To appear in: Goranzon, B., Hammaren, M. and Ennals, R.(Eds.) Dialogue, Skill and Tacit Knowledge. Amsterdam and New York: John Benjamins.



John Shotter


“The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something – because it is always before one’s eyes.) The real foundations of his enquiry do not strike a man at all. Unless that fact has at some time struck him. - And this means; we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful” (1953, no.129) Endnote .


“Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction” (Bakhtin, 1984, p.110).


“Rules of correct reasoning were first extracted by Aristotle, yet men knew how to avoid and detect fallacies before they learned his lessons, just as men since Aristotle, and including Aristotle, ordinarily conduct their arguments without making any internal reference to his formulae... Indeed if they had to plan what to think before thinking it they would never think at all; for this planning would itself be unplanned. Efficient practice precedes the theory of it; methodologies presuppose the application of the methods, of the critical investigation of which they are the products” (Ryle, 1949, pp.30-31).

In this article, I want explore the relevance of the methods Wittgenstein used in his later philosophy, in attempting to gain an understanding of some of the crucial ‘practicalities’ of performing, i.e., of expressing, knowledge in dialogues. In doing this, I want to emphasize, like Johanessen (this volume, and 1994), not only the primacy of our practices, but also the importance within them of our living, embodied, expressive-responsive reactions to the others and othernesses Endnote in our surroundings. As Johanessen points out, following Wittgenstein (1974), such spontaneous reactions can give rise to intransitive understandings, i.e., unique, only once-occurrent understandings, that not only allow us to understand the concrete, detailed particularities of our surroundings in their own terms, but also as we shall see, makes the intrinsic creativity of dialogue possible.

              The nature of the dialogical is alien and strange to our modern, western sensibilities. Schooled, as we have been ever since the Greeks, in the value of individual contemplative thought prior to planned and effortful action, rather than in the worth of socially refined and sensitive ways of acting effortlessly (as in gaining at least a first understanding of the words in such a text as this, for instance), we fail to notice its existence. In the past, it has remained ignored in background to all our activities together. However, an awareness of the strange and amazing nature of the dialogical will help us, not only to conduct ourselves in many of our current social activities in a much more well oriented, less trial-and-error fashion, but it will also help us to understand the new learning that must also occur between us if we are to create such effortless forms of coordinated action in other spheres of our lives.

              Central to an understanding of our effortless, dialogically-structured, jointly executed everyday activities, will be the idea of a “responsive order” (Gendlin, 1997). This is the idea – articulated also by the other thinkers to whom I refer below, e.g., Bakhtin, Wittgenstein, and Merleau-Ponty – that as living, embodied beings we are all always already embedded in an intricate flow of complexly intertwined relationally-responsive activities between ourselves and the others and othernesses around us. Wittgenstein (1981) puts it thus: “Only in the stream of thought and life do words have meaning” (no. 173). Indeed, as many who must read this article as written in not in their own language are aware, reading (or listening) to a foreign language is not easy. The very nature of our everyday social lives with each other is such that, as Johanessen (this volume) puts it: “It is required of us that we not only react unreflectively towards certain features in our surroundings, we also have to react in the same way towards them. There must be a level in our sense-making activities where our reactions do not spring from any kind of reflection or reasoning. They have to be immediate responses to the world around us. And this is another aspect of the phenomenon of intransitive understanding” (MS, p.30). Without these immediate, unreflective understandings, our everyday lives with each other would be impossible. As living, embodied beings (as ‘open’ systems) we cannot help but be spontaneously responsive to events occurring around us. In being responsive in this bodily way, a complex intertwining of our own outgoing responsive activities with those coming into us from others and othernesses ‘out there’ occurs – and this is where all the strangeness of the dialogical begins.

              As soon as two or more different forms of life meet, another shared or collective form of life within which both participate, with its own unique world and character (a culture?) emerges between them. More than merely an averaged or quantitatively shared world emerges, a world with a new dimension of connectedness results, a qualitatively new world opens up at the point of contact between them. Just as the two 2-D monocular points of view from our two eyes are not merged into each other to produce an ‘averaged’ 2-D view, but somehow work together to create a binocular 3-D ‘space’ with an extra dimension of ‘depth’ to it – so other such extra-dimensioned ‘world-spaces’ are created in all our relationally responsive practices. Indeed, as Bakhtin (1984) remarks, it is only in the meeting of “unmerged consciousnesses” (p.9), each also with its own world, that such a dialogically-structured space is created – a dynamic unity in plurality.

              This, then, is what is so special about our embedding within such responsive orders. New relations that matter to us, new features requiring our evaluative judgments, new dimensions that both offer us certain opportunities for action while also exerting certain calls upon us to which we must respond, are continually created, unnoticed, in our dialogically-structured meetings. Although we usually remain unaware of always being situated within such a dialogically structured space, although the created sense of a ‘depth’ usually remains unnoticed in the background to our lives together, it is always from within such a space - in `answer’ to the `calls’ it exerts upon us - that we responsively perform our actions. The unique nature of such spaces can only be studied from within the practices in which they are created. To investigate their nature, their structure, the calls they can exert on us, what is possible for us within them and what is not, we need some utterly new methods of investigation, quite different from the ‘onlooker’ methods inherited from the natural sciences.

