Intersubjective Reality, Intrasubjective Theory
Elgar Companion to Economics and Philosophy, editors: John Davix, Alain Marciano and Jochen Runde. London: Elgar, 2004, pp.403-422. ISBN1 84064 964 X
The origins of this banishment seem incompletely understood. Much has been written about how the desire to model economics after classical mechanics required the assumption of economic agents whose individual identities, like Newton’s atoms, are unchanging and, most especially, impervious to mutual influence. [Mirowski, 1989; Fullbrook, 1996, 1997] But from where did this unlikely idea about human beings come? And why, when it runs contrary to all known experience, have so many intelligent and educated people found it plausible? Does a philosophically grounded intersubjective alternative exist? Finding the answers to these questions is a prerequisite for advancing economics beyond the reign of the neoclassical model of homo economicus. This essay looks for answers in the histories of modern philosophy and social theory and their relations to economics. What follows is divided into three sections. The first explores the tradition of Western intrasubjective philosophy, the second traces the development of intersubjective philosophy and social theory, and the third, in the light of the first two, considers the strange case of economics.
Prior to the Enlightenment, most people enjoyed religious certainty regarding their notion of self and of their place in the world. But from the Sixteenth Century onward, secularized conceptions undermined religious ones, depriving the latter of their self-evident status, and so destroying the certainty regarding self that had been a common birthright in the West for centuries. René Descartes (1696-1650) began his famous metaphysical deliberations (Discourse on Method, 1637; Mediations, 1641) at this historical crossroads. Plagued by existential despair – he felt that even his own existence fell within “the sphere of the doubtful” - the French philosopher resolved to overcome it by rediscovering – he knew not yet where – certainty.
I thought it necessary . . . to reject as if utterly false anything in which I could discover the least grounds for doubt, so that I could find out if I was left with anything at all which was absolutely indubitable. [Discourse on Method, part IV]
. . . how do I know that He [an all-powerful God] has not brought it to pass that there is no earth, no heaven, no extended body, no magnitude, no place, and that nevertheless they seem to me to exist just exactly as I now see them. [First Meditation, p. 18]
I shall consider myself as having no hands, no eyes, no flesh, no blood, nor any senses, yet falsely believing myself to possess all these things . . . [First Meditation (Haldane an d Ross, p. 19)]
In some spheres the categorical denial of intersubjectivity continued through the Twentieth Century. Indeed, with the advent of the Analytical movement, Descartes’ disembodied philosopher reached new heights of godliness. Bertrand Russell, in The Problems of Philosophy (1912), effectively the movement’s manifesto, first sets out the agenda, then calls for the development of philosophers capable of realizing it. The job specifications do not fit everyone. For recruits, Russell wants only intellects capable of “true philosophic contemplation” who
will see as God might see, without a here and now, without hopes and fears, without the trammels of customary beliefs and traditional prejudices, calmly, dispassionately, in the sole and exclusive desire of knowledge – knowledge as impersonal, as purely contemplative, as it is possible for man to attain. Hence also the free intellect will value more the abstract and universal knowledge into which the accidents of private history do not enter, than the knowledge brought by the senses, and dependent, as such knowledge must be, upon an exclusive and personal point of view and a body whose sense-organs distort as much as they reveal. [Russell (1912) 1967, p. 93]
Faith in this atemporal, disembodied and, therefore, intrasubjective self, both as an ultimate unit of analysis and as constituting the accredited performing philosopher, underwrites the analytical tradition. It is especially conspicuous in the tradition’s considerations of “rationality”, as when John Rawls reveals the foundational presuppositions of his celebrated A Theory of Justice (1971).
The essential point is that we need an argument showing which principles, if any, free and equal rational persons would choose . . . My suggestion is that we think of the original position as the point of view from which noumenal selves see the world . . . The description of the original position interprets the point of view of the noumenal selves, . . . [Rawls 1971, pp. 255-6]
For philosophers, this notion that some individuals possess the means to “see as God might see”, to attain “the original position” so that their point of view should then outweigh and invalidate all others holds a powerful attraction, capable of seducing the best minds, even Bertrand Russell’s.
