Making Space for Meaning

 Robin A. Hodgkin

Previous part

Space for discovery: Winnicott's contribution

A sudden burst of intuitive insight can feel marvellous. It can also be wrong. Michael Polanyi, in his chapter on articulation, writes of the way a mathematician works, oscillating between focused attention and a relaxed receptiveness to what he calls 'intuition'. In the following quotation his suggestion of ebb and flow, of yin and yang is reminiscent of Macmurray's earlier reflections on religious experience quoted at the head of this paper.

[The mathematician] works his way towards discovery, by shifting his confidence from intuition to computation [verification] and back again from computation to intuition, while never releasing his hold on either of the two. [This] represents in miniature the whole range of operations by which articulation disciplines and expands the reasoning of man. (Polanyi, 1958, p. 132) 

Intuition is a big word: hiding much, suggesting much. When Polanyi used it, as when he spoke about a 'heuristic field', he was. I think, aware that new concepts would be needed if we were to get a better understanding of the processes that occur when we break into new oceans of meaning. We noted earlier that Macmurray was not equipped to say much about the transition zone which existed between 'animal-organic' and human-cultural becoming. The study of animal tool-use and animal potential for limited language use had scarcely begun. Nor did Macmurray know about infants' innate, general readiness to experiment. Many ethologists and psychologists have subsequently provided the data and the ideas around which new concepts about play, metaphor and the birth of language would take shape.

We are still. I believe, a long way from understanding how it is that many different kinds of cause as well as the occasional 'space' or absence of a cause, contribute to such a subtle transformation as the becoming of a person. It is here that Winnicott's ideas can help us a little. They emerged from the work of child therapists in the early 1970s. John Shotter, in an essay entitled 'The development of selfhood' (1984) surveys various schools of thought in the child development field[13].

He focuses particularly on Macmurray and Winnicott and on the so-called 'object relations' school of psychoanalysis which emphasised 'primarily a subject's need to relate to objects rather than the reduction of instinctual drives' (p. 114). Shotter sees Winnicott as 'providing a tremendously important idea' or cluster of ideas to supplement Macmurray's basic insight and to fill out and clarify the transition between animal and human being. Here it is only possible to hint at the way in which Winnicott's Playing and Reality maps this early landscape of personhood which he envisages as being negotiated and created within the mother-infant dyad. His ideas also give us a new basis for understanding all subsequent teacher-learner encounters and to see, in a new light, the nature of the toys, the tools and the symbols that we make and use; from their origin as 'transitional objects' to their embodiment 'out there' as our shared culture. Shotter sums up the initial process as follows:

[The mother] having given her infant the opportunity to create the illusion of a wholly satisfactory subjective world ... must now begin the process of disillusionment, thus to afford her infant the opportunity to discover a world to an extent recalcitrant to his or her desires. (Shotter, 1984, p. 114; my italics) 

The beginning of this important 'illusion-disillusionment' process is marked by, as Winnicott calls them 'transitional phenomena'. It is interesting that this somewhat strange 'Winnicott' terminology was welcomed not only by the social and philosophical psychologist, John Shotter, but also by some experimental child psychologists, such as Colwyn Trevarthen, (see his 1993 paper).

Transitional objects are the first 'me/not me' possessions: those cuddly comforters, shreds of fabric and other primitive play-withs which are in part reminders of our once 'safe' unitedness with mother; and they are also the beginnings and prototypes of all later cultural experience. It is in this continuum-from enquiring infant to the skilled, cooperative adult-that the new, Winnicott model should be deployed. Shotter is clear that the mother's role in the process needs clarifying. It is a role which subtly blends authority and structure with a loving affirmation of the autonomy, potentiality and freedom of a new person. Fathers and other caring instructors also come to share in this role; often with a slightly increased 'edge' of authority.

Shotter praises Macmurray for the way he foreshadowed this break-through. Macmurray had written (1961, p. 50) that 'the infant cannot, even theoretically, live an isolated existence'. Rather: 

[H]e lives a common life as one term in a personal relationship. Only in the process of development does he learn to achieve relative independence, and that only by appropriating [!] the techniques of a rational social tradition. 

Certainly, the mother and infant are each 'one term' in a relationship. But then Shotter asks a key question: 'does the child learn or is it instructed by others?'.

