Felipe León / Shared experiences and other minds

Felipe_pictureA great deal of a human life normally happens in contact with other people, and as part of living together we often talk about ‘sharing’ a variety of experiences and attitudes with others. For example, we talk about ‘sharing’ emotions, beliefs, and intentions with other people. On occasions, sharing an intention to do something together, say to go to the movies, is a basis for going to the movies together. If two friends end up going accidentally to the movies at the same place and time, we wouldn’t normally say that they went to the movies together – at least not in the same sense in which we would say that if they had shared an intention to do so, and coordinated their actions in such a way that meeting at the movies results from a mutual agreement. While perhaps intuitively plausible, the idea that (some) mental phenomena could be shared in a robust (non metaphorical) way is likely to raise some eyebrows. What could sharing possibly mean in the context of mentality?

Several contemporary researchers from disciplines like philosophy, developmental and evolutionary psychology would agree that a robust sense of sharing plays an important role in the investigation of a wide an important range of phenomena, including joint action, socio-cognitive development, and the distinctiveness of human cognition with respect to closely related species. To pick out two salient examples: (1) Analytic philosophers working on joint action usually agree that the latter is made possible by a shared intention, where this intention is not merely summation or aggregation of individual intentions. Sharing an intention to go to the movies together is different from you and I each having the intention to go to the movies, independently of each other. (2) Some developmental psychologists have argued that human beings engage in shared experiences very early in life, mainly through joint attention and affective sharing with their caregivers. Interestingly, young infants seem to have a propensity to share mental features with others independently of the outcomes that joint activities may have, or even if the joint activities don’t have a clear outcome at all. The phenomenon of what might be called ‘sharing for the sake of sharing’ seems to suggest that from early on in life humans find something intrinsically valuable in sharing experiences with others.

Philosophical theorizing on shared experiences and attitudes has been focused on shared intentions and beliefs, more recently on shared emotions, but these dimensions of sharing do not seem to exhaust the range of experiences that we share with others. One basic shared experience, which has been neglected in spite of being part of much of everyday life, is the experience of a shared and public world of perception, which provides a basis for a wide range of intersubjective engagements, including interpersonal communication, some types of shared emotions, and the joint actions that have been at the forefront of philosophical discussions for a long time. It appears that in everyday life we simply take for granted that each of us is not living in a private and quasi-solipsistic world of perception that somehow gets linked with other subjects’ private worlds, giving rise to the persistent sense of a perceptual world that is shared with others. For fully socialized subjects the latter is normally present in a constant and effortless manner. It is a crucial part of life, and, arguably, it delivers a minimal sense of togetherness with others.

My current doctoral research at CFS is concerned with the cognitive and experiential structures involved in the sharing of experiences with other people. One central idea that I explore is that sharing experiences with others is, in paradigmatic cases, a matter of bridging and integrating perspectival differences with others, against the background of a minimal grasp of the world as shared. In order to investigate that minimal grasp, I appeal to the concept of joint attention, which has been of interest mainly to developmental psychologists. I argue that joint attention is a basic type of interpersonally shared experience, and that canonical forms of it deliver for the involved subjects explicit mutual awareness of the publicity of the perceptual environment in which they are located. In order to explore how subjects bridge perspectives I draw on resources offered by classical phenomenology, analytic philosophy of mind, and partly by other disciplines. One key idea here is that shared experiences involve the capacity of entertaining constitutive relations of interdependence with other subjects’ psychological lives, and that this capacity can be understood in terms of the establishment of relations of second-personal acquaintance with other minds: ‘acquaintance’ because of its direct and unmediated character, and ‘second-personal’ insofar as the way in which each partner in sharing figures in the other’s experience could be appropriately characterized as a ‘you’ – as distinguished from a ‘he’, ‘she’, or another description, such as ‘that person’.

Felipe León/21-04-2016

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