Intersubjective Philosophy and Social Theory
At the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, Georg Hegel (1770-1831) rebelled against the abstract universalism of the Enlightenment by turning the Cartesian subjective self inside out. He argued that history displays a determinate direction and process of development, powered by an evolving collective Mind of which individual minds are but the finite and historically determined parts. Hegel’s works include brilliant analyses of how individual consciousnesses depend on recognition from others and of how they are socially constructed, and also of how reason is a changing structure of consciousness rather than an eternal archetype. In the main, however, Hegel’s philosophy dissolves subjectivity into a collective whole. Under his system, individual subjects are not so much “inter” related as “sub” related to an historical, all-transcending and largely determinate totality. This, as explanation, reverses the direction of causation. Just as the atomistic Cartesian self underpins methodological individualism, the “Hegelian self”, and its related notion of an all-encompassing whole, provides the ontological foundation of methodological holism. For the realm of human affairs, Hegel, in effect, reversed the putative direction of causality between the whole and the parts.
Intersubjective philosophy, which, in its modern from, emerged only in the last century, occupies the ambiguous middle-ground between these Cartesian and Hegelian extremes. It conceives of the individual as neither wholly autonomous nor wholly dependent, as neither wholly closed nor wholly open. This intrinsic conceptual ambiguity of the intersubjective project accounts in part for its failure to develop as a well-defined philosophical movement. Unlike its atomistic and holistic rivals, intersubjective philosophy, including its social theory offshoots, does not have categorical certainty at its command with which to frame pontifical pronouncements. Even its origins, though recent, are obscure and a little confusing.
Although the phenomenological movement, as founded by the German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) at the beginning of the last century, is generally recognized as the watershed in the growth of the intersubjective approach to philosophy, the crucial philosophical moves that made it possible date from the late 1900s. The first involved dusting off an old idea, one common to the Scholastics of the Middle Ages. Philosophers had not always believed that consciousness was a container in which a person could, like Descartes, find the their virgin self lurking in some obscure interior corner, or, like homo economicus, observe their inner self to discover the data needed to construct their consumer preference map. Descartes’ sharp separation of body and mind led inevitably to the distinction between external and inner perception (or Locke’s “sensation” and “reflection”) which, in turn, required the notion of consciousness as a space where things exist through time and can be inventoried and measured by some further entity that is never named. Today this seventeenth-century notion of consciousness remains, alas, the sole version of the truth in most of the world’s Economics departments. But in 1870s Vienna a very different notion of consciousness was advanced, one that conceives of consciousness not as a repository but as a relation. This is Franz Brentano’s theory of intentionality. 
Brentano’s theory states that consciousness is always consciousness of something. Instead of regarding consciousness as a kind of receptacle holding perceptions, sense data and images, Brentano taught – and his students included Franz Kafka, Carl Stumpf, Sigmund Freud, Alexius Meinong, Christain von Ehrenfels, Edmund Husserl, Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore, Max Scheler and Martin Heidegger – that consciousness is a relation that human beings have to objects, material and immaterial, including those real, imagined and remembered. [Honderich, 1995, p. 104] Every moment of consciousness has something of which it is conscious. Brentano’s conception of consciousness as a relation that a being has to other beings and kinds of being, rather than a separate area of being, renders nonsensical attempts to look inwards for the self or ego or, indeed, for consumer preferences. Instead this view implies that the self – or selves – is, like everything else known in the world, merely an object of consciousness and thus, given the flow of consciousness, continually open to reconstruction.
Brentano’s principle of intentionality has a further dimension disruptive of the traditional metaphysical order. It maintains that it is the objects themselves – the Coca Cola bottle, the bowl of chili, the juicy red apple -- which figure in acts of consciousness. This view contravenes philosophy’s empirical tradition, as well as the Cartesian branch of the continental tradition, which, as in Hume’s theatre analogy, tends to regard consciousness as an indirect and passive experience of the world. It is indirect because it holds that when one looks at the red apple, the actual apple is not the object of consciousness, but rather a likeness or picture of the apple which appears in one’s consciousness. Thus, this view regards perception as only indirectly of things in the world. The principle of intentionality changes all that. The redness and juiciness of the apple are no longer “sensations” but rather what is sensed; they are properties of the apple which consciousness intends, rather than elements of consciousness representative of those properties. Under this way of thinking, the world is seen as something through which a consciousness moves and intervenes, and interacts and transmutes with other consciousnesses and their creations.
The other great demolisher of the Cartesian myth of a stable, coherent, disembodied and atomistic self, and the person whom Edmund Husserl credited as “the father of phenomenology”, was Henri Bergson. Whereas Brentano focused on the nature of consciousness vis-à-vis the world, Bergson explored its and the self’s relation to time and to the body. Today Bergson appears as a paradoxical figure in the history of philosophy. Although little read in the last sixty years (notwithstanding his current revival), he has had immense influence, having been widely read, discussed and digested by other philosophers in his own lifetime (1859 – 1941).
