2001 Rap Session with Peter Ossorio:
"What are you doing these days?"

Ralph Wechsler: ... and a round of applause in recognition of the special effort he took to be here on this occasion. [Applause] Letís turn it over to the master.

Ossorio: The first question: How many people can understand and hear me in the room? How many cannot? You may find that my diction suffers from time to time. If it gets too much, just raise your hand and Iíll know that Iím not enunciating.

Now, these questions fall into three -- two -- groups...

Let me give you a bit of history. About 3 or 4 months ago I said to myself, "Hey. Iíve got time now. You know, I can see the end of this whole moving business and when weíre through, Iím going to have time to do some writing." And ensuing: "What do I want...do I want to continue?" Because I was writing The Behavior of Persons -- a rewrite -- that was the latest thing. And I said "Nah, I donít want to continue that. Itís too much like doing the same thing all over again."

So let me pick a couple of incidents that in effect got me on the way to saying, "I want to do something different if there is something different."

The first was -- call it a hospice for priests.

Audience: Sorry?

Ossorio: A hospice for priests. It was run by virtue of the way youíd expect a hospice to run, except that I particularly characterize it as these were priests who were going there. What I found there was a strong tendency. That is: "Before I die, I want the answer to this question." That was in everybodyís mind there. "Before I die, I want the answer. Iíve spent my whole life asking. Now I want to know whatís a real answer."

That sort of thing was probably 100%. One hundred percent of the priests in there had this kind of question. You know I listened for a while to the various questions and I said, "Huh. Letís take this at face value. If theyíre asking the questions and no answer comes out, maybe there is no answer."

What would be the implications of there being no answer? Well, what you have is a formal system. You can ask one question of almost any formal system that you canít answer. If you look at the thing youíre about to mention, you can say "Can you ask this question in this formal system?" If you donít, what then? If you do ask the question, one of the next things is "Whatís the answer?"

I diagnosed the group that was there as suffering from this -- what do you call it -- pattern. They had the questions, perfectly good questions, to which there was no answer. Now keep in mind when I say there was no answer, I donít mean that we didnít know the answer. I mean that there was no answer.

My example to get them out of that place was "Suppose you ask yourself ĎWhatís the biggest number that is possible?í"

Audience: What?

Ossorio: "Whatís the biggest number?" You find all of the things that you can do with numbers, and lo and behold, none of them are the answer to this question. No matter what else you can do with numbers, youíll never answer this question.

So it makes some sense to say, "Maybe they werenít just asking the hard questions. Maybe they werenít asking questions at all but thought they were." If so, that fits the old model of therapy where a person comes in with some kind of perplexity. You help him get it straight and he goes on with his life. Well, this looked like a good candidate for that. To be attuned to that I suspect is the source [of wanting to do something different], but actually there were quite a few sources over a period of 4-5 years. I wasnít satisfied just to answer that particular clinical question.

So, as is my wont when I come across this real sticky wicket, I turn to Wittgenstein. What I found out what I was reading was the early Wittgenstein, where he wasnít answering any philosophical questions.

He said, "Hey folks, look. There are some questions about people I would like to ask. Every one of them makes sense." There were six of them. He said, "What can we do to answer them?" And from that beginning he gives answers to the questions. These arise all over philosophy -- the questions and the answers and the traps and so forth.... But his early writing was not at all obscure or anything like that.

Audience: [request to adjust microphone]

Ossorio: There were these six questions, and really thereís nothing magical about them. He could have put three questions instead of six. He could have put in three of the same. So itís not that there was something about these questions.

Anyhow, that was one leg. Another leg is the idea that -- I donít know where I got it -- the world consists of the physical apparatus, physical things; mental things, which are usually just people basically; and the system or language that these guys use to describe everything, to bring it all together. And I said, "Well, hmmm. That offers a special scope to keep me busy for awhile." I said, "Thatís the direction Iíll develop Descriptive Psychology in."

