in the world in a community with other persons; that we take the 'I-and-you do' standpoint rather than the 'I think'. In this book, however, more than just these two standpoints have been discussed, so let me abstract from my discussion a schema which may help to place a little more order on my earlier commentaries:


                                                                                                                            I                                 I-and-you

Forms of order                     Organic

                                                                                                                            think                            do

The schema defines four possible standpoints, and thus twelve possible approaches. But only one approach, that studying people from a standpoint in the 'I-and-you do' within a personal form of order, is reflexive in the sense that standpoint and form of order are mutually inclusive - and this is Macmurray's relational, form of the personal. Unlike the trees and the stars, the birds and the bees, we do not have a species-specific way of going on; it is up to us to maintain ourselves in existence as best we can. We have to be agents in the process of our own survival; it does not happen automatically. We try to carry over what we regard as important modes of behavior into the new situations we have to face.

As are result, human history is a record of how we have changed as a result of our own efforts and the choices we have made. It is not a record of how we have evolved naturally. "We are not organisms but persons," remarks Macmurray (1961):

"The nexus of relations which unite us in a human society is not organic but personal. Human behavior cannot be understood, but only caricatured, if it is represented as an adaptation to an environment; and there is no such process as social evolution but, instead, a history which reveals a precarious development and possibilities of both progress and retrogression" (p.46).

The slow but continued improvement of ourselves is not a necessary process, guaranteed to our species; our humanity may be lost at any time.

In the past men have invented many forms of expression for themselves, forms of language, writing, mathematics, painting, drama, forms of war and peace, forms of family and community organization; in short, he has invented for himself his own forms of life. And there is no reason to suppose that the process by which we transformed ourselves from cave dwellers in the past to what we are now is at an end. Cultural progress is surely still possible, and a science called psychology can surely assist in making the future transformations of man more human ones, so that we can all in the future enhance one another's humanity. In the task ahead, the dignity, the self-respect, the confidence to believe that by acting freely we can become more fully human is essential. Beyond freedom and dignity (Skinner, 1972) is the human termite colony - if, indeed, man's nature could truly cease to be a self-determining one, as Skinner's vision would demand.


This book was written in 1975, now more than 20 years ago. At the time, I ended the first chapter by saying that the essay it contained, must, at very best, "be considered as merely an introduction to such a new form of psychology. For between establishing the vague outlines of a new approach and the construction in detail of a refined, systematic, disciplined study, lies the task of gradually working through and checking out in concrete detail all the implications of the new concepts - that is, if its value is to be rationally appraised at all. That task here is hardly begun" (Shotter, 1975, p.23). Indeed, as it has turned out, the mapping out the field of the personal - in practice rather than in theory - has not been without its surprises. Indeed, as we come to take the primacy of the practical and the relational seriously, even our ideas of what is involved in mapping need to be rethought.

A recent volume puts the issue well. In it, the editors compare the subordination of the metaphor of mapping to an Enlightenment logic, in which everything can be surveyed and pinned down, with a postmodern alternative: "There is," they say, "another way of thinking of mapping, as wayfinding. This is the process of 'visiting in turn all, or most, of all the positions one takes to constitute the field... [covering] descriptively as much of the terrain as possible, exploring it on foot rather than looking down at it from an airplane' (Mathy, 1993, p.15)" (Pile and Thrift, 1995, p.1, my emphasis). In other words, just as one can come to find one's way around in a city in two ways - by living in it(3), or by consulting an overall plan of it drawn by a cartographer using representational symbols - so we too will be concerned with two forms of understanding - one in practice and one in theory. Where, in theory, the solution to our problems is to be found in the discovery of true 'pictures', ones that enable us to plan manipulations at a distance; whereas, in practice, as Wittgenstein (1953) puts it, our problems have the form "I don't know my way about" (no.123), and their solution (or dissolution) has the form "Now I can do it!... Now I can go on!" (no.151).

