"“Instead of being lone subjects in our own life's drama, we are ‘intersubjects' created by the original worldwide web - the web of intersubjectivity woven in the Great Cosmic Drama, in the Great Unfolding of Being.” ~ Christian de Quincey
In two recent works, Radical Nature and Radical Knowing, Christian de Quincey, Ph.D., argues for fundamental shifts in our understanding of nature and consciousness. In Radical Nature, de Quincey makes the case for panpsychism - the notion that consciousness goes all the way down, that ‘interiority' is fundamental to matter and energy at all levels. In Radical Knowing, he builds on this thesis, suggesting that intersubjectivity is the ground and precondition for, rather than an emergent quality of, individual or personal consciousness. Like Ken Wilber, de Quincey draws inspiration from the deeply relational process philosophies of A.N. Whitehead and Buddhism (among other influences). Tracing the roots of the West's philosophical investigation of intersubjectivity, he argues that it has nevertheless not been given the attention it deserves and calls for the cultivation of second-person modes of science and spiritual inquiry.
According to de Quincey, while simple subjectivity (‘the feeling of being') is present throughout nature at all levels, the sense of being an individual, bounded subject emerges out of a primordial ground of sentient relationship (the unbroken flow of Whiteheadian moments of experience). In other words, personal consciousness (so-called individual subjectivity) emerges out of intersubjectivity. However, this is not the end of state of conscious evolution. Beyond the personal consciousness of the isolated ego, a transpersonal interpersonal consciousness may then develop (particularly through the practice of Bohmian dialogue, which he advocates, or other modes of intersubjective inquiry). This stage is the first flowering of transpersonal awareness, which may then open into unitive consciousness, which transcends and integrates all prior forms of (inter)subjectivity.
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." (http://brucealderman.zaadz.com/blog/2007/5/nondual_community_the_flowering_of_intersubjectivity_part_1)