(Final version) submitted to Southern Communication Journal




John Shotter

Department of Communication

University of New Hampshire


Abstract: As participants in a ceaseless flow of speech entwined, everyday communicative activities, I suggest that what matters to us are unique, first-time, "once-occurrent events of Being," as Bakhtin (1993) calls them. We make sense of them in terms of the differences they make to our lives. They are meaningful to us against the background of the ongoing flow of dialogically-structured activity within which we are all participants. Although such once-occurrent events continually give further specification to this flow, at any moment, it is internally structured as an indivisible whole. Thus attempts to understand it from the outside, in terms of abstract-systematic frameworks of our own devising, formulated in terms of externally related parts, are bound to fail. They ignore the participatory-wholistic understandings we already possess, and make use of, when acting from within our own involvements in it. Thus, rather than seeking to formulate and test theories only externally related to people's communicative activities, we should set ourselves a different goal in our research: that of helping practitioners to critically refine and elaborate their own already existing practices, from within their own conduct of them, by intertwining into them reflective practices of a dialogically-structured kind. The work of Bakhtin, Wittgenstein, and Goethe is a help in orienting us toward the kind of practices required.

"Once-occurrent uniqueness or singularity cannot be thought of, it can only be participatively experienced or lived through" (Bakhtin, 1993, p.13).

"My participative and demanding consciousness can see that the world of modern philosophy, the theoretical and theoreticized world of culture, is in a certain sense actual, that it possesses validity. But what it can see also is that this world is not the once-occurrent world in which I live and in which I answerably perform my deeds" (ibid, p.20).

"The ultimate goal would be to grasp that everything in the realm of fact is already theory... Let us not seek for something beyond the phenomena - they themselves are the theory" (Goethe, 1988, p.307).

"I am wagering... on the informing pressure of a real presence in the semantic markers which generate Oedipus the King or Madame Bovary... [and in other art works]. Generation, externalization, actualization: these are abstract verbalizations of primary comings into being of energized and signifying forms from within" (Steiner, 1989, p.215).

Primarily, in this article, I want to explore the kind of relational-responsive understanding Bakhtin (1984, 1986, 1993) outlines in his dialogic account of our being in the world - although the work of Wittgenstein (1953), Goethe (1988), James (1897/1956), and Steiner (1989) will figure in it too. Central to Bakhtin's whole account of speech communication is the fact that, as living, embodied beings, we exist always within a ceaselessly unfolding flow of relationally-responsive activity of one kind or another, spontaneously originating in the active relations occurring between ourselves and the others and othernesses in our surroundings. This unbroken stream of spontaneously responsive activity - "the chain of speech communication," as Bakhtin (1986) calls it - is the source from which all our more self-conscious and deliberate activities arise. The central point of my investigations will be to suggest that the events which matter to us within it, are of a unique, unrepeatable, first-time kind. As participants - along with all the others around us - within this flow of speech entwined activity, we make sense of such first-time events in terms of the differences they make to our lives. If this is so, then, as research academics, instead of attempting to understand our communicative activities as orderly, repetitive activities, from within abstract theoretical systems of our own devising, we should remain along with everyone else within this flow of spontaneously responsive activity, but seek ways to act back into it, to refine, correct, and further develop the responsive understandings in terms of which it is sustained. A further point worth emphasizing here is, that this implies - as Goethe maintained - that what we perceive as facts, as simply brute happenings, plain and unvarnished, are seen by us as such in relation to an unobtrusive, but nonetheless shaping and directive "way of seeing" - all that is fact for us is already theory. This also implies, as we shall see, that what I will call abstract-systematic forms of understanding cannot be fundamental for us (such forms have their function only in relation to a special goal).

"Once-occurrent events of Being"

If the unceasing flow of speech entwined activity is sustained between us spontaneously, i.e., in an unforced, unplanned, and unintended fashion, what must be the nature of our everyday activities such that we can not only sustain this flow routinely in our actions, but we also, unreflectively, repair or restore it should a significant hiatus occur within it (Buttney, 1993; Shotter, 1984)? To do this, we must both be able to 'follow' others in our talk entwined activities, while at the same time, we must speak and act in ways that they also can 'follow'. To follow another's utterance entwined activities, we must actively adopt an expectant attitude toward them. Besides noting their content, their reference to the current context, we must also note their point, the changes in that context toward which they 'gesture' in the future. As Bakhtin (1986) puts it: "...when the listener perceives and understands the meaning (the language meaning) of speech, he simultaneously takes an active, responsive attitude toward it. He either agrees or disagrees with it (completely or partially), augments it, applies it, prepares for its execution, and so on. And the listener adopts this responsive attitude for the entire duration of the process of listening and understanding, from the very beginning - sometimes literally from the speaker's first word" (p.68). In other words, the kind of relational-responsive understanding which sustains the unbroken flow of speech communication, is of quite a different kind to the representational-referential understanding we have of things as self-contained, stand-alone, thinkers. It is an active, responsive understanding in which, as each word in another's utterance occurs, we spontaneously respond to it with our own answering words and expressions. Indeed, speakers can see our changing attitudes to their speech as it unfolds(1) in our bodily movements. In expectation of being understood in this way, speakers too must speak in ways responsive to their listeners' spontaneously responsive expressions: "A speaker does not expect passive understanding that, so to speak, only duplicates his [or her] own idea in someone else's mind (as in Saussure's model of linguistic communication...). Rather, the speaker talks with an expectation of a response, agreement, sympathy, objection, execution, and so forth..." (p.69).

