Common Approaches to Intersubjectivity

Realizing that the administration of traditional Piagetian tasks involves the experimenter, some scholars in the tradition have expanded their focus to investigate the testing situation, including the child, experimenter, and task. Confronted with the task, the child engages in cognitive activity. This activity then is said to be “mediated” by a “tripolar subject-task-experimenter interaction” (Grossen and Perret- Clermont 1994: 254, original emphasis). There are two aspects to this mediation . First, the child orients to and engages with the task; but because it also talks to the experimenter, this person mediates the child-task relation. In this approach, the experimenter constructs the task conditions and therefore “gives it certain meanings” (1994: 254).1 We are also encouraged to regard a second form of mediation: the task, which is the object of the interaction, mediates between the child and the adult. That task carries with itself social, cultural, and historical dimensions (“meanings”) so that any intersubjectivity that the experimenter and the child construct in their dyad is interindividual, social, and cultural. The object of their interaction, therefore, is “to a certain extent, preconstructed ... and intersubjectively created” (1994: 254). We may depict this approach in the superposition of two triangles, where a solid line marks the original relation and two dotted lines signify the mediation (Fig. 4.1).

In the post- Piagetian constructivist position, the experimenter mediates the child-task relation, and the task mediates the experimenter- child relation

Fig. 4.1 In the post- Piagetian constructivist position, the experimenter mediates the child-task relation, and the task mediates the experimenter- child relation

The authors do not specify, however, how the child could discover such “meanings,” which, inherently, are in the mind of the individual. What would be the child’s model for constructing meaning if it were forever confined to its own constructions?

(a) In the cultural-historical approach, there is the primary experimenter-task-language relation, and a child-task-language relation that is to be achieved

Fig. 4.2 (a) In the cultural-historical approach, there is the primary experimenter-task-language relation, and a child-task-language relation that is to be achieved. (b) The child-experimenter- language relation materializes the bridge between the existing and the intended relations

The representation also makes apparent that there is something missing in the mediations, which the authors have to introduce as an afterthought: the cultural and historical dimension.

The most influential uptake of a cultural-historical approach in Western literature, explicitly grounding itself in a reading of Vygotsky and his students and coworkers A. N. Leont’ev and A. R. Luria, would present this situation by introducing a fourth element and a third mediational triangle (Cole and Engestrom 1993). This fourth element is language (text); it is the element that also introduces cultural history specifically. The primary mediated relation is that between experimenter, task (an aspect of the world), and language; the intended and to-be-achieved relation is that between child, task, and language (Fig. 4.2a). A third mediational triangle constitutes the bridge between the existing mediated relation and the intended one: the experimenter-child-language relation (Fig. 4.2b).

Both approaches, though arising out of different historical traditions, share the use of the construct mediation. This construct is necessary as soon as there are two separate theoretical entities that somehow need to be brought together. Thus, for example, Descartes had started with extension suggesting that each extended part is outside of another extended part (i.e. partes extra partes). Because two human beings take up different parts of space they therefore are completely separated cognitively. They must be brought together by an intermediary. Similarly, materials (bodies) were different from the soul (mind), which required a mediator to bring them together. In Descartes’ case, that mediator was the pineal gland, which, extended and part of the mind/brain, produced the link between body and soul (mind). The early Vygotsky, even though he was striving to overcome the body- mind and individual-collective dichotomies, presented the relation between people in the same way. Thus, he used triangles in which tools and signs take the role of the mediator between the child and the world or between the child and other people

(Vygotsky 1989). It is that representation that the editors of Mind in Society (Vygotsky 1978) have taken up, where they also use parts of the psychologist’s later work that has made it into The History of the Development of Higher Mental Functions (Vygotsky 1997). But the same language intervening between the child and experimenter also mediates between the child and the child himself, so that “an operation always has two objects: the brain and the object of the psychological task” (Vygotsky 1989: 62). That is, in his earlier work, Vygotsky was confronted with the same problems that psychology generally and most of his followers specifically have been perpetuating to the present day. Thus, he also had the problem of identifying

the function, role, and origin of mediators—those translators from a “completely alien, other” language—the language of the objective world, into a language of the affects and senses of an individual’s innermost subjectivity, a language that is “totally one’s own” ... namely, the problem of the tnception and development of the human mind in the strict sense. (Mikhailov 2001: 15)

