Some commonly encountered ‘toxic’ (read pathological) behaviours

Some people can display toxic behaviours. Narcissists, psychopaths, sociopaths, and those with antisocial traits engage in maladaptive behaviours in relationships that ultimately exploit, demean and hurt their intimate partners, family members and friends. They use a plethora of diversionary tactics that distort the reality of their victims and deflect responsibility. Although those who are not narcissistic can employ these tactics as well, abusive narcissists use these to an excessive extent in an effort to escape accountability for their actions. Here are some crude, basic and toxic behaviours terms people can use to silence and degrade others, described using common-sense (mostly non-technical) language.

1. Gaslighting.

Gaslighting is a manipulative tactic that can be described in different variations of three words: “That didn’t happen,” “You imagined it,” and “Are you crazy?” Gaslighting is perhaps one of the most insidious manipulative tactics out there because it works to distort and erode your sense of reality; it eats away at your ability to trust yourself and inevitably disables you from feeling justified in calling out abuse and mistreatment.

When a narcissist, sociopath or psychopath gaslights you, you may be prone to gaslighting yourself as a way to reconcile the cognitive dissonance that might arise. Two conflicting beliefs battle it out: is this person right or can I trust what I experienced? A manipulative person will convince you that the former is an inevitable truth while the latter is a sign of dysfunction on your end.

In order to resist gaslighting, it’s important to ground yourself in your own reality – sometimes writing things down as they happened, telling a friend or reiterating your experience to a support network can help to counteract the gaslighting effect. The power of having a validating community is that it can redirect you from the distorted reality of a malignant person and back to your own inner guidance.

2. Pathological projection.

One sure sign of toxicity is when a person is chronically unwilling to see his or her own shortcomings and uses everything in their power to avoid being held accountable for them. This is known as projection. Projection is a defence mechanism used to displace responsibility for one’s negative behaviour and traits by attributing them to someone else. It ultimately acts as a digression that avoids ownership and accountability.

While we all engage in projection to some extent, according to Narcissistic Personality clinical expert Dr Martinez-Lewi, the projections of a narcissist are often psychologically abusive. Rather than acknowledge their own flaws, imperfections and wrongdoings, malignant narcissists and sociopaths opt to dump their own traits on their unsuspecting suspects in a way that is painful and excessively cruel. Instead of admitting that self-improvement may be in order, they would prefer that their victims take responsibility for their behaviour and feel ashamed of themselves. This is a way for a narcissist to project any toxic shame they have about themselves onto another.

For example, a person who engages in pathological lying may accuse their partner of fibbing; a needy spouse may call their husband “clingy” in an attempt to depict them as the one who is dependent; a rude employee may call their boss ineffective in an effort to escape the truth about their own productivity.

Narcissistic abusers love to play the “blame shifting game.” Objectives of the game: they win, you lose, and you or the world at large is blamed for everything that’s wrong with them. This way, you get to babysit their fragile ego while you’re thrust into a sea of self-doubt. Fun, right?

Solution? Don’t “project” your own sense of compassion or empathy onto a toxic person and don’t own any of the toxic person’s projections either. As manipulation expert and author Dr George Simon (2010) notes in his book In Sheep’s Clothing, projecting our own conscience and value system onto others has the potential consequence of being met with further exploitation.

Narcissists on the extreme end of the spectrum usually have no interest in self-insight or change. It’s important to cut ties and end interactions with toxic people as soon as possible so you can get centred in your own reality and validate your own identity. You don’t have to live in someone else’s cesspool of dysfunction.

3. Nonsensical conversations.

If you think you’re going to have a thoughtful discussion with someone who is toxic, be prepared for epic levels of nonsensical tomfoolery rather than conversational mindfulness.

Malignant narcissists and sociopaths use word salad, circular conversations, ad hominem arguments, projection and gaslighting to disorient you and get you off track should you ever disagree with them or challenge them in any way. They do this in order to discredit, confuse and frustrate you, distract you from the main problem and make you feel guilty for being a human being with actual thoughts and feelings that might differ from their own. In their eyes, you are the problem if you happen to exist.

Spend even ten minutes arguing with a toxic narcissist and you’ll find yourself wondering how the argument even began at all. You simply disagreed with them about their absurd claim that the sky is red and now your entire childhood, family, friends, career and lifestyle choices have come under attack. That is because your disagreement picked at their false belief that they are omnipotent and omniscient, resulting in a narcissistic injury.

Remember: toxic people don’t argue with you, they essentially argue with themselves and you become privy to their long, draining monologues. They thrive on the drama and they live for it. Each and every time you attempt to provide a point that counters their ridiculous assertions, you are in a sense colluding with them. Thus, don’t collude with narcissists – rather, supply yourself with the confirmation that their abusive behaviour is the problem, not you. Cut the interaction short as soon as you anticipate it escalating and use your energy on some decadent self-care instead.

4. Blanket statements and generalisations.

Malignant narcissists aren’t always intellectual masterminds – many of them are intellectually lazy. Rather than taking the time to carefully consider a different perspective, they generalise anything and everything you say, making blanket statements that don’t acknowledge the nuances in your argument or take into account the multiple perspectives you’ve paid homage to. Better yet, why not put a label on you that dismisses your perspective altogether?

On a larger scale, generalisations and blanket statements invalidate experiences that don’t fit in the unsupported assumptions, schemas and stereotypes of society; they are also used to maintain the status quo. This form of digression exaggerates one perspective to the point where a social justice issue can become completely obscured. For example, rape accusations against well-liked figures are often met with the reminder that there are false reports of rape that occur. While those do occur, they are rare, and in this case, the actions of one become labelled the behaviour of the majority while the specific report itself remains unaddressed.

These everyday microaggressions also happen in toxic relationships. If you bring up to a narcissistic abuser that their behaviour is unacceptable for example, they will often make blanket generalisations about your hypersensitivity or make a generalisation such as, “You are never satisfied,” or “You’re always too sensitive” rather than addressing the real issues at hand. It’s possible that you are oversensitive at times, but it is also possible that the abuser is also insensitive and cruel the majority of the time.

Hold onto your truth and resist generalising statements by realising that they are in fact forms of black and white illogical thinking. Toxic people wielding blanket statements do not represent the full richness of experience – they represent the limited one of their singular experience and overinflated sense of self.

5. Deliberately misrepresenting your thoughts and feelings to the point of absurdity.

In the hands of a malignant narcissist or sociopath, your differing opinions, legitimate emotions and lived experiences get translated into character flaws and evidence of your irrationality.

Narcissists weave tall tales to reframe what you’re actually saying as a way to make your opinions look absurd or heinous. Let’s say you bring up the fact that you’re unhappy with the way a toxic friend is speaking to you. In response, he or she may put words in your mouth, saying, “Oh, so now you’re perfect?” or “So I am a bad person, huh?” when you’ve done nothing but express your feelings. This enables them to invalidate your right to have thoughts and emotions about their inappropriate behaviour and instils in you a sense of guilt when you attempt to establish boundaries.

This is also a popular form of diversion and cognitive distortion that is known as “mind reading.” Toxic people often presume they know what you’re thinking and feeling. They chronically jump to conclusions based on their own triggers rather than stepping back to evaluate the situation mindfully. They act accordingly based on their own delusions and fallacies and make no apologies for the harm they cause as a result. Notorious for putting words in your mouth, they depict you as having an intention or outlandish viewpoint you didn’t possess. They accuse you of thinking of them as toxic – even before you’ve gotten the chance to call them out on their behaviour – and this also serves as a form of preemptive defence.

Simply stating, “I never said that” and then walking away should the person continue to accuse you of doing or saying something you didn’t can help to set a firm boundary in this type of interaction. So long as the toxic person can blameshift and digress from their own behaviour, they have succeeded in convincing you that you should be “shamed” for giving them any sort of realistic feedback.

6. Nitpicking and moving the goal posts.

The difference between constructive criticism and destructive criticism is the presence of a personal attack and impossible standards. These so-called “critics” often don’t want to help you improve, they just want to nitpick, pull you down and scapegoat you in any way they can. Abusive narcissists and sociopaths employ a logical fallacy known as “moving the goalposts” in order to ensure that they have every reason to be perpetually dissatisfied with you. This is when, even after you’ve provided all the evidence in the world to validate your argument or taken an action to meet their request, they set up another expectation of you or demand more proof.

Do you have a successful career? The narcissist will then start to pick on why you aren’t a multi-millionaire yet. Did you already fulfil their need to be excessively catered to? Now it’s time to prove that you can also remain “independent.” The goal posts will perpetually change and may not even be related to each other; they don’t have any other point besides making you vie for the narcissist’s approval and validation.

By raising the expectations higher and higher each time or switching them completely, highly manipulative and toxic people are able to instil in you a pervasive sense of unworthiness and of never feeling quite “enough.” By pointing out one irrelevant fact, or one thing you did wrong, and developing a hyperfocus on it, narcissists get to divert from your strengths and pull you into obsessing over any flaws or weaknesses instead. They get you thinking about the next improper expectation of theirs which you’re presumably going to have to meet – until eventually, you’ve bent over backwards trying to fulfil their every need – only to realise it didn’t change the horrific way they treated you.

Don’t get sucked into nitpicking and changing goal posts – if someone chooses to rehash an irrelevant point over and over again to the point where they aren’t acknowledging the work you’ve done to validate your point or satisfy them, their motive isn’t to better understand. It’s to further provoke you into feeling as if you have to constantly prove yourself. Validate and approve of yourself. Know that you are enough and you don’t have to be made to feel constantly deficient or unworthy in some way.

7. Changing the subject to evade accountability.

This type of tactic is what I like to call the “What about me?” syndrome. It is a literal digression from the actual topic that works to redirect attention to a different issue altogether. Narcissists don’t want you to be on the topic of holding them accountable for anything, so they will reroute discussions to benefit them. Complaining about their neglectful parenting? They’ll point out a mistake you committed seven years ago. This type of diversion has no limits in terms of time or subject content, and often begins with a sentence like “What about the time when…”

On a macro level, these diversions work to derail discussions that challenge the status quo. A discussion about gay rights, for example, may be derailed quickly by someone who brings in another social justice issue just to distract people from the main argument.

As Tara Moss, author of ‘Speaking Out: A 21st Century Handbook for Women and Girls’, notes, specificity is needed in order to resolve and address issues appropriately – that doesn’t mean that the issues that are being brought up don’t matter, it just means that the specific time and place may not be the best context to discuss them.

Don’t be derailed – if someone pulls a switcheroo on you, you can exercise what I call the “broken record” method and continue stating the facts without giving in to their distractions. Redirect their redirection by saying, “That’s not what I am talking about. Let’s stay focused on the real issue.” If they’re not interested, disengage and spend your energy on something more constructive – like not having a debate with someone who has the mental age of a toddler.

8. Covert and overt threats.

Narcissistic abusers and otherwise toxic people feel very threatened when their excessive sense of entitlement, a false sense of superiority and grandiose sense of self are challenged in any way. They are prone to making unreasonable demands on others – while punishing you for not living up to their impossible to reach expectations.

Rather than tackle disagreements or compromises maturely, they set out to divert you from your right to have your own identity and perspective by attempting to instil fear in you about the consequences of disagreeing or complying with their demands. To them, any challenge results in an ultimatum and “do this or I’ll do that” becomes their daily mantra.

If someone’s reaction to you setting boundaries or having a differing opinion from your own is to threaten you into submission, whether it’s a thinly veiled threat or an overt admission of what they plan to do, this is a red flag of someone who has a high degree of entitlement and has no plans of compromising. Take threats seriously and show the narcissist you mean business; document threats and report them whenever possible and legally feasible.

9. Name-calling.

Narcissists preemptively blow anything they perceive as a threat to their superiority out of proportion. In their world, only they can ever be right and anyone who dares to say otherwise creates a narcissistic injury that results in narcissistic rage. Narcissistic rage does not neccessarily result from low self-esteem but rather a high sense of entitlement and a false sense of superiority.

The lowest of the low resort to narcissistic rage in the form of name-calling when they can’t think of a better way to manipulate your opinion or micromanage your emotions. Name-calling is a quick and easy way to put you down, degrade you and insult your intelligence, appearance or behaviour while invalidating your right to be a separate person with a right to his or her perspective.

Name-calling can also be used to criticise your beliefs, opinions and insights. A well-researched perspective or informed opinion suddenly becomes “silly” or “idiotic” in the hands of a malignant narcissist or sociopath who feels threatened by it and cannot make a respectful, convincing rebuttal. Rather than target your argument, they target you as a person and seek to undermine your credibility and intelligence in any way they possibly can. It’s important to end any interaction that consists of name-calling and communicates that you won’t tolerate it. Don’t internalise it: realise that they are resorting to name-calling because they are deficient in higher level methods.

10. Destructive conditioning.

Toxic people condition you to associate your strengths, talents, and happy memories of abuse, frustration and disrespect. They do this by sneaking in covert and overt put-downs about the qualities and traits they once idealised as well as sabotaging your goals, ruining celebrations, vacations and holidays. They may even isolate you from your friends and family and make you financially dependent upon them. Like Pavlov’s dogs, you’re essentially “trained” over time to become afraid of doing the very things that once made your life fulfilling.

Narcissists, sociopaths, psychopaths and otherwise toxic people do this because they wish to divert attention back to themselves and how you’re going to please them. If there is anything outside of them that may threaten their control over your life, they seek to destroy it. They need to be the centre of attention at all times. In the idealisation phase, you were once the centre of a narcissist’s world – now the narcissist becomes the centre of yours.

Narcissists are also naturally pathologically envious and don’t want anything to come in between them and their influence over you. Your happiness represents everything they feel they cannot have in their emotionally shallow lives. After all, if you learn that you can get validation, respect and love from other sources besides the toxic person, what’s to keep you from leaving them? To toxic people, a little conditioning can go a long way to keeping you walking on eggshells and falling just short of your big dreams.

11. Smear campaigns and stalking.

When toxic types can’t control the way you see yourself, they start to control how others see you; they play the martyr while you’re labelled the toxic one. A smear campaign is a preemptive strike to sabotage your reputation and slander your name so that you won’t have a support network to fall back on lest you decide to detach and cut ties with this toxic person. They may even stalk and harass you or the people you know as a way to supposedly “expose” the truth about you; this exposure acts as a way to hide their own abusive behaviour while projecting it onto you.

