MAFW and Anarchy

For some time now, it’s been no secret that there is an evil cabal of anarchists behind the MAFW page. While the various political positions, memes, and admissions of its moderators could leave no doubt about it, there has actually been very little in the way of explaining the “anarchism” that these anarchists are so hot on. There’s a few reasons for this… one of them being that the moderator line-up hasn’t always been 100% anarchist. But more importantly, MAFW wasn’t and still isn’t a recruitment effort or anything of the sort. The emphasis has always been on participating in, and openly defending, what could be called “the counter-cultural element” of the area. And as we are all well aware, there has been an ongoing onslaught of initiatives meant to crush said “element” so that it could be paved over with smooth vibrancy for the city government’s development projects.
All that said, let’s be frank(enstein): MAFW is definitely an anarchist project that has been guided by anarchist thought and practice. So I think it’s about time to describe the fundamentals of anarchism broadly, and as it informs this project… That isn’t an easy task to do in a short paper, but I am going to try by starting with a little bit (just a little bit) of history.
Anarchism mostly comes out of the labor movements from a while ago. The same kind of labor movements that Socialism inspired and Communism came from. The same kind of labor movements where people fought and died to get rid of child labor, to institute an 8-hour day, to prevent bosses from stealing wages, for workers self-education, mutual aid societies, and struggles to overcome their precarious circumstances as a class that can’t break through the limits capitalism creates without a revolution. The time-periods I’m talking about here are roughly between the Liberal revolutions that overthrew Feudal societies all over the place and the end of World War II, what some call the end of the Modern Period.
After Kings and Queens and other Lordly pieces-of-shit created masses and masses of subjects dispossessed of any land, any commons they once shared, and other such means to life… those masses were so debased and reduced to such powerlessness that they filled the industrialized cities looking for any work they could get. Then those feudal powers were overthrown and a new ruling, propertied class solidified their own governments to protect their own interests at the expense of the propertyless who were exploited to further concentrate wealth into the hands of the new rulers. After endless attempts had failed by the propertyless to elect those who could represent them and to pass reforms that could alleviate their conditions, revolutionary ideologies emerged as the necessary solution. That is the environment that anarchism mostly formed in.
This environment had made it obvious to most people that capitalism was fucking terrible and something had to be done about it. That the governments were only there to use them as cannon fodder and protect a social order where capitalists could dominate those who worked for them. A whole ton of people created labor unions to try to deal with this all and then these union types formed an international organization to coordinate their revolt. Two major ideologies were prominent at this time that will help make sense of anarchism quickly: Democratic Socialism and Communism. Democratic Socialism is more-or-less an approach to anti-capitalism where elections and voting would be the means by which the working class could solve their problems within capitalism through taxation and redistribution. Communism deals with most of the same problems, but it wants to solve them with a revolutionary dictatorship that is supposed to be composed of the smartest workers (the vanguard) making sure that the tyranny of government institutions can be used to control the dumber workers and suppress capitalist (and other reactionary) attempts to prevent their revolution. Eventually, Communists said, this tyrannical dictatorship would become unnecessary when there were no more class divisions in society …but we all know how that’s gone.
The anarchists were opposed to both of these strategies and defined their positions by emphasizing the ability for workers, their unions, and their community associations to solve their problems themselves without any appeals to governments, without attempts to reform governments, without any attempts to take over governments. The anarchists said, “you fucking Communists are going to create a form of dictatorship that is more tyrannical than anything the world has ever know.” And they said, “Democratic Socialists, it’s nice that you care but seriously by now you should know better.” Then, anarchists went on to create all sorts of institutions, insurrections, and even a revolution or two. Their direct action “got the goods” and such results were a powerful argument in favor of the anarchist position.
That was pretty much the minimum definition for being an anarchist: you thought that the problems created by capitalists and the new liberal nation-states that protected them could only be solved by people organizing themselves to meet their own needs. As a theory, this also meant… y’know, instead of the rights being granted to individuals and/or share-holders to own the new industrial technologies and factories of the industrial revolutions, the community (or at least the workers) would own that shit collectively. It also meant that those rights wouldn’t be given to any government, that there wouldn’t be centralized planning by a dictatorial party… that people would federate freely to meet their economic, social, and spiritual needs, through federated networks of smaller organizations, as they had already been doing. Here’s a short list of some other anarchist positions:
– Anti-Conscription/Anti-Militarism …sometimes called Pacifism
– Free Love (as in anti-Marriage) and Free Love (as in sexual freedom)
– Women’s Emancipation and Equality with Men
– Anti-Nationalism and Anti-Racism
– Naturalism …and in today’s parlance, environmentalism, ecology, and such
– Nudism
– Vegetarianism and Veganism
– Free Education
– Rent Strikes
– Peasant Revolts
And that’s just the list prior to the rise of Fascism, Nazism, and other such WWII-period nasties. Now as we all know, the 20thCentury was FUCKING HORRIFIC. One of the more relevant points about the World Wars though, for anarchists, was that pretty much everyone else worked together to completely annihilate anarchists, their theories, their historical contributions, and their ability to openly organize. Democracies, Communist Dictatorships, and Fascist Dictatorships all made it a point to make anarchist existence illegal and as a result, what had been a fairly large and loud movement was reduced to whispers until the last bit of the Century. As a lesson, this has often added to the list of positions above, a distrust and sometimes outright antagonism towards the classical Left Wing.
So how did anarchists recover, you might ask? (just pretend you asked.)
Well… while an anti-Bolshevik New Left started to form from the rubble after WWII, a handful of resistors who had been driven underground poked their heads back up and a handful of historians began to put the pieces back together. The New Left and the rise of the 60’s counter-cultures supplied the momentum and when insurrectionary rebellions broke out in `68, a new chapter in Western anti-capitalist history was born. The new anti-Capitalist ethos, critical of both Liberal Democracy and Soviet Communism, was ripe for anarchism …the main historical opponent of those traditions. However, the Western world post-`68 could not be meaningfully engaged like it had in the golden age of Labor.
Liberal Democracies had risen to a new position of global superiority and their expansionist projects gave them a new capacity for establishing societies of spectators and consumers. Society became full of a “middle class”: people who were technically workers being exploited by a capitalist ruling class, but who were to benefit from war spoils and foreign exploitation, provided cheap credit, and encouraged to use this credit for home ownership in newly developed suburbs. At the same time, this new “middle class” was full of people who would be so far removed from both industrial and political positions of power that they hardly had any ability to revolt. Nor did they have the ability to self-govern many aspects of their lives, as their livelihoods depended on automobiles, imports through extensive and complex supply chains, and jobs rather far from where they lived.
In such an environment of consumer alienation and boredom in the suburbs, poverty and unemployment in the cities, without any hope a strong Labor dictatorship may save them, it was punk bands with their D.I.Y. lifestyles that came to the fore of anarchism’s return. “NO FUTURE!!!!” sang the Sex Pistols, a band pieced together by Malcom McLaren, a member of Kings Mob carrying on the tradition of the Situationist International. “Do They Owe Us A Living? Of course they fucking do!!!!” sang Crass, the band who would do so much to establish the D.I.Y. Anarcho-Punk movement of the late-70’s to today.
These two punk ethos revived anarchism in two very different ways. The Sex Pistols’ confrontational, belligerent, and destructive style characterized the more nihilistic attitude of some punks; more focused on the disruption of everyday life and inducing discomfort among the status quo. Crass however, carried on in a more traditional British anarchist manner, espousing anti-militarist/pacifist values and paving the way for those who would come later by forming their own record label, booking their own tours, opening their collective house to other punks, and including much more ideologically explicit content with their albums. The two different paths would later be called “chaos punk” and “peace punk” by some.
One of the main differences between pre-WWII anarchism and now is that prior to WWII, anarchism emerged as a popular movement among large populations of workers. Now, Punk anarchism emerged in the cracks of society where the promises of post-War prosperity meet the realities of teen angst in a meaningless consumer society. The mass movements of the 60’s had faded away after winning some reforms, and Labor had barely hung-on by the threads of some blue-collar unions. Complacency, even after the Great Recession, still ruled the day in the suburbs and the cities. As for the communes, the free schools, the coops and unions… their absence tied in with the overall concerns that the anarchists of MAFW have been getting at…
Most of the anarchist administrators of MAFW have been active in Tempe going way back to 2000 C.E. when the Phoenix Anarchist Coalition had its first meeting at the Gentle Strength Co-op. That’s right, the co-op right where the Local is now being built. Mill Ave. was a very different place. Us counter-cultural types were far more prevalent, especially because we had not only 1, but 2 record stores: Zia Records and East Side Records. The ASU bro presence wasn’t nearly as strong and the police weren’t anywhere near as militarized. This was pre-9/11, pre-Patriot Act, afterall.
On the national stage the momentum of the Anti-Globalization Movement was getting supplanted by anti-War momentum and the Green Scare was being felt hard by the green anarchists. With that, the rise of 9/11 Truthers, the Zeitgeist Movement, Ron Paul, and other turns in popular activism took the stage pretty much until Obama’s elections and the crash in 2007/8. That is to say, the protoplasm that became the Tea Party and Donald Trump’s base were in the streets just as much as the anarchists were, sometimes even at the same protest demonstrations. Anarchists, losing steam from the uphill battles in the Anti-War Movement and its mobilization as a base for the Democratic Party, could be found here and there among many of these tendencies. Anarcho-punk also went into decline for whatever reasons, perhaps because the liberal voting enthusiasm of the broader punk scenes made punk seem like a dead-end for any substantial break with mainstream ways of life. But, this could also be a consequence of the overall drying up of underground (music) subculture mapping closely to the spread of Broadband Internet and Smart Phones.
At the MAFW level, the co-op had become our space to meet, run an Infoshop that distributed literature, a free store distributing clothing and other basic goods, and center to coordinate local actions. We organized a few events for May Day, which is the international workers holiday that takes placeon May 1stin most countries with a socialist history. I personally helped the IWW unionize the Starbucks workers on Mill Ave. We held a public cursing of the Brickyard and it became infested by black mold shortly after. And anarchists were also regularly out watching, photographing, and filming police actions in an attempt to create some degree of police accountability.
But besides all of this dry, activist effort, we were regularly throwing house parties. They were large enough and numerous enough that if you partied in the area at the time, you likely went to one. If signs, flags, and fliers needed to be made for a protest, it was a party. If we had a meeting, afterwards it was a party. When the protests were over, party. And a few of us, including me, were in different bands playing at a variety of houses and venues. To say the least we all had more energy back then.
That is pretty much how shit went until the Co-op closed. When the Anti-War Movement petered out, the Anti-SB1070 movement was the next major popular outrage. Anarchists went door-to-door in Tempe to address the issue, which lead up to a large march through the MAFW neighborhood. Myself and others donated artwork for a No Boarders auction. Other anarchists put pressure on the issue of free movement, traffic surveillance cameras, and the hypocrisy among right-wingers regarding migration and free movement. And just like during the Anti-War Movement, we made ourselves and our positions heard loud and clear through the overall Liberal narrative.
As the Great Recession began to sink in and Smart Phones began to take over, the terrain of activism began to shift. Overall there was a lot of burn-out and drained resources for activism. Anarchists in the United States began reading stories about the insurrectionary activities in Greece, Spain, France, and elsewhere. Riots… something almost unheard of since the L.A. riots in the 90’s, were happening all over the place. Students were occupying their universities, mostly in California and New York. In Madison, WI the State Capitol building was occupied to fight back against attacks on collective bargaining rights. The Arab Spring was kicking off in Tunisia, giving history its first social networking-backed revolutions. And all of this eventually lead to Occupy Wall St. with its related occupations all over the United States and beyond.
The Occupations were the most radical revolts seen in the United States for a very, very long time. Occupy Phoenix became the new gravity of local anarchist energy. As had been our experience working with the broader Left Wing since our early actions at the turn of the century, we were enthusiastically embraced when “the Movement” required initiative, and then quickly thrown under the bus by the Liberals and Socialists seeking to drive energy into electoral strategies realized we wouldn’t capitulate to their media-oriented ideas about civil disobedience and social acceptability.
It was longer than most of us expected before the government began cracking down on Occupy encampments. The fall of the last (and most radical) holdouts, such-as the Oakland Commune/Decolonize Oakland signaled the end of those battles. A lot of media pundits tried to blame anarchists for Occupy’s supposed failures, saying that the consensus processes, the lack of concrete demands, and the general horizontalism were the major faults. But, the majority of the reasons why the occupations ended was because of government suppression which no Liberal or Commie organization would have been able to prevent. Another sizable chunk of this supposed “failure” comes from the Liberal framing itself, imposing their ideas about what success would be onto a movement that didn’t accept those ideas. The practical projects of Occupy, besides maintaining the occupations themselves, were expressed in the formation of countless working groups that were created during Occupy and were often maintained long after, achieving goals they had set out to achieve.
One of the forms said working groups took were attempts to create Neighborhood Associations, similar to the models anarchists and other radicals were exposed to in Europe and elsewhere. MAFW was created around this time with a similar spirit. However, because we already had lived in and had been active in the MAFW area for so long… and because of our own characters, the characteristics of the neighborhood, and many other influences, MAFW was not going to be just some Neighborhood Association.
In many ways, MAFW would just be a Facebook version of the things we had already been doing since the early 2000’s. It wasn’t expected to become very large and while there were many ideas for things to do, there wasn’t any clear purpose or mission. Additionally, after experiencing all the bans from Occupy-related Facebook groups, on top of all the banning we experienced from the official neighborhood groups in Tempe, we weren’t just going to let our shit get walked all over by anyone who could utter the phrases “free speech” or “community”. We’d long had enough of that bullshit.
As many of you ought to know by now, MAFW became popular far beyond what any of us expected because of the way we handled Safe and Sober when no other group was willing to go against the City. To elaborate a bit on this, some of us are influenced by a specific radical tradition known as Race Traitor, which puts a special emphasis on mobilizing white people against institutions of white supremacy. That became part of the MAFW project, which can be seen in the way we’ve consistently tried to undermine various white power structures, formal and informal, such as the police and, notably with our successful organizing against Safe & Sober.
One thing we noticed before starting MAFW was how brought people into a relationship with the police simply by offering a way to find lost pets and advertise garage sales. Meanwhile, the official neighborhood groups were uptight and bourgeois as heck, not representing the spirit of the neighborhood as we knew it. So we decided that if we could find a way to create a competing forum that challenged that, and which didn’t have the same uptight pro-police/anti-fun hangups as and the official neighborhood groups, we might be able to undermine them. The fight against Safe & Sober combined a lot of the elements that we thought were important to the project. Out of that came the Vanishing Show, for instance, in which we mobilized hedonism to challenge the attempt by the city to control the neighborhood, and then we leveraged that as an attack on the racist police force, eventually ending in the firing of the police chief and the canceling of the program, which was operating basically as a local version of Stop and Frisk, using racist police forces to invade downtown and stop thousands of people over the course of several weekends each year. Needless to say, those stops disproportionately targeted people of color. A city inquiry found as much to be true, and the top cop got the boot and his jackboot thugs got told no more Safe and Sober.
From all this, the group membership was growing by hundreds, and then thousands. Candidates for office were attempting to use the space for their campaigns. Officials were coming to us about various issues. News media were mentioning the group and sending in reporters. So we thought that surely we’d stand a chance at stopping some of this insane City-planned gentrification. And we did! But eventually, the City was approving new developments faster than we could stop any of them. Some of the original MAFW admins became uncomfortable with the increasingly explicit anarchist positioning, then left the group. A bunch of splinter groups formed that addressed more specific interests. People moved, many of them because their increasing rents forced them out of the area. The presidential elections really bummed a lot of people out. And the betrayal of the neighborhood groups by the Mayor when it mattered took a lot of wind out of our sails.
All of that said, we’re still here. As MAFW continues to thrive and facilitate local communication and coordination of activities by neighbs and crims themselves, we are consistently asking ourselves “what will come next?” Admittedly, we’ve been dealt some hard blows and even the Liberal efforts to gain seats in City Council have thus far been a wash. However, this doesn’t mean any of us have given up on not just living in MAFW, but enjoying our lives here together. The relationships that have formed since the beginning of this project are irreplaceable and we are far from powerless in creating the neighborhood we all want to live in. So as the mods of MAFW, we say “Cheers! Let’s Carry On!”
Let’s Keep Tempe Weird!

