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On “Relational Things”: A New Realm of Inquiry Pre-Understandings and Performative Understandings of People’s Meanings

Authors:
The Emergence of Novelty
in Organizations
Edited by
Raghu Garud, Barbara Simpson,
Ann Langley, Haridimos Tsoukas
oxroRD
I]NIVERSITY PRESS
2015, pp.56-79
56
3
On “Relational Things”:ANew Realm
of Inquiry
Pre-Understandings and Performative
Understandings of People’s Meanings
John Shotter
Abstract: It is still far too easy in organization studies research to
assume (1)that words stand for things; (2)that we put our thoughts
into words; and (3)that when we enter into a new situation, we can
begin straightaway to act within it to achieve our own ends. But we
cannot immediately embark upon studying emergent processes for
we first need to relate our outgoing anticipatory activities in an intel-
ligible way with their incoming results. We need to understand what
is around us, not as objects, but in terms of their meanings. Anew
ontological realm of inquiry would seem to be required, concerned
not with acquiring new knowledge as such, but with developing our
embodied sensitivities to previously unnoticed aspects of circum-
stances troubling us. This chapter outlines the nature of this new
realm of inquiry, and what we need, initially, to focus on in our stud-
ies instead.
We must recognize the indeterminate as a positive phenomenon
(Merleau-Ponty, 1962, p.6)
Nothing is more difficult than to know precisely what we see
(Merleau-Ponty, 1962, p.58)
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In recent years, there has been in the West a radical change in our modes
of investigation, a movement of thought unprecedented since our adop-
tion of Greek modes of argumentative inquiry, focused on the “shapes” or
“forms” of things, more than 2,000years ago. Under the influence of such
thinkers and writers as Wittgenstein, Bakhtin, and Voloshinov, Mead and
Dewey, and Merleau-Ponty (among many others), not only have some of
us moved away from a concern with the supposedly fixed (i.e. eternal) but
hidden properties of objects in the world “out there,” as well as away from
a concern with events supposedly occurring privately inside the heads of
individuals, but we have also ceased our search for “ideal realities hidden
behind appearances.” Instead, we have turned to a direct focus on the
unique concrete details of our living, dynamic, bodily involvements—or
participations—in and with the world around us.
In so doing, we have become concerned both with what goes on inside
the different “worlds of meaning” we create within our meetings with the
others and othernesses around us, and with noticing the ever-present
background flow of spontaneously unfolding, reciprocally responsive
intra-activity1 between us and our surroundings, against which our
expressions have their meaning. It is as “participant parts” within this
flow, considered as a dynamically developing, complicated whole, that
we have our being as members of a common culture, as members of a
social group with a shared history of development between us. It is the
recent recognition of this previous unnoticed background of spontane-
ously responsive, living bodily activity, and its role in “setting the scene,
so to speak, within which we grasp the specific meaning of people’s actions,
that Iwant to explore below.
It is this turn to living worlds of meaning, to worlds in which people come
to share distinctive anticipations as to each other’s future actions in other-
wise indeterminate, fluid, not-yet-finalized circumstances, thus to coordi-
nate their activities with each other, that has been difficult to implement
and sustain in social theory and organization studies. But the fact is, if we
are unable to anticipate, at least partially, how the others around us will
respond to our actions in each of the unique situations within which we
happen to find ourselves, organized social life would become impossible.
We would have no sense of what, sequentially, should follow from what—
no sense that a particular expression should be answered in a particular
way; an offer by an acceptance or rejection; a question by an answer; and
so on—and thus, no capacity as members of a social group to coordinate
our activities with those of others.
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However, in a Cartesian world of already determinate mechanisms
merely awaiting our discovery of them, the effort to place meaning as
such at the centre of social theory has had a checkered career. In the
classical Cartesian/Newtonian world of separate particles of matter in
motion according to pre-established laws, we have assumed the task
of science to be that of discovering the formal nature of these basic
constituents along with their causal relations, and that we should pur-
sue this task by seeking to prove our proposed theoretical representations
of their causal relations true. Crucial to this endeavor, of course, was
the assumption that once a theory was proved true, everyone would, of
course, both understand and agree with it and find it a fitting basis for
their future actions.
As Heinrich Hertz (1894/1956) put it in his Principles of Mechanics:“The
most direct, and in a sense the most important, problem which our con-
scious knowledge of nature should enable us to solve is the anticipation
of future events, so that we may arrange our present affairs in accordance
with such anticipation” (p.1); and he can be credited with providing the
following succinct account of this theory-based, formal approach to how
best to conduct our inquiries:
In endeavouring. .. to draw inferences as to the future from the past, we
always adopt the following process. We form for ourselves images or symbols
of external objects; 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. In order that this requirement
may be satisfied, there must be a certain conformity between nature and our
thought. (p.1)
Yet, strangely, this “instrumental” criterion of truth, if we can call it
so, allows for a considerable degree of loose-jointedness in the relations
between our theories and the actual character of our surroundings.
Indeed, as Hertz went on to comment:
we do not know, nor have we any means of knowing, whether our concep-
tions of things are in conformity with them in any other than this one funda-
mental respect. The images we may form of things are not determined without
ambiguity by the requirement that the consequents of the images be the
images of the consequents. (p.2, my emphasis)
In other words, as Hertz recognized, there is always a great deal of inde-
terminacy at work even in our most precise formulations of our claims
to truth.
