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A key conversation during the Harre event on PMTH was the question of whether we should "privilege persons." I hear you asking: How can we not privilege persons? What else will we privilege? Elephants? Is it a bias to privilege persons? Or not to do so?
Having studied Rom Harre for a few months now, I think "privileging persons" means remembering that each of us is separate, individual, and indivisible. It might also mean refusing to do research that does not track the way individuals behave differently and uniquely.
Even nore, though, it seems to mean: We should never, ever let our personal boundaries blur so that we forget we are only seeing the world from our distinct embodied points of view, and equally, we should never forget that no matter how many presentation styles and stories we have, we are each, in the end, just one person. Multiple personality, he tells us, is a kind of delusion or pathogenic way of talking. If we do not privilege, Harré thinks we will lose something precious: our western traditional way of recognizing that each person has agency -- that is, each person has the ability to initiate action and take responsibility for this action.
So, that was one of the important things we talked about during our big Rom Harré event on PMTH.
Noting this part of Harré's philosophy, PMTH conversationalist
Michael Roberts asked Harré:
I believe what is to be questioned is whether we should join with people who claim to have Multiple Personalities within their bodies. That is, if a client says that several people live within a single body, should we (as therapists?) join them in that way of talking? Talking, perhaps, about when their body was possessed by Harry and when it was possessed by Jane?
Harré says that there are moral consequences of embracing talk of multiple personalities within a single body. Who is to take responsibility for acts?
Does this mean, Jerry Shaffer asked, that you always want to privilege
persons? Or would you, like Quine,
Hearing this, my ears perked up. Shaffer's question came very close to asking if the rules of grammar vary with different language games - which is a topic I discuss in an article to the right of this one in PMTH NEWS, an article called Grammar and Language Games: Shaffer was essentially asking if one should always privilege persons, or if there are times to make exceptions.
So, how did Rom Harré answer Shaffer's question? Harré
That "must" in his answer means, I think, "always," in research, in daily life, we must always remember that every action is initiated and performed by a singular person who should assume responsibility for it. "Must," why "must"? Can't there be different language games?
Judy Weintraub, picking up on
this same theme pushed further, saying:
So, it seemed clear, that Harré was telling us, that in his opinion, we need to always remember that we are persons and include data about our personhood in our research. Here's an example that comes to my mind as to what Harré means:
Suppose you did a study counting the number of times that couples said
people agreed with each other in dinner conversation in comparison to how
frequently they said it in a therapy session. And, suppose you averaged
across persons, never looking if one person in each conversation did all
the agreeing. You are just looking at the numbert of agreeing "acts."
That, I think, would be to forget that psychology was basically about "persons"
and to do research that did not privilege persons. It would be a
study that "privileged acts." At least that's how I was thinking,
so, I asked Harré this. I said:
And Rom Haré responded:
I think what this means as far as resarch is concerned, to continue my example , is that one could do the research I proposed on "statements of agreement in conversation" but one really should, nevertheless, do calculations that track the individual contributions of the people, not just toss them all together to study conversation a part from the individuals who create conversation, as I was proposing.
You can see, perhaps, that a key reason that Harré wants us to "privilege persons" is that by doing so he feels we promote agency and responsibility. We promote agency, he thinks, by engaging and encouraging "agentive discourse" or a way of talking that emphasizes that we are each individuals, and each responsible for the things we do.
Pondering these matters, another PMTH subscriber, Priscilla
Hill, questioned Harré saying:
In other words: Hill wanted to know if Did Harré thought there was more agentive discourse in Western than in Asian cultures?
Harré amswered: Yes. More specifically, he said:
So, some cultures are more concerned than others to encourage people to speak and act accountably. Then, why must we westerners have a culture that privileges the person (over the group, over the multiple personality)?
But, before I continue in my recounting of the PMTH conversation, let
me show you what Harré said about the Japanese de-emphasis of individuals
in his recent book, The Singular
Self. Here Harre said:
So, which way is it? Should we perpetuate the western way of insisting
on accountability and agency? Or should we take an invaluable lesson
from the Japanese and come up with something new for the western world.
Tom Strong seemed to ask the right question:
Harré's answer to Strong gave a new level of clarity, I
think, to our discussion. Harré answered Strong by saying
"Yes and no." And, then he added:
So, there we have it. Rather than punishing people for "stealing," say. we would look at the person who did this thing and decide if they were sufficiently virtuous.
Do you find that convincing? I'm not so sure. It is hard,
no doubt, to judge an action on the basis of unique circumstances, but
isn't it harder to fathom whether people are "virtuous" apart from what
they do? Do we really trust judges to assess virtue? Or
psychologists for that matter? But seeing that Harre referred to
Aristotle's preference for a person based ethic rather than action based,
I looked up Aristotle on this matter. Here is what I found Aristotle
Of course, Aristotle was a very smart man. But, to me, there is more room for bias in evaluating "virtue" than in evaluating the action, as difficult as evaluating an action might be.
