First draft of paper for special issue of Journal of Constructivist Psychology, edited by Tom Strong
ABSTRACT: As Goffman (1967) remarks: [if] the minute social system that is
brought into being with each encounter [becomes] disorganized... participants
will feel unruled, unreal, and anomic (p.135). In other words, if we and our
interlocutors are to communicate readily and easily, we rely on those with whom
we are involved to sustain the sense of a collective-we between us, a shared
reality that is our reality. And it is only in relation to such a shared reality that we
can express to each other who we are, express the nature of our unique 'inner
lives' to each other. To an extent, we owe our very being, our identity, to it. If it
collapses, then it is quite easy for us to feel unheard, or unable to express
ourselves. Is there something wrong with us? Or with the world? If we are to
sustain the sense of a collective-we, then we find ourselves with, as Goffman
notes, certain involvement obligations, or interactive responsibilities, to our
joint affairs: only if 'you' respond to 'me' in a way sensitive to the relations
between your actions and mine can 'we' act together as a 'collective-we'; and if I
sense you as not being sensitive in that way, i.e., as not being responsive to me,
but as pursuing an agenda of your own, then I will feel immediately offended in
an ethical way. I will feel not only that you lack respect for 'our' affairs, but a
lack of respect for me too. In such circumstances, not only do I feel insulted, but
I lack the social conditions necessary to express myself, the nature of my own
'inner life'. In psychotherapy, in which it is the task of therapists to explore the
unique inner lives of their clients, this is disastrous. Yet, in the pursuit of a
technical agenda, it is only too easy to ignore the intrinsic involvement
obligations present to some extent in all our exchanges with others, and as a
result, to disrupt or disturb them in their very being, in who they are for us.
Knowledge is in the end based on acknowledgment (Wittgenstein, 1969,
Monologism, at its extreme, denies the existence outside itself of another consciousness with equal rights and equal responsibilities, another I with equal rights (thou). With a monologic approach (in its extreme pure form) another person remains wholly and merely an object of consciousness, and not another consciousness. No response is expected from it that could change anything in the world of my consciousness. Monologue is finalized and deaf to other's response, does not expect it and does not acknowledge in it any force (Bakhtin, 1984, pp.292-293).
Our attitude to what is alive and to what is dead, is not the same. All our reactions are different (Wittgenstein, 1953, no.284).
As soon as I begin an interchange of looks with another person, and I sense them as looking toward me in a certain way (as they see me looking toward them in the same way too), a little ethical and political world is created between us. We each look toward each other expectantly, with anticipations, some shared some not, arising from what we have already lived in our lives so far. Indeed, to put the point more generally, in any living contact between any two or more human beings, in the meetings between us, at least two things of importance occur: (1) Yet another form of life emerges between us, a collective or shared form of life with its own unique character and its own unique world, in whose terms, for the duration of our meeting, we can mean things to each other. But also, within this world, (2) we are 'present' to each other as who are, at least to a minimal extent, we can 'see into' each other _ hence, if it is a stranger with whom we have become involved, we quickly look away again, lest we reveal too much of ourselves unnecessarily.
In our living contacts with an other or otherness, then, our mere surroundings are
transformed into a world, an at least partially shared world that we sense ourselves as being in
along with the others and othernesses
(See footnote 1)
around us. Besides having an ethics and politics to it,
besides our having expectations within it as to how the others around us should treat us and are
likely to treat us, our partially shared world has, we feel, a unique culture to it. For each of us, it
contains a certain set of interconnected things, with certain values to them in relation to which I
take on a certain character, and toward which I take a certain stance: I am a psychologist
surrounded by people who require the kind of help I can offer them; I am an architect worrying
about both the efficient and exciting use of space; I am a mathematician surrounded by other
mathematicians, a painter surrounded by the world of art, a musician, a student of history, a
construction worker, etc., etc. But overall, I am simply a person with a 'life of my own' among
other such persons also with 'lives of their own', with us all expecting in our meetings with each
other to be treated as such.
These, then, are the topics I want to explore in this article: How is it that we can gain this
kind of sense of another person as having, in relation to us, an 'inner life of their own' _ that what
confronts us is not just an object, but another consciousness? And what, ethically, is entailed in
our coming to an understanding of them, of their life, their inner life _ not just in our terms, but in
However, as the epigraph quotation from Bakhtin (1984) above suggests, there is an important
distinction to be made between two different kinds of approach we might adopt in our meetings
with the others around us, for a monological approach is very different from a dialogical approach.
As we shall see, only the immediate expressive-responsiveness at work in a dialogical approach
makes the appreciation of an other person as another consciousness distinct from our own,
possible. With a monologic approach, to repeat, another person remains wholly and merely an
object of consciousness, and not another consciousness, Bakhtin (1984, p.293) notes.
I will explore the detailed nature of our dialogically-structured, living relations with the
others and othernesses around us much more fully below. But let me straightaway emphasize here,
it is due to the fact that, as living beings, we cannot not be spontaneously responsive to the
behavior of the others and otherness around us in some way (and in so being, express ourselves
back to them in some way), that the special outcomes of our meetings with them that I noted above
occur. Why have we not noticed this before? The emphasis in Western philosophy on only the
capacities of individuals, along with the divide between subject and object, mind and body,
thought and action, and all the other Cartesian trappings we have adopted in our intellectual
endeavors, has led us, as a result, to ignore the essentially dynamic-relational features of our living
involvements out in the world _ features which make their appearance only in the unfolding of our
living relations with our surroundings. The relations that unfold just as much in time as in space
are what we have missed in thinking about our relations to the others and othernesses around us in
the past. But, as the back-and-forth flow of spontaneously occurring activity between them and us
unfolds, not only do we create between us in our meetings a third, shared form of life, not wholly
their's nor our's, but also, in the 'overtones' and 'partials' present in the rhythmic flow of activity
coming into us in response to our expressive activity out toward them _ in its specific variability,
as Voloshinov (1984, p.69) calls it _ they can express themselves, the unique nature of their inner
lives', to us. Thus, as we shall see, not only does this intermingling of our expressive-responsive
behavior with their's give rise to the possibility of our coming to an understanding of their
behavior in a way quite different to that in which we come to an understanding of a dead entity's
behavior, but the intermingling of their activity with our's also gives rise to the creation between us
and around us of a 'space' with a 'depth' (of possibilities) to it, i.e., to in fact a shared 'world'.
