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Identity, Intersubjectivity and Communicative Action
Traditionally, attempts to verify communications between individuals and cultures appeal to ‘public’ objects, essential structures of experience, or universal reason. Contemporary continental philosophy demonstrates that not only such appeals, but fortuitously also the very conception of isolated individuals and cultures whose communication such appeals were designed to insure, are problematic. Indeed we encounter and understand ourselves, and are also originally constituted, in relation to others. In view of this the traditional problem of communication is inverted and becomes that of how we are sufficiently differentiated from one another such that communication might appear problematic.
Following Hume’s recognition that we cannot in principle have any experience of an experience transcending objectivity as such, Husserl’s Phenomenological Epoche (1) suspends judgement on whether or not such a realm of “things-in-themselves” exists. Thus our experiences of material objects and descriptions thereof can no more be shown to correspond to such an “objective” standard than can our experiences and descriptions of immaterial objects and conscious states. Consequently interpersonal and intercultural communications concerning the supposedly “public” objects etc. of the material world seem no less problematic than Wittgenstein (2) and others have shown communication concerning the “private” objects of the immaterial world (of fantasies, dreams etc.) to be.
Accepting that we cannot establish the “objectivity” of our experiences’ content, Kant nevertheless attempts to resist a slideinto relativism by insisting that they are mediated by rationally delineated categories which supposedly insure the transcendental or universal nature of their form, thereby providing an absolute standard against which we might check the veridicality of our descriptions of, and communications concerning, them. However as a priori preconditions of the possibility of experience such categories are obviously inexperienceable in themselves, and consequently must also fall to the phenomenological reduction. (3) Nevertheless, a moments reflection will confirm that our experiences do indeed exhibit structure or form, and that we are able, even from within, or wholly upon the basis of, the (phenomenologically reduced) realm of, our experiences per se, to distinguish between the flux of constantly changing and interrupted subjective appearances, and the relatively unchanging and continuously existing objects constituted therein. Husserl confirms:
… cognitive acts, more generally, any mental acts, are not isolated particulars, coming or going in the stream of consciousness without any interconnections. As they are ESSENTIALLY related to one another, they display a teleological coherence and corresponding connections … And on these connections, which present an intelligible unity a great deal depends. They themselves are involved in the construction of objects … (4)
…”appearances” … in their shifting and remarkable structure … create objects in a certain way for the ego … (5)
However while the structures or forms displayed by our experiences constitute their objective content, what is far from evident is Husserl’s claim, here and elsewhere, (6) that they are “essential”. Indeed in order to know which, if any, of the structures of our particular experiences of an object etc. are essentially or universal, we must already know, prior to these experiences, and consequently non-phenomenologically, the essence of the object etc. in question. Moreover this is true regardless of whether we restrict our experiences to our sensory observations of physical objects etc., or, as Husserl, Merleau-Ponty and other Phenomenologists suggest, (7) we include also our non-sensory observations of the non-physical objects etc. given to us in “imaginary free variation”.
While it is therefore evident that the forms or structures exhibited by our experiences constitute objective unities which transcend the flux of “subjective” experiences by which they are nonetheless exclusively constituted, (8) what is not clear is whether they similarly transcend the individual-historico-socio-culturally relative instances of their lifeworld (Lebenwelt) appearances, as they must if they are to insure the veracity of interpersonal or transcultural communication. Indeed, the Gestaltists’ Vase/Faces or Duck/Rabbit seem to point to the relativism of our perceptions, while many of the cognitive illusions produced by Ames and his school, and by stage “magicians” precisely depend upon our mistakenly generalizing or universalizing particular formal or structural relations to cases where they do not hold.
And as with our perceptions in the narrow sense, so too our “perception” in the widest sense, our understanding, displays a similar relativism. For instance most US citizens simply failed to understand Soviet ex-President Gorbachev’s comment that the homelessness of New York subway inhabitants demonstrated that US society was not free. For unlike the Communists’ conception of freedom as “Freedom FROM” (eg. exploitation, unemployment, ignorance, hunger, preventable illness, and homelessness etc.), most US citizens conceive Freedom as “Freedom TO” do certain things (eg. invest money at highest interest rate, compete for jobs, education, food, healthcare and housing etc.). (9)