The reason for wanting to move away from classical Descriptive Psychology is that you already had a question, namely "Whatís there in the world?", and a package that is self-consistent, etc. We worked like hell to try to take some part of that and clarify this part, this part, this part, this part, hoping that eventually it will all be clear. And as you might guess, the particular thing that I would pick if I had to pick my specialty is the understanding of people.

Audience: Iím sorry. We canít hear you.

Ossorio: The understanding of people, down to teaching, therapy, etc., but basically doing that. And I could continue to do that. Instead I said, "I want to do something different." [laughing] I donít want to just continue along the same route because even though weíve made progress, Descriptive has not taken over the world yet so thereís really work to do.

And I said, "Thereís surely one lifetimeís work. I donít want to spend my time -- remaining time -- adding a little bit." And thatís what we do as scientists. We have a piece of the world. We try to validate the picture, and everybodyís working on some part of it. And by the way, nobodyís working on all of it.

Given these kinds of background, I said "Ah. It looks like maybe thereís a place for someone like me." I went back to a thing that I donít know where it came from. It was presented as a self-evident truth. And it is that the world consists of three sorts of things. One is the physical happenings and things. The other is the conscious happenings and things, basically people. The third is the formal systems with which this side, the people side, covers the ground, all the ground.

What that gave me was a kind of a satisfaction that "I know how formal systems work. Ahhhh." This looked like a happy hunting ground for someone like that to get in there. And I said, "Ahh. Iím not ready quite yet." But I was almost there.

Audience: The effective range of that microphone is only about 12 inches. If you could get nearer... I really want to hear what youíre saying.

Ossorio: Okay. I got onto another question which I used with the priests. And that is, "Draw a rectangle and draw various sizes, shapes, and figures in there. Okay, this is the world. This is all the concepts we have. Concepts, sub-concepts and sub-concepts, whatever. Itís all there. I hope this is some aid to keeping things straight." I said, "Hmmm. If what is at work is a formal system, then there ought to be ways of talking and knowing that come from that."

It led to the questions of "Suppose you took that drawing [below] that Iíve had with a bunch of crosshatches, each one standing for a concept, and the whole thing standing for the whole concept, what could you do then?" Could you sit there and look at it? Or if you move it in any way, youíre almost bound to talk nonsense.


Audience: Youíre almost bound to what? I couldnít hear you.

Ossorio: You can look at it any way, but youíre bound to reach certain kinds of problems. And those two kinds of problems correspond to either normal logical -- I hate to say logical -- conceptual systems, any and all, or they are peculiar to this set of questions.

The question is really "What is there?" Not "What is there in the world?" but "What is there?" The world that we live in is one of the things. At least itís... This is the nonsense that I was talking about. Rather than say that, weíll say it is not obviously true that there is anything other than that. Iím talking as though I know for a fact that there are others, and in fact, "No."

What we have in the system and in the notion of a formal system is how it works, and certain holistic similarities, differences, these kinds of things. So I said, "If there were other worlds, what would that do for us?" Would you believe? Itís another therapeutic maneuver.

Audience:Itís another?

Ossorio: Itís another therapeutic maneuver. There are a surprising number of people who look at the world of science and social science and anything else you can think of, and say "Gee. You know, the time is coming we can foresee when weíll know everything."

Audience: What?

Ossorio: When weíll know everything. That means that there are limits to our lives, to our persons, to our possibilities, because once youíve done it all, youíve done it all. All you can do is repeat yourself.

Surprisingly enough there are a number of successful people who think that way. Theyíve reached a high enough plateau in formal systems, in subject matter, so they get the feeling that they can survey and anticipate where weíre going. I must admit that I have a little of that myself [laughing]. I said "What the hell. The only thing that was going to satisfy is a system that has no end."

Audience: What? Sorry.

Ossorio: A system that had no end.

Audience: A headwind?

Ossorio: A system that had no end, because if it has no end, you are never in the position of being closer to the end. Itís not a question of foreseeing what itís going to be like when we know everything.

