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Wittgenstein And The Everyday: From Radical Hiddenness To “Nothing Is Hidden”; From Representation To Participation

Abstract: Wittgenstein (1953) claims that grammar tells us what kind of thing anything is. Rather than any realities as such determining our forms of life, it is the grammars of our forms of life – our inner sense of their relational structure – which determine for us what can possibly count as a reality within them. Thus, if we can come to a ‘surveyable’ grasp of the possibilities offered us by the grammars of our forms of life, it should be possible to become so well oriented within them, that one can see ahead of time, so to speak, what is possible within it (and what is not). Although requiring a good deal of labor, for the ‘pathways’, so to speak, offered within a form of life are somewhat arbitrary rather than systematic, the task is nonetheless doable, for “nothing is hidden.” Like a city that one can only familiarize oneself with from one’s involvements within it, so we must enter into it and explore its possibilities actively. This whole approach of Wittgenstein’s contrasts markedly with our current approach in the social and behavioral sciences. There, we usually follow what might be called the way of theory, with its central assumption of the radical hiddenness of unitary sources. The contrast between these two approaches is explored below, and some of the radical consequences for the character of our inquiries in the social disciplines outlined. Central to the way of theory is how it leads to the imposition of an order from the center (James C. Scott, 1998), and destroys the possibility of local, participation.

All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice. (Marx’s eighth thesis on Feuerbach, Marx and Engels, 122)

The problem of descending from the world of thoughts to the actual world is turned into the problem of descending from language into life. (Marx and Engels, 118)

Grammar is not accountable to any reality. It is grammatical rules that determine meaning (constitute it) and so they themselves are not answerable to any meaning and to that extent are arbitrary. (Wittgenstein 1978, 184)

Grammar tells us what kind of object anything is. (Wittgenstein 1953, no.373)

Words have meaning only in the stream of life. (Wittgenstein 1990, no.913)

If Wittgenstein (1953) is correct, all of our more self-conscious, individual activities have their being within a stream, or mingling streams, of spontaneously responsive activity flowing continuously between us, unnoticed in the background of our lives together. Elsewhere (Shotter 1993a, Shotter 1993b), I have discussed this third sphere or realm of relationally responsive activity as being of a kind still very unfamiliar to us. It cannot be explained either as behavior in terms of causes, nor as action in terms of reasons. Until recently, this sphere of diffuse, sensuous or feelingful activity, this unordered hurly-burly or bustle of everyday social life, has remained unnoticed in the background to our lives. If we have noticed it at all, we have not attached much importance to it; we have assumed that it will one day all be explained in terms of timeless, yet to be discovered, orderly principles of mind and/or world. Central to the whole philosophy underlying this stance, is the assumption that everything should be understood in terms of orderly systems. Thus our utterances have meaning only because they are linked in an orderly way with other kinds of event (with states of mind, states of affairs), otherwise they would just be meaningless noises. Indeed, as de Saussure (1959) claims in discussing speech, “Speaking… is an individual act. It is willful and intellectual” (14); it can only be meaningful and understood by others if it is properly ordered by a speaker in a self-conscious manner.

For Wittgenstein (1953), however, the meaningfulness of our language does not initially depend on its systematicity, but on our spontaneous, living, bodily responsiveness to the others and othernesses around us. Indeed, when he remarks that “our attitude to what is alive and to what is dead, is not the same. All our reactions are different” (PI, no.284), I think we should take him very seriously. For, although we can only come to an understanding of a dead form’s behavior in terms of objective theories representing the sequence of events supposed to have caused it, a quite different form of involved, responsive understanding becomes available to us with a living form. It can call out spontaneous reactions from us in way that is quite impossible with a dead form. And it is this that is crucial for Wittgenstein. As he puts it: “The origin and primitive form of the language-game is a reaction; only from this can more complicated forms develop. Language – I want to say – is a refinement, ‘in the beginning was the deed’.” (1980a, 31) Where by the word primitive here, Wittgenstein (1981) means that “… this sort of behavior is pre-linguistic: that a language-game is based on it, that it is the prototype of a way of thinking and not the result of thought.” (1981, no.541) In saying this, Wittgenstein (1965) remarks: “I want to regard man here as an animal… As a creature in a primitive state… Language did not emerge from some kind of ratiocination.” (no. 475)

