Persons as Socio-Semiotic Subjects.
Semiotic Subjectivity III.
Presentation of Observations on Transaction

Third Lecture by Dr. Gerhard GELBMANN, guest researcher at the WAB,
held at the HIT Centre, 30th August 2002, 15:00-16:30

The purpose of this lecture is, firstly, to briefly present the recently published book

Observations on Transaction. A Discussion of Watzlawick’s Second Axiom,
European University Studies: Ser. 20, Philosophy, Vol.645. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang

I am not going to give a whole summary of the book which is, by the way, quite short (150 pages), compared to my doctoral dissertation (over 800 pages), which was written on the subject of the Pragmatic Theory of Communication (henceforward: PTC). Instead I will present some points of view I take in this book, some of them linked to WITTGENSTEIN's philosophy, but mainly derived from the work of Gregory BATESON, Paul WATZLAWICK and also Humberto MATURANA.0  I shall do so by partly quoting passages from my own book.

The frame of my presentation is the theme of "Semiotic Subjectivity" as already addressed in my former two lectures on "Pragmatics and the Conceptual Constitutivity of the Social (contra Hintikka and Luntley). Semiotic Subjectivity I" and on "An Outline of Pragmatologic Model-Theory (sec. Stachowiak). Semiotic Subjectivity II".1

1. the Second Axiom of PTC

The Second of Five Axioms of PTC proposed by WATZLAWICK et al. states:

"Every communication has a content and a relationship aspect such that the latter classifies the former and is therefore a metacommunication." (Watzlawick & Beavin & Jackson 1967: 54)

Watzlawick et al. should have used the word "metainformation" instead of "metacommunication", if I am allowed to suggest a reformulation. A few paragraphs before the quoted passage WATZLAWICK et al. use the terms "metainformation" and "information" in referring to "relationship aspect" and "content aspect".  This is a much better terminology. Unfortunately the sub-heading in Watzlawick & Beavin & Jackson 1967: 51 titles "The Content and Relationship Levels of Communication". The term "level" should be substituted with "aspect", in my opinion, just for the sake of perspicuity (there are passages in my book which deal more thoroughly with the concept of "aspect", something I do not want to go into here).

From my reading, what they mean in the quoted passage is "metainformation" (a term they employ themselves), viz. the aspect of communication that does not propositionally refer to constellations of things or to states of affairs, but that refers in a sort of illocutionary or perlocutionary or better: transactional manner to the relationship between two (or more) persons, to what they feel or are for each other, to the way they behave towards each other, to the situation and development of their relationship, to their communication(s) of their idea(s) about their relationship within this relationship. Metainformation is easily connected to personal qualifications or disqualifications since by its transactional function of referring to the relationship we have to other persons, we easily and sometimes unconsciously, often without noticing or intending to do so, give expression to our evaluation and estimation, contempt or dislikes towards others (cf. inf.).2

This metainformative aspect is informative about what relevance the propositional content of the content aspect has for the relationship, what influence it has on the relationship, how it should be interpreted in the light of the relationship. In the long run, the whole of transactions as composed of a certain form of metainformation constitutes the quality of a relationship and how the mutual other experiences it.-

The Second Axiom of PTC states a difference which makes a difference,3 viz. the difference between content-aspect and relationship-aspect. The latter is the field where transactions take place.

2. the term "transaction"

Not every metainformation is metacommunicative since not every metainformation as informative about a relationship between human beings communicates (about) the communication between these human beings, but, I dare say, every transaction is metainformative: It not only gives information in the sense of depicting and displaying data, of giving an account or a report, but every transaction also instructs how this information and its constitution shall/can/might/should/must or may (not) be used; by this it reflects the relationship, has a feedback on it and on its communication.

A famous example by Colin CHERRY is:

"Do you think that one will do" (Cherry 1961: 120 sec. Watzlawick & Beavin & Jackson 1967: 53; I left out the question mark on purpose, G.G.)

Depending on how this question is uttered, what words are stressed, how intonation is set into action (by a native speaker or a foreigner), in what context it is raised, if it really is put as a question and not as a rhetorical remark, the understanding of the content changes  -  and lots of different transactions could be imagined, ranging from doubt about the other person's abilities over clarifying what the other's attitudes are to disagreement in judging the situation ... How the metainformation works, determines how the message of this uttering is comprehended. Let me assure you that the metainformation as the encoded transactional aspect is not completely in the power of the communicant, since for every encoding there is already a common ground required, some form of basic agreement of institutional capacity. (I ran quite often into misunderstandings when talking with Norwegians and taking their melodious voices as friendliness, when in fact these intonations in Scandinavian languages often do not encode transactions but just linguistic discriminations and so-called "tonemer".)

