Bodily Way-finding our Way into the Future

A much shorter version of this article is published in Norwegian Journal of Mental Health, Feb, 2012.
Bodily Way-finding our Way into the Future: finding the guidance we need for our next step within the taking of our present step
Abstract: In discussions of psychotherapy we often talk of perspectives, frameworks, and points of view, as if we are always looking at unchanging circumstances and seeking certain unknown factors hidden within them which cause them to change. Below I explore a very different approach, in which I assume that we are always moving around in the world, and that the overall major difficulty we face is finding our way about, but we must do that by finding available openings in the present moment within our immediate situation for ‘going on’ to take our next step.

“To get clear about philosophical problems, it is useful to become conscious of the apparently unimportant details of the particular situation in which we are inclined to make a certain metaphysical assertion. Thus we may be tempted to say ‘Only this is really seen’ when we stare at unchanging surroundings, whereas we may not at all be tempted to say this when we look about us while walking” (Wittgenstein, 1965, p.66).

“To encompass in research the process of a given thing’s development in all its phases and changes – from birth to death – fundamentally means to discover its nature, its essence, for ‘it is only in movement that a body shows what it is’” (Vygotsky, 1978, p.65).

“We make our path by walking it” (African proverb).

There are two kinds of difficulty that we can face in life, not just one: they are 1) difficulties of the intellect and 2) difficulties of orientation or ways of relating: 1) We can formulate difficulties of the intellect as problems which, with the aid of clever theories, we can solve by the use of a ‘manipulational’ form of reasoning, making use of inner mental representations which correspond to an outer reality in the sense set out long ago by Heinrich Hertz (1894/1954): “We form for ourselves images or symbols of external objects,” he said, “and the form that we give them is such, that the necessary consequents of the images in thought are always the images of the necessary consequents in nature of the things pictured” (p.1). In other words, properly rational thought is thought of as purely a cognitive affair occurring in the head of an immobile person – with Rodin’s Le Penseur providing a typical portrayal of a thinker’s bodily posture – a view of thinking that completely leaves out of consideration our thoughtful conduct of our everyday practices as we move about within our surroundings according to what they will currently allow.

2) Difficulties of orientation, however, are of a quite different kind, for they are to do with how we relate ourselves, bodily, towards events occurring around us in the course of our practical activities in the world – the ways in which we see them, hear them, experience them, value them as we move around in the world – for these are the ways that determine, that ‘give shape to’, the lines of action we resolve on as appropriate within the situations we actually find ourselves to be in, and it is these kinds of difficulties that I want to explore further below.

Explorers as wayfinders

But first, let me outline some of the other features of what I have called problem-solving thought, for its ignoring of our living movements out in the world is not the only factor that should make us question whether a purely in-the-head form of thought is at all appropriate to the conduct of our everyday affairs; its working in terms of a number of other assumptions will also suggest its inappropriateness. Another feature is that properly scientific theories work in terms of idealizations – friction and air resistance, and other local details are, for instance, ignored in physical theories – and also ideally, the only really clear and unambiguous expression of a theory is in terms of separate, countable entities, i.e. in de-contextualized mathematical symbols. If this is impossible (as is usually the case in everyday life), then we cannot ‘calculate’ required interventions with any precision. Further, if our theoretical terms can only be linguistically stated, then they always require interpretation, i.e., they need to be framed, to be put into a context to disambiguate their meaning. There is also the assumption that only causal knowledge is of any use to us – desiring to know what to do (manipulate) to bring off a future effect, only causal structures are thought to be predictive. Also in this view of things, as Bakhtin (1984) puts it, “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 manages without the other, and therefore to some degree materializes all reality” (p.293). But finally, there is the overall assumption that both we, and the basic entities making up the world around us, stay still and separated from one another while we do our looking at them, and that the world that we move about in is known to us only in terms of our pictures, maps, or other inner mental representations of it – we assume that we have no direct, living, bodily sense of our relations to our surroundings.

