From brain resonance to intersubjectivity (suite)

Publié le par Jean-Luc Petit


From brain resonance to intersubjectivity: Are we by now bridging the gap?  (suite)


The a­priori structure of social acts

An evolutionary derivation of the many (society) from the one (mind­brain) stumbles upon the essence of social act which implies a diversity of roles dis­tributed over a plurality of agents, each one assigned to its publicly recognized position in a relational space. The strong point of an eidetic phenomenology of the a priori structure of social acts (Reinach) is the clear distinction between objective bonds: right or obligation created by a social act, and any Erlebnis (feeling oneself in a certain mental state or disposition). The essence of pro­mising:

“Wird dieses Versprechen vollzogen, so tritt mit ihm etwas Neues ein in die Welt. Es erwächst ein Anspruch auf der einen, eine Verbindlichkeit auf der anderen Seite. Denn im Versprechen als Versprechen gründet unser Zusammenhang; nicht darin, dass es von Subjekten vollzogen wird, welche auf zwei Beinen aufrecht gehen und Menschen genannt werden.” (Reinach, 1913, p. 693, 731)

This intuition of the essence of promising refers to Hume’s problem:

“If promises be natural and intelligible, there must be some act of the mind at­tending these words, I promise; and on this act of the mind must the obligation de­pend. But we have prov’d already, that there is no such act of the mind, and consequently that promises impose no natural obligation.” (A Treatise of Human Nature III, V).

To this problem, Lipp’s Einfühlung was precisely deemed to be a way out, as long as the step by step genesis of social obligation could be retraced solely on its basis. First step: introducing Einfühlung as a tendency to relive alien experience; second: admitting the capacity in the observer of noticing the difference of an ex­ogenous, empathized experience from its own experiences; from that stage to full­fledged obligation, there is but one more complication: admitting a feedback Einfühlung in the observer, an Einfühlung which is modified by ‘der Gefühls­char­acter der Objektivität’(Lipps, 1909, p. 239).


 “Language within our grasp” Rizzolatti & Arbib, Trends in Neuroscience 1998:

1) The agent (Agt) recognizes the premise of movement induced by his own move­ment (A1) in the observer’s (Obs) Mirror System (MS);

2) Obs recognizes that his reaction has affected Agt, making him issue (A2);

3) Obs learns to control (inhibit) his MS in order to emit only the specific signal that he voluntarily intends to communicate.

– Is this ‘a primitive dialogue’ as suggested by the authors or a remake of Theodor Lipps’ psychological genesis of social obligation on the basis of Einfühlung tendency?


Objecting to such easy going naturalization, Reinach put his finger on the evidence that obligation objectivity has nothing to do with the felt alterity of an alien experience that one tends to relive: a tendency which fulfils itself entirely within the subject’s mind (see Reinach, A. (1913). I, §. 4 Das Versprechen als Ur­sprung von Anspruch und Verbindlichkeit, Die psychologische Theorie von Theodor Lipps, pp. 730­742.). Feeling oneself under an obligation can not be the fundament of being under an obligation. Understanding a promise or an order is to know how responding. Understanding is no mimicry (mirroring­matching­modelling) it is knowing beforehand what has to be done in response. So, that the analysis of social acts in terms of mirroring or internal simulating has to be re­launched and completed. An observed action only has a meaning for its observer because of exigencies it creates inside a common field of interaction between the participants of a community of communication. To this condition naturalistic psychologists turn a blind eye:

– Macaque: ‘labial protrusion’ →‘lip­smack’…

       Man: ‘to give’ →‘to accept’; ‘to beg’ →‘to grant’; ‘to command’ →‘to obey’;

‘to promise’ →‘to claim’; ‘to repent’ →‘to pardon’; ‘to request’ →‘to appear in court’...


In view of the non homogeneity of both sides of these compellingly binary re­lations, it appears that in a social system of communication action observed / ex­ecuted difference is the rule, their being identical, a rare exception. In Vienna, at the finishing reign of ageing, anorexic but no less revered Franz ­Josef, a tacit rule observed by the people at court was: ‘Leaving the table with the Emperor’…– and straightaway rushing to Sacher’!