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3.1 Words, Meanings, and Anticipations:People
Coordinating Their Actions With Each Other
I begin with these remarks from Hertz for a number of reasons. One is to
do with his influence on Wittgenstein (1953), in orienting him towards
his view of philosophy as entailing a critical description of actual language
use (of which more later), and his claim that there is a kind of philosophi-
cal investigation to do with revealing “what is possible before all new dis-
coveries and inventions” (no.126)—that is, a realm of inquiry, not usually
considered as crucial in our inquiries into human, social phenomena, to do
with making clear what, in an intrinsically indeterminate circumstance,
is in fact available for empirical study within it. While in the classical
Cartesian/Newtonian world, we can study the world as it is, i.e. seek to
discover the facts of the matter, in a still developing, indeterminate, fluid
world, our task is to discover available possibilities for taking steps that have
not ever been taken before. In short, our concern is with novelties not regu-
larities. Another reason is to do with Hertz’s emphasis on the role of our
anticipations of the future in shaping our current actions—an issue that
Iwant to relate both to Dewey’s (1929/1958, 1938/2008) and to Bakhtin’s
(1981) account of their importance in the effectiveness of our communi-
cations, but also, again, to emphasize the importance of Wittgenstein’s
focus on language use—for the different ways in which we word our sense
of a circumstance, i.e. give verbal expression to it, will arouse different
anticipations in our listeners, and can easily (mis)lead them into taking an
inappropriate next step.
To turn first to Hertz’s influence on Wittgenstein (1953):Immediately
after having set out the centrality of the theory-testing approach to the
nature of physical reality, Hertz went on to outline a very special set of prob-
lems occurring in science, problems arising not out of our lack of empirical
knowledge, but out of “painful contradictions” in our ways of representing
such knowledge to ourselves. Examples for Hertz at the time of his writing
arose out of people’s talk then of “force” and of “electricity”—sometimes
“force” was the cause of motion, but at other times, with centrifugal force,
it was the effect of motion; similarly, sometimes “electricity” seemed to be
something static (a charge created by friction) and at other times fluid (as a
current conducted through copper wires).
He wondered:“Can we by our conceptions, by our words, completely
represent the nature of any thing? Certainly not,” he said (1894/1956,
p.7), but the fact is, such painful ambiguities do not plague us with all our
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talk of things as such. For instance, he notes, “why is it that people never
in this way ask what is the nature of gold, or what is the nature of velocity?”
(p.7). “I fancy,” he says,
that the difference must lie in this. With the terms “velocity” and “gold” we
connect a large number of relations to other terms; and between all these
relations we find no contradictions which offend us. We are therefore satis-
fied and ask no further questions. But we have accumulated around the terms
“force” and “electricity” more relations than can be completely reconciled
amongst themselves. We have an obscure feeling of this and want to have
things cleared up. .. When these painful contradictions are removed, the
question as to the nature of force will not have been answered; but our minds,
no longer vexed, will cease to ask illegitimate questions. (pp.7–8)
This lack of a direct “hook-up” between theory and reality may not worry
most natural scientists, but it should, Ithink, worry those of us concerned
with human affairs. For in studying people, one should be concerned,
not just with truth in an “effective” or “instrumental” sense, but with the
“ontological adequacy” of our expressions as to whether they do justice to
the whole being of persons and their relationships.
But to be able to judge that, we must first know what human beings
“are,” and what their relationships are like. And that problem, as Hertz
makes perfectly clear, cannot be solved (without undecidable ambigui-
ties to do with “appropriateness”) by formulating models and looking for
“conformities” between their products and human products. The discov-
ery of what something “is” for us—a “situation,” say—can only be dis-
covered from a study, not of how we talk about it in reflecting upon it, but
of how “it” as a whole necessarily “shapes” those of our everyday com-
municative activities in which it is involved, in practice—“its” influence is
revealed to us in the “grammar” of such activities.
Thus, as Wittgenstein (1953) realized, arriving at a comprehensive sense
of what a situation is for us, is not a matter of collecting evidence as a
scientist, but a matter of our “moving around” within it (in actuality or
in imagination) to gather a fragment here and another there in such a
way as to gain a grasp of it as a hermeneutical whole, even though we
lack a vantage point from “on high,” so to speak, to “look down” on it as
a whole—it is a “view from the inside,” much as we get to know our way
around within a city by living in it, rather than from being able to see it
all at once from an external standpoint. As Wittgenstein (1953) put it, it is
a grasp that “compels us to travel over a wide field of thought criss-cross in
every direction,” so that the philosophical remarks he provided as a result
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of his investigations, “are, as it were...sketches of landscapes which were
made in the course of these long and involved journeyings” (p. ix)—and
as such, portray features of those landscapes worthy of our attention, fea-
tures whose meaning is of possible importance to us, features that arouse
in us anticipations as to what next might be connected to them.
As Iintimated above, the assumption that a theory proved to be true
would provide everyone with a solid basis for their future actions, is simply
wrong. Conversationally, a theory has the character of a “report” on past
events, while what is needed, if we are to help those around us coordinate
their activities with ours, is a “telling”—a statement such as “I think we
need to take the employees’ point of view here seriously,” is not a report
on the speaker’s knowledge of certain facts, but an indicator to listeners as
to what next the speaker might go on to do. As Dewey (1929/1958) putsit:
The heart of language is not “expression” of something antecedent, much less
expression of antecedent thought. It is communication; the establishment
of cooperation in an activity in which there are partners, and in which the
activity of each is modified and regulated by partnership. To fail to under-
stand is to fail to come into agreement in action; to misunderstand is to set
up action at cross purposes. (p.179)
Thus, “To understand is to anticipate together, it is to make a cross-reference
which, when acted upon, brings about a partaking in a common, inclu-
sive, undertaking” (pp.178–179).
Similarly, Bakhtin (1981) also notes the orientation towards the future
of much of ourtalk:
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 situa-
tion of any living dialogue. (p.280, my emphasis)
This all means—although it may be somewhat awkward to say it—that
we cannot regard the goal of our inquiries as a simple search for “the
truth.” No matter how well supported by evidence, inquiries that do not
result in people being able to act in the future in concert with each other
in a way that was impossible for them in the past, must be accounted as
giving rise to words “empty” of shared meanings.