Some smear campaigns can even work to pit two people or two groups against each other. A victim in an abusive relationship with a narcissist often doesn’t know what’s being said about them during the relationship, but they eventually find out the falsehoods shortly after they’ve been discarded.

Toxic people will gossip behind your back (and in front of your face), slander you to your loved ones or their loved ones, create stories that depict you as the aggressor while they play the victim, and claim that you engaged in the same behaviors that they are afraid you will accuse them of engaging in. They will also methodically, covertly and deliberately abuse you so they can use your reactions as a way to prove that they are the so-called “victims” of your abuse.

The best way to handle a smear campaign is to stay mindful of your reactions and stick to the facts. This is especially pertinent for high-conflict divorces with narcissists who may use your reactions to their provocations against you. Document any form of harassment, cyber bullying or stalking incidents and always speak to your narcissist through a lawyer whenever possible. You may wish to take legal action if you feel the stalking and harassment are getting out of control; finding a lawyer who is well-versed in Narcissistic Personality Disorder is crucial if that’s the case. Your character and integrity will speak for itself when the narcissist’s false mask begins to slip.

12. Love-bombing and devaluation.

Toxic people put you through an idealisation phase until you’re sufficiently hooked and invested in beginning a friendship or relationship with you. Then, they begin to devalue you while insulting the very things they admired in the first place. Another variation of this is when a toxic individual puts you on a pedestal while aggressively devaluing and attacking someone else who threatens their sense of superiority.

Narcissistic abusers do this all the time – they devalue their exes to their new partners, and eventually the new partner starts to receive the same sort of mistreatment as the narcissist’s ex-partner. Ultimately what will happen is that you will also be on the receiving end of the same abuse. You will one day be the ex-partner they degrade to their new source of supply. You just don’t know it yet. That’s why it’s important to stay mindful of the love-bombing technique whenever you witness behaviour that doesn’t align with the saccharine sweetness a narcissist subjects you to.

As life coach Wendy Powell suggests, slowing things down with people you suspect may be toxic is an important way of combating the love-bombing technique. Be wary of the fact that how a person treats or speaks about someone else could potentially translate into the way they will treat you in the future.

13. Preemptive defence.

When someone stresses the fact that they are a “nice guy” or girl, that you should “trust them” right away or emphasises their credibility without any provocation from you whatsoever, be wary.

Toxic and abusive people overstate their ability to be kind and compassionate. They often tell you that you should “trust” them without first building a solid foundation of trust. They may “perform” a high level of sympathy and empathy at the beginning of your relationship to dupe you, only to unveil their false mask later on. When you see their false mask begins to slip periodically during the devaluing phase of the abuse cycle, the true self is revealed to be terrifyingly cold, callous and contemptuous.

Genuinely nice people rarely have to persistently show off their positive qualities – they exude their warmth more than they talk about it and they know that actions speak volumes more than mere words. They know that trust and respect is a two-way street that requires reciprocity, not repetition.

To counter a preemptive defence, reevaluate why a person may be emphasising their good qualities. Is it because they think you don’t trust them, or because they know you shouldn’t? Trust actions more than empty words and see how someone’s actions communicate who they are, not who they say they are.

14. Triangulation.

Bringing in the opinions, perspectives or suggested threats of another person into the dynamic of an unconnected interaction is known as “triangulation.” Often triangulation can be used to validate the toxic person’s abuse while invalidating the victim’s reactions to abuse, triangulation can also work to manufacture love triangles that leave you feeling unhinged and insecure.

Malignant narcissists love to triangulate their significant other with strangers, co-workers, ex-partners, friends and even family members in order to evoke jealousy and uncertainty in you. They also use the opinions of others to validate their point of view.

This is a diversionary tactic meant to pull your attention away from their abusive behaviour and into a false image of them as a desirable, sought after person. It also leaves you questioning yourself – if Mary did agree with Tom, doesn’t that mean that you must be wrong? The truth is, narcissists love to “report back” falsehoods about others say about you, when in fact, they are the ones smearing you.

To resist triangulation tactics, realise that whoever the narcissist is triangulating with is also being triangulated by your relationship with the narcissist as well. Everyone is essentially being played by this one person. Reverse “triangulate” the narcissist by gaining support from a third party that is not under the narcissist’s influence – and also by seeking your own validation.

15. Bait and feign innocence.

Toxic individuals lure you into a false sense of security simply to have a platform to showcase their cruelty. Baiting you into a mindless, chaotic argument can escalate into a showdown rather quickly with someone who doesn’t know the meaning of respect. A simple disagreement may bait you into responding politely – initially – until it becomes clear that the person has a malicious motive of tearing you down.

By “baiting” you with a seemingly innocuous comment disguised as a rational one, they can then begin to play with you. Remember: narcissistic abusers have learned about your insecurities, the unsettling catchphrases that interrupt your confidence, and the disturbing topics that reenact your wounds – and they use this knowledge maliciously to provoke you. After you’ve fallen for it, hook line and sinker, they’ll stand back and innocently ask whether you’re “okay” and talk about how they didn’t “mean” to agitate you. This faux innocence works to catch you off guard and make you believe that they truly didn’t intend to hurt you until it happens so often you can’t deny the reality of their malice any longer.

It helps to realise when you’re being baited so you can avoid engaging altogether. Provocative statements, name-calling, hurtful accusations or unsupported generalisations, for example, are common baiting tactics. Your gut instinct can also tell you when you’re being baited – if you feel “off” about a certain comment and continue to feel this way even after it has been expanded on, that’s a sign you may need to take some space to reevaluate the situation before choosing to respond.

16. Boundary testing and hoovering.

Narcissists, sociopaths and otherwise toxic people continually try and test your boundaries to see which ones they can trespass. The more violations they’re able to commit without consequences, the more they’ll push the envelope.
That’s why survivors of emotional as well as physical abuse often experience even more severe incidents of abuse each and every time they go back to their abusers.

Abusers tend to ‘seduce’ their victims back in with sweet promises, fake remorse and empty words of how they are going to change, only to abuse their victims even more horrifically. In the abuser’s sick mind, this boundary testing serves as a punishment for standing up to the abuse and also for being going back to it. When narcissists try to press the emotional reset button, reinforce your boundaries even more strongly rather than backtracking on them.

Remember – highly manipulative people don’t respond to empathy or compassion. They respond to consequences.

17. Aggressive jabs disguised as jokes.

Covert narcissists enjoy making malicious remarks at your expense. These are usually dressed up as “just jokes” so that they can get away with saying appalling things while still maintaining an innocent, cool demeanour. Yet any time you are outraged at an insensitive, harsh remark, you are accused of having no sense of humour. This is a tactic frequently used in verbal abuse.

The contemptuous smirk and sadistic gleam in their eyes give it away, however – like a predator that plays with its food, a toxic person gains pleasure from hurting you and being able to get away with it. After all, it’s just a joke, right? Wrong. It’s a way to gaslight you into thinking their abuse is a joke – a way to divert from their cruelty and onto your perceived sensitivity. It is important that when this happens, you stand up for yourself and make it clear that you won’t tolerate this type of behaviour.

Calling out manipulative people on their covert put-downs may result in further gaslighting from the abuser but maintain your stance that their behaviour is not okay and end the interaction immediately if you have to.

18. Condescending sarcasm and patronising tone.

Belittling and degrading a person is a toxic person’s forte and their tone of voice is only one tool in their toolbox. Sarcasm can be a fun mode of communication when both parties are engaged, but narcissists use it chronically as a way to manipulate you and degrade you. If you in any way react to it, you must be “too sensitive.”

Forget that the toxic person constantly has temper tantrums every time their big bad ego is faced with realistic feedback – the victim is the hypersensitive one, apparently. So long as you’re treated like a child and constantly challenged for expressing yourself, you’ll start to develop a sense of hypervigilance about voicing your thoughts and opinions without reprimand. This self-censorship enables the abuser to put in less work in silencing you because you begin to silence yourself.

Whenever you are met with a condescending demeanour or tone, call it out firmly and assertively. You don’t deserve to be spoken down to like a child – nor should you ever silence yourself to meet the expectation of someone else’s superiority complex.

19. Shaming.

“You should be ashamed of yourself” is a favourite saying of toxic people. Though it can be used by someone who is non-toxic, in the realm of the narcissist or sociopath, shaming is an effective method that targets any behaviour or belief that might challenge a toxic person’s power. It can also be used to destroy and whittle away at a victim’s self-esteem: if a victim dares to be proud of something, shaming the victim for that specific trait, quality or accomplishment can serve to diminish their sense of self and stifle any pride they may have.

Malignant narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths enjoy using your own wounds against you – so they will even shame you about any abuse or injustice you’ve suffered in your lifetime as a way to retraumatize you. Were you a childhood abuse survivor? A malignant narcissist or sociopath will claim that you must’ve done something to deserve it or brag about their own happy childhood as a way to make you feel deficient and unworthy. What better way to injure you, after all, than to pick at the original wound? As surgeons of madness, they seek to exacerbate wounds, not help heal them.

If you suspect you’re dealing with a toxic person, avoid revealing any of your vulnerabilities or past traumas. Until they’ve proven their character to you, there is no point disclosing information that could be potentially used against you.

20. Control.

Most importantly, toxic abusers love to maintain control in whatever way they can. They isolate you, maintain control over your finances and social networks, and micromanage every facet of your life. Yet the most powerful mechanism they have for control is toying with your emotions.

That’s why abusive narcissists and sociopaths manufacture situations of conflict out of thin air to keep you feeling off centre and off balance. That’s why they chronically engage in disagreements about irrelevant things and rage over perceived slights. That’s why they emotionally withdraw, only to re-idealize you once they start to lose control. That’s why they vacillate between their false self and their true self, so you never get a sense of psychological safety or certainty about who your partner truly is.

The more power they have over your emotions, the less likely you’ll trust your own reality and the truth about the abuse you’re enduring. Knowing the manipulative tactics and how they work to erode your sense of self can arm you with the knowledge of what you’re facing and at the very least, develop a plan to regain control over your own life and away from toxic people.

10 experiments on the power of nonsexual touch in relationship building

1. Touch for money

A well-timed touch can encourage other people to return a lost item. In one experiment, users of a phone booth who were touched were more likely to return a lost dime to an experimenter (Kleinke, 1977). The action was no more than a light touch on the arm. People will do more than that though; people will give a bigger tip to a waitress who has touched them (Crusco & Wetzel, 1984).

2. Touch for help

People are also more likely to provide help when touched. In one study, strangers who were touched lightly on the arm were more likely to help an experimenter pick up things they had dropped (Gueguen, 2003). The percentage of people who helped went up from 63% to 90%.

3. Touch for compliance

The power of a light touch on the upper arm often extends more broadly to compliance. In a study by Willis and Hamm (1980), participants were asked to sign a petition. While 55% of those not touched agreed to sign it, this went up to 81% of those participants touched once on the upper arm. A second study asked people to fill in a questionnaire. The same touch increased compliance from 40% to 70%.

4. Touch twice for more compliance

And you can increase compliance with a second light touch on the arm. Vaidis and Halimi-Falkowicz (2008) tried this out when asking people in the street to complete a questionnaire. Those touched twice were more likely to complete the questionnaire than those touched once. The effects were strongest when men were touched by a female surveyor.

5. Or, touch for a fight!

However, the acceptability of touch, especially between men, depends a lot on culture. When Dolinski (2010) carried out a compliance experiment in Poland, he got quite different results for men and women. In Poland men asked to do the experimenter a favour reacted badly to a light touch on the arm. This seemed to be related to higher levels of homophobia. Women, however, still reacted positively to touch.

6. Touch to sell your car

Unlike Poland, France has a contact culture and touching is acceptable between two men. French researchers Erceau and Gueguen (2007) approached random men at a second-hand car market. Half were touched lightly on the arm for 1 second, the other half weren’t. Afterwards those who had been touched rated the seller as more sincere, friendly, honest, agreeable and kind. Not bad for a 1 second touch. We can safely assume the results would have been quite different in Poland!

7. Touch for a date

You won’t be surprised to hear that men show more interest in a woman who has lightly touched them. But here’s the research anyway: Gueguen (2010) found men easily misinterpreted a light nonsexual touch on the arm as a show of sexual interest. Perhaps more surprisingly women also responded well to a light touch on the arm when being asked for their phone number by a man in the street (Gueguen, 2007). This may be because women associated a light 1 or 2 second touch with greater dominance.

8. Touch for power

Touch communicates something vital about power relationships. Henley (1973) observed people in a major city as they went about their daily business. The people who tended to touch others (versus those being touched) were usually higher status. Generally we regard people who touch others as having more power in society (Summerhayes & Suchner, 1978).

9. Touch to communicate

Touch comes in many different forms and can communicate a variety of different emotions. Just how much can be communicated through touch alone is demonstrated by one remarkable study by Hertenstein et al. (2006). Using only a touch on the forearm, participants in this study tried to communicate 12 separate emotions to another person. The receiver, despite not being able to see the toucher, or the touch itself, were pretty accurate for anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude and sympathy. Accuracy ranged from 48% to 83%. To put it in context, that is as good as we can do when we can see someone’s face.

10. Massage for maths

So, if you can do all that with a touch, imagine what you could do with a massage. Well, one study has found that it can boost your maths skills (Field, 1996). Compared with a control group, participants who received massages twice a week for 5 weeks were not only more relaxed but also did better on a maths test.

‘Private Language’. Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. First published Fri Jul 26, 1996; substantive revision Tue Sep 2, 2014.

The idea of a private language was made famous in philosophy by Ludwig Wittgenstein, who in §243 of his book Philosophical Investigations explained it thus: “The words of this language are to refer to what can be known only to the speaker; to his immediate, private, sensations. So another cannot understand the language.”[1] This is not intended to cover (easily imaginable) cases of recording one’s experiences in a personal code, for such a code, however obscure in fact, could in principle be deciphered. What Wittgenstein had in mind is a language conceived as necessarily comprehensible only to its single originator because the things which define its vocabulary are necessarily inaccessible to others.

Immediately after introducing the idea, Wittgenstein goes on to argue that there cannot be such a language. The importance of drawing philosophers’ attention to a largely unheard-of notion and then arguing that it is unrealizable lies in the fact that an unformulated reliance on the possibility of a private language is arguably essential to mainstream epistemology, philosophy of mind and metaphysics from Descartes to versions of the representational theory of mind which became prominent in late twentieth century cognitive science.