To try to understand the nature of the everyday flow of speech communication in this way - in terms of the spontaneously responsive understandings in terms of which it works, as Bakhtin recommends - is to move back 'upstream', so to speak, to those earlier regions in the flow of speech communication in which events occur of a quite different kind to those occurring later. Our task in focusing on this earlier part of the flow, is to try to attend to the concrete and unique details of both the creative origins and the formative processes productive of our more explicit and stable experiences, and of the intellectual frameworks we construct; we must also try to attend to the larger surrounding background flow of informal, spontaneously responsive activity between us all, which is required to sustain such products in existence. To see what is occurring here, however, is a perceptual not a cognitive problem. It is not a matter of training oneself to think about them in the right way through talk and argument in a seminar room or while sitting at one's desk, but a matter of noticing the occurrence of certain kinds of events out in the world from one's position of involvement with them. Indeed, to reiterate one of my central points in this article: our everyday ways of communicating and understanding each other from within this flow are not best understood by being viewed through the special products or precipitates that emerge 'down-stream' of our more everyday forms of communication. The attempt (originating with Descartes - see below) to create a body of certain knowledge based in nothing but our own individual experiences, held together as such by self-consciously devised, rational frameworks which we link to our lives externally, i.e., only in terms of the correspondence of the shapes or forms our representations to the shapes or forms of reality, completely ignores our living, embodied, responsive relations to our surroundings. Our living contact with reality as such is completely severed.

If we do move back up-stream, Bakhtin (1993) claims, we shall find that crucial to the beginnings of all our more deliberate and self-consciously executed activities, are what he calls "once-occurrent events of Being" (p.2) - certain special moments of communion when we as individuals and our surroundings are in an immediate living contact with each other. While we cannot define the nature of such moments, it is not difficult to give examples. For even prior to any linguistic contacts we might have with others around us, we have a sense of whether they are 'with us' or not. We notice someone near us looking in our direction. Our eyes meet. We see them seeing us: we sense it in the responsive relations between the movements of their eyes and their bodies to our responsive movements toward them - and they see us seeing them in the same way. In so doing, we behold or are present to each other. That is, we do not just see a self-contained and finished object before us; but in the reciprocally responsive movements occurring between us, we see their expressions as gesturing or as pointing beyond the present moment toward other possible connections and relations in the future. Our immediate experience seems a merely constituent part of a "something more." This is a part of what it is to behold a "real presence" (Steiner, 1989): to have a sense of being confronted by a distinct other or otherness with its own 'inner' nature, the expressive 'thereness' of something with its own unique style of life. We have an unavoidable sense that something further could 'go on' between us, and we feel obligated to acknowledge that fact. We nod and they nod back. Steiner (1989) likens such encounters with the visit of stranger to our home, where: "That which come to call on us - that idiom... connotes both spontaneous visitation and summons - will often do so unbidden. Even where there is a readiness... the true entrance into us will not occur by any act of will" (p.179).

But sometimes this anticipated "interplay of gaze and expression," as Oliver Sacks (1989, p.8) noted in the case of Dr P. - the man who mistook his wife for a hat - fails to occur. Sitting face-to-face with him, Sacks had a sense of Dr P.'s eyes moving in unusual ways: "instead of looking, gazing at me, 'taking me in', in the normal way, [they] made sudden strange fixations - on my nose, on my right ear. Down to my chin, up to my right eye - as if noting (even studying) these individual features, but not seeing my whole face, its changing expressions, 'me', as a whole. I am not sure I fully realized it at the time - there was just a teasing strangeness" (p.8). The unanticipated nature of such events arrests the spontaneous background flow of responsive activity between ourselves and others. We get a sense of 'things not being quite right', we don't quite know 'how to go on' with them. Such events presage the beginning, possibly, of a new way of relating to them. But of what kind?

For Sacks, Dr. P was unique. Only later did he learn of other similar cases. Without at first being able to describe the nature of such 'first-time' encounters in general terms, we must turn to metaphor, to poetic expressions, to indicate their nature. As Sacks says about Dr. P, given some family photographs to view, "he approached these faces - even of those near and dear - as if they were abstract puzzles or tests. He did not relate to them, he did not behold. No face was familiar to him, seen as a 'thou', being just identified as a set of features, an 'it'" (p.12, my emphasis). He did not enter into a spontaneously responsive relationship with the photographs; nor was he touched or moved by them. He didn't 'see beyond' what was present to his eyes; he did not see it imaginatively, as surrounded, so to speak, by a context of anticipations as to what might next appear if his relationship to it were to change. He was not able to find a way of seeing the fragments before him (synoptically) as a whole(2). Instead, he tried to 'work out' dispassionately, in terms of facts, things, and categories already well-known to him, what or who the forms before him might represent, i.e., to give them a place in a larger intellectual framework of possibilities. As Sacks later came to discover, although Dr. P had lost the ability to see beyond static visual forms, as a music teacher, he still retained the ability to see beyond momentary movements to sense the presence of a rhythm, a style of movement - thus, if a student moved, he could recognize who it was: "That's Karl," he would cry, "I know his body-music" (p.17). Thus, although "difficult to formulate" at first, beginning with the sensed strangeness of Dr. P's eye movements, it is perhaps no surprise to us that Sacks came to conclude about Dr. P: that "he faced me with his ears... but not his eyes" (p.8). Dr P. was 'looking for' rhythmic shapes, for temporally unfolding forms, rather than the all-present-at-once shapes in a visual field, in terms of which we are more used to making sense of our surroundings (see the comments of William James below).

