Intersubjectivity is a term used in philosophy, psychology, sociology, and anthropology to conceptualize the psychological relation between people. It is usually used in contrast to solipsistic individual experience, emphasizing our inherently social being.
Social psychologists Alex Gillespie and Flora Cornish list at least six definitions of intersubjectivity (and other disciplines have additional definitions).
In its weakest sense, intersubjectivity refers to agreement. There is intersubjectivity between people if they agree on a given set of meanings or a definition of the situation. Similarly, Thomas Scheff defines intersubjectivity as "the sharing of subjective states by two or more individuals."
More subtly intersubjectivity can refer to the common-sense, shared meanings constructed by people in their interactions with each other and used as an everyday resource to interpret the meaning of elements of social and cultural life. If people share common sense, then they share a definition of the situation.
The term has also been used to refer to shared (or partially shared) divergences of meaning. Self-presentation, lying, practical jokes, and social emotions, for example, all entail not a shared definition of the situation but partially shared divergences of meaning. Someone who is telling a lie is engaged in an intersubjective act because they are working with two different definitions of the situation. Lying is thus genuinely intersubjective (in the sense of operating between two subjective definitions of reality).
Intersubjectivity emphasizes that shared cognition and consensus is essential in shaping our ideas and relations. Language, quintessentially, is viewed as communal rather than private. Therefore, it is problematic to view the individual as partaking in a private world, one whose meaning is defined apart from any other subjects. But in our shared divergence from a commonly understood experience, these private worlds of semi-solipsism naturally emerge.
Intersubjectivity can also be understood as the process of psychological energy moving between two or more subjects. In a room where someone is lying on their deathbed, for example, the room can appear to be enveloped in a shroud of gloom for other people interacting with the dying person. The psychological weight of one subject comes to bear on the minds of others depending on how they react to it, thereby creating an intersubjective experience that, without multiple consciousnesses interacting with each other, would be otherwise strictly solitary. Love is a prime example of intersubjectivity that implies a shared feeling of care and affection, among others.
Intersubjectivity is an important concept in modern schools of psychoanalysis, where it has found application to the theory of the interrelations between analyst and analysand. Adopting an intersubjective perspective in psychoanalysis means, above all, giving up what Robert Stolorow and George E. Atwood define as "the myth of isolated mind". In Stolorow, Atwood, and Orange's "intersubjective-systems theory", "intersubjective" refers not to the sharing of subjective states but to the constitution of psychological systems or fields in the interplay of differently organized experiential worlds. In their view, emotional experience always takes form within such intersubjective systems.
Among the early authors who explored this conception in psychoanalysis, in an explicit or implicit way, were Heinz Kohut, Robert Stolorow, George E. Atwood, Jessica Benjamin in the United States, and Silvia Montefoschi in Italy.
Psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin, in The Bonds of Love, writes, "The concept of intersubjectivity has its origins in the social theory of Jürgen Habermas (1970), who used the expression 'the intersubjectivity of mutual understanding' to designate an individual capacity and a social domain."
Since the late 1980s, a direction in psychoanalysis often referred to as relational psychoanalysis, or simply relational theory, has developed. A central figure in the theory is Daniel Stern. Empirically, the intersubjective school is inspired by research on the non-verbal communication of infants, young children, and their parents. A central question is how relational issues are communicated at a very fast pace in a non-verbal fashion. Scholars also stress the importance of real relationships between two equivalent partners. The journal Psychoanalytic Dialogues is devoted to relational psychoanalysis.
Contemporarily, intersubjectivity is a major topic in both the analytic and the continental traditions of philosophy. Intersubjectivity is considered crucial not only at the relational level but also at the epistemological and even metaphysical levels. For example, intersubjectivity is postulated as playing a role in establishing the truth of propositions, and constituting the so-called objectivity of objects.
In the past 50 years, in consciousness studies, a central concern is the so-called problem of other minds, which asks how is it we can justify our belief that people have minds very much like our own and predict others' mind-states and behavior, as our experience shows we often can. Contemporary philosophical theories of intersubjectivity need to address the problem of other minds.