Intercorporeality as a theory of social cognition by Shogo Tanaka

Intercorporeality as a theory of social cognition

Shogo Tanaka


The main aim of this article is to revisit Merleau-Ponty’s notion of intercorporeality (intercorporéité) and elaborate it as a new theory of social cognition. As is well known, theory of mind has been the central issue in the field of social cognition for more than two decades. In reviewing the basic concepts involved in two major theories (theory theory and simulation theory), I make clear that both theories have been missing the embodied dimension because of their mind–body dualistic supposition. The notion of intercorporeality, in accordance with the recent interaction theory, stresses the role of embodied interactions between the self and the other in the process of social understanding. I develop this notion into two directions and describe the related process of social cognition: one is behavior matching and primordial empathy, the other is interactional synchrony and the sense of mutual understanding. Through these embodied interactions, intersubjective meanings are created and directly shared between the self and the other, without being mediated by mental representations.

Keywords: behavior matching, embodied interaction, interactional synchrony, intercorporeality, Merleau-Ponty, phenomenology, social cognition

Intercorporeality as a theory of social cognition

What does it mean to understand another person? Does it mean accurately guessing the other person’s inner feelings by watching facial expressions and gestures? Is it empathizing with the other person while listening to personal stories? Whatever the nature of social understanding may actually be, it is true that theory of mind (ToM) has been the central issue in the field of social cognition for more than two decades. Our everyday mode of understanding the other person has been explained based on ToM, which is generally defined as “the ability to imagine or make deductions about the mental states of other individuals” (American Psychological Association, 2009, p. 520). Through ToM, we are able not only to infer the mental states of others but also to predict their consequent behaviors. However, as is well known, there has been a debate between the two major views—theory theory (TT) and simulation theory (ST)—regarding the nature of our ability to understand other people (Davies & Stone, 1995; Doherty, 2009). In recent years, a third view, interaction theory (IT), has established its position in the debate as well (Fuchs & De Jaegher, 2009; Gallagher, 2001, 2004).

In the following, in line with IT, I revisit classic discussions of both TT and ST and examine the very concepts of “theory” and “simulation” in order to clarify a hidden problem shared by both sides: the Cartesian dualistic frame of mind. Both theories conceive of the other person’s mind as something behind his or her overt behaviors (Gallagher & Zahavi, 2012). In other words, the other’s mind is invisible and beyond observable bodily behaviors, so we need inferential or simulative models to approach it. Therefore, understanding another person is equated with indirectly understanding the inner mental realm of that person, which is thought to be private and directly unperceivable. As Gallagher points out, “Both theory theory and simulation theory conceive of communicative interaction between two people as a process that takes place between two Cartesian minds” (2005, p. 211).

Long before ToM, the phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty (1951/1964a) clearly indicated that the Cartesian mind–body dualism is a stumbling block to social cognition. Concerning the infant’s relationships with other people, he asks how social understanding becomes possible if one’s mind is accessible only to oneself, as is presumed in classical psychology. In a sense, this question has been a traditional one for phenomenologists ever since Husserl (1945/1970) first discussed the problem of the other and intersubjectivity in his Cartesian Meditations. However, Merleau-Ponty’s contribution to the problem of intersubjectivity was far more practical in terms of considering the present theories of social cognition. By clarifying his notion of intercorporeality based on his text, I will show that his idea shares an important core with the present IT. Then, from this extension of intercorporeality I will abstract two patterns of social cognition: one is behavior matching and primordial empathy, the other is interactional synchrony and the sense of mutual understanding. These two patterns are not intended to deal with higher social cognition directly, but to lay a firm foundation for the most basic aspect of our social cognition in the lifeworld.

Concepts of “theory” and “simulation”

The term “theory of mind” was originally proposed by two primatologists, Premack and Woodruff, in their 1978 article titled “Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind?” In their experiments, they showed videotaped scenes of a human actor struggling with a problem to a chimpanzee, and then gave him several photographs, one of which indicated a solution to the problem. For example, in one photograph, a human actor in a cage reached for some bananas, but they were too far away. In another photograph, there was a stick that could be used to reach the bananas. Because the chimpanzee consistently chose the correct photograph in the series of experiments, Premack and Woodruff concluded that the chimpanzee had a theory of mind.

Several years later, Wimmer and Perner (1983) conducted a famous experiment with human children to investigate their ability to understand another person’s wrong belief.1 They invented the “false-belief task,” illustrated in the following story: Maxi puts a chocolate into cupboard X. In his absence, his mother moves the chocolate to another cupboard Y. After watching a puppet play, the children have to indicate where Maxi will look for the chocolate when he returns. In this task, if the children are able to represent Maxi’s inner wrong belief (“The chocolate is in cupboard X”) and point to cupboard X, then they are considered to have a theory of mind. The results indicated that none of the children under 4 years of age responded correctly; however, most of the 6- to 9-year-old children pointed correctly to cupboard X. This research suggested that children develop a theory of mind around the ages of 4–6 years.

