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Wittgenstein, Relational-Responsive Understandings, and 'Practical Theory'

John Shotter

ABSTRACT: The function of 'practical theory', I shall argue following Wittgenstein, is not so much "to hunt out new facts; it is rather,... to understand something that is already in plain view. For this is what we seem in some sense not to understand" (1953, no.89). Practical theory leads to the foregrounding of what is usually ignored in the background to all our daily affairs; it draws our attention to what we all 'see' but usually do not 'notice' as being of significance.

"Our mistake is to look for an explanation where wew ought to look at what happens as a 'proto-phenomenon'. That is, where we ought to have said: this language-game is being played" (No.654).

"The question is not one of explaining a language-game by means of our experiences, but of noting a language-game" (no.655).

The dialogical, joint nature of human activity:

  • We cannot not be responsive both to those around us and to other aspects of our surroundings.
  • When a second living human being responds to the activities of a first, then what the second does cannot be accounted as wholly their own activity - for the second acts in a way that is partly 'shaped' by the first (and the first's acts were responsive also)... this is where all the strangeness of the dialogical begins ("joint action" - Shotter, 1984, 1993a and b).
  • What is produced in such dialogical exchanges is a very complex mixture of not wholly reconcilable influences - as Bakhtin (1981) remarks, both 'centripetal' tendencies inward toward order and unity are at work, as well as 'centrifugal' ones outward toward diversity and difference.
  • Further, because the overall outcome of any exchange cannot be traced back to the intentions of any of the individuals involved, the 'dialogical reality or space' constructed between them is experienced as an 'external reality' or a 'third agency' with its own (ethical) demands and requirements.
  • It is only from within a living involvement in such a living background flow of dialogical activity, that we can make sense of what is occurring around us.
  • - As a result of our socialialization into such dialogical activity-flows, we develop background, practical, relational- responsive forms of understanding of how to 'go on' within them - such forms of understanding are constitutive of what counts for us as the significant, stable and repeatable forms within that flow.
  • It is in variations within such flows of constitutive (repetitive, ritual) activity, that we can express ourselves, our own 'inner lives', our 'position' in the larger schemes of things constituted in the flows of social activity in which we are 'rooted' and have our being - Helen Keller, for instance, was reputed to be able to recognize people from their handshake alone (remember that she was blind and deaf) for up to two years after one meeting with them.

What is important to us in our lives together then, are fleeting, one-off, unique, unrepeatable events, events that occur, as Garfinkel (1967) so wonderfully puts it, for yet "another first time" (p.9), only "once-occurrent events of Being," as Bakhtin (1993, p.2) calls them.

The tendency of 'aboutness' theory to eradicate the dialogical - Bernstein (1992) points out - in noting, as he calls it, the current "rage against reason" - it is precisely relationally responsive events of this kind that our current referential- representational forms of rationality render invisible, and exclude from both rational discussion and attention. - Bakhtin (1984) also notes how the "orientation toward unity" results in "a whole series of phenomena" remaining "almost entirely beyond the realm of consideration," especially those "that are determined by its dialogic orientation" (pp.274- 275).

What can be done? Practical 'relational' theory

  • Wittgenstein's (1953) practical 'poetic' methods (drawn from our ordinary, everyday uses of talk in practice)
    1. gather examples ("don't think, but look!" (Wittgenstein, 1953, no.66).
    2. deconstruction in practice: 'stop' 'look', 'listen to this', 'look at that' (pointing out features of the flow from within the flow) (1953, nos 132, 144).
    3. use new metaphors to reveal new possibilities in events hidden by the dead metaphors in routine forms of talk (1953, no.115).
    4. make comparisons using (sometimes invented) "objects of comparison" (1953, no.130) to establish an order... not the order in our knowledge.
  • All to arrive at a form of understanding which "consists in 'seeing connections'" (1953, no.122) - what I shall call a dialogical, relational-responsive form of practical understanding.

The aim of all of this?

  • To transform our previously monological practices into dialogical ones
  • The institution of dialogical practices within a practice.

Expected results

  • The creation of 'involved forms of practice' in which there are no 'external', 'retrospective' forms of theory serving the cognitive ends of 'decision makers' sitting around tables in committee rooms, deciding the lives of others.
  • A shift from cognitive devices in the service of "disengaged, instrumental thought," to perceptual devices to aid people in better articulating their own social practices.
  • The creation of new, dialogical institutions within which all involved can dialogically participate in the construction of their own lives together - where, within the flow of activity within such dialogical institutions, there would by practicing moments, reflective moments, critical moments, teaching moments, research moments, and so on, with no one individual, or circumstance, being restricted to one kind of activity alone (Katz and Shotter, 1996).


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

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

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

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

Bernstein, R.J. (1992) The New Constellation. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press.

Garfinkel, H. (1967) Studies in Ethnomethodology. Engelwood-Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

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

Shotter, J. (1984) Social Accountability and Selfhood. Oxford: Blackwell.

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

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

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

[After Post-Modernism Conference. Copyright 1997.]