1. Overview: Wittgenstein’s Argument and its Interpretations

Wittgenstein’s main attack on the idea of a private language is contained in §§244–271 of Philosophical Investigations (though the ramifications of the matter are recognizably pursued until §315). These passages, especially those from §256 onwards, are now commonly known as ‘the private language argument’, despite the fact that he brings further considerations to bear on the topic in other places in his writings; and despite the fact that the broader context, of §§243–315, does not contain a singular critique of just one idea, namely, a private language—rather, the passages address many issues, such as privacy, identity, inner/outer relations, sensations as objects, and sensations as justification for sensation talk, amongst others.

Nevertheless, the main argument of §§244–271 is, apparently, readily summarized. The conclusion is that a language in principle unintelligible to anyone but its originating user is impossible. The reason for this is that such a so-called language would, necessarily, be unintelligible to its supposed originator too, for he would be unable to establish meanings for its putative signs.

We should, however, note that Wittgenstein himself never employs the phrase ‘private language argument’. And a few commentators (e.g., Baker 1998, Canfield 2001 pp. 377–9, Stroud 2000 p. 69) have questioned the very existence in the relevant passages of a unified structure properly identifiable as a sustained argument. This suggestion, however, depends for its plausibility on a tendentiously narrow notion of argument—roughly, as a kind of proof, with identifiable premisses and a firm conclusion, rather than the more general sense which would include the exposure of a confusion through a variety of reasoned twists and turns, of qualifications, weighings-up and re-thinkings—and is a reaction against some drastic and artificial reconstructions of the text by earlier writers. Nevertheless, there is a point to be made, and the summary above conceals, as we shall see, a very intricate discussion.

Even among those who accept that there is a reasonably self-contained and straightforward private language argument to be discussed, there has been fundamental and widespread disagreement over its details, its significance and even its intended conclusion, let alone over its soundness. The result is that every reading of the argument (including that which follows) is controversial. Some of this disagreement has arisen because of the notorious difficulty and occasional elusiveness of Wittgenstein’s own text (sometimes augmented by problems of translation). But much derives from the tendency of philosophers to read into the text their own preconceptions without making them explicit and asking themselves whether its author shared them. Some commentators, for instance, supposing it obvious that sensations are private, have interpreted the argument as intended to show they cannot be talked about; some, supposing the argument to be an obvious but unsustainable attempt to wrest special advantage from scepticism about memory, have maintained it to be unsound because it self-defeatingly implies the impossibility of public discourse as well as private; some have assumed it to be a direct attack on the problem of other minds; some have claimed it to commit Wittgenstein to behaviourism or verificationism; some have thought it to imply that language is, of necessity, not merely potentially but actually social (this has come to be called the ‘community view’ of the argument).

The early history of the secondary literature is largely one of disputation over these matters. Yet what these earlier commentators have in common is significant enough to outweigh their differences and make it possible to speak of them as largely sharing an Orthodox understanding of the argument. After the publication in 1982 of Saul Kripke’s definitely unorthodox book, however, in which he suggested that the argument poses a sceptical problem about the whole notion of meaning, public or private, disputation conducted by Orthodox rules of engagement was largely displaced by a debate on the issues arising from Kripke’s interpretation. (However, there is overlap: Kripke himself adheres to the community view of the argument’s implications, with the result that renewed attention has been paid to that issue, dispute over which began in 1954.) Both debates, though, show a tendency to proceed with only the most cursory attention to the original argument which started them off.

This rush to judgment about what is at stake, compounded by a widespread willingness to discuss commentators’ more accessible accounts of the text rather than confront its difficulties directly, has made it hard to recover the original from the accretion of more or less tendentious interpretation which has grown up around it. Such a recovery is one of the tasks attempted in this article. The criterion of success in this task which is employed here is one of coherence: a good account should accommodate all of Wittgenstein’s remarks in §§244–271, their (not necessarily linear) ordering as well as their content, and should make clear how these remarks fit with the context provided by the rest of the book. (One of the problems with many of the commentaries on this matter, especially the earlier ones, is that their writers have quarried the text for individual remarks which have then been re-woven into a set of views said to be Wittgenstein’s but whose relation to the original is tenuous. A striking example of this approach is Norman Malcolm’s famous and influential 1954 review of Philosophical Investigations, which was commonly taken as an accurate representation of Wittgenstein’s own thinking and formed the target of many “refutations”.)

1.1 Recent Developments and Their Consequences

Interpretation of Wittgenstein started to become even more complex at the close of the twentieth century, as commentators began to focus on broad questions of method. In both Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Philosophical Investigations there is a tension between some statements that seem to be stating controversial philosophical positions and others that seem to be saying that philosophy ought not to offer controversial theses but only work with what we already know by being competent language users embedded in human circumstances. In the latter book there are passages that seem to support an anti-philosophical position and others that seem to offer interesting new philosophical views in the process of criticizing more traditional philosophical doctrines such as foundationalism and Cartesianism. Along these lines, two overlapping distinctions concerning how to read Philosophical Investigations have arisen: the resolute–substantial distinction, and the Pyrrhonian–non-Pyrrhonian distinction. In general, the resolute and Pyrrhonian readings make Wittgenstein out to be an anti-philosopher, one who is not offering positive philosophical theses to replace false ones; rather, his goal is to show the nonsensical nature of traditional philosophical theorizing. It is this goal that is partly responsible for the unique style of Philosophical Investigations (its dialogical and, at least at times, anti-dogmatic, therapeutic character). On the substantial and non-Pyrrhonian readings, Wittgenstein is not only presenting a method for exposing the errors of traditional philosophers, but also showing how philosophy should rightly be done and thereby offering positive philosophical views, views which must often be inferred or reconstructed from an elusive text.

There is neither a single resolute/Pyrrhonian nor a single substantial/non-Pyrrhonian reading of Wittgenstein. Moreover, there is an important difference between the resolute–substantial and Pyrrhonian–non-Pyrrhonian distinctions. The former distinction arises from a continuing debate on how to read Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, both on its own and in relation to Philosophical Investigations (see, e.g., Conant 2004 and Mulhall 2007), and is associated with the so-called New Wittgensteinians (see, e.g., Crary and Read 2000). The Pyrrhonian and non-Pyrrhonian discussion is to be found, for example, in Fogelin (1994), Sluga (2004), and Stern (2004, 2007), and concerns the ways in which Wittgenstein might be considered as writing in the tradition of the ancient Pyrrhonian sceptics, who were philosophically sceptical about the very possibility of philosophy (see Fogelin 1994, pp. 3ff and 205ff). These distinctions cut across the distinction between Orthodox and Kripkean non-orthodox readings of the text: both Orthodox and Kripkean non-orthodox interpreters have tended to offer substantial or non-Pyrrhonian readings of Wittgenstein—though the line may not always be clear and some (e.g., Hacker, 1990) move from a resolute/Pyrrhonian to a substantial/non-Pyrrhonian reading without remarking the fact.

Some (Fogelin, Stern, and Mulhall, for example) have come to question whether it makes sense to suppose that either one or the other, resolute/Pyrrhonian or substantial/non-Pyrrhonian, must be the correct way to read Wittgenstein. Fogelin and Stern see the tension in the text of Philosophical Investigations as the expression of a tension, indeed a struggle, within its author, between his wanting to uncover the ‘disguised nonsense’ of philosophical theses and his being tempted and drawn into still other philosophical positions on the nature of language, reference, private experience, and philosophy itself. In what is surely a reference to §133c—which reads: ‘The real discovery is the one that makes me capable of stopping doing philosophy when I want to.—The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself in question’—Wittgenstein is reported by Rush Rhees to have said ‘In my book I say that I am able to leave off with a problem in philosophy when I want to. But that’s a lie; I can’t’ (Rhees, 1984, p. 219 n. 7). According to Stern, the Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations is more Pyrrhonian than not, while understanding all too acutely the attraction of philosophy and the difficulty of giving it up. One’s stance on these matters affects how one reads the private language sections, in particular by raising the question whether Wittgenstein intends to argue that the positive claim of the possibility of a private language is false, or is some kind of nonsense.

1.2 Are Claims Affirming the Possibility of a Private Language False or Nonsense?

If someone were to insist that a private language is possible, one way to argue against him would be by employing the method of reductio ad absurdum: assume that it is true that a private language is possible, show that that assumption leads to certain absurdities or a contradiction, and then conclude that it is actually false that a private language is possible. This is the way in which the argument was typically understood. But this understanding has come into question. In contrast to his earlier commentaries, for example, Gordon Baker has since called into question whether the private language sections should not be read as attempting to show that the notion of a private language is intelligible but false, but rather that it is nonsense masquerading as an important possibility (Baker, 1998).

There is, however, in Wittgenstein’s thinking an inclination to think of contradiction in terms of the disintegration of sense, so that even argument by reductio might be understood not in terms of falsehood. (The appearance of this inclination in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, for example, is well mapped by Fogelin [1976, Ch. IV].) And it is characteristic of Wittgenstein to talk of philosophical error in terms of nonsense. In §119 of Philosophical Investigations he wrote, e.g., ‘The results of philosophy are the uncovering of one or another piece of plain nonsense and of bumps that the understanding has got by running its head against the limits of language. These bumps make us see the value of the discovery.’ And in §464: ‘My aim is: to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense.’ In the discussion of the possibility of a private language it may well at first seem as though we understand the possibility under consideration. After all we seem to understand the question in §256, ‘Now, what about the language which describes my inner experiences and which only I myself can understand?’ But is Wittgenstein suggesting we only seem to understand this question?

The matter may not be clear. Shortly after the main private language sections, the following remark occurs as part of a dialogue, ‘It comes to this: only of a living human being and what resembles (behaves like) a living human being can one say: it has sensations; it sees; is blind; hears; is deaf; is conscious or unconscious’ (§281). The dialogue continues in §282:

“But in a fairy tale the pot too can see and hear!” (Certainly; but it can also talk.)

“But the fairy tale only invents what is not the case: it does not talk nonsense.”—It is not as simple as that. Is it false or nonsensical to say that a pot talks? Have we a clear picture of the circumstances in which we should say of a pot that it talked? (Even a nonsense-poem is not nonsense in the same way as the babbling of a child.)

Here the question of how the Investigations is to be read intrudes. For example, part of the distinction between what Mulhall calls resolute and substantial readings of Wittgenstein concerns the sense in which Wittgenstein aimed to ‘overcome our attraction to the idea that there is something that we cannot do in philosophy’ (Mulhall, 2007, p. 8; cf. Philosophical Investigations §374). Mulhall claims that that idea goes against the moral of Investigations §500: ‘When a sentence is called senseless, it is not as it were its sense that is senseless. But a combination of words is being excluded from the language, withdrawn from circulation.’ Further, this substantial reading attributes to Wittgenstein an implicit philosophical theory of meaning, ‘of the (now grammatical) conditions of sense—quite as if our everyday abilities to distinguish sense from nonsense require at the very least a philosophical grounding or foundation (perhaps a criterial semantics, or a theory of language-games, or an anthropology of the human life form’ (Mulhall, 2007, p. 9). By contrast, on a resolute reading of Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein’s appeal to the notion of a grammatical investigation involves the deployment of ‘our everyday capacity to distinguish sense from nonsense in a philosophical context, and hence as depriving itself of any claim to expertise or authority that exceeds that form of practical ability—an ability that can equally well be laid claim to by any competent speaker, and hence by any philosophical interlocutor’ (ibid., p. 10). Further, the resolute reading is especially firm in rejecting the idea that there is something determinate that we cannot do, the idea that there is something, namely, a private language, that cannot be achieved; there is not a limitation on language. Rather, the idea is simply nonsense, or as Mulhall later puts it (ibid. p. 18): no sense can be given to the idea of a philosophically substantial private language.

Though Mulhall claims that the private language sections can justifiably be read either resolutely or substantially—because ‘each reading can … point to an aspect of the text that it fully acknowledges, and whose proper acknowledgment by the other is at the very least an issue for it, it would seem profitless to insist that one reading is essentially faithful to Wittgenstein’s text and the other intrinsically faithless’ (ibid., p. 20)—it is plain that he thinks the resolute reading is to be preferred. However, we may not need to choose. We might view the private language sections as Wittgenstein’s asking, ‘Do we have a clear picture of the circumstances in which we should say that someone spoke a private language?’ The line of reasoning that follows §243 can be read as various attempts to achieve a clear picture of what it might mean to speak a private language, where the attempts ultimately fail, with the result that what at first sight seemed intelligible (‘a language which describes my inner experiences and which only I myself can understand’) turns out not to be intelligible after all. And in so far as we cannot make intelligible the circumstances in which there could be a private language, we should say that the idea of a private language is nonsense. However, as we saw above, in §282 Wittgenstein indicates that the border between nonsense and falsehood is itself unclear; and moreover, in trying to make sense of the possibility of a private language, we may find, in different parts of the chain of reasoning, suggestions of falsehood as well as of nonsensicality.

2. The Significance of the Issue

The issue’s significance can be seen by considering how the argument is embedded in the structure of Philosophical Investigations. Immediately prior to the introduction of the argument (§§241f), Wittgenstein suggests that the existence of the rules governing the use of language and making communication possible depends on agreement in human behaviour—such as the uniformity in normal human reaction which makes it possible to train most children to look at something by pointing at it. (Unlike cats, which react in a seemingly random variety of ways to pointing.) One function of the private language argument is to show that not only actual languages but the very possibility of language and concept formation depends on the possibility of such agreement.

Another, related, function is to oppose the idea that metaphysical absolutes are within our reach, that we can find at least part of the world as it really is in the sense that any other way of conceiving that part must be wrong (cf. Philosophical Investigations p. 230). Philosophers are especially tempted to suppose that numbers and sensations are examples of such absolutes, self-identifying objects which themselves force upon us the rules for the use of their names. Wittgenstein discusses numbers in earlier sections on rules (185–242). Some of his points have analogues in his discussion of sensations, for there is a common underlying confusion about how the act of meaning determines the future application of a formula or name. In the case of numbers, one temptation is to confuse the mathematical sense of ‘determine’ in which, say, the formula y = 2x determines the numerical value of y for a given value of x (in contrast with y > 2x, which does not) with a causal sense in which a certain training in mathematics determines that normal people will always write the same value for y given both the first formula and a value for x—in contrast with creatures for which such training might produce a variety of outcomes (cf. §189). This confusion produces the illusion that the result of an actual properly conducted calculation is the inevitable outcome of the mathematical determining, as though the formula’s meaning itself were shaping the course of events.