My concern below, then, is with what is involved in our coming, first, to
a shared sense of a shared circumstance, to which we can then give—in our
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efforts to partake in a common, inclusive, undertaking (Dewey)—shared
linguistic expression, thus to arouse shared anticipations of a precise kind in
each other making coordinated action possible.
Thus central to the new realm of inquiry that Iwant to introduce is the fact
that, as living beings, instead of the classical Cartesian/Newtonian world of
separate particles in motion, we live immersed within an oceanic world of
ceaseless, intra-mingling currents of activity—many quite invisible—currents
of activity which in fact influence us much more than we can influence
them. We are not like machines with already well-defined inputs, leading to
equally well-defined outputs, unresponsive to the larger contexts in which
we must operate. We are much more like plants growing from seeds, existing
within a special confluence, rooted within the chiasmic intra-acting (Barad,
2007, 2013)of many different flowing streams of energy and materials that
our bodies are continually working to organize in sustaining us as viable
human beings. Buffeted by the wind and waves of the social weather around
us we inhabit circumstances in which almost everything seems to merge
into everything else; we do not and cannot observe this flow of activity as if
from the outside. Indeed, it is too intimately interwoven with all that we are
and can do from within it for it to be lifted out and examined scientifically
as an object—for after all, wherever we move, we will still find ourselves
within one or another region of it. We are too immersed in it to be aware of
its every aspect. We are thus continually uncertain as to what the situation is
that faces us, and how we might act within it for the best.
Yet we are not often taken totally by surprise. We are aware that certain
situations are more conducive to actions we desire than others; we know in
some vague general sense that different surroundings “call out from us” dif-
ferent kinds of activities. Thus, for the writing of this chapter, for instance,
rather choosing to sit elsewhere, Icome first to sit at my desk, with my
books and other reading matter close to hand.2 Yet even here, within a
chosen circumstance, Iam still radically uncertain as to how, precisely,
to “journey” towards a final, satisfactory outcome to my efforts, for after
all, Iam seeking to say something novel, something new, something that
will “answer to” my initial sense of a lack of “something-or-other” (Dewey,
1938/2008; Todes, 2001). Imake a number of false starts; thankfully, how-
ever, my tryings seem to be an important aspect of the process—a part of
me clarifying to myself exactly what it is that Iam trying to do. As Todes
(2001) pointsout:
Whenever there is a distinction in active felt experience between what Itry
to do and what Ido do, it is because Ifail to do what Iam trying to do, and
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because Ithereby, to some extent, and at least momentarily, lose my poise—
becoming disoriented in my circumstances, losing track of, and thereby los-
ing, both myself and my circumstances, and dimming the entire world of my
experience. (p.70)
3.2 Relational Things Exist Only In Our Dynamical
Relations To Our Surroundings
What is special about relational things, is that they only become rationally
visible to us (Garfinkel, 1967)3 from within the dynamic relations occurring
between our outgoing anticipatory activities towards our surroundings
and their incoming results. So although they can exert very real influ-
ences on and in our actions, they are in fact invisible and non-locatable, as
well as initially being indeterminate. Their influence in our actions only
becomes more specific in terms of the “names” we give to them, the words
in terms of which we try to describe their nature—words which clearly do
not “stand for them” as things. Indeed, as both Bateson (1979) and Ryle
(1949) comment, “relational things” are of a different “logical type” from
the seemingly Bounded, Self-Contained, Separate, Visible (BS-CSV) objects
that we can manually grasp and physically move around in reconfiguring
our surroundings in our daily affairs.
Ryle (1949) introduces such relational entities via the following exa mple:
A foreigner visiting Oxford or Cambridge for the first time is shown a num-
ber of colleges, libraries playing fields, museums, scientific departments and
administrative offices. He then asks “But where is the University?” It has then
to be explained to her or him that “the University is not another collateral
institution...the university is just the way in which all that he has already
seen is organized.” (pp.17–18)
In other words, the foreigner has failed to recognize that the notion of a
university—as an organized collection of observable but disparate entities—
is of a different logical type or category from the separate, visible entities
in which it consists.
The most notable sphere in which we continually make such mistakes
is in our attempts to describe our own everyday human, social activities.
For continually, as Ryle (1949) points out, we use “achievement-verbs”
when we should provide an “orchestrated” sequence of “task-verbs,” along
with their criteria of satisfaction. In other words, we continually talk of
“arrivals” and/or “achievements” when we really should speak, not only
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of the “journeyings” and/or the “tryings” (as well as of the satisfactions
we achieve or not, as the case may be, by each step we take along the way),
but also of the overall guiding tension initially aroused within us by each
new bewildering situation that motivates our efforts at “bringing it into
focus,” so to speak. We far too easily act as if the situation is of an already
determinate kind of which we are merely ignorant, rather than it in fact
being indeterminate and open to our efforts to determine it in one way or
another.
Thus to assume, as many investigators do, that ideally we should proceed
to inquire into our everyday affairs as professional scientists do in their
experiments is, to my mind at least, to confuse hermeneutical, percep-
tual, and ontological issues, with rational, cognitive, and epistemological
ones. It is to (mis)describe a co-emergent, back-and-forth, essentially her-
meneutical process—in which “I” as a Subject experiencing a certain kind
of “thing” in the world, and an Object experienced as that “thing,” arise
together in the act of experience—as a cognitive and epistemological pro-
cess, concerned merely with our thinking “about” our bewilderment in a
linear, rational manner. But, to repeat, the reference of the words we use in
our talk of such “objects,” of such “things,” can be identified only within
the instance of discourse within which they are contained and being used;
their reference in other instances, more likely than not, will be different.
