Critique of Intersubjectivity


The article investigates the philosophical/psychological notion of intersubjectivity and argues that our subjective involvement in each other, especially the psychoanalytic relation between analyst and analysand, ought to be regarded as an involvement on the unconscious level. The diverse notions of a joint conscious creation, or joint narrative, implying a relative merger of our conscious personalities, are harmful and will not invoke a wholesome form of subjective engagement.

Keywords: intersubjectivity, Ogden, relational field, the analytic third, narrative.

The analytic third

What is the uniquely psychological contribution to the philosophical concept of intersubjectivity (here)? The answer is unconscious intersubjectivity. The idea of a conscious interaction between people (such as a joint narrative, here) is meaningless without the notion of an unconscious interaction, just like the idea of a conscious mind is meaningless without a notion of the unconscious. Psychologists know that we are only skimming the surface when observing the contents of consciousness. Below this layer are the unconscious motivations. Hence, if we are going to talk about an intersubjective realm on the conscious level, then it’s necessary to give consideration to the unconscious realm, which, especially in the psychoanalytic setting, is much more relevant.

Thomas H. Ogden, discusses his notion of an ‘analytic third’ and explains that

I view the intersubjective analytic third as an ever-changing unconscious third subject (more verb than noun) which powerfully contributes to the structure of the analytic relationship. [T]he analytic third is at first almost entirely an unconscious phenomenon. Since the unconscious, by definition, cannot be invaded on the wings of the brute force of will, the analyst and analysand must use indirect (associational) methods to “catch the drift” (Freud, 1923/1955, p.115) of the unconscious co-creation (Ogden, 1999).

Regardless how clever philosophical definitions we make of the notion of intersubjectivity, it will always remain ‘unconscious co-creation’ or ‘unconscious rapport’. Philosophically inclined people tend to view intersubjectivity as ‘conscious co-creation’, on lines of philosopher Hannah Arendt, et al. But consciousness cannot be unleashed and be allowed to run far ahead of the unconscious. Such a standpoint will merely result in bloodless conscious products, and the joint narrative will become a watery soup with no healing qualities.


Most psychological authors (unlike their philosophical counterparts) realize that we always have to go along with the unconscious. However, some of them argue that self-disclosure on part of the analyst, i.e. disclosure of his own unconscious motives (corresponding to the analytic disclosure of the unconscious motives of the patient), will facilitate intersubjective exchange. But if intersubjectivity is viewed as a form of unconscious rapport then this proposal seems self-contradictory. Such a brute force approach is likely to obstruct the ‘analytic third’.

A good example is the way of synchronization of bodily postures, which is an everyday form of unconscious communication. If the analyst becomes aware of the phenomenon it will immediately cease to work for him. Hence, if he continually makes his awareness of the bodily postures available to the patient it would immediately put a curb on unconscious bodily signalling.

By analogy, if the analyst would wholly reveal his subjective motives to the patient, this is likely to decrease intersubjective exchange, and not facilitate it. Bringing the hidden facts to light would obstruct unconscious co-ordination. Besides, it’s not always advisable to expose a fragile patient to extraneous psychological contents as it could worsen his/her condition. Ogden (1995), quite logically, advises against overt self-disclosure of the analyst’s experience within the ‘analytic third’.

The analyst’s disclosure of countertransference experience might easily disrupt an autonomous unconscious factor. As the relation is partly conscious and partly unconscious, the analyst would better maintain a proper mixture of conscious analysis and unconscious intersubjectivity. This, of course, is modulated by the patient’s personality. Sometimes, it seems, a patient needs to be “mothered”: the obstacle can only be overcome by slow growth in the fertile environment of intersubjectivity. On the other hand, at some stage a patient could fare with an immediate realization of unconscious motives.


The co-creation of relationship builds on the fact that at the kernel of the relation is the self-consciousness of the respective partners. A differentiated self-consciousness is a requirement for the awareness of ‘inner otherness’ and ‘outer otherness’. This realization will allow for a co-creative ‘other’ that encompasses the relationship. Such a phenomenon can evolve favourably only if one acknowledges its autonomy, its otherness. It must be left alone; that is, the ego mustn’t identify with the co-creative whole. The analyst ought not to think that he is consciously creating an ‘intersubjective realm’ together with the analysand. It’s not a product of the conscious ego. Here is where theorists of intersubjectivity generally go wrong, probably because they lean too much on phenomenological philosophy, which lacks a notion of unconscious autonomy. Ogden, however, has come to deviate from the general discourse in that he speaks of the unconscious ‘analytic third’ as a factor of relative autonomy; a “third subject”, created in the unconscious interplay of analyst and analysand.