In the case of sensations, the parallel temptation is to suppose that they are self-intimating. Itching, for example, seems like this: one just feels what it is directly; if one then gives the sensation a name, the rules for that name’s subsequent use are already determined by the sensation itself. Wittgenstein tries to show that this impression is illusory, that even itching derives its identity only from a sharable practice of expression, reaction and use of language. If itching were a metaphysical absolute, forcing its identity upon me in the way described, then the possibility of such a shared practice would be irrelevant to the concept of itching: the nature of itching would be revealed to me in a single mental act of naming it (the kind of mental act which Russell called ‘acquaintance’); all subsequent facts concerning the use of the name would be irrelevant to how that name was meant; and the name could be private. The private language argument is intended to show that such subsequent facts could not be irrelevant, that no names could be private, and that the notion of having the true identity of a sensation revealed in a single act of acquaintance is a confusion.

The suggestion that a language could be private in the way described appears most openly in the second of Bertrand Russell’s published lectures ‘The Philosophy of Logical Atomism’, where Russell says:

In a logically perfect language, there will be one word and no more for every simple object, and everything that is not simple will be expressed by a combination of words, by a combination derived, of course, from the words for the simple things that enter in, one word for each simple component. A language of that sort will be completely analytic, and will show at a glance the logical structure of the facts asserted or denied. … A logically perfect language, if it could be constructed, would not only be intolerably prolix, but, as regards its vocabulary, would be very largely private to one speaker. That is to say, all the names that it would use would be private to that speaker and could not enter into the language of another speaker.

… A name, in the narrow logical sense of a word whose meaning is a particular, can only be applied to a particular with which the speaker is acquainted, because you cannot name anything you are not acquainted with.

… One can use ‘this’ as a name to stand for a particular with which one is acquainted at the moment. We say ‘This is white’. … But if you try to apprehend the proposition that I am expressing when I say ‘This is white’, you cannot do it. If you mean this piece of chalk as a physical object, then you are not using a proper name. It is only when you use ‘this’ quite strictly, to stand for an actual object of sense [i.e., a sense-datum], that it is really a proper name. And in that it has a very odd property for a proper name, namely that it seldom means the same thing two moments running and does not mean the same thing to the speaker and to the hearer.

… [I]n order to understand a name for a particular, the only thing necessary is to be acquainted with that particular. When you are acquainted with that particular, you have a full, adequate and complete understanding of the name, and no further information is required.

Although Wittgenstein does not explicitly say so, it is likely that this is the inspiration of his argument: his writing is marked in many places by criticism of Russell, both explicit and otherwise.

But the idea of a private language is more usually hidden: the confusions supposed to belong to it allegedly underlie a range of articulated philosophical notions and theories, without themselves being so articulated. The argument is thus perhaps most profitably read as targeting, not any particular theory, but rather the motivation for considering a range of apparently independent or even competing theories along with their associated tasks, problems and solutions.

For example, a still very common idea, often attributed to John Locke and openly embraced by Jerry Fodor in the nineteen seventies, is that interpersonal spoken communication works by speakers’ translation of their internal mental vocabularies into sounds followed by hearers’ re-translation into their own internal vocabularies. Again, Descartes considered himself able to talk to himself about his experiences while claiming to be justified in saying that he does not know (or not until he has produced a reassuring philosophical argument) anything at all about an external world conceived as something independent of them. And he and others have thought: while I may make mistakes about the external world, I can infallibly avoid error if I confine my judgments to my immediate sensations. (Compare The Principles of Philosophy, I, 9.) Again, many philosophers, including John Stuart Mill, have supposed there to be a problem of other minds, according to which I may reasonably doubt the legitimacy of applying, say, sensation-words to beings other than myself.

In each of these examples, the implication is that the internal vehicle of my musings could in principle be private (as Kenny [1966, p. 369] showed, this vehicle does not have to be a language for the argument to apply to it): for these problems and theories even to make sense, sharability must be irrelevant to meaning and it must be at least conceivable that my knowledge, even my understanding, is necessarily confined to my own case. The implication is of course often denied. The terms of Fodor’s language of thought, for example, are supposed to be able to refer to public objects. But the question is, on what basis does this ability rest? However this question should be answered, Fodor himself was concerned enough about Wittgenstein’s argument to try to show both that it did not apply to his views and—apparently superfluously—that it is not a good argument anyway (Fodor pp. 68–73). The matter is clearer with Descartes (compare Kenny 1966): for his sceptical question to be raised without being immediately self-defeating, he must hold it possible to identify his experiences inwardly—where ‘inwardly’ means without relying on resources supplied by his essential embodiment in a world whose existence is independent of his own mind and accessible to others (e.g., such resources as the concepts acquired in a normal upbringing). The question which accordingly looms large in the private language argument is: How is this identification of one’s experiences to be achieved?

However, it cannot be emphasized too strongly that the significance of the private language argument does not rest on the scholarly detail of whether this or that thinker can be correctly described as committed to the idea. The target is a way of thinking which generates philosophical theories, not the theories themselves.

3. The Private Language Argument Expounded

3.1 Preliminaries

As already noted, the private language sections of Philosophical Investigations are usually held to begin at §243 (though we shall see that Wittgenstein relies on points made much earlier in the book). The methodological issues canvassed above arise at the outset, in the interpretation of §243’s crucial second paragraph.

On a substantial/non-Pyrrhonian reading, Wittgenstein begins to clarify what kind of philosophically important notion of private language is to be examined, i.e., one that is necessarily private and which refers to one’s immediate private sensations. In the remarks that follow, Wittgenstein argues that the idea of such a private language is nonsensical or incoherent because it is a violation of grammar (i.e., Wittgenstein draws on his substantive views on meaning).

On a resolute/Pyrrhonian reading, it is emphasized that the reader is asked in the first sentence of the second paragraph whether one can actually imagine a language for one’s inner experiences, for private use. Wittgenstein at this point reminds the interlocutor that we already use ordinary language for that. But the interlocutor quickly replies in the last three lines of §243 that what he is asking is whether we can imagine a private language that refers to what only the speaker can know. In the following sections, Wittgenstein examines ‘whether there is a way of meaning the words of the penultimate sentence










































There is, however, reason to believe that this assumption is false, for investigation of Wittgenstein’s notions of essential, possible and lifelong Crusoe shows that admission of the first claim does not commit him to the denial of the second. To take the first notion: on Wittgenstein’s view, while chess is essentially a game for two players, this does not exclude the possibility of playing it against oneself provided such solitary games are not regarded as paradigm instances of chess. Similarly, he can claim that language is essentially social, but still allow the possibility of exceptions provided these are peripheral cases. The issue is complex, and its pursuit would lead away from the current article’s purpose of articulating the central text. For a detailed account, the reader is referred to Canfield [1996] (to which this section is indebted, and which also contains a useful bibliography of the debate over the community view), and to Hacker [2010].


The secondary literature on this topic is enormous. The following list is highly selective, and entries are included by meeting at least one of the following criteria: good representative of a standard reading of the argument; influential source, primary or secondary; useful collection of items meeting one or other of the previous two criteria; useful survey; item making recent and significant progress in the understanding and assessment of the argument; source drawn on in the writing of this article; item mentioned in the main text of this article.

Baker, G.P., 1998, ‘The private language argument’, Language & Communication, 18: 325–56.
Baker, G.P. & Hacker, P.M.S., 1990, ‘Malcolm on language and rules’, Philosophy, 65: 167–79.
Boghossian, P.A., 1989, ‘The rule-following considerations’, Mind, 98: 507–49.
Candlish, S., 1997, ‘Wittgensteins Privatsprachenargumentation’, in Eike von Savigny (ed.), Wittgensteins Philosophische Untersuchungen, Berlin: Akademie Verlag: 143–65.
Canfield, J.V. (ed.), 1986, The Philosophy of Wittgenstein, Volume 9: The Private Language Argument, New York: Garland.
––– (ed.), 1986, The Philosophy of Wittgenstein (Volume 10: Logical Necessity and Rules), New York: Garland.
–––, 1996, ‘The community view’, The Philosophical Review, 105: 469–88.
–––, 2001, ‘Private language: the diary case’ Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 79: 377–94.
Conant, J., 2004, ‘Why worry about the Tractatus?’, in B. Stocker (ed.), Post-Analytic Tractatus, Aldershot: Ashgate: 167–92.
Cook, J.W., 1969, ‘Human beings’, in P. Winch, (ed.), Studies in the Philosophy of Wittgenstein, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Crary, A. & Read, R. (eds.), 2000, The New Wittgenstein, London and New York: Routledge.
Fodor, J., 1975, The Language of Thought, New York: Crowell.
Fogelin, R.J., 1976, Wittgenstein, London: Routledge, Ch. XIII.
–––, 1994, Pyrrhonian Reflections on Knowledge and Justification, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hacker, P.M.S., 1990, Wittgenstein: Meaning and Mind, Volume 3 of an Analytical Commentary on the Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Blackwell.
–––, 2010, ‘Robinson Crusoe Sails Again: The Interpretative Relevance of Wittgenstein’s Nachlass’, in N. Venturhina (ed.), Wittgenstein After His Nachlass, Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Jones, O.R. (ed.), 1971, The Private Language Argument, London: Macmillan.
Kenny, A., 1966, ‘Cartesian privacy’, in G. Pitcher (ed.), Wittgenstein: The Philosophical Investigations, London: Macmillan, 1968.
–––, 1973, Wittgenstein, London: Allen Lane, Ch. 10.
Kripke, S., 1982, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language, Oxford: Blackwell.
Malcolm, N., 1954, ‘Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations’, The Philosophical Review, 63: 530–59.
–––, 1989, ‘Wittgenstein on language and rules’, Philosophy, 64: 5–28.
McDowell, J., 1989, ‘One Strand in the Private Language Argument’, Grazer Philosophische Studien, 33/34: 285–303.
Mulhall, S., 2007, Wittgenstein’s Private Language: Grammar, Nonsense, and Imagination in Philosophical Investigations, §§ 243–315, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Nielsen, K.S., 2008, The Evolution of the Private Language Argument, Aldershot: Ashgate.
Pears, D., 1988, The False Prison (Volume Two), Oxford: Clarendon Press, Chs. 13–15.
Rhees, R. (ed.), 1984, Recollections of Wittgenstein, revised edition, New York: Oxford University Press. Originally published as Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections, Oxford: Blackwell, 1981.
Russell, B., 1918, ‘The philosophy of logical atomism’, in The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell (Volume 8: The Philosophy of Logical Atomism and Other Essays 1914–19), London: George Allen and Unwin, 1986.
Sluga, H., 2004, ‘Wittgenstein and Pyrrhonism’, in W. Sinnott-Armstrong (ed.), Pyrrhonian Skepticism, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 99–117.
Stern, D.G., 2004, Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations: an introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
–––, 2007, ‘The uses of Wittgenstein’s beetle: Philosophical Investigations §293 and its interpreters’, in G. Kahane, E., Kanterian, and O. Kuusela (eds.), Wittgenstein and his Interpreters: Essays in Memory of Gordon Baker, Malden: Blackwell: 248–68.
–––, 2010, ‘Another strand in the private language argument’, in A. Ahmed (ed.), Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations: A Critical Guide, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 178–96.
–––., 2011, ‘Private language’, in O. Kuusela and M. McGinn (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Wittgenstein, Oxford: Oxford University Press: 333–50.
Stroud, B., 2000, Meaning, Understanding, and Practice, Oxford: Oxford University Press, Essays 5, 6 and 13.
Tang, H., 2014, ‘“It is not a something, but not a nothing either” – McDowell on Wittgenstein’, Synthese, 191: 557–67.
Winch, P., 1983, ‘Facts and superfacts’, The Philosophical Quarterly, 33: 398–404; revised and reprinted in P. Winch, Trying to Make Sense, Oxford: Blackwell, 1987, 54–63.
Wittgenstein, L., 1953, Philosophical Investigations, translated by G. E. M. Anscombe, Oxford: Blackwell, 3rd edition, 1967.
–––, 1934–6, ‘Notes for lectures on “private experience” and “sense-data”’, The Philosophical Review, 77 (1968): 275–320. (Also included in Jones 1971.)

The Myth Of The Stonecutter

Once upon a time there lived a stonecutter, who went every day to a great rock in the side of a big mountain and cut out slabs for gravestones or for houses. He understood very well the kinds of stones wanted for the different purposes, and as he was a careful workman he had plenty of customers. For a long time he was quite happy and contented, and asked for nothing better than what he had.

Now in the mountain dwelt a spirit which now and then appeared to men, and helped them in many ways to become rich and prosperous. The stonecutter, however, had never seen this spirit, and only shook his head, with an unbelieving air, when anyone spoke of it. But a time was coming when he learned to change his opinion.

One day the stonecutter carried a gravestone to the house of a rich man, and saw there all sorts of beautiful things, of which he had never even dreamed. Suddenly his daily work seemed to grow harder and heavier, and he said to himself: “Oh, if only I were a rich man, and could sleep in a bed with silken curtains and golden tassels, how happy I should be!”

And a voice answered him: “Your wish is heard; a rich man you shall be!”

At the sound of the voice the stonecutter looked around, but could see nobody. He thought it was all his fancy, and picked up his tools and went home, for he did not feel inclined to do any more work that day. But when he reached the little house where he lived, he stood still with amazement, for instead of his wooden hut was a stately palace filled with splendid furniture, and most splendid of all was the bed, in every respect like the one he had envied. He was nearly beside himself with joy, and in his new life the old one was soon forgotten.

It was now the beginning of summer, and each day the sun blazed more fiercely. One morning the heat was so great that the stonecutter could scarcely breathe, and he determined he would stop at home till the evening. He was rather dull, for he had never learned how to amuse himself, and was peeping through the closed blinds to see what was going on in the street, when a little carriage passed by, drawn by servants dressed in blue and silver. In the carriage sat a prince, and over his head a golden umbrella was held, to protect him from the sun’s rays.

“Oh, if I were only a prince!” said the stonecutter to himself, as the carriage vanished around the corner. “Oh, if I were only a prince, and could go in such a carriage and have a golden umbrella held over me, how happy I should be!”

