Introspection Part 7, Intersubjectivity
There’s this scene in the movie The Elephant Man that was transformative for me. I saw the movie in my late teens. In the movie, the main guy has a disease which disfigures his whole body, including his face. In this particular scene, he is running from reporters. I think he’s in a hospital. At the end of a hallway, a dead-end, he confronts his pursuers, a crowd who want to ask him questions, take his picture, but he doesn’t want to talk to them. He’s had enough of being a freak to others. They don’t seem to care how he feels, but he will make himself heard. Despite his difficulty in speaking clearly, he slowly, emphatically utters to them this simple demand that he be taken seriously, “I am not an animal! I! Am! A! Human! Being!”
In this profound reprimand, the main character demands they consider his feelings. He demands they take into consideration his subjective experience—to imagine what it means to be him, and not them! He wants to be left alone, and demands they understand this, that this is the least he should be able to expect from them, to be treated with respect and humanity, with dignity, no less than what they expect for themselves.
What if we all started with this proposition in all our relationships? And coupled with this demand to have our subjective experiences accounted for by others, we also found hypocrisy intolerable, which would mean that we must be willing to give to others no less than what demand from them. This would mean that we would want to form all of our relationships to include this very basic starting point: others will consider the impact of their decisions on our subjective experiences and we will consider the impact of our decisions on their subjective experiences. This is intersubjectivity—the intersecting point when two or more people engage with each other as objects (not ourselves), while treating each other as subjects (as if we were them or they were us). The starting point for all of our relationships and interactions would have embedded in it this simple and powerful proposition: “I want you to take into consideration when dealing with me my subjective experience and I will take into consideration when dealing with you your subjective experience.”
I bet I can guess what you might be thinking. You’re thinking, well, we already do this all the time in our relationships, so why do we have to have a word (intersubjectivity), let alone some guy’s blog post, to describe it? If this happens to be what you’re thinking, I have an answer ready. We don’t do this, hardly ever. Sometimes we do, but fleetingly at best, and usually only in our very most important relationships (where failure to account for the other’s subjective experience doesn’t get us what we want), or in relationships where it doesn’t cost us much to do it (like with the cashier at the grocery store, who might be taking a long time and frustrating us, but we understand he is just doing his job and seems to be struggling with it, so we don’t complain).
I should admit here that the idea of treating each other as subjects didn’t originate in my head. During a recent discussion with a friend, the concept of “subject-to-subject” relationships came up in the context of sexism. The observation had been made decades ago that men often treat other men as subjects, and expect themselves to be treated as subjects by other men, but they often didn’t, and still do not, treat women as subjects. They treat women as objects to meet their needs, whether those needs are sexual or other role-specific needs (mother, sister, daughter, caretaker). I don’t think this is controversial (meaning it seems so obvious, if not also seriously terrible, that it can’t really be open to much of an argument against it). The solution is obviously for men to treat other men, and all women (and all children too), as having subjective experiences of their own. I’d even say we should, to the extent possible, apply these concepts of intersubjectivity to all sentient beings, whether human or not. That’s my soapbox though, and not necessarily the point of this blog, so I will step away from it (for now)!
I should also admit that I was introduced to the word “intersubjectivity” in a book discussing the philosophical basis of the meaning of symbolic representations of ideas and how that meaning gets shared between individuals in a group. So, I suppose I have “hijacked” the word to describe what I am attempting to explain here: that where two subjects meet in a relationship, and they acknowledge their own and the other person’s subjectivity simultaneously, that intersection, that “shared space” between them, the “in-between” space, with all of its ramifications, can be summed up in the word “intersubjectivity.”
My thoughts then expanded to many of the kinds of relationship issues people bring up in therapy. Specifically, it occurred to me that many of these problems would evaporate if both people in the relationship treated each other at all times as if the other had their own independent subjective experiences (which they do anyway) and that each had the right to expect the other to consider their subjective experiences in all their interactions.
What does it mean to treat someone else as if they had their own subjective experience? I suppose to start with it means imagining what the world looks like to them. We know what the world looks like to us. Step 1: imagine the possibility of others seeing the world just as we do. Step 2: imagine what that would be like for them—to imagine the world as we see it. Step 3: imagine them wanting us to see the world as they see it. Step 4: try to see the world as they see it. Base what that world would look like on what you know about them—their attitudes, history, feelings, their personality, what scares them, what makes them happy, what they like, don’t like, what they want and don’t want, how they see you, their job, their school, their friends, their family, how they see themselves. What you don’t know about their world, ask. Ask them. If you want to try to imagine what their world looks like and there are blank spots in your imagined world of their subjective experience, fill them in by asking them.
Immanuel Kant was a really important philosopher from Germany. He talked a lot about morality. One of the most famous things he said (I am paraphrasing here) is that we should never treat others as merely a means to an end, we should always treat others as ends in themselves. In other words, we shouldn’t use people solely for our own gain, for our own purpose. We should treat them as having the right to have their needs considered, no matter what our needs might be. I guess you could say this is a kind of intersubjective morality.