So what is it a question of? Thatís why the unit is the whole world and why I speak in terms of the A and B world. The A world always seems real, the familiar one that we live in; the B, since weíre aiming at an alternative, any one or more alternatives; the question is "What can you say?" I donít know what you can say, but it has sure been heuristic...

Audience: I has sure been what?

Audience: Terrific.

Ossorio: It has been heuristic. There is something there because if you trace the lineage of that kind of thinking -- unless somebody has answered it already which I doubt very much anybody has, the problem is right there in front of you.

Audience: The problem is?

Ossorio: Right there in front of you. You talk to a client and you say "Heís one of those." I guess as someone put it, their "breathing room". "I need more breathing room than I have now, because everything is going to be fixed, everything is known, etc." Well, as I say, I have enough of that myself to pick out some of the weak spots.

I think I mentioned one. One is "What alternative is there?"

Audience: One is?

Ossorio: "What alternative is there?" That translated into "What alternative formal system encompasses everything?" And secondly "How do we access anything of the sort?"

Surprisingly enough by definition we donít access anything of the sort. We canít. Because if we did, it would belong to our world, not this other world. So that says why there is no straight path, you might say. But there are certain ways of going wrong with it that Iíve got some sensitivity to, and thatís one of them.

However, I said this was a clinical solution. It is in that people who have the problem will generally be satisfied with some variation on this kind of answer.

Audience: Will you repeat that?

Audience: People who have that problem will be satisfied with some variation on this kind of answer.

Ossorio: This is very Wittgensteinian. Once they see that there is no answer, not that they donít know the answer, they lose the interest they had in it because they thought that there was an answer. By the way, the guys who have it know they have it. Just like the reflective question, guys who have the problem could recognize it very easily.

Audience: The guys who have the problem could what?

Ossorio: Could recognize it. So here I am on the one hand, trying to divorce myself from clinical stuff, but on the other hand, I have a bunch of ideas which the major applications are clinical. [laughing] I didnít like that particularly and I donít, because that would make it just more of the same.

Audience: Huh?

Audience: I didnít like that particularly and I donít, because that would really just be more of the same.

Ossorio: So what Iíve come to right now is trying to invent the terminology and the basic concepts and see what comes from pushing them. My intuitions are about two steps ahead. But theyíre worthless and it could only... Thereís a limit to how much you can go if theyíre worthless.

Audience: My intuitions are about two steps ahead, but they are?

Ossorio: Theyíre worthless.

Audience: Worthless if you can only?

Ossorio: They are worthless. Period. If they are worthless, then youíre limited to how far ahead you can foresee.

Audience: Thereís a limit to [sic] how far ahead you can foresee.

Ossorio: You can only go so far pursuing that path. Iím willing to let my intuition come into play whenever it wants to. The unfortunate thing is that it isnít -- what do you call it -- developed enough to lay out in any kind of sensible form. So thatís what Iím working on now.

Audience: Lay it out in what?

Ossorio: Lay it out in sensible form. Because you can only go so far and then you say, "Ahhhh." So what we need... Notice how it comes back to persons need a formal system to describe everything. So I try to arrive at the same sort of thing with respect to a hypothetical other world, which may be not hypothetical.

Now this is easy to talk nonsense about. In fact nothing is easier to talk nonsense about. [laughter] All of the models, including Wittgenstein, that I might have looked for have failed. They have some piece of it, but nobody has that piece. Nobody has the temerity to say "Iím talking about the whole world and every possibility in it -- every real possibility, and all of the different ways of approaching the same thing, all of the different theories that one could have about people, all the different outlooks that one could have about..."

Audience: What about literary approaches to different worlds?

Ossorio: What about them?

Audience: Do they need [inaudible]?

Ossorio: No.

Audience: People just make up a world... and thereís no limit to what you can make up. Is that what you mean by talking nonsense? You can make up anything?

Ossorio: Yeah. If you think of any literary world in ours...

Audience: What?

Ossorio: Any literary world. You say, "That does not make it." Why? Because thereís no ... [knocking on table]. Thereís none of that first stuff in it. [Cf. "The world consists of three sorts of things. One is the physical happenings and things."]