. . . thus perceptions are born and actions made ready. My body is that which stands out as the center of the perceptions; my personality is the being to which these actions must be referred.” [(1896) 1991, p. 47]
Rather than regarding his body as something distinct from his self or “personality”, his body is him in so far as he is an active person. His body is the “center “ of the perceptions on the basis of which he chooses his bodily actions which, in turn, refer back to his self. His body, far from belonging to a distinct realm of being, is central to and inseparable from how he experiences himself and how he chooses himself. In short, his self is embodied. This placement of the subject visibly and vulnerably in-the-world, when coupled with the intentionality principle, gave rise to the notion of intersubjectivity.
Edmund Husserl brought together these advances by Brentano and Bergson and made “intersubjectivity” part of the philosopher’s lexicon. He recognized that for each of us the phenomenological status of the world is a reality shared with other human subjects. We are each integrally linked or embedded in this social reality, and the linkage is dynamic and diverse. Let me elaborate.
The mind’s embodiment means that the self exists “out there” as a natural and social entity, intersubjectively permeable and therefore only partially under our control. Daily existence brings us in contact with the Other, both individual and collective others who apprehend our bodies from perspectives different from our own. Thus, to comprehend one’s self as a worldly subject/object one needs to adopt the multifarious and shifting perspectives of others. Furthermore, all our social acts (and very few of our acts are not social) take place in preexisting and ever-changing fields of intersubjective meaning. Events are, wrote Husserl, “experienced by each perceiving subject in a preconstituted intersubjective field of experience, events in which several human subjects participate” [quoted in Petit 1999, p. 233] Our experiences, including those formative and reformative of our individual selves, take place inside intersubjective structures -- genders, races, languages, legends, histories, governments, fashions, genres, games, news, professions, families, romances, friendships, etc., etc. -- which we, as autonomous individuals, may modify but which are ontological prior to each of our individual subjectivities, selves, preferences, etc.. Nor do the complications of intersubjectivity for the constitution of our selves stop here. Our social embeddedness is kaleidoscopic. In the coming and going of everyday life, as well as in the pursuit of ambitions, we enter and leave, and simultaneously inhabit different intersubjective fields, micro and macro, and with diverse and changing sets of people, which exercise their different influences on who we are. Finally, the view that intersubjective consciousness is built into selfhood, that intersubjectivity is an integral aspect of the self as subject, means that the we-dimension is ontologically fundamental to human reality.
This broadly intersubjective conception of the human being, the intersubjective self, that emerged in twentieth-century philosophy carries us a very long way from Descartes’ notion of consciousness as a private and impenetrable walled-off sphere, wherein resides a pristine self that commands the certainty of definition and constancy through time to support the God-like vision of Russell, the linguistic atomism of the early Wittgenstein, the noumenal self of Rawls and the well-defined and stable preferences of the neoclassical economist.
The intersubjective alternative to the Enlightenment’s Cartesian subject moved philosophy out of the realm of pure logic and pure thought by linking it to the physical, social and cultural worlds, including the general flux of experience. As always with revolutions, this one had unintended and unanticipated consequences, the most important being that it provided the first adequate philosophical grounding for social theory.
Not only did the individual inject meaning into the world, but the world injected meaning into the individual, so that the individual was immediately social. Defined both by others and by himself, he was out there in the world, perceiving and being perceived through his body.” [Poster 1975, p. 148]
Of course, all this is only commonsense. But, as I have shown, it is a way of seeing the human world that completely contradicts the philosophical tradition set in motion by the Enlightenment. The intersubjective self stands far removed from the idea of the single and unified self or subject presupposed by analytical philosophy and neoclassical economics. Under the new way of thinking, one’s view of oneself is neither more real than nor exempt from the influence of the views that others hold of oneself. Rather than being a simple and given unity, or even a unity formed on the basis of logical entailment, one’s self is a synthesis requiring management, upkeep, investment, friends, perhaps even therapy.
. . . a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self though the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness, -- an American, A Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, . . . [Du Bois (1903) 1965, pp. 214-5)
Here, in a few words, Du Bois harnesses together a formidable and formative team of intersubjective concepts: the self permeated by the social world, the social construction of race, the social embeddedness of the individual self, embeddedness in contradictory positions resulting in multiple selves or identities, the subject-object dichotomy in social relations, embodiment and, of course, the Other.
But what does this have to do with economics? Well, consider Du Bois’ s next paragraph where he applies some of these concepts to understanding a situation of “two unreconciled strivings”.
