Inicio > Filosofía marxista, Psicología marxista > “Talk of sayin, showing, gesturing, and feeling in Wittgenestein and Vygotsky”: John Shotter

“Talk of sayin, showing, gesturing, and feeling in Wittgenestein and Vygotsky”: John Shotter

There is a strongly musical element in verbal language. (A sigh, the intonation of voice
in a question, in an announcement, in longing; all the innumerable gestures made with
the voice.)’ (Wittgenstein, 1981, no.161).

‘The child’s self-motion, his own gestures, are what assign the function of sign to the
object and give it meaning‘ (Vygotsky, 1978, p.108).

Traditionally in the social and behavioral sciences, seeking a single, unified, orderly account of things, we have spoken and written about ourselves as disembodied, isolated, self-contained individuals. We think of ourselves as existing in a fixed world of objects that we come to know, primarily, in a visual-intellectual manner, through our observations of them. As such, we have assumed that we can only come to know our own true nature in such a world by our empirical testing of our possible representations of it for their accuracy. However, unlike computers and other machines, as living, embodied beings, we cannot be wholly indifferent to the world around us. We must, to an extent, continuously react and respond to it, spontaneously, whether we like it or not, and in so doing, we must of necessity, relate and connect ourselves to our surroundings in one way or another.

Below, influenced both by Wittgenstein and Vygotsky (as well as Volosinov and Bakhtin), I want to explore the consequences of us talking of human activity from within a new vocabulary that takes our living, embodied nature seriously, from within what I shall call a relational rather than an individualistic way of talking. For, just as the child, ‘with the help of the indicative function of words,… begins to master his (sic) attention, creating new structural centers in the perceived situation (Vygotsky, 1978, p.35), so we also, as investigators, can draw our own attention to otherwise unnoticed features of our own conduct, through the introduction of a new vocabulary, a new way of talking.

Reading Wittgenstein through Vygotsky, and vise-versa

Indeed, this is one of Wittgenstein’s (1953) central methods in his philosophy: where, by giving ‘prominence to distinctions which our ordinary forms of language easily make us overlook‘ (Wittgnestein, 1953, no.132), he wants to change our ‘way of looking at things‘ (Wittgenstein, 1953, no.144). But what is it he wants us to see, through our new way of looking? For, as he says, he is not concerned ‘to hunt out new facts; it is, rather, of the essence of our investigation that… we want to understand something that is already in plain view. For this is what we seem in some sense not to understand‘ (Wittgenstein, 1953, no.89). What he wants us to see, I suggest, are the different ‘forms’ or ‘streams of life,’ that comprise the usually ignored background to everything that we do or say – what he calls ‘the whole hurly-burly:’

How could human behavior be described? Surely only by sketching the actions of a variety of humans, as they are all mixed up together. What determines our judgment, our concepts and reactions, is not what one man is doing now, an individual action, but the whole hurly-burly of human actions, the background against which we see any action‘ (Wittgenstein, 1981, no.567).

This, I think, is one of the very basic lessons he has to teach. What Wittgenstein brings to our attention, is the nature and extent of the usually unnoticed, background activities constituting the everyday lives we live, as non-intellectualizing, non- deliberating, embodied beings, spontaneously reacting and responding to those around us. For, developmentally, prior to establishing any institutionalized forms of life, with their associated orderly language games, what we just do, unselfconsciously and spontaneously, provides the creative grounds within which such forms can grow. As he suggests: ‘The origin and the 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‘.’ Where, in this kind of activity – that elsewhere, I have called joint action (Shotter, 1980, 1984, 1993) – what we do is ‘shaped’ just as much by the social context ‘into’ which we must fit our actions, as any inner plans or desires from ‘out of’ which we act. So, although participants may respond to each other in a ‘fitting’ manner, to the extent that they influence each  other’s actions in a moment-by-moment fashion, its nature is intrinsically unpredictable, indeterminate, and creative: it is an entirely unique and novel outcome, related to its circumstances, but unintended by any of the individual participants involved. So, although they react and respond to each other in a meaningful way, none of them can have a complete reflective grasp on the meaning of their activities – they only ‘show’ it in how they perform them.

The consequences of our embedding within streams of such living, corporeal activity flowing between ourselves and our surroundings are, then, easily ignored. Used to thinking of ourselves as wholly free agents, self-consciously containing the meaning of our own actions ‘in our heads’ somewhere, the anonymous, pre-personal life of our bodies remains somewhat invisible to us. Intent upon our own sayings and doings, we fail to notice the continuously changing background circumstances ‘calling out’ our actions from us, or, the ‘shaping’ influences they exert upon us as we act ‘into’ them: concerned, for instance, with formulating a question to a speaker according to our own, self- conscious aims, we fail to notice the fleeting, peculiar, momentary influences that made us feel the urge to question what they were saying in the first place, or, what determines how we uniquely enunciate our words in its utterance.

It is in these transitory dialogical or interactive moments – when second person ‘you’s’ respond to what first person ‘I’s’ are doing – that second persons ‘show’ their understandings to first persons in their practical responses to them; that is, whatever their meaning in theory, the meaning of a person’s action or utterance in practice, is a matter of how those who are its recipients respond to it. It is the special, uniquely creative nature of this form of ‘active, responsive understanding,’ as Bakhtin (1986, p.68) calls it – to contrast it with the ‘passive understanding that, so to speak, only duplicates [a speaker’s] own idea in someone else’s head‘ (Bakhtin, 1986, p.69) – that I want to explore. It is these living, responsive, background reactions that we are failing to see for what they are, and it is to their nature that, through certain, new relational forms of talk, I want to draw our attention.

Talk of sayin, showing, gesturing, and feeling in Wittgenestein and Vygotsky

Department of Communication
University of New Hampshire
Durham, NH 03824-3586

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