However, what has begun to be clear in these postmodern times, is the strange, unstable, detailed, disorderly, multiple, shifting, concrete nature of the field of the personal in practice - so that it is more like an unpredictable seascape requiring good seamanship and 'on the spot' navigation if one is to remain afloat and 'shipshape', than a landscape allowing the calm and uneventful following of an already existing path. We have now entered the age of chaos theory and fractals, when it makes sense to talk of orderly disorder, of stable chaos, deterministic disorder, regular irregularity, infinite complexity, of local unpredictability in the context of global stability, and so on (Gleik, 1988). Macmurray's (1957, 1961) accounts of the logical forms of the material, organic, and personal are ideals that were arrived at as a result of a form of contemplative consideration of what seemingly must be the case for the personal (as we then knew it) to be possible. And, as he put it at the time: "The function of a philosophical form is to exhibit the unity of human experience as a whole, in all its general aspects, both theoretical and practical... " (Macmurray, 1957, p.13), to symbolize it adequately "in reflection" (Macmurray, 1961, p.24).

When we begin to look at such ideal, overall pictures up close, however, in the search for more practical details, we find such pictures blurr; we become disoriented; we lose our 'way about' in them. They do not 'instruct' us, practically. What we need is a way of setting out the results of our investigations in a way that those reading them gain a picture with what might be called a fractal fullness to it, a picture that, when one moves up closer to it, reveals yet more detail... and yet more and more as one moves closer and closer. This, I think, is one of the reasons for turning more toward the works of Wittgenstein (1953), Bakhtin (1984, 1986), Volosinov (1973, 1976), Vygotsky (1978, 1986), and Billig (1987), than to Macmurray - as I have done in my more recent work. For they are all concerned with the surprisingness and unfinalizability, the multiple, chaotic, and disorderly nature to be found in the practical detail of our lives, in a way that Macmurray is not. Indeed, if we turn to Wittgenstein's style of writing, instead of attempting to set out an ideal logical form, he seeks to exhibit the nature of our language entwined forms of life in "perspicuous representations" - which are aimed at producing "just that understanding which consists in 'seeing connections'" (1953, no.122). Where perspicuous presentations are provided, not in the content of a piece of writing, but in a certain way or a style of writing that works, "not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known" (1953, no.109). In other words, it is as the result of a certain writing practice that we come, in practice, to know our 'way around' inside our own knowledge of ourselves.

The importance of Macmurray's work is, that (in Wittgenstein's terms) he provides a whole initial set of important language-games that can be "set up as objects of comparison which... throw light on the facts of our language by way not only of similarities, but also dissimilarities" (1953, no.130). They can be used "to establish an order in our knowledge of the use of language: an order with a particular end in view; one out of the many possible orders, not the order" (1953, no.132). And this, I think, is where the pathbreaking importance of Macmurray's work lies: he provides an important set of wayfinding tools or practices, language-games, with which to begin any explorations of what, overall, a psychology as a moral science of action might look like. And indeed, as we go deeper, into the more microscopic details of our interactions with each other, at each turn and at each level, we keep finding new (and often surprising) consequences of us living our lives relationally - instead of simplicity, we find greater and greater complexity. And it is in our current studies of the concrete details of our relational activities, that we are now beginning to grasp how we can create the order(s) in our lives from within the disorder around us (see, for example, Jacoby and Ochs, 1995) - and as we study such accomplishments more closely, we cannot but be amazed at their exquisite detail. In writing that his work was "a preliminary and tentative reconnaissance... [written in the hope] that it may indicate a promising direction for advance" (1961, p.13), John Macmurray would, I'm sure, be astounded but also gratified at the degree to which present studies - within the relational form of the personal - were showing just how much "we need one another to be ourselves" (1961, p.211).


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1. Mostly, I have not changed all the uses of the words 'he' and 'man' in this text. In its day, the text was accurate. Not only were most of the images of people in psychology, images of the male of the species, but psychology itself, as Foucault (1970) points out, was also conducted as a "science of man."

2. I comment on these statements in endnotes.

3. At an early stage in this project, having once been lost in a thick fog in the city of Liverpool, England, my father's city, I imagined the task as being that of placing distinct, orientational markers at points crucial to oneself in one's wanderings in the fog, and of recording the relation of such placings to each other on, so to speak, a relational map. Then, in possession of such a map, even if the fog was never to lift, one could still find one's own 'ways about' by its use.