According to Mikhailov, Vygotsky, in his final works, was on the brink of overturning what he had done so far, moving completely away from the need to use mediators that a Cartesian dualism or even a body (material)-mind (culture) parallelism requires. Vygotsky, in his personal notes, conceptualizes his own earlier approaches as laden with “deficiencies” (Zavershneva 2010: 54). As can be seen in the beginning of his preparatory studies on emotion, Vygotsky was taking up a Spinozist agenda in which there was only one “thinking substance” (Vygotsky 1999: 163). In psychology, this substance would manifest itself in the thinking body. We can see already in an earlier work that Vygotsky began using mediation in a different way. Thus, in a triangle that relates the sign, the tool, and mediating activity, that activity is not a mediator standing between tools and signs at all. At best, it is the locus where these things appear together. Moreover, he writes that the triangle “is intended to present the logical relation of the concepts, but not the genetic or functional (on the whole, real) relations of the phenomena (Vygotsky 1997: 62, emphasis added). Here, the psychologist points us to the difference between the logical relations expressed and the real relations that exists between the concepts—which, in the dialectical materialist tradition to which he belongs, are concrete, actual (not abstract) relations. In real relations, signs generally and language specifically do not mediate and stand between the individual and her world, between the individual and others. Instead, language is an integral part of this world; and knowing a language, as we show here, is indistinguishable from knowing one’s way around the world more generally. As much as we do not say that the world mediates our access to the world, we propose abandoning the notion that language mediates our relation to the world generally and to aspects of the world (language, text, the Other) specifically, because saying so does not add anything to our understanding of how we learn and grow. The water does not mediate the swimming of the fish; swimming is a possible behavior (a function) because there is water. In the same way, speaking is possible because it is material in a material-sonorous world and because there is the capacity of hearing.

As soon as we accept the notion that language is not a mediator but an integral part of the world that humans inhabit—that it does not mediate but contributes to constituting a semantic or sense-giving field—we have overcome any need to introduce the concept of mediation. But, with it, we have also overcome the problem of intersubjectivity, because we are beginning with the world and language as that which is given to all humans. Thus, when we emerge into consciousness, we already have a world together with language, and both are given to us in the same way that they are given to everyone else.[1] Human beings did not start constructing themselves and, then, sought intersubjectivity; instead, when they became conscious they already found themselves relating to others and with communicative competence that constituted the basis for their conception of themselves and their individual subjectivities , There is an originary being-with, a we that exists “[p]rior to ‘me’ and ‘you,’” and “the ‘self’ is like a ‘we’ that is neither a collective subject nor ‘intersubjectivity,’ but rather the immediate mediation of Being in ‘(it)self,’ the plural fold of the origin” (Nancy 2000: 94). As a result, “individual subjectivity emerges simultaneously with intersubjectivity—a human being becomes an individual when she experiences herself as another to another human being” (Roth et al. 2005: 13).

Critical readers might point out that there are instances in our lives when we do not understand others and we try to come to understand by engaging with them. In this case, the critics address a real phenomenon that requires explanation. What they have not considered, though, is the fact that the very experience of failing to understand requires common understanding as its condition, including the competence to sense those occasions where common understanding does not appear to exist. That is, as a condition for establishing a lack of intersubjectivity there already has to exist intersubjectivity that now is seen as broken and in need of repair. Hence, that very phenomenon our critics may want to use to undermine the present argument does indeed confirm it. This is so because the problem presupposes the intersubjectivity that the critics are forced to establish when they begin with the individual as the element from which to construct the social. In the way a non-moving ground (earth) is the condition for any experience of movement, intersubjectivity is the common ground against which not only intrasubjectivity comes to exist but also the absence of intersubjectivity.

  • [1] It is precisely that givenness of our everyday world that phenomenological philosophers haveanalyzed as the constitution of mundane cognition that provides us with the key to intersubjectivity, which is the source of any intrasubjectivity (Marion 1997).
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