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Aporias of intersubjectivity 

Aporias of intersubjectivity
Aporias of intersubjectivity

Giovanni Stanghellini

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date: 26 June 2022

The Fourth study contains a critical account of non-phenomenological theories of intersubjectivity in psychiatry (behaviourism/functionalism, structural functionalism, cognitivism, symbolic interactionism) and sketches a phenomenological proposal centred on the concept of attunement/intercorporeality. I am greatly indebted for the ideas expressed in this study, as well as in other parts of this book, to the uninterrupted dialogue with my friend Massimo Ballerini.

Behaviourism/functionalism is the shadow-paradigm of a great number of socio-psychiatric approaches. In this model, social competence lies in the ability to adopt the necessary behavioural procedures in order to satisfy one's needs and achieve one's goals. A disturbance in social skills is supposed to be a consequence of the disease process. Social competence defined by the behaviourist/functionalist, enhancing the behavioural aspects, does not allow us to reach the patient's subjective experience and to distinguish those disturbances of social competence that are related to schizophrenia from those related to other psychiatric disorders.

Structural-functionalism has been adopted in psychiatry as the ‘disability model’. In this model, to be normal means to be in accordance with socially established norms. The assessment of disability is based on the observation of the inability to satisfy social demands and to perform social roles appropriately. Disability is considered as a consequence of the disease. This model is not able to differentiate dis-sociality belonging to schizophrenia. In addition to this, it flattens out the social dimension of each individual as the ability to adopt the rules of a context.

Cognitivism is the dominant approach in schizophrenia research. Social competence is here described as the ability to understand, predict and correctly respond to thoughts, feelings and behaviours of others. Social competence lies in the ability to develop social patterns in a correct way and to use them in an effective manner. This is a necessary premise for the social cognition process. The arguments of the social cognition model are an effective explanation of social competence, in order to bypass behavioural reductionism and normative reductionism. Social cognition processes, in any case, are not the fundamental phenomenon of social competence. As a matter of fact, they assume and do not explain one's own mental ability to understand the manifestations of the mind of other individuals.

According to symbolic interactionism the social world is given by interaction processes between persons, mediated and made possible by shared symbols. Individuals act according to the meanings that objects and events have for them, and this meaning derives from social interactions. Each person experiences herself not through direct information but only indirectly, with the help of the ability to adopt the other's point of view. The typical feature of the adult self is the ability to adopt the whole community's point of view – the so-called ‘generalized other’. This is the way single persons participate in the social community. The set of knowledge shared by the entire social community is called ‘social knowledge’. This forms a sort of network of shared symbols. Social competence lies in the ability to interact with others using this common symbols network. The concept of ‘adopting the others’ point of view’ introduces, though not explicitly, the fundamental phenomenon of intersubjectivity. These concepts have influenced the psychosocial and phenomenological approaches to the understanding of psychoses.

Adopting a phenomenological stance, I argue that on the one hand it is wrong to adopt a model of social interactions that bypasses the analysis of subjectivity during the process of the constitution of meanings (as behaviourism, and functionalism do). On the other (as symbolic interactionists have observed) it is also wrong to separate the individual mind from social phenomena as we analyse the process through which we attribute the meanings of objects and events.

Here is the point at which the concept of common sense comes in the foreground. Common sense can be represented as a network of beliefs (i.e. social knowledge) and as a basic individual attunement with the social world of an intuitive kind. Whereas the concept of social knowledge defines the background of constructs useful for organizing the everyday experiences, the concept of attunement reflects the affective–conative capacity to get involved in the others’ lives and to catch context-relevant cues to make sense of the others and of situations. I have tried to point out the main differences between these two – cognitive and phenomenological – theoretical approaches and the reasons why the second should not be overlooked, and is probably to be preferred: the understanding of the others is not an inference of mental states, but a pre-cognitive, intuitive experience, a direct perception of the others’ emotional life. The fundamental sphere on which intersubjectivity is built can be understood better as a process placed in face-to-face encounters and based in intercorporeality – my identification with my partner's body that I perceive over there – rather than as an encyclopedia of socially shared behavioural rules existing somewhere in the world.

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