The third realm of dialogic relations

There is something special, then, about the once-occurrent events of Being in which - as more than just uninvolved, external observers of states of affairs 'over there' - we are involved as participants. They seem to have their own sui generis kind and realm of existence. We cannot make sense of them in terms of blind physical forces and impacts (i.e., as causal happenings), for people's responsive reactions within them display an intelligent relatedness to their surroundings. But, to the extent that everything done by any of the individuals involved in them is done in spontaneous response to the others or othernesses around them, we cannot make sense of them in terms of people's reasons for their actions either, for we cannot hold any of those involved individually responsible for what occurs. Yet, such events are not determined by any influences existing externally to them, for such events do not just happen; they emerge and develop 'in' people's ongoing relations with each other, and the outcomes are 'their' outcomes. Without them collectively and reciprocally responding to each other, nothing would happen. How, then, shall we characterize them? For, in always being spontaneously performed in response to events occurring around them, people's activities in such events are 'shaped' by a complex mixture of unique influences, occurring both within them and around them. As a consequence, they have neither a fully orderly nor a fully disorderly structure, a neither completely stable nor an easily changed organization, neither a fully subjective nor a fully objective character. As still emerging, not yet fully articulated activities, thought, feeling, perception, memory, impulse, and imagination are all so tightly interwoven together within them as to make it impossible to distinguishable these functions from each other. In this realm, ideas are felt and feelings are conceived, remembering is intertwined with imagining, and looking with thinking(3).

Indeed, we could say that the central defining feature of events in this realm is their lack of any final specificity, their lack of any pre-determined order. That, however, would be to ignore the degree of structure or specification already possessed by our ongoing relations in this realm, and as a consequence, the possibility of us not only being able to anticipate future events, but also, the possibility of us being 'struck' by unanticipated ones and feeling 'called upon' to respond them. This, then, is their central defining feature: they are open to further specification, but only of an already specified kind (see Shotter, 1984, p.206), and it is this which not only opens up such activities to being specified or determined yet further in creative ways by those involved in them, but which also restrains them from being creative in just any old way(4). Indeed, in being 'shaped' by the very features in the unique, concrete surroundings which 'call' them out, whatever further internal articulations they may undergo occurs within their initial 'shaping'. This 'rooting' of such events in, and their 'shaping' by, the larger surroundings of their occurrence - "the extraverbal context of reality," as Bakhtin (1986, p.73) calls it - is of the utmost importance. And I will return to it below, when we come to consider the difference between ways of speaking and arguing which are rooted within and shaped by abstract frameworks of thought, by cognitive influences, and those which have their beginnings within relationally-responsive events established by something one is perceptually struck by in one's actual, everyday life surroundings. But let me just emphasize here, that this factor - the spontaneous responsiveness of once-occurrent events of Being to features in the extraverbal context of their occurrence - is the way in which our utterances and other expressions relate to our lives. As Bakhtin (1986) puts it: "language enters our lives through concrete utterances (which manifest language) and life enters our utterances through concrete utterances as well" (p.63). The living, responsive nature of our expressions to their surroundings ensures that "the dynamic unsayabilities of the very experience of meaning" (Steiner, 1989,p.166) are 'displayed' or 'shown' in our utterances, even when we are unable to represent them by corresponding forms within a rational framework of our own devising(5).

To mark off this unique third realm of creative activities from the other two realms which have preoccupied us as academics up until now - the realm of causal happenings and of deliberately reasoned action - we can, following Bakhtin, call it the realm of dialogic relations, or the realm dialogically-structured events. What is crucial within them, given our concern with communication, is the spontaneously responsive reactions of two or more speaking subjects to each other's utterances and other expressions. This, as we saw above, is what makes this realm of relations unique: "Dialogic relations have a specific nature: they can be reduced neither to the purely logical (even if dialectical) nor to the pure linguistic (compositional-syntactic). They are possible only between complete utterances of various speaking subjects... We are not concerning ourselves here with the origin of the term 'dialogue'... Dialogic relations are relations (semantic) among any utterances in speech communication. Any two utterances, if juxtaposed on a semantic plane (not as things and not as linguistic examples), end up in a dialogic relationship... 'Hunger, cold' - one utterance of a single speaking subject. 'Hunger!' - 'Cold!' - two dialogically correlated utterances of two different subjects: here dialogic relations appear that did not exist in the former case" (pp.117-118). While one speaker positions him or herself as in a state of hunger (i.e., as requiring food from those addressed), and in the intonation contour of their utterance expresses their own evaluative stance toward their hunger - perhaps (for we cannot actually hear their voice) as indignation - the other is differently positioned. To begin with, while also stating their own position, the other must respond to the position of the first; they must express an evaluative attitude toward the other's utterance in their response - perhaps they 'display' in the way they intone their reply 'Cold!' the sense that, 'While I am cold, my cold is not as bad as your hunger, thus you can look to me, perhaps, for help of some kind... let us go together to look for both food and warmth!'.