Audience: What?

Ossorio: There is no physics [knocking on table again]. There is nothing physical we can distinguish in contrast to the psychological. So youíre going to get a rudimentary sort of system, and Iím not interested in hypothetical worlds that have no room for people.

Audience: No room for what?

Ossorio: For people. So the whole business of making sense of this set of ideas is -- what? -- formidable, and I donít know anybody who would try it, who would dare try it, and Iím doing it because I can. I have the freedom to do that. So I said, "Itís like taking a gulp in your old age."

Audience: Some people play golf in their old age. [laughter]

Ossorio: Yeah. Iím going to work on this for a little while.

Audience: Iím going to work on?

Ossorio: This puzzle.

Audience: Youíve got this intuition and hope... Youíre intuiting some set of things that you...

Ossorio: No, everything. [laughing]

Audience: Okay. But that it feels nonsensical to reveal it at this point or to clarify it, or itís not in a form yet that you can say...

Ossorio: Maybe, maybe not. The thing about the rationality of asking an unanswerable question, you want to hear that. You can say itís nonsense, which it is, but you also have to say it [ ], which it is. When you include everything in the picture, itís a different slant than if you have a formal system that tells you what the possibilities are.

Audience: Did you say probabilities or possibilities?

Ossorio: Possibilities. So itís a happy hunting ground for new ideas.

Audience: What kind of questions were they asking, Pete? You said these guys were asking some kinds of questions that they couldnít get answered. What kind of question?

Ossorio: Some version of "Why am I here?" "What am I here to do?" "What is the nature of my true self?" And they all sound alike. So down here with these questions [pointing to the rap session questions] about a third of them have to do with "What are you doing these days?" Thatís what Iím doing these days. [laughter]

Audience: It sure ainít playing golf.

Audience: Pete, I have a question.

Ossorio: Yeah.

Audience: The work that youíre going to start doing, will the articulation of the Person Concept be the set of tools that you use to do it?

Ossorio: No.

Audience: Is it a new more expansive set?

Ossorio: Itís a more... Itís an additional dimension.

Audience: What?

Ossorio: An additional dimension to Persons. If you think about it, what do we do as scientists, as people, in the world? We describe it; we describe the regularities. But weíre talking about the same thing.

Audience: I didnít quite catch you now because of that darned microphone. Get that away. [laughter]

Ossorio: As a scientist, for example, I can look at twenty different theories about anything you can imagine, and thatís just more of the same. But what I needed was something that wasnít just another theory.

Audience: You need something more? I didnít hear the word you said.

Ossorio: Real.

Audience: Real?

Ossorio: Real. Iím not thinking of the garden variety formal system. Iím thinking of the formal system that includes all formal systems. By the way, itís surprising how little detail you have to know to operate at this level -- conceptual [level]. You donít have to know how many there are to talk about all of them. All you need to know is that we donít have any exceptions

Audience: So youíre talking about the system of all possible formal systems, an explanation of worlds which are all possible worlds? Is that true? Or is it not the first or the second?

Ossorio: No. The first is one of those questions that you want to say a "Yes" to, but thereís a little thing that says "Youíll get in trouble with that, son." [laughter]

Audience: I think so. It might take the whole weekend.

Audience: Are there any concepts at all youíre going to share a little bit?

Ossorio: No. [laughter, applause]

Audience: No coming attractions?

Ossorio: World, by the way, is your garden variety basic concept. Weíre talking about worlds. Just that fact does something to you.

Audience: Are objects, processes, events, and states of affairs part of that?

Ossorio: Yeah, that would include... See, Iím not attempting to deny some of the Descriptive things.

Audience: Not deny?

Ossorio: Yeah. As I said, itís another dimension.

Audience: So within such a larger production, thereíll be a place for Descriptive Psychology.

Ossorio: Oh, yeah.

Audience: And other things as well? Is that right?

Ossorio: Yeah.

