Identity, Intersubjectivity and Communicative Action

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Identity, Intersubjectivity and Communicative Action

Traditionally, attempts to verify communications between individuals and cultures appeal to 'public' objects, essential structures of experience, or universal reason. Contemporary continental philosophy demonstrates that not only such appeals, but fortuitously also the very conception of isolated individuals and cultures whose communication such appeals were designed to insure, are problematic. Indeed we encounter and understand ourselves, and are also originally constituted, in relation to others. In view of this the traditional problem of communication is inverted and becomes that of how we are sufficiently differentiated from one another such that communication might appear problematic.

Following Hume's recognition that we cannot in principle have any experience of an experience transcending objectivity as such, Husserl's Phenomenological Epoche (1) suspends judgement on whether or not such a realm of "things-in-themselves" exists. Thus our experiences of material objects and descriptions thereof can no more be shown to correspond to such an "objective" standard than can our experiences and descriptions of immaterial objects and conscious states. Consequently interpersonal and intercultural communications concerning the supposedly "public" objects etc. of the material world seem no less problematic than Wittgenstein (2) and others have shown communication concerning the "private" objects of the immaterial world (of fantasies, dreams etc.) to be.

Accepting that we cannot establish the "objectivity" of our experiences' content, Kant nevertheless attempts to resist a slide into relativism by insisting that they are mediated by rationally delineated categories which supposedly insure the transcendental or universal nature of their form, thereby providing an absolute standard against which we might check the veridicality of our descriptions of, and communications concerning, them. However as a priori preconditions of the possibility of experience such categories are obviously inexperienceable in themselves, and consequently must also fall to the phenomenological reduction. (3) Nevertheless, a moments reflection will confirm that our experiences do indeed exhibit structure or form, and that we are able, even from within, or wholly upon the basis of, the (phenomenologically reduced) realm of, our experiences per se, to distinguish between the flux of constantly changing and interrupted subjective appearances, and the relatively unchanging and continuously existing objects constituted therein. Husserl confirms:

... cognitive acts, more generally, any mental acts, are not isolated particulars, coming or going in the stream of consciousness without any interconnections. As they are ESSENTIALLY related to one another, they display a teleological coherence and corresponding connections ... And on these connections, which present an intelligible unity a great deal depends.

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They themselves are involved in the construction of objects ... (4)


..."appearances" ... in their shifting and remarkable structure ... create objects in a certain way for the ego ... (5)

However while the structures or forms displayed by our experiences constitute their objective content, what is far from evident is Husserl's claim, here and elsewhere, (6) that they are "essential". Indeed in order to know which, if any, of the structures of our particular experiences of an object etc. are essentially or universal, we must already know, prior to these experiences, and consequently non-phenomenologically, the essence of the object etc. in question. Moreover this is true regardless of whether we restrict our experiences to our sensory observations of physical objects etc., or, as Husserl, Merleau-Ponty and other Phenomenologists suggest, (7) we include also our non-sensory observations of the non-physical objects etc. given to us in "imaginary free variation".

While it is therefore evident that the forms or structures exhibited by our experiences constitute objective unities which transcend the flux of "subjective" experiences by which they are nonetheless exclusively constituted, (8) what is not clear is whether they similarly transcend the individual-historico-socio-culturally relative instances of their lifeworld (Lebenwelt) appearances, as they must if they are to insure the veracity of interpersonal or transcultural communication. Indeed, the Gestaltists' Vase/Faces or Duck/Rabbit seem to point to the relativism of our perceptions, while many of the cognitive illusions produced by Ames and his school, and by stage "magicians" precisely depend upon our mistakenly generalizing or universalizing particular formal or structural relations to cases where they do not hold.

And as with our perceptions in the narrow sense, so too our "perception" in the widest sense, our understanding, displays a similar relativism. For instance most US citizens simply failed to understand Soviet ex-President Gorbachev's comment that the homelessness of New York subway inhabitants demonstrated that US society was not free. For unlike the Communists' conception of freedom as "Freedom FROM" (eg. exploitation, unemployment, ignorance, hunger, preventable illness, and homelessness etc.), most US citizens conceive Freedom as "Freedom TO" do certain things (eg. invest money at highest interest rate, compete for jobs, education, food, healthcare and housing etc.). (9)

Thus while, as Heidegger and the Hermeneuticists have observed, our "perceptions" are indeed mediated by concepts, so far from being transcendental, and thereby ensuring universal communication, these concepts are relative, and thus instrumental in constituting the different "life-worlds" that render understanding problematic. Nor, as Husserl, (10) and following him, Thomas Kuhn, (11) have demonstrated in detail, do the empirical sciences escape this "life-world" relativism.