But, here on PMTH, the conversation continues. Even as we talk, new arguments in favor of Harré are being forwarded, and therefore, one more time I will need end my article with:
So, what do you think? Should we commit to a universal ethic that
privileges personal virtue over specific acts that people perform?
PMTH is a community that is bonded together through conversation. Most of us have never met. We do not even have clear visual images of each other. Yet there is a way in which we are quite familiar with each other, talking about, at times, deep philosophical topics and, at other times, things like life and death. Conversation is a big topic here. And the question is, given Rom Harré's realism, what does he feel about conversation. I like what he had to say. His discussion of conversation went like this:
Tom Strong asked Harré:
Harré answered that what was important, he felt, in making good
I liked that answer a lot. So, I wondered, does Harré's
position change over time? And so I asked him if his thinking had
changed over his long career. Harré told me:
To act "normatively" means to act in conformity with social norms.
In other words, I drive on the right hand side of the road automatically,
now days. I don't look up the rule and then follow it. Rom
First of all, it seems clear to me that Harré can put his money where his mouth is and let his ideas evolve. And I should tell you that I think that his concept of "positioning theory" may be the most exciting part of his work, for me.
If Harré will one day be a PMTH guest again, that's one question
I hope to ask him about. In fact, I advise you to check out his co-authored
book on Positioning theory by clicking
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On June 17, 2001 Rom Harré visited PMTH. If you weren't here, I bet you wonder what that means. PMTH isn't in a place like this chair is in a place. PMTH exists in cyberspace and all of you know that in cyberspace "place" means something quite different than in the actual world of chairs and tables.
In the PMTH cyberspace, this visit meant that on June 17th, Rom Harre sat at his computer at Oxford for three hours while PMTH subscribers sat at their respective computers asking questions.
The event helped us round out our studies of his work. Harré has been a very prolific writer and it is hard to cover all of his publications. In addition to articles and chapters, I believe he has published over 30 books. But, we did our best. As you saw from PMTH NEWS last month (click here for a review) we have been studying and talking about his work, now, for a couple of months, some of us at least quite intensively. The questions that we asked flowed from our different readings. In addition to giving you my own reflections on the subject matter, I want to review the various threads in the conversation with Harre, who asked what, and what Harre said in reply. As usual, I will summarize that with a little of my own commentary.
But, before I begin, let me express my heartfelt appreciation to Harré for visiting us, but even more, for writing so much and for his continuous positioning and refinement, re-evaluation, of his own point of view. He was a charming visitor and most worthy, I feel, of our study.
Please remember that anything bracketed in my report of our discussion
is me inserting an editor's phrase in the hopes of clarifying what the
context seemed to make clearer in our email discussion than it does here.
I have also taken the liberty of correcting typos that were made in the
rapid fire discussion. Keep in mind we exchanged 77 messages in three
hours, deep philosophical messages. This means typists occasionally
got their fingers twisted and I have taken the liberty of correcting words
in ways that I believe the author meant them. And, I must add that
this newsletter can only give you a small section of our conversation.
We were much too prolific for me to try to give you a close up feel for
everything we said.
Here is the picture of the "duck-rabbit" that appears on p.194 of Wittgenstein's
text the Philosophical Investigations.
The duck-rabbit is meant to illustrate what Wittgenstein called the "dawning of an aspect." You might have been taught to see this picture as a "rabbit" but then one day experience a "dawning of an aspect" and suddenly see that it can be seen as a "duck." It also seems to me that one might have a tendency to see it one way or another even though one knows this duck-rabbit is really both a duck and a rabbit.
Actually, I think that's true for me. That is, myself, I tend to see this image as a picture of a rabbit. I have to look twice, in fact, to see it as a duck.
In studying Rom Harre's wrting over the last two months this image of the duck-rabbit has kept occurring to me. I thought to myself that when Harre reads Wittgenstein it is as though he tends to see the duck in the duck-rabbit, and when I read Wittgenstein, I tend to see the rabbit.
Here's the analogy: When Harre talks about Wittgenstein he focuses on the concept of "grammar". Myself, I think I tend to have a focus on the concept of a "language game." I tend to forget about "grammar" or treat it as a less important concept than "language game."
But both of these concepts are key concepts in Wittgenstein's later work, and both Harre and I know that this is true. It is just that our two ways of reading Wittgenstein has this somewhat different emphasis. Keep that in mind as you read each of us because we can't help but say things that tend to lure you into our way of thinking. So, let me tell you up front, , my focus on "language game" over "grammar" probably represents my own bias when I read Wittgenstein.
And, in the interest of understanding Harre better, and Wittgenstein better, I have spent some recent hours today (and yesterday, too) studying Wittgenstein's the concept of "grammar" and how it relates to the concept of a "language game." These are just my study notes in this article. Specifically, in this article I'm studying Wittgenstein's concept of "grammar" and how it relates to his concept of a "language game."