Science and art - an interplay across the boundaries

Central both to my Wittgensteinian account, and to Johanessen’s, is the role of concrete examples in our making clear the nature of our practices, not only in our teaching them to others, but in our intellectual inquiries into their very nature. Indeed, the examples I describe below are central to the style of my whole my account. Thus it is important for us to be aware of what is being done in such an activity. It is easy to misunderstand their role. For it is only too easy to take it granted that, as intellectuals, our prime task is that of formulating laws, rules, or principles in propositional form – with the idea that practical activities consist in ‘the putting theories into practice’. In this context, examples as taken as being exemplary, as being merely illustrations of a principle. But in teaching (and understanding) a practice, examples are crucial – it cannot be done just by stating and teaching rules or principles. Why? Because the development of a responsive order between us, must begin with events to which we all spontaneously respond in the same way. As Wittgenstein (1969) puts it, “our rules leave loop-holes open, and the practice has to speak for itself’ (no. 139). In other words, here, in the teaching of a practice, examples do not serve an illustrative role, the proof of the correctness of a theory, but a constitutive role, i.e., they work to inaugurate in us, practically and responsively, new, never before performed, ways of seeing and acting. Hence, we should see the use of striking examples – as provocative of new reactions – as one of Wittgenstein’s central methods in his attempt to teach us the practicalities of doing his kind of philosophical investigation into our practices, examples we can ‘get into’.

              Wittgenstein (1980) comments on the originary importance of such spontaneous reactions as follows: “The origin and the primitive form of the language game is a reaction: only from this can more complicated forms develop. Language - I want to say - is refinement, ‘in the beginning was the deed’ [Goethe].” Where, by the word “primitive” here, Wittgenstein (1981) wants to make it clear that he does not mean something historically primitive, back in humankind’s early times, but “that this sort of behavior is pre-linguistic: that a language-game is based on it, that it is the prototype of a way of thinking and not the result of thought” (no.541). These shared understandings that begin with our bodily reactions, can then be progressively refined as our practical involvements with the others around us continue to unfold. We should think of this as occurring, not only in our early lives as we begin to learn to be language users, but ceaselessly throughout our lives, in all our involvements with the others around us. To understand something new is to learn something new.

              We are not, however, very practiced in either noticing the important ‘practicalities’ involved in our dialogically-structured activities, or in noticing their ‘magical’ nature. As we understand the practicalities of the more informal aspects of our institutional forms of intellectual inquiry more, we will see how important all the preparations for and preliminaries to them are: the informal conversations, the orienting remarks, the looking at and discussion of examples, the comparisons with other practices, and so on – the kind of things that go on in apprenticeships! As Wittgenstein (1953) remarks about the activity of naming things: “One forgets that a great deal of stage-setting in language is presupposed if the mere act of naming is to make sense” (no.257) – and it is just the as yet unnoticed and unremarked upon nature of this stage-setting that I want to bring out into the open.

              Given the emphasis on detailed examples in the teaching of a practice, I would now like to turn to the article by Karl Duner, Lucas Ekeroth, and Mats Hansson. For, as Mats Hansson remarks about the designing of the Masters’ course in engineering at KTH, the aim was to transform the course into “a stage for the learning process” (MS, p.27), and to organize it as “a project with the aim of developing an actual product, an artefact, in co-operation with an external partner” (MS, p.29).

              Depicted here is a project within which a stage, a space of possibilities, is created upon which “interaction across traditional and cultural boundaries” (MS, p.27) can occur - the project combines the arts and humanities with the natural sciences and technology. All these features will be important to us. Let us first do some stage-setting: Karl Duner, the director at the Royal Dramatic Theater, was the `external partner’ in this project. As one consciousness among the plurality of unmerged consciousnesses involved in it, he had envisioned a dynamic sculpture/picture of seven moving, box-like forms he called Company I-VII. His main purpose in devising such a piece of `performing’ art was to create unexpected events - for, as he rightly remarks, unprepared events can often give much more powerful feelings than prepared ones. We might go further, and note Janik’s remark (this volume), that practical philosophy does not begin with a problem as an obstacle to be surmounted, but “with a surprise. The contrary of what our paradigm has led us to expect, the impossible, as it were, occurs” (MS, p.44). Thus the task faced by the plurality of consciousnesses here is not just a simple engineering problem of creating artefactual forms that correspond externally to the forms on a blueprint. It is a special one that requires talk and other forms of communication `about’ something which does not yet exist, to which one cannot refer directly, which exists only in Duner’s mind or imagination. They must create an entity that has a `presence’, a `way of being in the world’, an `inner form’ of the kind Duner imagines. To do this, they must all intertwine their activities in such a fashion - Duner, the engineering students, the professor - as to bring what was at first only implicit in Duner’s gestures, drawings, utterances, and other expressions out explicitly into a shared public space.

              As Janik remarks about problems of this kind - let us call them “bewilderments,” for they are more to do with us not yet knowing an overall way to which to turn, than with merely overcoming a barrier along a way already being followed - they have “the character of a riddle inasmuch as everything that we need to understand is before us and not hidden to view” (MS, p.44). This is exactly right. Janik then goes on to suggest that the task is akin to that of getting what is in view before us into focus, of finding a new perspective on it - something which a new paradigm case can give us. Here I disagree. The paradigm of “a perspective” here is misleading. It is too implicated in our current, modernist, centralized ways of thinking and acting. It not only gives rise to a formal ordering of events in our surroundings, to a one-eyed, single order of connectedness from a single, static point of view. It plays down the element of surprise, or spontaneity, that both Janik and Duner bring to our attention, as well as the importance of the dialogically-structured nature of such events - the fact that it is not just a one-eyed individual’s way of seeing a logical order that is at issue, but the creation of an utterly new dimension of relatedness by the coordinated, unmerged intertwining of the activities of a plurality of consciousnesses.