The presence of “a public evaluator”

But more than us merely responding to the others immediately around us, what is special about our spontaneously responsive relations to the others around us, is that this kind of activity between us is not yours nor mine but ours. Such dialogically-structured activity (if we can call it that), is ‘out there’ in public space. Thus, when I understand a person’s speech, it is a matter of me responding to a public situation with the kind of publicly-anticipated responses into which I have been trained. Most of what we do is not done by us deliberately and intellectually, as individuals, by reference to an already existing framework of rules, external to our current circumstances, but in spontaneous response to ‘calls’ upon us from within our immediate circumstances. In other words, out there in the space between us, it is as if a public evaluator is at work in our interactions with each other who ‘calls’ on each of us to use to use our public words as we collectively use them. Thus it is not in our mere repetition of public linguistic forms that we give our words their meaning, it is not a matter of using them according to an already established system of rules. What matters is how we make our own varied use of them. And we rely upon an already existing, public network of anticipated responses to provoke in those we address, a-to-an-extent-novel response. We express our own unique meanings in the unique uses to which we put our utterances in the specific circumstances of their use.

Here, then, we have two very different approaches to language and to our intelligent, knowledgeable behavior. In one approach, running in a line from Descartes, through Saussure and Chomsky, all the way to current cognitive psychology, there is the view that our linguistic utterances can only be meaningful and understood by others if they are properly ordered, and we can only achieve this by explicitly or tacitly referring to an inner mental representation of a system of rules (our linguistic competence) in our performance of them. The other view is Wittgenstein’s. As he remarks, we hardly ever speak in the self-conscious way required by the first approach, with such an inner, intellectual reference to a system of rules. Indeed, if we did self-consciously bring such a rule schematism to mind, we would still have to interpret how to apply it in this, that, or another specific situation. And where might we find the rules to do that? In finding ourselves in a situation which seems to require a certain kind of appropriate response from us, simply stating a rule doesn’t seem of much help to us. As a patterned form or schematism, it lies ‘dead’ before us, so to speak; it does not call out a response from us; “it does not point outside itself to a reality beyond.…” (Wittgenstein 1981, no.236) So, how should we make sense of such meaningful activity?

In exploring what it is like for us to feel as if we are following rules in our actions, Wittgenstein (1953) first suggests that it is as if one no longer had any choice in what to do. But if that really were so, how could one ever justify acting in one way rather than another? While not exactly willful and intellectual, acting as one’s surroundings seem to demand is not choice-less either. “I should have said,” suggests Wittgenstein (1953), “This is how it strikes me. When I obey a rule, I do not choose. I obey the rule blindly” (no.219); “obeying a rule is a practice. And to think one is obeying a rule is not to obey a rule… otherwise thinking one was obeying a rule would be the same thing as obeying it.” (no.202) To repeat, it is a matter here of me responding to a public situation with the kind of publicly-anticipated responses into which I have been trained. “What this shows,” he suggests “is 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)

Most of what we do is not done by us deliberately and intellectually, by reference to an already existing framework of rules, external to our current circumstances, but in spontaneous response to ‘calls’ upon us both from within our immediate circumstances and from the larger surroundings within which they are embedded. In growing up among a crowd of others already reacting and responding to each other in their practical, everyday affairs in characteristic ways, like a professional tennis player condemned to practice 24 hours a day, I too become practiced in anticipating their responses to my expressions. And what I first do spontaneously in response to their ‘calls’ upon me, I later come to do deliberately, in response to my own ‘commands’ or ‘instructions.’ (Wittgenstein, 1953, no.243; Vygotsky)

The different characteristic ways in which we are spontaneously responsive to each other within the mingling streams, Wittgenstein (1953) suggests, might be termed “forms of life,” and the influence of the ‘public evaluator’ that inevitably makes an appearance within them he wants to explore in terms of the form of life’s “logical grammar.” Below, I want to make a case for this claim: that it is the seemingly arbitrary, ungrounded, and in fact not very systematic grammars structuring the background streams of activity (forms of life) within which we are inextricably involved, which provide the grounds for everything sensible we do and say. Along with this claim goes another, that in wanting to come to a grasp of their nature, “the essence of our investigation is that we do not seek to learn anything new by it. We want to understand something that is already in plain view” (1953, no.89). But we must add, it is not in plain view to outside observers, responsively uninvolved with the others and othernesses around them; it is only in plain view to those responsively involved with their surroundings who are able to see ‘the something’ in question. They are able to see it from within their involvement with it.