To give priority to an individual self-consciousness also means to truly accept an ‘autonomous other’. These things go together. Yet, as Frie (1999) explains, most theorists of intersubjectivity fail to appreciate the importance of individual self-consciousness. When intersubjectivist theory neglects the differentiation of ego consciousness the whole idea of the analyst’s subjective involvement is corrupted. It gives rise to intersubjectivist ‘merger theories’, such as Winnicott’s (1999) notion of an intermediate playground where subjectivity merges with objective reality. Instead of defining itself in relation to an inner and outer otherness and acquiring a modest dimension, the ego swells out beyond its borders in an attempt to engulf the other party. An ego that cannot tolerate otherness is bound to identify with the unconscious co-creative whole, thereby divesting it of its autonomy. This controlling behaviour is typical of a narcissistic modus operandi and it is clearly harmful to the patient.

Unconscious togetherness

An unconscious ‘otherness’ mustn’t be viewed as an “alternative ego”. It is something qualitatively different than ego consciousness. By referring to the unconscious as ‘other’ I try to highlight its relative autonomy, i.e., that it is beyond our control and that it can, by itself, change over time. One can compare it with a domestic animal, like a cat (a very common personification of the unconscious in dreams, etc.). It is not really another ‘person’ because it lacks a fixed ego consciousness. Still, in a sense, it is an ‘other’, a relatively self-willed being that now and then detaches itself and goes its own way.

But since the pioneering times of Freud and Jung, the unconscious has lost much of its “catlike” nature. The concept, as used by later theorists, seems more technical. It is often viewed as merely a repository of memories of childhood relations. It’s more passive in appearance. It’s like theorists would not allow it autonomy. The notion of an unconscious intersubjectivity might help to repair this.

What is the real reason why people get together, light candles, and do small talk while eating dinner, etc? And why have religious congregations always assembled to bow down, in togetherness, before invisible beings as, for instance, the cat goddess Bastet? In spiritualist seances, too, they await, in togetherness, the appearance of the ‘other’.

When we get together, provided that we damp the assertiveness of our own egos, it seems like we have a good chance of becoming aware of the unconscious as an autonomous ‘other’, almost as a ‘cat goddess’. It’s not easy to have a ‘seance’ on your own; it’s frightful, and the defences of our consciousness are alert. But, when another person is in the room, the defences slacken. We are not merely aware of our own ego, but (provided that we have some social talent) we are, so to speak, prepared to let the other person in.

True social talent is to let other people in, to let them have a say, to learn to appreciate them for who they really are. This means that we have to have a good self-knowledge, a differentiated self-consciousness. An ego that is not differentiated from the unconscious has not acquired that ‘modest dimension’ which enables it to bow down in togetherness, in order to allow entrance to the ‘cat goddess’.

By example, suppose that the analyst would inform the analysand of his sexual transference to the analysand. This means that his ego asserts itself and goes beyond its borders. This foolish ego has not realized that these sexual feelings are not at all ‘his’. The mystery of sexuality, so to speak, really belongs to the ‘cat goddess’. Thus, on account of the subject’s identification with the unconscious, this autonomous ‘cat goddess’ could not appear as a ‘third subject’ in the relation. It is choked, and with it is lost the healing influences of an “unconscious togetherness”.

False intersubjectivity

Such things happen now and then, and maybe of the good, too. However, viewing self-disclosure of the analyst as an ideal would be to give preference to the analyst’s ego, which will become inflated with unconscious content, and thereby it will acquire this very stuck-up assertiveness that hinders true contact with the analysand. He won’t let the other person in. He is merely relating to his own projections.

So, in my view, this is the false form of intersubjectivity, proposed by the ‘merger theories’. Although well-meaning, these theories really advocate a merger of the analyst’s ego with the analysand, a flagrantly narcissistic preoccupation. The problem is that as soon as the analyst has identified with an unconscious content and disclosed it to the analysand, a contradictory content will begin to constellate in the unconscious, since the unconscious contains all opposites. So his ‘amorous feelings’ might later, for instance, turn into sadistic fantasies, a phenomenon which accounts for the ambivalency of the narcissistic personality.