After the initial experiment by Wimmer and Perner, many versions of the false-belief task were tested by other researchers (e.g., “Sally-Anne task” of Baron-Cohen, Leslie, & Frith, 1985; “Smarties task” of Gopnik & Astington, 1988). These experiments established the standard view that children, in general, gain a representational theory of mind around the age of four; meta-analysis of the test research has supported this view (Wellman, Cross, & Watson, 2001). The false-belief task has also been used with autistic children, and the results suggest that children with developmental disorders have a certain deficit in the ToM mechanism (Baron-Cohen, 1995; Baron-Cohen et al., 1985). However, instead of pursuing a review of applied research, let us examine the very concept of theory, which is presupposed in the term “theory of mind.” Premack and Woodruff originally explained theory of mind as follows:

In saying that an individual has a theory of mind, we mean that the individual imputes mental states to himself and to others (either to conspecifics or other species). A system of inferences of this kind is properly viewed as a theory, first, because such states are not directly observable, and second, because the system can be used to make predictions, specifically about the behavior of other organisms. (1978, p. 515)

This passage clarifies that there are two viewpoints included in the concept of theory claimed by TT. First, the other’s mental states are something invisible and not observable, which requires us to apply a certain kind of theory. Second, we are able to predict behaviors of other individuals by appealing to and deducting from such a theory. According to TT, understanding another person’s mind is a theoretical and inferential process, which is analogous to the natural sciences in applying theory and predicting the courses of natural phenomena (Gopnik, 2009; Suzuki, 2002).

Theory of mind at its core is composed of beliefs, desires, and actions (Astington, 1993). If we know the other’s inner beliefs and desires, we are able to predict the subsequent action. For example, you see that your daughter is hungry and you know that she knows there are cookies in the kitchen drawer, so you can easily predict that she is going to eat them sooner or later. In turn, when we observe the other’s actions, we can infer that person’s beliefs and desires. For example, if you meet a friend on the street and see him rushing to the bus stop, you infer that he believes that he will possibly miss the bus and that he does not want to.

Some philosophers have supported simulation theory as an alternative to TT (Goldman, 1989, 2006; Gordon, 1986). ST is so named because it claims that our ability to understand another person is not based on theoretical inferences but on self-simulation. The simulation in this theory refers to the mental operation of “putting oneself in the other’s shoes,” that is, putting oneself in the other’s situation using one’s imagination (Gordon, 1986, p. 161). By shifting spatiotemporal perspective and using our past experiences in a similar situation, we are able to imagine how the other person perceives the situation. Consequently, we are able to feel or think what the other person might feel or think. What is crucial in the first step of simulating is to pretend to be in the other person’s situation and perceive, feel, and think as if we were that person. Then, as a second step, we attribute the resulting mental states to the other person, in a process called “projection” (Goldman, 2006, p. 40). Goldman summarizes the whole process of simulation as follows:

They [those who interpret others] ascribe mental states to others by pretending or imagining themselves to be in the other’s shoes, constructing or generating the (further) state that they would then be in, and ascribing that state to the other. In short, we simulate the situation of others, and interpret them accordingly. (1989, p. 168)

Thus, according to ST, pretending to imitate the other’s mental state and attributing the result to that person enables us to predict the other’s behaviors. For example, a police officer who is searching for a criminal might perceive the situation and try to find a safe place to hide, as if he himself were the criminal. Through this simulation, the officer might discover the actual place where the criminal is hiding. Meeting a blind person presents another example. When we encounter someone on the street who seems to be blind, we make way for that person because we imagine the situation that he or she might be in, and thus try to avoid bumping into him or her. Gordon (1986) claims that this holds true in Wimmer and Perner’s false-belief task. Children around the age of four develop the ability to imagine themselves in Maxi’s situation, and therefore are able to predict where Maxi would look for the chocolate.

According to ST, we use introspection of our own mind to simulate the other person’s mind. First, we put ourselves in the hypothetical situation, and based on our past similar experiences we imagine how we would feel, think, and act. Then, by using self-simulation as a resource, we project the results onto the other person’s current mental state and subsequent behavior. Thus, the ability to understand the other person is considered to be preceded by and rooted in our capability for self-understanding. This first-person approach is emphasized in ST.

Phenomenological reconsideration

Now, it is possible to characterize the conceptual difference between TT and ST. TT claims that we practice our understanding of another person’s mind and behavior by referring to commonsense kinds of theories about mind (i.e., folk psychology). ST claims that we understand other people by self-simulating their situations and projecting the results. TT believes that to understand another person, we use objective theory, which can be applied equally to the self and the other (Gopnik, 2009). ST believes that we use subjective simulation, which is projected from the self onto the other. It is clear that TT takes an observational, third-person viewpoint, while ST takes an introspective, first-person viewpoint (Fuchs, 2013).

I do not attempt here to decide which theory of mind is true. Rather, my aim is to reconsider both theories from the phenomenological perspective—in other words, to consider our daily practice of understanding other people as we experience it. Reflecting on our daily interactions with others, it seems to be true that we sometimes use theory to attempt to understand the other’s mind and behavior and, at other times, we put ourselves in their situation to achieve the same purpose. It depends on the relationships, social contexts, or situations within which we interact with the other. However, a common characteristic of both processes is that we practice theoretical inferences or simulations in limited situations, where we are unable to directly understand what the other person is saying or doing. For instance, if there is an explicit difference between the self and the other, such as cultural background, age, or gender, this would motivate us to run theoretical inferences or simulations.

In any case, both theories take it for granted that understanding another person is an indirect mental process which needs to appeal to theory or simulation. Both have been criticized by interaction theory (IT) because they fail to consider basic situations in which we have direct interactions with others (Gallagher, 2001, 2004).2 Gallagher and Zahavi point out the philosophical assumption that is shared by both theories:

Despite their differences, TT and ST both deny that it is possible to directly experience other minded creatures; this is supposedly why we need to rely on and employ either theoretical inferences or internal simulations. Both accounts consequently share the view that the minds of others are completely hidden, and they consider one of the main challenges facing a theory of social cognition to be the question of how and why we start ascribing such hidden mental entities or processes to certain publicly observable bodies. As we have seen, phenomenologists would object to the way this question is framed. (2012, p. 205)

These remarks point out that both theories consider the other person’s mind as something private, internal, and hidden behind the observable body. I would like to stress that this supposition is based on Cartesian mind–body dualism (see also Gallagher, 2005; Kono, 2005). The other person’s mind, if it exists, is only conceivable by that person in the same manner that I conceive my own mind as an internal realm. The only way to understand the other’s mind is to observe the bodily behavior and then infer or self-simulate. In my view, this dualistic supposition is the true problem in the theory of mind debate and needs to be overcome (cf. Merleau-Ponty, 1951/1964a).

From the phenomenological perspective, it is important to note that we are able to directly experience others through our perception. In these experiences, others do not appear as mere physical entities or inaccessible minds, as in the case of Cartesian reflection, but as whole persons who are not divided into the body and mind. Following Husserl, Merleau-Ponty emphasizes that “there is no constituting of a mind for a mind, but of a man for a man” (1960/1964b, p. 169). Within the lifeworld, we usually encounter others as persons and interact with them from a second-person stance. First of all, the interaction between the self and the other should be the focus of social cognition.

There are three notable features of our daily interactions with others. First, the other person we meet in ordinary situations is not differentiated into “interior” and “exterior.” We directly perceive the other’s happiness in her smiling face, sadness in his tears, or anger in her clenched fist. The other’s gestures, facial expressions, and gaze appear meaningful in themselves (Scheler, 1948/1954). The other’s body does not appear as a physical object separated from mental activities in a dualistic way. The minds of others are possibly hidden from us when they lie, keep secrets, or deceive; however, this does not mean that their minds are theoretically hidden and private (Kono, 2005).

Second, our interactions with others are basically embodied. For example, if someone smiles at us, we will naturally smile back. If someone points a finger in a certain direction, we will look for an object in that direction. If someone pats us on the shoulder, we will turn around to find out who it is. The most fundamental social understanding is expressed through such embodied interactions, which is a chain action-reaction between the self and the other (which we will examine below). This process includes mutual understanding of each other’s intention of action. Even after we attain a theory of mind, the social understanding based on embodied interaction continues to be fundamental (Fuchs & De Jaegher, 2009; Gallagher, 2005).

Third, the other person appears in a concrete action in a shared context. The other person is not a physical entity in a vacuum, but a living body embedded in the world: he or she is engaged in a certain action, oriented toward other persons, objects, and the environment. If someone is standing at a bus stop, we perceive her intention of waiting for the bus to go to some destination. If someone picks up the phone, we understand his need to talk with another person. The other’s bodily movements always appear to us as meaningful actions, which manifest their own intentions, needs, and goals in a certain context.3 Expressed in a phenomenological term, we understand the other person as a “being in the world” (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/2012).

In short, we use embodied interactions to understand the other person, taking the second-person viewpoint in a common context. This process, of course, does not assure a precise understanding of the mental states of the other, but it is not as obscure as theoretical inferences or inner simulations, which consider the other’s mental states as something not directly accessible. What is needed is the understanding of the other’s mental states in expressive continuity with their bodily behaviors (Gallagher & Zahavi, 2012).

It should be remembered that Husserl (1945/1970) originally focused on the relation between my body and that of the other when he attempted to articulate the foundations of intersubjectivity. In my perceptual field, the other’s body first appears as a physical object (Körper) in the same way that other physical objects appear. However, I perceive it as a lived body (Leib), which is similar to mine, through the process of pairing (Paarung).4 Thus, at the most fundamental level, our visual perception of the other body allows it to appear as the other person or the other subject of action, which is different from a mere physical object.

Merleau-Ponty’s notion of intercorporeality

In our reconsideration of the current problem of social cognition, we can now move on to Merleau-Ponty, who reformulated this point in a far more sophisticated and practical way. He first proposed the notion of “intercorporeality” (intercorporéité) in his late essay on Husserlian phenomenology, “The Philosopher and His Shadow” (Merleau-Ponty, 1960/1964b). Using the word “shadow,” he attempts to focus on theoretical issues—embodiment and otherness—that were left unconsidered by Husserl. (Needless to say, the “philosopher” in the title indicates Husserl.) In this essay, since intercorporeality is also referred to as “carnal intersubjectivity” (intersubjectivité charnelle), it is evident that Merleau-Ponty is trying to open a discussion on intersubjectivity in close connection with the idea of embodiment. In the background of this notion lies the problem of other mind, as is the case with ToM.5

First, the notion of intercorporeality requires us to change our view of the mind. Referring to the development of infants’ social cognition, Merleau-Ponty states, “We must abandon the fundamental prejudice according to which the psyche is that which is accessible only to myself and cannot be seen from outside” (1951/1964a, p. 116). As seen above, this is exactly what was required in the case of ToM. Intercorporeality, then, focuses on the relation between one’s own body and that of the other to illuminate intersubjectivity and social understanding in an alternative way. The problem of social cognition should not be set up as a problem of communication between two Cartesian minds, as Gallagher (2005) argued above. Here, I would like to quote four related passages from Merleau-Ponty’s texts to clarify the notion of intercorporeality as much as possible.