The radical hiddenness of unitary sources

The assumptions above are unusual ones to make. Usually, in our inquiries in psychology (and in the other social sciences), we pursue another quite different path. I shall call it “the way of theory.” In following the way of theory, rather than seeking to understand something arbitrary and unsystematic that is in plain view, we make just the opposite assumption: we seek an orderly ideal, and in seeking it, we “represent the matter as if there is something one couldn’t do,” suggests Wittgenstein (1953). “As if there really were an object [a mental state or process, a social structure or set of rules or norms, a certain State apparatus], from which I derive its description, but I were unable to show it to anyone.” (Wittgenstein 1953, no.374; my additions) I shall call this, the assumption of the radical hiddenness of a unitary source. In other words, when following the way of theory, we act as if the crucial influence or influences which really shape our actions are so deeply hidden from us that we can never directly observe them, and that our only recourse is a mode of inquiry which assumes that we must proceed by first offering hypotheses, interpretations, suggestions, or conjectures of one kind of another, whether we go on later to merely to argue for their correctness, or to test them empirically, or not. Even in social constructionism, discursive psychology, conversational analysis, ethnomethodology, and other kindred enterprises, we have no hesitation in talking of unitary hypothetical entities – such as narratives, frameworks, rule-structures, relational scenarios, language-games, etc. – which (once constructed) either function as special arenas or sites within which certain processes take place, or are assumed to exist as entities (things) which exert a determining force of some kind on people’s behavior.

How else could we proceed, if we didn’t conduct our inquiries in this way? What other way or ways of making better sense of our lives could there possibly be?

In what follows, if it is the improvement of our own practical conduct of our own social affairs that we seek, I want to be very critical of us following the way of theory in our inquiries – as if our task was to discover the nature of something (some single ‘thing’) still as yet unknown to us. Indeed, I want to argue that the assumption of radical hiddenness of a unitary source upon which it rests, stands in the way of us realizing that the crucial influences shaping our lives are all, in fact, readily visible to us, in front of our eyes (and our ears). They exist out in the world in the spaces both between us and each other, and between us and the rest of our surroundings, and in the living responsive-relations we exhibit to these facts. In fact, mostly, we find it difficult not to be responsive to people’s joy and suffering, to people’s arrogance and pride, their humility and humbleness, their greed and generosity, their unfair applications of power, their resignation or resistance, etc. We see these qualities directly and immediately in the ways in which they carry themselves in their actions, and find ourselves spontaneously moved in one way or another. We do not need theories, whether proved true or not, to tell us of a person’s misery or joy, of their anger and resentment, their sense of being treated unfairly.

If Wittgenstein (1953) is correct in his claims above, and I shall argue below that he is, two things of importance follow immediately. One is, that if “nothing is hidden,” (no.435), if everything is in plain view, and people show their supposed ‘inner mental states’ in their responsive reactions to what is occurring around them, then there is nothing to theorize about, nothing to explain. The bewilderment and disorientation we face must be dealt with in some other way. The other is that if a grammar is constitutive of our relations to our surroundings, if it shapes what we do and say, then it is not in itself accountable to any reality. If this is so, then it is not at all difficult for us to mislead ourselves, for us to be convinced that certain things are real because our talk provides us with the “grammatical illusion” (no.110) or “grammatical fiction” (no.307) of them as being real. Indeed, so adept are we in creating a sense of reality in our talk and writing, that it is not at all difficult (as in a good piece of science fiction) for us to create theoretical entities which must – like the ghosts and spirits in medieval times – we are convinced, have such a crucial influence over our lives that we must devote some effort to dealing with them. But theorizing, the invention of theoretical entities, even by those who wish most for social justice and want to expose the real injustices that others want to hide, to the extent that it rests on confusions and misunderstandings, on meanings only shared by the small group of theorists in question, and is not sensitive to the possibility of grammatical illusions or fictions in our talk, will always obfuscate more than clarify the issues at stake.

