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“Do you know what I mean?”: Internal Conversation, Human Relationships and External Speech

I’ve recently blogged about the role which obsessiveness plays in constituting differing modes of reflexivity. To recap: there is no logically necessary end point to deliberations and thus we must all negotiate, in different ways, the need to draw deliberations to a close so as to reach decisions about what to do and then actually do it*Some rely on trusted interlocutors to complete and confirm their tentative decisions. Others act decisively, trusting themselves sufficiently to commit to the conclusions they’ve drawn. Others still will tend towards the perpetuation of rumination, considering alternative answers or different ways of looking at the question. Finally, some will tend towards the growth of distress, as contemplating the question brings them no nearer to an answer while simultaneously intensifying affect. However these are synchronic characteristics of internal conversation. To understand their diachronic formation requires a relational frame of reference which considers the subject’s past history of translating internal conversation into external conversation.

To seek the completion and confirmation of one’s tentative decisions necessitates that those we express our deliberations to are able to understand where we are coming from. Yet the nature of inner speech can often preclude this. Our inner speech is radically contracted with complex sense frequently condensed into single words or conjunctions of words. For instance the word ‘Gaslight’ is richly significant to me as a contraction of the name of my favourite band. It is the focal point of a web of memories, experiences and meanings. Between seeing the band live on countless occasions, listening to them obsessively and sharing my passion in different ways with those close to me, the term is deeply resonant. But outside of my own mind or a few particular friends, the word ‘gaslight’ will likely bring to mind the literal dictionary definition. Internal speech is faster and more economical than external speech partly because of what Archer (2007: 79) describes as this ‘semantic embedding in our biographies’. But our biographies are always intertwined with others. The personalisation which characterises our inner speech** is characterised by a contextual dependency, with our particularism and idiosyncrasy developing in relation to contextual referents. The degree to which these reference points are shared conditions the ease with which subjects find themselves able to articulate their internal conversations to external others:

So many factors are shared by them – common acquaintances, history and biography, unchanging geography, familiarity with the same schools, hospitals, churches, factories, employers, pubs, buildings and a common fund of anecdotes, idioms and local knowledge. These furnish a mental landscape with the same topographical features. Provided that people retain and sustain this ‘contextual continuity’, their communality of landmarks together with their experiential overlap facilitates the sharing of their internal conversations. To use Piaget’s term, ‘decentering’, or the cognitive ability to assume the perspective of each other in external speech, is rendered much easier. Someone’s conversational extensions (the translations of their internal conversations) may be unintentionally ‘egocentric’, as is usual, but the difference here is that their egocentricity also happens to be very similar to that of their interlocutors. (Archer 2007: 84)

This is what Archer means with her concept of ‘similars and familiars’: “they speak in the same way, share the same word meanings, draw upon a commonwealth of references and a common fund of relevant experiences” (Archer 2007: 85). This commonality is a property of the relations between persons. Their biographical intertwinement, which I’d define fuzzily as a recurrent participation in the same social situations***, leads to the ‘converging egocentricity’ invoked by Archer. Contextual continuity is a relational property emergent from processes of biographical intertwinement which tend to generate ‘similarity and familiarity’. This in turn has important developmental consequences:

For a young subject confronted with new decisions (such as school leaving) and seeking to clarify her concerns in life (such as the choice of her first job), her ‘contextual continuity’ represents a major resource. As she internally fumbles through the infinite variations upon the ineluctable questions (‘What matters?’ and ‘What to do about it?’), she receives two gifts if she shares her incomplete reflections with her ‘similars and familiars’ . These gifts are external ‘confirmation’ and ‘completion’ of her internal conversation. Regular acceptance of them make for what I have called a ‘communicative reflexive’: someone whose reflexivity is instantiated through internal conversation, but is not finished until nascent conclusions have been confirmed and completed through external dialogue. (Archer 2007: 85)

In contrast contextual discontinuity is a relational property which emerges from processes of biographical intertwinement which tend to generate dissimilarity and disfamiliarity. Or in other words subjects who have grow up in conditions of contextual discontinuity will tend to lack the ‘similars and familiars’ whom make it much easier to translate internal conversation into external speech. Their biographies have involved particularistic experiences through confronting novel situations and, as a consequence, they lack (to varying degrees) the shared reference points with those they find themselves biographically intertwined with in their day-to-day life. The processes do not operate mechanistically. Communicative reflexivity emerges if and when a subject values the goods they encounter as a consequence of contextual continuity and there are many reasons biographically why they may not do so. Similarly, nascent autonomous reflexives encounter difficulties in translating internal conversations into external ones but they also have to recognise and respond to these difficulties:

For those people who gradually learn that their internal conversations do indeed ‘make sense only to themselves’, this discovery has far-reaching consequences. Attempts at spoken interchange about one’s internal deliberations are rebuffed by incomprehension or misunderstanding. Since renewed efforts to make oneself clear usually involved greater self-revelation, continued failure is doubly hurtful and self-defence consist in withdrawal … And to stop (or possibly never to begin) throws one back on one’s own mental resources. In turn, that makes significant tracts of a person’s internal conversation self-contained and knowingly not for traffic in spoken conversation. (Archer 2007: 86)

*There’s an important issue here about transcultural and transhistorical variability. I’ve pretty convinced by Archer’s argument that there could never be a society without some reflexivity but that this was often truncated, communicative and orientated towards conventionalism. So to say that obsessiveness is a challenge is also to acknowledge that it is one which was easily met for large tracts of human history.  

**I’m also planning to blog on the relationship between ‘thought’, ‘internal speech’ and ‘internal conversation’. Two books on Buddhism I read over the summer were quite thought provoking towards this end, particularly in so far as they reacquainted me with the refined phenomenology of mental events carried within certain Buddhist traditions. In short I want to elaborate upon the idea that thought is associative, internal speech is declarative and internal conversation is dialogical. I increasingly understand mindfulness as a practice of attentiveness in relation to associative thought which has important implications for declarative internal speech and dialogical internal conversation.

***I mean this in Goffman’s sense. There’s a section in my thesis which I might have to cut about this but if I do, I’ll try and develop it into a paper.

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