Intersubjectivity

The original work of Edmund Husserl on intersubjectivity was published in a shortened form, without explanation and clear working, in French in 1931 as the Cartesian Meditations (1977). Although a better title would have been Intersubjective Meditations. Intersubjectivity has been adopted in child development and psychotherapy as a watchword for interresponsiveness. But the original conception was much more fundamental than merely noting that human beings react reciprocally and mutually. The viewpoint taken by Husserl has much to offer contemporary thinkers in psychotherapy, psychological research and the human sciences. It is worth spelling out what the original was. Husserl’s viewpoint asks how a specific state of affairs comes about. Specifically, it finds how selves and others inter-act to create a shared world, in the sense of a cultural world. Be it on the small scale of a family or group of persons who meet face to face and react to each other. Or be it on the larger scale of a world of shared ideas and practices. Most generally, intersubjectivity refers to what exists between people. What this includes is communication of all kinds, verbally and non-verbally, and how there is the great expanse of social life. Clearly for academic disciplines such as the human sciences and therapy, there is a need to understand what happens between people in a fundamental way and have some explicit conclusions on the nature of everyday commonsense and the actions and experiences of self and others. The specific method urged by Husserl to do this was to have ‘fulfilled’ imaginative experiences of what other persons experience and to relate that to what oneself experiences. The viewpoint he urged is called transcendental in that it searches for the conditions of possibility of shared meaning in social life. It studies qualitative experiences that are common to human beings and concludes on how commonsense is possible. The following brief overview makes reference to the Cartesian Meditations where Husserl went into some detail in explaining social life. His starting point was asking how we understand the bodies of other people as living sensing bodies like our own (1977, §42, p 8990, §48, p 105). His answer concerned the “aesthesiological stratum” of the co-perception of fields of sensation in the bodies of others (1989, §62, p 297-8). He also argued that the basic similarity between the bodies of selves and the bodies of others is a motivating similarity sufficient to create an overlap of sense that is called empathy, or better, empathic presentiation. Although not identical to the “problem of other minds,” it is similar. The basic conclusion that Husserl came to was that the visual object of the external shape and

movement of other persons’ bodies indicate their interiority. Specifically, it indicates their view from where they are situated in space (and within time if they are not currently present). Husserl argued that by focusing on his own experience of himself and others, and comparing that to what others must experience, that consciousness is pro-intersubjective or preintersubjective because when a self meets with another, a greater whole can be formed that is genuinely intersubjective. His research question was to find the possible motivations of sense that create the sense of others ‘in’ self (§44, p 94). The strict separations between the usual senses of self and others break down on close inspection for the following reasons. Clearly, we never have the first hand experiences of other people, and vice versa, they do not have our first-hand experiences. However, what is being discussed is how people have the impression that they know and experience the views of others: as a universal lifelong aspect of being social creatures. What Husserl claimed was that even after a concerted effort to reject all influence from others, even to the extent of claiming to be able to enter a wordless non-verbal meditation entirely focussed on the perceptual present. There still remains a world that is intersubjective. In short, the intersubjective influences of others cannot be removed (even if they can be ignored). What this means is that each self creates the senses of the views of others, as a basic way of navigating life in a ubiquitous manner (§41, p 84-5). From the starting point that our mental processes form a whole with the social world, Husserl teased out the pieces of that whole. The specific pieces he focussed on were the “motivating similarity” (§50, p 111) between one’s own body and those of others’ in the sense that a first-ever sense of the other person being a separate other must have occurred in infancy, and that sense got added to the first-other, with whom it occurred. And ever since then there has been further on-going enrichment of the senses that other may have as a set of learned social experiences about how others’ behave, in relation to what they might experience, about being in the common world that we share. The pieces of the whole, Husserl argued, the visual movements of the bodies of others that indicate what their first-hand experiences might be like, in the experience we call empathy. Empathy is a part of intersubjectivity in that persons to some degree of accuracy or inaccuracy have a sense of what others experience. This is assumed to be the standard case unless people can over-ride their impressions of the experience of others or if they have personalities that fail to provide such senses. Because the social world is a complex whole, there is a complex on-going learning about what others are like and how oneself is in relation to these others. So whilst it is always the case that the first-hand experience of others always