  • (a) “Each one of us [is] pregnant with the others and confirmed by them in his body.” (1960/1964b, p. 181)

This passage, from “The Philosopher and His Shadow,” emphasizes that each of us is connected with others through our own body in a special way (“pregnant” and “confirmed”).6 However, the reality of the connection remains ambiguous here. The following passage from “The Child’s Relations with Others” explains this in a more concrete way:

  • (b) “In perceiving the other, my body and his are coupled, resulting in a sort of action which pairs them. This conduct which I am able only to see, I live somehow from a distance. I make it mine; I recover it or comprehend it. Reciprocally I know that the gestures I make myself can be the objects of another’s intention.” (1951/1964a, p. 118)

According to this passage, it is clear that our connection through the body is based on perception, especially that of another’s action. Merleau-Ponty states that the self “lives” the other’s action from a distance by perceiving it, and the self comprehends the meaning of that action by doing so. Perceiving the other’s action does not mean observing it in a detached way but tracing it through the body in a pre-reflective way. We can better understand this point through the next quote, which is from his Phenomenology of Perception:

  • (c) “A fifteen-month-old baby opens his mouth when I playfully take one of his fingers in my mouth and pretend to bite it. … “Biting” immediately has an intersubjective signification for him. He perceives his intentions in his body, perceives my body with his own, and thereby perceives my intentions in his body.” (1945/2012, p. 368)

A 15-month-old baby, as soon as he perceives the adult’s action of biting, echoes the same action even though he does not explicitly know whether his face structurally corresponds to that of the adult in front of him. The baby pre-reflectively acknowledges through his body (i.e., through his motor capacity) the adult’s intention of biting, and as such the intention to bite is shared intersubjectively between the baby and the adult. The last passage refers to this point:

  • (d) “Communication or the understanding of gestures is achieved through the reciprocity between my intentions and the other person’s gestures, and between my gestures and the intentions which can be read in the other person’s behavior. Everything happens as if the other person’s intention inhabited my body, or as if my intentions inhabited his body.” (1945/2012, pp. 190–191)

The word “gestures” in this passage can also be read as “actions” within the context of our discussion.7 There is reciprocity between my intentions and another’s actions and between another’s intentions and my actions. Consider again the baby’s case: perceiving my action of biting, the baby carries out his own intention to bite. This occurs as if my intention inhabited the baby’s body, and thus, as we saw in passage (a), I am confirmed by the baby in its body.

In the passages quoted above, we can almost discern the meaning of intercorporeality. However, I would like to add two ordinary but illuminating examples, which can help us understand the notion even more clearly. The first example is yawning. It is well known that yawning is highly contagious. In fact, it is a common experience that we cannot help yawning when we see someone else yawn. Interestingly enough, it has been remarked that children with autism have difficulty with contagious yawning (Senju et al., 2007). The other example is smiling. Generally, smiling is not as contagious as yawning. However, when we come upon an innocently smiling face, we may feel that the muscles around our mouth are about to mimic the same facial expression, even though we do not actually smile (Schilbach, Eickhoff, Mojzisch, & Vogeley, 2008).

Thus, we can now understand the notion of intercorporeality, as shown in Figure 1 (Tanaka, 2013, p. 103). Intercorporeality contains a perception–action loop between the self and the other. Perceiving the other’s action prompts the same action in the self (like contagious yawning) or the possibility of the action (like smiling). Conversely, the self’s action prompts the same action, or its possibility, in the other’s body. In this way, each one of us is “pregnant with the others,” as Merleau-Ponty expressed it in passage (a). Therefore, it is understandable that intercorporeality is also referred to as “carnal intersubjectivity.” Merleau-Ponty aimed to reformulate intersubjectivity as a problem of communication not between two Cartesian minds, but between two minded-bodies (Tanaka, 2014a).

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Structure of intercorporeality.

In terms of social cognition, through this reciprocity between bodies, we directly grasp the intention of another’s action, as claimed by direct social perception theory (Gallagher, 2008). For the self, to perceive another’s action is potentially to take up the same action. Thus, it is through our motor capacity that we understand the meanings of the other’s action (Kono, 2005). Our basic ability to understand others is perceptual, sensorimotor, and non-conceptual (Gallagher, 2004). The most primary form of social understanding is to directly grasp another’s actions through one’s own body and find one’s own possibility of actions in another’s body. This understanding precedes the theoretical inferences or inner simulations put forward in theories of mind. Merleau-Ponty’s notion of intercorporeality makes it possible to understand social cognition from an enactive perspective (Fuchs & De Jaegher, 2009; Noë, 2004; Varela, Thompson, & Rosch, 1991). Perceiving the other person is not passively receiving the stimuli but actively seeking for potential actions, as we will discuss below.

Behavior matching and primordial empathy

Since Merleau-Ponty’s death in 1961, many empirical cases have been reported in social and developmental psychology that support the notion of intercorporeality, although they were not directly inspired by Merleau-Ponty. The following cases are well known in these fields:

  1. Reflexive crying (Simner, 1971): newborn infants have a strong tendency to cry in response to another newborn’s crying.
  2. Neonate imitation (Meltzoff & Moore, 1977): newborn infants imitate an adult’s facial expressions, such as opening and closing the mouth or sticking out the tongue.
  3. Postural congruence (LaFrance & Broadbent, 1976; Scheflen, 1964): during communication in pairs or a group, a similarity in participants’ postures is often observed (e.g., crossing the legs, head propping).
  4. Matching in vocalization (Cappella, 1981): in infant–adult dyadic interactions, infants consistently match their vocalization in timing and duration to those of the mother.
  5. Motor mimicry (Bavelas, Black, Lemery, & Mullett, 1986): when a person witnesses another’s emotional expressions (e.g., wincing for pain), he or she mimics the same movements, including facial expressions.

Similar to contagious yawning, these cases involve our natural tendency to imitate others’ actions. This tendency is observed not only in newborns but also in adults and includes a broad range of nonverbal behavior such as facial expressions, paralanguage, postures, gestures, movements, and mannerisms (Nagaoka, 2006). Most of this mimicry is unintended, unconscious, and automatic, which Chartrand and Bargh (1999) call “the chameleon effect.” In consequence of this kind of mimicry, emotional contagion is naturally induced (Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1993), and people are often able to converge emotionally. In all instances, more than two people show a similarity in nonverbal behavior, especially in bodily actions, which Bernieri and Rosenthal (1991) conceptualize as “behavior matching.”

It seems appropriate to refer to the mirror neuron system in this context (see Iacoboni & Mazziotta, 2007, and Rizzolatti & Craighero, 2004 for reviews). As is well known, mirror neurons are a special type of neuron that become active when someone performs a specific movement and also observes someone else performing the same movement. Neurons in the brain of an observer reflect the action of the other, as if the observer were acting in the same way. The functions of mirror neurons have been considered in relation to fundamental human capacities, such as language acquisition (Rizzolatti & Arbib, 1998) or tool use (Ferrari, Rozzi, & Fogassi, 2005).

Naturally, however, the primary importance of their function is in understanding the meaning of another’s action. Immediately after quoting passage (d) above from Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, Rizzolatti and Sinigaglia state the following:

The “act on the spectator’s part” is a potential motor act, determined by the activation of the mirror neurons that code sensory information in motor terms thus enabling the “reciprocity” of acts and intentions that is at the root of our ability to immediately understand what we see others doing. … As soon as we see someone doing something, either a single act or a chain of acts, his movements take on immediate meaning for us, whether he likes it or not. Obviously, the converse is also true: our actions have an immediate value for those who observe them. (2008, p. 131)

As we have already seen above, to perceive another’s action does not necessarily provoke the same action; however, it draws out its possibility in the self, that is, potential behavior matching. The activation of mirror neurons primarily seems to correspond to this latent behavioral process. From our viewpoint, the mirror neuron system is one of the neural correlates of intercorporeality: the neural basis for the perception–action loop between the self and the other.

In past debates on ToM, mirror neurons have been interpreted as a sort of empirical evidence supporting simulation theory (Gallese & Goldman, 1998; Goldman, 2006). According to this view, the activity of mirror neurons can be considered as an implicit and subpersonal process that simulates the other person’s behavior. However, what the mirror neuron system basically suggests is a direct understanding of the other’s action and its intention through perception, as indicated in the passage cited above. It does not correspond to indirect mental simulation but rather to the perception of action, which constitutes a part of intercorporeality.

As the mirror neuron system is considered to be the basis of empathy (Gallese, 2001), it is reasonable to think that the aspect of intercorporeality that appears as behavior matching forms the underlying process of empathy. In the standard view of cognitive science, empathy is conceived as shared cognition, including feelings and thoughts between two individuals, that is, two independent minds. For example, Decety and Jackson say that “empathy accounts for the naturally occurring subjective experience of similarity between the feelings expressed by self and others without losing sight of whose feelings belong to whom” (2004, p. 71). Empathy in this sense is a sort of vicarious experience, which presumes the independence of the self and the other.

However, the empathy we need to discuss here is a more primordial and embodied one. When the perception–action loop between the self and the other appears as behavior matching, that is, unintended and unconscious mimicry, feelings and emotions that occur do not belong to any independent mind in the strict sense. Consider the case of reflexive crying. It is clear that crying newborns may share a certain emotion, but it is difficult to know whose emotion it derives from originally. There is a type of empathy that does not belong to the individual but to the “in-between” of the self and the other.

Here, we find the crucial difference between ST and intercorporeality. The former stands upon the standard view of empathy, where the self has a vicarious experience of another through simulation. In other words, one’s own feelings and thoughts are initially different from those of the other, but they become similar and create an experience of empathy after a simulation routine. Thus, one can keep track of “whose feelings belong to whom,” unlike the case of reflexive crying. This is the empathic social understanding asserted by ST.

In contrast, intercorporeality traces back the origin of empathy to the reciprocal relation between the self’s body and that of the other. Through the perception–action loop, both the self and the other begin participating “in-between,” which occasionally induces mirroring behaviors at the observable level. The same behavior is subjectively experienced as embodied empathy, which belongs neither to the self nor to the other. For example, consider members of the audience in a concert hall, listening to the music in an identical pose as if mirroring each other. In this case, the intentionality of consciousness is directed to the music but temporarily acts from “in-between.” Speaking more generally, mirroring behavior offers an opportunity for the self and the other to live the same intentionality of consciousness by experiencing the same action: laughing at something, distorting the face for something, reaching toward something, and so on. And thus, the self and the other happen to merge into the same impersonal emotional state through the shared intentionality. This is what we claim here as primordial empathy. Concerning the phenomena of primordial empathy, we can remember that Merleau-Ponty also stated, “He and I are like organs of one single intercorporeality” (1960/1964b, p. 168).