And a prince he was. Before his carriage rode one company of men and another behind it; servants dressed in scarlet and gold bore him along, the coveted umbrella was held over his head, everything his heart could desire was his. But yet it was not enough. He looked around still for something to wish for, and when he saw that in spite of the water he poured on the grass the rays of the sun scorched it, and that in spite of the umbrella held over his head each day his face grew browner and browner, he cried in his anger: “The sun is mightier than I; oh, if I were only the sun!”

And the mountain spirit answered: “Your wish is heard; the sun you shall be.”

And the sun he was, and felt himself proud in his power. He shot his beams above and below, on earth and in heaven; he burnt up the grass in the fields and scorched the faces of princes as well as of poorer folk. but in a short time he began to grow tired of his might, for there seemed nothing left for him to do. Discontent once more filled his soul, and when a cloud covered his face, and hid the earth from him, he cried in his anger: “Does the cloud hold captive my rays, and is it mightier than I? Oh, that I were a cloud, and mightier than any!”

And the mountain spirit answered: “Your wish is heard; a cloud you shall be!”

And a cloud he was, and lay between the sun and the earth. He caught the sun’s beams and held them, and to his joy the earth grew green again and flowers blossomed. But that was not enough for him, and for days and week he poured forth rain till the rivers overflowed their banks, and the crops of rice stood in water. Towns and villages were destroyed by the power of the rain, only the great rock on the mountainside remained unmoved. The cloud was amazed at the sight, and cried in wonder: “Is the rock, then, mightier than I? Oh, if I were only the rock!”

And the mountain spirit answered; “Your wish is heard; the rock you shall be!”

And the rock he was, and gloried in his power. Proudly he stood, and neither the heat of the sun nor the force of the rain could move him. “This is better than all!” he said to himself. But one day he heard a strange noise at his feet, and when he looked down to see what it could be, he saw a stonecutter driving tools into his surface. Even while he looked a trembling feeling ran all through him, and a great block broke off and fell upon the ground. Then he cried in his wrath: “Is a mere child of earth mightier than a rock? Oh, if I were only a man!”

And the mountain spirit answered: “Your wish is heard. A man once more you shall be!”

And a man he was, and in the sweat of his brow he toiled again at his trade of stone cutting. His bed was hard and his food scanty, but he had learned to be satisfied with it, and did not long to be something or somebody else. And as he never asked for things he did not have, or desired to be greater and mightier than other people, he was happy at last, and never again heard the voice of the mountain spirit.

IF by Rudyard Kipling (1910)

IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

Durst not for freedom, according to P. J. O’Rourke

“Freedom is not empowerment. Empowerment is what the Serbs have in Bosnia. Anybody can grab a gun and be empowered.

It’s not entitlement. An entitlement is what people on welfare get, and how free are they?

It’s not an endlessly expanding list of rights — the “right” to education, the “right” to health care, the “right” to food and housing. That’s not freedom, that’s dependency. Those aren’t rights, those are the rations of slavery — hay and a barn for human cattle.”

Inference, fallacies, and attribution errors

Sometimes we use inferences badly, sometimes we use argumentation in the wrong way, often we are without conscious knowldge of the actuality of our errors. Here are some examples of how we communicate ideas badly or in the wrong way.

1. FAULTY CAUSE: (post hoc ergo propter hoc) mistakes correlation or association for causation, by assuming that because one thing follows another it was caused by the other. Example: A black cat crossed Babbs’ path yesterday and, sure enough, she was involved in an automobile accident later that same afternoon.
Example: The introduction of sex education courses at the high school level has resulted in increased promiscuity among teens. A recent study revealed that the number of reported cases of STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) was significantly higher for high schools that offered courses in sex education than for high schools that did not.

2. SWEEPING GENERALISATION: (dicto simpliciter) assumes that what is true of the whole will also be true of the part, or that what is true in most instances will be true in all instances. Example: Muffin must be rich or have rich parents because she belongs to ZXQ, and ZXQ is the richest sorority on campus. Example: I’d like to hire you, but you’re an ex-felon and statistics show that 80% of ex-felons recidivate.

3. HASTY GENERALISATION: bases an inference on too small a sample, or on an unrepresentative sample. Often, a single example or instance is used as the basis for a broader generalisation. Example: All of those movie stars are really rude. I asked Kevin Costner for his autograph in a restaurant in Westwood the other evening, and he told me to get lost. Example: Pit Bulls are actually gentle, sweet dogs. My next door neighbour has one and his dog loves to romp and play with all the kids in the neighbourhood!

4. FAULTY ANALOGY: (can be literal or figurative) assumes that because two things, events, or situations are alike in some known respects, that they are alike in other unknown respects. Example: What’s the big deal about the early pioneers killing a few Indians in order to settle the West? After all, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. Example: Banning “head” shops from selling drug paraphernalia in order to kerb drug abuse makes about as much sense as banning bikinis to reduce promiscuity.

5. APPEAL TO IGNORANCE: (argumentum ad ignorantiam) attempts to use an opponent’s inability to disprove a conclusion as proof of the validity of the conclusion, i.e. “You can’t prove I’m wrong, so I must be right.” Example: We can safely conclude that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy, because thus far no one has been able to prove that there is not. Example: The new form of experimental chemotherapy must be working; not a single patient has returned to complain.

6. BIFURCATION: (either-or, black or white, all or nothing fallacy) assumes that two categories are mutually exclusive and exhaustive, that is, something is either a member of one or the other, but not both or some third category. Example: Either you favour a strong national defence, or you favour allowing other nations to dictate our foreign policy. Example: It’s not TV. It’s HBO.

7. FALSE DILEMMA: (a form of bifurcation) implies that one of two outcomes is inevitable, and both have negative consequences.
example: Either you buy a large car and watch it guzzle away your pay-cheque, or you buy a small car and take a greater risk of being injured or killed in the event of an accident. Example: You can put your money in a savings account, in which case the IRS will tax you on the interest, and inflation will erode the value of your money, or you can avoid maintaining a savings account in which case you will have nothing to fall back on in a financial emergency.

8. FAULTY SIGN: (also includes argument from circumstance) wrongly assumes that one event or phenomenon is a reliable indicator or predictor of another event or phenomenon. Example: the cars driving in the opposite direction have their lights on; they must be part of a funeral procession. Example: That guy is wearing a Raiders jacket and baggy pants. I’ll bet he’s a gang member.

9. DAMNING THE SOURCE: (ad hominem, sometimes called the genetic fallacy) attempts to refute an argument by rubbishing the source of the argument, rather than the substance of the argument itself. Example: There is no reason to listen to the arguments of those who oppose school prayer, for they are the arguments of atheists! Example: The American Trial Lawyers Association favours of this piece of legislation, so you know it has to be bad for ordinary citizens.

10. TU QUOQUE: (look who’s talking or two wrongs make a right) pointing to a similar wrong or error committed by another.
example: Gee, Mom and Dad, how can you tell me not to do drugs when you both smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol? Example: The United States has no business criticising the human rights policies of the Third World nations, not as long as discrimination and segregation continue to exist in the United States.

11. EQUIVOCATION: allows a keyword or term in an argument to shift its meaning during the course of the argument. The result is that the conclusion of the argument is not concerned with the same thing as the premise(s). Example: Only men are rational. No woman is a man. Therefore, no woman is rational. Example: No one who has the slightest acquaintance with science can reasonably doubt that the miracles in the Bible actually took place. Every year we witness countless new miracles in the form recombinant DNA, micro-chips, organ transplants, and the like. (the word “miracle” does not have the same meaning in each case)

12. BEGGING THE QUESTION: (petitio principii) entails making an argument, the conclusion of which is based on an unstated or unproven assumption. In question form, this fallacy is known as a COMPLEX QUESTION. Example: Abortion is murder, since killing a baby is an act of murder. Example: Have you stopped beating your wife?

13. TAUTOLOGY: (a sub-category of circular argument) defining terms or qualifying an argument in such a way that it would be impossible to disprove the argument. Often, the rationale for the argument is merely a restatement of the conclusion in different words. Example: The Bible is the word of God. We know this because the Bible itself tells us so. Example: You are a disagreeable person and, if you disagree with me on this, it will only further prove what a disagreeable person you are.

14. APPEAL TO AUTHORITY: (ipse dixit also called ad verecundiam sometimes) attempts to justify an argument by citing a highly admired or well-known (but not necessarily qualified) figure who supports the conclusion being offered. Example: If it’s good enough for (insert celebrity’s name here), it’s good enough for me. Example: Laws against marijuana are plain silly; Thomas Jefferson is known to have raised hemp on his own plantation.

15. APPEAL TO TRADITION: (don’t rock the boat or ad verecundiam) based on the principle of “letting sleeping dogs lie”. We should continue to do things as they have been done in the past. We shouldn’t challenge time-honored customs or traditions. Example: Of course we have to play “pomp and circumstance” at graduation because that’s always been the song that is played. Example: Why do I make wine this way? Because my father made wine this way and his father made wine this way.

16. APPEAL TO THE CROWD: (ad populum or playing to the gallery) refers to popular opinion or majority sentiment in order to provide support for a claim. Often the “common man” or “common sense” provides the basis for the claim. Example: all I can say is that if living together is immoral, then I have plenty of company. Example: Professor Waffle’s test was extremely unfair; just ask anyone who took it.

17. STRAW MAN: stating an opponent’s argument in an extreme or exaggerated form, or attacking a weaker, irrelevant portion of an opponent’s argument. Example: A mandatory seat belt law could never be enforced. You can’t issue citations to dead people.
Example: What woman in her right mind could truly desire total equality with men? No woman wants the right to be shot at in times of war, the right to have to pay alimony, or the right to have to use the same restrooms as men.

18. SLIPPERY SLOPE: (sometimes called a snowball argument or domino theory) suggests that if one step or action is taken it will invariably lead to similar steps or actions, the end results of which are negative or undesirable. A slippery slope always assumes a chain reaction of cause-effect events which result in some eventual dire outcome. Example: If the Supreme Court allows abortion, next thing you know they’ll allow euthanasia, and it won’t be long before society disposes of all those persons whom it deems unwanted or undesirable. Example: If I let one student interrupt my lecture with a question, then I’ll have to let others and, before long, there won’t be any time left for my lecture.

19. APPEALING TO EXTREMES: A fallacy very similar to a slippery slope, which involves taking an argumentative claim or assertion to its extreme, even though the arguer does not advocate the extreme interpretation. The difference between the two fallacies is that appealing to extremes does not necessarily involve a sequence of causal connections. Example: Husband to ex-wife: Well, if you want to be completely fair about dividing everything up, you should get one of my testicles and I should get one of your breasts! Example: Debtor to a debt collector: “Hey, you’ve already repossessed my car and my television. Why don’t you just draw a quart of blood or carve a pound of flesh from my heart too?”

20. HYPOTHESIS CONTRARY TO FACT: This fallacy consists of offering a poorly supported claim about what might have happened in the past or future if circumstances or conditions were other than they actually were or are. The fallacy also involves treating hypothetical situations as if they were fact. Example: If you had only tasted the stewed snails, I’m sure you would have liked them. Example: If Hitler had not invaded Russia and opened up two military fronts, the Nazis would surely have won the war.

21. NON-SEQUITUR: (literally means “does not follow”) in a general sense any argument which fails to establish a connection between the premises and the conclusion may be called a non-sequitur. In practice, however, the label non-sequitur tends to be reserved for arguments in which irrelevant reasons are offered to support a claim. Example: I wore a red shirt when I took the test, so that is probably why I did so well on the test. Example: Mr Boswell couldn’t be the person who poisoned our cat, Truffles, because when I used to take Truffles for walks he always smiled and said “Hello” when we walked by.

22. RED HERRING: attempting to hide a weakness in an argument by drawing attention away from the real issue. A red herring fallacy is thus a diversionary tactic or an attempt to confuse or fog the issue being debated. The name of the fallacy comes from the days of fox hunting when a herring was dragged across the trail of a fox in order to throw the dogs off the scent. Example: accused by his wife of cheating at cards, Ned replies “Nothing I can do ever please you. I spent all last week repainting the bathroom, and then you said you didn’t like the colour.” Example: There are too much fuss and concern about saving the environment. We can’t create an Eden on earth. And even if we could, remember Adam and Eve got bored in the Garden of Eden anyway!

23. INCONSISTENCY: advancing an argument that is self-contradictory, or that is based on mutually inconsistent premises. Example: A used car salesperson says, “Hey, you can’t trust those other car salesmen. They’ll say anything to get you to buy a car from them.” Example: A parent has just read a child the story of Cinderella. The child asks, “If the coach, and the footmen, and the beautiful clothes all turned back into the pumpkin, the mice, and the rags, then how come the glass slipper didn’t change back too?”

15 Useful Things to Give Up

Here is a list of 15 things which, if you give up on them, will make your life a lot easier and much, much happier. People hold on to so many things that cause us a great deal of pain, stress and suffering – and instead of letting them all go, instead of allowing ourselves to be stress free and happy, we cling on to them. Not anymore. Starting today we will give up on all those things that no longer serve us, and we will embrace change. Ready? Here we go:

1. Give up your need to always be right. There are so many of us who can’t stand the idea of being wrong – wanting to always be right – even at the risk of ending great relationships or causing a great deal of stress and pain, for us and for others. It’s just not worth it. Whenever you feel the ‘urgent’ need to jump into a fight over who is right and who is wrong, ask yourself this question: “Would I rather be right, or would I rather be kind? What difference will that make? Is your ego really that big?

2. Give up your need for control. Be willing to give up your need to always control everything that happens to you and around you – situations, events, people, etc. Whether they are loved ones, coworkers, or just strangers you meet on the street – just allow them to be. Allow everything and everyone to be just as they are and you will see how much better will that make you feel.

“By letting it go it all gets done. The world is won by those who let it go. But when you try and try. The world is beyond winning.” –Lao Tzu

3. Give up on blame. Give up on your need to blame others for what you have or don’t have, for what you feel or don’t feel. Stop giving your powers away and start taking responsibility for your life.

4. Give up your self-defeating talk. Oh my. How many people are hurting themselves because of their negative, polluted and repetitive self-defeating mindset? Don’t believe everything that your mind is telling you – especially if it’s negative and self-defeating. You are better than that.

“The mind is a superb instrument if used rightly. Used wrongly, however, it becomes very destructive.” –Eckhart Tolle

5. Give up your limiting beliefs about what you can or cannot do, about what is possible or impossible. From now on, you are no longer going to allow your limiting beliefs to keep you stuck in the wrong place. Spread your wings and fly!