Our task, t hen, to repeat, is that of finding our “way about” (Wittgenstein)
within the different realms of language use within which we participate
in our inquiries. As Ryle (1949) somewhat sarcastically puts it:“Theorists
have been so preoccupied with the task of investigating the nature, the
source, and the credentials of the theories that we adopt that they have
for the most part ignored the question what it is for someone to know
how to perform tasks” (p.28). Indeed, theorizing itself is a practice, and as
such, may be intelligently or stupidly conducted, and clearly, we need to
know what we are doing in our doing of it, i.e. how our practices of inquiry
influence what it is we take ourselves to be inquiring into. What, then, are
we trying to deal with here? Why are we always so uncertain, always so
anxious as to whether our intended best actions are in fact for the best?
3.3 Don’t Ask for the “Content” of an Action or
Utterance, But What It Is “Contained In”
An expectation is embedded in a situation from which it takes its rise”
(Wittgenstein, 1981, no.67)
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The answer seems to be that, although we easily tend to assume in our
everyday talk that we are dealing with clearly nameable, well-defined
things, the fact is that we are not; we are continually having to deal with
“relational things.” And relational things are not at all like the seemingly
BS-CSV objects to which we readily give names in our everyday affairs.
They are “things” like “language,” “meaning,” “speech,” “trust,” “power,
“respect,” “care,” “person,” “worrying,” “hurrying,” the simple act of
uttering a “question” and gaining an “answer” to it, and countless other
supposed “things” we give names to in our everyday affairs. In a sense, in
their lack of a spatial form, they are not thing-like at all; they cannot be
“pictured”; yet we continually give names to them as if they can be. In the
field of organization studies, they are things like:“organization,” “man-
agement,” “le ad ership,” “strategy,” “innovation,” “va lues,” “cu lt ure,”
“bureaucracy,” and so on, and so on. And as we talk amongst ourselves
about such things, we assume we are all talking about the same thing when
we are not. The fact is, the reference of these terms can be identified only
within the instance of discourse within which they are contained. This
is why a new realm of inquiry—that is clearly oriented towards inquiring
into the strange, invisible nature of relational things—is required.
Immersed, then, in an already ongoing flow of intermingling influ-
ences, unaware of its orienting effects upon us, we simply find ourselves,
conscious of seeing and hearing (and smelling and touching) various already
familiar and nameable “things” in our surroundings. We also find occur-
ring with in ourselves, unconsciously, various di stinctive, dynamical feeling
shapes, so that amongst some of our very first important experiences, are
feelings of love and comfort, of rejection and anger, of friendliness, of help-
lessness and unfairness, and so on—which, as infants (in-fans—without
speech), we express performatively (in our actions), but later, learn to
express in words. For, in growing into a culture of, literally, “like-minded”
and “like-speaking” others, we must learn to use words as the others
around us use them. But to do this, as Wittgenstein (1953) makes clear,
“if language is to be a means of communication there must be agreement
not only in definitions but also (queer as this may sound) in judgments”
(no.242).
This is so because, if it really is the case that each new, never before
encountered, initially indeterminate situation needs to be distinguished
and responded to uniquely “as itself ”—as a “singularity” in physicists’
terms, or as a “relational thing” in our terms here—then we cannot be
told about it in linguistic terms representative of objective “things” already
well known to us; that would only be to say what it was like, while ignoring
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its unique differences from what is already familiar to us. We need first to
“introduce” ourselves, or be “introduced” by others to it, so to speak, to
become acquainted with it as an organized unity (à la Ryle), and to acquire
some expectations as to how it will, as such, respond to a range of our
actions. For example:“How do Iknow that someone is in doubt?” asks
Wittgenstein (1969). “How do Iknow that he uses the words ‘I doubt it’ as
Ido? From a child up Ilearnt to judge like this. This is judging” (nos. 127,
128). This is why, when we need to talk of relational things—things which
can only be seen and heard in the unfolding temporal organization of a
person’s actions in relation to their circumstances—we must learn to make
judgments as the others around us do. We must learn to relate ourselves to
“somethings” in our surroundings linguistically in a certain manner, to
distinguish them and then to describe them being like Xs rather than like
Ys, while still being different from them, and thus still amenable to other
likenings as well.4
The acquisition of this awareness of certain very general characteristics
of human life and experiences in the (always still developing) course of
our first language learning, is crucial to all our activities as members of a
particular social group, as members of a culture. Yet, strangely, although
we cannot get outside of it to determine its nature objectively, just because
it determines for us our most basic ways of making sense of events occur-
ring around us, what we find ourselves feeling at any one moment—what
we find is familiar to us and what is bewildering, what is real and matters
to us and what is illusory, and so on—we can come to know its nature
indirectly, by comparing and contrasting its nature here with its nature
there, at different times in different places.
We can get to know of its nature from the inside, differentially, just as
we can come to know our way around within a new city, by exploring it
increasingly, in all its detail. We think we can get from Ato S via F, only
to find the way blocked by a river; we then search for a bridge and an
alternative route (for we take it for granted that, as in other cities5 (look
at note), people build bridges over rivers). And this is the case for us all,
not just as leaders, but as ordinary persons acting in the everyday world
around us:we continually have to act into an uncertain, “fluid” future,
while at the same time assuming that if one way forward proves impos-
sible, another can quite readily be found.
In adopting this insider’s approach, we must give up Descartes’ (1968)
vision of an already pre-established world of “particles of matter in motion
according to already existing laws”—a world in which he had hoped,
with the appropriate methods of rational thought, that we could become
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“masters and possessors of nature” (p.78)—and embrace instead the very
strange new world of our everyday social lives together in which there
are no such pre-existing “some-things” which are separate from anything
else. For it is a world in which every “thing” is always in movement, in
both senses of the word, i.e. as always moving along within a larger move-
ment, as well as moving within itself.