              Although we can, as Janik remarks, only escape bewilderments by “changing the way we live” (MS, p.45), the kind of change we need involves much more than a changed perspective or changed point of view. We need to change the very way we `look over’ what is visible before us, the way we expectantly look from each place upon which we focus, and our two eyes converge, to the next. A good paradigm for some important aspects of what is involved here, is provided by the 3-D virtual realities seemingly present `in’ the random-dot auto-stereograms popular a few years ago. (Another paradigm, of course, is that of `seeing’ meaning in the array of print spread out on this page.) If we are to ‘see’ what is `hidden’ in such displays, it is not a new way of thinking we have to learn: being told theories or principles, or about what is supposedly ‘there’ before us, will not help us at all in actually seeing it! To `see’ the 3-D shape, we will have to try to provoke ourselves to adopt new “ways of looking” until our bodies, suddenly, spontaneously, create the new way of looking required to see the wholistic vision we seek. To this end, various indirect hints - such as `try crossing your eyes’, `start with the display touching your nose and move it away slowly’, `look at a pencil point halfway between the display and your eyes, and try to notice what is occurring beyond it!’ and so on - might be of some help. For we need to induce our two eyes to both focus and converge, not on the 2-D surface of the page containing the random dots, but ‘out there’ in the space of the 3-D display `hidden’ in the dots. Once we ‘see’ the ‘object’ in the display, we ‘see’ it – not by now being able to ‘think it out’ as one might solve a problem - but in terms of a whole specific range of spontaneously occurring, bodily reactions and anticipatory responses - for instance, we see the near parts of the ‘object’ at a distance near to us and the far parts as far from us, not just as large and small as in a 2-D display. Once in possession of the appropriate “way of looking,” we can automatically `look from’ one part of the display - having allowed it to ‘call out’ a certain response from us - while ‘looking toward’ another with a certain adjustive anticipation, and so on, and so on (Shotter, 1996a). Our bodies create in us qualitatively new relational dimensions, joining retrospective experience to prospective anticipations. Indeed, it is as if each element we encounter and respond to, ‘tells us’ how to be prepared to ‘go out to meet’ the next, so that, as it were, we can turn toward it with our hand already raised to shake its hand.

              I have considered some of the deep and crucial differences between the overcoming of bewilderments and the solving of problems, because this is what is demonstrated in the example of performing knowledge presented here, in the mechatronics Masters’ course at the KTH. The Company I-VII project required the coming together of 28 engineers (represented here by Lucas Ekeroth), their teachers (represented by Mats Hansson), and Duner. What I see as standing out in its presentation are the following points (listed in order of their appearance in the presentation):


            (1) the construction of new knowledge on the basis of an individual’s former knowledge and experience (Hansson);

            (2) the necessity for knowledge to be operational, to be usable in work involving an interplay between different people (Hansson);

            (3) the surprise of the engineers at the lack of association between the order in their `high tech’ products and Duner’s ‘half-finished’, artistic use of them (Duner);

            (4) the `translation’ of Duner’s artistic requirements into measurable specifications (Ekeroth);

            (5) their division into specific functions and interfaces (Ekeroth);

            (6) the ongoing modification of existing designs in the step from specification to construction (Ekeroth);

            (7) the re-using of already existing things as a part of creativity (Hansson);

            (8) the ease with which details can be overlooked (Ekeroth) - this emphasis on details is very important, and I shall return to it;

            (9) mechatronics is an interplay requiring the involvement of many figures (Hansson);

            (10) Duner operated as a director in mise en scene just as in the theater (Duner);

            (11) the way in which the tacking back and forth between envisaged whole and what has so far been developed works to modify further development (Ekeroth);

            (12) dealing with the unclear and ambiguous by ‘getting into’ the developing situation - which can be done by, among other things, “living with one’s examples, the masters... [by] apprenticeship” (Hansson, MS p.34);

            (13) the emergence of possibilities of thinking differently arising the group’s dialogues - “an engineer shared a wild and ‘impossible’ idea” (Ekeroth, MS pp.34-35);

            (14) the use of gestures and many other means than just words - Duner’s demonstration of how slowly a figure should move by his movement of a tin along a ruler (Ekeroth);

            (15) Duner finding that his original envisioning of Company I-VII could be embellished as new technological possibilities merged (Duner);

            (16) finding that what many of the engineers at first thought easy was (with artistic criteria to satisfy) more difficult to achieve than originally thought.

I listed all these features of the Company I-VII project because we are not very good at noticing the `practicalities’ involved in our practices. These are just some of the important details involved in a group of very different people coming together to form between them, a resourceful, self-reflective, self-developing community of learners. Central to them all coming together in this way was not – as Mats Hansson emphasizes right at the start – the one-way transferral of principles from teacher to student in lectures. People work in living contact with each other, reacting and responding to each other’s actions; they function within a responsive order. In so doing, they exhibit a kind of active, practical understanding very different from the passive intellectual understanding we are used to discussing in our current philosophical theories of knowledge and understanding. As Bakhtin (1986) describes it: “All real and integral understanding is actively responsive, and constitutes nothing more than the initial preparatory stage of a response (in what ever form it may be actualized). The speaker himself is oriented precisely toward such an actively responsive understanding” (p.69). To contrast with the representational-referential kind of understanding we are used to discussing in our current philosophies, we might call this kind of more practical understanding, understanding of a relational- responsive kind. For, rather than an inner picture or representation of a state of affairs, it gives us an understanding, a sense, of how, within an ongoing practice with others, to ‘go on’ to relate ourselves responsively to what might next occur. Indeed, to repeat what has already been said above, with such an understanding, it is as if each element we encounter, ‘tells us’ how to prepare ourselves to ‘go out to meet’ the next, so that we can, as it were, turn toward it with our hand already raised to greet its coming.

              Rather than reflect further on these details here, it will be more useful to link them in my discussion of the other two examples below – for, as Wittgenstein (1953) remarks, it is in the very nature of this kind of understanding that it “consists in ‘seeing connections”‘ (no. 122). As we gradually find our ‘way about’ inside such dialogically-structured practices, as they become more familiar to us, as we come to feel more ‘at home’ within them – just as with those of our dwelling places already familiar to us, which contain different spaces for different uses at different times - so we can begin to specify their ‘ecology’, i.e., the whole set of internally related, interdependent, regions (spaces) and moments (times) making up the interconnected flow of a practice. What is crucial about our practices, is that they are held together by us all being immersed within a shared and sharable responsive order.

