Intersubjectivity is a key 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.
The term has been defined in at least three ways:
- First, 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. For example, Thomas Scheff defines intersubjectivity as "the sharing of subjective states by two or more individuals."
- Second, and more subtly intersubjectivity refers 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.
- Third, the term has 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 inter-subjective (in the sense of operating between two subjective definitions of reality).
Intersubjectivity emphasizes that shared cognition and consensus is essential in the shaping of 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 which has a meaning 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, to give 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.
Since the late 1980s, a direction in psychoanalysis often referred to as relational psychoanalysis or just relational theory has developed. A central person 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.
Intersubjectivity is a major topic in philosophy. The duality of self and other has long been contemplated by philosophers, and what it means to have an intersubjective experience, and what sort of lessons can be drawn from them. Ethics, for example, deals with how one should act and what one owes in an intersubjective experience where there is an identifiable other.
In phenomenology, intersubjectivity performs many functions. It allows empathy, which in phenomenology involves experiencing another person as a subject rather than just as an object among objects. In so doing, one experiences oneself as seen by the Other, and the world in general as a shared world instead of one only available to oneself.
Early studies on the phenomenology of intersubjectivity were done by Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology. His student, Edith Stein, extended the concept and its basis in empathy in her 1917 doctoral dissertation On the Problem of Empathy (Zum Problem der Einfühlung).
Intersubjectivity also helps in the constitution of 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.
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 usually don't think). Within this tradition of research it has been argued that the structure of individual signs or symbols, the basis of language, are 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 relate directly to intersubjectivity.
Intersubjectivity and philosophy:
Intersubjectivity in psychoanalysis:
- Gillespie, A. & Cornish, F. (2010). Intersubjectivity: Towards a dialogical analysis. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 40, 19-46
- Scheff, Thomas et al. (2006). Goffman Unbound!: A New Paradigm for Social Science (The Sociological Imagination), Paradigm Publishers (ISBN 978-1-59451-196-7)
- Clive Seale. Glossary, Researching Society and Culture.
- Stern, Daniel (2004). The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life. W.W. Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-70429-7.
- Beebe, Beatrice; Frank M Lachmann (2002). Infant Research and Adult Treatment. Co-constructing Interactions. London: Analytic Press. ISBN 978-0-88163-245-3.
- Schechter DS (2003). Intergenerational communication of maternal violent trauma: Understanding the interplay of reflective functioning and posttraumatic psychopathology. In S.W. Coates, J.L. Rosenthal and D.S. Schechter (eds.) September 11: Trauma and Human Bonds. Hillside, NJ: Analytic Press, Inc. pp. 115-142.
- Linell, P. (2009). Rethinking language, mind and world dialogically. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing
- Gillespie, A. (2009). The intersubjective nature of symbols. In Brady Wagoner (Ed), Symbolic transformations. London: Routledge
- Gillespie, A. (2007). The social basis of self-reflection. In Valsiner and Rosa (Eds), The Cambridge handbook of sociocultural psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University press
- Rizzolatti, G. & Arbib, M. A. (1998). Language within our grasp. Trends in neurosciences, 21, 188-194.
- Laplanche, J. & Pontalis, J. B. (1974). The Language of Psycho-Analysis, Edited by W. W. Norton & Company, ISBN 0-393-01105-4
- Stolorow, R. D., Atwood, G. E., & Orange, D. M. (2002). Worlds of Experience: Interweaving Philosophical and Clinical Dimensions in Psychoanalysis. New York: Basic Books.
- Edmund Husserl Zur Phänomenologie der Intersubjektivität. Texte aus dem Nachlass 1905-1920
- Edmund Husserl Zur Phänomenologie der Intersubjektivität. Texte aus dem Nachlass 1921-1928
- Edmund Husserl Zur Phänomenologie der Intersubjektivität. Texte aus dem Nachlass 1929-1935
- Edmund Husserl Cartesian Meditations, Edited by S. Strasser, 1950. ISBN 978-90-247-0068-4