Thus the conceptual shift required is a profound one; everything
changes; many basic assumptions will need to be reversed. Indeed, we
would like to switch, if we could, to a verb-based language away from our
noun-based way of talking; to a language in which many “things” would
be known to us in terms of their dynamical appearances within our sur-
roundings instead of in terms of their static forms. Rather than merely in
terms of our finalized experience of them, we need to know them in terms
of our experiencing of them; for it is in their still open, unfinished unfold-
ing that they arouse a felt tension within us, a uniquely particular feeling,
that can both motivate our next step as well as guide us in our execu-
tion of it in relation to our surroundings. It is our ignoring of the unique
particularity of these motivating and guiding feelings that is our crucial
mistake, a mistake that cannot be rectified by the provision of objective
descriptions, no matter how detailed or complex they may be.6
But we cannot easily “verb” our noun-based terms: our language—
as a paradigmatic “relational thing”—is one of those all-encompassing
“things” within which we are so immersed that we cannot get outside of
it. We owe our very existence as autonomous, self-responsible persons to
our embedding within its ongoing flow. And even if we could, it would
not in itself overcome the difficulties we face in coming to an overall,
orienting sense of what it is, in particular, that we are trying to inquire
into, for “it” is known to us as more that simply an image. As Ryle (1949)
pointed out above, the University of Oxford, as such, becomes known
to us as an organization of a whole collection of bits and pieces of the
University, gathered at different times in different places into a herme-
neutical whole. In other words, it consists in a uniquely organized sense of
a set of unmerged particulars, a unity within which a collection of particu-
lars are inter-linked with each other without losing their particularity—as
such, it constitutes a unique structure of expectant feelings to which we
can refer in guiding our talk in relation to the University of Oxford.
This capacity—to organize fragments of experience, gathered at differ-
ent times in different places into a hermeneutical unity—seems to be a
very basic human capacity, recognized as such, long ago. Indeed, both
Weick (2010) and I(Shotter, 2012)refer to Theseus’ line in Shakespeare’s
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Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which he describes how “imagination bod-
ies forth the form of things unknown,” and how the poet’s pen can then
go on to give “airy nothing / Alocal habitation and a name.” But what if
we draw back from trying to name such airy “no-things,” and instead, by
imaginatively moving about within them—and by feeling or sensing simi-
larities and differences in their nature here compared with their nature
there—begin to acquaint ourselves with their overall distinctive nature?
In other words, in Wittgenstein’s (1953) terms, instead of naming them,
we set ourselves the task of coming to know our “way about” (no.123)
within them.
But as Wittgenstein (1953) realizes, although we are not searching for
something hidden behind appearances, but for something “that already
lies open to view,” it only becomes what he calls “surveyable (übersi-
chtlich),” i.e. sensed as an interconnected whole, “by a rearrangement”
(no.92), by the fragments being presented to us in such a manner we
can easily grasp their interconnections—we need a “perspicuous represen-
tation (übersichtlich Darstellung),” for it only will produce “that under-
standing which consists in ‘seeing connections’ ” (no. 122). Gadamer
(2000) expresses the hermeneutical task entailed here in a similar manner:
The subject matter appears truly significant only when it is properly por-
trayed for us. Thus we are certainly interested in the subject matter, but it
acquires its life only from the light in which it is presented to us. We accept
the fact that the subject presents different aspects of itself at different times
or from different standpoints. We accept the fact that these aspects do not
simply cancel one another out as research proceeds, but are like mutually
exclusive conditions that exist by themselves and combine only in us. (p.284,
my emphasis)
And it is in this sense that Iam claiming that we need to orient our-
selves towards a new realm of inquiry, a form of inquiry in which we are
not so much concerned “to hunt out new facts” or “to learn anything new
by it,” as “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). Even though nothing is hidden from us and it is all before our
eyes, we are bewildered because we are looking at it, or looking over it, i.e.
surveying it, with an inappropriate set of expectations as to what we can
see as possibly of importance to us within it. What is needed, suggests
Wittgenstein (1980), is “a working on oneself...On one’s way of seeing
things. (And what one expects of them)” (p.16). Our task, then, as agents
of inquiry, is to look over the circumstances before us in relation to our
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end in view, and to organize what we see here and what we see there in rela-
tion to it, thus to gain a sense of the field of possibilities available to us in
making our way towards it.
3.4 Inquiring Into Understandings-Exhibited-In-
Our-Actions:Pre-Understandings and Performative
Understandings
“The meaning of a question is the method of answering it.... Tell
me how you are searching, and Iwill tell you what you are search-
ing for”
(Wittgenstein, 1991, pp.66–67)
So, to state the issue facing us in a somewhat convoluted fashion:What
is involved in our conducting inquiries into how best we might conduct
inquiries into our practices? As a first step in answering this question,
we must, Ithink, accept that we face two very different kinds of difficul-
ties in our everyday, practical lives, not just one. In the past, we seem
to have thought of all our difficulties as problems that, with the fashion-
ing of an appropriate intellectual (theoretical) framework, can be solved
by the application of systematic, i.e. rational, thought. There is, however,
another more primary difficulty that we need first to overcome before
problem-solving as such becomes a possibility for us:we need to get ori-
ented, to arrive at a sense of what the situation is within which we must
act; we need to know the nature of the opportunities for, and barriers
against, as well as the resources for our acting within it; the influence of
our surroundings on our actions. Lacking orientation, we find ourselves
as if in a thick fog, not knowing where our first step will land. There is
thus a realm of “pre-understandings” (Heidegger) that we show or exhibit
in our particular “performative understandings” (Austin) when acting in
a given situation. It is these understandings-exhibited-in-our-actions that
we need to investigate. But how?
Some time ago, William James (1890, vol. 1)described the sensings, the
feelings guiding us in our acting, as being not like bounded entities with a
clear beginning and a clear end, but as being “feelings of tendency, often so
vague that we are unable to name them at all” (p.254), but which, none-
theless, crucially function as “signs of direction in thought, of which we
have an acutely discriminative sense, though no definite sensorial image
plays any part in it whatsoever” (p.253).
