Ontological social constructionism in the context of a social ecology: the importance of our living bodies

John Shotter

in Discursive Perspectives in Therapeutic Practice

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print April 2012 | ISBN: 9780199592753
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754715 | DOI:

Series: International Perspectives in Philosophy & Psychiatry

Ontological social constructionism in the context of a social ecology: the importance of our living bodies

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A central question I want to explore in this chapter is: do all our understandings consist in our using concepts to think about things, or is there another much less cognitive, more embodied, non-conceptual way in which we experience and orient ourselves towards the world in which we have our being and in which we must act? Or, to put it another way: when we confront a confusing event or situation, do we try to understand it by finding recognizable features within it, thus to assimilate it to a category of events or situations already well-known to us, or can we, by actively living and moving around within it, come to an understanding of it as the qualitatively unique situation it is? I think we can. Indeed, not only do I think of this second option as merely being a possibility for us, but that we are in fact always and very basically relating ourselves to our surroundings in this fashion—in which we eventually come to an understanding of a situation as a result of our particular bodily activities within it—without our being aware of our actually having arrived at it in this way (for we tell of our experiences in terms merely of their namable ‘contents’, not in terms of the unnamable dynamic relations emerging between our outgoing bodily activities and their incoming results).

Indeed, as I see it, rather than being the predominant agencies in the construction of our own destinies, as living organisms who are spontaneously responsive to events occurring around us, we are merely participant parts within a much larger network of still dynamically evolving relationships. And as we come to embody (some of) the consequences of our living involvements in this social ecology—within the different regions and moments of activity such an ecology affords us (Gibson 1979)—we can come to develop into different kinds of people, with different kinds of ‘ontological skills’ (Shotter 1984) at being such different kinds of people.

There is, then, it seems to me, another, more embodied, more situation-specific way of understanding which just ‘happens’ or ‘emerges’ between us and within us in the course of our active, living involvements with the others and othernesess in our surroundings, than those forms of understanding which we actively ‘construct’ as a result of our more rationally planned and deliberately conducted inquiries. And that it is as a result of these more spontaneously occurring forms of involvement with our surroundings that we learn how to be a competent, morally autonomous, and responsible members of our cultural community. We do not, like logicians, have to ‘to work out’ how to act in each situation we encounter by a self-conscious observance of rules or principles. As we grow into the everyday lives of those around us, we come to embody ways of spontaneously responding to occurrences both in our surroundings (and with ourselves). As we develop such ways or styles of acting—what we often call our ‘second nature’ (Corcoran 2009)—we become capable of being able to relate ourselves to others around us, and also to ourselves, with many different sensitivities at the ready, so to speak, thus to be selectively attentive and responsive to what they, and we ourselves, do and say.

Thus below, I want to explore the very basic role played in our interactions with the others and othernesses around us by the spontaneous responsiveness of our living bodies, and how it is that in the course of such unplanned, spontaneous activities—of which we are very largely unaware—we can develop the skills and capacities to be this, or that, or some other kind of person. But I also want to explore the relations between this embodied, non-conceptual realm and the much more salient conceptual realm of our mature thought as adults. For, as Vygotsky makes very clear to us, what we at first we do spontaneously, often all unawares, we can come later to do deliberately by being able to direct or instruct ourselves through our use of words—words often given to us at first by others. Further, in giving prominence to phenomena that our ordinary forms of thought and talk easily make us overlook, a number of other rather unfamiliar themes will come to light below: 1) Besides the multi-dimensional nature of dialogical forms of talk currently coming to prominence with the study of Bakhtin's (1981, 1984, 1986, 1993) work; 2) I will discuss Wittgenstein's (1980) distinction between difficulties of the intellect (problem-solving) and difficulties of orientation (to do with coming to know one's ‘way about’ within a practical situation); I will also 3) discuss what is involved in coming to a judgement (Nussbaum 2001) as distinct from making a decision.

Chapter.  13223 words. 

Subjects: Psychiatry

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