In sum then, as even Husserl eventually recognized:

everything here is SUBJECTIVE and RELATIVE, even though normally in our experience and in the social group united with us in the community of life, we arrive at "secure" facts ... when we are thrown into an alien social sphere, ... we discover that their truths, the facts that for them are fixed, generally verified or verifiable, are by no means the same as ours ... (12)

Nevertheless Husserl goes on to insists that:

... the life-world does have, in all its relative features, a general structure ... a priori structures ... [which] systematically unfold in a priori sciences ... of the logos... (13)

And it is this a priori or universal Reason that he believes will provide the basis for veridical interpersonal and transcultural communication.

However knowledge even that such a priori structures exist, much less knowledge of what they might be like, is surely inaccessible in principle to empiricism, which is a posteriori, and belief in them is consequently a matter of faith. Hence just as Nietzsche has argued that it is "Man [sic] who makes God", Derrida has argued that "... man [sic] takes his own mythology ... his logic - that is the myths of his idiom - for the universal form of that which it is his inescapable desire to call reason." (14) And just as Kierkegaard has shown that belief in and commitment to such a transcendental deity must be founded upon a "Leap of Faith", in light of Godel's Proof, — that no system can be self-axiomatizing or self-justifying, — Barry Barnes has argued that: "For people to operate ... rationally they need to have internalized some non-rational (15) commitment to reason." (16)

On this view then logos is deconstructed as an early Greek mythos in which we continue to have faith, perhaps by virtue of its pragmatic utility, an interpretation which is made the more plausible by the fact that, as we would expect of any pragmatic tool, it is subject to modification in different (cultural) environments. For example Peter Winch confirms apropos discussion of the Azande Poison Oracle, that "...standards of rationality in different societies do not always coincide." (17) While in view of Einstein's "Twins Paradox", (where the length of time that has passed is both >T & <T,) and Bohr's concept of Complementarity (where light is both a particle and not a particle but a wave), it is at least arguable that not even the scientific notion of "rationality" implys universal commitment to the law of non-contradiction for instance. In light of such relativism it therefore seems that "rationality" can provide no absolute standard of comparison or basis of communication between our relative lifeworlds or cultures.

But while we seem unable to find a way of bridging the communications gap between apparently isolated individuals and cultures, there is, in fact, no phenomenological experience of, or convincing evidence for, the existence of such isolated egos, which Sartre, following Hegel, reveals as the illusory product of Neo-Cartesian reifying self-reflection. (18) Indeed Husserl notes:

... the experiencing ego is still nothing that might be taken for itself and made into an object of enquiry on its own account. Apart from its "ways of being related" or "ways of behaving" it is completely empty of essential components ... (19)

No longer conceived of then as an initially isolated entity attempting to communicate with the world, consciousness is revealed as a "Pole" of experience, (20) already in Intentional or communicative relation to the world. (21) While this world, colored as it is by the totality of those values, attitudes, beliefs, feelings, aspirations and "fundamental project", etc., which, Sartre has argued, (22) constitute our consciousness or identity, therefore provides our clearest reflection. (23) This then is perhaps why we often refrain from discussing politics, sex and religion with all but our intimates. As Don Ihde has pointed out: ... in spite of Husserl's surface language of egology, of transcendental idealism, of solipsism, the subject, even in the Husserlian sense, does not know itself directly. Rather, it knows itself only in correlation with and through the mirror of the World. The Other reveals me to myself in a way which radically modifies any naive or direct self knowledge. (24)

There is, of course, an ambiguity in this notion of the Other, in that it is not (only) the world of objects, but, or so Hegel, for example, would claim, other subjects, that reflect me to myself, thereby rendering me self-conscious. As he puts it, "Self-consciousness exists in itself and for itself, in that, and by the fact that it exists for another self-consciousness..." (25)

Thus it is that having attempted, and notoriously failed, in chapter five of The Cartesian Meditations to proceed, on the basis of a "language of egology, of transcendental idealism, of solipsism", to a transcendental intersubjectivity, by the time of the Krisis Husserl recognizes that "...self-consciousness and consciousness of others are inseparable". (26) Similarly Schutz for example insists that, "I experience myself through my consociate, and he experiences himself through me" in what he refers to as a "reciprocal mirroring." (27) Indeed Hegel's insight, famously explicated in Sartre's claim, (28) that we become "self-conscious" before the "look of the other", is clearly anticipated by the Eden Myth in which God occasions "Man's" (sic) self reflection, (29) and in turn anticipates Derrida's claim that, "... the center could not be thought in the form of a being-present ... the central signified, ... is never absolutely present outside a system of differences." (30) Moreover, not only the fact that I am, but also, — as Hegel makes clear in his work on the Master/Slave dialectic, (31) — my identity, or what I am, is also reflected, and thus revealed to me, by others'.