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It is James’ “acutely discriminative sense” that can be the basis of our
inquiries. The meaning of a question for us is revealed, for example, as
Wittgenstein (1991) points out, in the ways we move about, both out in
the world and in our inner mental activities, in our attempts to answer
it—the focal unit of study here, being the unfolding sequence of events
occurring between our initial sensing of a tension being created within
us by its asking and the subsequent exploratory movements we execute in
our attempts at satisfying that tension.
But the execution of this back-and-forth, hermeneutical-like process is
not a simple matter. As we know from those cases in which people have
had their sight restored after having been blind since early childhood,
even the sustaining of a stable visual field is a skilled, bodily achievement.
Practice at it is required in learning it. In being ignorant of our body’s
work in achieving a stable world around us, we fail to appreciate the role of
“being oriented,” of being “in a distinct context” that arouses in us distinct
anticipations as to what next to expect (Todes, 2001). As Iindicated above,
if we are to relate ourselves to “things” which can only be seen and heard
and felt within the unfolding temporal organization of people’s actions
in relation to their circumstances, we must learn to make judgments about
them as the others around us do—an intricate process of negotiation with
the others and othernesses around us, with a developmental trajectory to
it, is involved. It is not a mere process of pattern recognition, as is often
assumed—for once the tension provided by the open incompleteness of a
process comes to an end, is satisfied, its role in motivating and guiding the
process also comes to an end; nor is it a simple matter of decision-making
(Shotter and Tsoukas, 2014). To repeat yet again:It is only by sensing and
feeling similarities and differences as we move about with a situation that
we can come to a grasp of its nature.
In other words, in coming to know how to bring words to a new situ-
ation in a way in which we can be sure that the others around us will
judge as meaning what we intend them to mean, we must hermeneutically
“place” the situation within a whole web of relationships amongst the rest
of what is already known to us. Involvement in doing this, as Kuhn (2000)
has recently pointed out, is not a matter of translation—of now saying
that something already well known to us in everyday terms is really best
specified in the terms of a theory, as in learning a second language—but is,
in fact, a continuation of our first language learning:
When the exhibit of examples is part of the process of learning terms like
‘motion’, ‘cell’, or ‘energy element’, what is acquired is knowledge of language
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and of the world together [i.e. in relation to each other]. On the one hand,
the student learns what these terms mean, what features are relevant to
attaching them to nature, what things cannot be said of them on pain of
self-contradiction, and so on. On the other hand, the student learns what
categories of things populate the world, what their salient features are, and
something about the behavior that is and is not permitted to them. In much
of language learning these two sorts of knowledge—knowledge of words and
knowledge of nature—are acquired together, not really two sorts of knowl-
edge at all, but two faces of the single coinage that a language provides.
(Kuhn, 20 00, p.31)
Thus, rather than treating ourselves as already having a complete mastery
of our first language, we must even as adults, it seems, sometimes still treat
ourselves as still having to learn, to distinguish, and to respond to the
unique what-ness of previously unencountered “things”—that is, while
still learning to make judgments as to what, linguistically, we should talk
of them as being in ways similar to how those around us will judge them.
Exhibiting examples is of crucial importance, for as Wittgenstein (1969)
remarks:“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” (no.139). Speak? Well yes. For, in showing a student an example, we
do not simply statically display a static object and leave students to their
own devices; we present it this way and that, draw their attention to dif-
ferent aspects of it, and so on. As Merleau-Ponty (1964) says, in remarking
on the cave paintings of Lascaux:“I would be at great pains to say where is
the painting Iam looking at. For Ido not look at it as Ido at a thing; Ido
not fix it in its place. My gaze wanders in it as in the halos of Being. It is
more accurate to say that Isee according to it, or with it, than that Isee
it” (p.164). Each new “thing” we encounter—whether a relational thing
or not—has its own unique way of being what it is, and our first learning
to see it as a nameable something involves us in letting it “tell us,” so to
speak, as a partner in a communicative activity, how to relate ourselves
to it (Shotter, 2006), and this is not a simple matter. Indeed, as Iremarked
earlier, what an event is cannot be found within the event itself; it can
only become known to us in terms of its relations to the larger context
within which it is “contained” (Bateson, 1972/2000).
Clearly, others have noted this fact. For instance, Robichaud, Giroux,
and Taylor (2004), in arguing that in the literature to do with exploring
the use of language in organizing our activities, the role of recursivity
in our talk has been largely overlooked, have introduced the concept of
the metaconversation. In studying citizens’ complaints to a city’s mayor
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about “potholes” in the roads and sidewalks, what they noted first, was
the use of talk relating to disturbances or breakdowns in a normal order
of things, talk to which all involved could relate to, whilst also, in being
preoccupied with topics and persons in common, and thus linked to each
other, they made similar distinctions to each other. In other words, these
aspects of their talk—that they call the metaconversation—set the scene,
so to speak, within which each of the specific complaints made by the citi-
zens can be more precisely understood. Indeed, as Robichaud etal. (2004)
put it:“The outcome is coorientation, in the sense of a commonality of
attention:both citizens’ and city administration’s attention focussed on
the same object of value—the state of the streets and sidewalks—although
in different ways” (p.626). Boje (2001) also, with his concept of “ante-
narrative”—which he defines as a “bet” that a “pre-story” will become a
full-fledged narrative—similarly draws our attention to the importance of
those context-determining activities without which our talk is, literally,
senseless. In short, without the effort to outline what our actions and/or
utterances are “contained in,” we can have no idea of their “content,” of
their precise meaning.