The tendency of our current “way of theory” to eradicate grammatical orientations

As mentioned above, I shall call our current way of conducting our inquiries “the way of theory”. By wanting to raise problems with this way of proceeding, I do not mean to suggest that it is the mere use of theoretical talk as such that is the problem, for after all, the original sense of the word “theory” (Gr. theors = envoys sent to bring back accounts of spectacles seen in foreign countries) is to do with talk that makes it possible for others to visualize absent events – and almost all our talk here is of that kind. The problem is with the whole set of procedural assumptions which at present set the scene, so to speak, and shape the uses of theoretical talk in our humane inquiries, for, in setting the scene, we model our inquiries on those in science, and in so doing, we produce knowledge of our ‘external’ world, not orientations ‘internal’ to our involvements. It is easy to list these assumptions:

First, is the assumption that everything we talk of in our theories, is a ‘thing’ which has a nature of its own, in isolation, and independently of any relation that we might have or take up with it; we thus seek objective knowledge of its nature.
This leads us to assume that questions to do with us gaining a better understanding of what we speak of as mental phenomena – such as meaning, thinking, understanding, and so on – instead of being treated as conceptual or grammatical questions, to be answered by studying how in practice we make use of, and react to, such talk in our daily affairs, should also be treated as empirical questions; thus we seek explanations of the nature of meaning, understanding, etc.
In seeking such explanations, we study observable phenomena, e.g., people’s talk, taking its patterning as indicative of the existence of hidden but substantive, unitary ‘things’ which are the source of the patterning.
In making our observations from the position of uninvolved, external observers, we ignore the (in fact, central) way in which people are answerable for their talk’s significance from within their involvements.
Ignoring people’s answerability for their talk’s significance, we treat its meaning as something related to it externally, as a kind of ‘add-on extra’ – here people’s words, there their meaning (as the ‘content’ of their words).
Thus we assume that people’s linguistic expressions can only have meaning by being grounded or framed in a preexisting, systematic structure of some kind or other – in an a priori system of rules, or in some other kind of unitary systematic structure.
The rules or principles of the system of thought constitute a base or foundation, in terms of which all its operations can be understood (as if rules can mysteriously orient themselves toward their own proper application).
As meaning, clearly, only inheres in what is regular and repeatable, unique, first-time events cannot play a meaningful part in our lives.
Indeed, along with all these assumptions, is the assumption that at the heart of such mental phenomena as meaning and understanding, are certain mysterious processes or activities of a unitary kind which, once understood, will explain all cases of the phenomena in question. “‘If one proposition is a picture, then any proposition must be a picture, for they all must be of the same nature’. For we are under the illusion that what is sublime, what is essential, about our investigation consists in grasping one comprehensive essence” (1981, no.444).
Besides all the assumptions I have listed above, however, there is in the sphere of mental phenomena a crucial master assumption which, it seems to me, legitimates all the others, and which seems to suggest that only a scientific approach has any chance of success: it is the assumption of “radical hiddenness of unitary sources” which I have already mentioned above. This assumption, that the mind is a mysterious, nonmaterial but unitary entity, radically unobservable in itself, is an assumption that has been with us since the ancient Greeks. It is an assumption which, at first blush, may not seem very important, for, given our adoption in science of empirical methods and what we might call the causal criterion of existence, we do not need to be able to directly perceive an entity to feel justified in ascribing reality to it. We feel it quite legitimate to ascribe reality to entities if we can predict observable effects in relation to our manipulations. Thus, like many other phenomena we investigate in science, whose original sources are too small, too large, too far away, too diffuse, etc., for us to be able to directly perceive them, we feel that we can get a grip on mental phenomena also in the same way: indirectly, through inference and interpretation, guided by a theoretical framework of some kind. And thus we feel it quite legitimate to ascribe reality to mental processes (and to many other entities and agencies said to be at work in shaping people’s behavior), if our theories of their nature predict effects we can in fact observe in people’s conduct. It is this assumption, aided and abetted by an orientation toward the desire for simple, unified orders (both benign assumptions in the physical sciences), which licenses most of the current ‘scientific’ research in psychology into the nature of mind.

