Monday, January 7, 2013

Lifeworld and Intersubjectivity: Word Doodles

I have previously blogged about two "word doodles" - Karma and Being. These lie at the heart of my intimate spiritual path. They may or may not mean anything to you or you might choose to disagree with my assessments. I remain open to altering my perspective if my experience or my understanding of experience changes.

That collection of intimate experiences can be conceived of as another word doodle, revealed by the philosophical term known as Lifeworld. I first became aware of the Lifeworld project back in the late 1980's by reading the work of Jurgen Habermas, my favorite living philosopher.

There is a close association between Lifeworld and culture and language. Habermas wrote in 1981: "...we can think of the lifeworld as represented by a culturally transmitted and linguistically organized stock of interpretative patterns. Contexts of relevance are based on grammatically regulated relations among the elements of a linguistically organized stock of knowledge. Language and culture are constitutive for the lifeworld itself." (pp. 124-125)

Reading Habermas is a rather dense and dry rational experience. For my purposes, however, I choose to expand the concept of Lifeworld beyond rationality. For me, the Lifeworld includes unconscious processes (the origins of grammar and linguistics) that arise largely unplanned through language and cultural norms, creating specific interpretations and expressions of individual experience relevant to culture at a rational, emotional, and even instinctual level.

Your Lifeworld is the sum total of your experience as you interpret it through whatever grammar you express. I have written before about the paramount importance of language in the revelation of human "truth". The Lifeworld is truth as you experience it and as you understand it within the underlying unquestioned assumptions of your language and your cultural style.

This is vital to any belief project, to any spirituality. The Lifeworld should not be limited to rationality alone. You do not encounter experience in a vacuum nor can you express your understanding in a vacuum. You always do so within rules that are never questioned, rules created out of language and culture. The Lifeworld is an "amalgam of background assumptions, solidarities, and skills bred through socialization..." (1987, page 326) Spirituality is not entirely liberated from this framework (word, ritual, gesture, emotion, silence). It is subtle arrogance to consider otherwise.

Habermas has a utilitarian approach to Lifeworld. For him, it forms the basis for "communicative competence" and "discourse ethics", the means by which I can participate through language in your experience as you can become a participant in mine. Lifeworlds are social as far as Habermas is concerned. They are fundamental to his "theory of communicative action", a worthy project that addresses how it is possible for human beings to actively share "validity claims" about experience with one another. This is no small problem. All the spiritual insight in the world is self-centered if it cannot be shared between Beings through comprehensible language and/or gestures.

For Habermas: "The structures of the lifeworld lay down the forms of the intersubjectivity of possible understanding. The lifeworld is, so to speak, the transcendental site where speaker and hearer meet, where they can reciprocally raise claims that their utterances fit the world (objective, social, or subjective), and where they can criticize and confirm those validity claims, settle their disagreements, and arrive at agreements." (page 126)

Intersubjectivity is that area where Lifeworlds mingle, where they can possibly transcend their individual limitations by participating in and understanding other Lifeworlds. It is the Intersubjective dimension of human communication and relations that is the heart of Habermas' philosophical project of how can we understand one another and reasonably relate to one another even when there is only disagreement between Lifeworlds.

"The lifeworld, then, offers both an intuitively preunderstood context for an action situation and resources for the interpretive process in which participants in communication engage as they strive to meet the need for agreement in the action situation." (1983, page 136)

I believe Lifeworld and Intersubjectivity to be valid as Habermas defines them. I feel they have impact far beyond the individual Lifeworld.  Intersubjectivity is a teeming cauldron, out there and real beyond any individual human's touch. Intersubjectivity is the intermingling of a multiplicity of Lifeworlds. Intersubjectivity can be seen as culture, its styles and behaviors. The soupy combination of all Lifeworlds is an explosion of human Karma, self-perpetuating as long as humanity thrives.

Recently, Habermas has argued that the liberal tradition has overemphasized subjectivity (Lifeworld) and needs to re-orient itself toward Intersubjectivity. In brief, concern for individual experience has been privileged at the expense of the collective experience of society as a whole. Whether this is true or not, it nevertheless discloses the workings of Lifeworld and Intersubjectivity in the human world. These are not invented or illusionary or purely rationalized constructs. Lifeworld and Intersubjectivity are revealed aspects of Being.  If one has gained favor over the other, it is not due to any singular conscious or rational choice made by a person or even any one culture.  This is, rather, a splendid example of how Being generates Karma in the human realm. 


The importance of understanding and experiencing your Lifeworld is that it can serve as a basis for debate, empathy and compassion toward other Lifeworlds. The resulting Intersubjectivity not only allows for discourse and agreement in the rational sense, it unveils the existential space where you and I meet within reason and emotion. Intersubjectivity is the Being of Beings, its energy is the Karma of the social human animal.

I find these two projects useful in the contextual understanding of my intimate experience as well as my pathway toward you and others in our attempt to understand one another, to relate to one another, and to co-exist. In the terminology of Critical Theory it allows us to "decenter" the Lifeworld and open it to the multiplicity of Lifeworlds within humanity as a whole. As such, Lifeworld and Intersubjectivity not only reveal the nature of how humans make sense of their experience and how they engage in relationships, both compassionate and adversarial, these word doodles also point to unconscious amalgamations of Being that provide an instructive framework for living with yourself and with others.

Lifeworld is also useful as a gateway to understanding another important word doodle, Function. But that will wait for a future post.

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