Rather than the perception of an underlying reality, what seems to become available to us in such
activity, is the perception of an in-lying reality.
To return to the simple example of two people 'looking at', rather than, say, 'looking
over' each other. Oliver Sacks (1985), in describing his first meeting with Dr P. _ the man who
mistook his wife for a hat _ was at first puzzled as to why Dr P. had been referred to his clinic. He
was a man of great cultivation and charm, and showed no sign of dementia in the ordinary sense:
Yet there was something a bit odd. He faced me as he spoke, was oriented towards me, and yet
there was something the matter _ it was difficult to formulate. He faced me with his ears, I came to
think, but not his eyes. These, instead of looking, gazing, at me, 'taking me in', in the normal way,
made sudden strange fixations _ on my nose, on my right ear, down to my chin, up to my right ear
_ as if noting (even studying) these individual features, but not seeing my whole face, its changing
expressions, 'me', as a whole (p.8). There was, although he says that he did not fully recognize it
at the time, just a teasing strangeness, some failure in the normal interplay of gaze and
expression in Dr P.'s way of visually relating to him. In Bakhtin's (1984) terms, it was as if Dr P.,
visually, had only a monologic relation with the others and othernesses around him, and had no
dialogical capacity to recognize their expressions. Indeed, as Sacks (1985) comments, with respect
to Dr P.'s inability to recognize photographs of any of his family, colleagues, or pupils, or even
himself: He approached these faces _ even those near and dear to him _ 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'. Thus there was formal, but no trace of
personal, gnosis. And with this went his indifference, or blindness, to expression (p.12).
We can get an initial sense of what is at issue here in a little exercise I sometimes have my
students do in pairs. If we can induce a friend to bear with us, and allow us not to look at 'them',
but to use them while we try to see our own face reflected in the surface of their eyeballs (or lenses
of their spectacles), they will have that same sense of being 'looked over', as if merely an object,
that Sacks initially had with Dr P. Clearly, the change that takes place as a looker ceases to regard
another person personally and switches to regarding them objectively, to seeming only to be
'looking over' them or 'surveying' them, is a change Sacks describes precisely as a change in the
interplay of gaze and expression _ the gazed at person feels that the looker's face has gone
'stoney', that the 'interplay' of visual activity between them has ceased, and as a result the looker
is no longer seeing them as a person. Indeed, as we all know, to stare, i.e., to look steadily and
fixedly at another person, is considered rude _ stared at babies pull whatever sheet that is near to
hand before their eyes. While not easy to describe in its intricate, interactive detail, there is no
doubt that the experience of being regarded in this way is strongly sensed _ indeed, many animals
also respond strongly to such eye contact with human beings.
About the role of our eyes in our expressions, Wittgenstein (1981) remarks: We do not
see the eye as a receiver, it appears not to let anything in, but to send something out. The ear
receives; the eye looks. (It cats glances, it flashes, radiates, gleams.) One can terrify with one's
eyes, not with one's ear or nose. When you see the eye you see something going out from it. You
see the look in the eye (no.222). Indeed, I see my friend over there watching his children play
with other children, and I can see his joy at their actions, as well as his concern with the lack of
response on the part of the other children to his children: 'We see [his] emotion' _ As opposed to
what? _ We do not see facial contortions and make inferences from them (like a doctor framing a
diagnosis) to joy, grief, boredom. We describe a face immediately as sad, radiant, bored, even
when we are unable to give any other description of the features. _ Grief, one would like to say, is
personified in the face. This belongs to the concept of emotion (no.225).
Indeed, to not to be spontaneously responsive in this way to expressive events occurring
around us, is difficult. We must train ourselves especially if we are to suppress it. To adopt an
objective attitude in science to the subject matter of our investigations _ or in Bakhtin's (1984)
terms, a monologic attitude _ we must follow a strict methodology that decrees a series of set of
step by step manipulations solely in accord with the theory we are currently subjecting to
experimental test. We must not be influenced at all by any tendency we might feel to respond to
our subject matter's immediate behavior. We must distance ourselves from them. But to act in this
way, i.e., objectively, is to treat all entities for the purposes of our investigations _ whether alive or
dead _ as if dead, as entities which we cannot, or will not, enter into any dialogically-structured
exchanges with at all. We act in this way, visually observing the geometrical shapes or forms of
things from a distance, along with the extent to which changes in those forms correspond with
changes in the abstract forms within which our general theories are couched, precisely in an effort
to eliminate any particular and/or unique, idiosyncratic responses we might as individuals have to
the events we observe. Our aim here is to come to a wholly intellectual, disinterested, disembodied
understanding of what in the physical sciences we call our 'external world' (Russell, 1914).
Here is not the place for a detailed exploration of the nature and the origins of our appetite for this
kind of objective knowledge in the history of Western philosophy _ I have set out its character in
many places elsewhere (e.g., Shotter, 1974, 1975). But what is very relevant here, is to make
explicit some of the needs it seeks to satisfy. As Descartes (1968) put it back in 1637, one aspect
of his dream, was that by the use of the kind of methodical reasoning he advocated, we could come
to know: ... the force and the actions of fire, water, air, the stars, the heavens, and all other bodies
that surround us... [such that we could] utilize them for all the uses to which they are suited and
thus render ourselves masters and possessors of nature (p.74) _ to repeat, rather than more
knowledgeable participants in Nature, by methodical reasoning we could become masters and
possessors of it. By manipulating an entity in accord with a theory as its nature, and by merely
observing whether the results of our manipulations accord with, or depart from, the expectations
engendered by the theory, we can come to a manipulative or instrumental understanding of its
behavior. And we can do this from a distance, without any need to enter into a living, responsive
relation with it. To this achievement, we can add another aspect of the dream that we have
inherited from Descartes: In coming to this kind of understanding of an entity's behavior in this
way, we can find that sense of connection between our out-going actions and their in-coming
satisfaction, solely in the occurrence of an expected result within ourselves _ we need owe nothing
to the others around us (now, or in the past) for our manipulative discoveries. We can be their sole
authors. His methods provide a recipe for establishing the authority of experts.
