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WITTGENSTEIN IN PRACTICE: His Philosophy of Beginnings, and Beginnings, and Beginnings

by John Shotter

In our everyday talk, we use a relatively small number of words in countless different situations in countless different ways without our continually confusing one another. How there can be so many different uses for the same word, perhaps, should surprise us. But it doesn’t. We seem to take it for granted that when we open our mouths to talk, we will – if not immediately, then sooner or later – understand each other. Wittgenstein’s work is of pivotal importance to us in our psychological inquiries, simply because he raises the questions for us: (1) what it is in our everyday practices – the nature of our prior involvements with the others around us and the nature of our currently shared circumstances – that makes it possible for us to use our words in such an untroubled way; and (2) whether, in our more scientific investigations in academic psychology, these conditions are, or can still, be met? In its short life, certain chapter-heading words – words like intelligence, personality, motivation, learning, perception, attitude, behaviour, and so on – words which prior to the 20th century advent of a professionalized psychology functioned to pick out one or another facet within a similarly sensed circumstance, have been seized upon and each ‘made to name’, so to speak, a separate object of study. About this practice, Wittgenstein (1980) remarks: “Why shouldn't I apply words in ways that conflict with their original [everyday] usage? ... In a scientific perspective a new use is justified by a theory. And if this theory is false, the new extended use has to be given up” (p.44) – but, of course, if we look into academic psychology at the theories (i.e., opinions) surrounding, say, the notion of intelligence, it is not so much that we find any clearly false theories, we simply find a still radically unsettled field of possible features of human behaviour being picked out as characterizing what intelligence is. In the meantime, however, the word ‘intelligence’, like all its other chapter-heading companions, has gone out into our everyday world as a ‘something’, an objective entity within people, that determines (causes) their behaviour. This, in my estimation, is a very dangerous distortion of the everyday understandings we can have of each other, and in terms of which we can feel free to conduct our own lives. This is why Wittgenstein’s work is of such crucial importance to us.

Copyright 2012
ISBN: 978-0-9848656-3-5