Audience: But when you and I talked about this in June, that sort of blew me away. It was like "Hell, Iíve spent all my life trying to learn about this, and now you just threw it out the window." [laughter] But you know, I wasnít sure... But then I got the idea of an added dimension. That makes sense.

Audience: This doesnít undermine the usefulness of Descriptive Psychology. Youíre talking about an alternative.

Audience: Yeah, but thereís no alternative to having to learn a whole other set...

Ossorio: The thing I wanted to avoid was simply another set of ideas comparable, sort of one on one, so that we could describe a hypothetical something thatís just like our world. I wanted something that would encompass worlds that were not like our world. Believe me, youíre not going to get access to any of that by going and looking. [laughter]

Audience: I might be a little concrete for a second. When youíre talking about worlds and maybe other kinds of world, would you say that this new production would have more parameters?

Ossorio: Probably.

Audience: Probably? Bummer. [laughter]

Audience: Let me ask you, because Iím confused about something, which is if Descriptive Psychology provides, using ordinary language... Using ordinary language, if Descriptive Psychology gives us access to the whole range of behavioral facts, the question is really, for what youíre puzzling out, is ordinary language adequate?

Ossorio: Adequate for what?

Audience: I donít know. Iím trying to get some sense of ...

Ossorio: Thatís a kind of nonsense. Thatís an example of the kind of nonsense you can get into because you canít answer that question.

Audience: In so far as words have their meaning in their relation to a social practice, youíre... What limited piece Iím getting of what I think you want, that youíre trying to deal with, involves possible social practices, but not social practices that exist within the framework of the world as we know it.

Ossorio: I said a world. Iím talking about a people world.

Audience: But still one could use the language in a different world. Maybe.

Ossorio: No. There are few things so closely tied into language that it doesnít seem to me frugal to try to separate them. Our language is what we have this thing in. Thatís why you canít separate the two.

Audience: It doesnít seem to be what to try to separate them, Pete?

Ossorio: Productive. Look. Think of the object that Iím pointing to. [pointing] Think of the word object. Think of the word container. Think of the word [ ]. Any of those would give me a description of that thing there. We can say this in spite of the fact that thereís a different language, system, and theory in each of the three places. So adding another theory is not going to do the job at all.

What you need is a way, a language, a system for grappling with the whole thing. And I think Iíve got the mind road to that. But itís easy, very easy to talk nonsense.

Audience: To talk what?

Ossorio: Nonsense.

Audience: Pete, you talked before about seeing some kind of real world kinds of examples. I think thatís what you said... [inaudible]

Ossorio: Oh. That was an example of something I read that got me focused on this. It was presented as a strong -- well, for our purposes it was presented as true. Somebody actually was there and somebody said these things.

Audience: I couldnít hear you.

Ossorio: What I presented was the fictitious truth.

Audience: The what?

Ossorio: The fictitious truth. Fictitious in the fact that you donít know any such people. Truth in that thereís nothing to keep them from doing that.

The setting was in one of the Indian schools, one of the Indian school districts. And the story line is that they were anticipating -- this was at the beginning of the semester -- they were anticipating for particular children what problems they would have, and they had grouped the children in terms of what problem they had. So that if you had this person who ought to have been able to deal with numbers and couldnít, that would have come up. That was their way of laying out "What are the problems going to be?" "What problems are we going to attack?"

Take this story in that vein -- Something that could have happened, maybe did happen for all I know. Okay. Now there are four teachers there. Each one manages a student and the kind of problems he has.

Audience: Theyíre starting to get restless, the natives in the kitchen there. So scooch on in there please. [closer to the microphone]

Ossorio: Is this any better?

Audience: Yes.

Ossorio: Imagine this situation and four teachers.

Audience: Iím going to put the brake on here [on the wheelchair Pete was sitting in] so you donít slide off.

Ossorio: Okay. [laughter]

Audience: Talk about really restricting behavior potential.

Audience: While heís increasing ours.