"Transaction" is a concept of reflection on mutuality, it features the reciprocity of communication. I would call "transaction" a (class of) performances that let(s) emerge the (interpersonal) social situation. Via transactions we catch the outcome of the interwovenness of mutual assumptions accompanying our communications, what could be expressed as:

"This is how I see myself ... this is how I see you ... this is how I see you seeing me ..." (Watzlawick & Beavin & Jackson 1967: 52)

We can enhance this row of assuming with "... this is how I see you seeing me seeing you ... ", and theoretically, but not practically, this chain of mutual assumptions could be endless ... (so the three dots, "...", before and after each assumption are essential).

Transaction is an action that transcends the actors involved and reaches into a realm of mutuality, where the system as constituted by the relationships between the communicants becomes an entity of its own. Transactions alter those concerned by them in their relationship to each other. Transactions depend on attitudes and on the personal investment of abilities and interest in a relationship, but also affect one's behaviour and manners in a social context, yet are even partly encoded in socially regulated conduct. (But deviations of such institutions can have a transactional effect, too!)-

Other and more sociological understandings of the term "transaction" are discussed by e.g. Niklas LUHMANN: He sees transactions in a two-fold understanding:

(A) as either a certain sort of interactions which react to the differences in value(s) between the participants (he primarily cites "exchange and conflict"),
or he perceives them
(B) under the semantic aspect of an anticipation of acceptance or refusal of communication.
(A) belongs to a classic Theory of Transactions, (B) to a Theory of Media-Communication.4 Neither (A) nor (B) have anything to do with an Interpersonal Theory of Communication, which is just what PTC represents!

In fact, in any practical and real social system the aspect of media-communication and the aspect of value-differences are always already integrated, namely in the metainformative (transactional) communication, i.e. in direct or indirect, implicit or explicit communication about the relationship(s) which constitute this social system! Hence the understanding of "transaction" within the frame of PTC or within my reconstruction of PTC is fundamental, and the terms (A) and (B) are just derivations from it: Differences in values as well as the anticipation of acceptance or refusal of communication affect the modes of transactions.

3. against reductionist fallacies and idealisations

Several times in my book I take strong positions against what I call "reductionist fallacies" or "reductionisms". First let me explain what I understand under "reductionism":5

A reductionism mixes up the two-place-predicate
" … is identical with … " (or "... can be identified as ...", etc.)
with the two-place-predicate
" … is based upon … " (or "... is grounded on ...", etc.),
or vice versa (what is perhaps the more frequent and even more deplorable case).
I have reductionisms like the following in mind:
"”communication being based upon language“ is the same as ”communication being identical with language“"
or even:
"”communication being based upon language“ comes up to ”communication is (nothing but) language“"

I also think of confusions like mixing up

"communication is successful if leading to understanding"
"communication is (nothing but) mutual understanding".6
Such fallacies are, in my point of view, an indication of ideological attitudes, or at least (to avoid catchwords) a too narrow approach, narrowed by what their representatives want communication to be. (This clearly goes against Jürgen HABERMAS and the discourse-ethical concept of communication with a strong background in the social philosophy of the "Frankfurter Schule".)

Another stance I take is that against idealisations: HABERMAS’ concept of the human communicant as autonomous subject (sensu Immanuel KANT) is an idealisation in the sense of: far from real. A Theory of Interpersonal Communication like PTC clearly is not normative in this understanding, and it does not involve idealisations of its subjects, i.e. of the communicants (or "actors", to speak in Habermasian terms). In the contrary, PTC as a pragmatic theory takes the communicants as socio-semiotic subjects. My understanding of the practical effect of socio-semiotic subjectivity as a concept of personhood can best be elucidated by looking at the PTC's understanding of manipulation (in/through/by communciation) and influence (in/through/by communication). The notion of socio-semiotic subjectivity has its foundation in the background of system-theory as an integral part of PTC: A person (communicant) as an element in a social system can in all its behaviour never be apart from the communications this system consists in, unless leaving the system itself (and thus entering a new and different system).