remains their own. Through discussion, play, and social everyday life, a non-specific and indirect form of social learning occurs where every experience lends itself to confirm and disconfirm what we already know about other people, and ourselves in relation to them. In terms of the mental processes that occur, involuntary automatic learning from the past is added to the events of the current moment. And because anticipation is also occurring in the present, certain sets of anticipations occur about what will happen next in human behaviour. The key element to grasp in understanding what Husserl was asserting is to understand the difference between what does appear perceptually of what we see and hear about another person, let us say someone who is currently sitting and talking with ourselves, as opposed to being able to understand what they mean and what they feel, psychologically. The perceptual is recordable on video, for instance. Any person could watch a playback of the film and share the perceptual meanings of what happened on it. Let us say our other person is talking to us about their childhood. What they are talking about, their object, is their memory of their childhood. Let us assume they are telling us the truth of something that happened. Their speech, emotion and thoughts are about the real remembered object. What the hearer grasps though is something in addition to the plain facts of the expressions about their memory. What empathy does is re-create the full experience of being there for the listener. This is a mental process and is open to error. However, what is understood, through the recounting of the story and looking at the non-verbal presence of the other person, is that an empathic object is given. The empathic object is presentiated in, or through, the vision and speech that is recordable. The empathised intentions of the other person and our insertion into their past world appear as a new whole that is non-actual for us and belongs to that other person. (It is not understood as being ours). However, there is often very little detail in the perceptual “signs” of hearing and vision, of the other telling their story, that is required for empathisers to be able to grasp the subtle nuances of what is being recounted. Accordingly empathy, grasping what others’ experience, is taking perceptual experience and properly understanding its significance for what it meant to be there in the first-person originally. What is being recounted by the other person is their memory and their first-hand experience. What is empathised is the same object although the empathiser may never have had any such experience. When people get together, the sum total of providing and receiving experiences (in all possible formats of ‘story-telling’) is what is called intersubjectivity: the giving and receiving of first-hand accounts of what it is like to be a unique self. It is the commonality of being pre-intersubjective, or pro-social, that enables

this transmission of the first-person experiences. Furthermore, there are genres of telling such stories and those too are part of decoding what other people experience. Let’s go for the details The word “monad” in the Cartesian Meditations means the perceptual self givenness of the living body leib to consciousness, plus the perception of what is around self, plus the perception of physical things in addition to the monadic ego and its experience, its perspective on the objects around it. In the text Husserl refers to a reduction, a taking back, to the experiences of others as included in the production of a focus in the here and now, that includes the re-awakening of the past senses that the other person is another consciousness. Because people are open to each others’ views, we share understanding in the world. The living physical body is available to view. It is intersubjective in that the body expresses emotion, non-verbally, and these indicate what is thought whilst speech may be concordant or not (congruent) with the emotional participation. The most fundamental visual perceptual sphere contains the sense of self as living bodiliness, as well as those of the bodies of others. Each self maintains its identity. It is Identical with itself in the sense that others and the world are always viewed from the perspective of consciousness within the body, Here. And with respect to the givenness of others, others always occupy a separate place, There. Self also carries with it the retained senses of empathised specific others (and holds beliefs about others generally). The perspective of any self is a ‘window on to the world’ metaphorically speaking. Because of the universal connection between the self Here and the other There, and the commonality of the non-verbal expressiveness of the body that shows its interest in what is going on around it. These constancies underpin higher forms of difference. The other physical body is expressive of the sense of the other as a living body who is another self with their own perspective. The bodies of all people have a basic human similarity. Throughout experience, the other remains other and over There, visually external as a pole of givenness (whilst the givenness of self to itself is always Here). The other is understood as another living body with a sense that is updated. The unbreakable connection with others is a medium for vicarious verification by virtue of life experience in family, culture and society.

Intersubjectivity The sense of the other is a presentiation that occurs through a series of well-habituated associations, imaginative transposals (§53, p 116) into being another person and anticipations to this effect are given to others because of past social learning. The senses of others are vicariously validated in cultural life and are so continually updated with respect to specific persons and to beliefs about others generally. This is because the intersubjective being of consciousness is based on the repetition and vicarious verification of previous senses. What can be distinguished is the correctly understood behaviour of others that produces cohesive meaningful worlds of well known action and reaction, “common sense”. “Such harmonious behaviour (as having a physical side that indicates something psychic) must present itself fulfillingly in original experience, and do so throughout the continuous change in behaviour from phase to phase”, (§52, p 114). Large regions of life and non-verbal expression are frequently capable of recognition by all players and observers. My experience that another is somewhat like me, alive and in a meaningful world with me, is constituted through a number of learnings, “pairings by association,” across the lifespan (§51, p 112). These are overlappings and accumulations of empathised sense. The sum total effect is the production of a coherent world, in a way that promotes belief in it. My consciousness and my sense of unity are added to others, with the appropriate perspectival senses for them, in an instant. The empathic sense of their perspective on any cultural object is what we do for others. Consciousness automatically creates and adds these senses. Speech and thought exist on the basis of an enabling prior achievement of mutual awareness and mutual referencing, at a nonverbal empathic and intersubjective level. The mutually apparent cultural object is visible to self and other. The other appears primarily non-verbally, with their perspective on mutual cultural objects, prior to speech, as having an expressive body. Empathy donates the meaning of the other’s body as what they experience. Despite self being involved in making and donating felt-senses to other’s visual appearance, these senses are primarily associated with the nonverbal communication of others. They are experienced as belonging to them when people look one way or another. In this way others are proven as co-empathic and co-intentional people ‘like me’. The perspectives of others quasi-appear for selves with respect to the mutual cultural object: All