              To repeat, Wittgenstein’s (1969) insistence on the constitutive importance of examples in this process is important. In being obsessed with objectivity, with only ever being outside observers of repetitive forms or patterns, we have ignored unique, novel, fleeting, first-time events. Not only have we dismissed their occurrence - thinking of them as inessential variations in underlying, hidden ideal forms - but we have also ignored the `inner sense’ we have of their dynamic structure, the shaped and vectored sense of the openings they offer us for our practical movements within them. Intellectually, we have persisted in acting as if we are mere spectators of a world `over there’, open only indirectly to our one-way manipulative activities, rather than participants in a world around us `here’, to which we must spontaneously and responsively relate if we are to be `answerable’ to its `calls’ upon us. Fleeting though its calls may be – “once-occurrent events of Being,” Bakhtin (1993) calls them – as both he and Wittgenstein (1953) show, they each have their own unique, and very complex, inner structure.

Precision and improvisation – characterizing half-finished, still-developing knowledge

The presentation of examples – not as passive forms but as active, ongoing, happening events – draws out certain spontaneous responses from us, which, although vague and seemingly indefinite in themselves (imageless), form in fact a highly specific sensible basis, i.e., ‘an inner standard’, against which our more explicit expressions and formulations (images) can be judged as to their adequacy or not. What is important about them is the intricacy of the responsive interplay between ourselves and our surroundings they provoke in us: the moment of their presentation consists in a complex mixture of influences – from us and from whatever the example is. The mixture is not just a matter of so much flour and so much butter and milk, a mixing of quantities, but a complex and intricate intertwining of noticing, acting, talking, remembering, focusing here, focusing there, moving around, relating to others, closing off to outside influences, and so on, with all the component activities occurring in appropriate spatial and temporal relations, and coming also from the different positions occupied by all the people involved. A space with a multiplicity of relational dimensions comes into existence. We can think of the dialogically structured intertwining that occurs as an ‘orchestration’, a complex, polyphonic unfolding of many interwoven, co-responsive functions. Thus any event in which an example is used not only has its own quite unique character, but has a kind of `fullness’ to it, in that a number of different orders may originate from it. About the ‘fullness’ possible in the utterance of a single word, Wittgenstein (1980) notes that we can say of the expression “Fare well!,” that “A whole world of pain is contained in these words.” “How can it be contained in them?” he asks, “It is bound up with them. The words are like an acorn from which an oak tree can grow,” he replies (p.52). The different examples we use in our discussions are just like the seeds of different varieties of plant - while the actual plant to emerge will be influenced by the interactive conditions during its growth, oak trees can never grow from apple seeds. To grow the right kind of plant we need the right kind of seed. The jointly shared moments which `set the scene’ (provide a shared sensible basis) for the rest of our shared talk, seem crucial. Elsewhere, I have described the kind of specificity here, in such jointly shared moments, as “already specified further specifiability” (Shotter, 1984, p.187).

              The specificity, and fullness, of the shared sense that can arise in such jointly shared moments is relevant to the question posed at the start of the paper by Niclas Fock and Christer Hoberg: “How do we find a way to develop the knowledge of system developers?” (MS, p.50). How can an expertise, a skill, be developed in a never stable, never finalized sphere of activity? The question is very similar to the question of how can we develop a skill with language in our everyday lives – for our use of words is also a matter of skillful improvisation. Are there any rules or methods that might be of any help?

              The project Fock and Hoberg outline is aimed at promoting the growth of professional expertise among a group of software engineers in the Combitech Software company (a consultancy company with more than 100 engineers creating software for real-time systems). Central to the project is “the dialogue seminar” (designed in conjunction with Bo Goranzon and Maria Hammaren) – but it is worth drawing out the parallels here to the use of “Dialogue Conferences” in the Swedish “Learning Regions” project (Gustavsen, 1992; Shotter and Gustavsen, 1999). For, just as a central concern in the Learning Regions project is with all involved coming to share a scenic-sense of the region they all occupy as a dynamic arena full of developmental resources (cf. the idea of a `stage’ in the previous Company I-VII example), so here too is the same concern with all involved developing “a common view” (MS, 52). What is it to have such a view, and how is it that dialogues are crucial to its development?

              To give answers to these questions, we must study the strange nature of joint, dialogically structured activities more closely. They are quite unlike the actions of an individual, which can be explained by giving the individual’s reasons for acting, or the behaviors of an individual, which can be explained by giving their causes. As I have shown elsewhere (Shotter, 1984, 1993), such joint activities constitute a distinct, third realm, sui generis, of activity. Its characteristics are perhaps best listed:

The third realm:


            To the extent that everything done by any of the individuals involved in it is done in spontaneous response to the others or othernesses around them, we cannot (as we have seen) hold any of them individually responsible for its outcome: thus it lacks a reason.

            Yet it is not brought about by any causes external to them either: it is produced only by `their’ activity, and `they’ collectively are responsible for it.

            It has its origins in the fact that, as living beings, we cannot not be spontaneously responsive to each other and to other `othernesses’ in our surroundings.

            As soon as a second living human being responds to the activities of a first, then what the second does cannot be accounted as wholly their own activity - for the second acts in a way that is partly `shaped’ by the first (and the first’s acts were responsive also)... this is where all the strangeness of dialogical activity or “joint action” (Shotter, 1984, 1993a and b) begins.

A complex, intertwined mixture, an invisible whole or unseparated multiplicity:


            What the participants produce between them is a very complex mixture of not wholly reconcilable influences - as Bakhtin (1981) remarks, at work within it are both `centripetal’ tendencies (inward toward order and unity), as well as `centrifugal’ ones (outward toward diversity and difference).

            Influences from vision, touch, hearing, taste, and smell, as well as our body senses, our own and our responses to those of others, are all mixed in together Endnote .

            Joint action is in fact a complex mixture of many different kinds of influences.

