Primacy of Intersubjectivity

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From the essay by Evan Thompson, Human Consciousness: From Intersubjectivity to Interbeing , 1999


"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.” (originally available via