“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee…”

John Donne, Meditation XVII, from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions

Claremont’s services are loosely founded on a philosophical foundation called phenomenological intersubjectivity. While few of us at Claremont can pronounce that term with confident fluency (!), we do share its general approach, which is about trying to examine and understand the world as experienced, by us and by others. The approach is derived from Existential-Phenomenological Psychotherapy and the founders of modern Claremont, as well as many of the sessional therapists working in the therapy services at Claremont, have a background in this approach. The approach now goes beyond our clinical staff and is important to all our staff, interns, class tutors, and volunteers.

Rather than being a theory which we apply to other people, which makes them the object of our enquiry and presumes to know what is going on for them, we try to examine our own experience of our relationship with the person and listen to their descriptions of their lived experience. We co-constitute a relationship. The result, we hope, are moments of genuine human intimacy where each of us are sovereign subjects rather than being an object of the other’s point of view.

It is really quite hard for us to describe this in everyday language but below are some examples which hopefully give a better idea of what we’re on about. The first is an autobiographical story told by Martin Buber, the philosopher who first penned the idea of “I-Thou” (subject meets subject) versus “I-It” (subject interacts with object),

“When I was eleven years of age, spending the summer on my grandparents’ estate, I used, as often as I could do it unobserved, to steal into the stable and gently stroke the neck of my darling, a broad dapple-gray horse. It was not a casual delight but a great, certainly friendly, but also deeply stirring happening. If I am to explain it now, beginning from the still very fresh memory of my hand, I must say that what I experienced in touch with the animal was the Other, the immense otherness of the Other, which, however, did not remain strange like the otherness of the ox and the ram, but rather let me draw near and touch it. When I stroked the mighty mane, sometimes marvellously smooth-combed, at other times, just as astonishingly wild, and felt the life beneath my hand, it was as though the element of vitality itself bordered on my skin, something that was not I, was not akin to me, palpably the other, not just another, really the Other itself: and yet it let me approach, confided itself to me, placed itself elementally in the relation of Thou and Thou with me. The horse, even when I had not begun pouring oats for him into the manger, very gently raised his massive head, ears flicking, then snorted gently, as a conspirator gives a signal meant to be recognizable only by his fellow-conspirator: and I was approved. But once — I do not know what came over the child, at any rate it was childlike enough– it struck me about stroking, what fun it gave me, and suddenly I became conscious of my hand. The game went on as before, but something had changed, it was no longer the same thing. And the next day, after giving him a rich feed, when I stroked my friend’s head he did not raise his head. A few years later, when I thought back to the incident, I no longer supposed that the animal had noticed my defection. But at the time I considered myself judged.” From, Meetings: Autobiographical Fragments, by Martin Buber (trans. Maurice Friedman)

Another example of this is a story about asserting one’s sense of self, one’s sovereignty as a human being, after being treated hideously as an object of other people’s objectifying evil. It is an extract from the diary of Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Willett Gonin DSO, who was among the first British soldiers to liberate Bergen-Belsen in 1945. The story is emotionally very difficult to read in its entirety and this is a truncated version. The complete diary entry is on display at London’s Imperial War Museum.

“I don’t know who asked for lipstick. I wish so much that I could discover who did it, it was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance. I believe nothing did more for these internees than the lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips. I saw a woman dead on the post mortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.”

There is a great body of academic and other work relating to intersubjectivity, ranging from nineteenth and early twentieth century philosophy and mathematics, to mystical, metaphysical and religious traditions where love and the “one-ness” of the universe are key ideas. Notable writers in the philosophical field include Husserl, Scheler, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Tillich, Buber, Lévinas, and Theunissen. There is also an important and rapidly growing body of work in neurobiology. Rizzolatti, Staminov, Gallese, Oberman, Dapretto, Ferrari and others have argued that specific neurons (which Rizzolatti dubbed F5 neurons) fire only when the person/animal is either doing some specific task or when they are observing someone else doing that same task. The argument is put forward that mirror neurons are essential to imitation, empathy, socialisation and the acquisition of meaning and language. This neurobiological research echoes the idea that we are inherantly both individual and co-consistuted with others.

If you have or know of stories which illustrate aspects of intersubjectivity, please consider sending them to us. If appropriate we could even add them to this page or to our blog.