Indeed, the power of prediction and control, a power that we can locate solely within
ourselves as individuals, is not without its attractions. However, it still leaves us ignorant of the
ordinary, everyday ways in which we do in fact relate ourselves to the others and othernesses
around us. We remain unacquainted with the ways in which we do in fact come to a grasp of the
unique character of the unique people and the unique circumstances in relation with which, in
practice, we live our daily lives. In fact, it leaves us illiterate in the kind of knowledge that we all
can acquire in gaining an easy familiarity with places, persons, or circumstances _ the kind of
familiarity we can have when feel 'at home', or 'know our way around', or how to 'go on' within a
circumstance in question. But arrive at this kind of essentially practical knowledge, rather than an
understanding of regularities and repetitions, of generalities and abstractions, we need to arrive at
unique understandings of unique persons and of unique, never-again-to-be-repeated events _ for
these are the kind of understandings that enables us to 'go on' in particular, practical situations.
But this kind of contact with the others and othernesses around us, within which they
reveal their inner lives to us, does not just occur by happenstance. It is a human achievement.
Goffman (1967) discusses the spontaneously emergent involvement obligations and other
responsibilities we face in sustaining such joint spontaneous involvements, along with some of the
involvement offences we can commit by becoming too wilful in our actions. As he notes: A
conversation has a life of its own and makes demands on its own behalf (p.113). Thus, our
involvement offences almost all arise out of us acting deliberately, as we ourselves require, rather
than spontaneously, as each conversational moment requires. In the next section below, I will turn
to a discussion of these essentially ethical issues. But here, I want to discuss the existential
character of the conversational realities that are created between us in our joint spontaneous
involvements, and how we depend on these realities for feeling secure within ourselves, as well as
what happens to our self-assurance if fail to sustain them.
Goffman (1967) describes this existential aspect of our involvements thus: Social
encounters differ a great deal in the importance that participants give to them but... all encounters
represent occasions when the individual can become spontaneously involved in the proceedings
and derive from this a firm sense of reality. And this kind of feeling is not a trivial thing,
regardless of the package in which it comes. When an incident occurs and spontaneous
involvement is threatened, then reality is threatened. Unless the disturbance is checked, unless the
interactants regain their proper involvement, the illusion of reality will be shattered, the minute
social system that is brought into being with each encounter will be disorganized, and the
participants will feel unruled, unreal, and anomic (p.135).
In other words, when the spontaneous involvements sustaining our living contacts with
each other are threatened, more is at stake than our merely feeling insulted, or that the other(s)
around us have not sufficiently contributed to the maintenance of the relationship between us.
Lacking the appropriate relations to our surroundings, we can feel ourselves existentially reduced.
We can feel robbed, not only of the openings and invitations, the opportunities, the 'callings' we
need, if we are to express ourselves at all responsively and responsibly, i.e., as autonomous, self-
determining, socially accountable individuals (Shotter, 1984)
(See footnote 2)
. But we can feel robbed also of the
kind of resourceful or responsive surroundings we also require for such self-expression. For,
paradoxical though it may sound, we cannot act in a self-determining way without the relationally-
responsive help of the others around us. Not only do we need to feel, prior to our attempts to
express ourselves, the other's readiness to respond to us, but, to the extent that we cannot predict
their response ahead of time, we need to sense also that we can in anticipation of their response.
But, if their actual response fails to fulfil our expectations, fails to acknowledge that aspect of our
expression which expresses us _ which, of course, is quite likely _ then we must act again, and
perhaps again, until we finally sense (or not) that at least they have grasped who we are. Unless we
feel that the others around us will continue to provide us with the 'callings' and 'answerings' we
need to sustain the 'developmental' process usually required in our efforts to express ourselves, we
simply cannot become ourselves with them.
Without both the invitational-expressions, and the responsive-answers of the others
around us, just as Dr P. had to try to 'work out', self-consciously, as if according to a check-list of
visual features, what something is, thus appropriately to respond to it, so would we, deliberately
and intellectually, have to try to 'work out' how to make sense of linguistic expressions.
This is reminiscent, of course, of the way in which we test our theories as research
scientists, by using as that sense of connection between our out-going actions and their satisfaction
that occurs solely within ourselves, without any reference, initially at least, to the judgments of the
others around us as to whether it makes sense to them or not. But to repeat, paradoxical though it
may seem, if we are to be self-determining individuals, free to express ourselves to the others
around us, we cannot expect to do it in a simple 'one-pass' utterance, by saying a sentence and
having a listener understand it; we cannot know ahead of time what we need to say to achieve the
desired result. A complex back-and-forth process requiring the interrelating, the interweaving, or
the intertwining of many events or features of the interaction occurring between us is required if
we are to be satisfied that we have indeed expressed ourselves to them. Specifying or determining
what needs to be said requires negotiating between speaker and hearer, between what has already
been said and what currently is being said, as well as making use of tests and assumptions, use of
both the present context while waiting for something said later to make clear what was meant
earlier, and the use of many other seen but unnoticed background features of our everyday
meetings with others (Garfinkel, 1967, p.36)
(See footnote 3)
. Hence, strangely, only if we know our 'way about'
within our meetings with the others and othernesses around us, can we effortlessly achieve our
own ends _ otherwise, we must make great efforts to impose them by force, and even then face
only a moderate chance of success.
We depend on the others around us, then, if we are to use words to expressing ourselves to them.