All this and more ought to give us pause for thought about the inadequacies of our so-called rational forms of thought when applied to the conduct of our daily human affairs out in the world. Heidegger (2002), in his essay The age of the world picture, captures our present intellectual commitment to representational notions of thought and thinking very nicely when he writes: “Understood in an essential way, ‘world picture’ does not mean ‘picture of the world’ but, rather, the world grasped as a picture” (p.67), which means that “the being of beings is sought and found in the representedness of beings” (p.68). In other words, as health care professionals, we only too easily take our task to be that of ‘fitting’ the case (the disturbed person) before us into a pre-existing formal structure, a theoretical scheme of one kind or another, thus to arrive at a ‘diagnosis’, at a representation of their current so-called ‘ill’ or ‘pathological’ state. The idea here being, as Hertz outlined above, that if the formal structures (patterns) represented by the theoretical scheme at different instants in time correspond with ‘the pictorial structure’ of initial and predicted states of affairs in the world, then we can, by making interventions on the basis of the theory, bring about a desired end state (a cure) given a particular initial state (disease).

I have spent some time setting out this ‘static’ scheme of thought in dry, formal terms as, I think, it has still to be taken seriously as constituting the deeply ingrained cultural, taken-for-granted background of unreflective, authoritative thought which both in-forms much of our everyday life thinking as well as our health care practices. Often, it is also the source of critiques of any proposed alternatives. It cannot easily be displaced. Unlike our learning of theories and other more empirical knowledge – which can be likened to learning a second language – it is learnt as an aspect of our learning our mother tongue in becoming a member of our linguistic community, our first language learning.

In what follows below, drawing upon Maxine Sheets-Johnstone (1992, 2009, 2012) discussions of what she calls our imaginative consciousness, our imaginative ability to project a line of action into the future, along with many others who emphasize the importance of our living movements (both actual and imagined) in relation to the detailed surroundings within which they occur, I want to explore a very different way of coming to understand the world around us from that outlined by Hertz above. Instead of thinking that the importance of a particular line of practical action is to be found in the end point of that line of action, I want to explore what it is that we might learn as we move around in relation to the others and othernesses we meet within the situations we inhabit – for what we can learn in those meetings are particular orientations towards those others, ‘ways of going on’ with them that constitute for us what we expect to see as being important for us about them. For how we attend to them, our ‘way’ or ‘ways’ of orienting ourselves to them, will constitute for us what we will notice as being important for us within them. This is the way in which our deeply ingrained, practice-based backgrounds of unreflective, authoritative thought are leant in the first place.

As a consequence, a first step in the process of trying to overcome our difficulties or orientation cannot be that of proposing yet another theory, another form of inner mental representation, for it is just the taken-for-granted source for our theorizing that is in question. Taking a cue from Wittgenstein’s (1953) remark that “a philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about’” (no.123), we can call the kind of knowing, the kind of understanding we are seeking – which results in our coming to know our way about within a given sphere of practical activity – as way-finding.

In using this term, I am taking my lead from Tim Ingold’s (2000) recent work. In contrasting a stranger’s knowledge of their position in space with a local inhabitant’s of a place, he notes that “… the native inhabitant may be unable to specify his location in space, in terms of any independent system of coordinates, and yet will still insist with good cause that he knows where he is. This… is because places do not have locations but histories. Bound together by the itineraries of their inhabitants, places exist not in space but as nodes in a matrix of movement. I shall call this matrix a ‘region’. It is the knowledge of the region, and with it the ability to situate one’s current position within the historical context of journeys previously made – journeys to, from and around places – that distinguishes the countryman from the stranger. Ordinary wayfinding, then, more closely resembles storytelling than map-using. To use a map is to navigate by means of it: that is, to plot a course from one location to another in space. Wayfinding, by contrast, is a matter of moving from one place to another in a region” (p.219) – rather than looking down on it from on high, an inhabitant’s knowledge of a region, of its unique ‘landscape’, is got from their direct acquaintance with it.

And when those living and moving about in such a region or sphere of activity talk amongst themselves of what they have experienced in their lives there – when they share what Wittgenstein (1953) calls a “form of life” – then he calls such a sphere or arena of activity, “consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven, the ‘language-game’” (no.7), where “the term ‘language-game’ is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life” (no.23).