This was a seminal Macmurray statement and much hangs on Shotter's question: our understanding of education, of society, of politics, of technology—all are involved in the answer. The mother's task is to give the child frequent experience of limited freedom and a sense of its personal autonomy; but also to introduce order to its world: safety limits, rhythms, objects of interest, fun and challenge. She does all this from a position of great authority for, in her maturity, she is far up on Macmurray's hierarchy of skill and competence. So, though she is unquestionably 'a term in the relationship' she is also the bringer of structure (an in-structor), the early prototype of authority. Both a yes-sayer and a no-sayer. Macmurray emphasised the basic dyadic, two-way relationship without pointing out the great asymmetry—the authority. This may have been one reason why his ideas were sometimes distorted by those who espoused 'situation ethics' and who would regard the term 'good relationship' as being self-justificatory. Such zealous liberals had their counterparts in education-those who would advocate freedom as an unqualified good. Effective child-rearing and effective education are always a blend of giving appropriate freedom and of introducing appropriate structure. I do not think Macmurray would have disagreed. But he did not explore the role of parents and of the family as bringers of structure.

Winnicott introduces, early in his book, the idea of a parent and infant creating 'potential space', psychological space for play and for discovery. '[I]t is play that is universal', Winnicott writes. 'Playing facilitates growth and health; playing leads into group relationships' (1971, p. 41). In such playing space the infant is relatively safe but is also exposed to stimuli and to problems. Winnicott is developing a concept which Polanyi was also approaching when he spoke of a heuristic field or field of discovery. Polanyi focused on the idea of a groping explorer, probing a cavity (1958, pp. 61 and 403). They are both aware that in such situations there is a gradient or polarity in the field or space. The explorer's hand and the probe which it holds functions in what Polanyi terms a 'from-to' or 'proximal-distal' dimension. Winnicott suggests a similar idea when he empathises with an infant and recognises that its comforting 'play-withs', its 'transitional objects' are felt to be both 'me' and 'not me'.

Winnicott proposed the term 'potential space' to characterise this zone between two worlds. To the infant it is very safe and comforting near the breast, at one pole; more and more open and problematic, even challenging and frightening, at the other. As the infant develops, the 'transitional objects' which it finds or creates in the world of 'not me', take on special characteristics and functions and embody new principles. A child's brick, for example, may continue to be a 'sucking thing' even after it has started to be an 'elementary-geometry-thing'. So transitional objects become toys or tools or 'explore-withs' and we-child or adult-will eventually classify them according to how we use them in our practice or our thinking. Winnicott is emphatic: all cultural objects and artefacts need to be understood in terms of how they first appear in play. 

The place where cultural experience is located is in the potential space between the individual and the [maternal] environment. ... The same can be said of playing. Cultural experience begins with creative living first manifested as play. (1971, p. 100) 

The child moves on from being largely dependent on the mother; but the polarity of the discovery field and the rhythm of the learning system remain. We play tentatively with a new pattern or idea. We test it, stretch it. If it works we practise with it, internalise some of that pattern as an element in a growing skill or competence. Practice and repetition is the me-strengthening aspect. But we also move from practice and play, our further, towards our exploring margin where we can only just cope. It is here that we sometimes experience the frontier where new forms may break in from apparent chaos. So we may be stretched and fail and suffer.

The child grows up but the 'me-not-me' learning polarity remains and the rhythm of the learning system remains too-practice, play, exploring and back again to play and strengthening routines. It is all part of the recurrent loop of learning as we climb the spiral of new knowledge (Bruner, 1968; Skolimowski, 1994).

There are important parallels between some of these ideas and fundamental questions about the nature of life and the emergence of new forms. These are topics that are being researched by Brian Goodwin at the Open University and, more extensively, by a team at the Santa Fe Institute for the Study of Artificial Life. Stewart Kauffman, in his At Home in the Universe, refers to Man's three-fold, interdependent roles: as playful, as practising and as wise explorer: homo ludens, homo faber and homo sapiens. Further, arising from this study of organic complexity is the insight that new forms of order usually appear, spontaneously, at 'the frontier' or at the 'dangerous edge' (William James' term) where existing, orderly systems are beginning to break down and to be threatened by chaos.

Several other possibly fruitful lines of thought have been growing from this soil which Macmurray and his fellow mavericks were ploughing-new lines which all relate to the de-mechanising of our explanations and to the deepening of our experience. Winnicott points not only to more imaginative parenting but also to the phenomenology of culture, tools and technology which I have touched on elsewhere[14]. John Shotter sketches a new understanding of rhetoric and of the power and transparency of language in his chapter entitled 'Getting in Touch' (1993, pp. 23-25).

In the following, from Playing and Exploring, I outlined one promising way in which so-called 'traditional' and 'free' methods of education can be brought into harmony within this 'Winnicott' paradigm. The theoretical underpinning for these ideas is sketched in the diagram which follows. 

