WITTGENSTEIN’s Philosophy And Action Research John Shotter For Concepts and Transformations, 8(3), pp.295302, 2004
Davyyd Greenwood (2002) explores the nature of academic social sciences, as “primarily internally regulated, university based, professional activities” (p.117), that “privilege ‘theory’ and ‘method’ over all else, though what theory and method mean in this context is quite out of step with the meanings of these terms in the physical and natural sciences” (p.119). He then goes on to discuss a series of important difference between these ‘sciences’ and action research, and concludes that: “From what I have written, it seems that action research should dominate the social sciences. It has methods that are far more ‘scientific’ in the sense of knowledge tested and refined in action. It mobilizes relevant knowledge from people in a position to know their condition far better than conventional research can with its extractive approach... And it is driven by stronglyheld democratic values” (pp.128129). Why doesn’t it in fact do so? Greenwood suggests two reasons: “suppression by the social sciences and political elites and the sloppiness and negligence of action researchers themselves” (p.129). Gustavsen (2003), in responding to Greenwood, takes the issue further in two ways. First he comments on the nature of written research reports, and wonders if a stage can ever be reached when “reports from a number of cases eventually provide a reasonably ‘full’ theoreticalmethodological package?” (MS, p.2). But he wants also to suggest that the overall task “is not to replace the single case with a number of cases but to create or support social movements” (MS, p.3). Three themes seem to be common to both these accounts: One is the social isolation of professional [research] elites from the concerns of ordinary people, noted by Greenwood. This is connected with another: the privileging of theory over practice. But both of these are connected, it seems to me, with a third: the great and unresolved struggle of our time, that of ordinary people to gain control over their own lives, to get out from under schemes imposed on them externally by powerful elites, and to build a genuinely participatory culture. For if our culture is our habitat, so to speak, and is what gives concrete expression to our values, as well as to explorations into future possibilities, then the promise of democracy remains unrealized as long as most of us are uninvolved in the making of our own culture. In my brief contribution to this discussion, I want to suggest that an understanding of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, and the recognition of its striking differences from any previous philosophical works, can make some important contributions to all the issues mentioned above. I hope its brevity will not detract from its usefulness. Let me begin by noting, that while Wittgenstein is not critical of scientific investigations as such (in their own proper context), the whole scientific approach is in fact inimical to the character of his investigations. His investigations are of a grammatical kind. His remarks are thus not at all aimed at arguing for what is in fact the case. They are to do with “giving prominence to distinctions which our ordinary forms of language easily make us overlook” (no.132), with drawing our attention to “what is possible before all new discoveries and inventions” (1953, no.126) – they are expressions of a concern with what already lies “seen but unnoticed” (Garfinkel, 1967, p.36) in the background to all our everyday (and professional) communicative activities. Although each of us might uniquely do our own thing – like taking our own particular path through a landscape – if we are not to mislead or confuse those around us, they must be able to see how the path we are taking relates to those possible for them; if they are to coordinate their activities with our’s, they need to know, not what we are actually doing now, but its ‘point’, what it is aimed at in the future, where we are trying
to get to; they must be able to ‘follow’ us. While in scientific investigations, “we feel as if we [have] to penetrate phenomena,” says Wittgenstein (1953), his grammatical investigations are “directed not towards phenomena, but, as one might say, towards the ‘possibilities’ of phenomena” (no.90). Thus theories (and arguments in their support) would only be necessary in these investigations, if one were convinced that the influences shaping people’s behavior in this grammatical fashion were so radically hidden that they could only be discovered indirectly, by a process of scientific investigation. Whereas, as Wittgenstein (1953) notes: “If it is asked: ‘How do sentences manage to represent?’ – the answer might be: ‘Don't you know? You certainly see it, when you use them’. For nothing is concealed” (no. 435). Indeed, they cannot be concealed, else all around us would have to orient toward us as aliens from another planet. Because the events relevant to us understanding each other’s meanings in what we do and say are not in fact radically hidden, Wittgenstein does not turn to theoretical claims and conjectures in their investigation. This is where his later philosophy is quite revolutionary. He introduces a whole compendium of devices – vignettes, dialogues with other ‘voices’, arguments, dramatic scenes, metaphors and similes, striking examples, subtle particularities, and so on – all aimed, not at learning “anything new,” but at “understanding something that is already in plain view... something that we need to remind ourselves of” (no.89). Indeed, he wants in his investigations “to replace wild conjectures and explanations by the quiet weighing of linguistic facts” (1981, no.447) thus to produce merely a description of the facts that matter in the issue concerned – a description which, if one was initially intellectually disoriented, if one did not know what was possible as a next practical step, would justify saying to those around one (at least for the immediate practical purposes in hand): “Now I know how to go on” (1953, no.154). His investigations are thus, not at all aimed at developing explanatory theories, but at working from within our already existing practices – like action researchers – to seek previously unnoticed openings for their further refinement, elaboration, and correction. What prevents us from approaching our inquiries in this way? Why have we ignored these “seen but unnoticed” grammatical influences on our actions, which [mis]lead us into thinking that certain things must be the case – like thinking that people’s actions all issue from their ideas, rather than some of their actions being in spontaneous response to events occurring around them? In investigating such questions as these, one of his aims is to show us that the “musts” in terms of which we conduct, not only our professional research investigations, but also most of our everyday life activities, are not necessarily wrong, but are not always the only possibilities available – previously unnoticed openings for new developments in our practices are always present. Why have we allowed ourselves to be victims of these compulsions and dogmas in our thinking that make us blind to these new openings? Because, suggests Wittgenstein (1953), the metaphysical mythologies we have inherited from past philosophies that are now embedded in our ordinary forms of language – especially those from the metaphysics of Cartesian philosophy – easily make us overlook this usually unnoticed background to our lives together: “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably” (no.115). It is these metaphysical mythologies that he brings out into the light of day in the doing of his kind of philosophy. His kind of philosophy, then, is not to be seen as the handmaiden or underlaborer (John Locke) to science. Currently in our investigations, we are often still faced with the dual task of both offering philosophical arguments in criticism of those of others, while trying at the same time to conduct our own version of a scientific investigation. But his aim is not, by the use of reason and argument, to establish any foundational principles to do with the nature of knowledge, perception, the structure of our world, scientific method, etc., etc. Instead, he is concerned to inquire into the actual ways available to us of possibly making sense in the many different practical activities we share in our everyday lives together. “What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use” (no.116). And in so doing, his aim is to seek improvement in their uses in at least these two ways: 1) by avoiding confusions and other ways so that our attempts to ‘make sense’ – i.e., to follow each other and to ‘go on’ to act in the confident expectation of a particular outcome –
can ‘misfire’ or ‘run aground’; and 2) by understanding how they can be elaborated, refined, or extended into novel spheres of activity. Thus, in his philosophy, as already (to an extent) participants in everyday life understandings of our own and each others lives, we already embody in all of our responses to events in our surroundings, what we seek to understand intellectually – hence, his recommendation that: “We must let the use of words teach you their meaning” (1953, p.220). We are not seeking to discover anything entirely new, only what is already in plain view! How can we learn the practice of this kind of philosophy? And how is it relevant to action research? His reliance on our spontaneous reactions to events occurring around us is crucial here: “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’” (1980, p.31). This leads on to the important role played by the presentations of examples. We cannot learn a practice merely from reading rules or principles: “Not only rules, but also examples are needed for establishing a practice. Our rules leave loop holes open, and the practice has to speak for itself” (1969, no.139). What social scientists, in the interest of seeking general principles, often dismiss as “mere anecdotes,” are crucial in Wittgenstein’s philosophy, not in merely eliciting specific reactions, but in evoking in those reactions evaluative judgments or attitudes that remain on hand, so to speak, as a way or style of judging relevant to the whole of the practice. Hence his use of numerous examples. For, as he sees it, “a main cause of philosophical disease [is] a onesided diet: one nourishes one’s thinking with only one kind of example” (1953, no.593). And one particular disease he wants to cure us of, is our tendency to think of all our understandings of events occurring around us, as working only indirectly, in terms of inner mental representations, i.e., in terms of theories made up of separate elements