From a central, administrative grasp of realities, to a participatory, distributed understanding of possibilities

It is the assumption of radical hiddenness which leads us to ignore crucial, relationally-responsive phenomena – phenomena to do with us meaning and understanding things between us – which occur out in the world between and around us, and which call out immediate responses from us. We pay them no heed. For after all, we tell ourselves, if the real source of mind is in mysterious, unitary processes going on inside people’s heads, all these different detailed events that we can sense must be mere side-effects, just arbitrary reactions irrelevant to our understanding of the main event, hidden in our minds somewhere. It is Wittgenstein’s (1953) rejection of this assumption that makes his whole approach so utterly revolutionary and so very different from the representational, theoretical approach stemming from Descartes. If we want to understand what we are doing when we make use of such terms as “meaning,” “understanding,” “states of mind,” and suchlike in our talk with each other, then we do not need special techniques to search for the hidden mental processes involved. We must first study all the events that happen, and have happened between us in the past (in training us to be responsive in the same way as others around us), which make it possible for us to talk as we do.

What Wittgenstein’s approach does have in common, though, with the Cartesian representational approach is, seemingly, the same overall aim, namely, the desire to achieve a synoptic grasp of how certain sets of events “hang together” as organized wholes. Indeed, for Wittgenstein (1953) the notion of an Übersichtlichte Darstellung (a perspicuous representation) is central, for what we lack, he says, is “a clear view of our use of words,” and “a perspicuous representation produces just that understanding which consists in ‘seeing connections’.” (Wittgenstein, 1953, no.122) But, while Saussure wants the whole of our knowledge of language (our linguistic competence, in Chomsky’s terms) to be laid out on a page before us, in terms of an abstract schematism, Wittgenstein seeks something very different. He wants something much more practical: we must each come to an inner ‘surveyable’ sense of the limited possibilities open to us at each moment in our use of language, a clear sense of our ‘way about’ inside our knowledge of language, an unconfused sense of how to ‘go on’ wherever we might be placed in our involvements with others. This kind of understanding cannot be laid out on a page in terms of a formal schematism; it can only be ‘shown’, ‘manifested’, or ‘displayed’ in our practical activities.

We can thus begin to distinguish the two approaches to seeking a synoptic view of a whole set out above, in terms of a number of questions to do with what, practically, is involved in achieving it:

To achieve it, must we draw back from it to view it as a whole from a distance, or must we do just the opposite: enter into it, and in passing from part to part and responding to each in turn, come to a sense of how they all connect together into a whole by, so to speak, living within in it, just as one comes to know a house or a city intimately by living within it?
Is there a single central vantage point from which an organized whole can be seen as such, or is a sense of it as a whole distributed throughout the whole?
Who has access to the view or sense of it as a whole? Is it just a ruling elite or everyone?
Is the view arrived at a static and complete view, or is it dynamic and incomplete, and accompanied by a sense of the style of what is yet to come?
It will be worthwhile to explore these questions in relation to some concrete examples. Someone who has explored just these kinds of issues with respect to particular rational schemes for the betterment of humanity is James C. Scott (1998). Going back into the history of the pre-modern State, he finds that it was “partially blind; it knew precious little about its subjects, their wealth, their landholdings and yields, their location, their identity… It lacked… a measure, a metric that would allow it to ‘translate’ what it knew into a common standard necessary for a synoptic view.” (2) But as modern statecraft began to emerge, so “officials took exceptionally complex, illegible, and local practices, such as land tenure customs or naming customs, and created a standard grid whereby it could be centrally recorded and monitored.” (2) He shows not only how maps and other spatial schematisms were developed, which could be ‘laid over’ a region to make its controllable features “readable” in central offices, but how the urge to make a region or a State “legible” often acts back on its natural and social ecology to completely restructure it – and often, as he shows, to render it no longer self-sustaining.