First, what does Wittgenstein mean when he talks about "grammar"? Unlike the concept of a "language game," "grammar" is a term that Wittgenstein introduced in his earliest writings. In his first published writing, Wittgenstein tells us that grammar is the syntax (or rules) that governs language (Tractatus. 3.325). He uses the word this way in his later writing, too (see #90 for example in the Philosophical Investigations or p.75 of Culture and Value). The rules of grammar tell us how a statement needs to be formed in order to be sensible, how words are to be used and sentences to be formed. There are correct and incorrect ways of talking in any language and "grammar" tells us what those rules are.
Unlike the concept of "grammar" the concept of "language game" was introduced
late in Wittgenstein's career. In my "rabbit" view of
Wittgenstein (remember the duck-rabbit), the concept of a "language game"
transforms the meaning of the concept of "grammar". Whereas in his early
writings "grammar" seemed to supply universal rules for a language, even
if very complex ones, once Wittgenstein thought of the concept of "language
game", and he imagined that we have multiple sub-languages within the larger
language, then, he began to think of language as having multiple sets of
evolving set of rules, a different set of rules for each language game.
(If you want to read a more detailed account of the concept of "language
games" click here.)
This is no small multiplication of the rules, for Wittgenstein's later
philosophy, every language (such as English) contains "countless" language
games, and new language games are continuously introduced. Wittgenstein
Also, within each language game, Wittgenstein told us, there are gaps and there is wiggle room that operates within the basic structure of the rules of grammar for that language game(#68).
So, how does the concept of "grammar" and that of "language game" fit together? In his early writing I believe Wittgenstein meant to uncover the universal rules of language. In his later writing, however, I believe Wittgenstein meant to say that the grammar tells us the rules only within these different sub-langauges or language games. The different "language games" have different rules. What is sensible and correct within one language game, is wrong or nonsensical within another.
For example, if you were giving friendly advice to your love-anguished friend you might shake your head and tell him "love nothing." If so, this phrase would take on its meaning because you are in the language game of giving someone romantic advice. The same phrase would mean something very different in the language game of scoring tennis. It would be an incorrectly formed statement in tennis scoring because zero in tennis scoring is called "love", but if you were standing on a tennis court and your partner asked you the score, he wouldn't think you were giving him romantic advice because, on a tennis court, "love" means something different than it does in romance.
So, it seems to me that in his later writing, Wittgenstein felt that the grammar (or rules) of language are different depending on one's language game at the time and there there are no universal rules or finalizable rules of grammar.
That's what I think, being a rabbit person looking at a duck-rabbit, is what Wittgenstein, in his later philosophy, meant to teach us about the relationship between grammar and language games.
Right before the event began, I asked Jerry Shaffer to tell me how he saw Harre's philosophy relating to the work of P.F. Strawson. I recently bought Strawson's most famous book, Individuals, but I haven't studied this work and Shaffer has. Still, I judged from Harre's writing that much of what Harré writes was inspired by Strawson.
Shaffer answered me saying:
Yes, it was clearer, and it fit with my own reading of Harré. For Harré, I believe, the body and the brain are tools that the person uses, not "part of the person".
Well, as it turned out, Harre was able to read this little pre-event
conversation between Shaffer and me and Harre was responding to Shaffer's
remarks and my question when he told us:
Then, Harré explained that he wished to present a model of persons as being separate from bodies and that this separation is created through the way we talk. We talk, as he puts it, "using a person-preserving grammar."
Harre suggests that we think of the body as a tool made up of molecules
and that we follow our western tradition in talking about persons as not
something made up of molecules. I think of "persons" as created through
our language practices. It is our sense of being distinct, of having
a unique point of view (geographically at least). Without this sense
of distinctness, and the sense that others are distinct, too, it would
seem that what we see is all there was and there would be no such thing
as imaginatively "putting ourselves in each other's shoes."
About this time, Riet Samuels spoke up asking Harré
Harre responded saying:
Each human being is "embodied" but here is where things get confusing.
Presumably the embodiment that Harré talks about is not the embodiment
of the ego because Strawson, Harré's
The image that I get from my recent reading of Strawson is that after a person has lived with the individuality that is constructed through our conversation, then it is conceiveable that consciousness would retain this sense (after death?) of our each being separate or individual. Does it sound like that's what he means to you?
Anyway, paradoxes abound here because as Harré told us we do
not have an inner being. He said:
What I take to be my inner being, he points out persuasively, is is only a sense of my geographical location and something else, something he calls a sense of one's agency.
Can you see, though, how deep Harré is willing to go into profound
and very controversial topics? He certainly has PMTH thinking.
You have heard the expression that some people see the glass as half-
empty, while others see it as half-
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