The history of the American Negro is the history of strife, ---this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and true self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face. 
But our perceptions of economic phenomena have become so conditioned by neoclassicism that the penny may still not have dropped. So consider yet another passage, this one first published in 2002 and whose author and source I will for the moment withhold.
. . . dispossessed races and classes face a Hobbesian choice. One possibility is to choose an identity that adapts to the dominant culture. But such an identity is adopted with the knowledge that full acceptance by members of the dominant culture is unlikely. Such a choice is also likely to be psychologically costly to oneself since it involves being someone “different”; family and friends, who are also outside the dominant culture are likely also to have negative attitudes toward a maverick who has adopted it. Thus individuals are likely to feel that they can never fully “pass.”
In the paragraph following this passage its author cites Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, but, unfortunately, without suggesting any direct indebtedness. The author is George Akerlof, winner in 2001 of what is popularly known as the Nobel Prize for Economics, and the passage quoted is from the paper he delivered when accepting the prize. [Akerlof 2002, p. 427]
Akerlof has sought to show the role that intersubjectively determined group identities play in the distribution of income and in the shaping of economic agents. This project deserves every possible encouragement, but it is very far from being based on a new idea. A central thesis of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and of the materialist school of feminism (Christine Delphy, Colette Guillaumin, Monique Wittig, Ann Oakley, . . .) is that gender derives in large part from economic relations, especially divisions of labor by sex, not only between occupations, but also between paid and unpaid labor. This feminist argument is an application of the older and more general hypothesis that situations of work, including training for them, entail intersubjective effects that radically shape and reshape individual and groups of workers. A century of neoclassical hegemony seems to have erased from the profession’s memory the fact that this hypothesis stood at the origins of modern economics and was fundamental to Adam Smith’s “principle of division of labour”. It is worth quoting Smith at length, if only to show that economists, in the beginning, neither denied intersubjective reality nor were maliciously disposed toward the great majority of humankind.
The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause as the effect of the division of labour. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher [economist] and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature as from habit, custom, and education. When they came into the world, and for the first six or eight years of their existence, they were perhaps very much alike, and neither their parents nor play-fellows could perceive any remarkable difference. About that age, or soon after, they come to be employed in very different occupations. The difference of talents comes then to be taken notice of, and widens by degrees, till at last the vanity of the philosopher is willing to acknowledge scarce any resemblance. [Smith, 1776, Book One, Chapter III. (Smith 1979, p. 120) ]
It seems to have gone almost unnoticed that neoclassical economics turned Smith’s principle of division of labour upside down. Instead of the division of labour accounting for differences between individuals, the neoclassicists claim that the differences are already there and account for the kinds of jobs and positions in the work hierarchy that individuals and groups (e.g., races) occupy. The market, so goes their account, tends toward realizing the maximum efficient use of scarce resources, including their optimal development. Of course, it is not claimed that this story holds true in every case, but in the vast majority. This is neoclassicism’s central message: the “free” market system by and large deploys resources, especially human ones, in a manner that best develops and utilizes their capacity to generate output and then pays them the value of their marginal product. According to neoclassicism, the economic differences between adults are not, as Smith argued, due mainly to the way the market, for whatever reasons, discriminates between similarly endowed individuals, but rather to “the difference of natural talents”.
This fundamental disagreement between Smith and the neoclassicists stems from the even more fundamental one which this essay has been at pains to illuminate. In offering his principle of the division of labour, Smith assumes, like Du Bois and Beauvoir, that individual identities, and hence the differences between them, are primarily endogenous to the socio-economic process, that is, they are intersubjectively determined. He is not, of course, denying the existence of inherited differences, but rather accepting the fact that the human being is in large part a socio-economic creature, not only in its behaviour but also in its making and remaking. The neoclassicists, on the other hand, have postulated their axioms in the tradition of high Cartesianism. The economic agent is assumed -- and the whole logical superstructure of the neoclassical enterprise stands on this Cartesian assumption -- to enter into economic relations with other economic agents without being changed by them. Without this assumption, all of neoclassical economics’ additive functions across populations of agents are non-existent.
