Re: Intersubjectivity

Robert Parks (
Tue, 29 Apr 1997 22:09:04 -0500


I have read "Computers and Cognition" and Searle's "Speech Acts" as well as
other work on language, and I would like to let you know that Maturana and
Varela are not the creators of the "language as action" viewpoint; nor are
Winograd and Varela. I appreciate their work, perhaps as much as you do.
But it seems to me important to see our intellectual work in historical
perspective. The central figure in this intellectual "movement" (or
paradigm) is Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein wrote the central work in
the logical positivist literature - "Tractus Logico Philosophicus" (which
is quite clearly representational, arguing that logical form mirrors the
natural world). But then, in a very interesting intellectual transformation
(triggered, it is said, by an Italian friend's question about the logical
form of a meaningful gesture] he began to develop the view that to
understand language we must understand how it is "used"; and this langauge
use is best understood in the context of "ways of life". This has been
characterized as the beginning of the "linguistic turn" in philosophy
(though it follows also on some of the more abstruse work of Heidegger).
This "linguistic turn" has taken several forms in philosophy, and has begun
to influence both theoretical and empirical work in nearly all the
disciplines concerned with the study of humans. One development that I have
followed with interest is the work of Jurgen Habermas, who has a theory of
social life built on "communicative action". In my grad school days, it was
Berger and Luckman's "Social Construction of Reality" that was much talked
about. Other threads are to be discerned in the "postmodern" movement in
literature and other theoretical pursuits. All of these take language to be
in some way central to a "constructivist" view.

>AND, whatever one may think of the notion, one must recognize that IF,
>as I and others maintain, it is indeed a radical new paradigm (or change
>in beliefs), then it is likely to be resisted by, and/or
>incomprehensible to, persons who hold a different paradigm. (See Kuhn,
>I don't 'know' why. But I believe it is due primarily to the fact that
>the 'Language/Action' distinction is a radical (i.e., discontinuous),
>new (novel), paradigm (or discourse), of the nature of human action and
>being. That is, it does not follow logically or sequentially from
>existing paradigms, such as the paradigm (discourse) of Psychology. Thus
>its legitimacy and soundness, as measured by the established paradigm,
>is not apparent, or lacks 'high face validity.'
>This is nothing more than every new idea has encountered. (See THE
>BUSINESS OF PARADIGMS training video, by futurist Joel Barker.)But,
>ultimately, we can change if we will to. As the old saw holds: When
>the student is ready, the teacher will appear. And then what was
>incomprehensible, silly, or downright nutso, may make sense. And we
>must ask: did the world change. Or did we?

One of the things I would like to stress is that the "paradigm" you refer
to is not in its infancy. But I also think that the idea of a "paradigm"
doesn't well fit in human studies. Kuhn developed the notion from studies
of the natural sciences (as you know from your reading of "Structure of
Scientific Revolutions"), and attempts to apply it to the social sciences
have met mostly controversy. The main reason is that everyone tries to USE
the notion of a "paradigm" (since they have learned that language is
defined in use), and then define THEIR paradigm as the NEW one, which is
most certain to supplant the OLD one. And in every case, there are groups
of commited adherents who often give the impression of being "true
believers" who cannot be reasoned with. I wonder if I am conversing with
someone who cannot be reasoned with when I find them saying that any
disagreement is a sign that I have not yet seen the TRUTH of their new
paradigm (which is sure to replace the old one) because I am in the grip of
the OLD paradigm. That sort of reasoning was once common in the dogmatic
left; and I have to be careful to avoid it myself, since I am much
influenced by Marx. Let me suggest that you have been commendably open with
the fact that Maturana and Varela have had a great deal of influence on
your thinking. I trust it is a positive influence. But I do hope that we
all accept influences on our thinking, rather than substitutes for our
thinking. I am puzzled, and a bit troubled, by your apparent insistence
on defining yourself as in possession of a "paradigm" (if not a truth) that
others haven't (yet) accepted. So, in any case, I find myself repeating,
Gary, that you are not alone in accepting a "langauge as action"
perspective. I am myself exploring these views in several directions. And I
find Tim and others on this list willing to explore these ideas with open
minds. I trust the dialogue will continue.

Best regards.