Dialogic relations of this meaningful kind can only exist between two living, embodied beings in a reciprocally responsive relation to each other. Dialogic relations are not, thus, the kind of relations that can exist either between terms in a logical or linguistic system, or between mere things or objects. They emerge and have their existence only in the moment-by-moment unfolding of their occurrence, and are 'shaped', to repeat, by a complex mixture of unique influences present at that each moment, both within and between speaker-listeners, but also, most importantly, by influences in their extraverbal surroundings. It is these influences that can 'enter into' us and 'call out' uniquely new responses from us that we have never before exhibited. Our utterances and other dialogically structured activities thus take on a shape that is expressive in some way of all these influences. Indeed, as Bakhtin (1986) points out, a word of mine is not expressive in itself, as a stand-alone phenomenon, but its expression "originates at that point of contact between the word and actual reality, under the conditions of that real situation articulated by the individual utterance" (p.88). Hence the fact that, although my word or words may be a perfect repeat of a previous pattern of words in themselves, their meaning is to be found in their unique use (expressed within the unique intonational contour in which the word is 'voiced'), in relation to unique context, at a unique dialogical moment. As Voloshinov (1986) puts it - after questioning whether the task of understanding language entails recognizing the repetition of a familiar linguistic form - "No, the task of understanding does not basically amount to recognizing the form used, but rather to understanding it in a particular, concrete context, to understanding its meaning in a particular utterance, i.e., it amounts to understanding its novelty and not to recognizing its identity" (p. 68). While later, he rephrases it thus: "the constituent factor for understanding the linguistic form, is not at all its self-identity as a signal but its specific variability [as a sign]" (p.69) - it is its unique sense in relation to its context of occurrence that matters.

But such a novelty is only a novelty in relation to an already specified background of anticipated possibilities. Bakhtin (1986) emphasizes this both-and nature of our utterances - that they are both repetitive and novel - thus: "An utterance is never just a reflection or an expression of something already existing and outside it that is given and final. It always creates something that never existed before, something absolutely new and unrepeatable, and, moreover, it always has some relation to value (the true, the good, the beautiful, and so forth). But something created is always created out of something given (language, an observed phenomenon of reality, an experienced feeling, the speaking subject himself, something finalized in his world view, and so forth). What is given is completely transformed in what is created" (Bakhtin, 1986, pp.119-120). In communication, then, it is both the retrospective relations of our utterances to the already existing, partially specified circumstances of their use, and the completely unique, first-time nature of their prospective relations to those circumstances, which makes it possible for each of us to add yet further inner articulation to their still only partially specified nature. Our utterances both work to refer to the current context of our talk (their actual content) as well as to point toward possible changes in it (their point). Dialogical moments, then, the occurrence of once-occurrent events of Being, are of importance to us in communication in two ways: they are the moments when we both make a living contact with our actual surroundings (their retrospective realist aspect), and the moments when we create openings or invitations for their updating (their prospective social constructionist aspect) - the two seemingly contradictory perspectives from within which, classically, we ask the questions as to both the causes 'determining' our actions, and the reasons for our 'free' actions.

The undivided wholeness of dialogically-structured events

With regard to both these features, Bakhtin (1993) remarks that "... the actually performed act is the taking-into-account in it of all the factors - taking-into-account of its sense validity, as well as of its factual performance in all its historicity and individuality. The answerability of the actually performed act knows a unitary plane, a unitary context in which this taking-into-account is possible - in which its theoretical validity, its historical factuality, and its emotional-volitional tone figure as moments in a single decision or resolution" (p.28). In the complex mixture of influences at work in such once-occurrent moments, all juxtaposed in responsive dialogical relations with each other, are all the factors which we feel need to be taken into account in deciding a practical action. Indeed, it is only in such moments, he claims, that we can take them into account. But there is more, for we must also take into account the prospective dimension of our activities: "From within the act itself, taken in its undivided wholeness, there is nothing that is subjective and psychological. In its answerability, the act sets before itself its own truth [pravda] as something-to-be-achieved - a truth that unities the moment of what is universal (universally valid) and the moment of what is individual (actual)" (p.28). The inexhaustible richness of connection between details in our immediate surroundings and the rest of our lives, leaves us always with a sense of a 'something more' to come. The unbroken flow of responsive activity between us continues. Our lives go on. The partially specified, unfinished nature of our surroundings continues to exert yet further calls upon us, and to offer us yet further openings or invitations to respond. The complexity of such moments is thus astounding. We have already suggested that they are a complex mixture of both outer worldly influences and inner psychological tendencies and attitudes, but how can a 'whole world' of both subjective and objective influences be present to us in each such moment?

In recent years, holograms have been used as a paradigm example of such indivisible wholeness, for, as is well known, we can break a holographic plate into fragments and still see the whole of the scene recorded in it 'through' each fragment - just as we could if we were looking at a visual scene through a window suddenly reduced in size (as long as we then move closer to it). David Bohm (1969, 1973, 1980) was one of the first to draw on their properties to contrast the accepted mechanistic order in physics with what he called an implicate order. In a mechanistic form of order, a unitary structure or system is regarded as constituted of entities which are outside of or externally related to each other. Where such entities exist independently of each other and are locatable in different regions of space (and time), and interact in ways which do not bring about any changes in their essential nature. It was the optical lens - with its point-to-point imaging, in its use to record things too big, too small, too fast or too slow to be seen by the naked eye - which suggested, Bohm claims, that everything can be observed in this way. Holograms suggest differently. In the implicate order of a hologram, everything is in some sense enfolded or implicated in everything else. The influences contributing to locatable and observable forms are not themselves locatable, but are spread out and present everywhere. Indeed, it is precisely the fact that each point in the visual scene makes a contribution to the whole of the holographic plate, and each point in the plate receives a contribution from the whole scene, that makes the well-known phenomenon mentioned above - of each fragment containing, so to speak, the whole scene - possible. Rather than the point-to-point picturing in an ordinary photograph, the relation of the hologram to the visual scene it records is of a many-to-many kind (see Leith and Upatnieks, 1965). Thus, as we look closer and closer into each point, instead of finding any ultimate 'building blocks', we find increasing richness of detail - the hologram, strangely, contains (or enfolds) itself as a whole, at each point within itself.