In other words, without being ‘worded’ our experiences are fragmented, disorganized and thus blind (and cannot easily be unambiguously communicated); but ‘wordings’, i.e., utterances, unrelated to the actual (or imagined) experience of living within a particular region are empty. And we can take this as an indication that –if we are concerned to come to an organized grasp of the disorganized experiences we at first encounter there – what we need to do on entering into any new sphere, arena, or region of activity, is to move about within it in relation to the others and othernesses we meet there (and also to allow ourselves to be moved by events occurring within it). And in the course of our explorations, what we arrive at is not a mere representation, a static ‘picture’ of their nature; we can come to a grasp of the very ‘beingness’ of those others: it emerges for us in the unfolding dynamical relations occurring between our outgoing activities towards them and the incoming results from their responses to us.

Thus coming to a recognition in events of the ‘fact’ that someone can be categorized or ‘diagnosed’ as, say ‘schizophrenic’, or as ‘depressed’, or whatever, is not merely a matter of comparing the configuration of a supposed mental representation with the configuration of a state of affairs in reality, but something else much more complicated. It involves assembling a whole set of selected responsive-observations from actual moments and situations dispersed in time and place, and organizing them, or finding that they can be so organized, into an experienced whole, in accordance with the ‘grammar’ provided by what we already know of how the concept-word should be used. But note here, each such experienced whole is unique. Thus, while each new experience can be categorized in general terms, if we bring to mind Tom Andersen’s (2004, 2007) and Jaakko Seikkula’s (Seikkula et al, 1995; Seikkula & Olson, 2003) ways of working, starting with a diagnosis is like starting with what a wayfinder would think of as the end point of an exploration, an endpoint that was arrived at far too easily as if one had been able to pick out, say schools and factories while looking down upon a landscape from an airplane, rather than having first to cover in its uniqueness on foot.

Movements in resolving on a line of action in our imaginative consciousness

It is often said that we live forwards, but only understand backwards. This, as we have seen above, seems unquestionable: we can only find the guidance we need in our acting only by looking (with an ‘inner eye’) at inner pictures (representations) to find our way forward like tourists in a new town looking at a map. But consider the workings of our ordinary everyday talk as it goes on between us in our conduct of our daily affairs. If it really were the case that people have to wait until they have completed the relevant logical analysis to know what is meant by the utterance of such a statement as: ‘Today the sky is clearer than yesterday’, communication would not only be a laborious business, but it would there would be no end to such analyses. No wonder Wittgenstein (in Waismann, 1979, pp. 129-130) remarked, with respect to claims that understanding people’s meanings entailed such analyses: “What a hellish idea!” Either such an utterance spontaneously arouses in us an intelligible next step in our activities in response to it, or if we still remain puzzled, we ask the speaker for further clarification.

Indeed, those of who are practitioners of one kind of practical activity or another, have no other choice but to find the guidance we need in taking a wise or prudent step forward – a step that is in-formed by a moment-by-moment felt sense of ‘in-touchness’ with both our own inner resources, and with crucial features of our surroundings – within the unfolding, back-and-forth dynamics emerging in the interplay of our outgoing tryings and their incoming results. In other words, we have both the live forwards and understand forwards.

This, it seems to me, is where what Maxine Sheets-Johnstone (2012) calls our imaginative consciousness plays a crucial role. In her chapter in Ingold (2012) – The Imaginative Consciousness of Movement: Linear Quality, Kinesthesia, Language, and Life – she discusses what is involved in our coming to an understanding of how we, as ordinary, everyday, living human beings actually go about finding a way of doing something from within our doing of it. We seem to have an imaginative ability to project a line of action into the future, to perform a joined up sequence of contributory activities, beginning from a felt tension of a qualitatively distinct kind, we act in such a way that it results in a satisfaction of that tension. But we do not do it by following a map, by following an already existing path or way; we do it, as Garfinkel (1967) put it so nicely long ago, for yet “another first time” (p.9); in short, we do it as wayfinders. We seem able to imaginatively constitute the line of action, the single order of connectedness required to bring off an achievement, in the course of our bringing it off.

The arousal of anticipations by living movements

How is this possible? Instead of simple cause-and-effect processes working in terms of rule-governed ‘impacts’ occurring between objective entities, we need to think in terms of processes working in terms of tendencies, of incipiencies that ‘point’ towards future states of affairs which does not yet exist, that have their beginnings in events which are not yet fully realized, actualized, or finalized. And it is in this sense, as not yet real, finalized, nameable entities in the world that we need to say that they have a virtual or imaginative aspect to them. But more than this, we also need to say that the process of moving through or over the ‘landscape’ of possible lines of action within involved in resolving on a particular line of action within a bounded arena of activity, requires judgment – something that seems to be ‘off the radar’ completely in current accounts of our cognitive activities and in cognitive science in general.

