Citation for the published version:
This is the peer reviewed version of the following article: Sandis, C., & Harper, R.
(2018). Wittgenstein and Communication Technology: A conversation between
Richard Harper and Constantine Sandis. Philosophical Investigations, 41(2), which
has been published in final form at https://doi.org/10.1111/phin.12188. This article
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Wittgenstein and Communication Technology - A conversation
between Richard Harper and Constantine Sandis
Final author version - forthcoming in
CS: When Daniele Moyal-Sharrock had the idea that for the BWS's tenth anniversary we should talk about Wittgenstein
in the 21
century we thought we need something on technology and what better than Richard Harper on information
communication technology. Professor Richard Harper has led research groups at Xerox Europarc, as well as Microsoft
Research in Cambridge for many years. He founded and directed the Digital world Research Centre at the University of
Surrey. He is now the co-director for the Institute for Social Futures at Lancaster University. So maybe he could talk about
century as well! He is also a partner in Social Shaping Research which he may tell you about a little later, if you
ask him. You are probably all asking what this has to do with Wittgenstein (or maybe not…) and so I thought I would
begin by asking Richard how he ended up here. With this kind of background, what brings you to our Wittgenstein Society?
Why are you here Richard?
RH: As an undergraduate in the late Seventies, I did sociology, amongst other courses, at Manchester
University and there we were introduced to Wittgenstein. His philosophy was viewed as an integral part
of understanding social science. Winch in particular was our mode of introduction to his philosophy - in
his The Idea of a Social Science. There was a main course for every social scientist which was called Mind and
Society taught by Professors Wes Sharrock and John Lee; some of you here have will have met them. They
are sociologists and were interested in Wittgenstein and Winch for two or three reasons: one to do with
the possibility that one would need to be careful in the categories used to explain things in the social
sciences. The temptation in sociology particularly (as in all the social sciences) is to be hijacked by
categories and Wes and John taught us to be very sensitive to the need to be adroit in the use of
categories – not just how you label social types but how you understand social actions, you know, the way
you describe them, the categories that pertain. And they thought that particularly some of the arguments
on the history of religion, which was very pertinent to sociology, which Wittgenstein had explored in
some of his work and which Winch also explored, suggested that you need to be especially careful about
explanation of human conduct when the thing about that conduct is, if you like, rather precise, rather
particular idea, to do with a bunch of ideas, ideas with particular shapes and relations to action. Going to
a church is not just something done for habit, it fosters a feeling in the body that allows a willingness to
touch god, that was one of the examples of the sort of careful, precise set of relations to actions and ideas
in society we were warned to look out for. Wittgenstein’s remarks on the mind, mindfulness and ‘mind in
action’, were very encouraging to sociologists, we were taught, because it suggested that perhaps mind can
be thought of as a socially organised phenomena made relevant in action, or made irrelevant in social
organisations, in such a way that some things about the mind became private, some other things public in
socially demonstrative ways. Essentially the phenomenon, ‘the mind’, was something society arranged and
was manifested in language use and that is social use. Language is society in this view, part of what makes
it. Hence it could become a topic in sociology – mind and society.
We were also taught that Winch offered the most explosive argument of all about social explanation and
theory – in his claim that descriptions and explanations of human conduct could be - are - internal to one
another. So, to properly describe an action is to describe it in terms which make sense to the parties
involved (putting it simply), and this really begged the issue of what sociological explanation would
become since hitherto – before Winch - sociological explanation had been governed by the principle that
sociologists know better than those they study, the hoy polloi, the geyser on the street, well women too.
The people we were looking at were fools, in this traditional view, subject to ideological trappings and
such. We sociologists were in ivory towers, on elegant seats and, through our judicious reading and our
pre-Wittgensteinian philosophies, knew better than the hoy polloi. We could tell them how social
structures governed their lives, what they thought, did. But then what we found with Winch was
someone saying perhaps we need to understand the hoy polloi from their own perspective; that
understanding how they do their world would be in terms that’s relevant to them since it was those terms
that gave that world its sense.