Furthermore, not only is the self reflected, and thus rendered epistemologically self-conscious, by others, but as Heidegger points out in order to be so it must already be ontologically constituted in relation to these others, or Mitsein, (32) who it therefore always already reflects in its very being. For instance it seems that the values, attitudes, beliefs, feelings, aspirations and projects etc. by which we constitute and define ourselves, are initially derived, if not directly from, then certainly, upon the basis of, our contact with others. While even such a fundamental aspect of individual identity as one's emotions seem to be socially derived as evidenced by the applicability of cultural stereotypes in this regard, and differences in behavior between different cultures at funerals for example. (33) As Foucault explains:

... the subject constitutes himself [sic] in an active fashion, by the practices of the self, these practices are nevertheless not something that the individual invents by himself. They are patterns that he finds in his culture and which are proposed, suggested and imposed on him by his culture, his society and his social group. (34)

Indeed according to Lacan even such a supposedly "natural" aspect of the subject as "the unconscious is structured like a language", (35) a victory of culture over nature which would seem to be most vividly and convincingly demonstrated by the historico-cultural construction of sexuality, explicated in vivid detail by Foucault. (36) Consequently not merely the existence, but also the very "nature" of individuals' identities is inextricably dependent upon their relations to the world and to others...upon "culture". Individual Identity or "Subjectivity" Derrida affirms,"... is an effect of differance, an effect inscribed in a system of differance". (37) In which case the problem we now face then is not how individually isolated egos can communicate with each other, and across cultures, but, on the contrary, how such socially constituted subjects come to be sufficiently differentiated that communication might be problematic.

The solution is, I believe, provided by Heidegger, who has explained in detail how our (present-at-hand vorhanden) conceptions and concomitant perceptions of the world etc., are grounded in, and arise out of, our practical (or ready-to-hand zuhanden) involvement with it. (38) Our concepts, categories and / or classificatory systems are, therefore, pragmatic, as are the "life-worlds" mediated by them, as attested to by the Eskimo's ability to differentiate many more shades of white than inhabitants of more temperate zones, or the native American's ability to perceive and interpret "tracks" that go unnoticed by non-hunters. Thus insofar as we are, as we have argued, ourselves reflected in our life-worlds, then the "fusion" of lifeworld "horizons", and the communication this therefore implies, depends upon similarities between the particular topologies, ecologies, technologies etc. which shape our concepts etc. (39) Consequently Ricoeur affirms, "understanding ceases to appear as a simple mode of knowing in order to become a way of being" (40)

However although some "common ground" is therefore clearly a necessary condition of rendering others' lifeworlds and communications understandable, even when accompanied by theoretical reflection it is often insufficient, as may be inferred from the fact that, — as Freud, Marx and Nietzsche have all pointed out, — even those reflectively engaged in a given form of life are often the very last people to understand it or the world view associated with it. This, as Ricoeur has explained, is because:

... all objectifying knowledge about our position in society, in a social class, in a cultural tradition and in history is preceded by a relation of belonging upon which we can never entirely reflect ... In accepting this belonging which precedes and supports us, we accept the very first role of ideology, that which we have described as the mediating function .... Through the mediating function, we also participate in the other functions of ideology, those of dissimulation and distortion. But we know that the ontological condition of pre-understanding excludes the total reflection which would put us in the advantageous position of non-ideological knowledge. (41)

That is to say that, just as we saw previously that the immediate presence of consciousness to itself, characteristic of the Cartesian Cogito, resulted in the "false consciousness" of the self as a reified ego, so too our immediate understanding or consciousness of our own situation, mediated as it is by concepts derived from that situation and thus subject to the (ideological) distortions pertaining thereto, is often also a, consequently far from critical, false consciousness. And just as we saw that "false consciousness" of the self as a reified ego could be dispelled by replacing the immediate self-reflection of the Cogito with a reflection mediated by the other, similarly it seems — contra Heidegger, (42) — that precisely because others' understanding of our situation is mediated by concepts drawn from lifeworlds other than our own that they offer an alternative perspective capable of pointing up OUR distorting preconceptions. Indeed the fact, — first articulated by Schleiermacher, later reiterated by Dilthey and utilized by Freudian psychoanalysis — that we may "understand an author/actor better than s/he understood her/himself," (43) depends upon just such a possibility. Similarly insights derived from Marxist analysis demonstrate that the economic perspective can often elucidate history, politics, sociology etc., in a way in which concepts drawn from these disciplines themselves fail to.