selves represent that all others are representing the same cultural object. There is the possibility of understanding how others might be representing any object. The entailments of self, other and intersubjectivity are mutual understanding the perspectives of others with respect to any cultural object. All perspectives are either verifiable or potentially verifiable in the world. Intersubjectivity is ‘inter-perspectivity’ based on inter-bodiliness in that mutual awareness and referencing are necessities of any meaningful communication between two or more persons. Then overall there is one fundamental meaningful world of intersubjective perspectives because of the implication, the interlacing of self, other, object and intentionalities between them. There are several consequences to Husserl’s position. The major consequence of the view of regarding meaning-in-context for persons is that non-verbal bodily signification becomes a priori fundamental for all types of higher conceptual meaning. As Husserl put it “The first thing constituted in the form of community, and the foundation for all other intersubjectively common things, is the commonness of Nature, along with that of the Other’s organism and his psychophysical Ego, as paired with my own psychophysical Ego”, (§55, p 120). What this means is that all higher practices and understandings (academic discourses, philosophy, science) are based on nonverbal showing of interest and the common sense shared world of interpersonal interrelatedness. This whole of intersubjectivity, as processes between people and the content of what they believe, is what we contribute to and are shaped by in return. Husserl’s radical claim is that all higher conceptually-based practices are dependent on the lower, more fundamental ground that is intersubjectivity. One major consequence of the above is that there can never be solipsism. On the contrary, anything in the world is intersubjective and there is common sense of it. When people stop to reflect, they can work out what another person, even those completely unknown to them might experience. Meanings expressed in language and non-verbal meanings are public knowledge and this is what founds communities. Empathy adds together the experiences of multiple selves. And selves are then inter-dependent with each other. These factors are irreducible: they cannot be removed.

In conclusion

The constant aspects are that the senses of empathy are not perceptual but psychological in that the beliefs, intentions, aims and views of others appear. Although there is no guarantee that these senses are accurate until we discuss them with those other persons (and even then there is no guarantee that they are telling the truth about their first-hand experiences). However, the other remains other (§50, p 109). They have their sense of their own bodies, and what life is like in their personal development and their part of the social and physical world. Empathy is the socially-learned donation of sense to the visual perception and audition of the other’s voice. The other is outside oneself in a different physical location. They are for themselves and are different. Empathy and intersubjectivity are crucial to understanding common sense in the public world, in which we live our meaningful lives. Empathy is mental process in which I, a conscious separate person, whilst visually perceiving another’s physical body, in the current perceptual horizon, and while I am grounded in the sense of my own living body, Leib, my consciousness automatically constitute the specific sense that another human being has when I see their face and gestures and hear their speech. The same happens for those who have understood accurately and reflect back that meaning to the other for confirmation or correction. When two people face each other, each has an automatic recognition that we are both human beings because we both have human bodies. For Husserl, the human sciences can only begin when proper empathy of the views of others is achieved. Authentic empathy involves an attempt at imagining the experiences of other persons, in an attempt to feel their motivations as though they were one’s own. In the terminology of anthropology this is an emic point of view because it is an attempt to think, imagine and feel one’s way into the experiences of others as they have them, without the contamination of one’s own biases. What this also means about the sense of self is that there is an intersubjective connection to understanding ourselves as though we might be being understood by them. People understand themselves as public objects ‘for others,’ accurately or not, from the point of view of what ‘we think others think’. Or to be more precise, what we imagine concerning how others empathise us. The topic of the proper attitude of the human sciences (and therapy) is called the “personalistic attitude”, (1989, §49e, p 192). This proper research attitude towards others is one that Husserl mentioned many times (§§43, 45-47, 50, 56f, 56g, 56h).

Husserl, E. (1977) Cartesian meditations: An introduction to phenomenology. (Trans D. Cairns). The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

________ (1989) Ideas pertaining to a pure phenomenology and to a phenomenological philosophy: Second book. (Trans R. Rojcewicz & A. Schuwer). Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic.

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