But let us not continue with something as technical as a hologram, for the simple consideration of the visual scene now before our eyes can lead us to the recognition of what is meant here. The light coming to us from the whole of the scene 'carries' every detail of the scene to us. Indeed, they must all somehow be influencing the light which passes through the (almost pin-hole) aperture of our pupil. A crowd of other observers around us would also see (almost) the same scene, and thus each detail would also be seen by everyone in the crowd. As a consequence, every 'there' in the scene can be 'here' for one observer, 'here' for another, and 'here' for yet another; while at the same time, and every 'here' in the scene can also be 'there' among the whole crowd of observers.

My use of space here as a paradigm for an indivisible unity is not novel. William James (1897/1956), also with a concern similar to mine here, used our sense of the space in which we live our lives, as one of "the three great continua in which for each of us reason's ideal is actually reached" (p.264) - the continua of memory or personal consciousness, being the other two. Ideally, in every sphere of our lives, whether in thought or in practical action, we would like to possess such a comprehensive sense of 'how things hang together' that we could move around within that sphere without becoming confused or disoriented: "In the realm of every ideal," suggests James (1897/1956), "we can begin anywhere and roam over the field, each term passing us to its neighbor, each member calling for the next, and our reason rejoicing in its glad activity. Where the parts of a conception seem thus to belong to each other by inward kinship, where the whole is defined in a way congruous with our powers of reaction, to see is to approve and understand" (p.264). Our ordinary, everyday experience of space is thus, for us, a paradigm of such an ideal. He described its indivisible unity thus: "It is a unit. No force can in any way break, wound, or tear it... To make a hole in it you must drive something else through. But what can you drive through space except what is itself spatial? But notwithstanding it is this very paragon of unity, space in its parts contains an infinite variety, and the unity and the variety do not contradict each other, for they obtain in different respects. The one is the whole, the many are the parts... [And] beyond the parts we see or think at any given time extend further parts; but the beyond is homogeneous with what is embraced... Thus with space our intelligence is absolutely intimate; it is rationality and transparency incarnate... [We] may truly say that when we desiderate rational knowledge of the world the standard set by our knowledge of space is what governs our desire" (pp.265-266)(6).

We can now, perhaps, begin to see some of the characteristics of the special way of talking required to capture the nature of indivisible wholes. And we can also, perhaps, begin to see why some of our current ways of talking, in terms of systems and structures, are quite inadequate to the task. For under both the influence of our separateness from each other in the "individualism" of the day, and the "logical atomism" into which we have been trained in most of our more academic practices, our talk of systems and structures is of them as objective entities. We see them as assemblages of externally related parts, which, if we possessed their 'blueprint', we could build from the ground up, piece-by-piece, so to speak. An indivisible whole is quite different. Like a living organism (which has never been anything else but a living unity from its very inception), it is held together from within by the fact that all its parts have an inner relation within each other; indeed, they depend of these very relations to sustain them in existence as the parts they are; they are all thus intrinsically implicated in each other - they are also dependent, of course, on the earlier parts of the organism from out of which they have developed by internal articulation. By contrast, an assemblage of externally related parts not only requires an external agency to put it together, it also requires some special 'extra' parts to sustain it in existence: just as an engineer must nut-and-bolt a machine together, or a carpenter must screw-glue a structure together, a mechanical whole requires 'intermediate joining objects' (like Democritus's atoms required 'hooks') to hold it together as a whole - a 'third thing' must do the relating of two parts in a mechanical structure. Whereas , without going into technical details, we can say that a living, organic whole holds itself together as such by its internal relations, for its parts, as James puts it, possess an inward kinship; they 'call for' their neighbors, for they owe their very existence to them.

Thus living, indivisible wholes cannot be 'engineered' into existence out of parts(7). They can only develop from already existing indivisible wholes. But they can do this in two ways: 1) Already existing wholes can grow into new wholes by internal articulation within themselves. Although they are always 'on the way' to being other than what they are, such wholes have a characteristic 'inner dynamic', in that they are only open to further specification of a kind already specified in their origins. 2) But utterly new indivisible wholes can come into existence in meetings between those already in existence! And this is the case with our utterances. As soon as two utterances meet, dialogically, new ways of relating ourselves both to each other and to our surroundings can begin to be created, for, utterances in a dialogical relation to each other "are pregnant with potential for new world views, with new 'internal forms' for perceiving the world in words" (Bakhtin, 1981, p.360). This is when entirely new, first-time meanings can be created: "The experiencing of created form is," as Steiner (1989) puts it, "a meeting between freedoms" (p.152).

