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By Bruce Alderman, in a review of the book by Christian De Quincey, Radical Knowing, at :

De Quincey finds it useful to distinguish among several types (or definitions) of subjectivity and intersubjectivity. I quote the following from an article which is available on his website:

Subjectivity-1: In the first case, subjectivity means, essentially, a capacity for feeling that is intrinsic, or interior, to the entity under consideration–a what-it-feels-like-from-within. The key notion here is “experienced interiority” as distinct from vacuous (i.e. without experience) external relations. A subject is constituted by internal relations, and these are felt or experienced. Without experience there could be no subjectivity (and vice versa; in fact, the two words are virtually synonymous); and experience is always internal or intrinsic to the subject-that is to say, experience doesn't “happen to” a subject, it is constitutive of the subject.

Subjectivity has a point of view. It “takes account of,” or feels, its own being. Its being is validated, felt, or known from within itself-hence it is first-person–not just from without. It cannot be fully accounted for by external, mechanical relations. A subject lives or endures through time, feeling its own continuity.

Subjectivity-2: In another, related through restricted, sense, subjectivity means an isolated, independent, self-sufficient locus of experience. Classically, this is the Cartesian ego, wholly private, and independent of all reality external to it. In the first case, subjectivity-1, experienced interiority is not automatically self-contained within its own private domain–it is interior, but not necessarily independent or isolated. The question of whether it is self-contained or interdependent is left open: It is possible for subjectivity-1 to be either interior and shared, or interior and private. In this second, Cartesian, case, the subject is not only interior, it is self-contained and private. Such independent egos, or subjects–Leibniz called them “monads”–can communicate only via mediating signals, whereas subjectivity-1 can communicate by participating in shared presence. With subjectivity-1, interiority or feeling can be “intersubjective” and precede individual subjects; in subjectivity-2, interiority is always private, and intersubjectivity, if it occurs, is always secondary. I will be using both forms of “subjectivity” in this paper, but will be careful to indicate, where it is not obvious from the context, which variety I am referring to.

Which brings us to the core question raised by this paper: Which comes first, subjectivity or intersubjectivity? I will return to this in a moment, but first I should clarify what I mean by “intersubjective.”

Intersubjectivity-1: This standard meaning derives from Cartesian subjectivity (isolated, independent subjects). Here, individual subjectivity ontologically precedes intersubjectivity. Individual, isolated subjects come first, and then through communication of signals arrive at consensual agreement. Here, the “inter” in intersubjectivity refers to agreement “between” subjects about so-called objective facts–and the subjects don't even have to interact (their agreement could be validated by a third party, as indeed is often the case in science).

Intersubjectivity-2a: Here, the sense of individual subjects remains, but now intersubjectivity refers to how the experience or consciousness of participating subjects is influenced and conditioned by their mutual interaction and engagement. The emphasis here is on the “experienced interiority” of the subjects as they interact, not on their “objective” agreement about some item of knowledge. Although this is a significant shift of emphasis from the standard meaning of intersubjectivity, nevertheless it is “weak” compared with the “strong” shift we will look at below. It is “weak,” not because the participation and engagement involved is weak–indeed it could be intense–but because it refers to changes that happen to the form of consciousness of the participating subjects, not to the fact of such consciousness. It is “weak” insofar as it refers to the contents, not the context, of consciousness. It is a “weak” meaning of intersubjectivity because it addresses psychological rather than philosophical issues; it is “weak” because it still posits subjectivity as ontologically prior to intersubjectivity. Here, the “inter” in intersubjectivity refers to the mutual “structural coupling” of already existing experiencing subjects, where the interiorities of the participating subjects are interdependently shaped by their interaction.

Intersubjectivity-2b: This is the most radical meaning, and one that offers the most promise to transpersonal psychology. According to this “stronger” meaning, intersubjectivity is truly a process of co-creativity, where relationship is ontologically primary. All individuated subjects co-emerge, or co-arise, as a result of a holistic “field” of relationships. The being of any one subject is thoroughly dependent on the being of all other subjects, with which it is in relationship. Here, intersubjectivity precedes subjectivity (in the second, Cartesian, sense, but subjectivity in the first sense, of experienced interiority, is implicit throughout). The fact, not just the form, of subjectivity (second, Cartesian sense) is a consequence of intersubjectivity. Here, the “inter” in intersubjectivity refers to an “interpenetrating” co-creation of loci of subjectivity–a thoroughly holistic and organismic mutuality.

