Philosophical consideration of the metaphysics of intersubjectivity

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review

Abstract / Description of output

In his 1980 paper, ‘The Foundations of Intersubjectivity: Development of Interpersonal and Cooperative Understanding in Infants’, written for a collection of essays in honour of his long-time friend and research collaborator, Jerome S. Bruner, Colwyn Trevarthen defines intersubjectivity in relation to subjectivity. Subjectivity is ‘the condition of being a coordinated subject motivated to act with purpose in relation to the world outside’ (Trevarthen 1980, p.324). Primarily, subjectivity in the baby manifests as its ability “to manage simple interactions with the world” and “to use external objects to satisfy perception, exploration, manual prehension, and the like” (Trevarthen 1989, p. 324). In philosophical parlance, the subject is an actor, acting in a world of inanimate objects. In contrast, intersubjectivity manifests in the interactions between two subjects, where both subjects may legitimately be called “persons” (Trevarthen 1980, p.325). Again, in philosophical parlance, in intersubjective exchanges, there are two subjects or actors, acting not so much on each other as if the other was a mere inanimate object, but rather acting with each other. In addition, the aim or focus of intersubjective interactions is not the gathering of information or the development of skills. Rather, the aim or focus of intersubjective interaction is the communication between two persons, in which each subject adapts itself to the other, creating, as it were, “an interpersonal field of action between them” (Trevarthen 1980, p. 325). Such communication does not require advanced use of language or words, but can be seen in the communications between the infant child and its mother, or any sensitive adult companion, each closely attending to the other’s facial expressions, tones of voice and body movements, sensing changes or variations in the other’s expressive acts and reciprocally adapting their own expressions and body movements to creatively ‘mirror’ those of the other, extending their dialogue in time. Trevarthen calls these non-verbal interactive exchanges with pre-linguistic babies in early infancy “primary intersubjectivity” (Trevarthen 1980, p.325) and notes that infants appear to have “a specialised set of motives aimed to get the attention of a human partner” and are able to sensitively adjust their actions “to variations in the expression of the partner” (Trevarthen 1980, pp. 324-25).
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMinds
Subtitle of host publicationRhythm, Sympathy, and Human Being
EditorsJonathan Delafield-Butt, Vasudevi Reddy
Place of PublicationOxford
PublisherOxford University Press
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 9 Jun 2023

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • mirroring
  • force
  • autonomy
  • spontaneity
  • intersubjectivity
  • Leibniz
  • Trevarthen
  • music
  • monad
  • perception
  • appetition
  • action
  • harmony
  • beauty
  • communication


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