Let me comment on the role of anticipations in our living activities and movements first: Living bodies, organic forms are enduring, self-maintaining, self-reproducing, self-structurizing structures. They change internally by growth and differentiation into more internally complex forms, while retaining their identity as the identifiable individuals they are. In other words, there is always a kind of developmental continuity involved in the unfolding of all living activities. In other words, all living activities give rise to what we might call identity preserving changes or deformations; they retain their nature as organic unities, even though, as we shall see, they remain ‘open’ to further change. In other words, the character of their ‘incompleteness’ is essential to their identity. As Vygotsky (1978) points out, to gain a sense of a living thing’s nature, we need to relate ourselves to it in a developmental fashion, during a continuous period of time, in a way that allows us to gain an imaginative sense of the incipient beginnings of new possibilities emerging within it – to repeat, “‘it is only in movement that a body shows what it is’” (p.65). For what we will find if we do so, is that the earlier phases of an activity are indicative of at least the style of what is to come later – we can thus respond to a living thing’s activity in an anticipatory fashion.

Further, as Sheets-Johnstone (2012) points out, as we grow up as children into the culture around us and discover how to make use of the qualitative dynamics emerging in the kinesthesia of our bodies, we come to embody a special set, not just of sensitivities, but of wants and needs which, as we will see, become relevant in organizing our efforts in overcoming difficulties of orientation in different particular spheres of practice.  As a result of these preparing activities, if I can call them that, we can come to approach situations occurring within a particular sphere of practice with a particular set of preliminary expectations and anticipations ‘at the ready,’ so to speak, as to how, initially, to respond to them.

Bakhtin’s (1986) dialogical approach to understandable language use has become prominent in family therapy in recent years, especially in Seikkula’s use of Open Dialogue (see Seikkula & Olson, 2003), and such anticipations are central to it. In moving away from the representational view of language use toward a much more responsive view of understanding, he remarks: “And the speaker himself is oriented precisely toward such an actively responsive understanding. He does not expect passive understanding that, so to speak, only duplicates his or her own idea in someone else’s mind… Rather, the speaker talks with an expectation of a response, agreement, sympathy, objection, execution, and so forth (with various speech genres presupposing various integral orientations and speech plans on the part of speakers or writers)” (Bakhtin, 1986, p.69). And among the other features of such responsive talk is its orientation toward the future: “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. Such is the situation of any living dialogue” (Bakhtin, 1981, p.280, my emphasis).

In other words, the meaning of what someone is uttering is experienced by us in our “feelings of tendency” (William James, 1890) as to how to respond to their expressions. If we ignore the action guiding anticipations (Shotter, 2005), the tendencies to respond, aroused by their words, and simply interpret their words in terms of our understandings of them, then it is as if we already know ahead of time everything they can say – we fail to take their 1st-person right (see below) to tell us of their own unique experiences.

As Sheets-Johnstone (2012) notes in her critique of Lakoff and Johnson’s (1999) Philosophy in the Flesh, “in their overarching espousal of the brain as a kind of  forum of sensorimotor schemas, they forget experience. They forget how the meaning and values we come to have – meanings and values that are indeed embedded in our use of language – are generated in our experiences of moving our bodies, moving them even as fetuses in putting a thumb in a mouth, grasping with the hand, kicking the legs, waving the arms” (p.213), “… we don’t experience nerve firings any more than we experience our brains!” (p.119).

Indeed, as young infants, lacking initially any well-defined forms of knowledge, we can only gain ‘knowledge’ of the ‘things’ around us, and of their properties, if we act towards them and move around in relation to them in our everyday activities as the ‘things’ they ‘are’ taken to be by the others around us – for we cannot be taught such practical recognitions at this stage by being offered ‘the facts’ linguistically. Our ability later to say explicitly, “This is an X (but not a Y),” requires our already having come to know, implicitly in our bodily activities, what X-ness and Y-ness is; and this capacity to orient towards the ‘what-ness of things’ in our surroundings in the same manner as those around us, and to judge that this is indeed an X and not a Y, is something we acquire in the course of our spontaneous involvements with these others, as come to feel ourselves ‘at home’, so to speak, in what Wittgenstein (1953) calls, to repeat, our different particular “language games” (no.23).

