Sebastian Zearing

how to be progressive without being a stupid liberal

The Intersubjective

The intersubjective is a fascinating concept which I first found here. I will describe how I think of the concept, but I encourage all readers to visit that page.

The objective and the subjective are ordinary notions of how to categorize the epistemology of claims. Claims like “vanilla ice cream is better than chocolate ice cream” or perhaps occasionally “the photograph depicts a white and gold dress” are understood to be claims about the relation between the psychology of an individual and things in the world. Subjective claims such as these can be false, like if I actually did like chocolate ice cream more than vanilla, but the truth or falsehood can only be ascertained by those with direct access to that individual’s psychology, i.e. only the claimant. Consequently, most people are content spending very little time figuring out the truth of subjective claims. Claims like “chocolate ice cream contains more antioxidants” or “there is a peak in the reflective spectrum of the dress at 483 nm,” on the other hand, are not claims about the relation between the psychology of an individual and things in the world, but rather about things in the world themselves, and so can be measured and reported directly.

The intersubjective adds a third category. It asserts an epistemological category characterized by relations among many separate psychologies and/or among many separate psychologies and things in the world. You can jump straight to the examples, or continue with a strong caveat to all of this that stems from the difference between epistemology and ontology.

Epistemology v. Ontology

The philosophy of how you know things is called epistemology, and the philosophy of what things exist is called ontology. It might not be immediately obvious, but upon reflection it’s clear that whether or not something exists is very different from whether or not we know it to exist. If we start by rejecting metaphysical solipsism, we can sketch a framework where things exist objectively, subjectively, or intersubjectively, where things are known to exist to me (or to any other individual) objectively, subjectively, or intersubjectively, and where things are known to exist to society objectively, subjectively, or intersubjectively. We can further refine our framework with the understanding that some of these list items aren’t possible. All things I know, I know subjectively; the intersubjective can help me out, but still, I only have access to it subjectively. Perhaps we can carve a very specific type of exception: you know your own existence objectively, as well as facts that only exist once you express them, such as what you can remember at a specific time, or what you would prefer to do or eat. All things society knows, it knows intersubjectively. Certain facts are objective, like the existence of the moon. Certain facts are intersubjective, like the definition of the word “nice” (or any other word!). Certain facts are subjective, such as what my preferences are. This last, however, is strange; there doesn’t seem to be a particularly important difference between “it is objectively the case that my preference is vanilla” and “it is subjectively the case that my preference is vanilla”; they sort of collapse together in this specific instance.

So now we have:

  • objective facts
  • intersubjective facts
  • subjective facts, which alternate trivially with a subset of objective facts by inserting the claimant into the claim (“vanilla is better” -> “I think vanilla is better)
  • objective knowledge, since knowledge is necessarily an activity of psychology
  • intersubjective knowledge
  • subjective knowledge

Putting it all together, we have:

  • intersubjective knowledge about objective facts (That black holes exist. No one person is sufficient for our knowing this.)
  • intersubjective knowledge about intersubjective facts (“An Intersubjective Analysis of God” section from the first link of this post.)
  • subjective knowledge about objective facts (I saw the moon so I know it exists. I read a book and so I know it claims black holes exist.)
  • subjective knowledge about intersubjective facts (I know Americans oppose eating dogmeat.)
  • subjective knowledge about subjective facts (I like vanilla ice cream.)

Examples

Let’s review six examples of the intersubjective.

Price

We can think of the subjective, objective, and intersubjective price/value of goods. The subjective value of a good on the market is whatever I or some other individual is willing to pay for it. The objective value of a good on the market is the potential market price under some condition, generally taken as the condition of perfect information of all agents in the market, which is a very strong and robust price-point. The intersubjective value of a good is the value resulting from many competing psychologies creating supply and demand for the good. It is, in effect, exactly equal to the market price, for it is the market price.

