The intersubjectivity and intrasubjectivity of applied therapeutic sense-making

Written for and presented to the Intersubjectivity and its commitments conference at University College Dublin on 13/03/17

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In a simplistic presentation intersubjectivity might be viewed as the social relationship between individuals. A deeper analysis shows that the coupling of individuals may lead to an extension of the capability of either participant and often to emergent properties that would not, up until that point, be possible for either subject by themselves. An even more thorough exploration shows that, in the right circumstances, some of these emergent properties or those of the other can be retained by a subject when subsequently decoupled. It is this form of intersubjectivity which was important in Lev Vygotsky’s (1896-1934) work and which forms the basis of the zone of proximal development [1].


Through both childhood and later development certain characteristics of others, and society as a whole, become internalised for the subject. These characteristics may be explicitly taught to a subject in declarative form – i.e. ‘group X are good and group Y are bad’ – or dispositions may develop through a series of encounters which serve as premises for a given conclusion – i.e. touching fire more than once and getting burnt each time. To the extent that the worldview formed agrees with the facts of the matter in a given moment, it is adaptive; but importantly this adaptivity may favour social context over technical fact – i.e. it may be that holding a view that the earth is flat is useful if hungry at a flat earth believers’ convention. Of interest are occasions when more than one perspective on the same topic become internalised within a given subject. These intrasubjective parts, voices, or perspectives may at times be in conflict: the internalised intersubjective voice, for example, of one parent encouraging prompt action, and that of the other parent urging hesitancy and caution.

Applied therapeutic sense-making

The applied therapeutic process, whether formally – as is the case with internal family systems approaches [2], voice dialogue therapy [3] or parts therapy [4] – or informally in the case of just about any other methodology [5], typically becomes a mediation ground for these internalised perspectives. As with any good mediation session, the therapist/mediator had best not start with an assumption that any particular perspective is the correct or incorrect one (even if that were the case it would be a conclusion better arrived at through the process). Typically the therapeutic process sheds light on the fact that differing points of view – even diametrically opposing ones – are no more incongruous than a car equipped with both an accelerator and a brake. Whilst the functions of these components are in opposition, by design they nonetheless are subsystems of an overall purpose (safe vehicular progress). In serving to temper each other they promote the aim of the other – i.e. having a brake facilitates faster driving and having an accelerator leads to less reluctance stopping. This type of mutually supportive yin and yang type counterbalance of the intrasubjective, derived originally from the intersubjective, tends to make that subject a more integrated intersubjective participant in the social systems in which they form a component part and so the cycle continues.


  • Vygotsky, L. S. (1980). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Harvard university press.
  • Schwartz, R. C. (1997). Internal family systems therapy. Guilford Press.
  • Stone, H., & Stone, S. (2011). Embracing Our Selves: The Voice Dialogue Manuel. New World Library.
  • Hunter, R. (2005). Hypnosis for Inner Conflict resolution: Including parts therapy. Crown House Publishing.
  • Dryden, W. (2007). Dryden’s handbook of individual therapy. Sage.