As WATZLAWICK et al. state themselves, one cannot not influence,7 a statement8 which does not allow for the conclusion that manipulation of any sort is justified and O. K., although manipulation of the other person (and not of the semantic information or content of a message) is inevitable, since communication is under the pragmatic aspect always the influence of signs on persons and all behaviour is communicative in the presence of others observing it. A socio-semiotic subject is an observed observer (terminus sec. MATURANA and  Heinz von FOERSTER9).

Often we influence others without knowing or intending it, and this is not bad or wrong! Of course, through and by communication we can probably, but need not, manipulate our other in such a way that s/he commits, e. g., a crime. But we can as well manipulate the other in order to help him/her, to make him/her feel better. (This latter point is, of course, eminently important for the psychiatric side of PTC, which also, but not exclusively, has the aspect of being a communicational theory of therapy.)

I will now, for the sake of rhetoric, walk a bit along the lines of an argumentum ad hominem:

Do analytic philosophers never tell jokes?  Does HABERMAS never tell fairy tales to a child in order to send him/her to a sound sleep? Do we never whisper some toy-stories or endearments into an ear of a person we are in love with? Is the analytic philosopher that isolated, a not analysable and almost solipsist-like element of social life s/he does not participate in, except through linguistic acts with the pure intention of understanding? I just can’t believe this!

I do indeed think that analytic philosophers are participating in social life. They are influenced by others and influence others by and through communication, just like anybody else (at least those who are sane). Lots of what human beings as such (philosophers included) say, is not so much expressed with the intention to understand or to be understood or to be understandable, but just to give expression to their thoughts and ideas, to their feelings, dreams, hopes, etc.!

If the others we communicate with were only (mute) stones, we might maintain that by talking to them we wouldn’t manipulate them, regardless what and how we are communicating to/with them. But (without attempting or performing an argumentum ad hominem again) we in/voluntarily influence the other by the way we communicate with each other, and the other influence(s) us. In referring to this fact through transactions, in manipulating the other by transactions, we do (normally) not commit crimes!

The terms "manipulation" or "influence" ought not be read at a semantic level alone! If I communicate with you, I influence/manipulate you, e.g. to do something or to leave something undone. As the author I influence your thoughts, probably your taste, or at least your stream of consciousness. This is not the same as if I would tell you a lie or change the meaning of a message I should deliver to you, or if I make you do something in my own interest. Relationships can also (but must not exclusively) be seen under the pragmatic aspect of manipulation/influence!10

Relevant here is not if the informational content of a message was changed, but what effect a communication has on the other and on a relationship. And this question has to be settled at a transactional level. Transactions are tightly knitted to forms of relationship(s).11    Pragmatically speaking in predominantly complementary relationships of authoritarian character, i.e. relationships with a one-sided distribution of power, the dominant part will almost always prefer to understand "manipulation" and "influence" exclusively under the semantic aspect because this is the best means of preventing and suppressing any opposition which wants to draw the attention to the pragmatic aspect of manipulation / influence as actually going on in this very relationship by stabilising the un-equal distribution of power.

4. Wittgenstein's role

Ludwig WITTGENSTEIN's philosophy does not have any explicit or even foundational role in the thinking of BATESON, WATZLAWICK et al. Nevertheless certain traces and parallels can be found, as I explained in an article (which is said or promised to appear soon).12 In the following  save me quoting WITTGENSTEIN extensively, most of what I say refers to what is known from positions he takes in the "Philosophical Investigations".

I would like to use WITTGENSTEIN as a shield to defend PTC against certain forms of idealisations and analytical attitudes which depict a danger if applied to theorising about interpersonal communication. I mean the concept "Ordinary Language" as taken over into something like "Ordinary Communication". This would indeed be like having come upon frictionless glazed frost: Despite the conditions being ideal we cannot walk since we need the friction of the ground to be able to move, as WITTGENSTEIN expressed it in one of his splendid metaphors.13 I do not intend to bring a spider's web into order with my bare fingers.14

Approaches like Ordinary Language Philosophy

(1) are prone to claim an ideal language or even an ideal communication as needed to avoid the vagueness and vacuity of language, viz. communication via meaningful (linguistic) expressions, in other words: that vagueness is bad and that an ideal/ordinary language serves best the goal of communicating because then understanding is guaranteed;

(2) tend to reduce communication to language, which reminds us of the already mentioned reductionist fallacy;

(3) are susceptible to serve inner-philosophical and meta-philosophical purposes and controversies, which do not interest us here: Philosophy of Language is full of such controversies, recall how Wilhelm von HUMBOLDT’s revolutionary approach to seeing language as energeia and not as ergon contrasts with the approach of Rudolf CARNAP.