Intersubjectivity is a never-ending process. It’s just like self-discovery. If you are engaged in self-discovery, invested in it as a way of being in your life, there will always be more to discover. The same is true for discovering someone else’s self. They are no less complicated than you. They have new things happening within all the time, just as you do. So, intersubjectivity is a way of always deepening your understanding of the other person, and in so doing, deepening the connection between you. This takes time, of course, but you have time, plenty of time. The attempt is the thing that matters. Imagining your relationship partner’s view and experience of the world around them becomes a constantly improving thing over time, but only if you are trying.
Aside from deepening your relationships, intersubjectivity, if you and the other person can be committed to it, will help you avoid and resolve conflicts. You will each know the other expects at all times consideration of your subjective experiences to the extent possible. Hopefully, you will also realize that you can never actuallyknow what someone else’s subjective experience truly is. This would require that you become them, which of course is impossible. In the attempt though, in the wanting to know, caring enough to imagine and then consider what the other person might be experiencing, probably is experiencing, could be experiencing, you will tailor your behavior, words, priorities, to what you can imagine they might want, they might appreciate, they might hope you will do. And when you aren’t sure, remember, ask them.
Co-dependency would vanish with intersubjectivity. I’ve defined co-dependency in Firewalking on Jupiter, as arising from two mistaken assumptions and the behaviors based on these assumptions: (1) “your needs are more important than they really are,” and (2) “my needs are less important than they really are.” With intersubjectivity, these mistakes would be essentially impossible. If you required in your relationships that the other person take into consideration your subjective experiences, inherent within that demand is the expectation that your needs will be no less important to the other person than their needs are to you. If your demand for intersubjectivity were met by the other person, they would point out to you that you were allowing their needs to become paramount, while submerging your own needs, as part of the reality and the ideal of intersubjectivity. I suppose I should say something here about the difference between equality and equity. I am not suggesting that intersubjectivity requires two people to always treat the other’s needs as equal to their own, at all times (equality). Needs differ in terms of importance, of course. Sometimes your needs are more important, and should take priority over your partner’s needs, sometimes it’s the other way around (equity). The important point is that no one’s needs are always more important or less important, which would be both unequal and inequitable (and not possible with intersubjectivity in place).
Abuse, in all its forms—verbal, physical, sexual, emotional—would also vanish with the practice of intersubjectivity, at least theoretically. I define abuse as being the result of an intent to harm. If you demanded intersubjectivity in all your relationships, the other person would know that what they are doing was harming you. You would of course know they knew this as well. You wouldn’t stand for it. You’d demand they stop, immediately, or you would leave the situation or even the relationship, depending on the severity of the abusive behavior and its repetition. I truly wish that this were the case in all abusive relationships. It would be the case if all relationships had at their core the demand that each person’s subjective experience were considered and attended to by the other person.
Intersubjective relationships, like I am trying to describe here, will also deepen your understanding of yourself. Think about it: if you demand from others that they treat you as a subject with your own world of experiences, you will need to be prepared to share with them what your subjective world is like. You will need to be able to articulate many of the kinds of things that comprise and fill your thoughts and outlook. You can hardly expect others to know what you are like as a subject if you don’t know yourself. Nor can you expect them to understand what your inner world looks like to you if you can’t explain it to them. If you and others in your life, even just one other person in your life, are committed to this idea, each of you will learn from the process of sharing these subjective experiences much more about yourselves as you also learn about each other.
If you start from the proposition that you will expect at all times with all people that your subjective experience will be considered (varying in depth by the nature of your relationship and reasonable expectations of what they can and should know about you), you will be in a position to know when to assert your needs, and when to acknowledge the other person is attending to them as best they can. Of course, you will also be setting yourself up for grave disappointment, often. That’s the nature of human interaction. We are all the time forgetting to account for the needs of others when those needs conflict with our own, when their needs are getting in the way of our needs. Frustration abounds. We have to temper our expectations with reality. Many people you come across every day of your life will not give a whit about your subjective experience. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t want it, or even at times demand it, but it does mean you will need to accept “you can’t always get what you want.” Even in your most important relationships, you and others will never achieve anything close to perfect or constant intersubjectivity. Intersubjectivity, as I’ve described its meaning and practice here, is an ideal, something to strive for, something you know you will never completely achieve, but something worth attempting, as often and as deeply as you can, especially with those relationships that are most important to you.
Give the idea a try. Start with yourself. Start by wanting others to treat you as a subject, even though to them you are an object (they themselves are their only subject). Ask to be treated as a thing that has a subjective experience. When you are not being treated that way, and you believe you have a right to expect it (like from your partner or family member), explain what you want. Or, I suppose you could have them read this blog post and discuss it with them, to come up with your own mutual understanding of what “intersubjectivity” means to you. Then offer to do the same for them, and then do it, even if they don’t. I am all the time trying to treat others as subjects even when it clear they don’t treat me as a subject. Of course, I am human and also often treat others as an object when I absolutely should be treating them as a subject. Remember, no one is perfect!
Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.