But due to what Bakhtin (1981) calls their internal dialogism (p.280), without both the initial
'invitational openings' and the 'anticipated answerability' provided us by others, we can feel quite
impotent to express our true and unique selves in words to them _ no matter what we say of
ourselves, we feel they will not be able to acknowledge, i.e., to recognize in the subtle dynamics of
our utterances as they unfold, the dimensions of our otherness, our expressions of ourselves.
Bakhtin (1981) puts the issue thus: Every word is directed toward an answer and cannot escape
the profound influence of the answering word that it anticipates. The word in living conversation is
directly, blatantly, oriented toward a future answer-word; it provokes an answer, anticipates it and
structures itself in the answer's direction. Forming itself in an atmosphere of the already spoken,
the word is at the same time determined by that which has not yet been said but which is needed
and in fact anticipated by the answering word (p.280).
Thus all speech must in its 'contours', so to speak, be uniquely responsive to its
circumstances _ to the characteristics of the speaker, the addressee (the listener), the surrounding
situation, and so on _ if it is to be expressive of the unique circumstances of its occurrence. Thus
we cannot, unless we are uttering the mere formulaic repetition of a fact, issuing an official
command, or expressing some other entirely conventional utterance, simply utter a sequence of
pre-decided words. For, to emphasize the seemingly paradoxical point already made above yet
again, we cannot know ahead of time exactly what words we need to utter to achieve our desires.
The 'something' we desire, the 'lack' we are trying to remedy, cannot already be known to us in its
practicalities, i.e., its character, in these circumstances. We must _ with the aid of the others
around us _ search to discover, step-by-step, what it is that will satisfy the impulse to act we feel.
Hence Wittgenstein's (1953) remark: Let the use of words teach you their meaning. (Similarly
one can often say in mathematics: let the proof teach you what was being proved.) (p.220).
For the process of discovery here, then, paradoxical though it may again sound, is not at
all akin to the process in which we discover 'a solution to a problem' _ a bottom-up process in
which we 'work out' a particular unknown quantity by discovering its relationship, its 'place',
within a system of quantities already known to us. Our trouble in having others understand us is, to
an extent, indeterminate. It can begin with their spontaneous reactions to our actions or utterances
(See footnote 4)
but then must proceed in an open, top-down process, within which an overall, shared form of life
has to be creatively developed between us, step-by-step, in a transaction negotiated between them
and ourselves. And only the final achievement of a mutual understanding will allow us,
retrospectively, to identify what the particular steps were _ among the many other inadequate steps
we in fact took _ that were adequate to that task. The part played by each of particular steps we
took, our elementary actions, can thus only be understood within the ongoing context of that
overall activity. Indeed, to the extent that the negotiated transaction unfolds in a sequence of
unique, moment-by-moment exchanges, each one having, so to speak, both a unique direction and
(See footnote 5)
, our elementary actions simply cannot be 'cut-out' from the overall activity in which they
are embedded, if their unique, momentary, direction and sense is to be retained _ a point, as we
shall see, of the utmost importance. To the extent that events occurring within our meetings draw
their sense from their sequential positioning within the meeting as an indivisible whole, let us call
it the indivisibility-principle.
So, although the 'absent somethings' that we need to say or do to express ourselves adequately in a current circumstance are next to impossible to articulate, the fact is, we can in a responsive process of 'searching around', nonetheless, come to articulate them step-by-step.
Indeed, we can often have just this experience when, say, writing something, and we cannot think
exactly of the words we need, while remaining convinced the right words do nonetheless exist, and
that they will sooner or later occur to us if we go in for the right kind of searching. But, as
Wittgenstein (1953) remarks, what that kind of searching is, is not easy to describe: How do I
find the 'right' word? How do I choose among words? Without doubt it is sometimes as if I were
comparing them by fine differences of smell: That is too ......, that is too ......, _ this is the right
one. _ But I do not always have to make judgments, give explanations; often I might only say: It
simply isn't right yet. I am dissatisfied, I go on looking. At last a word comes: That's it!
Sometimes I can say why. This is simply what searching, this is what finding, is like here (p.218).
We must not let the uniqueness of these events _ when we refer to an otherwise
unspecified 'this!' or a 'that!' _ overshadow their importance for us. Wittgenstein (1953) brings
out their importance in the example that follows: In saying 'When I heard this word, it meant ....
to me' one refers to a point of time and to a way of using the word. (Of course, it is this
combination that we fail to grasp.) And the expression 'I was then going to say .....' refers to a
point of time and to an action. I speak of the essential references of the utterance in order to
distinguish them from other peculiarities of the expression we use (p.175). In other words, the
essential references of an utterance are the reference we make in our own unique use of it. And
what Wittgenstein is bringing to our attention here, is our capacity, people's capacity, to
acknowledge, to sense, or to recognize (in some degree), that a presently unfolding event or
expression 'resonates' or is 'attuned to' a 'something' already present in us. For instance, as
already mentioned with regard to the experimental testing of our theories, we need to be able to
acknowledge, to recognize, the occurrence of an experimental outcome as 'fitting', or not, in with
the essential references in our theory-engendered expectations. Thus, what we lose when as a
speaker we 'fall out' of joint spontaneous involvement with our addressees, is not what our words
mean conventionally, but what we mean in saying them. We find it difficult to express our selves,
who we are.
Without the attunement of the others around us to our expressions, without their
expressions of acknowledgment, it is as if we are speaking to them in a foreign tongue. We can
still be 'experts' at speaking a language, in the sense of being able to achieve our technical goals
by its use, but we cannot express within it the subtleties we need to express if we are to explore
with them why we feel, say, the quantification of human relationships is destructive of them in
important ways, or why seeking to solve 'problems' within them is not always a pathway to their
improvement, and so on. Making our reasons for such judgments as these explicit to others, the
sense we have of the dangerous directions in which such actions might possibly take us, so that
they can come to share our concern, is not easy. For, to repeat, rather than the perception of an
underlying reality, something that we can talk about, it is the perception of an in-lying reality that
is required. It is our mutual attunement to the unspecifiable essential references of people's
utterances that make it possible for us to specify just the selected references required to carry on
our practical affairs without confusion.
