Rom Harré
The dust-cover to Harré’s book provides a
succinct rationale for its relevance to this
module:In this book, Rom Harré explores the radical thesis that most of
our personal being may be of social origin. Consciousness,
agency, and autobiography are the three unities which make up
our personal being. Their origin in childhood development and
their differences in different cultures are explored.
Nevertheless, despite the overwhelming influence of social
environment on mental structure, individual identity is a central
facet of Western culture. How is the formation of such identity
possible? Rom Harré ends with the suggestion that personal
identity derives from the complementary powers of human
beings both to display themselves socially as unique and to
create novel linguistic forms making individual thought and
feeling possible.
In other words, Harré is a social
constructivist, and of the psychologists that
you are most likely to study in other parts
of your course, his ideas are closest to
those of Lev Vygotsky.
What is unique about Harré’s theorising is
that it attempts to address the nature of
personal identity, and does so within a
framework of moral thinking about social
agency and social responsibility.
Harré divides our experience into two basic
components which although related to one
another are not of the same kind.
His ‘Primary Structure’ is our material and social world in
which embodied ‘persons’ act and communicate with one
another. Each person is a unique embodiment existing in
a specific space/time location, and in this place constitutes
a unique source of agency, including communication, i.e.,
each person has an identity, a biography, and a capacity to
His ‘Secondary Structure’ derives from this. It is the
structure of language which confers on each speaker an
implicit theory of reflective selfhood. In each society, a
communal language impose a theory of what a self is,
what it can do, and in particular, what it is responsible for.
One might summarise this theory in the following
Our lived experience is constructed from
language, and our language is constructed
from our forms of life.
However, there are various ways in which one must be prepared to
modify these apparently direct linkages. Although a mode of life may
change, the common language may be slow to develop an appropriate
discourse because of other constraints – perhaps a former vegetarian
tribe now has to survive by meat-eating, but its religious and even
legal structures remain built upon the assumption of universal
vegetarianism for a long time because of the property laws that had
previously been developed. Similarly, although new psychological
understandings may indicate severe limits to the assumption of
universal rationality, that society’s legal system may have developed
around the assumption of absolute rationality and absolute moral
responsibility, making any relaxation in the ideas of criminal
culpability hard to tolerate.
Which is all to say that one must anticipate inertia
and constraint operating between the three layers:
reality, the language that represents it, and the
modes of life that require and maintain the
particular forms of language existing within a
particular society.
This state of affairs makes a study of isolation and solitude
particularly intriguing. In the case of isolation one deals
with a person who for one reason or another has become
separated from normal modes of life. As a consequence,
their common language begins to seem empty and
meaningless. In the case of solitude the individual
voluntarily absents themselves from normal modes of life in
order to begin a new one that is usually simpler than before.
By doing so they hope to formulate a modification of their
common language - one that is ‘purer’, more ‘truthful’, etc.
So much for my overview, which you
may use as a guide but should not
quote in your assignment. What
follows is a set of slides containing a
selection of direct quotes and
diagrams taken from Harre’s book
which you can select from for your
first assignment if you want to.
Harré starts by explaining his perspective on theoretical
psychology, but remember, the book was published in
In his view there are two ‘images’ of human psychology:‘men, women, and children are high-grade automata, the pattern of
whose behaviour are thought to obey something very like natural
laws. … It is assumed that there are programmes which control
action and the task of psychology is to discover the ‘mechanisms’ by
which they are implemented’ (p. 4).
On the other hand, ‘Lay folk, clinical psychologists, lawyers,
historians and all those who have to deal in a practical way with
human beings tend to think of people as agents struggling to maintain
some sort of reasoned order in their lives against a background flux
of emotions, inadequate information, and the ever-present tides of
social pressures’ (p. 4).
Re-statement of his perspective (from p. 8):
‘Contemporary psychology is made up of two antithetical
strands. First, there is the thoroughgoing individualism of
the cognitivists who conceive of human action as the
product of individual mental processes.’ (He identifies,
Freud, Piaget, and Dennett in this strand.) Secondly, there
is the collectivism of the social constructivists, who
conceive of human action as the joint intentional actions of
minded creatures whose minds are structured and stocked
from a social and interpersonal reality.’ (He identifies
Wittgenstein, Vygotsky, and Mead.)
Both of these present particular theoretical
difficulties, and although we have decided to call
Harré a social constructivist, he does claims that
his theory manages to overcome most of these.
Harré offers these critiques:‘For individualists, the deepest problem is how intersubjectivity is
possible and their great philosophical problem is that of our knowledge
of other minds; for collectivists, the deepest problem is how
individuality is created and sustained in so thoroughly social a world.
For the former, individual being is given and social being constructed;
while for the latter, collective being is given and personal being is an
achievement’ (p. 8).