            This makes it very difficult for us to characterize its nature: it has neither a fully orderly nor a fully disorderly structure, a neither completely stable nor an easily changed organization, a neither fully subjective nor fully objective character.

            Indeed, we could say that it is its very lack of specificity, its lack of any pre-determined human order, and thus its openness to being specified or determined yet further by those involved in it, in practice, that is its central defining feature.

            Indeed, relying on the directionality inherent in the temporal unfolding of living activities, we are able at certain crucial moments in our exchanges with others, to use such expressions as ‘Look at that’, ‘Listen to this’, ‘Do like this’, ‘This is what I meant’, and so on Endnote .

            However, it is not wholly unspecified - the ‘dialogical reality or space’ people spontaneously construct in their joint actions is experienced (sensed) as a `third agency’ with its own specific demands and requirements: “Each dialogue takes place as if against the background of an invisible third party [an `it’] who stands above all the participants in the dialogue (partners)” (Bakhtin, 1986, p.126).

And this is what is so special about dialogically structured activities, is that the very responsive nature of the activity between us makes it impossible to say which aspect of it is due to you and which to me. An ‘it’ emerges between us with its own requirements, a responsive order, which we are both a part of and participants in, and which as such can make calls upon us both.

              Fock and Hoberg give a very nice example of the gradual emergence of such a shared ‘dialogical reality or space’, a shared ‘it’, among a group of eight software engineers in a “dialogue seminar” meeting to discuss whether there are any “methods” of use to them in their development work. I list what seem to be the crucial events:


            Mike agrees to take the minutes.

            Johan begins by reading a prepared text on methods, he is critical of too much analysis of demands, wants more prototypes, and mentions the danger of ignoring details.

            Tomas adds that prototypes can be used for testing at an early stage in development.

            The others agree.

            Tomas then says: “The architect must be strong and know what he is doing.”

            Johan responds: “It is easy for the architect to stop acting as a mentor and begin to overrule people.”

The two statements are opposites of each other... energy is created in the group... tension, movement... what Arlene Katz and I would call an “arresting moment” has occurred (Shotter and Katz, 1996; Katz and Shotter, 1996b) – the two statements seem opposed, yet they are based on concrete experiences shared by all members in the group... clearly their ‘reality’ can be explicitly ordered in a number of ways:


            Tomas now says: “The role of the architect of often too strong in the organization, and he may be difficult to put in his place.”

            Although almost a complete contradiction of his earlier statement, this is not a change in Tomas’s viewpoint, but a broadening to take into account other aspects of the dialogue.

            They circle around... they refer to each other’s examples... it feels as if participants’ experiences begin to find one another...

            But there is a feeling too, that there is something they are failing to get to... there is not yet an ‘it’ between, a shared sensibility, a shared sense that `calls’ unconfused actions from them.

            Kjell, well-known for his use of certain methods, then reads his text and points to problems associated with different viewpoints.

            Odd responds: “It is interesting with your experience you are critical of methods.”

            Kjell answers: “It depends on how they are used. I want a method that structures what I have arrived at... [But] when one reaches difficult areas, producing objects and creating systems... it is here that experience comes into play and you get no help from methods here.”

            There is a moment’s silence... Kjell’s statement creates another “arresting, moving, or striking moment.”

(Pause, silence)


            Somehow, Kjell’s statement ‘said it all’... there was nothing more to say about the role of methods

            A new topic suddenly emerged: the role of the software architect... “How does the systems architect build up an overall view?”

            The idea of an ‘architect’ does not provide any new information, but re-orients the whole group toward a new way of looking at their activities.

            Kjell answers: By first making a detailed study of conditions and then, by drawing on experience, seeing a way forward.

            “I believe that is how an architect works when designing a house,” says Key.

            Everyone had become so involved in this formulation of a new way of working that they had forgotten the time... now there is a common ‘it’, a topic (topos = place), a ‘scene’ toward which all can orient, within all can play a part... it is not only recorded in the minutes, but also ‘resides’ with the participants.

I have focused on this episode because I want to suggest – in line with Wittgenstein’s (1980) claim that the origin of a new language-game is in a new reaction, which is not the result of thought but the prototype for a new way of thinking - that the arresting moment created by Kjell’s statement was crucial to the emergence of “a common view.” Irrespective of any ideas as such they might have had in their heads, in all spontaneously responding in the same way to Kjell’s statement – that methods work after the creative fact, but not before – the members of the group created between them jointly a shared, sensible basis of a new kind (a new space between them with a ‘depth’ to it) to serve as a ‘standard’ against which all could make sense of and judge each other’s further contributions. Such striking moments have that quality of ‘fullness’ to them - the intricate, intertwined complexity mentioned above as a central property of dialogically structured activity in the third realm – possessed by good examples.

              I began by pointing out the (rational) invisibility of those aspects of our lives together in which we interact with and understand each other effortlessly, and how such unreflective, effortless ways of coordinating our acting are a necessary prerequisite to all our more planned, reflective, and effortful activities. I went on to outline their relationally-responsive nature, and how - although they might seem so orderly that the following of rules, or the use of methods, was behind them in some way - they gave rise to a sense of ordered spaces with ‘a depth of possibilities’ to them Endnote . In other words, as Kjell put it above, while such spaces are amenable to further ordering by explicit rules or methods, such rules or methods are only of use for that kind of structuring once one has already arrived at such a space, an `it’ - their initial creation must be achieved by other means. They are created in the living, responsive meeting of two of more different forms of life, who cannot avoid responding to each other. It is in such meetings that we can find the source of human creativity - not somewhere mysteriously hidden inside the human mind. Voloshinov (1986) puts it this way: “The experiential, expressible element and its outward objectification are created... out of one and the same material. After all, there is no such thing as experience outside of its embodiment in signs. Consequently, the very notion of a fundamental, qualitative difference between inner and the outer element is invalid to begin with. Furthermore, the location of the organizing and formative center is not within (i.e., not in the material of inner signs) but outside. It is not experience that organizes expression, but the other way around - expression organizes experience. Expression is what first gives experience its form and specificity of direction (p.85). It is in certain of our dialogically structured responsive expressions that our new ways of going on begin, in those moments when an event strikes us, when something happens that matters to us (Katz and Shotter, 1996a, Shotter and Katz, 1996, and Katz and Shotter, 1996b).