Merleau-Ponty (1962) expresses this most subtle and complex issue thus: There is, then,
a taking up of others' thought through speech, a reflection in others, an ability to think according
to others which enriches our own thoughts. Here the meaning of words must be finally be induced
by the words themselves, or more exactly, their conceptual meaning must be formed by a kind of
deduction from a gestural meaning, which is immanent in speech. And as, in a foreign country, I
begin to understand the meaning of words through their place in the context of action, and by
taking part in a communal life _ in the same way an as yet imperfectly understood piece of
philosophical writing discloses to me at least a certain 'style'... There is thus, either in the man
who listens or reads, or in the one who speaks or writes, a thought in speech the existence of which
is unsuspected by intellectualism (p.179).
Bakhtin (1986) also expresses a similar point in noting that, any word exists for the speaker in three aspects: as a neutral word of a language, belonging to nobody; as an other's word, which belongs to another person and is filled with echoes of the other's utterance; and finally, as
my word, for, since I am dealing with it in a particular situation, with a particular speech plan, it is
already imbued with my expression. In both the latter aspects, the word is expressive, but, we
repeat, this expression does not inhere in the word itself. It originates at the point of contact
between the word and actual reality, under the conditions of that real situation articulated by the
individual utterance. In this case the word appears as an expression of some evaluative position of
an individual person (authority, writer, scientist, father, mother, friend, teacher, and so forth)...
(p.88). In other words, subtle though it may be, my speaker's meaning, what I mean in saying the
words I utter, how I mean you to take them, is expressed only within the unfolding 'contours' my
utterances, and can be understood only by those who 'follow' the 'shape' of their unfolding
responsively. Hence, on the one hand, we can sense another's lack of acknowledgment, lack of
attunement to one's own evaluative position _ as Sacks does with Dr P. _ in a dissonance, a failure
of interplay, in the interchange occurring between us and them, but on the other hand, sometimes,
we can experience a 'shock of recognition', as if hearing our mother tongue spoken in a foreign
country. Yes, that's exactly it, the other says, and we smile with pleasure, and experience an
immediate sense of 'ease', of 'familiarity', of 'connectedness' with them.
If we and our interlocutors are to communicate readily and easily, then, we rely on those with
whom we are involved to sustain the sense of a collective-we, a shared reality between us and
around us, that is our reality. For, it is only within such an intimately shared reality that we can not
only express to each other who we are, the nature of our unique 'inner lives' to each other. But, to
go further, it is only within such richly textured realities that we can sense ourselves as free agents
in our interactions, and not feel 'dictated' to by the others around us in what we say and do. For, it
is just in the gaps they offer us, in between their talk and our responses to it, that we can have the
opportunity to act completely in terms of our own judgments and skills, to adjust our actions as we
perform them to fit our sense of our circumstances. To appreciate the importance of our being able
to do this, imagine what would it be like if, even in these small gaps (through a radio ear-piece,
say), the voice of another was at work in us, trying to tell us what to say next? First, we would feel
disoriented and confused, with the other trying to command us to talk in ways quite unrelated to our
own sensing and judging as to what was best for us in each moment, as we related ourselves to the
changing nature of our circumstances. We would not know how to phrase or intone their utterances.
How should we fit them into our circumstances? But secondly, our conversational partners, if they
found out, would feel outraged at having been cheated, at having being misled into responding to
our talk as if it was our talk, when it was in fact the talk of another.
Indeed, it might be difficult to establish whose disturbance would be greater. But one thing
is clear, such a circumstance would, besides eliciting bewilderment and confusion, would also elicit
great anger and resentment, and do it almost instantly in the very moment of bewilderment. For at
the very heart of our precarious living out of our lives as beings continually vulnerable to
unforeseeable events in our surroundings, is our having the right to act in ways related to our own
sense of what matters to us as the unique persons we are. Unless we are allowed to offer our own
sense for our expressions, and can trust those around us to 'take up' our offers, we cannot, so to
speak, 'live our own lives'. And there are few other events more disturbing to us than our feeling
overwhelmed by wholly 'outside' influences. Garfinkel's (1967) breaching experiments illustrate
this. He instructed his students to insist, in their conversations with their friends, that the friends be
precise and definite in their use of words. So that, for instance, when a friend said: I had a flat tire
[on my way to work yesterday], the student replied: What do you mean, you had a flat tire? The
friend appeared momentarily stunned, and then answered in a hostile way: What do you mean,
'What do you mean?' A flat tire is a flat tire. That is what I meant... What a crazy question (p.42).
The justification for our anger is there in the moment. For, unless we are allowed the right to determine our meanings in the moment, we cannot feel fully free to express ourselves. Our expressions cannot be assigned fixed meanings that remain identical through the changing conditions of their use. Ethically, we must allow other people both to be specifically vague, i.e., to be only partially clear, in what they say, while allowing them to entertain the expectation that
either, we will assist them in further making their meaning clear, or allow them whatever further
opportunities are required for them to do so. Without these expectations, without this trust, to
repeat, participants will feel unruled, unreal, and anomic (Goffman, 1967, p.135). Indeed, as
Garfinkel (1967) notes, with respect to the almost instant anger aroused by his students breaching
or violating these usually taken-for-granted features of our interactions, departures from such
usages call forth immediate attempts to restore a right state of affairs (p.42).
In our current cultural climate, in which most of our relations to the others around us are
of a technical or functional nature, it is not difficult to feel humiliated and reduced, treated
disrespectfully (Sennett, 2003; Shotter, in press). But just sometimes, even in our meetings with
strangers, we can suddenly feel recognized and find a special feeling of 'in-touchness', of
responsive-relatedness, at work within our in interactions with that other _ just as Sacks was aware
of its lack in his relations with Dr P. To an extent, we owe our very being, our identity, to it. If it
collapses, then it is quite easy for us to feel unheard, or unable to express ourselves. Is there
something wrong with us?