Neoclassicism’s hypothetical exogenizing of the economic agent resulted in changes in economics infinitely more fundamental than its abandonment of the labour theory of value. Firstly, it effectively walled-off the greater part of the realm of economic phenomena from scholarly and scientific enquiry. In the name of axiomatic certainty, which it mistook for science, economics turned its back on some awkward but central empirical realities. Secondly, this cognitive disaster led to a moral one. Its turning its back on all economics phenomena that are not intrasubjective, that do not conform to its Cartesian metaphysic, gave rise to a spurious naturalism and the unarticulated but culturally powerful line of racism and sexism that it logically entails. [Fullbrook 2001] As George Akerlof gently puts it, “Neoclassical theory suggests that poverty is the reflection of low initial endowments of human and nonhuman capital.” [Akerlof 2002, p. 412] Poverty, as we all know, is not distributed evenly between races and sexes. So, when it is said that poverty reflects the “low initial endowments” of the people suffering it, a statement is being made about natural differences between races and sexes.
But as all the physical sciences have their basis more or less obviously in the general principles of mechanics, so all branches and divisions of economic science must be pervaded by certain general principles. It is to the investigation of such principles – to the tracing out of the mechanics of self-interest and utility, that this essay has been devoted. The establishment of such a theory is a necessary preliminary to any definite drafting of the superstructure of the aggregate science. [emphasis added] [Jevons 1970, p. 50]
Similarly, . . . this pure theory of economics is a science which resembles the physico-mathematical sciences in every respect. This assertion is new and will seem strange; but I have just proved it to be true . . . [Walras 1984, p. 71]
Walras does not have just any mathematics in mind, but rather that of classical mechanics. In applying a mathematics to an empirical domain, the key question for the real scientist is always whether or not the structures described by the former are isomorphic to those found in the latter.
Today the question might never violate the thought processes of an economist trained in a priorism. But for Walras, trained as a mining engineer, this question would have been at the forefont of his mind. It is the “proof” of an isomorphism between the differential calculus of classical mechanics and the economic phenomena of the market place (and thus also between economic and mechanical phenomena, i.e., Jevon’s “mechanics of self-interest and utility”) that Walras sets out to demonstrate at the beginning of his treatise. As he well understood, everything that follows in his book depends on this “proof”. Of what does it consist?
Does game theory conceptualize human agents as intersubjective? In the main, no. It describes how in game-like situations agents choose strategies given exogenously fixed utility functions which represent the agents’ subjectivities. (This is true even of Lewis 1969.) But what about “evolutionary” game theory (e.g., Samuelson, 2002)? Despite its name, this appears to be a dead-end for intersubjective analysis. A byproduct of evolutionary biology, where the “players” are species and genes, its novel feature is that it treats players as hard-wired with particular strategies and therefore without the freedom to change, not only their ends, but also their strategic means.
A more promising route for bringing game theory to bear on some subset of intersubjective economic phenomena is Thomas Schelling’s (1960) “coordination game” approach. André Orléan (2003), seeking to understand “the inter-subjective and self-referential dynamics” (p. 179) of stock markets, has used it to achieve what is in effect a formalization of Keynes’s famous beauty contest parable (1936). Drawing on Shiller 1991, Orléan shows how a group belief can emerge autonomously relative to the beliefs of the group’s individual members and them become part of those individuals’ belief systems.
But there is much more to understanding the role of intersubjectivity in economic reality than formalization, let alone game theory, can reveal. Recent years have witnessed, despite the surge in neoclassical fundamentalism, new beginnings and growing respectability for intersubjective economics. And the new interest is diverse, not only geographically but also in terms of research programmes and topics: in France the French Intersubjectivists [Aglietta and Orléan 2002; Dupuy 1989, 1991, 2002; Levy 2002; Orléan 1989, 1990, 1992, 1998; Thévenot 2002], in the UK the Critical Realists [Fleetwood 1996; Lawson 1997, 1999; Lewis and Runde 2002], in the U.S. hybrid offshoots of Critical Realism [Davis 2002], in France, the U.S. and the UK Feminist Economics [Delphy 1984; Delphy and Leonard 1992; Feiner 1994, Nelson 1995; Barker and Feiner 2003]; in Switzerland, and elsewhere Experimental Economics [Fehr and Falk 2002; Fehr and Schmidt 1999], in the UK and US a new wave of Institutional Economics [Hodgson 1998, 2002; Mayhew 2002], as well as dispersed and assorted independents [Ackerman 2002; Akerlof 2002; Dow 1990; Fullbrook 2001, 2002, Hargreaves Heap 2002; Kaul 2002; Ormerod 2002; Rizvi 2002; Sofianou 1995; Stiglitz 2002a; Wynarczyk 2002] Will these and other developments lead to freeing economics from Descartes’ legacy, enabling it to reconnect with Adam Smith’s tradition?
1. There is of course also “intersubjectivity” in the modern epistemological and procedural sense of the testing of hypothesizes.
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