Re: intersubjectivity

Gary F. Blanchard (
Tue, 22 Apr 1997 19:53:24 -0700

Dear Mike-

Thanks for the clarification, and the insight about the nature of your
As you correctly noted,

> Tim had basically said that his cat couldn't construe a Cathedral
> as an expression of its relationship to God. My understanding was that
> you were challenging Tim to justify comments of this type. It seemed
> as if you were saying: "How do you know what your cat's subjectivities
> are like?"
You're right.

To pick up on the rest of your message, I appreciated your comments
about how you, as a developmental psychologist, deal with a similar
issue 'all the time.' namely...

> The infant cannot use language to communicate her subjective world to > another person. So how do you know what the infant is thinking / > feeling / experiencing? The big answer is that one can never be sure > what the infant is thinking. But we can do a pretty good job of > inferring what an infant is thinking or experiencing by looking very > carefully at the infant's behavior.

I understand and respect your point concerning infant communication
capacity. I seemed to detect some inconsistency, however, and would
appreciate your comment:
1.If we can't 'be sure what the infant is thinking,' how can we 'do a
pretty good job of inferring what an infant is thinking or
experiencing?' Doesn't the first statement make the second impossible?
2. Secondly, if the undefined and ungrounded terms,
'feeling,' and
are all, always, idiosyncratic, 'subjective' reactions / construings /
interpretations by an individual, how can any of us ever say that we
'know' --- i.e., have demonstrable certainty --- about the matter?
Aren't we, always and inescapably, in danger of deluding ourselves?
Don't these kinds of claims, in other words, turn us toward
unscientific, 'mind-reading' behaviors, unless we're very, very careful?
You continue with an application of your claim (above), as follows:

> We must ask ourselves: What must the infant be able to understand / do > / order to perform the behavior in question?

As we do that, Mike, I think we should remember (constructivists that
we are) that it is us, you and me, adult-level people, doing this
pondering and analyzing and questioning. Not fellow infants.
Who is to say that we have the slightest idea what we are talking
All we have is the compensation of power, traditional resource of the
strongest. And we know what power can do to us if we aren't careful!
Has the term 'behavior' ever been operationally-defined with such that
we can say for sure what its boundaries consist of in any given case? If
not, how can we credibly 'infer' answers to the question:

> What must the infant be able to understand/do/etc., in order to perform > the behavior in question?

I offer the possibility, and only the possibility, that this way of
approaching the matter:

-Partakes of an infant/person as a somewhat mechanical,
-Which one can analyze fairly completely in terms of its structure
and function,
-And thereby control completely/understand/predict its operation.
I'm sure you reject this as a model of what you are talking about, when
I put it this way, and I may well be misrepresenting the situation. But
can you see how I might infer this?
> For example, Piaget implied that infants can't construct mental > images until about 18-24 months of age. You might ask: How can you > possibly know?

If one considers that we don't know what 'mental images' are, or if
they even exist, except in our speaking / languaging. That is, they
may well be myths. They certainly are not certainties, are they?

> Well, Piaget looks at infants and notes taht they don't engage > in
behaviors like deferred imitation intil about that time.They can't,

...are we certain they CAN'T, instead of that they DON'T - and the why
is unknown?

> that is, watch someone today and imitate them tomorrow.To do this > implies that the child is able to construct an image about what > happened yesterday and use that image as a guide to behavior.

...implies, to whom? On the basis of what evidence? Wouldn't that be
the critical point? Inference is simply not certainty / predictability,
as I'm sure you agree.

> So, we can make inferences about the infant's subjectivities by
looking at her behavior....the point is that by careful observation,
and by asking ourselves: What must the infant do or know in order to
perform a given act, we can make inferences about the infant's
subjective world.
> So, to get back to Tim -- one can easily justify claims like "My Cat
> cannot represent the church in terms of a relationship to God" by > looking at the behaviors of the cat, and making inferences about what > the cat must know, conceive, in order to engage in those behaviors. > And when we do that we simply find no evidence that cats engage in > symbolic processes that even approach that of the type that Tim was > talking about.

Yes, Tim's comments about cats being able to construe was what started
all this!
My concern with the above statement is that we may unintentionally be
transforming our ability to 'infer' into the status of certainty. That
is, the finding of 'no evidence' does not rebut a claim. It simply
leaves it unproved, and unresolved. For us. Here and now.
With what we know and can do. But others may know more, so we have to
respect the possibility of our ignorance, enormously.


Interestingly, for me, you then go on to say:

> Do cats construe? Of course! They construe at a sensori-motor level.

I had understood that, by 'construe,' we meant an act of conscious,
intentional distinguishing of one entity from another, together with a
naming of both. For me, this was different than a kind of reaction
pattern, however stable, that occurs in ways we are not sure of
('nature'vs. nurture) and with no naming.
But even if they do, how can we tell?

Aha! we conclude in agreement!

> If one thinks that they use symbols, then let's define what we mean by > that, and give evidence of symbol use.
Thanks, Mike. You have given me quite a workout here today. I look
forward to hearing from you when you have time. Tim, too. And others.

Sincerely, Gary