Play, practice and exploration: we need to hold these together in a model which is coherent and which matches our common experience of teaching. The easier part of this three-fold concept is the relation of play to practice. Surprisingly little serious attention has been given to the concept of practice in education. It has, it is true, been studied in connection with high pressure training for narrow skills. Examples of this would be training airline pilots by using electronic simulators which replicate the hazards of take-off, landing and navigation, and which allow for constant repetitions and refinement of skill. There has, till recently, been a widespread assumption among progressive teachers that drills and anything like rote learning for young learners are, somehow, retrograde. Yet there is a considerable body of research which suggests that the most effective teachers are those who manage to keep a balance between what are sometimes called free or creative methods and the more old-fashioned methods which accept drills, mnemonics and success based testing play a part. It is not easy for a teacher to create such an optimal balance, especially if the learning group is large and a widely varying competence, but it can be done. Because teacher education and teacher evaluation tend to be thought about in terms of the false dichotomy of progressive versus traditional, the difficulty continues to be, in part, a conceptual and linguistic one.

Educational researchers and teacher educators need to look closely at the question of what it is that makes practice congenial and effective. Enjoyable practice does not have to be lacking in rigour. Indeed it can be largely self-rewarding. (Hodgkin, 1985, p. 45) 

FIG.1. The Creative Cycle. ‘The things a person plays with can, with practice, become part of some skill and thus eventually assimilated to a general area of competence. However, a toy or ‘playwith‘ (Coleridge) can also be pushed out to the frontier and become what might be termed an ‘explorewith‘. Symbols (in this strong sense of the word) or an original hypothesis or a probe in competent hands would all come into this category. Learning-whether by a child or by an adult-can be seen as an oscillation between play, practice and exploring. In this diagram the teacher is only implied: she makes the space, sustains the dialogue and introduces structures, problems and evaluations.‘ (Hodgkin, 1985, p. 46)[15]


Figure 1. suggests how the model can apply to all levels of learning. The five bands on the left margin represent the five main levels of communicative competence (language, pictorial, musical etc.) which Howard Gardner‘s (1984) theory of multiple intelligences integrates[16].

In Reason and Emotion (p. 19) and elsewhere Macmurray emphasises the manysidedness of the human intellect/not only in language but in tool/making, in religion, in scientific and social action. Here he was laying the foundations for a far richer view of personhood than could be acknowledged by most of his scientifically-focused contemporary philosophers. And that is what we now inherit. Perhaps there was still a puritan slant in him too. He did not go far in his examination of playful and symbolic action and was not enough of a romantic to follow in Wordsworth‘s or Coleridge‘s steps. His life as a whole, however reflects his own multiple intelligence/his widening interests and growing compassion. His Quaker Credo-Search for Reality in Religion- is partly autobiographical. It tells both of his earnest, youthful putting down of roots in a strict but inspiring Calvinist home, of widening intellectual interests-geological, classical, theological- of his gradual escape, after the war, into philosophy and politics and, eventually, of h is return to the essentially Christian but unstructured ‘space for meaning‘ which he found in Quaker worship. The rhythm was not articulated in his philosophical writings but it was made manifest in the pattern of his life.


This article was originally requested by Professor Harry A. Carson as part of a collection of essays which he is at present editing on aspects of Macmurray‘s thought. The Post Modern Thought of John Macmurray: the Primacy of the Person as an Agent in a Field of Agents is scheduled to be published by The Humanities Press, New Jersey, in 1998. Though we did not always agree, Professor Carson was a great help and encouragement in the preparation of this paper. Other contributors in the volume will include John Shotter and Colwyn Trevarthen.


13. John Shotter himself emerged as rebel; appropriately from the embattled London School of Economics in the troubled times of 1968. As a social psychologist, he turned against the mechanistic teachings he encountered there. I first met him at Rom Harré‘s seminars in Oxford where the latter was offering an alternative view to those then fashionable in the university. See Harré, The Explanation of Social Behaviour (1972). Shotter now holds a chair at the University of New Hampshire.

14. This is a field crying out for further critical enquiry. Percy Hammond in ‘Polanyi on pure science‘, Appraisal‘ Vol. 1 No. 1 makes a start. Manfred Stanley, The Technological Conscience is a useful critic. My ‘Techne, technology and inventiveness‘ touches, but scarcely get to grips with, the follies of what is termed ‘Design Technology‘ in the British National Curriculum (see Hodking, 1988; 1990).

