In its most general sense of that which occurs between or exists among conscious human actors, intersubjectivity is little more than a synonym for “the social.” As used by social scientists, however, intersubjectivity usually denotes some set of relations, meanings, structures, practices, experiences, or phenomena evident in human life that cannot be reduced to or comprehended entirely in terms of either subjectivity (concerning psychological states of individual actors) or objectivity (concerning brute empirical facts about the objective world). In this sense, the concept is usually intended to overcome an unproductive oscillation between methodological subjectivism and objectivism. The concept is especially predominant in social theories and theories of the self.
Although German idealist philosophers Johann Fichte (1762–1814) and G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831) stressed the importance of intersubjectivity, the concept became influential in the twentieth century through the work of American social psychologist George Herbert Mead (1863–1931). Mead claimed that the development of cognitive, moral, and emotional capacities in human individuals is only possible to the extent that they take part in symbolically mediated interactions with other persons. For Mead, then, ontogenesis is essentially and irreducibly intersubjective. He also put forward a social theory explaining how social norms, shared meanings, and systems of morality arise from and concretize the general structures of reciprocal perspective-taking required for symbolic interaction. In short, he argued that intersubjectivity—understood specifically in terms of linguistically mediated, reflexively grasped social action—furnishes the key to understanding mind, self, and society.
Although the work of Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) was often more directly inspirational, Mead’s bold claim that self and society are irreducibly intersubjective has been rearticulated and supported by many distinct subsequent inter-subjectivist approaches. Action theory, symbolic interactionism, lifeworld phenomenology, hermeneutic analysis, conversational analysis, ethnomethodology, social constructivism, dialogism, discourse theory, recognition theory, and objects relations theory all take inter-subjectivity as central and irreducible. For example, Erving Goffman (1922–1982) insisted that we need a microanalysis of face-to-face interactions in order to properly understand the interpersonal interpretation, negotiation, and improvisation that constitute a society’s interaction order. While macro-and mesostructural phenomena may be important in setting the basic terms of interaction, social order according to Goffman is inexplicable without central reference to agents’ interpretations and strategies in actively developing their own action performances in everyday, interpersonal contexts. Harold Garfinkel and other ethnomethodologists likewise insist that social order is only possible because of the strongly normative character of a society’s particular everyday interaction patterns and norms.
Widely diverse social theorists influenced by phenomenology also center their analyses in intersubjective phenomena and structures. Most prominently, Alfred Schutz (1899–1959) sought to show how the lifeworld of persons—the mostly taken-for-granted knowledge, knowhow, competences, norms, and behavioral patterns that are shared throughout a society—delimits and makes possible individual action and interaction. In particular, he sought to analyze the way in which the constitutive structures of any lifeworld shape social meanings and personal experiences, by attending to the lifeworld’s spatiotemporal, intentional, semantic, and role typifying and systematizing dimensions. Other theories analyze different aspects of the lifeworld: how experience and knowledge is embodied (Maurice Merleau-Ponty), the intersubjective construction of both social and natural reality (Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann), the social construction of mind and mental concepts (Jeff Coulter), and the social power and inequalities involved in symbolic capital (Pierre Bourdieu). Finally, Jürgen Habermas emphasizes the linguistic basis of the lifeworld, constructing a theory of society in terms of the variety of types of communicative interaction, the pragmatic presuppositions of using language in order to achieve shared understandings and action coordinations with others, and the role of communicative interaction for integrating society. While acknowledging that some types of social integration function independently of communicative action—paradig-matically economic and bureaucratic systems—Habermas claims that intersubjective communication is fundamental in, and irreplaceable for, human social life.
Diverse prominent theories of the self are united in supporting Mead’s claim that the self is developed and structured intersubjectively. Martin Buber’s (1878–1965) distinction between the different interpersonal attitudes involved in the I-Thou stance and the I-It stance leads to the insight that the development and maintenance of an integral sense of personal identity is fundamentally bound up with the capacity to interact with others from a performative attitude, rather than an objectivating one. Mead’s claim is also developed in diverse theories of the self: Habermas’s account of interactive competence and rational accountability, Axel Honneth’s and Charles Taylor’s theories of interpersonal recognition and identity development, Daniel Stern’s elucidation of the interpersonal world of infants, and psychoanalytic object-relations theories stressing the dependence of the ego on affective interpersonal bonds between self and significant others.
SEE ALSO Bourdieu, Pierre; Goffman, Erving; Habermas, Jürgen; Mead, George Herbert; Other, The
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Christopher F. Zurn
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