In the debate between cognitive individualism and cognitive universalism, there are exceptions: some aspects of our thinking are neither solely personal nor fully universal. Proponents of cognitive sociology have argued the presence of intersubjectivity, an intermediate perspective of social cognition, that provides a balanced view between personal and universal views on our social cognition. This approach suggests that instead of being individual or universal thinkers, human beings subscribe to "thought communities"—communities of differing beliefs to which each individual belongs. Examples of thought communities are churches, professions, scientific beliefs, generations, nations, and political movements. This perspective explains why each individual thinks differently from each another (individualism): person A may choose to adhere to expiry dates on foods, but person B may believe that expiry dates are only guidelines and it is still safe to eat the food days past the expiry date. But not all human beings think the same way (universalism).
Intersubjectivity argues that each thought community shares social experiences that are different from the social experiences of other thought communities, resulting in differing beliefs among people who subscribe to different thought communities. These experiences transcend our subjectivity, which explains why they can be shared by the entire thought community. Proponents of intersubjectivity support the view that individual beliefs are often the result of thought community beliefs, not just personal experiences or universal and objective human beliefs. Beliefs are recast in terms of standards, which are set by thought communities.
Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, recognized the importance of intersubjectivity and wrote extensively on the topic. In German, his writings on intersubjectivity are gathered in volumes 13–15 of the Husserliana. In English, his best-known text on intersubjectivity is the Cartesian Meditations (it is this text that features solely in the Husserl reader entitled The Essential Husserl). Although Husserlian phenomenology is often charged with methodological solipsism, in the fifth Cartesian Meditation, Husserl attempts to grapple with the problem of intersubjectivity and puts forward his theory of transcendental, monadological intersubjectivity.
Husserl's student Edith Stein extended intersubjectivity's basis in empathy in her 1917 doctoral dissertation, On the Problem of Empathy (Zum Problem der Einfühlung).
Intersubjectivity also helps to constitute objectivity: in the experience of the world as available not only to oneself, but also to the Other, there is a bridge between the personal and the shared, the self and the Others.
Discussions and theories of intersubjectivity are prominent and of import in contemporary psychology, theory of mind, and consciousness studies. Three major contemporary theories of intersubjectivity are theory theory, simulation theory, and interaction theory.
Spaulding writes, "theory theorists argue that we explain and predict behaviour by employing folk psychological theories about how mental states inform behaviour. With our folk psychological theories, we infer from a target's behaviour what his or her mental states probably are. And from these inferences, plus the psychological principles in the theory connecting mental states to behavior, we predict the target's behaviour (Carruthers and Smith 1996; Davies and Stone 1995a; Gopnik and Wellman 1992; Nichols and Stich 2003)."
Simulation theorists, on the other hand, claim that we explain and predict others' behaviour by using our own minds as a model and "putting ourselves in another's shoes"—that is, by imagining what our mental states would be and how we would behave if we were in the other's situation. More specifically, we simulate what the other's mental states could have been to cause the observed behaviour, then use the simulated mental states, pretend beliefs, and pretend desires as input, running them through our own decision-making mechanism. We then take the resulting conclusion and attribute it to the other person. Recently, authors like Vittorio Gallese have proposed a theory of embodied simulation that refers to neuroscientific research on mirror neurons and phenomenological research.
Spaulding notes that this debate has stalled in the past few years and that progress has been limited to articulating various hybrid simulation theories—"theory theory" accounts. In order to resolve this impasse, authors like Shaun Gallagher have put forward interaction theory. Gallagher writes that an "important shift is taking place in social cognition research, away from a focus on the individual mind and toward… participatory aspects of social understanding…." Interaction theory is put forward in order to "galvanize" the interactive turn in explanations of intersubjectivity. Gallagher defines an interaction as two or more autonomous agents engaged in co-regulated coupling behavior. For example, when walking a dog, both the owner's behavior is regulated by the dog stopping and sniffing, and the dog's behavior is regulated by the lead and the owner's commands; ergo, walking the dog is an example of an interactive process. For Gallagher, interaction and direct perception constitute what he terms "primary" (or basic) intersubjectivity.
Studies of dialogue and dialogism have revealed how language is deeply intersubjective. When we speak, we always address our interlocutors, taking their perspective and orienting to what we think they think (or, more often, don't think). Within this tradition of research, it has been argued that the structure of individual signs or symbols, the basis of language, is intersubjective and that the psychological process of self-reflection entails intersubjectivity. Recent research on mirror neurons provides evidence for the deeply intersubjective basis of human psychology, and arguably much of the literature on empathy and theory of mind relates directly to intersubjectivity.
In infant development
Intersubjectivity and philosophy:
Intersubjectivity in psychoanalysis:
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