Building a Humane Science of Intersubjectivity

Philosopher of cognitive science Hanne De Jaegher aims to put the humanity back in the scientific process of studying human experience.


Editor’s Note: The 2017 Mind and Life Summer Research Institute took place from June 5 – 11 at the Garrison Institute in New York. This year’s program, focused on the theme of “Intersubjectivity and Social Connectivity,” brought together scientists, clinical researchers, contemplative practitioners, scholars, and teachers from a variety of disciplines to explore scientific, humanistic, and first-person contemplative perspectives on interrelational human dynamics, including how we relate to ourselves and others, and to community and strangers.

In an effort to share some of the insights from this year’s Summer Research Institute, the Mind and Life Institute and the Garrison Institute teamed up to produce an online series based on some of the presentations.

In the movie Say Anything, Lloyd Dobler (played by John Cusack) iconically holds a boombox over his head outside the window of the woman he loves, blasting “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel. Were Lloyd Dobler a real person, a cognitive scientist might break down his actions by studying his speech pattern, heart rate, and breathing. In the 21st century, we’ve managed to take the humanity out of studying human experience. We liken people to computers: machines equipped with a series of processing systems, such as language, memory, and attention, which receive input from the environment and then produce an appropriate response. Hanne De Jaegher, a senior research fellow at the University of the Basque Country, in Spain, aims to put the humanity back in the process of studying human experience. De Jaegher would understand Dobler not through his various processing systems but as an individual engaged in a rich and complex, thoroughly lived-through social interaction. She would recognize him as a person in love.

In a recent presentation at the 2017 Mind and Life Summer Research Institute at the Garrison Institute, entitled “Love and Enaction: Towards an Engaged Epistemology,” De Jaegher used love as a prism with which to understand interactions between people. But, she is quick to point out, not because of the sentimental implications behind the word. “In connecting the themes of love and understanding, I do not mean to paint a rosy picture,” she says. “Rather, I think that both understanding and love are built upon deep tensions in how we relate to the world—tensions that are sometimes beautiful and sometimes very difficult, and everything in-between. ” From this perspective, love is not just a feeling but a force that helps determine how we engage with our environment. We don’t passively receive input with love as the resulting emotion, we actively participate in the world because we are moved to by this underlying tension. She continues, “Things always matter to us and we know that at a level which we can’t always put into words, yet it is in our actions or in our ways of speaking. The way we value things pervades our actions and our connections with things. And I think that’s somehow deeper than an emotion.”

For love to be a useful lens, it must be studied in a principled way. “My main concern,” says De Jaegher, “is to build a humane science of intersubjectivity, in which what we know as humans about connecting with each other can be scientifically grounded.” It is an approach that seeks to utilize, rather than ignore, subjective experience. De Jaegher believes personal accounts are not only invaluable but crucial to bridging the gap between cognitive science and human experience, and that we need “a close dialogue between scientists and practitioners.” Practitioners could be anyone who works with others, such as educators or therapists. “They have a kind of expertise as humans which scientists haven’t taken seriously enough,” she says.

In order to support this dialogue De Jaegher has set out to build a framework in which it can unfold. Cognitive scientists, sociologists, philosophers, and neuroscientists all study aspects of human experience, but is rare for research in one discipline to inform another. By providing conceptual tools to both researchers and practitioners, a science of intersubjectivity can begin to emerge. In addition, De Jaegher has helped develop a hands-on phenomenological method for better understanding the role that the experience of interacting plays in understanding. Last year, she and her team published a paper on this method that is an explanation and a guide for actually trying it out. “All you need is two friends, some post-its, pen, and paper,” she says.

Despite these tools, De Jaegher admits that bridging the gap between disciplines is a challenge. It upends the traditional model, in which the whole is understood by examining the parts. “People look at perception and that’s in one box. People look at emotion and that’s in another box. They look at language and that’s in another box. And they hope that all these boxes at some point will connect,” she says. “I want to start thinking about our experience and our understanding of the world but from a different perspective, almost looking through all the boxes at the same time.” This can be done, says De Jaegher, “by always asking why does something mean something for someone in this situation?” This question recognizes an individual as a being engaged with the world at large. It aims to grasp the whole, and not just the parts.

In grasping the whole, the intersubjective approach can also address ethics, another facet of experience absent from cognitive science. Much of modern Western philosophy is founded on Descartes’ infamous dictum, “I think, therefore I am,” which gives the individual primacy. But, as De Jaegher’s colleague Abeba Birhane pointed out in an essay for Aeon, we do not exist in a vacuum but a web. Birhane quotes the Kenyan-born philosopher John Mbiti, who flipped the Cartesian dictum on its head, writing, “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.” This formulation gives primacy to the context in which one arises, a context in which others not only exist but help inform our sense of self and our actions.

“If we treat everything as disconnected we can forget about ethics and think that someday we will also talk about ethical questions,” says De Jaegher. “But actually ethics runs through everything that we do when we understand each other and when we understand the world.” In the same way that De Jaegher talks about love not as a gushy sentiment but as a fact of social life, ethics to her is not a staid set of moral principles but an underlying feature of human interaction. “When we speak it’s an ethical act and that is because we are continually connected. The way we connect with things is always in a way ethical behavior.” Like Mbiti’s saying, asking, “Why does something mean something for someone in this situation?” gives the subjective, social dimensions of experience their due. It is a question that widens, rather than narrows the scope of an individual.

In paving this new path De Jaegher and her colleagues are willing to embrace the complexity of human interaction. In doing so, they will have to figure out how to turn subjectivity into science without being reductive. “I want to pull open the whole idea of what understanding is and include all these tensions and difficulties that have to do with how we as creatures continually change while we understand the world,” says De Jaegher. It is a radical task, one that treats people not as machines, but as something richer, something that can’t quite be put into a box.

Alex Tzelnic is a writer and Zen practitioner living in Cambridge, MA. His work has appeared in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, the Partially Examined Life, and Killing the Buddha.

Image: Hanne De Jaegher presenting at the 2017 Mind and Life Summer Research Institute at the Garrison Institute.

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