On the other hand we should not remain entirely detached from the individuals or cultures we wish to study, for as we have just argued, some "common ground", and concomitant "fusion of horizons" or communality in our "form of life" is indispensable to any understanding of others whatsoever.

The synthesis of these apparently dialectically opposed requirements, that we should have both critical distance from and participatory familiarity with the cultures we wish to study, is found in the recognition that, as Plessner pointed out: "Understanding is not the identification of the self with others, so that distance is illuminated; it is becoming familiar at a distance." (44)

Nor should we infer from this that natives' understanding of their culture is always inferior to outsiders'. For while a stranger can so thoroughly immerse him / her self in a culture as to loose all criticality, conversely, those initially immersed in a situation may, — whether by virtue of travel outside their society and culture, social mobility beyond their original class, or "historicality" with respect their epoch, etc. (45) — be able to distance themselves from it sufficiently to gain a genuinely critical perspective upon it. And as with the understanding of our culture, so too with self-understanding, we may, perhaps by virtue of the presence of the Other, — God in the Eden myth, (46) or Simmel's "Stranger" (47) for instance, — become sufficiently self estranged to become critically self-reflective and thus gain genuine self-understanding. (48)

As Ricoeur therefore concludes:

It is ... the growth of his [sic] own understanding of himself that he pursues through his understanding of the other. Every hermeneutics is thus, explicitly or implicitly, self understanding by means of understanding others. (49)

Nor should any of this surprise us, for it is, of course, the rule of the hermeneutic circle that the individual parts are to be understood in terms of the whole, and visa versa.

Consequently it seems that if the task of understanding others is conceived as a product of communication by which the meanings which one discreetly self enclosed individual or group gives to their world and behavior etc., is transmitted to another, equally discreetly self enclosed individual or group, who or which, interpreting these "communications" in terms of their own concepts, take possession or appropriate these meanings, then it has been misconceived from the ground up. Rather, as Ricoeur explains viz a viz our understanding of "texts" in general:

... I shall say that appropriation is the process by which the revelation of new modes of being ... gives the subject new capacities for knowing himself. If the reference of a text is the projection of a world, then it is not in the first instance the reader who projects himself. The reader is rather broadened in his capacity to project himself by receiving a new mode of being from the text itself.

Thus appropriation ceases to appear as a kind of possession, as a way of taking hold of ... It implies instead a moment of dispossession of the narcissistic ego. (50)

Genuine communication then would seem not only to imply abandonment of the attempt, by an ego, to appropriate or posses a meaning, but abandonment of the ego itself, the reified product of narcissistic self-reflection, to the other. As Evans-Pritchard affirms in anthropological context:

"The native society has to be in the anthropologist himself [sic] and not merely in his notebooks if he is to understand it ... To succeed in this feat a man must be able to abandon himself without reserve..." (51)

Thereby entering into communicative relation with the other we come to re-cognize this relation as the primordial ground from which the notions of self and other, together with the problematic of communication, derive. Thus as in genuine recreation, where one forgets oneself, the abandonment of the "self" to genuine communication, results in its "re-creation" in communion with the world and others from which reifying self-reflection has misconceived it as separate.


(1) For a full discussion of the Phenomenological epoche or bracketing see, Edmund Husserl, The Ideas, trans. W.R. Boyce-Gibson, (New York: Collier, 1962) Sections 30-32 and The Idea of Phenomenology, trans. W. Alston and G. Nakhnikian, (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1970) Lectures II & III.

(2) See Ludwig Wittgenstein on "Private Language" in Philosophical Investigations, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1953) Section 258 for example.

(3) See Endnote 1.

(4) E. Husserl, The Idea of Phenomenology, pp.59-60 (Italics and capitals mine). See also, E. Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, trans. D. Cairnes, (The Hague:Nijhoff, 1970) pp.41-2, 49 & 53-4.

(5) E. Husserl, The Idea of Phenomenology, p.56. Italics mine. See also E. Husserl, Ideas, pp. 245 & 121.

(6) See for example E. Husserl, The Idea of Phenomenology, pp.52-3. See also p.7.

(7) For example see Ibid. p.56 and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, ed. J. Edie, (Evanston Ill.: Northwestern U.P., 1964) p.70.

(8) See for instance The Idea of Phenomenology, pp.7-9.

