Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Robert Stolorow Makes the Case for a Broad Definition of Intersubjectivity

"An important development in the contemporary move from Cartesian isolated-mind thinking in psychoanalysis toward a post-Cartesian contextualism that recognizes the constitutive role of relatedness in the making of all experience has been the theoretical and clinical focus on the concept of intersubjectivity. Recent psychoanalytic discourse on intersubjectivity, however, has been clouded and befuddled by the intermixing and confounding of different uses of the term intersubjective that have distinctly different meanings at different levels of abstraction and generality (Stolorow, Orange, & Atwood, 2001a). Developmentalists such as Stern (1985) have used the term intersubjective relatedness to refer to the developmental capacity to recognize another person as a separate subject. In a similar vein, Benjamin (1995), drawing on Hegel's (1807) idea that self-consciousness is achieved through the reflection of one's consciousness in the consciousness of another, has defined intersubjectivity as mutual recognition. Ogden (1994), by contrast, seems to have equated intersubjectivity with what for me is only one of its dimensions, a domain of shared experience that is prereflective and largely bodily, what I prefer to call unconscious nonverbal affective communication. For my collaborators and me, intersubjectivity has a meaning that is much more general and inclusive, referring to the relational contexts in which all experience, at whatever developmental level—linguistic or prelinguistic, shared or solitary takes form (Stolorow & Atwood, 1992). For us, an intersubjective field—any system constituted by interacting experiential worlds—is neither a mode of experiencing nor a sharing of experience. It is the contextual precondition for having any experience at all (Orange, Atwood, & Stolorow, 1997). Our intersubjective perspective is a phenomenological field theory or dynamic systems theory that seeks to illuminate interweaving worlds of experience. Experiential worlds and intersubjective fields are seen as equiprimordial, mutually constituting one another in circular fashion.

The central metaphor of our intersubjective perspective is the larger relational system or field in which psychological phenomena crystallize and in which experience is continually and mutually shaped. Our vocabulary is one of interacting subjectivities, reciprocal mutual influence, colliding organizing principles, conjunctions and disjunctions, attunements and malattunements—a lexicon attempting to capture the endlessly shifting, constitutive intersubjective context of emotional experiencing, both in the psychoanalytic situation and in the course of psychological development. From this perspective, the observer and his or her language are grasped as intrinsic to the observed, and the impact of the analyst and his or her organizing activity on the unfolding of the therapeutic relationship itself becomes a focus of analytic investigation and reflection.

Intersubjective systems theory seeks to comprehend psychological phenomena not as products of isolated intrapsychic mechanisms, but as forming at the interface of reciprocally interacting worlds of experience. Psychological phenomena, we have repeatedly emphasized, "cannot be understood apart from the intersubjective contexts in which they take form" (Atwood & Stolorow, 1984, p. 64). Intrapsychic determinism thus gives way to an unremitting intersubjective contextualism. It is not the isolated individual mind, we have argued, but the larger system created by the mutual interplay between the subjective worlds of patient and analyst, or of child and caregiver, that constitutes the proper domain of psychoanalytic inquiry. Indeed, as we have shown, the concept of an individual mind or psyche is itself a psychological product crystallizing from within intersubjective fields and serving specific psychological purposes (Stolorow & Atwood, 1992)."  (pp.. 329-330)


Stolorow, R.D. (2002). Impasse, Affectivity, and Intersubjective Systems. Psychoanalytic Review, Vol. 89, pp. 329-337

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