Excerpt from "Self and Others" on Ambiguity, Implication, and Double Binds
When I first read Knots by R. D. Laing back in 2019 I got chills. I felt like I immediately recognized the sorts of interpersonal dynamics he was describing, and this was the first time I'd see someone shine such an intense spotlight on them. Since then Laing has been in the back of my mind, and recently I've been reading through Self and Others. I wanted to share, verbatim, a chunk from the last chapter of the book. It's a particularly clear exposition of the nature of implication in language, with several examples, as well as brief thoughts on how implication can serve as the substrate for double binds.
The same arrangement of words, grunts or groans, smiles, frowns, or gesture can function in many possible ways according to context. But who 'defines' the context? The same form of words can be used as a plain statement of fact, as an accusation, as an injunction, as an attribution, a joke, a threat.
Jack says to Jill, "It's a rainy day." This statement could be intended in various ways:
- Simply to register and share the fact that it is a rainy day.
- Jack might have agreed reluctantly yesterday to go for a walk with Jill instead of going to see a film. By saying now that it's a rainy day he is saying, "Thank god, we will not be going for a walk. I'll probably go see my film."
- Jack might be implying, "because it's rainy, I don't think you should go out"; or, "Perhaps you do not want to go out (I hope) since it's raining"; or, "I feel depressed. I don't want to go out, but if you insist, I suppose I shall have to."
- Jack and Jill might have had an argument yesterday about how the weather was going to turn out. The statement might mean, therefore, "You're right again", or, "You see how I'm always correct."
- The window may be open. The statement may imply that Jack wishes Jill to close the window, etc.
Such multiple possible ambiguities are a feature of ordinary discourse. The above simple statement about 'the day' could imply a question, a reproach, an injunction, an attribution about self and other, etc. In 'straight' talk such ambiguities are present, but implications can be taken up by other which may in turn be admitted or, if not intended, can be honestly disclaimed. Frank and honest exchanges carry in them a great number of resonances, and the participants still 'know where they are' with each other. However, at the other end of a theoretical scale, conversations can be characterized by the presence of numerous disclaimed, unavowed, contradictory, and paradoxical implications, or 'insinuendoes'.
- An ostensive statement is really an injunction. Ostensive statement: "It's cold." Injunction: "Put out the fire."
- An injunction is really an attribution. Injunction: "Ask Jones for his advice on this." Attribution: "You are a bit of a fool."
- An offer of help is really a threat. Offer of help: "We'll arrange a nice change for you." Threat: "If you don't stop behaving like this, we'll send you away."
- An expression of sympathy is really an accusation. Sympathetic statement (attribution): "Your nerves are on edge." Accusation: "You are behaving atrociously."
Jill may reply to each of the above statements by:
- "That's really an order."
- "You're really saying I'm a fool."
- "You're really saying that, if I don't behave myself, you'll say I'm mad and get me put away."
- "By saying you know I couldn't help myself, you find it necessary to avoid holding me responsible because you think I did harm."
But Jack will deny that he has implied anything, and moreover imply that Jill is wrong, mad, or bad to think anything is implied. This implication in turn is made and disavowed. The next time a plain statement is made, and Jill reacts to it as a plain statement, she will be accused of being insensitive, or of willfully refusing to "know perfectly well" what is meant. Explicit levels may or may not be consonant with implicit levels, while on implicit levels the one person may convey two or more paradoxical implications at once.