that can be reconfigured in a rulegoverned way, ahead of time, to give us a new representation, a ‘prediction’, of future events. What is missing in this whole approach, to repeat, are people’s spontaneous, embodied, expressivereactions to events occurring around them, and the role played by these expressive reactions in being taught a practice: “[I]f a person has not yet got the concepts” says Wittgenstein (1953), “I shall teach him to use the words by means of examples and by practice ... I do it, he does it after me; and I influence him by expressions of agreement, rejection, expectation, encouragement. I let him go his way, or hold him back; and so on” (no.208). The relevance of this to our problems in action research is crucial: The past privileging of ‘theory’ and ‘method’ over all else, noted by Dvyyd Greenwood above, has diverted our attention from detailed descriptive studies of the unfolding dynamics of our practices and the part played in them – and in their reflective development – by talk and texts. Thinking that talk and text only work in a representational manner, has stood in the way of us coming to an understanding of how practices can be developed and refined without any recourse to the formulation and testing of scientific theories as such. Indeed, it has also diverted our attention away from another aspect of the importance of people’s expressive reactions: Without such expressive reactions, and the judgments they engender, everything comes to hinge on arguments about theoretical interpretations – and as a result, as Gustavsen (2003) notes, “the need for action research never ends [for] no ‘complete theory’ can ever be delivered” (MS, p.2). For there are no criteria for what is judged to be right or correct. People’s agreement in their judgments can only be found in their agreements in their spontaneous reactions to the events occurring around them (Wittgenstein, 1969). But the very idea of a ‘complete theory’ would be an abomination in any case. For, if human freedom and unique individuality is to make any sense, if our living of our lives is to remain open to our own choices, and if we are free to create new ways of relating ourselves to the others and othernesses around us, then there can be no single, fixed and finished order in our lives together. For any finalized explanatory scheme of a properly logical, systematic, and scientific kind, would inevitably close the essential openness of our human lives. The great achievement in Wittgenstein’s (1953) investigations is the extent to which he has succeeded in putting all “this indefiniteness, correctly, and unfalsified, into words” (p.227), while returning us to our everyday lives with each other at the same time.
Let me end with a return to Gustavsen’s (MS, p.3) concern with creating or supporting social movements. For, I think, we can find a hint for how we might go about this seemingly paradoxical task in Wittgenstein’s remarks quoted above. The task is a seemingly paradoxical one, for, as Bernstein (1984) notes, in discussing Gadamer’s (1975) account of what it is for a socially shared activity to be accounted a practice: “When Gadamer tells us that practice is conducting oneself, and acting, in solidarity,... that practical and political reason can be realized and transmitted only through dialogue, he presupposes, in at least an incipient form, the existence of the very sense of community that such practical and political reason is intended to develop” (p.225). In other words, social movements cannot be created ‘out of the blue’, they are created and supported by the continual identification and recognition of new openings in our practices that already exist there in their “incipient forms.” Thus, to repeat, the great value in Wittgenstein’s philosophical methods for action research, is in helping us to fashion the language within which we can identify and rationally discuss the nature of the new openings, the new possibilities, that already exist in our current practices. This is why the theoretical understandings of academic experts and other professionals, which seek to close the openness of our everyday lives together (in the interest of a particular goal of their own devising), need to be treated for what they are – as (perhaps hopeful) suggestions for previously unnoticed possibilities for a current next step forward, rather than as (often dangerous) dogmatic truths for all time. References Bernstein, R.J. (1984) Beyond Objectivism and Relativism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. Gadamer, HG (1975) Hermeneutics and Social Science. Cultural Hermeneutics, 2, pp.307316. Garfinkel, H. (1967) Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: PrenticeHall. Greenwood, D. J. (2002) Action Research: unfulfilled promises and unmet challenges. Concepts and Transformations, 7:2, pp.117139. Gustavsen, B. (2003). Action research and the problem of the single case. Concepts and Transformations, 8:1, pp.9399. Wittgenstein, L. (1953) Philosophical Investigations. Oxford:Blackwell. Wittgenstein, L. (1969) On Certainty. Oxford: Blackwell. Wittgenstein, L. (1980) Culture and Value, introduction by G. Von Wright, and translated by P. Winch. Oxford: Blackwell. Wittgenstein, L. (1981) Zettel, (2nd. Ed.), G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H.V. Wright (Eds.). Oxford: Blackwell.
Wittgenstein's Philosophy and Action Research