Now this contagion of possibilities – this new view - was wonderfully encapsulated by an extremely
difficult person and an extremely difficult sociological writer call Harold Garfinkel. Harold Garfinkel was
not a Wittgenstein reader, in fact there is no evidence to suggest he ever deigned to lower himself to read
Wittgenstein. But what he did have was a genius to realise, in his own research in the 1950s and 1960s,
that talk seems to be integral to action and to understand language categories in talk you needed to
understand the action in question. This was emphatically what we were taught in Mind and Society. This is
what we were taught Wittgenstein argued, though Wittgenstein wasn’t too interested in empirical topics,
not sociological ones like Garfinkel. In any case, if you want to understand the action in question,
according to Garfinkel, then you need to understand the talk; the two went hand-in-hand. And what that
meant is that if you are going to do sociology, if you are going to do field work, say, like an
anthropologist, don’t just go and look at the social structure as it were, don’t look at power, gender,
organisation processes (leaving aside how you might do that), look at talk, loo at talk in the workplace say
and then see how those things, like power, whatever, are manifest through talk. And through the talk in
the things people do.
Now that’s not the only way you can do in sociology. Because even after Garfinkel, it still makes sense
to, in sociology, ignore talk and you can, perfectly reasonably, treat the world as populated by agents who
don’t tell their stories and look at the world that way. You know, various forms of statistical approaches
don’t need talk to make interesting observations about social patterns – dynamics in income for example.
Yes you can actually produce very interesting research that way but we were taught another view - and
that is to say, No, don’t do that, instead look at talk as part of the agency of those you are studying. and
that led me to do my PhD. I looked at chartered accountancy, at the work of auditors in a company called
Arthur Anderson, gone now, of course, and what people talked about in their work. How talk was part of
their work with numbers. Shall I say more about that?
CS: Yes, why not. And maybe say something about doing things
Wittgenstein rather than commenting on
Wittgenstein, which you alluded to with Garfinkel. And what that means.
RH: Oh, okay, so listen. I have heard two or three really great talks today. One of the things about Peter
Hacker’s talk this morning, is that he showed, which I showed in my PhD, and what I try to teach to my
PhDs, and undergraduates, about social organisation, about people interacting together, is that when
they talk, when they interact, when they do these things, that is to say when they talk, they do it
praxiologically, yes, in time, but they also do it collaboratively, they do it procedurally with each other,
they learn about how to do ‘talk things’ together. What I mean is, that talk is not just part of action, as
Wittgenstein would say, but talk is done collaboratively, this sounds daft because it’s so obvious, but what
I mean is that language use is essentially a sociological phenomenon, not a cognitive one, or even a
philosophical one, not in the way I am meaning. Eh, what do I mean? So, even now, I can look in wonder
at the still faces in front of me – here and now – and see that those still faces, the audience’s faces, are
showing a willingness to listen to me. It’s very flattering. So my point is not that, the flattering, it's that
we are doing this collaboratively, this lecture conversation thing, so that also happens when people do
anything together, when they are talking, say, using language, they do it together, and if they are doing it
together then one wants to go and look at how they do it together. One doesn’t want to look at language
use from one person’s point of view, you need to look at action with words as, em, joint action.
CS: Aren't there any exceptions?
RH: So let me get back on my thread. I was thinking, earlier, why is this being presented to a group of
Wittgensteinians as a possibility – you know that language is a joint enterprise? Surely they will have read
Harold Garfinkel, surely they will have read ethnomethodological studies done in his name, which are all
about the procedural arrangements of talk and language in action, about how the mind, for example, is
made manifest in terms of talk, manifest in things people do together, in the dance of mums and babies
and they way they sing to each other in their ums and arrs, in fathers and sons and how they challenge
and mock, in those interactions which are praxiological though time. First this then that, in sequences of
In my research that has often been the key topic that I have been interested in, given that’s how you
should understand social action and how it’s organised, given that it has a procedural form, a
collaborative affair in language, given that you are disciplined by a desire not to be tempted by irrelevant
categorisation, given that you are also disciplined by a desire not to allow mysterious categories to help
explain things other than the categories that are intrinsic, internal to the setting, namely, talk, turns, chat,
being together in words.
So, then what do you come up with? I mean, if this is your view? Now what you come up with are often
fairly sort of prosaic things. To run ahead, when I first went to work at Microsoft Research, they were