Ad (1) let me draw your valuable attention  to the observation that from postulating the existence of ideal communication (e.g. in HABERMAS' sense of "oriented towards mutual understanding"15) it is not far from demanding a perfect, ideal or universal language or a natural organisation of communication which is in practice more or less distorted or infringed. Real acts of communication evidently hardly ever make use of such a hypothesised language or of discourse-ethically standardised actions. And that is good so!

Ad (2) I want to explain that most of the time communication here is thought of as pure verbal communication or as communication with only irrelevant non-verbal and unimportant paralinguistic factors, what I regard as wholly wrong. We human beings express ourselves, our feelings, our social life, our culture not only in language, but also in art and music, in gestures, colours, clothing, tones and tunes of voices, speed of speaking, in behaviour of several sort, range and kind. I ask myself under which aspect communication would by exhausted by the concept "language", and this aspect is, indeed, only a very narrow linguistic one. Hence I refute the linguamorph character of communication. Language cannot be reduced to communication as well as communication cannot be reduced to language, even though language is (or can be) a case a of communication.

Ad (3) I have wondered myself all the years I have been busy with philosophising about communication and Semiotics, why analytic philosophy has not dealt as thoroughly and lengthy with "communication" as it has with "language" or "discourse". My hypothesis is that language can easily be cut into analysable parts and seen as structured and analysable whereas communication is a complex and always synthetic process, dynamic and capable of using almost any object and feature for its significations, codifications, manipulations. Communication is seldom or never dealing with original or fundamental elements and is always forming and construing something else and other in its actualisations and realisations. It is easy to think about language and difficult to think about communication.

Furthermore let me remark that it is an easy, nevertheless rhetorical trick to call one’s position being "based upon ordinary language use" or "derived from common sense". This fools people about the mere and unfounded claim to some indubitable reality, as being justified per se. The point is that fancying the justifying existence of a common sense or ordinary language is either an idealisation (and hence a product known to belong to our more or less methodically working phantasy) or just a humbug in all cases where one should empirically investigate how people really do talk with each other, how relationships really develop within their communications and how people refer to their communication.

Imputing that one’s opinion is common sense or one’s understanding is backed by ordinary language shoves the duty for argumentative reasoning on any potential critic: Since such an imputation seems to give sound reasons, those who do not share such a corpse of beliefs have to articulate good reasons which always can be pinned down as "not explicit enough" or as "starting from unexplained assumptions", as "using undefined terms", etc.

This imputation works like justifying the claim of a throne by the Grace of God: Everybody who does not share the belief in God’s Grace and in the righteous instrumentalisation of a religious doctrine is threatened with excommunication. But the sovereignty of any treatment of philosophical problems cannot be derived from some unshakeable basis of beliefs which is merely imputed as being commonly shared! Claiming common ground is not the same as justification! Hence I just don’t think that research on communication should rest on conceptions by the Grace of Ordinary Language.

I tend to emphasise that there is no ideal communication and no ordinary language. I doubt that the term "ordinary communication" is of any value (unless serving as a rather badly chosen synonym for "actual (natural) language", a term WITTGENSTEIN uses whereas he never used the term "ordinary language" [correction by G.G. on the evening of August 31st 2002: As Ludovic SOUTIF has pointed out to me in personal conversation, WITTGENSTEIN uses the term "ordinary language" quite often and even in English, e.g. in the "Blue Book", so my contention was wrong and that's why I crossed it out; but this does not at all alter my position, maintained in my book op. cit., that WITTGENSTEIN did not want to establish an ideal of ordinary language or any ideal language, at least not the post-tractarian WITTGENSTEIN, and Ludovic SOUTIF goes along with me in this point]). I want to get rid of not only the idealisation of an "ideal language",  but also of the hidden idealisation that the study of everyday language or ordinary language accounts for an explanation of what communication is, in everyday life or not, in common or in unusual situations. Of course, we can philosophise by using everyday language, as ARISTOTLE or WITTGENSTEIN did,  but not because there is an ordinary language or a common-sense-consensus about it: I at least would then be a dissident of this consensus.