Ossorio: Think of these four teachers and that kind of subject matter: what kind of problem is this kid going to have, does he have now. So one kid comes up for real and the first teacher says, "Heís going to have trouble with arithmetic. He just hasnít got a feel for numbers." The second teacher says pretty much the same thing. The third teacher also says the same thing: "Iíve tried x and y and z, and heís no good at numbers."

And youíre the fourth. What the fourth says is: "Well, talk to his mother. Talk to his mother for facts about what happened and talk to the village wise man for what itís all about." The idea was that unlike the other three, the kid was using his usual formal system...

Oh, I goofed it up. The fourth one was this woman who said "Talk to his chief because that looks to me like the sin of Quait. [change tape] What he did was that. Thatís whatís going on with him."

When you look at that question, it begins to hit you how different a person could be. How different a person who described by the fourth teacher and by the first three teachers -- You would never suspect it was the same person.

The question is "Which is he really?" [blank on tape] ... anything really because there isnít anything really. [laughter]

Audience: I didnít hear that.

Ossorio: There isnít anything really the case in this case because there isnít really a case in any case.

Audience:[inaudible] Really.

Ossorio: I guess I should introduce a concept or a word which stands for "the truth of the matter."

Audience: Say that again.

Ossorio: The truth of the matter.

Audience: No, the whole sentence.

Ossorio:I should introduce a word...

Audience: A what?

Ossorio:I should introduce a word that simply means "the truth of the matter", and then I can say "There was no truth-of-the-matter". It isnít that he was wrong or she was right. Itís their way of doing it. If you donít preserve that openness, you run into problems pretty fast. So that gives you nothing that the... The argument in facts says "There is no there there."

Audience:There is no there?

Ossorio: No. Thereís no particulars that are not a product of our conceptual system and our living in the world that we do. There is no truth-of-the-matter. Thereís no grand truth from which you can give theories. There just is no truth at all. You start from scratch. Well, thatís what we do. When we invent a culture, somebody was starting from scratch.

Audience: So is this a matter of inventing a B world?

Ossorio: What?

Audience: Is this a matter of inventing a B world?

Ossorio:No. You know you canít do that.

Audience: Huh?

Ossorio: You know you canít do that.

Audience: I do?

Ossorio: By definition. If you could envision it, whoíd be interested? Anyhow, when you think of the difference in what these people thought was going on, what would you...? My issue of the phrase is that theyíve got different collections of social practices. And thereís no way for somebody to talk to the other if you donít recognize it. This culture, this set of practices, is so different from this set that there are limits to what you can say about it. In this case, I say there is no truth-of-the-matter.

Bring that back to the original thing that a world consists of three parts: physical, mental, and description.

Audience: Am I understanding that the new production youíre working on will do justice to the fact not only that there is no truth, but that there are questions that cannot be answered?

Ossorio: [nodding]

Audience: Cool.

Ossorio: Wait a while, wait a while. [laughter] Itís too strong.

Audience: Iím sorry?

Ossorio: I would not say that there is no truth.

Audience: You would not say there is no truth?

Ossorio: Thereís all kind of truth. Look. This is a box of Kleenex [holding up the box]. Itís true.

Audience: It is true.

Ossorio: Hell, yes. There are all kinds of things that we know are true, that we can demonstrate are true. Itís just that the scope of those is limited. And thatís the point, that there is that limitation.

Audience: And thatís appealing to be able to address that in some way, perhaps systematically, the fact that there is that set of facts about the world?

Ossorio: Yeah, except that you donít have the system.

Audience: What?

Ossorio: You donít have the system.

Audience: I donít.

Ossorio: Remember that behavior and consciousness is on par with the physical things. Theyíre simply different parts of the world. What ties them together is the language, the formal system.

Audience: What ties them together please?

Ossorio: The language. So right now Iím betwixt and between trying to consolidate some of these ideas so as to go over them and make sure they are consistent, etc. And plunging on ahead while knowing that I may have to scrap the whole -- large things -- if I later discover an error.

Audience: What?

Ossorio: If I later discover an error. Iíve done that before too. [laughter] I think thatís enough for the question "What are you up to today?"

© 2001 Peter G. Ossorio