“A belief is not an idea held by the mind, it is an idea that holds the mind.” –Elly Roselle

6. Give up complaining. Give up your constant need to complain about those many, many, maaany things – people, situations, events that make you unhappy, sad and depressed. Nobody can make you unhappy, no situation can make you sad or miserable unless you allow it to. It’s not the situation that triggers those feelings in you, but how you choose to look at it. Never underestimate the power of positive thinking.

7. Give up on the criticism of difference. Give up your need to criticize things, events or people that are different than you. We are all different, yet we are all the same. We all want to be happy, we all want to love and be loved and we all want to be understood. We all want something, and something is wished by us all.

8. Give up your need to impress others. Stop trying so hard to be something that you’re not just to make others like you. It doesn’t work this way. The moment you stop trying so hard to be something that you’re not, the moment you take of all your masks, the moment you accept and embrace the real you, you will find people will be drawn to you, effortlessly.

9. Give up your resistance to change. Change is good. Change will help you move from A to B to C. Change will help you make improvements in your life and also the lives of those around you. Follow your bliss, embrace change – don’t resist it.

“Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls.” –Joseph Campbell

10. Give up labels. Stop labeling those things, people or events that you don’t understand as being weird or different and try opening your mind, little by little. Minds only work when open.

“The highest form of ignorance is when you reject something you don’t know anything about.” –Wayne Dyer

11. Give up on your fears. Fear is just an illusion, it doesn’t exist – you created it. It’s all in your mind. Correct the inside and the outside will fall into place.

“The only fear we have to fear, is fear itself.” –Franklin D. Roosevelt

12. Give up making excuses. Send them packing and tell them they’re fired. You no longer need them. A lot of times we limit ourselves because of the many excuses we use. Instead of growing and working on improving ourselves and our lives, we get stuck, lying to ourselves, using all kind of excuses – excuses that most of the time are not real.

13. Give up on living in the past. I know, it’s hard. Especially when the past looks so much better than the present and the future looks so frightening, but you have to take into consideration the fact that the present moment is all you have and all you will ever have. The past you are now longing for – the past that you are now dreaming about – was ignored by you when it was present. Stop deluding yourself. Be present in everything you do and enjoy life. After all life is a journey not a destination. Have a clear vision for the future, prepare yourself, but always be present in the now.

14. Give up over-attachment. This is a concept that, for most of us is so hard to grasp and I have to tell you that it was for me too, (it still is) but it’s not something impossible. Unattachment get better with time and practice. The moment you detach yourself from all things, (and that doesn’t mean you give up your love for them – because love and attachment have nothing to do with one another, attachment comes from a place of fear, while love… well, real love is pure, kind, and self less, where there is love there can’t be fear, and because of that, attachment and love cannot coexist) you become so peaceful, so tolerant, so kind, and so serene. You will get to a place where you will be able to understand all things without even trying. A state beyond words.

15. Give up living your life to other people’s expectations. Way too many people are living a life that is not theirs to live. They live their lives according to what others think is best for them, they live their lives according to what their parents think is best for them, to what their friends, their enemies and their teachers, their government and the media think is best for them. They ignore their inner voice, that inner calling. They are so busy with pleasing everybody, with living up to other people’s expectations, that they lose control over their lives. They forget what makes them happy, what they want, what they need….and eventually they forget about themselves. You have one life – this one right now – you must live it, own it, and especially don’t let other people’s opinions distract you from your path.

The Good Life: Fifty simple psychological insights toward individuation

Here’s fifty simple yet profoundly important psychological insights which may certainly be beneficial to you and yours.


1) The morning is wiser than the night. Today may have looked awful, but tomorrow is another day.
2) Sleep is perhaps the best medicine.
3) Never keep a grudge overnight. Talk it out before sleep.
4) Listen much more than you speak. When you do speak, make it count.
5) Meditate on what’s important and valuable in your life every single morning.
6) Wake up early and never waste the morning (the most productive time).
7) Judge people favorably – yourself first.
8) Forgive easily, forget slowly. Start with yourself.
9) Be slow to anger.
10) Music changes your mood powerfully and quickly, better than any drug.
11) You are the average of the 5 people you spend most time with. Choose very carefully.
12) Make sure to take a walk every single day.
13) Make experiencing nature a part of your everyday routine.
14) Find a way to live in the moment. Always stop to smell those roses.
15) Understand and automate your finances as much as possible, no matter how bad your situation looks. This is the biggest source of stress in life for couples.
16) Accept the people around you as they are today and don’t try to change them. If they’re no good to you, walk away.
17) Your actions are the best show-and-tell. Don’t tell me – show me how it’s done!
18) Always try to see the glass as half-full, even if it looks empty. Perception is another reality.
19) Deal head-on with your childhood baggage ASAP. Talk it out with family and friends. Get a therapist. Just stop letting it screw up your adult life.
20) Find what ROLE you want to play in people’s lives based on your personality and you’ll get much closer to your dream job.
21) Stop letting others define who you are. Hang out with people that enrich your life emotionally, spiritually, intellectually (and yes, financially) – and who root for you to succeed. Get rid of all the others.
22) Always take the long view in life. Be patient. The forest is never just the trees. Markets crash and markets rebound. Today’s setbacks aren’t deadly. With the right attitude, you’ll get over them – and then some.
23) Fill every free moment with something useful – reading, writing, learning, laughing, helping someone.
24) Strive to leave no person you meet worse off for having met you. Do your best to contribute something useful to the life of each person you encounter.
25) Clean up your mess. If you wait, it will become a bigger mess that takes longer to clean.
26) Never engage in useless debates online and in person – avoid politics, religion, optical illusions, the news.
27) Unplug from all your devices and work at least one day a week.
28) Choose very carefully what you consume – starting with the ingredients in your food and drink, moving on to music, film, art, books, etc. Garbage in always means garbage out.
29) Travel every chance you get, even if it’s just out of town to see a new place.
30) Always value experiences over goods. The former expand your mind and the latter narrows it.
31) Get rid of all the clutter in your house and your life. It keeps you tied to the past, whereas you should be living in the present and focus on a better future. Keep what you accumulate to a minimum.
32) Plant a few new seeds every day. Brainstorm and write down 10 new business ideas. Reach out to a new person. Reconnect with people you haven’t spoken to in ages.
33) Work to improve 1% on important personal traits each day.
34) Do something well each day, even if it’s just brushing your teeth on a horrible, no-good day.
35) Treat yourself once in a while. Celebrate small wins.
36) Take the stairs.
37) Be nice to the foolish and the bigoted – they need it more than you.
38) Your health should be your first priority. Don’t abuse the privilege of health until it’s too late.
39) Prioritize your loved ones above everyone else. Otherwise, you’ll have no loved ones around soon.
40) Save at least 3-6 months in salary, just in case of emergencies.
41) Find natural light each day. If there’s no sun, make your sure your light bulbs mimic natural light well – at home, work and elsewhere.
42) Replace refined carbs with dried fruits and nuts in the house and the office. Keep the refined carbs out of both.
43) Find and express your gratitude to people who are good to you and help you in life. Express gratitude to the Universe in whichever way you can.
44) Keep a journal. Few things are more fulfilling and better for gaining perspective than finding your old impressions years later.
45) Work on creating good habits and ridding yourself of bad ones.
46) Hard work and perseverance always beat genius and talent, in the end.
47) Work hard to understand the many facets and involutions of human psychology.
48) Get up to stretch from your seat at least once every 45–60 minutes.
49) Do everything in moderation, especially moderation.
50) Live and let live. Mind your own business before minding the business of others.

Systemic practice / Social Constructionism / Meaning-making / Coordination

A segment of a social network
A segment of a social network (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


§ Introduction:

I would like to begin by acknowledging that I am writing this blog entry as a British/Polish professional male (45), single child of a single parent family from London. In my early career I studied information and communication systems and worked in the City of London and across Europe as a technical design consultant of wide area networks. My family life is shared with my partner and our children. We both live and work in East Anglia.

I work as a psychotherapist & family practitioner in private practice. My core clinical training was in Humanistic & Psychodynamic Counselling and Psychotherapy. I hold postgraduate degrees in Information Technology, Psychoanalytic History and Psychology.

For the last five years I have been deeply impressed by the systemic/relational approaches, methods and techniques and a concerted concern – more than ever, perhaps – with the patterns of connection which exist between people (Bateson, 1972), and, by implication, patterns of disconnection (Oliver, 2004).

Reflection in action: I should like to acknowledge my approach to personal and professional areas of my life as in transition; starting from a position (Harré & Langenhove, 1999) of locating problems under intrapsychic psychologism I have shifted inexorably toward a systemic position using the communication perspective (i.e. both intrapsychic and interpersonal). I am grateful for the opportunity to come to this revised position so early in my therapeutic career and acknowledge the importance of the communication perspective in using the CMM lens to look at my relationships with others).

The coordinated management of meaning (CMM) rests upon the pragmatic concept that both meaning and action (i.e. meaningful action – pace Dewey), coextensively, inform how people make meaning, how they respond bodily and how they feel. For CMM these patterns of feeling, interpretation and action lead to possibilities and constraints in our shared communication and the creation of our social worlds. CMM allows us to position (Harré & Langenhove, 1999) ourselves reflexively in relation to ourselves, others and the patterns and stories that we make (Oliver, 2004);

CMM can be thought of as a meta-theory derived from a postmodern communication perspective (see below); it is systemic, social constructionist, polysemous, critical, appreciative, subtle and complex.

§ Historical background

Post-psychoanalytic work from Bateson’s communication theories (e.g. Bateson, 1972, 1979) helped to instantiate a widely used approach to communication research (e.g. Bateson described levels of meaning in human systems as (1972: 201) “hierarchies of orders of recursiveness.”)

Therapists and researchers in the Palo Alto tradition shared a common view of therapy and research in that they understood both processes as being interactional and contextual. Their selection of these metaphors to study therapy remains a strong influence in the field to this day. Works like ‘Pragmatics of Human Communication: A study of interactional patterns, pathologies, and paradoxes’ (Watzlawick, Beavin, & Jackson, 1967/2011), offered a popular new model for strategic/solution-focused therapies, as presented in books such as ‘Change: Principles of problem formation and problem resolution’ (Watzlawick, Weakland, & Fisch, 1974/2011) and ‘The Tactics of Change: Doing Therapy Briefly’ (Fisch, Weakland, & Segal, 1982).

The clinical work of Virginia Satir and Milton Erickson viewed from a linguistics and language metaphor perspective contributed to the Strategic, Solution-Focused and Brief Solution-Focused and Neuro-Linguistic Programming approaches (Bandler & Grinder, 1975, 1979; Grinder & Bandler, 1981) to therapy and a formal notational system for human interaction (Grinder & Bandler, 1976). Bandler and Grinder matched the clinical work of Satir and Erickson with a multi- dimensional view of communication and language to produce a complex method to practice and describe therapeutic process.

In the Systemic-Milan-CMM tradition, Karl Tomm’s collaboration with Pearce and Cronen and other communication exponents (e.g. McNamee, Lannamann, & Tomm, 1983) contributed to a number of projects and papers created from a confluence of the circular notions of Milan therapy (Selvini-Palazzoli, Boscolo, Cecchin, & Prata, 1980) with the circularity of a communication research approach proposed by CMM (Cronen, Johnson, & Lannamann, 1982; Pearce, 1976; Pearce & Cronen, 1980). As a result, Milan-style circularity in therapy took a reflexive turn with Tomm’s work (1987a, 1987b, 1988), and a turn towards curiosity with Gianfranco Cecchin’s therapy (Cecchin, 1987). A change in research, such as the notion of questions as interventions in therapy (Tomm & Lannamann, 1988), helped lead to the suggestion that research questions may also be seen as interventions and possibly as therapy (McNamee, 1988) and consultation tools, such as, reflexive inquiry (Oliver, 1992, 1996, 2004).

§ Social Constructionism

Burr (1995) acknowledges the major influence of Berger and Luckmann (1966/1991) in the development of social constructionism (SC). In turn Berger and Luckmann (1966/1991) acknowledge the influence of Mead, Marx, Schutz and Durkheim on their thinking. Berger and Luckmann (1966/1991) therefore constitute a synthesis of these and other influences – for instance, de Beauvoir (1949/1972), when she writes: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

The origins of social constructionism can be traced in part to an interpretivist approach to social thought. Mead (1934), one of the originators of symbolic interactionism, and first wife of Gregory Bateson, can be viewed as forging a bridging narrative between the two fields. However, while SC and interpretivism may seem to share common philosophical roots, social constructionism does appear distinct from interpretivism. In common with constructionists, interpretivists in general focus on the process by which meanings are created, negotiated, sustained and modified (Schwandt, 2003). Proponents share the goal of understanding the world of lived experience from the perspective of those who live in it. Both arose as a challenge to scientism and have been influenced by the postmodernist movement. Interpretivism differentiates between the social and natural sciences and has as its goal the understanding of the meaning of social phenomena. While interpretivists value the human subjective experience, they seek to develop an objective science to study and describe it. There is then a tension evident between objective interpretations of subjective experiences. In other words, they attempt to apply a logical empiricist methodology to human inquiry. Thus, for Schwandt (2003) symbolic interactionism is an interpretative science.

Constructionists view knowledge and truth as created not discovered by the mind (Schwandt 2003) and supports the view that being a realist is not inconsistent with being a constructionist. One can believe that concepts are constructed rather than discovered yet maintain that they correspond to something real in the world. This is consistent with the idea of Berger and Luckmann (1966/1991) and the subtle realism of Hammersley (1992) in that reality is socially defined but this reality refers to the subjective experience of everyday life; how the world is understood rather than to the objective reality of the natural world. As Steedman (2000) notes, most of what is known and most of the knowing that is done is concerned with trying to make sense of what it is to be human, as opposed to scientific knowledge. Individuals or groups of individuals define this reality. This branch of constructionism is unconcerned with ontological questions or questions of linear causation. It is worth emphasising this, since a lot of the criticisms of constructionism arise from ascribing claims to it made beyond this social understanding of the world.

Berger and Luckmann (1966/1991) are concerned with the nature and construction of knowledge; how it emerges and how it comes to have significance for society. They view knowledge as created by the interactions of individuals within society as central to constructionism (Schwandt, 2003). For Berger and Luckmann (1966/1991), the division of labour, the emergence of more complex forms of knowledge and what they term economic surplus gives rise to expert knowledge, developed by people devoting themselves full-time to their subject. In turn, these experts lay claim to novel status and claim ultimate jurisdiction over that knowledge. For example, Hunter (1991) makes this claim for medicine, in that it has in time assumed much more control over defining illness and as a result has assumed control in situations well beyond its original mandate and so, enjoys a privileged position (Harré & Langenhove, 1999) in society.