What Robichaud etal. (2004) and Boje (2001) draw to our attention
here, is an important aspect of our everyday activities. But what about our
more deliberately conducted research inquiries? As Dewey (1938/2008)
makes clear, instead of beginning them by trying to form theories or
conceptual frameworks—which, as Dewey sees it, are often so “fixed in
advance that the very things which are genuinely decisive in the problem
in hand and its solution, are completely overlooked” (p.76)—we should
begin our inquiries by being prepared to go “into” our perplexities and
uncertainties, “into” the feelings of disquiet aroused by the circumstances
confronting us, for strangely, it is precisely within these feelings, if we take
trouble to explore them further, that we can begin to find the guidance
we need in overcoming our disquiets. For, says Dewey (1938/2008), “the
peculiar quality of what pervades the given materials, constituting them
[as] a situation, is not just uncertainty at large; it is a unique doubtfulness
which makes that situation to be just and only the situation it is. It is this
unique quality that not only evokes the particular inquiry engaged in
but that exercises control over its special procedures” (p.109). Indeed, as
Dewey sees it, the qualitative character of the situation we inhabit is perva-
sive both in space and in time, it notonly
binds all constituents into a whole but is also unique; it constitutes in each
situation an individual situation, indivisible and unduplicable. Distinctions
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and relations are instituted within a situation...Auniverse of experience is
the precondition of a universe of discourse...The universe of experience
surrounds and regulates the universe of discourse but never appears in the
latter. (p.74)
Thus for Dewey, it is only as a result of our “sensitivity to the quality of a
situation as a whole” (p.76) that we can come to a precise grasp of a prob-
lem as the problem it is—in short, “a problem must be felt before it can be
stated” (p.76).
Such feelings, however, while providing us with motivation and a
degree of guidance in our exploratory efforts to find an appropriate way
forward, although crucial in that they are quite specific to the particu-
lar circumstance within which we find ourselves, can never bring us
certainty. Indeed, we are, after all, always facing an indeterminate cir-
cumstance whose nature is intrinsically uncertain, never mind whether
what we tell ourselves and others we want within it truly captures what we
in fact need.7 Our real needs often only become clear to us retrospectively,
in the course of our attempts at achieving our desires. As Todes (2001)
puts it, “the meeting of a need...always involves a confirmatory recogni-
tion of the need met, a recognition that retroactively determines the true
nature of the need that prompted the activity culminating in its filling
(p.177). For example, we continually feel the prior possession of a causal
explanation, expressed in the general terms of a theoretical framework,
will be a help in our deciding how to act in each new, particular circum-
stance we encounter. Whereas, our real need is for an articulated sense of
its “inner landscape,” the unique “field of possibilities” it actually offers
us for a pathway through it—a need that is only slowly becoming clear to
us in the face of our continual failure to arrive at such an overall, explana-
tory scheme.
In suggesting above, then, that we face two very different kinds of dif-
ficulties in our everyday, practical lives, not just one, i.e. problems that
need solving, but difficulties of orientation, to do with arriving at a sense
of what the situation is within which we must act, Iam suggesting both,
that the pre-understanding in terms of which we embark on our inquir-
ies “set the scene,” so to speak, for what we will focus on and think of
ourselves as inquiring into—the relational things that we will give names
to—and that the performative understandings that become available to
us within our doings along the way, will guide us in our journeyings, as we
seek to “know how to go on” (Wittgenstein, 1953, no.154)together with
the others around us.
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3.5 Conclusions
The notion of intra-action (in contrast to the usual ‘interaction’, which pre-
sumes the prior existence of independent entities/relata) represents a pro-
found conceptual shift. It is through specific agential intra-actions that the
boundaries and properties of the components of phenomena become deter-
minate and that particular concepts (that is, particular material articulations
of the world) become meaningful. (Barad, 2007, p.139)
While in the physical sciences we can be concerned just with the truth of
our theories, in our activities in the still developing, fluid world of human,
living activities, things are very, very different. Instead of seeking truth
in a merely effective or instrumental sense, of getting “the facts” right, we
face the task of not only doing ethical justice to the whole being of persons
and their relationships, but also of being sensitive—in outlining the pos-
sibilities for future developments in present circumstances to which we
draw attention—to the political character of our proposals. Thus what
I have suggested above, then, is that it is in the very nature of all the
bewildering, confusing, or questionable situations that we face in life, i.e.
situations provoking inquiry, to be in some degree indeterminate, to be
in their very nature, unsettled, and as such, still open to further specifica-
tion. In short, to be now and forever fluid. Consequently, the emergence of
novelty as such, is a more pervasive phenomenon than we might initially
assume. As Garfinkel (1967) so nicely puts it, each time that we make
sense of an essentially indeterminate circumstance, and account for the
events occurring within it, as familiar, commonplace happenings, we do
so always “for ‘another first time’ ” (p.9).
But here we must be careful. For our capacity to do this can easily mis-
lead us into thinking that the fluidity within which we are immersed is of
a general kind, whereas, what Ihave also tried to suggest above, is that it
is always a quite specific fluidity; and that the specific currents flowing in
whatever circumstance within which we happen to find ourselves, influ-
ence very greatly what we can experience as happening within it. Indeed,
these unique currents are present and pervasive in the flow of the situa-
tion from start to finish, making it to be just and only the situation it is.
And it is the unique quality of these currents that not only provoke the
particular inquiries we engage in, but which also exercise control over the
forms of investigation we try to adopt. In other words, novelty is pervasive.
If Karen Barad’s (2007, 2013) account of intra-action is correct, as
opposed to our more usual assumption of inter-action, then this entails
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that the organizational “things” that we name as topics of importance in
organization studies—such things as “organizations,” “leadership,” “com-
munication,” “innovation,” “management,” etc., and think of as existing
out in the world, along with what we take to be important in our inquiries,
such things as “language,” “ideas,” “theories,” “knowledge,” “meanings,”
or “observations,” and study as the products of processes hidden within
the heads of individuals—are all better talked of as emerging within mate-
rial intra-actions occurring within the flow of activities occurring out in
the world at large. For, in enacting what Barad (2007) calls “agential cuts
(p.140), i.e. taking some aspects of our situation as subjective and others
as objective in different ways at different times as we are acting within
it, “we do not uncover pre-existing facts about independently existing
things” (p.91); instead, we “enact agential-separability—the condition of
exteriority-within-phenomena” (p.140), a functional separation appropriate
to the purposes at hand.