More than merely an urge to master and control, however, the urge to view one’s surroundings indirectly, from a distance, in terms of such simplified, stripped down, decontextualized, ordered schematisms can, of course, be justified in much more high-minded terms. In accord with the dreams originating at the time of Descartes and Newton – who assumed that reality was fundamentally mechanical and that everything that occurred within it could be understood in terms of cause-and-effect processes – thinking in terms of such schematisms or frameworks, organized in relation to a single position, standpoint, or perspective, was to think rationally. Any other, less well-organized forms of reasoning – mere reasonableness (see Toulmin 1992, 198-201) – could easily be ruled out of court. What changes as we move beyond such a modernist world into Wittgenstein’s world, is that we move from a dead, mechanistic order of one-way cause and effect relations, into a living responsive order of detailed, unique and particular two-way, dialogically-structured relations.

However, as Scott (1998) very comprehensively shows: “Designed or planned social order is necessarily schematic; it always ignores essential features of any real, functioning social order… [And] schematic authoritarian solutions to production and social order inevitably fail when they exclude the fund of valuable local knowledge embodied in local practices.” (6) Indeed, Scott goes so far as to suggest that it is “a characteristic of large, formal systems of coordination that they are accompanied by what appear to be anomalies but on closer inspection turn out to be integral to that order… [a] nonconforming practice is an indispensable condition for formal order.” (351-352) As an initial illustration of his point, Scott uses the invention of scientific forestry in late 18th century Prussia and Saxony. As the need to exploit forests economically increased, ‘wild’ forests, with a diversity of different trees, undergrowth, all manner of animals and insects, were regimented: “The forest trees were drawn up into serried, uniform ranks, as it were, to be measured, counted off, felled, and replaced by a new rank and file of look-alike conscripts.… At the limit, the forest itself would not have to be seen; it could be ‘read’ accurately from tables and maps in the forester’s office.” (15)

It took about a century for troubles with such ‘stripped down’ forests to become clear. A new term, Waldsterben (forest death), entered German vocabulary. An exceptionally complicated process involving soil building, nutrient uptake, and symbiotic relations among fungi, insects, mammals, and flora – which were all disrupted, and which are still not all well understood – had, unwittingly, been eradicated by the planting of single-species, simplified, and ‘cleaned up’ forests. The organization of the forest in terms of the production of a single commodity, implacably eliminated everything that was deemed as interfering with that aim. By replacing the forest as a natural habitat with the forest organized solely as an economic resource, to be managed efficiently for profit, the unnoticed ‘ecological capital’ that had been developed and accumulated in the ‘wild’ over many generations, was eliminated within one or two. But the administrator’s forest can never be the ecologist’s forest. Even if the ecological inter-dependencies at work in ‘wild’ forests could all be identified, they would constitute a reality so complexly intertwined and variegated as to defy easy schematic description. Scott continues in his book to show how in very many other spheres of human endeavor, similar such fiascos, disasters, and catastrophes have been produced by such centralized, decontextualized, rational planning.

Wittgenstein’s approach to the attainment of a synoptic sense of a whole is very different. As already mentioned, a form of involved, responsive understanding of their ‘inner being’ becomes available to us with a living form quite unavailable to us with dead things. As complete and finished forms, built up from a set of externally-related static parts, which (like the bricks of a house, or cogs of a machine) only belong together because of their similarity to one another, they lack an ‘inner being.’ Whereas, living things, which are still growing and developing, still unfinished, seem not only to have an ‘inner complexity’, but its structure is quite different from that of dead forms. Its ‘parts’, if that is at all the right word, are all internally-related; they only exist as the parts they are in terms of their relations to all the parts currently constituting the whole, but also, in terms of their relations to the ‘parts’ of an earlier whole, from which they have developed – thus their history is just as important in characterizing their current nature as the logic of their present inter-relations. In other words, in their very nature, they come, so to speak, with ‘strings attached.’ To the extent that any organic, living whole is always on the way to becoming other than what at present it is, it cannot (with justice to its living nature) be represented in terms of a static picture, a purely spatial structure, at all. If this is so, how can its living nature, a shaped and vectored sense of its emerging existence, the grammar of its possibilities, be grasped?