Out of solipsism: plurality rediscovered both in brain and discourse sciences

Our suggestion for bridging the logical­ empirical gap is to bet on the chances of a new converging trend, both in neuroscience and in modern conversational logic, toward a multi­agent theory of action. A trend motivated by the recogni­tion of the fact that social acts no less than resonant behaviours are contingent on the existence of a plurality of agents. In the context of his conjoined theory of illocutionary acts, Daniel Vanderveken has reinterpreted Searle’s constitutive rules of speech acts in terms of the formal constraints of language games, constraints that determine the initiation, the progression and the conclusion of a dialogue (Vanderveken, 2001). Classically, speech acts are not limited to vocal move­ments or to motor intentions but bear upon the strategies to be pursued in a so­cial game. This new theory improves on the logical theory of Austin­Searle (an heir, even if unacknowledged and not that faithful, to Reinach) to the extent that these acts are regulated by contextual cues and are no more reducible to a sum of individual actions. Vanderveken works at the analysis of ordinary lan­guage games such as negotiations and consultations, which are played out over a certain stretch of time. The interlocutors in these games have to co­operate with a view to attaining common goals (a normative constraint). For that they have to be able to recognize each other’s intentions on the basis of each other’s actions, whether verbal or not and this kind of recognition presumably makes use of res­onant systems of the brain. By our linking norm and nature in this manner, it be­comes as legitimate in discourse pragmatics as it does in neuroscience to talk of a ‘natural transition’ bridging the logical­empirical gap between understanding an alien action one is capable of undertaking oneself and promising (or also or­dering, forbidding, refusing...) to do something in the course of everyday mutual interactions. Entering this path, we move eventually towards a new, unobjec­tionable type of naturalization of the meaning rules of dialogue. But we are not there already!

Repeating what we said in Physiologie de l’action et Phénoménologie (Berthoz & Petit, 2006, pp. 241­244; Petit, 1996, 1999, 2003, 2004): there is a funda­mental difference between intersubjectivity and Einfühlung. Einfühlung, intropa­thy or projection of the self upon the other, is certainly not all that intersubjectivity amounts to. Determining whether the first is a part of the sec­ond is even a question in itself. In any case, intersubjectivity, or the relation to other, is a much vaster and richer structure than empathy. With the disappear­ance of Marxist sociology and its dogmatic objectivation of ‘collective entities’, it no longer appears shocking to want to make of intersubjectivity the foundation of the social link and the condition of the possibility of all those institutions that uphold human culture. On the other hand, even if one does stick an empathic mechanism into the brain, one will still not have taken a step in the direction of uncovering a correlate for the ‘social act’ as such, that is, an act that calls for a plurality of agents and not a quasi­act that only looks as though it appeals to a plurality of agents because it remains strictly private, as is the fact of watching someone do something.

Above all, it seems that the current theories of empathy do not propose a mechanism capable of explaining the recognition of the existence of the other as an other self. Let us not exclude the possibility that it does make sense to pos­tulate the existence of such a mechanism, as long as this recognition depends upon the personal history of each individual. In any case, even before we can feel the emotions of the other, even putting oneself in the place of the other without necessarily experiencing its emotions, it seems clear that the other will first have to be perceived as an other and not as an object, as an other living being endowed with the same capacities and dispositions as one’s own self. The own world, our Umwelt, has to be a shared world, an intersubjective Lebenswelt.


The other as a co­-constituting agent for the world of life

Mirror neurons, or mechanisms for the coupling of repertories of action, should then be regarded as the precursors of what? No doubt, of an immediately sympa­thetic (or antipathetic) relation, but certainly not of intersubjectivity. What does genuine intersubjectivity truly consist of? It consists, for a given subject, in being able to recognize the other as having itself, and on the basis of its kinaesthesia, this power of constituting the world in the same way that he constitutes it for himself. So much so that one could ground the relation with the other not on em­pathy in general but, more precisely, upon empathy with the actions of the other. When we see someone acting, we are not just the visual witnesses of the move­ments of another body. In truth, what we see is someone actively structuring his world, and this because we ourselves are already capable of structuring our own world through such acts. We find here a deep­rooted identification of subjectiv­ities linked to their identically constitutive roles. On this basis, we may find a way to describe the relation with the other, both physiologically and psychologically, which will overcome some of the inadequacies surrounding an explanation grounded in mirror neurons and empathy. Intersubjectivity would then be that act through which I recognize the other as capable of (which also implies: free not to do so) constituting with me a common world.

A prejudice in favour of simple causal explanations might lead us to think that it is because we have the ability to change our point of view, and so to put ourselves in the place of the other and so to see the world from over there, that we can recognize the other as possessing this quite particular status of being a subject in the world who is also going to constitute the world. But at the level of the constitution of meaning, the relation is the very reverse. It is not because I am able to place myself in the position of the other and so see the world (a world already there and so already constituted) as the other sees it that there is in this world someone other than me. On the contrary. If I am ever to be able to think of the world as already constituted, it is only because it has already been consti­tuted by a subject who co­constitutes it along with me. Constituted, let us add, by an other who is, initially, precisely not one among other constituted objects (constituted by a solitary subject) in the world but an other altogether, another man or woman, completely different from myself but already equipped with the afferent transcendental prerogatives belonging to a co­constituting subject. It is this recognition of the other as co­constituting that makes it possible for me, thereafter (in a logical not a temporal order), to ‘put myself in the place of this other’.

