Intersubjectivity as Mutually Understood Subjectivity

 In Building Knowledge, The Mind

Sometimes people speak of “objective reality”, but objectivity is actually just the most unbiased treatment of things that we can mentally construct through the gathering and scrutiny of evidence.  Everything that we can speak of is a mental model, even the objective.  Sure, there is a truth out there whether we know about it or not, but we’re probably never going to have a 100% perfect understanding of it.  The models that we use to speak of things are still within consciousness, and that is the only thing that anyone has integrated within their consciousness.  But the objective is the subset of the mental models where we have gained the highest possible mutual understanding through social verification tactics.  The outer world is still a mental model, but one where multiple people have gone through processes of refining and synching their models and have attained high levels of confidence that they have pretty accurate models of things that have persistent existence outside of their own and any other person’s consciousness.

Can our inner world also be mutually understood, to some extent?  Every conscious being has their own inner world, and this is private-access knowledge, but there might be similarities among our inner worlds such that we can develop some degree of mutual understanding.  It certainly would not be possible for anyone to enter the consciousness of another and to experience their thoughts and feelings firsthand, but there might be indirect tactics through which we can socially verify certain common features of our inner worlds.  It is, indeed, conceivable that multiple people could be internally observing similar phenomena these people could potentially find ways to communicate details about their experiences with each other and could then develop mutual understanding.

To consider another example that is similar to the one from the previous section but different in an important way, let’s say that two or more people not only looked at a rock, but each dropped it on their own foot.  Each of them therefore has an experience of pain from this, but this pain is not a perception of the rock.  The experience of pain is real to each person, but this kind of experience is different from seeing and hearing in that it does not perceive a medium.  This means that one can focus on their own experience of pain, but this experience of pain itself does not give them any understanding of other people’s pain.  On the one hand, one is able to get a good idea of other people’s experience of sight and hearing by seeing and hearing, but one is not able to get a good idea of other people’s pain through their own experience of pain.  They are able to conclude that other people have the experience of pain through seeing and hearing other people react to the rock hitting their foot.  Since the other people’s reaction is similar to their own, each person can therefore conclude that the others have similar experiences.  There can also be processes through which these people can further refine their mutual understanding of each other’s pain, which would rely on further observations of the outer world, which is understood through the communications medium, and then comparing these findings to their own inner world, which are subjective experiences that nobody else can directly understand, but might indirectly understand through these processes.  We can by analogy say that these people have mentally come onto the “same page” or that something is “resonating” within each of their minds because they are all “tuned into a common wavelength”.

There is an important difference between the first example (involving sight and sound of the rock) and the second example (involving the experience of pain inflicted by the rock) in that in the first example the social verification of the experience occurred through the same medium that the experience is the subject of, while in the second example the social verification of the experience occurred through a medium that is different than the subject of the experience.  In the first example, it is the fact that social verification occurred in a way that is so closely related to the experience itself that allowed each person to eliminate (or at least minimize) personal biases and to develop more accurate conceptions of an object in the outer world.  In the second example, the fact that the social verification requires another level of analogy ends up making it much more difficult to eliminate personal biases.  In the first example, each person was able to understand the rock without personal biases, perhaps aided by a tape measure or a scale.  In the second example, each person’s experience of pain is still colored by their own inner world, even though they developed this mutual understanding of the experience of pain.  Therefore, it is unlikely that an experience such as pain can become objective.

This does not mean that pain is any less real than seeing or hearing.  But it does mean that it is more difficult to understand other people’s experience of pain and other experiences that are not the subject of a communicative medium.  It is probably impossible that such knowledge can become objective, but there is a certain reality of these experiences that can still permeate the outer world, in a sense, because it can be mutually understood.  In situations where such subjective knowledge has been socially verified amongst multiple sentient beings, this knowledge becomes intersubjective

We can talk about anything we can see or hear or physically touch as objective, provided we have gone through the necessary processes to try to understand the object as closely as possible to how it actually is.  If we have any subjective knowledge that cannot be made objective but where we have gone through the process of communicating details about this knowledge with others, which in turn allows us to reasonably conclude that others have similar subjective knowledge, then this can be called intersubjective.

We can consider that which is intersubjective to be a subset of the subjective that is socially verifiable to some extent.  Aspects of our inner world that can never be mutually understood because social verification is impossible can be called purely subjective.  One’s particular thoughts, perceptions, and emotions that they alone will experience and that nobody else could ever fully grasp would fall into this category.  We can figure that categorization would include subjective experiences that are quite unique to an individual and are simply impossible to fully relate.  However, by the very nature of the concept, there is nothing specific that we could identify and speak about that would fall within this category.  If we could speak about some particular experience and develop some mutual understanding of this subjective phenomenon then it would not be in this category.  By definition, any such phenomenon would not be purely subjective and would instead be intersubjective.  For example, let’s say that Mary says to her friend Sarah “I have been having this unique feeling recently and I don’t think anyone would ever understand…” but then after explaining her feelings for a while, Sarah starts to relate and empathize because Mary’s description seems similar to her own past experiences.  Thus, they can discuss their feelings and come to refine their understanding of each other’s experiences.

For any person who can communicate, we can figure that some of their thoughts, emotions, and perceptions can be relatable to other people, but it still makes sense that there are aspects of each person’s particular experiences that could never be mutually understood.  It does intuitively make sense that most of our experiences are purely subjective, even if there is nothing in particular that multiple people could possibly identify as being in this category.  The distinction between the intersubjective and the purely subjective would have to be a spectrum rather than a fine line because some things are barely mutually understood by people and some things are only mutually understood by a select few.  People sometimes talk for hours about abstractions and then think they have some mutual understanding, but they can’t really be sure.  Such things would probably fall into the gray area between purely subjective and intersubjective.

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