Thus, for instance, as Sheets-Johnstone (2012) points out, “it is… hardly surprising that infant and child development researchers find that in is the first locative state and act linguistically recognized by infants… When bodily experience is duly consulted, when one realizes that from the very beginning and for starters, we all have mouths that open and close, and that edibles and other things are and can be put inside them, and we all have hands into which things are and can be put, it is little wonder that in, inside, and being inside are primary in language acquisition” (pp.121-122). “The failure to put real-life movement on the map… results in a failure to consult actual bodily experience and to opt instead for motor systems, motor programs, and motor control, all of which put us at a third-person remove from the first-person bodies we are” (p.124).

On coming to a judgment in constituting a line of action

It is this urge to explain – in terms of theories involved invented hidden ‘mechanisms’, such as ‘motor systems’ and the like, rather than simply to describe – that currently seems to stand in the way of our providing the subtle and intricate descriptions required if we are to gain a sense of what goes on in our resolving on, i.e., in our coming to a judgment in our imaginative consciousness, as to a line of action to take as our first step on encountering a new, bewildering situation.

How might we describe the process involved? First, it seems necessary to take account of the fact that in our everyday dealings with each other, we continually accept that people have their own points of view on things; they seems to have attitudes, to have the ability to ‘play over’ their own bodily responses to things, in relation to their own embodied past experiences, and to tell us of their attitudes and of things in the situation before us that we ourselves have not noticed. This is an aspect of what it is for us to have a will, to be a 1st-person agent with a right to make avowals, i.e., declarations as to what we think and feel, and to have them taken seriously by those around us. Being a 1st-person agent involves, as Luntley (2003) puts it, “having the capacity to alter perceptual inputs at will; it is the capacity to organize our engagements with things in order to get what we want” (p.2) – in other words, the capacity to make judgments.

Next, it seems necessary to bring to mind – by doing the appropriate imaginative work involved in exploring within the complexity of an ongoing situation – what experiencing, perceiving (i.e. looking, listening, feeling, etc.), thinking, valuing, and talking (i.e., expressing oneself) feels like “from within” that complexity as it unfolds, judgmental step by judgmental step.

As I mentioned above, as a result of our growing up both into our bodies and into our culture, we seem to be able to approach the situations we meet with an overall or global set of expectations and anticipations, with a unique, qualitatively distinct tension. Crucial here is the specific tension we initially feel within ourselves as we begin an act, and the step-by-step reductions in that tension – and the use we make of these in judging the value of the variations we might make in the course of its execution – as we meet and satisfy various expected criteria along the way in arriving at an overall consummation (John Dewey) of our original aim or goal. Thus, what the doing of an action is like in the doing of it involves a good deal of imaginative work, the making of a sequence of judgments in relation to criteria, and so on, in a process too complicated to describe in more detail here (but see Shotter, 2010). Suffice it to say that what retrospectively looks like a straightforward ‘line of action’ was in fact constituted in an atmosphere of suspense and uncertainty, in a to-and-fro movement that was experienced as somewhat of a struggle as resistances were encountered, judged, and a next step taken toward an overall “end in view” (Dewey, 1930/1988; Wittgenstein, 1953).

“What we commonly take for granted,” says Sheets-Johnstone (2012), “is not uncommonly something so much a part of our everyday lives that we fail to take notice of it and thereby pass over any genuine understandings of it” (p.116). Indeed, we fail to take notice of it because we already seem convinced that we know what the requisite inner process is like: Conventional research portrays pretty much all practitioners as already adult-minded people who simply rationally reflect on possible courses of action, and then from amongst the possibilities before them, choose a plan which they then ‘put into action’. Consequently, such research thus fails to portray them as participants caught up in an already ongoing process who must produce from within it – in the face of both the constraints and limited resources it offers them – recognizable, legitimate, and above all, successful (in relation to already existing criteria) actions and utterances. We feel we already know what thinking, what remembering, what judging, etc., is like; and we quite wrongly treat it as a mere matter of “decision making.”