15. For Coleridge, see Raine, 1957.

16. Howard Gardner‘s influential book, Frames of Mind, derives a model of education based on our five main ‘intelligences‘ from anthropological and comparative studies. My approach, which I first outlined in Born Curious (p. 116), was based, similarly, on four or five main ‘competences‘ and was built on J.S. Bruner‘s ideas about a spiral curriculum, integrated with those of Donald Winnicott, whose Playing and Reality triggered the theory. Gardner‘s model and mine are almost identical though arising from different sources. ‘We are all Garnerians now‘ (Tim Brighouse: lecture on the possibilities for comprehensive education: Oxford, 1996).


BOHR, N. (1934) Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).
BOWER, T.G.R. (1974) Development in Infancy (San Francisco, Freeman).
BRUNER, J.S. (1968) Toward a Theory of Instruction (Cambridge Mass., Harvard University Press).
BUBER, M., (1937) I and Thou (Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark).
CASSIRER, E. (1953) Language and Myth (London, Dover).
DONALDSON, M. (1978) Children's Minds
(London, Fontana).
GIBSON, J.J. (1986) The Ecological Approach to Perception (New Jersey, Erlbaum).
GOODMAN, N. (1968) The Languages of Art (New York, Oxford University Press).
GOODWIN, B. (1994) How the Leopard Changed its Spots: evolution of complexity
(London, Weidenfeld).
GRENE, M. (1985) Descartes (Brighton, Harvester).
HARRÉ, R. & SECORD, P.S. (1972) The Explanation of Social Behaviour (Oxford, Blackwell).
HODGKIN, R.A. (1970) Reconnaissance on an Educational Frontier (Oxford, Oxford University Press).
HODGKIN, R.A. (1976) Born Curious (Chichester, John Wiley).
HODGKIN, R.A. (1985) Playing and Exploring (London, Methuen).
HODGKIN, R.A. (1990) Techne, technology and inventiveness, Oxford Review of Education, 16, pp. 207-217.
KAUFFMAN, S. (1995) At Home in the Universe (London, Viking).
KELLER, H. (1909) The Story of My Life (London, Hodder & Stoughton)
KOESTLER, A. (1964) The Act of Creation (Harmondsworth, Penguin).
LANGER, S.K. (1957) Philosophy in a New Key (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press). LANGER, S.K. (1967) Mind: an essay on human feeling, vol. 1 (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press).
MACINTYRE, A. (1981) After Virtue (London, Duckworth).
MACMURRAY, J. (1936) The Structure of Religious Experience (London, Faber & Faber).
MACMURRAY, J. (1957) The Self as Agent (London, Faber & Faber).
MACMURRAY, J. (1961) Persons in Relation (London, Faber & Faber).
MACMURRAY, J. (1965) Search for Reality in Religion (London, Allen & Unwin).
PHILLIPS, A. (1988) Winnicott (Modern Masters) (London, Fontana).
POLANYI, M. (1958) Personal Knowledge (London, Routledge).
POLANYI, M. (1966) The Tacit Dimension (New York, Doubleday).
POLANYI, M. (1969) Knowing and Being (London, Routledge).
PRICKETT, S. (1986) Words and the Word (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).
RAINE, K. (1957) Coleridge (London, Penguin).
SCHÖDINGER, E. (1964) My View of the World (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).
SHOTTER, J. (1984)Social Accountability and Selfhood (Oxford, Blackwell).
SHOTTER, J. (1993) Cultural Politics of Everyday Life (Buckingham, Open University Press).
SKOLIMOWSKY, H. (1994) The Participatory Mind (Harmondsworth, Penguin).
SOSKICE, J.M. (1985) Metaphor and Religious Language (Oxford, Oxford University Press).
SPERRY, R.W. (1983) Science and Moral Priority (Oxford, Blackwell).
STANLEY, M. (1978) The Technological Conscience: survival and dignity in an age of expertise (New York, The Free Press).
TREVARTHEN, C. (1990) Growth and Education of the Brain Circuits in the Mind: Cambridge essays in honour of Roger Sperry (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).
TREVARTHEN, C. (1993) Playing into Reality: conversations with the infant communicator (Winnicott Studies no. 7) (London, Karnak).
VYGOTSKY, L. (1962) Thought and Language (Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press).
WILSON, K. (1978) The Games Climbers Play (London, Diadem).
WINNICOTT, D.W. (1971) Playing and Reality (London, Tavistock).
ZAJONC, A. (1993) Catching the Light (New York, Oxford University Press).

Correspondence: Robin A. Hodgkin, 39 Holyoake Road, Headington, Oxford OX3 8AF, UK.

Previous part Back to Contents

Polanyiana Volume 6, Number 2, 1997