I furthermore do not want to attack WITTGENSTEIN, who seems to be worshipped as the saint of modern philosophy. Although WITTGENSTEIN does not deserve to be regarded as sacrosanct, it should be noticed that his notion of language game was flexible enough not to be automatically integrated into an idealisation of language or even of communication.16

In one of his well-painted metaphorical pictures WITTGENSTEIN calls grammar the business-balances of language ("Geschäftsbücher der Sprache"), book-keeping insights into everything what does not concern accompanying sensations ("begleitende Empfindungen") but the actual transactions of language ("die tatsächlichen Transaktionen der Sprache"). The German word "Transaktion" is here a well-fitting, conclusive metaphor, paralleling WITTGENSTEIN’s talk about the book-keeping of grammar.17 Just as grammar is like a report about the business of language, the "transactions" entered into these "business-books" are the language games of which language itself consists to keep balance with their grammar. I think that the metaphor "transaction" is not arbitrarily or accidentally chosen. It fits.

There is a good reason for using this word in this context since the transactions of language are related to the (deep)grammatical relations between the behaviour of people and their feelings (and sensations), between ways of expression and the forms of life. What goes beyond the actions of a person are these fundamental relations. And these relations are performed through what I called "transactions".--

Thanks for the patience and attention.



0 I chiefly refer here to the Pragmatic Theory of Communication (in short: PTC) by Watzlawick & Beavin & Jackson 1967, partly anticipated by Ruesch & Bateson 1951, Bateson & Jackson & Haley & Weakland 1956 and Watzlawick & Beavin 1966/67.- MATURANA's observer-ontology is the background of my book, cf. Maturana 1982, Maturana & Varela 1987, Maturana 1988a, Maturana 1988b.- (back)-

1 Cf. (back)-

2 Cf. Sluzki & Beavin & Tarnopolski & Verón 1966. (back)-

3 Cf. e.g. Bateson 1990: 272 et 315 or Bateson & Rieber 1989: 327ff. (back)-

4 Cf. Luhmann 1996: 206f. (back)-

5 I regard a reductionist fallacy as a logical fallacy. (back)-

6 This last example can be blamed on Jürgen HABERMAS and Gerhard SATKE, who refers to HABERMAS (cf. Habermas 1971, Habermas 1984, J. Habermas 1992, Satke 1995). My main point against Habermasians and discourse-ethics is that we can prescribe norms for discourse in the sense of HABERMAS, but then we do not describe communication as it is but try to organise it or at least attempt to formulate principles for how it should be. (back)-

7 This statement resembles the first axiom of PTC, famously stating that within the presence of others, by any behaviour whatever "one cannot not communicate". (back)-

8 Cf. Watzlawick 1993: 11, Marc & Picard 1991: 262ff. or Giorgio Nardone 2001. (back)-

9 Cf. Maturana 1982, Foerster 1982, Maturana & Varela 1987, Maturana 1988a, Maturana 1988b, Foerster 1993, Foerster 1999, Foerster & Glasersfeld 1999. (back)-

10 I do not want to say and have indeed not said that in every relationship one wants to misinform the other or wants to manipulate or influence the other. (back)-

11Cf. the Fifth Axiom of PTC in Watzlawick & Beavin & Jackson 1967: 67ff., anticipated by i.a. Sluzki & Beavin 1965 and BATESON's anthropological term of "schismogenesis" in i.a. Bateson 1935 and Bateson 1936. See also Watzlawick 1975. (back)-

12 Cf. Gelbmann 2001. (back)-

13Cf. "Philosophical Investigations" I, §107, Wittgenstein 1953: 46 (Wittgenstein 1984a: 297). (back)-

14Cf. "Philosophical Investigations" I, §106, Wittgenstein 1953: 46 (Wittgenstein 1984a: 297). (back)-

15Cf. sup. footnote 6. (back)-

16 An article by Anat BILETZKI asks whether language games are speech acts or vice versa (cf. Biletzki 1997), and she senses a family-resemblance between these terms. For me, the answer is that speech acts are performed within language games, but that not every language game is realised in a speech act. (back)-

17Cf. "Philosophische Grammatik" I, III, §44 in Wittgenstein 1984b: 87; "Big Typescript" TS 213: 58. (back)-



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