Training in forms of life - setting the scene for our language-games

At the foundation of our lives together is a community of shared sensibilities and shared reactions, not an identity of ideas, inner pictures, and claimed beliefs. It is a community of effortless, responsive expression and understanding that grows from ‘seeds’ created in shared moments to which all involved spontaneously react in a somewhat similar manner. Thus important in us coming to such a set of shared sensibilities and reactions, and then going on to refine and elaborate them, is something theatrical, a certain staging or dramatization of our performances seems to be required from time to time. For three things must occur in such moments: new shared reactions must first spontaneously occur; then all must notice the circumstances of their occurrence, i.e., what it is in our surroundings that ‘calls out’ such reactions from us; and then once we understand the dependence of our reactions on their surroundings, we can begin to arrange for their occurrence under our own control. Crucial in this activity, as Vygotsky (1986) points out, are what we might call our ‘directive’, ‘instructive’, and ‘organizational’ forms of talk in everyday life work. For example, we ‘give commands’ (“Do this,” “Don’t do that”); we ‘point things out’ to people (“Look at this!”); ‘remind’ them (“Think what happened last time”); ‘change their perspective’ (“Look at it like this”); ‘place’ or give order’ to their experience (“You were very cool... you acted like a madman); ‘organize’ their behavior (“First, take a right, then... ask again...”); and so on. We spontaneously respond to all these instructive forms of talk. They ‘move’ us, in practice, to do something we would not otherwise do: in ‘gesturing’ or ‘pointing’ toward something in our circumstances, they cause us to relate ourselves to our circumstances in a different way - as if we are continually being ‘educated’ into new ways. Indeed, the utterances of others can seem so central to the structuring of our performances, that it is as if a set of rules stated in words underlies what we must learn. Let us repeat here Wittgenstein’s (1953) remark quoted above, that “one forgets that a. great deal of stage setting in language is presupposed if the mere act of naming is to make sense” (no.257).

              If we are to understand how to construct ourselves into communities of shared sensibilities and shared reactions in certain professional spheres, then we need more than a set of verbally stated rules, we need the initial training that makes it possible for us to follow such rules effortlessly. We need an inner ‘at homeness’ with “all the circumstances which constitute the scene for our language-game[s] “ (no. 179). We need a scenic-sense of the space of possibilities within which the emergence of such a community can occur.

              Above, in the KTH example, I mentioned Duner’s gestures, and in many such practical situations, the use of gestures toward common features, acknowledged as such by all in a shared situation, is commonplace, but nonetheless, of crucial importance. Indeed, we can note here Wittgesntein’s (1966) remark, that when we are first being taught the use of certain words, “one thing that is immensely important in teaching is exaggerated gestures and facial expressions” (p.2), that emphasize the “characteristic part [they play in].. a large group of activities... the occasions on which they are said...” (p.2). It is the gestural function of these instructive forms of talk that is their key feature, that gives them their life: for they ‘point beyond’ themselves to features in the momentary context of their utterance. It is the way in which we do this, i.e., ‘show’ our possible connections to our circumstances in their voicing, that makes such talk revealing of our individual ‘inner lives’ Endnote . This is the function of all the extra ‘staging’, the theatricality, of their expression - in voicing all our words in the same flat tone, we too easily forget that they owe their life to their intertwining in with our communally shared embodied responsiveness to our surroundings. As a result, we try to explain their functioning by linking them to mysterious events inside us somewhere – in our ‘minds’ we say. The theatricality of our expressions prevents us from making that mistake.

              I want to mention the structure of the “dialogue seminars” used “as a tool of knowledge theory” in the Saab-Combitech case above. They have a certain theatricality about them; they work by dramatizing certain events in such a way as to help create a responsively ordered community. Let me turn to the seminars first.

The dialogue seminars

They have a shared, three part structure: preparation, the seminar itself, and the writing of minutes. First, we can note that the activity of preparation is quite different from that of planning. Planning is a matter of deciding on a schematism in terms of which to sequence an already well practiced set of routine activities, and nothing to do with creating a community. Preparation is different. It is to do with orienting ourselves toward attending to appropriate details, sensitizing ourselves to be responsive to certain kinds of events, participating in those kinds of events that will bring us into responsive contact with those around us in our community. Whorf (1956) describes the nature of these activities among the native-American Hopi Indians – a community much more directly oriented and sensitive to its responsive relations with its surroundings than we westerners. He describes both inner and outer preparing. While outer preparing includes such activities as announcing the event – so that all in the community know of it – and other such activities as ordinary practicing, rehearsing, getting resources and implements ready, introductory formalities, preparing special food, and other such activities as ceremonies and dances, inner preparation is a matter of prayer, mediation, good wishes, good will. But how can prayer and meditation make a real, concrete difference in people’s conduct of their lives? While we think in terms of, as Whorf puts it, inner “mental surrogates,” the Hopi think much more in terms of their responsive contacts with their surroundings. Thus in their preparing activities, in prayer and meditation, they mentally rehearse their contacts with, their relations to, the actual, concrete details of their surroundings: “Though to be most effective should be vivid in consciousness, definite, steady, sustained, charged with felt good intentions. They render the idea in English as ‘concentrating, holding in your heart, putting your mind on it, earnestly hoping’. Thought power is the force behind ceremonies, prayer sticks, ritual smoking, etc. The prayer pipe is regarded as an aid to ‘concentrating’ (so said my informant). Its name na’twanpi, means ‘instrument of preparing”‘ (p.150).