(9) For a full discussion of the relation between "Positive" freedom to... and "Negative" freedom from... see Sir Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958).

(10) See for example E. Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, known widely as The Krisis, trans. D. Carr, (Evanston: Northwestern U.P. 1970), p.96.

(11) See for example Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd Edition, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970) p.50 and pp.132-3.

(12) E. Husserl, Krisis, pp.138-9. Emphasis mine.

(13) Ibid., p.139.

(14) Jacques Derrida, "White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy", in New Literary History, Vol. 6, No.1, (1974), p.11.

(15) As opposed to Irrational, which, as the negation of the rational, is logically parasitic on the notion of rationality, which it must therefore presuppose.

(16) Barry Barnes, Scientific Knowledge and Social Theory, (London: Routledge and Kegan, 1974) p.5.

(17) Peter Winch, "Understanding a Primitive Society", in American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol.I, (1964) p.317.

(18) For a full discussion of this see J-P. Sartre, The Transcendence of the Ego, trans. F.Williams & R.Kirkpatrick, (NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Undated) pp. 33-54 and J-P Sartre, Being & Nothingness, trans. Hazel Barnes, (NY: New York Philosophical Library, 1956), pp.lii-liii, 151-155 & 160-161.

(19) E. Husserl, Ideas, p.214.

(20) See for example E.Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, p.66.

(21) See Ideas., p.222-3.

(22) See for example, Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, pp.463,477, 480 & 564.

(23) See Paul Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, trans. J.B. Thompson, (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1981) p.158.

(24) Don Ihde in the Introduction to Paul Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, p.xvii.

(25) G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, trans. J.B. Baillie, (NY: Harper & Row,1967) p.229

(26) E. Husserl, Krisis, p. 253. It is of course clear that even at this time Husserl remained ambivalent as is evident, for instance, from his claim, elsewhere in the Krisis that, "... the ego ... starting from itself and in itself ... constitutes transcendental intersubjectivity" that "... only by starting from the ego and the system of its transcendental functions and accomplishments can we methodically exhibit transcendental intersubjectivity and its transcendental communalization ..." [E.Husserl, Krisis, pp. 185-6.]

(27) Alfred Schutz, The Structures of the Life-World, trans. R. Zaner & T. Engelehardt Jr., (London: Heinemann, 1974) p.67.

(28) See for example, Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, Part 3, Ch.1., Section 4.

(29) See P. Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, p.131.

(30) Jacques Derrida,"Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" in The Structuralist Controversy, ed. R. Macksey & A. Donato, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U.P., 1972), p.249.

(31) G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, pp.229-35.

(32) M. Heidegger, Being and Time, p.155.

(33) Participants in an Irish Wake, for instance, display very different emotions from participants in a Native American funeral, which in turn stands in contrast to wailing accompanying many funerals in the Middle East.

For a more detailed discussion of the cultural relativity of our feelings see Rom Harre, The Social Construction of Emotions, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986).

(34) Michel Foucault "The Ethics of Care for the Self as a Practice of Freedom" in Philosophy & Social Criticism Vol.12, (1987), p. 122, quoted in John McGowan, Postmodernism and its Critics, (Ithica: Cornell, 1991) pp.140-41.

(35) J. Lacan, Ecrites, p.298.

(36) See Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, (London: Allen & Unwin, 1979) esp. p.105 for instance.

(37) Jacques Derrida, Positions, trans. Alan Bass, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981) p.28. My addition in parentheses.

(38) See M. Heidegger, Being and Time, esp. pp.99-107.

(39) See for eg. Thomas Luckman, "On the Boundaries of the Social World", in Maurice Natanson ed., Phenomenology and Social Reality: Essays in Memory of Alfred Schutz, (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1970) pp.88-9.

(40) Paul Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, p.44.

(41) Ibid., p.243.

(42) See for example, Martin Heidegger, Being & Time, p.191 & 195.

(43) Quoted by P. Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, p.151.

(44) H. Plessner, "With Different Eyes" in Thomas Luckmann ed., Phenomenology and Sociology, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978) p.39.

(45) See for example Paul Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, p.243-4.

(46) See for example P. Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, p.131.

(47) See Georg Simmel, Grundfragen der Soziologie, (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1970)

(48) See for example Klaus-Peter Koepping, " Leib und Leiben, Sprach und Spiel, Schweigen und Scham", in Hans-Peter Duerr ed. Der Wissenshaftler und des Irationale, (Frankfurt: Syndikat, 1981) Vol.2.

(49) Paul Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, p.17.

(50) P. Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, p.192.

(51) E.C. Evans-Pritchard, Social Anthropology, (London, 1964) p. 82.

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