Interactional synchrony and the sense of mutual understanding

From the viewpoint of nonverbal behaviors of interpersonal communication, intercorporeality appears not only as behavior matching but also as a meshing of each other’s actions, which is formally termed “interactional synchrony” (Bernieri & Rosenthal, 1991; Julien, 2009; Trees, 2009). Synchrony “describes the coordination and timing of movements and includes simultaneous movement, tempo similarity, and coordination or smoothness” (Trees, 2009, p. 257). In communication research, behavior matching and interactional synchrony—or, simply, “matching and meshing”—are generally considered to be two basic types of interpersonal coordination that occur in social encounters with others (Knapp & Hall, 2010).

As is the case with behavior matching, various cases of synchrony are also reported in the fields of social and developmental psychology. According to the classical findings, even 2-week-old infants are able to synchronize movements of their hands, head, and legs to an adult’s speech patterns (Condon & Sander, 1974). Similar coordination is also seen between adults: the flow of movements in the listener rhythmically corresponds to the speaker’s vocalization (Kendon, 1970). The capacity of joint visual attention is another example (Scaife & Bruner, 1975). Babies aged 9 months can follow the direction of the mother’s gaze and look at the same object. Thus, from the very early stage of development, before ToM is established, the other’s action is perceived as something meaningful that provokes a related reaction in the self. This resonant bodily relation, as shown in the case of joint visual attention, is extended to share the object and the goal of action. From the very start we have the capability of resonant action, including both matching and meshing, and we learn to understand the other’s intention of action through this ability. Interactional synchrony is just as primordial as behavior matching, as a part of embodied interaction with others.

Synchrony constitutes another phenomenal aspect of intercorporeality because the perception–action loop between the self and the other does not always appear as mirroring behavior (Tanaka, 2013). Rather, it appears in much larger part as embodied interactions of action and reaction. Perceiving the other’s action, we immediately grasp its intention through our own body, and then react in response to that. In our daily interactions with others, we more often produce a meaningful reaction than take a similar action. For example, if a speaker lowers his or her voice and starts to whisper, the listener will naturally lean closer toward the speaker to identify what is being said. If an interaction partner hands a note to us, we will hold out our hand to receive it without deliberation. The reaction toward the previous action then causes a subsequent reaction, and thus the process continues. In other words, in communication we mesh the flow of actions with one another, as if we were dancing together. Interactional synchrony is this kind of well-timed and meaningful interpersonal coordination, the basis of which is the rhythmical circulation of action and reaction between the self and the other.

It is important to add that this circulation is based on the embodied perception of each other’s body in action. From the enactive viewpoint, perception is not a process of passively receiving stimuli from the environment. On the contrary, it is a process of exploring possible action toward the environment, based on embodied skills (Noë, 2004). For example, for those who know how to swim, a lake does not only appear as an expanse of water glistening in the sunlight but also as a place that affords swimming. To perceive the environment is to know the possible action to take in that environment (cf. Gibson, 1979). Perception is a sort of implicit and practical knowledge, that is, embodied knowledge (Tanaka, 2011, 2014b).

Therefore, in the context of interpersonal communication, the other’s action is perceived as affording a reaction in some manner. Gallagher also writes, “Others present us with social affordances.” (2012, p. 76). As seen above, the self directly understands the intention of the other’s action, and thus, perception of the other’s body solicits the self’s reaction that responds to that intention. Conversely, and in turn, the self’s action is perceived as affording the other’s reaction in response to the intention. The self and the other are reciprocally seeking potential action through each other’s perception, as a result of which the “inter-action” is created. The process by which the interactional synchrony is generated is not mediated by an intellectual mental operation, but is rather based on the embodied perception and skills of each interaction partner.

From this viewpoint, it is possible to redefine behavior matching as a limited type of interactional synchrony in which a reaction similar to the other’s action is afforded. In behavior matching, one partner’s mirroring action is not intended as a reaction in response to a previous action of another. Instead, the partners unconsciously share the same intention of action, and in so doing they experience a state of primordial empathy.

By contrast, interactional synchrony in general is more relevant to the sense of mutual understanding. It facilitates the communication between the self and the other through a smooth exchange of nonverbal behaviors (e.g., flow of gestures, turn-taking of utterances, postural changes, regulation of distance, etc.) based on an intuitive grasp of each other’s intention of action. Embodied interaction that is experienced as interactional synchrony is in itself intersubjectively meaningful. Consider the case of a jazz music improvisation. Interactional synchrony of the performances of each player creates a new and one-time-only tune, through which the players comprehend each other. At a certain moment during the performance, the synchronized interaction gains its autonomy, as if it achieves a life of its own. Fuchs and De Jaegher appropriately describe this type of interaction as follows:

The coordination of their body movements, utterances, gestures, gazes, etc. can gain such momentum that it overrides the individual intentions, and common sense-making emerges. … Each of them behaves and experiences differently from how they would do outside of the process, and meaning is co-created in a way not necessarily attributable to either of them. (2009, p. 476)

The “meaning” that emerges from embodied interaction does not necessarily take concrete or propositional forms, but often appears as various emotional tones of the interpersonal field, such as convivial, collaborative, cohesive, confrontational, competitive, intensive, dispersed, centripetal, centrifugal, and so forth. These tones comprise the context of social cognition, in which the self and the other have the sense of mutual understanding. Explicit understanding that unfolds through verbal communications is what emerges on the basis of these senses of mutual understanding. In this regard, social understanding is not a process of cognition but of creation through interaction.


We have examined the possibility of giving a new account of social cognition based on the notion of intercorporeality. According to Merleau-Ponty’s writings, intercorporeality refers, first of all, to the reciprocity of one’s own body and that of another. The other’s body appears to the self not as a mere object (Körper) but as the living body in action (Leib). This is where the perception–action loop between the self and the other occurs: perceiving the other’s action prompts the same potential action in the self and vice versa. This reciprocity supports the most basic type of social cognition, that is, understanding the intention and meaning of the other person’s actions. Mirror neurons seem to be the neural correlate of this basic understanding.

In the interpersonal communication process, intercorporeality appears in two different manners: behavior matching and interactional synchrony. In behavior matching, two or more participants in communication show similar nonverbal behavior, such as facial expressions, gestures, or vocalizations. Because people engaged in matching often converge emotionally, intercorporeality is considered the basis of empathy. However, this empathy is primordial and derives from feelings and emotions that occur “in-between” the interactants. Interactional synchrony appears as the rhythmical circulation of action and reaction between the self and the other. Understanding the intentions of each other’s actions, we mesh the flow of nonverbal behavior in communication. As a result of meshing, we arrive at a new phase in the sense-making process, through which we have the sense of mutual understanding.

According to the current major theories of social cognition, we are able to understand others only by indirect means: applying a theory to the other’s behavior in order to understand the hidden motivation (TT), or imagining the other’s thoughts and feelings by simulating the other’s situation (ST). However, intercorporeality suggests an immediate and direct understanding of the other person. At the fundamental of social understanding lie embodied interactions between the self and the other, through which various impersonal emotional states are created. This fact introduces a new point of view on social cognition: understanding another person is not a cognition processed only by the self but a creation between the self and the other. Where there are two persons, embodied interactions bring forth various impersonal emotions in forms such as moods, atmosphere, and ambiance of the interpersonal field. Most of these are experienced in an implicit and pre-reflective manner, but they are certainly shared through bodily resonance as something intersubjectively meaningful. Here, as Merleau-Ponty thought, intercorporeality unfolds literally as “carnal intersubjectivity.” The self can understand the other without running theories or simulations, as far as this intersubjective meaning is shared through bodies. This process occurs as a form of mind-reading, since both are actually able to read each other’s subsequent action and its intention, or to feel each other’s emotional state. The self and the other can directly share what is being created between two bodies, without being mediated by mental representations.


Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the 30th and 32nd International Human Science Research Conferences. I thank the participants in my sessions for their valuable feedback. I also thank Thomas Fuchs for his comments on the first draft of this paper.

Author biography

Shogo Tanaka is an associate professor in the Liberal Arts Education Center at Tokai University, Japan. His primary interests are in phenomenological psychology and cognitive science, particularly the embodied view of the mind. His current research concern is bringing the idea of embodied mind into social cognition, based on Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology. His recent publications include “The notion of embodied knowledge and its range” (Encyclopaideia: Journal of Phenomenology and Education, 37, 47–66) and other articles.


1.This experiment was originally designed in response to Dennett’s (1978) criticism on Premack and Woodruff’s claims about ToM.

2.In relation to this, Fuchs and De Jaegher (2009) point out that the current concept of social cognition has at least four points that must be reconsidered: (a) “inner world” hypothesis (conceiving the mental as an enclosed inner realm), (b) missing interactions, (c) missing embodiment, and (d) missing development.

3.A note regarding this point is in order. In contemporary society, which includes diverse contexts within the lifeworld, direct understanding of another’s actions and their intentions might be problematic at times. For example, I may take the other’s staring at me with curiosity as a gaze that is intended to offend. This kind of misunderstanding might happen in direct social perception, when an implicit difference, such as sexuality, gender, social class, or disability, is embedded in a shared context.

4.Pairing is a particular association through which the meaning of a living organism is transferred to the other body on the basis of its similarity to my body, which I know is animated directly through my own experiences (Husserl, 1945/1970).

5.In his lecture on child psychology, Merleau-Ponty (1951/1964a) asks not only how social understanding becomes possible for infants, but also how infants become able to attribute mental states to the other. According to Merleau-Ponty, both questions should inevitably be asked if psychology presupposes the idea that one’s mind is accessible only to oneself.

6.It should be noted that this word does not literally mean pregnancy. The French word “prégnant” has the general meaning of “implicated” or “rich in connotation.”

7.We discuss here the meaning of actions that appear in the interpersonal domain and are perceived by others. They can be included as gestures, because Merleau-Ponty (1945/2012) did not restrict gestures to be actions that are intentionally oriented to others. All the actions we take in socially shared situations are potential gestures.


Funding: This work was supported by the Japan Society for Promotion of Science KAKENHI (Grant no. 24500709).


