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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:

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

The aim of all of this?

Expected results


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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.

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

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

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

[After Post-Modernism Conference. Copyright 1997.]

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