Bakhtin and the emotional-volitional tone of our utterances

Bakhtin (1993) attempts to capture the motional character of our utterances in his talk of them as having an “emotional-volitional tone,” for it is this that guides us in understanding how to orient or to relate ourselves to a persons’ utterance, i.e., to get a sense of its ‘point’ and ‘purpose’, their degree of commitment to it., and why they are motivated in such an aim. Thus, the “mere fact that I have begun speaking about [an object] means that I have already assumed a particular attitude toward it – not an indifferent attitude, but an interested-effective attitude. And that is why the word does not merely designate an object as a present-to-hand entity, but also expresses by its intonation my evaluative attitude toward the object, toward what is desirable or undesirable in it, and, in doing so, sets it in motion toward that which is yet to-to-be determined about it, turns it into a constituent moment of the living, ongoing event. [Thus] everything that is actually experienced… as something given and as something-yet-to-be-determined, is intonated, has emotional-volitional tone, and enters into an effective relationship within the unity of the ongoing event encompassing us” (pp.32-33, my emphases).

And in all of this, others are ‘moved’ in an anticipatory fashion to expect a certain style or kind of next occurrence. In other words, we not only hear the sounds made by another person as a response to our sounds, we hear them as sounds of agreement, of objection, of compliance, and so on. We have both a transitional understanding of what they have said (the semantic aspect of their utterance) and an action guiding anticipation of how to respond (the orientational or relational aspect of their utterance) (see Shotter, 2005).

But our sensibility in such exchanges is even more subtle and shaded than this. If the sounds we hear are sounds of agreement, we can hear them as sympathetic agreement, as patronizing agreement, as hurried agreement, as inconsequential agreement, as reluctant agreement, as unexpected or surprised agreement, and so on. Similarly with all other heard responses. They are all subtly shaded, nuanced, or intonated in such a way as to enable us, mostly, to ‘go on’ with those to whom we must respond in reply, with at least decorum and courtesy, and sometimes, to ‘go on’ in ways appropriate to more complex aims: “… the word does not merely designate an object as a present-on-hand entity, but also expresses by its intonation my valuative attitude toward the object, toward what is desirable or undesirable in it, and, in so doing sets it in motion toward that which it yet-to-be-determined about it, turns it into a constituent moment of the living, ongoing event” (Bakhtin, 1993, pp.32-33).

In other words, in the invisible ‘shape’ of the unfolding dynamic of my living relations to an object (even in my simply speaking of it), is the both expression of an evaluative attitude toward it – the way it ‘matters’ to me, the ‘weight’ or ‘force’ it can exert in my spontaneous reactions to it – as well as a sense of my ‘point’ in relating to it, what its role in my overall project is. Thus even in my speaking of an object, of, say, a “care plan,” a “diagnostic category,” a “client,”, a “person,” or even a “quote from Bakhtin,” etc., I am never speaking neutrally, indifferently, with no particular attitude, but always with “an interested-effective attitude” (p.32). Thus our talk of objects does not merely refer to objects as present-to-hand things, it also expresses by its intonation our evaluative attitude toward them, and in so doing, sets in motion our relations toward them, orients us toward that which is yet to-to-be determined about them. Thus, to repeat, what is expressed in the emotional-volitional tone of a person’s utterance is an anticipated ‘something’ that is going to be achieved in our future actions in relation to the so-called ‘objects’ in our surroundings.

Conclusions: relating ourselves to unique cases for another first time

But to do this, to recognize and to make use of the relational and orientational influences that can be at work in the emotional-volitional tone of our talk and texts, which indicate to us what we might achieve in our future actions, is not at all easy. We must teach ourselves to be sensitive to and to think in terms of feelings.  We must think in terms of the unique, unfolding time-contours, the imageless dynamical patterns aroused in us by the use of particular words in relation to particular circumstances. And this is what, I think, Wittgenstein (1953) is doing in his grammatical investigations when he asks himself over and over again: In what kind of circumstances would we say or do this, in relation to what kind of people, with what kind of end in mind? – with the insistence that we answer these self-imposed questions in detail, while moving about, while engaged in practical action. For in our practical dealings with each other, it is the complex detail that shapes our human understanding; it is when we fail to take notice of “apparently unimportant details of the particular situation” that we are “inclined to make a certain metaphysical assertion” (Wittgenstein, 1965, p.66).