This where Wittgenstein’s notion of an Übersichtlichte Darstellung (a perspicuous representation) comes in, for, “a perspicuous representation produces just that understanding which consists in ‘seeing connections’” (Wittgenstein, 1953, no.122). And this is what Wittgenstein was attempting to produce in his writing. Instead of a theoretical framework – which we can now see as only being of use to us in making sense of those (dead) entities to which we only have a passive, unresponsive, external observer relationship – we can begin to embody within ourselves a living sense of an organic whole from a whole collection of disparate involvements with it (a set of disparate parts), if our involvements occur in an appropriate sequence. For note, as we learn our ‘way about’ in our own homes and home-towns, each ‘part’ we encounter ‘leads on to’ another and another, and so on, such that we can come to a grasp of possible paths ahead of time. Only if we were ‘beamed down’ for a moment here, and for a moment there, would our experience consist in “a patchwork of disjoined parts” (to use a graphic 1896 phrase of John Dewey’s) a dead and static structure of only externally-related, self-contained parts, which do not in any way ‘call for’, so to speak, certain relations rather than others with the other parts of a whole. Luckily, this is not the case for us in our social lives together. The spontaneous background flow of responsive activity between us, and between us and the rest of our surroundings, is unendingly connected. We are never not immersed in it, and (mostly, except as we mentioned above, during moments of disorientation) it has a grammar to it such that every event in which we are involved (as noted above) comes with ‘strings attached’ such that it ‘leads onto’, ‘points toward’, or ‘calls out’ a next possible way for us to relate ourselves to it. And to the extent that the inner structure of this flow of activity changes only slowly, we can come to discursive a grasp of its grammar.


Above, then, we have explored two very different approaches toward the task of achieving a synoptic grasp of how the things around us ‘hang together’ as an organized whole. In the Cartesian approach, we are tempted into thinking that it must be done by a specific ‘inner something’ which, although it is in itself radically hidden, nonetheless ‘underlies’ the shaping of all our behavior. Such a belief still licenses much of our thinking in social matters today. Scott (1998) shows many of its pernicious consequences in our practical lives now. Many years ago, Marx and Engels (1977, 67) discussed its pernicious effects on us intellectually, in The German Ideology. It leads us into tricking ourselves into allowing ourselves to be dominated by our own inventions. As they point out, a sequence of three “efforts” works to produce this “trick:” As a first effort, they say, we must separate what people do and say from those doing and saying it, and from the context in which they say and do it; next, we must find an order or pattern in the ‘data’ so gathered and represent it in a concept; finally, the concept is “changed into a person,” an agency, which is said to be responsible for producing the now ‘observed’ order or pattern. And the trick effected by these three efforts, is the production of a “ruling illusion.” An elite group invents an abstract entity (a concept, an idea) which it tells us, is responsible for how we behave – and in so doing, hide their own part and power in the process.

It is precisely this tendency, to project our lack of understanding of our own social activities into a theoretical realm of activity with its own (to be discovered) mysterious properties that Wittgenstein is trying to block. In telling us that nothing is hidden, he is telling us that all the details (with the ‘grammatical’ threads of their possible links to other details hanging off them) that we need, if we are to understand our own activities, are readily available to us out in the everyday world of our relations to the others and othernesses around us. But we cannot understand how they all hang together in a flash of insight, as we can sometimes understand things theoretically. If we are properly to ‘chart’ the ‘ways around’ available to us inside the ‘landscape’ of our language and culture, then we must put in the care, the effort, and the hard, hard work required in ‘circling around’ inside it sufficiently, so to speak, to become truly well-oriented, to be able to see ahead of time the possible places available to us to go within it. This, I take it, is what Wittgenstein means when he says that, although everything of importance to us already lies open to view, it only “becomes surveyable by a rearrangement” (no.92, my emphasis). So, although the things that are hidden from us, are hidden “because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something – because it is always before one’s eyes.)” (Wittgenstein, 1953, no.129), coming to see them is not simply a matter of sudden revelation; unending labor is required.