A relevant event here is recounted in Anderson and Goolishian (1993). It is a
psychotherapeutic encounter between Harry Goolishian (a family therapist) and a thirty-year old
man, Bill, a so-called 'revolving door treatment failure', who has been hospitalized on many
previous occasions as a supposed paranoid schizophrenic. Goolishian asks him: What, if
anything, could your previous therapists have done differently that would have been more useful to
you? Bill immediately answers: That is an interesting and complicated question. If a person like
you had found a way to talk with me when I was first going crazy... at all the times of my delusion
that I was a grand military figure... I knew this [delusion] was a way that I was trying to tell myself
that I could overcome my panic and fear... Rather than talk with me about this, my doctors would
always ask me what I called conditional questions (p.25) - what Bill called "conditional questions" were, of course, check-list diagnostic questions, questions which had the interactional effect of making Bill feel like an object under another person's surveillance. Whereas, Harry Goolishian was there, present, in a personal relationship with him, rather than, so to speak, standing over against him, observing him from a distance.
In other words, Harry Goolishian's response was an acknowledgment of Bill's
expressions of himself a person of value, worthy of being listened to and taken seriously. Clearly,
Bill was immediately able to recognize that someone special was underway, that had not been
present in the previous psychiatric interviews he had undergone. But what was it that enabled Bill
to tell so immediately that his relationship with Harry Goolisian was so different from his previous
relationships with psychiatrists and psychotherapists? How was it that Bill felt able to go on almost
straightaway after beginning to talk with Harry Goolishian, to say: If you could have talked with
the 'me' that knew how frightened I was [as you are talking with me now]. If you had been able to
understand how crazy I had to be so that I could be strong enough to deal with this life threatening
fear... then we could have handled that crazy general (p.25, my emphasis and additions)? Instead
of putting Bill in the one-down position of a 'testee', being examined as to whether he could 'pass'
the questions asked him, Goolishian was putting himself in the position of 'tutee', asking Bill to
'teach' him. Suddenly, who may not be an expert on normally required behavior, but is an expert
on his own problems of coping with life, has much to say.
A similar circumstances arose in some Swedish research I'm connected with, to do with
Safety Delegates going into Care Homes for the Elderly to talk with them about the adequacy of
(See footnote 6)
. When questioned by delegates referring to a check-list of pre-formulated questions, the
elderly were disengaged and barely communicative; they did in fact complain that they felt they
were being tested to see if they had done their homework. Only when they were approached with
the question: What message do you want to give the safety delegates, to X, to his/her
colleagues?, did they begin to open up. Indeed, one old man followed the interviewer to the door,
still talking, and then waved her good-bye, and asked her to come again. Here, as in the Bill
example above, the whole 'tone' of the exchange _ in terms of body posture, level of energy, vocal
rhythm, willingness to exert effort, etc., in short, responsiveness _ was quite different in the two
styles of address adopted.
Just as we can all immediately detect (Bill and the elders included) _ when, say, someone
we are talking with at a party ceases to be 'with us', so to speak, and to look over our shoulder for
their next port of call _ the disappearance of the spontaneous living interplay of mutual expressive
responsiveness occurring between ourselves and others, so we can also detect its, in various
degrees, its presence. Indeed, we can sometimes find it inappropriately excessive, so that the bank
teller's pauses, glances, and smiles can only mean that they are using the current financial
transaction between us as the vehicle for a 'flirtation' of some kind. Indeed, this interplay in some
degree is in fact a required background to all our interactions, if we are to have any success at all
in being meaningful to each other within them.
As the examples above show, however, we have tended not to attribute much importance
to these subtleties, these niceties of our conversational interactions. We have tended to focus
instead _ like the questionnaire wielding delegates, and probably Bill's other therapists _ simply on
the informational, functional, or logical content of our utterances, while leaving their relational
style unexamined in the background. But as Goffman (1967) makes clear, although they may be
given very little prominence in our current efficiency-conscious dealings with each other, stories of
events that draw our attention to their importance are enshrined in our culture, and are told from
time to time: No culture, in fact, seems to be without exemplary tales for illustrating the dignity
and weight that might be given to these passing realities; everywhere we find enshrined a Drake
who gallantly finishes some kind of game before going out to battle some kind of Armada, and
everywhere an outlaw who is engagingly civil to those he robs and to those who hang him for it
(p.118). Indeed, although such exemplary events may currently be few and far between, I'm sure
we can all remember times when, needing or wanting to leave a conversation, we have stayed
involved in it until 'the right moment to leave' occurs _ and in so doing, affirm the moral rules
that transform socially responsible people into people who are interactively responsible as well
Goffman (1967) calls the requirements immanent in our interactions that transform us from
socially responsible people into people who are interactively responsible as well _ and thus able
to sustain the little but crucially important worlds created in face-to-face encounters _ involvement
obligations. Irrespective of what our social roles might be _ our rights and duties as doctors,
teachers, bank clerks, policemen, fathers, mothers, etc. _ if we are to offer each other the
opportunities each to live our own lives, our rights and duties as interactants are as follows:
We must begin by treating the others or othernesses around us, not as an already known
'problem' to be solved, but as still radically unknown to us, and unknowable by us;
2 . we must then 'enter into' dialogically-structured relations with them, that is, we must 'open' ourselves up to being spontaneously 'moved' by them;
3 . we must relate to them responsively and responsibly _ for this sense of contiguity, of contingency, of the other's responses to us being contingent on our own, is very basic _ and without it, we cannot be 'present' with them (or to them);
4 . we must not only 'follow' these others, but also provide opportunities for them to 'follow' us (See footnote 7) 7 .
About this last condition, i.e., the provisions in what one says or does for others to follow on with their actions, Goffman (1967) remarks: Here, then, is one of the fundamental aspects of social control in conversation: the individual must not only maintain proper involvement himself but also act so as to ensure that others will maintain theirs. This is what the individual owes the others in their capacity as interactants, regardless of what is owed them in whatever other capacities they participate, and it is this obligation that tells us that, whatever social role (See footnote 8) 8 the individual plays during a conversational encounter, he will in addition have to fill the role of interactant (p.116).