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Sartre, Group Formations, and Practical Freedom by Gavin Rae

A Chapter from Gavin Rae’s Realizing Freedom: Hegel, Sartre, and the Alienation of Human Being


In this essay, I attempt to remedy the relative neglect that has befallen Sartre’s analysis of social relations in the Critique of Dialectical Reason. I show that, contrary to the interpretation of certain commentators, Sartre’s analysis of social relations in this text does not contradict his earlier works. While his early work focuses on individual-to-individual social relations, the Critique of Dialectical Reason complements this by focusing on the way various group formations constrain or enhance the individual’s practical freedom. To outline my argument, I first discuss the relationship between Being and Nothingness and the Critique of Dialectical Reason before go ing on to identify the four group formations Sartre discusses in the Critique of Dialectical Reason and the implications each has for the individual’s practical freedom. I argue that while the group formations called the series and the institution constrain the individual’s practical freedom, the open, democratic group formations called the group-in-fusion and, in particular, the organized group, enhance the individual’s practical freedom. Because it is membership of an organized group that best enhances the individual’s practical freedom, I conclude by arguing that Sartre implicitly holds that the individual’s practical and political activity should be directed towards the establishment of a group formation that has the characteristics of an organized group

Sartre, group formations, practical freedom, the other

While much has been written on Sartre’s understanding of social relations in Being and Nothingness, relatively little attention has been paid to this topic in the Critique of Dialectical Reason. In this essay, I start to remedy this relative neglect. But because understanding the relation between Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason and his earlier works affects how this text is interpreted, I first situate Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason in relation to his earlier texts. While Thomas Anderson (1993, 1) holds that there is a radical rupture between Sartre’s early and later works, I argue that this is not the case. In the Critique of Dialectical Reason Sartre focuses on the concrete embodied individual rather than consciousness as he had done in earlier works, and on the various ways in which the individual’s practical freedom is constrained by his social situation. Because Sartre recognizes that the concrete individual is embedded in a social situation inhabited by others whose practical activities affect his capacity to express himself freely in the concrete world, he provides an extended discussion of the way different social relations constrain or affirm the individual’s practical freedom. But while in his early work Sartre focuses on immediate relations between two consciousnesses, following William McBride (1991, 41), my understanding of the Critique of Dialectical Reason is that it complements his early work by discussing: 1) the way the concrete individual relates to others through his membership of different group formations; and 2) how these group formations constrain or contribute to the realisation of the individual’s practical freedom.

The Critique of Dialectical Reason identifies four different group formations: seriality, the group-in-fusion, the organized group, and institutions. For the purposes of his analysis, Sartre describes the logical relation between each group formation (Sartre 2004, 348, 583). The overall logical movement Sartre describes in his analysis can be summarized as follows: the atomized crowd of seriality is the ground of all collective relations; it is the normal collective relation between individuals. The individuals of the series do not help one another realize their individual goals; the series is a loose collection of individuals who just happen to be engaged in the same activity. If, however, there is an explicit threat to each individual, each individual’s praxis, or practical activity, spontaneously combines to combat the same external threat. The common intentionality of each individual’s praxis creates an organic and spontaneous common praxis that Sartre names the group-in-fusion. Because each member of the group-in-fusion has the same goal, and because the realization of this goal is necessary to protect their practical freedom, the common activity of each member creates a social formation in which each looks after and contributes to the realization of the other’s practical freedom. If the explicit external threat turns into an implicit external threat, Sartre holds that rather than simply dissolve the group-in-fusion, the group members can pledge allegiance to one another thereby creating a standing organization in which each individual: 1) affirms that he will care for and affirm the other’s practical freedom; and 2) vows to fulfil a specific function within that organization. While the individuals of the group-in-fusion support one another as they each act together to combat the same external threat, their common activity is contingent on the existence of this explicit external threat. There is, therefore, a sense in which the solidarity engendered by the common external threat encountered by each member of the group-in-fusion is thrust upon each member by their contingent circumstance. In contrast, the pledge of the organized group provides a standing promise that each member will protect and care for the other’s practical freedom. Because the pledge creates a group formation in which each member voluntarily promises to care for and affirm the other’s practical freedom, I argue that it is this group formation and not, as Joseph Catalano (2007, 51) argues, the group-in-fusion, that best allows individuals to form a common bond in which each expresses solidarity with the other’s attempts to be practically free. However, the organized group’s internal differentiation can create a hierarchy that separates individuals from each other and devalues their individual contribution. This can lead to formalism, a lack of spontaneity, and the dominance of the organization’s function over the individual. Sartre calls this group formation “the institution.” As I understand it, the institution is the group formation that stultifies the individual’s practical freedom to the greatest degree.

This differentiated analysis allows Sartre to recognize that not all social formations allow the individual to express herself freely in the same way or to the same degree. Certain group formations allow the individual to be more practically free than others. While the mass of individuals of seriality and the group formation called the institution constrain the individual’s practical freedom, the democratic, organic, and spontaneous group formations of the group-in- fusion and, in particular, the organized group enhance rather than constrain the individual’s practical freedom. Thus, contrary to Mary Warnock’s (1970, 116) influential interpretation, Sartre does not hold that all social relations are necessarily ones of conflict. Sartre recognizes that not only can the individual relate to another individual in a way that recognizes, respects, and affirms the other’s practical freedom, but also that certain group formations can enhance the individual’s practical freedom. To outline my argument, I start with the relation between the Critique of Dialectical Reason and Sartre’s early work.

The Relation between the Early and Later Sartre: Radical Rupture or Continuity?

According to Thomas Anderson (1993, 1), there is a radical rupture between Sartre’s early so-called existential thought, best exemplified by Being and Nothingness, and his later, Marxist inspired Critique of Dialectical Reason. In Anderson’s reading, the impossibility of founding an ethics out of the ontological dualism of Being and Nothingness led Sartre to re-think the ontological categories around which his thought was based. The result is, for Anderson, that in the Critique of Dialectical Reason Sartre places a far greater emphasis on the way the individual’s social embeddedness affects his free creative self-expression. Thus, according to Anderson, the Critique of Dialectical Reason describes a completely new ontology of being from the one outlined in Being and Nothingness. Indeed, for Anderson, “the human being of the Critique seems to be almost a different species from the human being of Being and Nothingness and earlier works” (Anderson 1993, 89).

While it is true that Sartre’s analysis of the other in the Critique of Dialectical Reason differs in a number of respects from his early thought, I do not follow Thomas Anderson’s argument that Being and Nothingness and the Critique of Dialectical Reason are irreducibly different. While there are differences in the categories used, the general orientation of the argument developed in Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason complements his early existential analysis.
There are two reasons for this: First, despite maintaining that Being and Nothingness was describing the being of being-for-itself and being-in-itself, Sartre subsequently recognized that he had tended to conflate the being of being- for-itself with consciousness. This led Sartre to recognize that, despite having pointed towards consciousness’s facticity, he had, in fact, proposed a “rationalist philosophy of consciousness” (Sartre 2008, 41). To overcome what he saw as his early idealism, Sartre came to highlight and emphasize the socially embedded nature of individual existence. Rather than focus on consciousness, in the Critique of Dialectical Reason Sartre places the emphasis on the concrete living individual. This does not replace his earlier work on consciousness; it complements it by showing that the concrete living individual is embedded in a concrete world that affects and shapes his capacity to realize the pre-reflective fundamental project “his” consciousness has chosen.

The second reason is that while his early work focuses on the freedom of consciousness, my understanding is that the Critique of Dialectical Reason complements this by focusing on the various ways consciousness’s concrete embodiment shapes, and is shaped by, its efforts to express itself concretely in the actual world. This issue relates to Sartre’s conception of freedom. David Detmer (1988, 57–70) has pointed out that there are two senses of “freedom” in Being and Nothingness: ontological freedom and practical freedom. Ontological freedom emanates from the pre-reflective act of annihilation that founds consciousness. By pre-reflectively nihilating its other, consciousness sets itself in opposition to, and so remains free-from, being-in-itself. Practical freedom emanates from consciousness’s ontological freedom and describes the extent to which consciousness: 1) is free from external influences that impede its free self-expression; and 2) can actually and practically express itself in the concrete world. The difference between the two forms can be summarized as follows: ontological freedom describes the freedom-from somethingness that demarcates the fundamental ontological structure of consciousness; whereas practical free- dom describes the individual’s freedom-to shape its concrete world in-line with his pre-reflective fundamental project.

In his early work, Sartre tends to emphasize consciousness’s ontological freedom to show that it is free from determinate being and so can always choose what it will be. The Critique of Dialectical Reason complements this by focusing on the ways consciousness’s social situation affects and shapes its efforts to actually express itself in the concrete world. The result is that the Critique of Dialectical Reason’s discussion of freedom relates to the individual’s practical freedom. This leads to a subtle alteration in Sartre’s thought. Whereas Being and Nothingness’ discussion of the ontology of consciousness discloses that consciousness’s ontological freedom is never constrained or determined by its social situation, the Critique of Dialectical Reason focuses on the individual’s practical freedom. This focus ensures that Sartre recognizes and examines the ways consciousness’s attempts to express itself practically through its concrete embodiment condition, and are conditioned by, its external world. But while conditioned by its external world, the individual is not determined by it. The concrete individual reacts to the impediments to his practical freedom imposed on him by his social world in line with the pre-reflective fundamental project “his” consciousness has chosen to adopt. Thus, Sartre’s analysis of consciousness in his early works is complemented and extended by the Critique of Dialectical Reason’s analysis of the concrete individual’s relation to his actual social world and the way his social world affects his actual concrete activity.

The Practico-Inert and the Other

To understand how the individual’s concrete world shapes and constrains his practical freedom, and indeed to identify why the other is important in this respect, it will be helpful to briefly discuss Sartre’s concept of the practico-inert. As noted, the individual is not simply free to determine how he will exist in the actual world. The world as it is encountered by the individual is the direct result of his own and other individual’s praxis or practical activity. The combination of each individual’s praxis creates a practico-inert field that affects and shapes the individual’s concrete existential possibilities.

The practico-inert describes the objects that emanate from each individual’s praxis. These objects combine to form an objective horizon within which the individual exists. As Joseph Catalano explains, “the practico-inert is the ensemble of rules, laws, codes of behaviour as well as in the entire social complex that tends to keep us on the social level in which we are born” (2007, 51). This objective horizon is not a thought-out, planned occurrence; the practico-inert unintentionally results from the combination of each individual’s own practical activity. Each individual’s separate practical activity combines to form the objective world in which the individual finds himself existing. The result is, as Yirmiahu Yovel explains, that the practico-inert

proscribes in advance a mode of life, class membership, and economic prospects, which shrink the range of man’s spontaneity to mere, insignificant deviations, and it reaches its apex where the individual gives expression to no spontaneity at all, but plays his socioeconomic role in a completely inert or routinised manner. (1979, 488)

But Sartre does not simply hold that the praxis of others constrains the individual’s practical freedom. He also appears to hold that the objects created by the individual’s own praxis will eventually appear to him as a counter-finality that affects his practical freedom. This is because Sartre implicitly distinguishes between the act of objectification that he deems to be the expression of individual freedom and the being of objectivity which he insists is alienating. For Sartre, while the activity constitutive of the act of objectification allows the individual to express his individuality in objective form, the act of producing something cannot go on indefinitely; eventually, either the project is abandoned or an object is produced. If an object is produced, because it is a static entity, it does not reflect the individual’s activity back to him.