But the labor required is doable. We are not separated by an insurmountable ontological gap between the sources of influence on our behavior and our influence on those sources. And elsewhere, I have outlined some of the methods Wittgenstein provides for its achievement (Shotter 1996; Shotter and Katz). Others, too, are pursuing similar such methods (Gustavsen; Kjellberg et al.; Seikkula et al.; Toulmin and Gustavsen). The task may be likened, and Wittgenstein did so liken it, to that of getting better oriented in one’s own home by tidying it up – “home is where one starts from”. It does not – like the way of theory – promise exciting new and miraculous revelations (and is, of course, not meant to be a replacement for it everywhere, the way of theory has it own different sphere of application), but it does suggest a multitude of different practical things that might usefully be done in different practical situations by those involved in them to ameliorate their lives within them. And it does wake us up to the fact that the miraculous processes we had hoped to discover through our theories (to do with meaning, thinking, understanding, remembering, and suchlike), are things which – amazingly – are already in fact being achieved by us in ways we had never thought possible.


Here I have in mind Marx’s first thesis on Feuerbach, that “the chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism (that of Feuerbach included) is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object, or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively…” (Marx and Engels, 121).

‘Hurly-burly’ and ‘bustle’ are terms used by Wittgenstein (1980, II, nos.625, 626, 629) to characterize the indefiniteness of the background that determines our responses to what we experience, and against which we judge events in our everyday life.

“For just where one says ‘But don’t you see…?’ the rule is no use, it is what is explained, not what does the explaining” (Wittgenstein 1981, no.302).

Although Wittgenstein’s use of the term grammar here is entirely justified – for he wants to talk of how saying or doing one thing, can only follow from and lead onto certain other things – it is clearly a use of the term very different from what linguists mean by the grammar of a language. Linguists mean by it a certain “abstract object of knowledge” (Chomsky), representing, usually, knowledge of or about a language’s syntactic structure – based, of course, on sentence structures native speakers find acceptable. Wittgenstein wants a much more experiential account, one which provides in particular, practical contexts of involvement, an immediately shaped and shaping, or ‘vectored sense’ (in all its complex richness and detail) of how one must continue one’s practical activities in such situations, if one is to meet their unique requirements. In this sense, a ‘logical grammar’ provides, so to speak, the proto-grammar upon which a linguist’s grammar can be based as an idealized abstraction.

Elsewhere (Shotter, 1998), I have outlined the importance of first-time, novel events rather than repetitions in us understanding language, but there is not space to argue that point again here. Voloshinov (1986) puts the matter succinctly, thus: “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). It is the use, to put the matter in Wittgensteinian terms, of a linguistic form which is always in some respects unique.

Kitto (1951), along with other commentators, discusses the roots of our sensibilities in Greek thought. Central is the belief, despite diverse appearances to the contrary, that the world consists in one not many things. Kitto, in commenting on the contemporary style of Thales’s urge to seek unitary essences, remarks: “Could Thales have met a nineteenth century chemist and heard that the elements are sixty-seven (or whatever the number is), he would have objected that this was far too many. Could he have met a twentieth-century physicist and heard that these are all different combinations of one thing, he might reply, ‘That’s what I always said’” (pp.179-180).

“‘There is a gulf between an order and its execution. It must be filled by the act of understanding’. ‘Only in the act of understanding is it meant that we are to do THIS. The order – why, that is nothing but sounds, ink-marks.-‘”. (Wittgenstein 1953, no.431)

Scott (1998) puts it this way: “The shorthand tools through which… officials must apprehend reality are not mere tools of observation. By a kind of fiscal Heisenberg principle, they have the power to transform the facts they take note of.” (p.47)

Toulmin (1992) also remarks: “Claims to certainty… are at home within abstract theories, and so open to consensus; but all abstraction involves omission, turning a blind eye to elements in experience that do not lie within the scope of the given theory, and so guaranteeing the rigor of its formal implications” (200).

Author: John Shotter


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