These dynamic, background features of our interactions, not only make it possible for us
to mean things in general to each other, but to be recognized by each other both as expressing
uniquely who we are, and as expressing something quite unique about our mutual circumstances.
Thus making it possible for one person to point out something unnoticed by another, and for the
other to be able to acknowledge it. These features, along with a number of others (see Garfinkel,
1967, p.41), furnish, he says, a background of seen but unnoticed features of common
discourse whereby actual utterances are recognized as events of common, reasonable,
understandable, plain talk (p.41). Indeed, unless they are seen to be there by all involved, as
Garfinkel's breaching experiments show, interactants become angry and indignant. Yet, so fluid
and ephemeral, so changeable and unique to the moment are they, that they remain unnoticed in
our academic and intellectual discussions of our own human nature and human affairs. Indeed,
such mutually shared and sharable realities, rather than providing a prior basis for our interactions,
are an outcome of them. And it is in this sense that reference to shared realties can play a real part
in our development of our social constructions. Hence the importance of Goffman's (1967) work
here in bringing them _ the little world sustained in face-to-face encounters (p.118), these
passing realities (p.118) _ and their intricate interactively developed nature, to our attention.
Indeed, to go further in emphasizing the importance of Goffman's work here: In bringing
to our attention, not only the special, existentially constitutive functions of our conjoint
spontaneous involvements, but also, the very special nature of the kinds of events we can
experiences as occurring within them, confronts us with the conceptual possibility of what Rudd
(2003) calls a direct, expressive realism. In formulating it as a realism, Rudd refers to a remark
of Wittgenstein's (1953), in which he notes that, when referring to another person's spiritual
aspect, we say: My attitude towards him is an attitude towards a soul. I am not of the opinion that
he has a soul (p.178). In other words, as we saw above, our trouble with understanding people is
indeterminate. It cannot be solved _ as Dr P. tried to solve his difficulties _ by formulating
hypotheses on the basis of evidence. My response to another person, as having a soul, or not, is
something far more immediate, unreflective, and spontaneous. Indeed, unless we already had the
possibility of taking the 'attitude' that this person has a soul while that one is soul-less, we could
not undertake any discussion or argument with others about other people's spirituality. We would
have no shared understanding of what was relevant, and what was irrelevant, to the discussion. I
do not act in this way towards another person, writes Rudd (2003), because I suppose him to
have a soul; the supposition that he has a soul is an intellectualized reflection of my way of acting
This, of course, implies that what we thought was fundamental, the task we inherited from
Descartes of devising methods for establishing the authority of our individual claims to
knowledge, is in fact the opposite of the case. The problem is not that of asking how individual
philosophers and behavioral scientists can provide a grounding or irrefutable basis for such already
existing distinctions as these, e.g., between having a soul or not. The task is of a quite different
kind. We must make explicit how our primordial knowledge of the 'real' arises, by describing the
processes of interaction occurring between us that make the forms of life possible, within which
these distinctions matter. This is how we can escape from the expression of mere opinion into a
witnessable knowing along with others.
Such an expressive realism only becomes available to us, however, if we honor the
involvement obligations set out to an extent along the lines of those above. If we do, it then
becomes possible, not to infer a reality hidden behind or underlaying appearances, but directly to
experience a reality lying within appearances. Indeed, we can sense it as a dynamic, expressive
reality whose moment-by-moment changing expressions can be experienced as all issuing from the
same, unitary, overall source of expression _ an inexhaustible source of yet more expressions to
come in the same style. But, to repeat, the ability to perceive appearances as expressive of an in-
lying reality in this way, involves a certain attunement or responsiveness to their expression on the
part of the perceiver. It cannot just be taken for granted that because we are intelligent and rational,
well trained in scientific and/or academic modes of investigation, and have all the appropriate
sense organs at the ready, that we all must have such an ability. For this ability is intimately and
intricately interwoven in with the richness of our emotional lives, and with our willingness _ or
lack thereof _ to acknowledge others, to open ourselves to being 'moved' by another's
But let me add here that, clearly, such an attunement to, and acknowledgment of others
comes, of course, in degrees. It is possible, as Bakhtin (1984) points out, to be deaf to another's
response, and not to acknowledge in it any force. But nonetheless, it is to an extent still
fundamental in all our practices of social interaction. Lacking it completely, we would _ like Dr P.
_ have to 'work out' from unconnected fragments of data, their possible inter-linkings into an
identifiable, organic whole (if, that is, we already had a memory store of such 'dynamic wholes'
with which to make comparisons as to a best fit). In other words, our capacity to perceive the
unfolding of a sequence of different expressions as all issuing from the same expressive source,
when in responsive contact with that source, is not just an extra interpretation added on to our
practices, but is constitutive of our very interactive practices themselves. Without such an ability,
the ordinary everyday, unproblematic flow of our spontaneous exchanges would be impossible.
Indeed, it is often necessary for us to be able to refer, at a certain moment in that flow, to avoid
confusions, to sort out ambiguities, and so on. As already mentioned, Wittgenstein (1953) draws
our attention to what he calls the essential references (p.175) we can draw on at a certain
moment in our utterances. Without them, deixis _ our simple ability to use I and you, to talk of
here and now, this and that, and so on _ would be impossible. In coming at a particular moment in
the already ongoing flow of contingently intertwined activity occurring between them and us, in
pointing in their gestural expressiveness from 'this past' toward 'that kind of future', people's
activities allow us to intervene at that moment, and in doing so, to point them toward 'another kind
of future', toward seeing a connection between events of a previously unnoticed kind.
Indeed, the whole thrust of Wittgenstein's (1953) philosophical methods (that I have been using in
this article) are oriented toward bringing these seen, but usually unnoticed features of our
interactions with the others and othernesses around us, into our focal attention. His aim in
constantly giving prominence to distinctions which our ordinary forms of language easily make us
overlook (no.132), is to arrive at just that understanding which consists in, as he puts it,
'seeing connections' (no.122) that previously we have failed to see. And this is what I have been
trying to do _ along with help derived also from Bakhtin's and Goffman's writings _ in this article.