Intersubjectivity 2a is hardly controversial. There is abundant support in psychological and sociological literature and clinical research, for example, that subjects mutually condition each other. Whether our ‘interbeing' goes deeper is still open to question - though many feel that mature contemplative insight reveals the truth of the 2b as well.

One of de Quincey's more controversial claims, from a modern scientific perspective, is that there are forms of knowing in addition to the first-person subjective and third-person objective modes - that there is the possibility for direct, nonlocal subject to subject (I-to-I) knowing, unmediated by symbols, signals, or other types of energetic exchange. If we are ever to confirm the existence of this mode of awareness, I believe it will be through the cultivation of subjective and intersubjective contemplative methodologies, as complements rather than alternatives to conventional scientific practices.

Whether or not we learn to know each other ‘from within' in the radical way that de Quincey suggests is possible, simply honoring the “we” of consciousness - conscientia means ‘to know with' - and recognizing, through the practice of intersubjective inquiry, how deeply and fundamentally the miracle of “I” depends for its existence on the miracle of “you,” we will have taken an important step towards birthing a richer way of being together, at the creative edge of our co-emergence." (


The Primacy of Intersubjectivity


"When we consider ourselves, taking what is usually called a first-person perspective, just what do we see ? We describe ourselves with words, with concepts, identifying our ideas. But where do these come from, what is the source of all the descriptive categorization we thus employ in, say, our phenomenlogical approach ? At birth no such abilities exist, so these must arise by experience, and for humans such experiences are always highly social - our entire 'human' mind is almost created culturally, in other words from a second-person 'we' perspective, even our view of the material or animal worlds are formed from the prior beliefs of the society that teaches us about such 'things' and their 'labels'. Thus when we abstract a separate 'I' all we are doing is breaking out from the collective whole a delusion. The 'I' still contains the essence of 'we', our very thought processes are 'we' processes. We think as our culture taught us to think, our thoughts suffer from the very same limitations and possibilities as the culture that incubated us. We often think that we escape such pressures in our 'I' perspective, but we only can challenge our upbringing to the extent that our culturation permits.

We emphasised earlier the role of culture in creating and maintaining mind, the social aspect, but now we can see that we must also add body, the biological aspect. Our genetic inheritance is again a form of intersubjectivity, arising from the interactions of many lifeforms over many aeons. This form of causality both enables the development of brain and mind and restrains it - we cannot do what we are biologically incapable of doing. But we can overcome these restrictions, and that is what our culture adds to the mix. Humans cannot fly, but cultures can. The 'aeroplane' is a cultural creation, a new 'lifeform' (in memetic space) that can evolve, grow, replicate and die - in common with all our artefacts and fashions. Mind possibility then is extended into the cultural artefacts that augment it. Consciousness then is a three-way intersubjective coevolution, between mind and body, between mind and culture and between ideas or concepts. In other words consciousness isn't located just in the 'brain' but exists in the world, in the society and in the body also - we cannot then meaningfully isolate any 'mind' in a 'first-person' sense at all, it is an environmentally driven 'active externalism' also, the artefacts we use (as mind creations) whether artificial or natural are also intersubjective - we integrate all our available resources (e.g. a calculator) when we think. The mind is embedded in and structurally coupled to our environment.

"Human consciousness is not located in the head, but is immanent in the living body and the interpersonal social world. One�s consciousness of oneself as an embodied individual embedded in the world emerges through empathic cognition of others. Consciousness is not some peculiar qualitative aspect of private mental states, nor a property of the brain inside the skull; it is a relational mode of being of the whole person embedded in the natural environment and the human social world." (

Key Book to Read

Evan Thompson, Human Consciousness: From Intersubjectivity to Interbeing , 1999