Extending our participative involvements in communication

The flow of speech entwined activity within which we conduct our lives, has, I suggest, just the structure of still emerging, indivisible wholeness I have outlined above. This is what makes once-occurrent events of Being matter to us as much as they do (such that we can be 'stuck' by them). Although they are unique, first-time, unrepeatable events, we can nonetheless responsively relate ourselves to them as 'parts' of the (still unfolding) indivisible wholeness of the ceaseless flow of activity within which we - along with the others around us - are embedded. We understand such events, thus, as participating in this stream of spontaneous activity, just as we ourselves are participating in it. We understand them in terms of the (yet to be more fully articulated) dialogic relations created between them and us at the moment of their occurrence. And we work from within our 'rooting' in precisely these relations to articulate them further. Our initial spontaneously responsive understanding of them is, however, crucial. The attempt to understood them from the outside, unresponsively, by fitting them simply as forms or patterns into self-consciously devised, pre-existing rational framework, is to ignore all the meaningful dialogic relations existing between them and their particular surroundings at the moment of their occurrence. It is to strip them of precisely the unique features in terms of which they matter to us. Thus, not only is it the case that "utterances and the relations between them cannot be understood from the outside," but, as Bakhtin (1986) remarks, "understanding itself enters as a dialogic element in the dialogic system and somehow changes its total sense" (p.126). Indeed, it is through our capacity to understand the once-occurrent events of Being occurring between ourselves and the others and othernesses in our surroundings, i.e., the spontaneously occurring responsive, living, dialogic relations, that we can continually update the embodied structure of expectancies in terms of which we spontaneously react to such events. That we can in fact do this, that we can come to an understanding of the unique meanings of once-occurrent events of Being again and again, each time for yet another first-time(8), gives us a clue as to how we might go about refining, and thus critically changing, our current practices of communication from the inside, so to speak.

To explore what might be involved here, let us begin with the doing a bit of arithmetic: We know that 12 X 12 = 144. We can check it out: 10 X 12 = 120; 2 X 12 = 24; and 120 + 24 = 144. But how can we check out that 1 X 1 = 1, and 1 X 2 = 2? We cannot. These are some initial example calculations which, spontaneously, we must just see as true. To learn a practice in the course of conversations with those who are already expert participants in it, they must not only drill us in its rules, but also present us with certain crucial examples. As Wittgenstein (1969) remarks, "not only rules, but also examples are needed for establishing a practice. Our rules leave loopholes open, and the practice has to speak for itself" (no.139). The practice 'tells' us of its own basic nature in how such initial examples strike us: they establish a basic way of seeing, a form of perception, for use in making sense of all the other 'objects' we encounter in the sphere of the practice. Hence the importance of Wittgenstein's (1953) claim that "there is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation, but which is exhibited in what we call 'obeying the rule' and 'going against it' in actual cases" (no.201).

In other words, to do arithmetic, we must first make use of our participative, dialogically-structured forms of thought and understanding in establishing its foundations. And, just as in doing arithmetic (and also logic), so in many of our other institutional practices: this is where the roots of our sure practices can be found. So, although we are tempted to say that every action that seems to be according to a rule must entail an inner process of interpretation, the initial, dialogically-structured, spontaneously responsive reactions, in terms of which we begin a new practice in the first place, are not. They must be participatively experienced or lived through if we are to learn the practice, for learning to follow rules is not a matter of first learning how to picture (the steps constituting) an activity - that can come much later - but of how, basically, to spontaneously respond to each small basic step in terms of which complex operations in the practice are constructed. And once we have learned how to do addition, subtraction, and multiplication, so we go on to elaborate our knowledge of it further, by learning: 1-:- 1 = 1, and that x -:- 0 is undefined, and so on. After learning division, we can then, perhaps, begin to scan arrays of numbers for repeating patterns in one or another form of mathematical research.

While most of us cannot array the whole field of arithmetically related numbers before us - as mathematicians working in number theory seem able to do - many of us are able, nonetheless, to 'see' each relevant step in a simple calculation 'displayed' before us as it arises, and, as a result, feel certain of its correctness. Indeed, this was the basis of Descartes's (1968) claim to be able to achieve certainty in his method of philosophizing: if one can begin with clear and distinct ideas, then, by use of those "long chains of reasonings, quite simple and easy, which geometers are accustomed to using to teach their most difficult demonstrations... there can be nothing so distant that one does not reach it eventually, or so hidden that one cannot discover it" (p.41). And as Fisher (1998) points out, the simple initial exercises Descartes recommended for getting a sense of what certainty feels like, work to give one a feel for "what one step looks like, what adequate symbolism is at any given moment, what the distinction between relevant and irrelevant details feels like, but above all, what the feeling of 'getting it', of crossing the small gap of the unknown is like" (p.66) - where crossing each small gap of the unknown is a matter of relating each crossing to a set of basic exemplars in terms of the practice 'works'. Each gap is bridged by dialogically-responsive relations of the kind discussed above, each of which gives rise to a 'striking' event in miniature - thus, rather causal, logical, or rational relations being at the heart of our understanding here, a "poetics of thought" is at work (to use Fisher's term), a poetics because, at precisely these moments, a uniquely new way of seeing is emerging, is being made (poeisis).