Thus what we need is not feeling separated from thought, but thoughtful feeling and feelingful thought in a living and inter-relating continuity with each other, with each allowed to remain in an embryonic phase without being, falsely, treated as fully articulate and defined. “What is most difficult here,” said Wittgenstein (1953), “is to put this indefiniteness, correctly and unfalsified, into words” (p.227). But if we can do this, then more than being mere neutral thoughts residing ‘in our heads’ as ‘pictures’ (propositional representations), we will be able to allow that our ‘thoughts’, as voiced words, to arouse within us, in the same way as the actual voices of others, action guiding anticipations constitutive of that not-yet-fully-determined ‘world’ on the horizon, within which our present actions will have their meaning.

At a time when health professionals face the imposition of tick-box protocols, manualized treatments, evidence-based practices, and many other ‘objective’, 3rd-person, de-contextualized schematisms – schematisms that exclude both relational understandings and the exercise of personal judgments related to each unique situation one confronts each day as a practitioner – to reassert the foundational nature of such issues is no mean achievement. As we have seen, our up-close-and-personal involvements with those whom we must treat within a stable sphere or arena of languaged activity, is essential to our establishing and sustaining our therapeutic practices. If we are to relate ourselves to the unique person before for yet another first time, we cannot function in terms of just the objective knowledge contained solely within our individual heads as practitioners. We must understand how to approach each individual developmentally, making imaginative use of the feelings of tendency their behaviour arouses within us. Sheets-Johnstone’s work requires our full attention.

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 This paper began its life as a commentary, delivered in Department of Anthropology, University of Aberdeen, 25th June, 2009, in reply to pre-publication draft of Maxine Sheet-Johnstone’s paper: The Imaginative Consciousness of Movement: Linear Quality, Kinesthesia, Language, and Life.
 Emeritus Professor of Communication, Department of Communication, University of New Hampshire, U.S.A., and Research Associate, Centre for Philosophy of Natural & Social Science (CPNSS), London School of Economics, UK
 And it is in taking this stance, in adopting this kind of relation to the others and othernesses around us – in which we act as if their spontaneous, living responses to our actions are of no importance at all to us in our inquiries – that we can make ourselves ‘outsiders’ and act as if we can think of human systems ‘from the outside’.
 When Tom Andersen (2004) asks a divorced mother who had not been able to see her daughter for many years (who was 3yrs old at the time of the divorce), if she was lonely, she burst out: “I have so much pain!” And in going on to ask her the somewhat strange question: “If your pain found a voice what would it say?,” he was, of course, not seeking a diagnosis. He was beginning an exploration of the extensive inner landscape of the mother’s feelings, thus to find a pathway through it toward a less painful form of life.
 “One cannot… understand dialogic relations simplistically or unilaterally, reducing them to contradiction, conflict, polemics, or disagreement. Agreement is very rich in varieties and shadings. Two utterances that are identical in all respects (“Beautiful weather!” – “Beautiful weather!”), if they are really two utterances belonging to different voices and not one, are linked by dialogic relations of agreement. This is a definite dialogic event, agreement could also be lacking (“No, not very nice weather,” and so forth)” (Bakhtin, 1986, p.125).

 

 

John Shotter

About John Shotter

John Shotter is an Emeritus Professor of Communication in the Department of Communication, University of New Hampshire and a Research Associate, Centre for Philosophy of Natural & Social Science (CPNSS), London School of Economics, London, UK. His long term interest has been, and still is, is in the social conditions conducive to people having a voice in determining the conditions of their own lives. He is internationally well-known as one of the founders of the social constructionist movement in the human sciences, and especially for introducing into it the works of Wittgenstein and Bakhtin, as well as for his focus on practices rather than theories. He is the author of a number of books and journal papers. But what he most enjoys is working alongside practitioners in the fields of systemic family therapy, health care, and public sector consulting, and with members of The Open Network for Dialogical Practices – much more than good ideas is needed if we are to have the revolution in human relations we need; we must be prepared to experiment with different ‘institutional practices’... and to live through the emotional upheavals involved.
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