              As those in a peace negotiation silently hand the pipe to each other, look into each other’s eyes, gesture kindly toward one another, they all respond to each other with trust and care, from which the peace negotiation tales its beginnings. Whorf goes on to comment: “Against the tendency of social integration is such a small, isolated group, the theory of ‘preparing’ by the power of thought, logically leading to the great power of the combined, intensified, and harmonized thought of the whole community, must help vastly toward the rather remarkable degree of cooperation that, in spite of much private bickering, the Hopi village displays on all important cultural activities” (p.151). Hopi preparing activities then, are to do with getting ready to be sensitive to crucial details in one’s surroundings. The preparing activities devised for the dialogue seminars – the reading and the writing assignments – would seem to be aimed at very similar goals: the reading “to shape concentration” (MS, p.55), and writing as “a way of associating with one’s material – one’s thoughts and experiences – and consciously putting them in a particular order” (MS, p.55).

              The seminar is conducted in two parts: reading one’s writing assignment aloud, and collective reflections. The voicing of words is important in two ways: one is that it returns us to the sensuous situation in which we responsively use and understand words, rather than reacting to them representationally; the other is the benefit that “one ‘perceives’ the reactions of the group” (MS, p.56), and what is shared and what is not shared becomes apparent. “Reading aloud is also a way of focusing, it is collective concentration on something that is shared” (MS, p.56).

              After the reading, there is collective reflection. This is the moment when “thoughts are to meet” (MS, p.56). It is in these ‘meetings’, these moments of dialogical contact – as also in the Saab-Combitech case above – when two very different expressions, which point to very different (often seemingly conflicting) features in the topic under discussion, are nonetheless responsively connected to each other, that creative things happen. Indeed, we might call such moments, poetic moments: for, as long as the gap created by the juxtaposition of the two different thoughts is not to great, as with the monocular views from our two eyes, our bodies will responsively create {Gr: poiesis = creation, making} ways to bridge them, to create a view in depth which accommodates both. This is the power of our dialogically structured, living, responsive understandings - they create ordered spaces of possibilities between us prior to the existence of any rules.

              The final stage in the dialogue seminars – the writing of minutes – ‘fixes’ or ‘captures’ these new developments which otherwise might pass by unnoticed. “[We] see what one had not been aware of at the time,” writes Maria Hammaren (MS, p.57). Indeed, the lived experience of the moments when juxtaposed thoughts meet in a dialogue seminar are extremely rich; they have a kind of ‘fractal fullness’ in that as one looks into their ordering one can see endless further orderings. Written minutes give intelligibility, i.e., an agreed and shared structure to such otherwise ‘endlessly full’ experiences, thus to set the stage for everyone’s next step - but the fact of their ‘fullness’ or ‘depth’ should give us pause in the realization that no written formulation is ever adequate to its capture. To claim to have achieved a ‘final codification’ of such activities is a great mistake.

Concluding comments

Rather than socially refined and sensitive ways of acting effortlessly (as in Confucianism), ever since the Greeks, we in the West have valued individual, reflective thought prior to planned and effortful action. We have thus had an obsession with theories and theorizing, with the belief that only true theories can give rise to right action. However, in recent times, as Toulmin (1990) points out, “the problems that have challenged reflective thinkers on a deep philosophical level, with the same urgency that cosmology and cosmopolis had in the 17th century, are matters of practice: including matters of life and death... The ‘modern’ focus on the written, the universal, the general, and the timeless - which monopolized the work of most philosophers after 1630 - is being broadened to include once again the oral, the particular, the local, and the timely” (p.186). We are now beginning to see the recovery of a Practical Philosophy of practices (which needs a theory-centered philosophy to be interwoven into it).

              Philosophy seeks a comprehensive view, a sense of how things hang together as a whole, a view that we can hold in common others. We now realize that there are two quite distinct ways in which we can approach this task, two quite distinct forms of comprehensive understanding with two quite distinct motives:


            One approach is from the outside as observers of formal patterns. It aims at the form of understanding we seek in our traditional theory centred philosophy, an understanding of a representational-referential kind. It aims at ‘fixing’ the object of one’s understanding within a medium of representation – usually, in written language. The urge to express our knowledge (especially of human affairs) in this way, in terms of hierarchically ordered schemes of logically interlinked propositions, a system, although rhetorically justified by appeals to equality and the disinterested objectivity of science, leads – as both Foucault (1977) and Scott (1998) show – to just those kind of kind of “regimes of knowledge” required in administering a State centrally. The synoptic ‘view(s)’ of the affairs of State such a philosophy provides, are not got by attending to local details, but exist in terms of single, complete and closed orders of connectedness represented in various schematic artefacts in such a control room.


            The other way in which we can arrive at a comprehensive view, a scenic-sense, of the whole responsive order within which we live and share our lives with others, is through participating in with them all in creating that order - but participating in it in certain special ways that help us to acquire a reflexive awareness of some aspects at least of its nature. Our explorations here have been aimed at increasing our awareness of our own involvements in creating, elaborating, and refining such an order. The form of understanding to which involvements give rise is that of a relationally-responsive kind. Unlike the view from the center, it is a kind of understanding democratically distributed throughout the whole order within which it has its being. It is an understanding of a much ‘fuller’ or ‘deeper’, i.e., more ordered kind, than that given by a system of propositions imposed upon it, externally.

