Intersubjectivity: a working definition

 
 
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Over the last few weeks I have been trying to arrive at a definition of the relationship between three related terms: subjectivity, intersubjectivity and objectivity.

This is an initial draft of that definition.

Objectivity

An objective truth asserts about a phenomenon that it would be true regardless of the views of anyone perceiving or reflecting upon it, and regardless of whether there was anyone to perceive or reflect upon it. Thus, we believe that the assertion that the Earth is a globe that orbits the Sun to be objectively true, and thus we assert that it was true even when people wrongly believed that the Earth was flat and stationary at the centre of the universe.

Subjectivity

A subjective truth asserts a truth held by an individual, and thus provides information about that individual rather than about the world-at-large. It expresses an opinion or a point of view. If, for example, I assert that jazz and abstract painting are both intellectual con-tricks, and I mean what I say, then this tells an onlooker a truth about me rather than about jazz or painting. It enables the onlooker to locate me on their own mental map, and may give them insights into my personal approach to the world-at-large.

Intersubjectivity

An intersubjective truth asserts a “fact” that a group of people agree implicitly to treat as axiomatic, and as though it were an objective truth. All moralities and collections of “common sense” are thus sets of intersubjective truths. Cows “are” indisputably sacred where belief in their sacredness is held to be intersubjectively true, and eaten where it is not. The second paragraph of the American Declaration of Independence begins “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. This constitutes an intersubjective truth used as though objectively true, in order to form the axioms upon which the rest of the constitution can be built.

Notes

The basis of any assertion of objective truth is that there exists an external world that does not depend on us for its existence, and that will continue to exist whether or not we are there to observe it. Thoroughgoing relativists, who do not accept the existence of a world-out-there, might argue that such a belief in objectivity is itself merely an intersubjective truth.

Intersubjectivity does not bear any relationship to solipsism. A solipsist would have to argue against the possibility of both objectivity and intersubjectivity.

Religious fundamentalists, and anyone else who believes in divine revelation, might argue that the only possible truth is the One Divinely Revealed (and thus objective) Truth, and that both subjectivity and intersubjectivity are merely examples of sin or hubris, or both.

 
 
Posted on November 26, 2012