Yet I am not of the opinion that “unconscious togetherness” is always the solution. For instance, an analyst can initially be assertive in the sense that he ‘lectures’ the analysand on psychological notions in order to strengthen his consciousness, that is, to achieve a separation from the unconscious on part of the analysand. Intersubjectivity is clearly not an easy subject.

Prereflective communication

Truth is that the analyst needn’t really bother about “disclosure of the countertransference” because he will give himself away, regardless (unless he is a stone-cold “dead mother”). The patient can register the choice of words, tone of voice, facial expression, and other expressive motions, like involuntary bodily motions. Nor does the girl have to say to the boy that she is “having a crush” on him. A more powerful statement is to blush.

If we communicate certain things unconsciously like this, rather than going via ego consciousness and verbalization, then we circumvent that notorious ‘synthetic function’ of the ego. Any unconscious content that treads into the limelight of the ego is immediately gobbled up by the ego. The ego regards it as part of itself. Sometimes the content really belongs to the ego, but more often it belongs to the ‘intersubjective unconscious’. (Actually, Thomas Ogden is much into prereflective communication and the bodily aspects of the analytic work.)

The analyst will, at a later stage, be able to verbalize his experience within the ‘intersubjective unconscious’ and, yet, be determined to keep the content at arm’s length. He can do this by being cautious and not trying to catch hold of the content at once, but by grasping it tentatively, not nailing it to the wall. This is actually possible for certain sophisticated analysts who have acquired a true modesty of the ego. And, of course, the patient must be at such an advanced stage that he can avoid projecting it on the analyst.

So that teenage boy knows that the ‘message of love’ is genuine because it doesn’t reach him via the girl’s ego and speech organ. Had it been so, then he could suspect that she is not a modest person and that her interest is mostly due to the fact that he is a rich kid and drives an expensive car, or whatever. So he understands that Cupid has shot an arrow in her heart. And since the girl is equipped with a modest ego that refrains from identifying with the power of love, then the ‘love goddess’ can continue to exist in the ‘intersubjective unconscious’ which is uniting them both.

Needless to say, the ‘intersubjective unconscious’ does not remain totally unconscious. Conscious and unconscious are relative terms. Most green plants that we buy come with a tag: Do not place in direct sunlight! Many unconscious contents, as it were, come with such a tag, too. The direct sunlight of the ego should be avoided. The moonlit realm of the ‘intersubjective unconscious’ is a much better place for them to inhabit.

Obviously, we humans already have a natural understanding of such issues. That’s why it’s so advantageous not to go via ‘verbal disclosure’ but, instead, go via the unconscious. Ego inflation is avoided, and whatever the content is, the patient will not feel pressured as he knows that it’s not deliberate, and the ‘cat goddess’ is allowed to live on without being gobbled up by the ego.


I contend that there are two kinds of intersubjectivity: (1) the unsound ‘merger theories’ and (2) the sound version where the ‘intersubjective co-creation’ takes place autonomously in the unconscious, supported by an ego that allows for autonomy by defining itself against both ‘inner otherness’ and ‘outer otherness’. It implies that the unconscious is acknowledged as a comparably autonomous ‘inner other’, rather than a passive storage space for repressions or introjected object-relations.

The realm of unconscious co-creation can be viewed as a greenhouse, which must be carefully maintained over a long time. If a seed is buried in the earth then we have to leave it there. One can’t simply tear it up, lay it on the table, saying, “this is what I find in the unconscious”. This will only destroy the burgeoning plant. Instead one must water it modestly. When it begins to sprout, it should be exposed to a little sunlight (= conscious recognition), but not too much.


© Mats Winther, 2005


Frie, R. (1999). ‘Subjectivity Revisited: Sartre, Lacan, and early German Romanticism’. Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, 30:1-13.

‘Intersubjectivity’. Wikipedia article. (here)

‘Narrative’. Wikipedia article. (here)

Ogden, T.H. (1994). Subjects of Analysis. Northvale, NJ: Aronson.

  ----------    (1995). ‘Analyzing forms of aliveness and deadness in the transference-countertransference’. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 76:695-709.

  ----------    (1999). ‘The Analytic Third: An Overview’. Relational Psychoanalysis: The Emergence of a Tradition, eds. S. Mitchell and L. Aron. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.

Winnicott, D.W. (1999). Playing and Reality. New York: Routledge (1971).

Winther, M. (2003). ‘Winnicott’s Dream: A Critique of Winnicott’s Thought as a Form of Mystical Narcissism’. (here).