Intersubjectivity: The Fabric of Social Becoming

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Nick Crossley

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    Series Editor: David M. Rasmussen, Boston College

    This series presents an interdisciplinary range of theory and critique emphasizing the interrelation of continental and Anglo-American scholarship as it affects contemporary discourses. Books in the series are aimed at an international audience, focusing on contemporary debates in philosophy and ethics, politics and social theory, feminism, law, critical theory, postmodernism and hermeneutics.

    Other books in this series

    David Owen, Nietzsche, Politics and Modernity

    Richard Kearney (ed.), Paul Ricoeur: The Hermeneutics of Action

    Mathieu Deflem (ed.), Habermas, Modernity and Law

    Copyright

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    Dedication

    For Michele

    Preface: A Book about Intersubjectivity

    ‘Intersubjectivity’ is a complex and multilayered concept. There are many quite different understandings and theories of it. It is also a popular concept which, for many writers, forms a central linchpin in the work in which they, as philosophers or social scientists, are engaged (Giddens 1993; Honneth 1995; Joas 1985). Furthermore, it is an interdisciplinary concept. It appeals to philosophers, sociologists, psychologists and political thinkers alike, seemingly offering them insights into both their specific discipline and the connections between that discipline and others.

    For these reasons alone a book on intersubjectivity is both justified and warranted. Its different versions need to be explored and perhaps combined. Certainly they need to be introduced in a comprehensible form to students. Moreover, the interdisciplinary potential of the concept needs to be tested out in some way. We need to consider or to demonstrate how and in what ways different disciplines can engage with the idea, what they may contribute to our understanding of it and what they may wish to take from it. This book will, I hope, do all of these things to the reader's satisfaction. It aims to provide a comprehensive map of intersubjectivity, outlining the key theories in the intersubjectivist tradition and, importantly, putting forward the many arguments in favour of intersubjectivism in philosophy and social science.

    In addition to these introductory functions the book offers a systematic attempt to join the various theories of intersubjectivity that it considers into a common perspective, or, rather, a system of interlocking perspectives. Specifically it traces a common path through the work of Merleau-Ponty, Wittgenstein, Mead, Schutz and Habermas and it considers their work against a background formed by the work of Husserl, Buber and Hegel. This is not an arbitary eclecticism or a postmodern shopping spree in the supermarket of ideas. Despite their often very different contexts and methods, all of the theorists whom I discuss are united in their intersubjectivism and in their rejection of the subjectivist and objectivist alternatives to it. Even if their versions of intersubjectivity are different, even if they don't use the word, the writers whom I discuss are all groping towards a common ground, as is evidenced in the many studies which have compared them separately (Coulter 1979; Habermas 1987a, 1991a; Heinzig 1987; Roche 1973; Rosenthal and Bourgeois 1991; Spurling 1977). What I am doing in constructing a theory of intersubjectivity is explicating this common ground, showing where paths or at least interests and concerns overlap, where one theory takes over from another.

    My final purpose in writing the book has been to introduce an element of critique and coherence where I feel it is needed and to develop some of the points raised by the various theorists. I have entered into dialogue with the theorists whom I have discussed, replying to the questions which their theories raise and responding to those points which have provoked me. This dialogicality constitutes the book's own intersubjective situation and I can only hope it will be continued by you. Books are acts of communication. They are designed to convey, convince and provoke. And they call for a response.

    The Plan

    It is usual at the beginning of a study, to provide some definition of the central concepts to be used and to map out the structure which it will adopt. In the present case this is not possible. Defining ‘intersubjectivity’ is partly what the main body of the book as a whole is about. I do offer three definitions of ‘intersubjectivity’ in my first chapter, however, each of which represents an important statement in the history of the concept. These should suffice to give the reader a preliminary sense of ‘intersubjectivity’. I have also deferred my exposition of the plan of the book to the first chapter. The plan is easier to follow when the various definitions of the concept have been discussed because the book itself is based around these definitions, or at least around my engagement with them.