Berger and Luckmann (1966/1991) view society as existing both as objective and subjective reality. The former is brought about through the interaction of people with the social world, with this social world in turn influencing people resulting in a form of habituation. That is, a frequently repeated action becomes cast into a pattern which can be reproduced without much effort. This habituated behaviour frees people to engage in innovation rather than starting everything anew. In time, the meaning of the habituated behaviour becomes embedded as a routine, forming a general store of knowledge. This knowledge is institutionalised by society to the extent that future generations experience this type of knowledge as objective. In addition, this form of objectivity may be continuously reaffirmed in the individual’s interaction with others.

The experience of society as subjective reality is achieved through primary, and to a lesser extent, secondary socialisation. The former involves being given an identity and a place in society. Indeed, Burr (1995) suggests that our identity originates not from inside the person but from the social realm. Socialisation takes place through significant others who mediate the objective reality of society, render it meaningful and in this way it is internalised by individuals (Berger & Luckmann, 1966/1991). This is done through the medium of language. Burr (1995) suggests that within social constructionism language makes thought and ideation possible and not the other way around. In SC Language is suggested to predate concept and provides a means of structuring the way the world is experienced.

Berger and Luckmann (1966/1991) maintain that conversation is the most important means of maintaining, modifying and reconstructing subjective reality. Subjective reality is comprised of concepts that can be shared easily with others. That is, there is shared meaning and understanding (i.e. grounded theory), so much so that concepts do not need to be redefined each time they are used in everyday conversation and come to assume a reality which is more or less taken for granted.

Reflection in action: SC bricklaying analogy

• Layer one: Labelling, naming, defining of social phenomena
• Layer two: How the social world is categorised into different groups
• Layer three: How we value those different categories; and how we order those categories
• Layer four: How we reinforce or challenge the valuation of those orderings or categories; how we contest value; how power and power differentials may contest value

§ CMM: A Rule-based Theory of Interpersonal Communication (1976)

Pearce’s (1976) early interest in interpersonal communication sets out to provide an interpretive heuristic; that is to say, it is, says Pearce (1976: 18) in his words, “unabashedly theoretical, deliberately based on a set of assumptions different from recent orthodoxy, and self-consciously two levels of abstraction away from observable exchanges of messages.”

Pearce (1976) considers that the orthodox understanding of interpersonal communication has held to a view, according to Harré and Secord (1973: 27-28) cited in Pearce (1976: 18), informed by a set of assumptions (1.) a mechanistic model to account for humans (2.) a lineal conception of causality (3.) a positivist methodology. Pearce (1976) contrasts his [heterodox] theoretical perspective for CMM as (1.) a diverse set of models (2.) a set of alternative modes of explanation for human action (3.) social science characterised as pluralistic and naturalistic.

For Pearce (1976) the transactional nature of interpersonal communication goes beyond a listing of the rules or a description of how individuals follow rules since the outcome (i.e. verbal or non-verbal communication) is the result of a non-totalising input from more than one individual – i.e. the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Thus a conversation which occurs may not resemble the rule-governed behaviours of either person seen independently. As a result, therefore, Pearce (1976) situates CMM as an explanation which must be able to account for [both] the effect of each person [locutor] on the other as well as [and] each person’s rule-governed behaviour.

One might say that for Pearce (1976) inclusiveness of different types of rules is an acknowledgement and an embrace of an important both/and position (Harré & Langenhove, 1999) toward communication, that is, a holding-in-mind of the conceptual difference and reciprocity between how we communicate (process) and what we communicate (content).

Working from an assumption that human action is diverse and complex, and that each type of behaviour necessitates a different form of explanation, Pearce (1976) is led to a conclude that “a science which is appropriate for studying interpersonal communication must be pluralistic and naturalistic.” Here Pearce (1976) is explicitly contrasting normal science (i.e. natural science) (see Kuhn, 1970) – with its reliance on scientific method (objectivity, falsifiability, replication of results and hypothetico-deductive inferences) – against the state of social sciences at the time of writing. Pearce’s (1976: 19) call for “plurality and naturalism” in the study if interpersonal communication has its forebears in the privileging of the interpersonal realm within sociolinguistic theories of Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, and Lyotard as well as chiming with the wider movements within the emergent paradigm of postmodernist thought (i.e. post-structuralism and deconstructionism).

Pearce (1976: 20) helps us to better understand interpersonal communication problems by locating these problems as problems at the level of both meaning-making (within episodes) and coordination (across episodes) (see below). Here episodes are defined as, following Harré and Secord (1973: 153): “any part of human life, involving one or more people, in which some internal structure can be determined.” It is clearly an imprecise definition, useful precisely because of its imprecision: for episodes can be enacted and/or determined by actors rather than observers, episodes may vary widely in scope and breadth, and the definition is interpersonal (intersubjective) not merely personal (subjective). Pearce (1976: 21) goes on to differentiate between three “referents” for episodes as he sees them and indicates that problems occur in their coordination: Episodes1, Episodes2 and Episodes3.

• Episodes1 “consist of patterns of meaning and behaviours which are culturally sanctioned and which exist independently of any particular individual or dyad.” These include social institutions and ritualised behaviours. (Pearce states that these are public symbols identical with the concept of “significant symbols” outlined by Mead (1934))

• Episodes2 “consist of patterns of meanings and behaviours in the minds of individuals and are similar to discussions of images, plans, acts, or definitions of situations” These are private symbols which express intention or actions relating to how one participates in social interaction.

• Episodes3 “consist of the communicators’ interpretation of the actual sequence of messages which they jointly produced.” They are “episodes-as-coenacted following Cicoural’s (1974) notion for an “assumption of reciprocal perspectives” and Garfinkel’s (1967) notion of background expectancies.”
Pearce (1976) uses Kelly’s (1955) psychological theory of personal constructs (Constructive Alternativism) to elaborate the importance not just of coordination between and across episodes, but, also, in the service of predicting divergent outcomes in terms of agreement and disagreement, and, confirmation and disconfirmation. This prediction of divergence and polysemy is not also without considerable meaning to Pearce (1976), and is an important feature of his thinking put to the service of better understanding the as yet unexpressed with meaning-making, as we shall see later.

For Kelly (1955) we may recall his general theory of personal constructs, where he suggested that even within a culture, individuals tend to develop their own idiosyncratic ways of characterising others. The influence of Kelly’s (1955: 3) Constructive Alternativism on CMM and more generally on social science cannot be understated owing to his considerable influence on interpersonal communication:

Reflection in action: implications of Kelly’s (1955) PCT

• Objective reality is less important than intersubjective reality (for social sciences)
• Emphasis on how events are construed
• People choose different construal’s
• Choice underpins people’s meaning-making and actions

Thus to Kelly’s (1955) thought people possess different personal construct systems which develop adaptively over time and these people are in-themselves likely to become habituated towards these constructs when forming their understanding from the perceived impression of others. Constructs are in turn reliant upon Anticipation/Prediction and Construct. (These two processes were mapped by Kelly (1961a) onto a grid termed the repertory grid technique.)

Nonetheless, having noted the important implications (i.e. plurality and polysemy) freighted by Kelly’s (1955) personal construct theory and the implications for better coordination and the challenges to coordination obtaining from this premise, Pearce (1976: 26-27) goes on to examine rule-governed behaviours from a naturalistic perspective and uses the terms constitutive rules and regulative rules. Here constitutive rules are defined as the rules in establishing acts/meanings which are required for the episode to be enacted and regulative rules as the array of allowable acts from which the person may choose from. Both of these descriptions of rules may be validated by comparing them to the actors’ perceptions and behaviours, although the actors themselves should not also be expected to be fully aware of or able to articulate either set of rules or their meanings.

Thus if communicators (interlocutors) are following the same rules their coordination problems are easy and an observer could readily describe their conversation (episode3) by identifying the rules. However problems may arise in coordinating the management of meaning and describing the ensuing conversation when the communicators follow different rules (e.g. their episodes2 are different) (Pearce, 1976: 28). Pearce (1976: 28) suggests that “a researcher must identify those sequences which are based on consensually shared rules and those which are not.”

Pearce (1976: 29) offers a practical syllogism (see Von Wright, 1971) as an explanatory tool for exploring each person’s rule governed actions.

1. A wishes B to occur;
2. A knows/believes that he must do X if B is to occur;
3. Therefore A does X.


A is a person
B is an episode, and
X is a particular behaviour given meaning by its location in the episode.

For Pearce the coordination problem is one traced to a difference in one or both of the premises (1. or 2.), and the communication problem may be explained by contrasting those syllogisms which explain the behaviour of each individual (3.).

In this way Pearce (1976:30-31) is able to address the scientifistic concern of those critics of CMM’s capacity to predict and confers at least some ability to control – “but in a special way consistent with its own assumptions” – interpersonal communication. A theory of social action, such as CMM, may therefore “develop propositions about communication situations in which coordination problems are likely, about persons who will be more or less able to coordinate their management of meanings with specific others, and about the effect of using particular coordination strategies.” Moreover, entirely consistent with the premise of pluralism mentioned earlier (p. 18), some propositions may or may not conform to a linear causal explanatory model – indeed, Pearce (1976: 31) acknowledges that some on-going patterns of interpersonal communication may be accounted for as systemic in nature (Watzlawick et al., 1967 in Pearce, 1976). In so doing Pearce (1976) is clearly aware of the actuality that from a systemic perspective communication does not necessarily find purchase through reliance on a linear causal explanation (but rather on a reliance upon both teleological and circular – recursive – causal explanations).

In addition, emergent propositions, such as those located through the systemic view of communication – say, the use of metacommunication as a negotiation strategy using CMM – lead Pearce (1976: 31) to surmise “an irreversible increase in the level of their [clients] self-awareness” and “an assumption of causality (or necessary interdependency) among the components of the communication system.”

That is, not only does Pearce (1976) firmly hold to a belief that self-awareness is a beneficial corollary affect, but also, and importantly, that he is led to suggest the presence of a necessary interdependency (or alternative causal relation) among the various component episodes which in concert form the basis of the CMM theory of interpersonal communication. This is a single, barely explicated sentence in the overall text written in a scholarly passive tense, yet it is one, I believe, where the impact of the sentiment conveyed could so easily be overlooked; to my thought this small section of the text represents an ecliptic reference to what Pearce later in the endnotes alludes to as reflexivity (1976: 33n6).

§ CMM – Research base & “the communication perspective” (1980)

Pearce and Cronen’s (1980) book on CMM expands upon suggestions made earlier by Pearce (1976) and Cronen, Pearce and Snavely (1979) that took seriously the empirical possibility for social research from a “communication perspective.” That is, Pearce & Cronen (1980) is written from a meta-theoretical perspective which might provide an overarching edifice from which all of the social sciences (e.g. economics, psychology, sociology, linguistics, communications theory, etc.) might be surveyed.

Pearce and Cronen (1980: 273-283) used a serpentine (timeline) model to track both (‘Jan’ and ‘Dave’ study) participants interpretations of sequential episodes over time. This study provided empirical support for the somewhat counterintuitive suggestion that ‘good’ communication does not necessarily require understanding. It soon became clear that CMM could produce some quite unexpected results. In another study (p. 216-223) Harris, Cronen & Lesch asked students to describe the communication competences of “newly met conversationalists.” The results obtained suggested shifting patterns in which individual competence correlated to the structure of the social system.

This finding was suggested to support CMM’s perspective on interpersonal communication as a complex, fluid and plastic concept rather than supporting a mechanistic, linear view of social action.

A’s social world:

Story of self: confident, successful

Relationship: mutually supportive Episode: damage control

Episode: annual performance review Relationship: victim/victimizer

Episode: annual performance review

Relationship: purely professional

Self: competent and tired of having to cover for Bill’s mistakes

B’s social world:

Adapted from Pearce (2006) Serpentine model

§ Cronen, Johnson and Lannamann (1982)

This article presented a new theory of reflexivity in systems of social meaning and action. Cronen et al. (1982) argue that Russell’s Theory of Logical Types, which formed the basis of the early work of the Palo Alto group (e.g. Bateson, Haley, Weakland, etc.), rests upon an inappropriate and largely outdated epistemology. The theory offered here by Cronen et al. (1982) rejects the assumption that reflexivity and paradox have the same or coincident boundaries. It is further argued that reflexivity is a natural and necessary feature of human systems of meaning. New analytic tools are offered for discerning problematic from nonproblematic reflexive loops. Their new tools take the form of a symbol that can be used to represent the rules that organize reflexive relationships. Cronen et al. (1982) theory also contains a set of statements designed to restrict conditions under which problematic reflexive loops have consequences for a person’s mental wellbeing.

§ Pearce, Cronen and Tomm (1985)

Pearce, Cronen and Tomm (1985) introduce the possibility of offering a dialectical account of higher order social change without advancing a fixed overarching grammar for social change, whilst, preserving qualities of radical transformation and continuity based on a natural and plural basis. Their choice is CMM theory.

Pearce, Cronen and Tomm (1985) believe that radical transformation takes place (i.e. phase 4 in their 0-7 phase model) where an inversion of hierarchical order takes place. In this way episodic patterns have become inverted with life scripts and family scripts – at the next higher orders of context. The practical example is offered of family A, whom, it seems, have become habituated to examining every instance of life script and place in the family myth from within a [dislocated] context of each particular social encounter. As a consequence they are quite stuck in unwanted repetitive patterns (URPs) between, on the one hand, what they do and how they relate to others, and their life scripts and family myth on the other.

Pearce, Cronen and Tomm’s (1985) paper neither offers nor suggests a deterministic or probabilistic law of change. Rather it is the case that Pearce, Cronen and Tomm (1985) do offer a CMM-based modelling option of and for higher order change using a suite of principles concerning time, consciousness, action, hierarchy, and recursivity.

§ Post-Milan: from Neutrality to Curiosity (1987)

Just as Maria Selvini Palazzoli (1974) had described her transition from psychoanalysis to systemic practice under the influence of Haley (1963) and Watzlawick et al. (1967) so too Gianfranco Cecchin (1987; 1992) describes the evolution of his approach from structure toward constructionism.