But this whole approach relies on the possibility of our being able to enter into a form of engaged,
responsive understanding in our relations (in our meetings) with other living beings, compared to
the kind of understanding we can have of the nature of dead things. For, to repeat what is now
almost a mantra: living beings can 'call out' spontaneous reactions from us in ways that are quite
impossible for dead forms. And it is this that makes these two kinds of understanding so very
different from each other.
So, although the subtleties of glance and gesture, of tone and facial expression, may, as
Wittgenstein (1953) remarks, provide us only with imponderable evidence (p.228) for, say, a
person's state of mind _ imponderable in the sense of not being describable in any factual,
categorical detail _ we nonetheless rely continuously on the possible reality of such momentary
references, while checking them out in case we are wrong: Why did you frown when I said his
name? I didn't Yes you did! Well don't you know. He and I broke up last week. But more
than this, all the examples I used above _ imagining, say, when someone at a party ceases to be
'with us' while we are talking with them _ would lose their force, cease to be real for us. Indeed,
we would no longer be able to assume that in our talk 'about' such entities as 'society', 'social
relations', 'history', 'the individual', 'the self', 'persons' _ as well as about 'language' and
'communication' _ that we all know perfectly well what the 'it' is that is referred to by the use of
such words. Nor would we be able to train each other, and our students, in being 'objective', in
paying attention to events in their surroundings in 'this way', the way that is accounted in our
culture as being objective, rather than in 'that way', which is accounted as being subjective.
To end this article, let me emphasize two points already made, by repeating them in
Goffman's (`1967) words. First, with regard to what he called one of the fundamental aspects of
social control in conversation, he notes that: [A]s Adam Smith argued in his Theory of the Moral
Sentiments, the individual must phrase his own concerns and feelings and interests in such a way
as to make these maximally usable by the others as a source of appropriate involvement; and this
major obligation of the individual qua interactant is balanced by his right to expect that others
present will make some effort to stir up their sympathies and place them at his command. These
two tendencies, that of the speaker to scale down his expressions and that of the listeners to scale
up their interests, each in the light of the other's capacities and demands, form the bridge that
people build to one another, allowing them to meet for a moment of talk in a communion of
reciprocally sustained involvement. It is this spark, not the more obvious kinds of love, that lights
up the world (p.116). In other words, no matter what sentiments we might claim to adhere to in
our treatment of others, the primal scene with respect to which outside others make their judgments
of us, is to be found there, in the moment of our interaction with those others. Our protestations
not withstanding, outsiders can see our responsiveness, or unresponsiveness, at work. They may
not be able to 'prove' their claims _ in the sense of identifying our actions as fitting into a well-
known theoretical category _ but if they are sufficiently sensitive the essential references of our
utterances, they will be alerted as to how to 'go on' with us. And this is how another person's trust
in us can imperceptibly slip away, without our seeming to have done anything in particular to
warrant their dismissal of us as a person of worth.
The final issue I want to emphasize in Goffman's words, relates to the very initial
emphasis I placed on those aspects of our living activities in which we are spontaneously
responsive to (and thus expressive of) both of our selves, and of our relations to the others and
othernesses around us. As Goffman (1967) notes: The task of becoming spontaneously involved
in something, when it is a duty to oneself or others to do so, is a ticklish thing, as we all know from
experience with dull chores or threatening ones. The individual's actions must happen to satisfy
his involvement obligations, but in a certain sense he cannot act in order to satisfy these obliga
tions, for such an effort would require him to shift his attention from the topic of conversation to
the problem of being spontaneously involved in it. Here, in a component of non-rational
impulsiveness _ not only tolerated but actually demanded _ we find an important way in which the
interactional order differs from other kinds of social order (p.115). The partially this and partially
that nature of our activity here, its 'dynamically stranded', 'orchestrated', 'intertwined',
'polyphonic', or 'chiasmic' character is hard for us to imagine. The sense of 'depth' created in
binocular vision, or the effects now possible with surround sound in our stereo systems _ in
which the sounds of different instruments come from both speakers, but in a subtly correlated way
so that the phase differences between the sound waves meeting between the left and right speakers
display complex interference patterns simulating, not just an instrument's playing coming from the
left, but coming from the left in a concert hall, or in a discotheque _ are, perhaps, our nearest
equivalents. No wonder Wittgenstein (1953) remarks that ...understanding a sentence lies nearer
than one thinks to what is ordinarily called understanding a musical theme (no.527). Indeed, it is in
the subtle employment of the complexities of this component of non-rational impulsiveness that, I
think, we can find humanity's greatest cultural inventions _ inventions which we are still in the
process of trying to understand more fully and to develop further.
If the account given above _ of how it is possible for us to appreciate that another being
has a life of its own, not independently of us, but in relation to us _ is correct, then, not only do we
have a chance of settling the otherwise interminable social constructionism versus realism
dispute in academe, but more importantly, a chance of understanding how to conduct our
everyday practical-social affairs more democratically. For, as became clear above, it is within the
complex texturing of our interactive involvements that our sense of ourselves acting as free agents,
not in accord with the 'dictates' of others, is possible. But teasing out the intricacies of what is
involved in our having the right and being able, in appropriate moments, to act completely in terms
of our own judgments and skills, to adjust our actions as we perform them to fit our sense of our
circumstances, is clearly not an easy task. It is a possible task, nonetheless, once we realize that it
is rooted in mutual respect and mutual obligation _ not in the supposed 'objective' claims of
experts, who have forgotten how they were in fact trained by their teachers (in a process rooted in
mutual respect and mutual obligation) to distinguish reality from illusion. Our understandings of
what reality is, and what it is to be objective, are a consequence not the cause of our obligations to
and respect of others. Indeed, what Goffman (1967) confronts us with here, is not simply a
difference between the interactional order and other kinds of social order, but with something so
fundamental that without it, we cannot be ourselves. For in fact, we owe the very possibility of our
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Converted by Andrew Scriven