Until recently, our participation in such communities of shared sensibilities and shared reactions has remained unnoticed in the background of our lives together, and as a consequence, ignored in our theory-centered philosophies. It is only after a group has developed a responsive order within itself that its members can all understand each other’s claims to knowledge, expressed in terms of systems of propositional forms, and agree upon how to respond to them – without this kind of relational-responsive understanding of a shared responsive order, formal systems become unintelligible. Indeed, we might even go so far as to say that the systems of propositions we invent to articulate aspects of its orderly nature are, as products, after the fact, and, as forms or shapes, beside the point. They are only of retrospective worth. More than that, insistence on understanding everything from within formal systems works to render both the continuously creative nature of the present moment rationally-invisible to us, and also the value of the first-time, constitutive events that can occur within it. The amazing creativity occurring in front of our eyes every moment is excluded from our discussions by the disciplinary rules we feel we must follow in them, if we are to be properly professional academics.

              Thus, rather than celebrating its existence as a real aspect of the circumstances within we act our acts and live our lives, we misinterpret its meaning. Rather than accepting the real possibility of the emergence into existence, in our dialogically structured activities, of previously inconceivable, new possibilities, we assume that all such newness can only result from the discovery of something in fact already in existence, but radically hidden from us, i.e., hidden in the sense of it only being possible to understand it indirectly, through manipulations suggested to us by the use of theories. The doctrine of radical hiddenness thus works both to licence yet more research disciplined by formal systems, and to depreciate the value of our seemingly undisciplined, unsystematic, ways of being creative between us. Everywhere, we seek to replace our informal ways of making sense with each other, with supposed ‘better’ more formal ways - thus tending to destroy the very responsive orders sustaining their intelligibility. Yet, strangely, every human group creates such an order amongst its participants spontaneously, effortlessly. Embedded in our ordinary everyday activities – out in the world between us, not hidden behind appearances – are the methods we need. Just as Aristotle extracted the methods of logic from our everyday forms of reasoning, so Wittgenstein (1953), among others, has begun to supply us with the methods we need for arriving at the comprehensive, synoptic sense we require, if we are know our ‘way about’ better inside the responsive order we all share in our lives together (Shotter, 1996b). As Toulmin (1990) remarks, under the influence of this work: “The idea that handling problems rationally means making a totally fresh start [was] a mistake all along. All we can be called upon to do is to take a start from where we are, at the time we are there... There is no way of cutting ourselves free of our conceptual inheritance all we are required to do is to use our experience critically and discriminatingly, refining and improving our inherited ideas, and determining more exactly the limits of their scope” (p.179).



Bakhtin, M.M. (1981) The Dialogical Imagination. Edited by M. Holquist, trans. by C. Emerson and M. Holquist. Austin, Tx: University of Texas Press.

Bakhtin, M.M. (1984) Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Edited and trans. by Caryl Emerson. Minnieapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Bakhtin, M.M. (1986) Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans. by Vern W. McGee. Austin, Tx: University of Texas Press.

Bakhtin, M.M. (1993) Toward a Philosophy of the Act, with translation and notes by Vadim Lianpov, edited by M. Holquist. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Foucault, M. (1979) Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison. trans. A.M. Sheridan, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Gendlin, G. (1997) The responsive order: a new empricism. Man and World, 30. pp.383-411.

Gustavsen, B. (1992) Dialogue and Development: Theory of Communication, Action Research and the Restructuring of Working Life. Van Assen, Netherlands: Gorcum.

Johannessen, K.S. (1994) Philosophy, art, and intransitive understanding. In K.S.Johannessen, R.Larsen, and K.O.Amas (Eds.) Wittgenstein and Norway. Oslo: Solum Forlag.

Katz, A.M. and Shotter, J. (1996a) Hearing the patient’s voice: towar a ‘social poetics’ in diagnostic interviews. Social Science and Medicine, 46. pp.919-931.

Katz, A.M. (1996b) Resonances from within the practice: social poetics in a mentorship program. Concepts and Transformation, 2. pp.97-105.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1968) The Visible and the Invisible. Evanston, Il: Northwestern University Press.

Rudd, A. (2003) Expressing te World: Skepticism, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger. Chicago nad La Salle: Open Court.

Ryle, G. (1949) The Concept of Mind. London: Methuen.

Scott, J.C. (1998) Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven and London.

Shotter, J. (1993a) Cultural Politics of Everyday Life: Social Constructionism, Rhetoric, and Knowing of the Third Kind. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Shotter, J. (1993b) Conversational Realities: Constructing Life through Language. London: Sage.

Shotter, J. (1996a) Living in a Wittgensteinian world: beyond theory to a poetics of practices. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 26. pp.293-311.

Shotter, J. (1996b) ‘Now I can go on’: Wittgenstein and our embodied embeddedness in the ‘hurly-burly’ of life. Human Studies, 19. pp.385-407.

Shotter, J. and Katz, A.M. (1996) Articulating a practice from within the practice itself: establishing formative dialogues by the use of a ‘social poetics’. Concepts and Transformations, 2. pp.71-95.

Shotter, J. and Gustavsen, B. (1999) The Role of Dialogue Conferences in the Development of ‘Learning Regions’: doing ‘from within’ our lives together what we cannot do apart. Stockholm: Center for Advanced Studies in Leadership, Stockholm School of Economics.

Toulmin, S. (1992) Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Voloshinov, V.N. (1986) Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Trans. by L. Matejka and I.R. Titunik. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, first pub. 1929.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1986) (1986) Thought and Language. Translation newly revised by Alex Kozulin. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press..

Whorf, B.L. (1956) Language, Thought and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Ed. J.B. Carroll. Cambridge, Mass: M.I.T. Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (1953) Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Blackwell.

Wittgenstein, L. (1965) The Blue and the Brown Books. New York: Harper Torch Books.

Wittgenstein, L. (1966) Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, ed. Cyril Barrett. Oxford: Blackwell.

Wittgenstein, L. (1969) On Certainty. Oxford: Blackwell.

Wittgenstein, L. (1974) Philosophical Grammar, ed. Rush Rees, trans by A. Kenny. Oxford: Blackwell.

Wittgenstein, L. (1980) Culture and Value, introduction by G. Von Wright, and translated by P. Winch. Oxford: Blackwell.