Cecchin (1992) outlines the evolution in his theory and practice as informed by three main shifts in his emphasis and, therein, his approach:

• Energy to Information
• Entities to Social constructions
• Family to therapist

A closer look at the shifts in emphasis in Cecchin’s work may reveal much about how he, in a position (Harré & Langenhove, 1999) of systemic trainer and theorist, might explain the evolution in his systemic ideas.

In 1987 Cecchin wrote what was later to become a seminal systemic paper. Entitled, Hypothesizing, Circularity, and Neutrality Revisited: An Invitation to Curiosity, Cecchin’s (1987) paper subtly delivered an epistemological bombshell in the form of a reply to the Milan teams’ paper describing the foundation of their working principles (Hypothesizing – Circularity – Neutrality, Selvini et al., 1980).

In his paper, Cecchin (1987) sought to re-examine the principle concepts contained in Selvini et al (1980) Milan systemic manifesto and instead assert his new conviction that therapeutic neutrality in action and language was nothing more or less than an ideal – for family system and therapist alike – which simply could not ever be realised. Cecchin feels impelled to make it clear that he now knows that it is impossible to be neutral.

Cecchin (1987) had looked back upon his former foundational principles of working (i.e. hypothesising, circularity and neutrality) and made the following observations:

• Hypothesising is a technique
• Curiosity is a framework for working (i.e. a systemic approach)
• Hypotheses are stories told (i.e. only of use for as long as they remain relevant)

Thus, looking again at Selvini et al. (1980) one might be drawn to summarise as follows:

• Approach – Neutrality
• Method – Circularity / Paradox
• Technique – Hypothesis

Whereas, a close look at Cecchin (1987; 1992) might result in a subtle difference with quite significant contextual implications for systemic work:

• Approach – Curiosity / Reflexivity toward co-constructed meaning
• Method – Circularity / Questions replacing statements
• Technique – Hypothesis

Cecchin (1987) goes on to reposition the concept of curiosity as defining his approach to systemic thought and action. Cecchin argues that once the ideal approach of therapeutic neutrality is no longer tenable it ought to be replaced by something – curiosity – inherently more flexible and characteristic of an openness toward lived experience and the uncertainties of lived experience, for only then are we more able to become better helpers and/or systemic practitioners; not worse, not stuck merely in a series of techniques without ever questioning their or our own efficacy (Cecchin, 1987: 5): “… when our neutral position ceases to help us generate hypotheses, we have, no doubt, lost our curiosity and become social controllers.”

He continues by proposing a framework, an approach, to systemic practice, which he views as the crucial – though unexplored – underpinning for the original Milan team’s (see Selvini et al., 1980) founding principles, he writes (1987: 5): “If we are curious, we question premises – our own and those of the family we are treating. A family’s interactions with us should facilitate questioning our own premises. Not only are we intervening in their systems, but families are also intervening in our systems – helping us to become better systemic thinkers. The idea of a recursive relationship among neutrality, hypothesizing, and circularity, as guiding principles, proposes a framework that invites us to be more curious about symptoms in therapy – those of families as well as of therapists.”

§ Neutrality – an irreducible moral dimension: Lang, Little & Cronen (1990)

Lang, Little and Cronen (1990) suggest a consistent view with which to identify different types of action/activity from a systemic position of co-constructed realities. They lean heavily on Maturana’s (1985) concept of domains of knowledge: aesthetics, explanations and production. Long et al. (1990) are led to conclude that an appreciation of Maturana’s (1985) domain concept raises vital questions about the nature of neutrality within and across the domains which he views as spanning the professional systemic field.

Lang et al. (1990) suggest that ‘morality’ and ‘a moral posture’ are necessary features of any approach which spans the domains of aesthetics, explanation or production. In so doing they recall Aristotle’s (see Poetics) concept of a position in relational context across and between theory and practice, praxis. Lang et al. (1990) conclude that as systemic practice is intimately interested in human action – and by definition in these domains of knowledge (see above) – then a moral posture ought to be a necessary principle of any systemic approach/framework.

§ Approach Method and Technique: A model for identifying differences (1992)

Burnham’s (1992) paper outlines a coherent model for differentiating between types of systemic activity and how those activities might be viewed as relating when working within a systemic practice framework. We will then see whether and how Burnham’s (1992) AMT model might also be useful to understand both the movement of approaches, methods and techniques from Milan (e.g. Selvini et al., 1978) to post-Milan (e.g. Cecchin, 1987) and CMM (e.g. Pearce and Cronen, 1980; Cronen, Johnson and Lannamann, 1982; Lang, Little & Cronen, 1990) in the service of a coherent structure for a more general understanding of the implications of social constructionist thought on systemic thought during this period.

In his paper Burnham (1992) suggests that his systemic understanding can be explained using an Approach – Method – Technique (AMT) model. The AMT model seeks to make clear both the context for and the implications of deriving meaning from a hierarchically organised, theoretically and clinically coherent, and recursively connected systemic model of working (following CMM, see below). Burnham’s (1992) influences are many and varied, however he plainly locates meaning as something derived from a context (pace Bateson 1972) and the two terms themselves (i.e. context and meaning) as acting in a recursive relation to one another (pace Pearce & Cronen, 1980; see below CMM).

Burnham (1992) locates and offers to define each term in the AMT model in the following way:

• Approach – Lenses and dispositions in a recursive relation; Reliant upon abstraction – learning to learn (see Bateson, 1974); e.g. family system understood as if a human system.
• Method – Different practices which serve to organise an approach e.g. use and appreciation of circularity (both in terms of questioning and causality).
• Technique – Different activities organising a method through practices, tools, training and therapeutic skills; Reliant upon rote learning (see Bateson, 1974); e.g. hypothesising.

And, thus, we might chose to visualise Burnham’s (1992) AMT model using the following three tier hierarchy:

• Approach
o Method
 Technique

It is worth noting that just as an overarching context (i.e. A →M) acts by contextual force in a downward direction upon the meaning of a sub context, so too, there might also exist an implicative force acting upwards upon and changing the meaning of the contextual setting above (i.e. T→M).

Given this relation between a strong contextual force and a weaker implicative force it is possible to designate the relation between AMT as hierarchical, coherent and recursive (i.e. A↔M↔T) following Pearce and Cronen’s (1980) suggestion for coordinating and managing systemic thought and practice.

§ Tracking: Hedges (2005)

Hedges (2005) is interested to investigate how it is that in co-constructing futures we (as systemic practitioners) are attending to the minutiae of grammar, metaphor, noticing the hidden-obvious and slowing ourselves in our work. Hedges (2005) is keen to point out that using these techniques allows us to better track the episodes of our work with families, and, therein, to expose the myth surrounding the notion of systemic work as somehow discreet from depth/exploratory work (i.e. psychodynamics).

He introduces and questions the possibility of a greater correspondence between notions of ‘depth’ and ‘breadth’. He questions whether the demarcation of ‘depth’ as a psychodynamic preserve is sustainable in the light cast by philosophy of language (e.g. Wittgenstein, 1953), systemic thought (e.g. Anderson, 1997) and co-constructionist (CMM) theories (e.g. Cronen, 1990; Cronen & Pearce, 1991) of making/managing social reality and meaning which would indicate otherwise.

Hedges (2005) utilises Bruner’s (1986) notion of metaphor as a ‘crutch’ to begin his investigation into the tracking techniques which might bring mutual benefit or insight. Bruner (1986) suggests that metaphor enable us to navigate meanings that, once utilised, can be discarded or hidden from view. Hedges (2005) suggests that in tracking metaphors – others’ and our own – is crucial to the better exploration and questioning of the co-construction of meaning in the work. Indeed, Hedges (2005) links metaphor and their use to the collective folk wisdom (see C. G. Jung) of the contextual background culture/society. Adding to this rich gestalt the clear difficulties which arise when/if one allows metaphor to remain unexplored, invisible or untold (see LUUUTT model of CMM).

Following Anderson (1997), Hedges (2005) also suggests that tracking an episode also requires slowing down the stories told. That is, slowing the natural pace of a normal dialogical flow. This technique is suggested as a counter measure to ‘knowing’, and, by implication only, may increase curiosity.

Attending to language does not mean only attending to spoken language. Non-verbal communication is a powerful form of communication which Hedges is keen to explore, again, in the service of techniques which can help in the exploration of co-constructed meaning-making. We must, urges Hedges (2005), attend carefully to exploring the range of full bodily communications of the other (see Tom Anderson, 1990).

Tracking also entails noticing. Hedges (2005) suggests that simplicity and familiarity can act to hide aspects of actual experience. That is to say, familiarity can sometimes obfuscate noticing what is in front of one’s nose. Hedges (2005) reiterates the importance of the notion of noticing bodily communications (i.e. non-verbal communications) as these can give us vital information to enrich the meaning/s available in a specific episode. However, Hedges (2005) is swift to point out that when one is noticing things are not simply found, instead, they are always co-constructed through joint action (see Shotter, 1993; 1995). This insight into the technique of noticing allows Hedges (2005) to conclude that episodes are always temporary, unfinished and composed of punctuations (pace Jackson and Bateman in Watzlawick et al., 1967).

Hedges (2005) recalls Pearce’s (1994) notion that ‘social worlds are too complex to perceive … all at once’ and thus reminds his reader of Bateson’s (1972) suggestion that ‘we divide experiences into frames’. By pointing to frames theory, Hedges (2005) is also following Goffman’s (1974) notion that frames turn what would otherwise be meaningless into something that is meaningful. Not so dissimilar one might say to Bateson’s (1972; 1974) famous ideas about the intimate relation and multi-laying which exists between context and meaning.

Frame theory closely looks at our frames of reference, say:

• Time
• Boundaries / Liminality
• Structure

It is, for Hedges (2005), in the appreciation of the multi-laying of episodes (see Bateson, 1974; Cronen and Pearce, 1982) which allows for a broader, deeper construal of the co-constructed and recursive (reflexive) nature of both episodes and frames. Hedges (2005) provides the following example of multi-layered frames and contexts which may commonly appear in an episode:

• Stories about the (current) relationship
• Stories related to the clients family
• Personal identity stories
• Religious stories
• Gender stories
• Cultural, ethnic, racial, colour stories
• Cultural and societal stories

The example above appears to be a good fit with the LUUUTT model of CMM (see LUUUTT model; Pearce Associates, v1.1, 1991). But what if, Hedges (2005) asks, one feels like one ought to act in certain way under certain circumstances regardless for any evidence that acting in that way is or has ever been beneficial? Here then, Hedges (2005) is calling our attention to the presence of so-named de-ontic logic in lived experience. An example might be something which informs our understanding and situates us towards certain contexts and seemingly automated responses – much like morality can shape our actions because of preconceptions of what is received to be ‘right’ or ‘good’ (see G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica, 1993).

§ Making Social Worlds: Pearce (2007)

Pearce (2007) stresses the importance of the communication perspective. He strongly suggests that one ought to look at this perspective and not merely through it. That is, Pearce (2007: 1) urges the reader to “develop our ability to identify (critical moments) and act wisely in these moments.” Pearce is convinced that powerful forces are pulling us forward and backward as a species and he invites us to consider some communication abilities – a communication perspective – which might in fact move us upwards.

Pearce (2007) appears keen to look into the future; a future where he apprehends a growing tension across societies between the demands of communication and technology. Pearce (2007) cautions his reader not to follow blindly in the tracks of those who have acted in the name of progress by repeating the same mistakes over and over. Instead, Pearce (2007) states his conviction that real progress comes from a re-positioning towards difference.

Pearce (2007) might be suggesting that progress is often viewed in first-order terms – when, for instance, we ought to be able to recognise a moral dimension (see Lang, Little & Cronen, 1990) which may necessitate a greater, wider sense of urgency. Pearce (2007) leans on Gladwell’s (2000) notion of a ‘tipping-point’ and situates his concern for the adoption of the communication perspective as acting upward progress in terms of upward evolutionary progress.

Pearce’s (2007) retelling of the tragic events of 11th Sept 2001 is poignant and subtle insofar as drawing his readers’ attention to the important background information lacking from most media sources of the time. Pearce (2007) sees these gaps as important mistakes in communicating a story with seemingly little regard paid to how apportioning blame, victimhood and persecution might affect the lives of a great many innocent people with no connection to the disaster save their common cultural identity.

He provides a framework of a different approach as possessing the following characteristics:

• Constructing a richer narrative of the other, ourselves and the historical context
• Constructing a more systemic description of events; beyond the jejune use of misleading binary oppositions, such as ‘us’ and ‘them’ / ‘win’ and ‘lose’ / ‘good and ‘evil’
• Facilitating awareness of implicative and contextual forces and noting responsibility for contributing to the pattern in which we find ourselves; also, noting the opportunities for acting in new, novel ways – not merely reacting in obvious familiar ways.
• Changing the context of ‘ground theory’
• Attending to generative (‘appreciative’) narratives as far more productive than degenerative (‘deficit’) narratives e.g. “Your culture lacks …”, or “Your culture is wrong because …”

Reflection in action: I use this model regularly to track episodes in my work with families.

Stories lived


Stories told

Stories told by clients sometimes exhibit a limitation of vocabulary in the area of description connecting meaning and action. The concept of deontic logic (see von Wright, 1971) produces a heuristic model of the “oughtness” that people may feel within specific moments (or episodes). The combination of this oughtness is termed the “logical force.”

Context 1 (e.g., self-concept)
Context 2 (e.g., relationship)

Context 3 (e.g., episode)

Antecedent act action Consequent act

There are recurrent patterns in communication which may create difficulties. Using CMM theorists have become aware (e.g. Cronen, Johnson & Lannamann, 1982; Cronen, Pearce & Tomm, 1985; Oliver, 2004) of these patterns and developed a number of ways to invite clients to escape them. These patterns include unwanted repetitive patterns (URPs), strange loops, charmed loops, unanticipated consequences and reciprocated diatribes (Pearce 2006).

Cultural story / Relationship story / Identity story

Episodic pattern

Feeling: I feel pressured ≠ I feel relief

Interpretation: I don’t feel confident I feel confident

Action: I should not speak ≠ I can speak freely

Adapted from Oliver (2004) revised strange loop model

Here in the example above the episodic pattern is one of a polarizing defensive pattern which has been termed a ‘strange loop’. The strange loop is a kind of hypothesis or narrative (story) which can take the form of a paradoxical figure-of-eight pattern.

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