    Acknowledgements

    Thanks to staff and students at the Centre for Psychotherapeutic Studies for listening to and commenting upon some of the ideas discussed in this book. Thanks to Bob Stern for reading and commenting upon an early chapter. Thanks to my mum and dad for being interested and encouraging me. Finally, very special thanks to my wife and colleague Michele Davies. Her advice, criticism, encouragement and the time she has taken to read over drafts have been invaluable. The book is dedicated to her.

  • Conclusion: The Fabric of Social Becoming

    In this book I have shown, by example, how different academic traditions and disciplines can converge around the issue of intersubjectivity, such that it might provide them with common ground. Furthermore, I have combined and coordinated different versions of the concept, reorganising them according to new distinctions (such as radical and egological), thereby showing them to be both compatible and mutually enriching. Finally, I have argued that a consideration of intersubjectivity can enrich our understanding of other key concepts such as ‘power’ and ‘citizenship’. Underlying all of this, however, has been a more fundamental point, which it has been my main concern to establish; namely, that intersubjectivity is the fabric of our social becoming.

    I say ‘becoming’ rather than ‘being’ to indicate both the temporal structure and the esssential incompleteness of our social world, to indicate that this world and the multiple relationships therein are always in a process of becoming something and are never static. More specifically, though, my point is that intersubjectivity is the key to understanding human life in both its personal and its societal forms. It is that in virtue of which our societies are possible and we are who we are. Moreover, it is irreducible and sui generis, a generative principle of our identities, our agency and of the societies in which we live. And it is something which we cannot step out of. No amount of methodological procedure, either philosophical or social scientific, can negate this or even bracket it out. We are inter-subjects. Our actions and thoughts aren't reducible to us alone. They are moves in a game which has many players, responses to a call to action which is expressed in every gesture of the other. And their significance is precisely constituted through their place in that game.

    I use the word ‘fabric’ to denote this for a number of reasons. Firstly, to articulate with the popular expression ‘social fabric’. Intersubjectivity is, I believe, precisely the fabric alluded to in this expression. It is what holds us all together in an identifiable group or unit. Secondly, ‘fabric’ conjures up an image of multiple overlappings and intertwinings, organised and arranged in different ways, sometimes becoming disorganised. It connotes a sense of unity and strength which is achieved by way of this overlapping. No thread is either strong or significant on its own but the intertwining gives it strength and form. It is these different forms and patterns of overlapping that are being investigated in the analysis of radical and egological intersubjectivity, language games and the various taken-for-granted assumptions of the social lifeworld. Finally, the word ‘fabric’ suggests a certain material basis, a corporeal intertwining, which is again evident in intersubjectivity. Human beings are embodied beings and this is quite crucial to their intersubjectivity. Moreover, their intersubjective relations take place within and include material environments.

    Having said all of this we are left with the inevitable question that every conclusion must contend with: where to now? I have entertained many grandiose fantasies regarding this question during the writing of the book. In the final instance, however, the answer is both narrow and clear. There is no specific project which emerges out of a study such as this, even if there may be a few good ideas for projects tucked away in the text somewhere. Neither is there a distinct method or procedure that we might apply to the future projects we will undertake. The many studies I have discussed in the book employ a wide range of methods and analytic procedures, all of which are suited to drawing out particular aspects of intersubjectivity or issues relating to it, but none of which are either compulsory or exclusive. What I hope that the book does provide us with, however, is a way of thinking about the social-intersubjective world and about our involvement in it.

    To think about intersubjectivity and to tackle the problems it poses as a concept is to confront the very question of social life itself. It is to unpick the fabric of social life and to wonder how it ever fits together in the first place, how we ever manage to coordinate ourselves through time and space, sharing thoughts and meanings, agreeing enough at least to disagree. It is to wonder what thought, meaning and action actually are, such that they can be shared or joint. It is to wonder how the human organism can ever be involved in anything which transcends its spatial boundaries. These are not just academic questions, even if they have a strong academic aspect. They are ultimately also existential questions about our very being (my being and your being particularly). To confront the question of intersubjectivity is to consider the type of beings that we are and the sort of world to which we belong. Considerations of this sort lie at the heart of all of our projects, whether academic or not.

    If this book has opened up some of these issues, made them accessible and provoked some thoughts about how they might best be conceived, then it has done the job that I intended.

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