Values

Values are analogous to price, where behaviors are on the market, and the market is the entire society. For example, what is an appropriate distance from your face to your communicative partner’s face when you talk? People have their own subjective preferences, but these are strongly modulated by what you were subjected to growing up in your culture. There is no objective fact concerning the most appropriate distance; this fact is intersubjective. Similar arguments can be made for many cultural values, including moral ones. As in the trivial alteration above, however, many of these can be reconstrued into objectivity by inserting the claimant into the claim, either in a very specific way regarding one society (“an appropriate distance in the USA is 22 inches”) or in a less specific way regarding societies generally (“murder destabilizes society so it is inappropriate.” But is the inappropriateness of societal destabilization a subjective, objective, or intersubjective fact? It smells somewhere between subjective and intersubjective.)

Aesthetics

We often think of beauty as something subjective. Aesthetic theorists often think of beauty as belonging to something obeying proposed objective rules of what is beautiful (e.g. the golden ratio). There is an objective rendering of what a certain person or set of people find aesthetically pleasing. However, as with talking distance, it seems to be heavily modulated by one’s childhood. The entire debate over “unrealistic standards of beauty” is predicated on beliefs that perceptions of human beauty are intersubjective. A large part of it probably boils down to the fact that, to women, male beauty is intersubjective, whereas to men, female beauty is subjective. Perhaps we can weaken that to: [at least heterosexual] female perceptions of beauty are more intersubjective than [at least heterosexual] male perceptions of beauty. Amusingly, it then seems that “unrealistic standards of beauty” amount to women who think they know something about what men find attractive collectively setting norms of appearance that other women then find oppressive.

Holidays

I once overheard someone say, “Kwanzaa is a made-up holiday!” Though I understood the sentiment, my first thought was… aren’t all holidays made up? In what sense is Christmas real but Kwanzaa isn’t? The realness of a holiday stems from the intersubjective. Christmas doesn’t objectively exist in some sense that Kwanzaa doesn’t, as they’re both the creations of people; but Christmas (in America at least, where the eavesdropping happened) enjoys widespread acceptance as an intrinsic feature of the culture. If I “made up” a holiday, called it Zzaxqyq, say, and got a couple people on board with it, what I would have would be a lot more similar in spirit to Kwanzaa than to Christmas. Of course, Kwanzaa has every potential to turn into a widespread holiday, but it isn’t there yet. And until it does, Kwanzaa and Christmas will be intersubjectively different, even while not objectively or subjectively so.

Social categories

Social categories, like gender, exist purely intersubjectively. If only one human existed, gender would not exist, only sex. Perhaps gender would still exist in their memory of the recently destroyed global society and in their continued performance of it, but the thought experiment highlights the social nature of gender. You can see how this could be asserted about “social constructs,” generally, and a post on that is forthcoming.

Grammaticality

Languages are computed over time by thousands, millions, or billions of people. Grammaticality, or the appropriateness of a syntactic or morphological construction, is a fact that attaches to the linguistic behavior of all of these people. Double negatives are ungrammatical in English purely because nobody uses them. However, speakers of some varieties of English do use them; this highlights the question of whose intersubjectivity are we talking about? Double negatives are not objectively ungrammatical. It’s not a subjective matter either; I or any individual can’t just decide that they mean something new. When people claim cultural oppression via imposition of linguistic norms, they’re identifying an instance where their own intersubjectivity is being replaces by another group’s. The authority of the masses is conflated with objectivity, and the opposition of the linguistic minority is silenced with wrongful claims of ungrammaticality in the face of “objectivity.”

Whose intersubjectivity?

A fundamental aspect of social cognition is knowing who shares your knowledge. You may not have ever realized how extraordinarily easy it is for you to think of some fact you know and then reckon which of your friends and acquaintances are likely to know this too. Even more extraordinarily, you can probably reckon what kinds of people in general are likely to know these things (e.g. skateboarders, scientists, immigrants from Sri Lanka, post-menopausal women). Incidentally, this kind of meta-knowledge has been almost universally ignored in models of AI epistemology. The social world is an extremely complicated layering of hundreds and thousands of individual social groups, and each has its own intersubjectivity. Life is truly fascinating.

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2 responses to “The Intersubjective

  1. Pingback: Social Constructs and Social Wrappers | Sebastian Zearing

  2. Pingback: First Post and Introduction | Sebastian Zearing

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