This is what is entailed if we are to act in the moment. But all too often in
our inquiries, we come on the scene too late (after we have already situated
ourselves as confronting a specifically formulated “problem”), and look in
the wrong direction (towards its possible “causes”), with the wrong atti-
tude in mind (in a search for “objective facts”). In so doing, we fail to appre-
ciate the body’s role in “focussing” us on, and keeping us “in touch with” those
aspects of our surroundings of importance to us. We fail to appreciate that it
is only within the unfolding dynamics of our living relations with our cir-
cumstances that we can find the “action guiding calls” we need to provide
us with an anticipatory sureness, thus to be able “to-follow-what-is-still-to-
come.” If we stop moving in an effort to try to “think” what will happen
next, our “felt sense” of “where” we are will disappear. It is this realm of
sensings, of action guiding feelings, that is crying out for investigation—and
which cannot be conceptualized as propositional knowledge—as Argyris
(20 03) suggests8—as it provides the shared basis by which those within
an intellectual community recognize only certain statements as being
“propositional statements.
If, instead, we accept that we ourselves bring such relational things into
existence as “facts” in relation to our purposes in the moment of our activ-
ities, then, although we might talk in our studies of the causal influences
at work in various organizational activities—such as leading, managing,
collaboration, risk-taking, decision-taking, team-building, knowledge
management and transmission, innovation, etc.—all such influences can
only be seen as having been at work in people’s performances after they
have been achieved; and this is the case with many other such topics of
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study in organizational research. Something else altogether is guiding us
in the performance of our actions in relation to our surroundings than
the “named things” we claim to have discovered in our research. It is the
nature of this “something else,” and how it can be publicly studied, that
Ihave been trying to bring attention to here.
If we cannot work at seeking patterns, orders, or regularities, etc., amongst
pre-existing objective entities, and must work with ephemeral relational
things, what can we focus on, with what can we begin our inquiries? We
can make use of James’ (1890) “acutely discriminative sense” in picking out
what Garfinkel (2002, p.68) calls (awkwardly) witnessable recognizabilities, or
what Ihave elsewhere called “real presences” (Shotter, 2003); that is, on the
basis of our abilities to sense similarities and differences, we can point out
to each other the happening of quite specific “thisnesses” or “thatnesses”
events which, even when they cannot be specifically named, nonetheless
possess distinctive qualities which can, at least, be alluded to linguistically,
as being like what is already well known amongst us. And it is in terms of
such “pointings out”—“do it like this not like that”—that we can begin to
teach practices well known to us to others.
As Wittgenstein (1953) remarks, with respect to our learning to judge
the genuineness of other people’s expressions of feeling—are they really
being friendly to us, or just feigning it in order to get something from
us?:“Can someone else be a man’s teacher in this? Certainly. From time
to time he gives him the right tip9—This is what ‘learning’ and ‘teaching’
are like here.—What one acquires here is not a technique; one learns cor-
rect judgments” (p.227). In the new realm of inquiry Ihave introduced
here, it is a “working on oneself” (Wittgenstein) that is required; that is,
one needs to learn how to be a certain kind of person (Cunliffe, 2004), an
ontological rather than an epistemological task.
Notes
1. The distinction between intra- and inter-action is due to Karen Barad (2007,
2013), and will be elucidated later.
2. While later, once the “inner landscape” of the topic (topos—place) of my con-
cern has beg un to take on some structure within me, Ican meditate on it, i.e.
imaginatively “move around” within it, while doing other things.
3. “Ethnomethodological studies analyze everyday activities as members’
methods for making those same activities visibly-rational-and-reportable-
for-all-practical-purposes, i.e., ‘accountable,’ as organizations of commonplace
everyday activities” (Garfinkel, 1967, p.vii).
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4. Working in terms of likenesses and similarities (and differences) rather than cor-
respondences, i.e. identities, is central, as we will see, to the approach Iam taking
here.
5. There are in fact very many general facts about cities—that there are shopping
areas, entertainment areas, banks, parks, modes of transport, apartments,
etc.—which, once we have experienced a few cities, we come to expect to find
in each new city we visit; without these characteristics, we would not want to
call them cities. Similarly, from our unremitting immersion in the weather
worlds of social life, we come to embody a whole realm of mostly unarticulated
expectations that both guide us and constrain us in our efforts at doing some-
thing, expectations that we reveal to ourselves only in our performances. As
Wittgenstein (1953) remarks, “such facts are hardly ever mentioned because of
their great generality” (p.56), but they are, nonetheless, of very great impor-
tance, in that they provide the “feels” guiding us within the invisible currents
of activity within which we are trying to act.
6. Both Hosking (2005) and Weick (2010), for instance, have drawn our attention
to the role of noun-forms and how entitative thinking disables our capacity to
think imaginatively into the unfolding processes at work in our practices, and
consequently become “disconnected” from the particular circumstances ini-
tially motivating our inquiries—see also Billig (2013) for an extensive account
of how such talk erases a ge nc y.
7. Todes (2001) distinguishes between a need and a desire as follows:“A need,
unlike a desire, is originally given as a pure restlessness; as the conscious-
ness of one’s undirected activity. It begins with the sense of a lack in oneself,
without any sense of what would remove that lack” (pp.176–177)—hence
the fact that we are not always as clear as we might be as to what our real
needs are.
8. “Actionable knowledge requires propositions that make explicit the causal pro-
cesses required to produce action” (Argyris, 2003, p.444).
9. That is, the teacher enacts or illustrates how these judgments are made in differ-
ent particular circumstances in such a way, i.e. by contrasts and comparisons,
that the pupil can experience what the doing of it actually looks like, sounds
like, and feels like.
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