In losing their human properties, human projects are engraved in being, their translucidity becomes opacity, their tenuousness thickness, their volatile lightness permanence. They become being by losing their quality as lived events; and in so far as they are being they cannot be dissolved into knowledge even if they are deciphered and known. (Sartre 2004, 178)

The result is that although the individual’s praxis allows him to express his subjective freedom, the object created as a result of his praxis must necessarily appear to him as an other that constrains his practical freedom. Individual praxis is, therefore, a double-edge sword: on the one hand it allows the individual to express himself practically; on the other hand, the objects created by his praxis will fold back on the individual to constrain his future practical freedom.

As Sartre puts it, the object becomes a “counter-finality” (Sartre 2004, 183). The concept “counter-finality” describes the process whereby individual “praxis inscribes itself in inertia and inertia returns as inverted praxis to dominate the very group which has objectified itself in this worked matter” (Sartre 2004, 336). Whenever the individual acts to overcome a counter-finality, whether it was produced by his own praxis or from the activity of another individual, he re-organizes the dynamics of the social field. New relations arise which produce alternative counter-finalities that have an impact upon the individual. But while he is acting, so is every other individual. Each individual produces his own practico-inert structures thereby creating a “practico-inert field” (Sartre 2004, 324). This field is the objective social world that surrounds each individual. It is comprised of individual objective entities such as roads, cars, buildings; collectives such as organisations; and instruments such as road signs, pavements and bus stops whose “frozen voices [define] how they are to be used” (Sartre 2004, 324).

The combination of these practico-inert structures produces a dynamic tightly integrated web of counter-finalities. The individual cannot completely free himself from these counter-finalities; every action he produces alters his social environment, while even when he is passive he is being acted on and altered by the activities of other individuals. While the other may not directly impose himself onto the individual, Sartre adopts the first-person perspective to explain that “his dispersed praxis, totalized by matter, turns back on me in order to transform me” (Sartre 2004, 226). For this reason, Sartre explains that “man has to struggle not only against nature, and against the social environment which has produced him, and against other men, but also against his own action as it becomes other” (Sartre 2004, 124). But the individual is not simply constituted by his practico-inert field; the ontological freedom of his consciousness means he is free to choose the meaning of his world and free to try to actually change his world. Thus, we find the relation of dialectical reciprocity pointed to earlier: the individual finds himself in a specific historical situation with specific structures and possibilities that shape and constrain his practical freedom. It is only by overcoming the constraining pressures of his social world in the form of objective structures, social norms, and the consequences of others’ actions, that the individual will be able to express himself actually and practically in the world in accordance with his pre-reflective fundamental project.

The point Sartre is making is that the concrete individual does not and cannot simply choose to express himself in the world as and when he sees fit. The individual encounters resistance to his practical self-expression in the form of an already constituted social world. To secure his practical freedom, he must “enter into conflict with the situation in which he finds himself ” (Sartre 2004, 253). He must overcome the external resistance that emanates from his situation’s practico-inert field before he can practically express himself. As Sartre explains, “men make their history on the basis of real, prior conditions” (1968, 87). But when the individual does overcome the constraints of his practico-inert field and secures his practical freedom, he does not completely overcome the constraints of his objective world; he simply re-arranges the dynamics of his social environment by altering the relation between existing counter-finalities and/ or creating new ones that will shape and constrain his practical activity. The individual is always embedded in a social environment constituted by counter- finalities that shape and constrain his practical activity; he can never be completely free to do as he likes when he likes.

From this discussion it should be clear that, following on from his early works’ recognition that consciousness lives in relation with other consciousnesses that have an impact on its existence, the Critique of Dialectical Reason recognizes that the concrete individual lives with others that affect his capacity to actually express himself in the world. For this reason, and because he aims to focus on the way various group formations constrain or realize the individual’s practical freedom, Sartre spends significant time outlining various group formations and what these group social relations entail for the individual’s practical freedom. It is to these group formations that I now turn.


Sartre maintains that the primordial group formation is the seriality of the atomized crowd (Sartre 2004, 687). While individuals of the series direct themselves towards the attainment of the same end, they do not consciously act together, nor is there is a common bond between individuals. Individuals of the series work independently from one another to achieve their own ends, which just happen to be the same as their neighbor’s end. Thus, while each individual of the series may be working towards the same end, each is only concerned with whether she attains her end.

Sartre’s phenomenological description of the bus stop queue highlights the type of relation he envisages the series to entail (Sartre 2004, 256–269). Sartre writes that there is a gathering of people at a bus stop outside a church. It consists of numerous individuals of different ages, social classes, and sex who engage with one another in a particular manner. “These people do not care about or speak to each other and, in general, they do not look at one another; they exist side by side alongside a bus stop” (Sartre 2004, 256). Because each individual is concerned only with her own situation, she comports herself towards the other with an attitude of indifferent coldness. Each worries only about her own being and the activities that she has to undertake to fulfil her work or family commitments. But while she worries about her own project, each individual exists with others who are also trying to fulfil their ow nends. To fulfil their independent projects, each individual just happens to be required to engage in the same activity as others: they must each wait to catch the bus. The various individuals do not engage with one another; they simply wait for the arrival of the bus next to one another. It is because they are all engaged in the same activity that they become a collective defined by the activity of waiting for the bus. This common activity brings them into a specific formation with others grouped around the structures and norms of queuing at a bus stop.

While each individual directs herself to the bus stop and so is defined by her relation to this externality, she also becomes just another individual waiting for the bus. Because of scarcity there are not enough places for everyone waiting. As was the custom in Paris of Sartre’s day, everyone takes a numbered ticket and waits her turn. There is no attempt to determine whose journey is more important and necessary. The individual becomes an indistinguishable part of the mass. Each individual loses her individual uniqueness and becomes part of an interchangeable number conforming to the dictates of the bus stop (Sartre 2004, 266). Not only does the ticket ensure that each individual becomes a faceless being interchangeable with the next, but each comports herself in a manner that is dictated in advance by the rules of the bus stop. No longer is the individual a free being with her own unique history and purpose; the bus stop alienates her from herself and the other.

As Thomas Flynn (1984, 95) rightly notes, series being shares many of the alienating characteristics of the conflict defined subject/object social relations described in Being and Nothingness. There are three related aspects to the alienation of serial being. First, series being isolates individuals from one another. While the individual lives besides other individuals, she does not engage them in a purposeful common activity. Each simply engages in her own activities. Her activity may bring her into contact with others, but the individuals of the series do not attempt to purposefully help each other undertake the common activity their independent projects lead them to.

Second, serial being objectifies the individual by making her an interchangeable objective unit: for example, the individual becomes number four in the queue. This strips the individual of her unique subjectivity. It also leads each individual to comport herself towards the other in a specific way. Because of scarcity, each individual comes to see the other as a threat to their attainment of the shared goal. For example, the individual who stands at number five in the queue views the individual who stands at number four as an obstacle to the attainment of his goal. Similarly, the individual at number four in the queue sees the individual at number five as a threat to her practical freedom. The result is that each individual becomes alienated, both from herself by virtue of becoming an interchangeable objective unit and, because each sees the other as a threat to her practical freedom, from the other.

Such a situation discloses the third aspect of the alienation of serial being: the individual’s passive relation to a dominating external object. As described, serial being is grounded in an external object that externally unifies each individual’s intentional activity without creating an organic common bond between the individuals. But this unity is only achieved because the subjective freedom of the individual is usurped and replaced by an interchangeable objectivity that usurps the subjective freedom and circumstances of each individual. Serial being does not take into consideration each individual; it makes each individual conform to the pre-established dictates of an external other. Through this process the individual is alienated from his freedom; not only is he turned into an interchangeable object, but, by adhering to the pre-established rules of the other, he does not freely and spontaneously express himself in the actual world.

Alienation is an inherent aspect of serial being and, because Sartre insists this is the primordial way in which the individual exists in relation to the other, it is always a potential aspect of the individual’s social being. But while the alienation of serial being is the foundation of all group formations, it is not the only group formation possible. While Sartre insists that individuals do not necessarily have to overcome serial being, he does note that serial being can be overcome. This can only happen, however, if certain material circumstances occur and the individuals involved react to these circumstances in a particular manner. When the individuals of the series are confronted by an apocalyptic threat, Sartre maintains it has the potential to serve as the focal point that unifies the individuals threatened in such a way that they form a free organic and spontaneous unified group (Sartre: 2004, 341–241, 357). This organic unity allows each individual to express herself freely in a common activity in such a way that she is not constrained by the other, nor does she constrain the other’s practical activity. Sartre calls this group formation the group-in-fusion.

The Group-in-Fusion

The group-in-fusion is the name Sartre gives to an organic, spontaneous, group formation in which each member works towards the attainment of the same end: namely, survival in the face of an external apocalyptic threat. The common intentional activity that results from each individual reacting to the same external threat creates a unified common praxis. This allows each individual to act spontaneously in a manner that affirms her own subjective freedom without this being usurped or constrained by the activities of other group members or usurping or constraining other group members’ practical freedom.

Whereas the individuals of the series do not take an interest in the ends of the other individuals present, but simply passively experience and conform to the structures of the external object that they each independently perceive to be necessary to realize their own independent projects, the individuals of the group-in-fusion form an organic unity that actively fights against a common external threat (Sartre: 2004, 382). Because each individual is spontaneously and freely asserting herself against the same common threat, their individual activities coalesce to form a spontaneous, organic, and unified social formation. This is possible because the relation between individuals of a group-in-fusion is one of mutual reciprocity in so far as each individual recognizes that the other: 1) has the same end as she does; and 2) is crucial to the attainment of their common end. This ensures that each individual recognizes that the activities of the other are crucial to the attainment of their shared common goal.

Sartre maintains that the mutual recognition of each other’s freedom and the common intentionality of their action create a non-hierarchical social relation. Each individual’s spontaneous action spontaneously inspires, reinforces, and directs the actions of others. As such, each individual of the group-in-fusion is a leader. As a collective action, the group-in-fusion is not a collective entity or con- sciousness. Sartre argues that claiming such collective action creates, emanates from, or sustains a collective being that transcends individual praxis would place the individual under the being of another. Rather than freely express him- self, the individual would be subject to the dictates of the collective entity. This would alienate the individual from his free praxis (Sartre 2006, 16). Instead, Sartre insists that the group-in-fusion is a collective that is grounded in the immanent praxis of each individual. The spontaneous collective action of the group-in-fusion emanates from the fact that the intentionality of each individ- ual is directed towards the same external threat rather than from a unified being that transcends the individuals involved and directs their activities.