It will be useful at this point to reconnect with William James's comments about the importance of our everyday, spontaneous concept of visual space, and its use as an ideal for what we take a scheme of rational understanding to be - it functions as a standard for us because, to repeat, we seem able to begin anywhere and roam over the whole, either globally or in minute detail. But, as we saw above, when faced with the task of having to articulate details of its nature on paper, we did not first have to fit its details into one or another rationally devised framework in an attempt to make sense of them. On the contrary, as William James pointed out, our intelligence is absolutely intimate with it; for us, it is rationality and transparency incarnate. Thus, although it is richly structured, so to speak, and not present to us as a logically ordered system (a system with a single order of connectedness), the inner structure of visual space is so familiar to us from our everyday involvements in it, that it nonetheless serves us as an ideal with which to compare bodies of knowledge acquired in other spheres of involvement - we seek the same ease of movement around inside these spheres as in the ordinary spaces around us. By comparison, the parts of "the real" seem to lack any "inward kinship;" they "seem... to be shot out of a pistol at us. Each asserts itself as a simple brute fact, uncalled for by the rest... Arbitrary, foreign, jolting, discontinuous - are the adjectives by which we are tempted to describe it [i.e., the real]" (p.264). Confronted by such seemingly arbitrary events, there is thus a continual temptation to convert them into regularities, into repetitions, and to ignore their unique details, thus to make sense of them intellectually by assimilating them to one or another abstract, systematic, theoretical framework.

This is precisely what has happened in the past in our attempts to understand communication and the part played in it by what above we called the "once occurrent events of Being" that strike us, that matter to us. We can see this move to an abstract-systematic kind of understanding, classically, expressed in Saussure's (1911/1959) arguments in linguistics for ignoring parole (speech) and constructing langue (the language-system of a language) as the object of study in linguistics. If we turn to his initial remarks in which he justifies the ignoring of speech, we can ask: How was it possible for him to argue that speech "appears to us as a confused mass of heterogeneous and unrelated things," that it "stradd[les] several areas simultaneously - physical, physiological, and psychological - it belongs to both individual and society" (p.9), and for us as readers to find no trouble in immediately acknowledging the truth of his claims? How could both he and we already, seemingly, know so much about linguistic phenomena? Isn't it because as already competent speakers of our mother tongue, we all already possess the only concept (or theory) of language which is worth having, i.e., the concept of it that allows us to use it with surety and confidence? Without an organized, unitary, synoptic grasp of what our language as such is, i.e., a conceptual grasp of it, not only would we be unable to speak as we do, but we would not able to follow Saussure's arguments for his (re)-constitution of it as a normative system of self-identical forms, and thus as an object of study for scientific linguistics. Captivated by the predictive and manipulative power provided us by systems exhibiting a single order of connectedness, we downplay the fact that our 'scientific' understandings arise only as refinements and development of our ordinary, spontaneous understandings (what Heideggerians might call pre-understandings). We forget what Goethe tried to remind us of: that everything in the realm of fact is already theory. Thus, to understand human communication better, we do not need any new theories. We need to critically elaborate the spontaneous theory of language we already possess.

Concluding remarks: critically refining our practices

In contrast to the abstract-systematic approach we have pursued in the past, this is what the Wittgensteinian-Bakhtinian approach I have outlined above emphasizes: Not only do our practical everyday spontaneous understandings provide the best organized, synoptic (i.e., theoretical) basis for our practical activities; not only do they also provide the conceptual basis for all our more abstract and systematic formulations; and, not only is it impossible to exhaustively express the richness of their interconnected nature in any list (however long) of such formulations; but also, the very once-occurrent events that seem "to be shot out of a pistol at us" are the very events that matter to us in updating (and thus correcting) our spontaneous concepts of our everyday world. As we noted above, such once-occurrent events only seem to come 'out of the blue' to external observers of them. Those participating in the ongoing flow of activity within which they occur, not only understand them in terms of the (still open, only partially specified) dialogic relations created between such events and themselves at the moment of their occurrence, but people 'go on' from within these precise relations to articulate them further. The kind of understanding sought by Wittgenstein and Bakhtin, then, is what we might call a participatory form of understanding. Rather than seeking a systematic, logical, single order of connectedness, within which one can calculate outcomes ahead of time, they seek the kind of understanding we have in our many of our everyday life activities, where we are so 'at home' in our surroundings that we have no need of calculated predictions.

In seeking this kind of exact inner understanding, as already mentioned, Wittgenstein was following Goethe (see Monk, 1990, pp.302-304, and Waismann, 1965, pp.80-81), and his method of attempting to come to an inner grasp of the 'developmental movement' of plant forms as they metamorphose from seedlings, through the fully grown plant, to the time when they also produce seeds. To be able, imaginatively, to move with ease, backwards and forwards, through the unbroken, developmental flow of plants forms, we must, Goethe claimed, participatively understand the overall movement of a plant's growth through a process of "exact sensorial imagination." Goethe outlined the nature of the process thus: "If I look at the created object, inquire into its creation, and follow this process back as far as I can, I will find a series of steps. Since these are not actually seen together before me, I must visualize them in my memory so that they form a certain ideal whole. At first I will tend to think in terms of steps, yet nature leaves no gaps, and thus, in the end, I will have to see this progression of uninterrupted activity as a whole. I can do so by dissolving the particular without destroying the impression itself" (quoted in Hoffman, 1998, p.133). To see a developing whole in this indivisible way, is to see the various possible next steps in its development as necessary steps, i.e., as being open to further specification, but only of an already specified kind. In seeking this kind of exactitude, Goethe (like Descartes) had in mind our way of thinking in mathematics when, so to speak, we can (if we are expert) have an inner vision of the sequence of steps required to make a proof, all-at-once before us as in our beholding of a visual landscape: "From the mathematician we must learn the meticulous care required to connect things in unbroken succession, or rather, to derive things step by step. Even where we do not venture to apply mathematics we must always work as though we had to satisfy the strictest geometricians" (quoted in Bortoft, 1996, p.229).