Now we are reaching the real fundament of the recognition of the other as person, the part that deals with shared constitution. Constituting the world has to be an action with two actors, a conjoint action. Intersubjectivity (‘first philosophy’ Husserl calls it) consists in sharing with the other the constitution of the world, even while maintaining the unity of this world. To be sure, this has to be the same world, the same Umwelt, without which the relation with the other would split apart into a multitude of incommensurable solipsistic worlds which would, at the same time, destroy each other. This destruction is precisely what follows from the thesis of mentalist relativism. A relativism to which any conception of mental life as inclusion, reception or construction of representations in a mind or brain (taken in isolation) is condemned. And it is considerations such as these that carry us to the heart of Husserl’s theory of intersubjective constitution and, in so doing, take us closer, rather than further away from the centres of interest of the physiologists who, in raising the problem of the coherence of an agent’s ex­perience, will find in the above a motive for extending it to two (or more) agents. The world needs to be coherent for at least two agents because its constitution has been brought about (and never ceases to be brought about) by several agents. To sum up, intersubjectivity is not just simply a matter of establishing a computa­tional correspondence, of having an internal model of what the other is think­ing. Nor is it just a matter of establishing resonant mechanisms, representations, or what have you, of the other. It’s a matter of taking part in a conjoint action through which there arises a unique world which is, at the same time, a world for several agents.



When we observe others acting we recover sensori­motor information to un­derstand and imitate their actions. This recovery might be mediated by a ‘mir­ror system’: the perception-­action match performed by this system induces a tendency in us to mimic observed actions. Our capability of meeting on a com­mon ground for social acts not only builds on such primitive tendency, but de­pends also on our taking control over it. Social acts differ from mimicry in that their biomechanical aspect is freed of any rigid identity, essentially distributed over a plurality of agents and stretched over a temporal duration. Social acts are regulated by the rules of language games and other social norms in use in a human community. The ontological basis of social reality has to be found at the junction of neuroscience and phenomenology in the mutually anticipatory character of so­cial acts in the wake of an intersubjective synchronous emulation of a Lebenswelt.



1 A modest history of science point, in Petit, J.­L. (1995), the author organized at the Univer­sity of the Human Sciences in Strasbourg and at the Biomedical Institute des Cordeliers in Paris a workshop on the empathic effect of actions and intersubjectivity between species (at a moment when the country was paralyzed by a lorry strike and by student demonstrations). Rizzolatti was in­vited to this workshop and it was in an email to him, that the suggestion was mooted that mirror neurons might be the neural substrate of intersubjectivity. This suggestion was taken up and ex­ploited by others quite outside the phenomenological context in which it had been developed, and an entire literature on ‘brain and intersubjectivity’ emerged without reference to Husserl. But it is worth remembering that these things had been said by someone else earlier, and that, in any case, too much should not be made of this claim. For intersubjectivity, the very foundation of the social link, cannot be reduced to empathy, still less to a resonance between the Broca areas of the brains of an observer and an actor.

2 Evidence for an action­language connection: on hearing phrases bearing on manual actions (or actions done with the feet) but not phrases using abstract concepts, magnetic stimulation (TMS) of the cortical areas of the hand (or feet) induce a modulation of the motor potential evoked in the muscles of the hand (or feet): Buccino et al. (2005); or again, the Broca area is ac­tivated by observation of the silent speech of a human subject as also by the observation of the lip­smacking, a form of communication specific to the monkey: Buccino et al. (2004); or yet again, when the motor area is stimulated by TMS, more intense motor potentials are evoked in a subject on hearing words containing consonants (‘r’, ‘f’) than on hearing pseudo­words containing the same phonemes or bi­tonal sounds with the same phonetic profile: Fadiga et al. (2002); yet an­other example, language areas (left lower frontal and upper temporal gyrus) are activated in the same way by hearing spoken words and by deaf and dumb subjects seeing the signals that make up their language (the ASL in the USA and the LSQ in Québec): Petitto et al. (2000). Notwith­standing these evidences, it has been shown recently that the areas of the pre­motor cortex in­volved in the mirror system are probably not exactly the same as those involved in language: Makuuchi (2005).



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