On the Cartesian distinction between subjective and
objective experience
According to Harré, this involves running together two distinctions. To
describe an experience as subjective may mean that it is recognised
from a particular point of view (conceptual, moral, perceptual)
currently entertained by a person, but it may also mean ‘within one
consciousness’, i.e., a ‘self’. The latter cannot be shared, conceptually,
but the former can. Disregarding these distinctions leads to statements
to the effect that points of view are ‘embedded in individuals’ and
therefore renders them beyond the understanding of others.
According to Harré, then, if Cartesianism is adopted
psychology becomes both speculative and individualistic.
Before the widespread adoption of information-processing
models the subjectivity of individual experience in this
muddled sense led either to phenomenological meditation
or to behaviourism, but even when information-processing
ideas were introduced the muddle remained. These
computational ideas derive from automata studies and are
simply assumed to apply to traditional subjective
individualism (see Boden, M. (1996) Artificial Intelligence
London: Academic Press).
In Harré’s view, then, the default position should be instead
that reference to modes of reasoning and systems of belief
are retained unless a special reason can be given for the
adoption of an approach that assumes people are automata.
So, Harré’s argument is that if there is to be a
psychology in which we can still recognise and
represent personal being, personal powers, and
person-centred attributes, the transition from
culturally specific common understandings to this
new science of thought and feeling must preserve
these aspects of being a person.
In other words, if we feel the need for a special
kind of explanation for the experiences of
isolation or solitude, collapsing back onto
untheorised notions of ‘brain-washing’ will not do.
We either have to incorporate these experiences
within our new science of thought, or else make a
strong theoretical case for these experiences
being such as to turn individuals into automata.
This leads Harré to identify three ‘personal unities’ that
come from our common language and which must feature
in his new science of psychology: consciousness, agency,
and identity. He indicates that most psychological theories
fail to conserve these three in their scientific discourses,
and therefore describes them collectively as ‘subpersonal’
psychologies (is this true of Vygotsky, Piaget, or Freud?).
This loss of common psychological understandings from
theory is nothing new, and Harré gives three examples:
Medieval morality plays, Freudian psychodynamics, and
Cognitive psychology. The first turns psychological
attributes, such as anger and envy, into ‘actors’ within a
play competing for domination of Everyman’s actions; the
second turns them into mental ‘forces’ battling for control
of the ego; and the third turns them into mind modules
which have a greater or lesser propensity to be switched
on or off by certain environmental cues.
The Social Foundations of Mind
‘For me, a person is not a natural object, but a cultural artefact.’
Harré’s theory proposes:
‘A person is a being who has learned a theory, in terms of which his or
her experience is ordered. I believe that persons are characterised
neither by their having a characteristic kind of experience nor by some
specific genetic endowment. They can be identified neither
phenomenologically nor biologically, but only by the character of their
There are two primary realities in human life: the array of persons and the
network of their symbiotic interactions, the most important of which is
talk. I begin with the presumption that privatization and personalization of
part of that network is thought. These realities are irreducible to one
another, but each is the necessary condition for the possibility of the
other. The network of symbiotic interactions appears to people in the
form of two secondary realities; these are the social systems of material
production, and of the creation and maintenance of honour and value, both
of which are mediated by meanings and stabilized by ritual.’ (pp. 20-21).
Harré’s new psychology: the Social Foundations of Mind (pp.
20 - 24).
‘The fundamental human reality is a conversation, effectively without
beginning or end, to which, from time to time, individuals may make
contributions. All that is personal in our mental and emotional lives is
individually appropriated from the conversation going on around us and
perhaps idiosyncratically transformed. The structure of our thinking and
feeling will reflect, in various ways, the form and content of this
conversation. The main thesis of this work is that mind is no sort of
entity, but a system of beliefs structured by a cluster of grammatical
models. The science of psychology must be re-shaped accordingly.’ (p.
‘I hope to show that not only are the acts we as individuals perform and
the interpretations we create of the social and physical world prefigured
in collective actions and social representations, but also that the very
structure of our minds (and perhaps the fact that we have minds at all) is
drawn from those social representations. At the centre of the argument
will be a treatment of the three central aspects of human psychology,
consciousness, agency and identity, and above all their reflexive forms,
self-consciousness, self-mastery, and autobiography.’ (p. 20).
Harré believes that the ‘intimate structure of our personal
being’ has its source in a ‘socially sustained and
collectively imposed cluster of theories’ (both quotes, p.
21), and this leads him to make this comment on early child
‘It has been shown that from their earliest moments infants make
demands upon their mothers and other caretakers that provoke the
very talk and action from the mother that promotes the kind of
development towards personal being implicit in the viewpoint here
expounded. If my general thesis is right, each level of sophistication of
public – collective activity in which a developing person joins is
prepared for, not by a maturing natural endowment, but by the previous
level of that interpersonal, public and collective activity. The infant’s
apparently native contributions are already emerging from the
personalization of the social structure within which it is being
established. The outcome of contemporary studies of how
development proceeds is a highly socialized theory of maturation, but
in my view it is not yet socialized enough.’ (pp. 21-22)

PowerPoint. - University of Winchester