Elsewhere, Arlene Katz and I have described a number of studies in which we have essentially followed this process (Katz and Shotter, 1996; Shotter and Katz, 1996; Katz and Shotter, 1996; and Shotter and Katz, 1998). Beginning with 'striking' or 'arresting' moments, we go on to delineate a number of further methods - which taken all together we call a "social poetics" - for use by a group of practitioners in dialogue amongst themselves to come to a much more articulate grasp of their own practices, thus, to critically develop them. The methods are quite ordinary. In many spheres of our lives, we 'enter into' a new sphere of endeavor by first being presented with a number of paradigm examples, so in the methods we outline. Once encountered, through the use of selected images, metaphors, and similes, we go on to relate these exemplars both to each other, and to what is already well-known to us. Then, by the use of crucial contrast and comparisons, we then try to bring an order, or various orders into our knowledge in the sphere. Where the overall aim of such activities is to help us become familiar, to know our 'way around' better inside the sphere of endeavor in question. And this is the aim in the studies we report. Thus their methodological aim was not to provide any new knowledge as such, or to formulate any new theories. No "problems" as such were solved. Instead, the aim was to help participants' attend to the spontaneous, dialogical involvements in which they originate and sustain their own practices. In this way, by being able to responsively understand, or to participatively experience once-occurrent, fleeting aspects of their practices, which previously had gone unnoticed by them (aspects too transitory or too trivial to be previously accorded any importance), participants were able to see in such events the beginnings of new, more appropriate practices that left old problems behind. The studies did not, thus, result in any general theory of communication, but the methods used are of a kind that, to an extent, can be 'carried over' from one field of practice into another. The continual tailoring of our institutionalized, rule-bound practices to the detailed realities of their surroundings - which we exhibit to ourselves in our spontaneous, once-occurrent responses to these details - requires, if we open ourselves to it, unending dialogically informed work. As Bakhtin (1984) puts it: "Truth is not to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for the truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction" (p.110).


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1. Hence the claim of Roberts and Bavelas (1997), that "meaning is a collaborative creation of interlocutors" (p.135).

2. In a moment, I will turn to a discussion of our everyday, common sense, spontaneously constituted concept of space, and William James's argument for it as the ideal in terms of which we judge the claims to rationality made with regard to our more deliberately fashioned bodies of knowledge. Without such an initial, unitary, synoptic grasp of what space is for us, a conceptual (or theoretical) grasp of it, we would be unable to follow James's arguments. Indeed, it is in this sense that I want to interpret the import of Goethe's famous claim, that "everything in the realm of fact is already theory" (quoted in Brady, 1998, p.98). Where the word 'theory' here must not be read as meaning a hierarchically structured, systematic theory, exhibiting a single order of connectedness, but as meaning the kind of overall, all-at-once grasp we have (or expect to have) of things in certain spheres of human life. Geertz (1983) captures the not wholly systematized, but nonetheless expectation-shaping nature of common sense in the following comment: "'Naturalness', 'practicalness', 'thinness', 'immethodicalness', and 'accessibileness' are the somewhat unstandard properties I want to attribute to common sense generally, as an everywhere-found cultural form" (p.85).

3. Wittgenstein (1953), in discussing the complexity of the phenomenon of being "struck" by something, remarks: "Is being struck looking plus thinking? No. Many of our concepts cross here" (p.211). Unlike the 'down-stream' realm of our more differentiated and organized intellectual activities - in which we think of looking, thinking, remembering, imagining, feeling, acting, judging, evaluating, acting impulsively, feeling urges, etc. as all separate mental functions - on moving 'up-stream', all these aspects of our mental make-up become more inextricably intertwined.

4. The claim by out-and-out relativists that anything can mean anything must be moderated by this fact. Only already specified further specifications are possible.

5. Later, when we explore the indivisible, or en-folded wholeness of such dialogically-structured moments, we can suggest with David Bohm (1996) that the rooting or "the ground of everything is the en-folded, and the un-folded is just a display, or a show of the enfolded" (p.89).

6. Let me add here, that the view James presents above is an ideal: not quite everything is present to every point of view. There are slight differences from one viewpoint to the next. They represent what Bakhtin (1990) calls "the excess of seeing." In fact, whenever I face another human being, I can see things that he or she cannot see - for instance, the fleeting expression of concern that flashes across a mother's face as she talks to me of her child - as a result, says Bakhtin (1990), "as we gaze at each other, two different worlds are reflected in the pupils of our eyes" (p.23). I will return to the importance both of this excess of seeing, and of the uniqueness of each of our positions in existence in relation to each other, in a moment. What is important for us here, is to grasp that from within our involvement in it, an ordinary, everyday visual space can, ideally, give us access to an indivisible whole, i.e., to a sense of what it means for a whole to contain (or to enfold) itself as a whole within each of its 'parts' (within each of its regions or moments), and for all its 'parts' all to be inseparably related to each other.

7. Bernstein (1983) picks up on this issue with respect to our political lives. In arguing that "the idea that we can make, engineer, impose our collective will to form [dialogical] communities... [has] been disastrous," he suggests that "the coming into being of [such communities]... presupposes the incipient forms of such communal life." We must work dialogically, out from within already existing dialogical relations.

8. Garfinkel (1967) notes that every time we work to make our "familiar, commonplace of everyday life recognizable as familiar, commonplace activities... [we do so] for 'another first time'" (p.9).