Foreword to Persons

Peter G. Ossorio

This report calls for more than an ordinary degree of charity and dispassion from the reader. It is, for one thing, neither easy nor pleasant to read. It has not the pin stripe rectitude of academic prose, nor yet the terse virtue of a measured research report. Rather, it bears the mark of its construction piece by piece and with impatience. At best, it may be said that no jury rigging or baling wire is required in order to hold it together, for it is all of a piece. But even that would be of more comfort if it were less of a challenge. It requires some charity because it lacks the promise, which we have come to expect in scientific reports, of presenting something that is true or something "useful" or something that is both. The conceptualization presented here is neither true nor useful. That is not a matter of opinion or evidence, for it could not be either. But then, it needs neither, and so if anything is missing, it is not that. That fact will serve to indicate the magnitude of the change in style of thought required of the reader. Such a change is doubly necessary, since the presentation is supported by neither argument nor evidence (at times, it may be difficult to believe that). But after all, these could support only a claim to truth. Instead, the conceptualization is simply presented and illustrated, and that is taken to be enough to carry the point of its basic relevance for Psychology as an empirical science. Such a procedure is hardly less unprecedented than the conceptualization it goes with, and so of itself it requires a significant change in style of thought in order to deal with it responsibly. An appreciable portion of the readers of the original manuscript (Part One Part Five) have been unable to see that such a shift is called for. They have seen illustrations, examples, and analogies as arguments, or as evidence, or assumptions, or whatever. And they have been enraged, suspicious, perplexed, disdainful, egregious, or simply impolite. It is easy to do that.

The presentation requires dispassion because it is paradoxical. In dealing with it, as in the case of mirror writing, our previously acquired automatisms are most likely to lead us astray. For example, technical terminology is avoided as a matter of practical necessity, and the illustrative procedure is adopted because the subject matter is one we all know, but since it is one we have not thought about in certain ways, what is being said is not something we all know, and so the familiarity of the language is both necessary and misleading. Too, the concern with language, necessity, and human limitations has not uncommonly appeared as a wholesale attempt to define things into or out of existence, to "legislate facts," whereas a major point of that concern is to provide a corrective alternative to what is seen as our present widespread tendency to act as though saying that something is so makes it so (because "words mean what I want them to mean"). Or again, the reflexive character of the conceptualization generates considerable perplexity and suspicion of verbal sleight of hand. The presentation is a delineation of a concept which subsumes (is instantiated by) a delineation of the representation as one which delineates itself. That it is of this sort, however, is one of its most basic features and one which eliminates (rather than solves) some of our most perplexing present problems in formulating explanations of human behavior, for those problems are seen to reflect a verbal sleight of hand, and the method of resolution is to keep everything out in the open. For although the conceptualization which is presented could not itself be true or useful, since in one aspect it represents the general conditions for anything being true or useful, the presentation will be useful if, as now seems possible, it helps to eliminate a variety of problems concerning explanation and research in Psychology and suggest some novel procedures and practices with respect to both (illustrated with a substantive example in Part Two).

The presentation itself must be understood as just that as an action, or performance, associated with a product, rather than as a set of statements. (Analogously, one might think of a teaching device which provides reminders, illustrations, and evaluations and results, if successful, in the acquisition of skills rather than in the accumulation of information.) One of the presented concepts an appreciation of which is most strategic is that of human behavior as participation in some form of activity, or social practice. Both the presentation and the reading of Persons are to be seen in this light. We have heard frequently about the "participant observer," but what we shall need instead is the concept a participant whose observations are already and literally a part of his participation rather than something that goes on surreptitiously (magically) and in addition. And as with observing, so with presenting. Accordingly, the irritation and impatience sometimes expressed in the presentation is expressive rather than merely symptomatic of a bad temper.

But the proper beginning for the presentation is an apology to the reader herewith for requiring so much more than usual, for not waiting until it could be done better, and for the suggestion, with respect to a report of this length, that a single reading might not be enough.