To make his point Sartre differentiates between totalization and totality (Sartre 2004, 45–47). By totalization Sartre means an on-going process of becoming that is grounded in the spontaneous activity of each individual. By totality he means a fixed, self-contained being that directs the activity of each individual. Sartre insists that the group-in-fusion is a totalization that is created and sustained by the continuous spontaneous activity of its individuals; it is not a transcendental totality that subsumes and directs the individual (Sartre 2004, 382). To account for the unity of individual praxis constitutive of the group-in-fusion without grounding it in a static transcendent entity, Sartre introduces an important concept: the mediating third. Sartre insists that the mediating third creates and sustains the group. However, importantly, the mediating third is not an external entity that glues the members of the group together. Sartre holds that the common focus of each individual and the role that each individual has as a mediating third ensures that the individuals involved bind together to form a common praxis.

This binding together occurs because the mediating third for a particular dyadic relation is also part of a dyad with another individual. In turn, this dyad is unified by another mediating third who is also a member of another dyad unified by yet another mediating third. Each individual of the group is a member of an immediate dyadic relation and a mediating third for another dyadic relation. Each individual’s double role (her immediate relation with another individual and her role as a mediating third for another dyadic relation) ensures that each mediating third links each dyad to another dyad thereby creating the unity of the group. Or as Sartre puts it: “the third party is the human mediation through which the multiplicity of epicentres and ends (identical and separate) organises itself directly, as determined by a synthetic objective” (Sartre 2004, 367).

While the mediating third unifies the various individuals under a common intentionality, it does it in such a way that the activity of each individual contributes to the spontaneous development of their collective action. Not only is each individual’s activity a spontaneous response to an external threat, but, because the collective activity is created and sustained by the activity of each individual, whether she is acting as a member of a dyad or as a meditating third, the activity of the collective group forms a spontaneous and organic unity that is dependent on the activity of each individual involved for its continued existence. As such, at no time does the activity of the group-in-fusion lead to the passive inertia or static being that constrains the activities of each individual and alienates her from her capacity to express herself freely.

Whereas serial being maintains a strict division between the individual and the other, the mediating third overcomes this binary opposition and binds each dyadic social relation together to form an organic cohesive whole. This ensures that relations between individuals in the group-in-fusion take on a new meaning. “In the fused group, the third party is my objectivity interiorized. I do not see it in him as other, but as mine” (Sartre 2004, 377). The spontaneous common activity of the group-in-fusion overcomes the other-ness of the other and allows the individual to determine that he and the other have the same interests. This allows each individual to identify with the other in a manner that brings each to trust that his action will be mirrored by the action of the other. Because he trusts that the other has the same interests as himself, the individual per- ceives that he can count on the other’s support.

We should not think, however, that because each individual has the same interests and acts in the same manner this reduces each individual to an interchangeable element in the same way that serial being makes each individual interchangeable. Sartre insists that while each individual sees himself mirrored in the activity and intention of the other, this does not reduce each individual to the same. Because the activity of each individual is spontaneously directed towards the negation of the same external threat, it is not subject to predetermined schemas. Each individual’s activity emanates from his spontaneous self- expression, which is directed against and thereby unified by the same common external threat. Because the group-in-fusion allows each individual to express himself freely and spontaneously, while simultaneously overcoming the otherness of the other, it is not marked by the alienation constitutive of serial being. It is important to note, however, that while the group-in-fusion emanates from the alienation of serial being, it does not form in order to overcome this alienation. The overcoming of the alienation of serial being is a secondary unintended consequence of the group-in-fusion’s primary reason for forming: the desire of its members to combat an explicit external threat. As Sartre explains,

the explosion of revolt, as the liquidation of the collective, does not have its direct sources either in alienation revealed by freedom, or in freedom suffered as impotence; there has to be a conjunction of historical circumstances, a definite change in the situation, the danger of death, violence. (2004, 401).

But because the group-in-fusion is grounded in exceptional historical circumstances, its demise is inevitable. The group-in-fusion can only exist as long as there is an explicit external threat to its members. Once that threat subsides so too does the group-in-fusion. The disappearance of the group-in-fusion’s external threat can lead to one of two transformations in the structure of the group: 1) if the external threat simply disappears the individuals comprising it can simply fall back into the atomized crowd of serial being; or 2) if the threat continues to be implicit, the members of the group-in-fusion can choose to alter their group formation so that it becomes a sovereign institution (Sartre 2004, 676). However, before it reaches the form of a sovereign institution, following Sartre’s logical progression, it first becomes an organized group bound by the pledge.

The Organized Group

If the external threat becomes implicit, Sartre holds that the members of the group-in-fusion can put in place standing measures, such as a democratically organized structure, and the promise to care for and affirm the other’s practical freedom by means of “the pledge” (Sartre 2004, 418), that will enable them to re-kindle the loose knit spontaneous organic unity of the group-in-fusion if the implicit external threat once again becomes explicit (Sartre 2004, 412). While the group-in-fusion is a spontaneous organic unity, the pledge of the organ- ized group mediates between the members of the group and binds each one to the other. This creates a semi-permanent structure which is maintained by each individual’s promise to all its members that he will protect the other from the external threat.

Thus, in the order: “Let us swear,” he claims an objective guarantee from the other third party that he will never become other: whoever gives me this guarantee thereby protects me, as far as he is concerned, from the danger that being-other may come to me from the other. (Sartre 2004, 421)

Sartre recognizes that the pledge can take numerous forms; it does not necessarily have to be a formal statement of intent (Sartre 2004, 419). However, while the pledge can be explicit or implicit, each form is directed towards the same end: the promise to act together to protect the other’s practical freedom from an explicit external threat. But Sartre is quick to warn that the pledge is not a social contract. Unlike the social contract, the pledge does not seek “to describe the basis of particular societies” (Sartre 2004, 420). The pledge is simply a “practical device” (Sartre 2004, 420) each individual uses to secure the other’s guarantee that he will protect him from an external threat. But the pledge does not constrain the individual’s freedom by predetermining how he will act towards the other. The pledge simply allows each individual to promise to the other that he will act in a way that cares for and affirms the other’s practical freedom. It is up to the individual to decide the actual content of his actions as and when the external threat arises. By promising to care for and affirm each others practical freedom, each pledged member becomes a brother/sister to the other members of the group (Sartre 2004, 437).

By trusting the other to care for her practical freedom, the individuals of the organized group come to recognize that the other is not a threat to her practical freedom. Each individual recognizes that the other extends her practical freedom by: 1) helping her secure her practical freedom against their common implicit threat; and 2) contributing to the realisation of her independent projects by either volunteering to help her attain her end or purposefully not creating impediments that would prevent her from achieving her ends (Sartre 1992, 279). The pledge is not, therefore, simply a superficial verbal statement; the pledge alters the dynamics of the group. Through the pledge and the concrete acts of support it instantiates, each member of the organized group becomes confident that the other will support and affirm his practical freedom. The pledge brings each member of the organized group to: 1) recognize that the other is another free subject with his own practical projects; and 2) express solidarity with the other’s practical freedom. The result of this reciprocated solidarity is a close-knit group in which each member comports herself freely in relation to the other, supports the other’s independent projects, and perceives the other to be an extension of, rather than a constraint on, her own practical freedom. For this reason, Kevin Boileau rightly notes that “members [of the organized group] act in concert as a ‘we’” (2004, 78).

While individuals of the group-in-fusion support one another as they each act together to combat the same external threat, their common activity is contingent on the existence of this explicit external threat. Not only do members of the group-in-fusion simply focus on a unitary end (survival in the face of an external threat) which prevents them from choosing what end that they, as a group, will work together to achieve; but there is also a sense in which the solidarity engendered by the common external threat encountered by each member of the group-in-fusion is not a voluntary action but is one that is thrust upon each member by their contingent circumstance. In contrast, the pledge of the organized group provides a standing promise that each member will protect and care for the freedom of the other even if there is not a common, immediate, explicit threat present. Furthermore, by voluntarily expressing solidarity with the other’s practical freedom, and due to the open, democratic nature of the organized group, it would appear that, contrary to the members of the group- in-fusion, members of the organized group are free to choose the end towards which their group activity is directed; their collective action is not so con- strained by the need to fight an immediate, explicit, external threat. For these reasons, I understand that it is this group formation and not, as Joseph Catalano (2007, 51) argues, the group-in-fusion that: 1) best allows individuals to form a common bond in which each expresses solidarity with the other’s attempts to be practically free; and 2) facilitates the achievement of practical projects that express and extend the individual’s practical freedom in ways that would not be possible if she acted on her own.

At this point however, I want to suggest an important, if often ignored, relation between the pledge and the conversion outlined in Sartre’s Notebooks for an Ethics. This will further validate my argument that the Critique of Dialectical Reason complements, and is dependent on, Sartre’s early works. In the Notebooks for an Ethics, Sartre holds that it is only once consciousness chooses to undergo a difficult and painful process called conversion that it can come to reflectively recognize, respect, care for, and affirm the other’s practical freedom in the way necessary for a social relation based on the pledge to exist. I want to suggest, therefore, that the pledge and the organized group created as a result of it are only a possibility once all potential members of the organized group have chosen to undergo conversion.

Because, in Being and Nothingness, Sartre maintains that consciousness, or being-for-itself, is essentially nothing or free, he argues that consciousness is defined by the pre-reflective fundamental project it adopts. Consciousness’s pre-reflective fundamental project is the general project that shapes its activities, values, norms, and beliefs. While consciousness is essentially nothing, Sar- tre maintains that it tends not to be content to live in nothingness. Consciousness pre-reflectively desires to be something. But it does not want to forego its nothingness by simply becoming something. Consciousness wants to synthesize with objective being (which Sartre calls being-in-itself ) to become a being-in-it- self-for-itself; or as he provocatively calls it: God (Sartre 2003, 587). Becoming God will provide consciousness with the freedom that its ontological nothing- ness provides as well as the security of being. The result is that Sartre holds that consciousness’s “natural tendency” (Sartre 1992, 6) is to adopt a pre-reflective fundamental project that tries to realize its pre-reflective desire to be God.
However, the consciousness that adopts a pre-reflective fundamental project that aims to fulfil its pre-reflective desire to be God is destined to fail because attaining the fixed identity inherent to being-in-itself-for-itself would annihilate the nothingness that defines consciousness (Sartre 2003, 636). While Sartre recognizes that the consciousness that continuously fails to become God can simply continue to attempt to fulfil its futile desire to be God, he also recognizes that its perpetual failure to become God may lead consciousness to choose to escape from this futile attempt by choosing to undergo a difficult process called conversion (Sartre 1992, 472). While Sartre notes that there is no particular reason why consciousness should choose to undergo conversion (Sartre 1992, 357), the consciousness that does choose to undergo conversion will alter two different, but related, aspects of its existence.

First, conversion alters consciousness’s pre-reflective fundamental project to one that does not aim to fulfil its futile pre-reflective desire to be God. Instead, conversion brings consciousness to realize reflectively: 1) the futility of this endeavor; and 2) that its freedom is at the source of this futile desire. Sartre holds that the combination of these two aspects will bring consciousness to adopt a pre-reflective fundamental project that has freedom as its end (Sartre 1992, 474).
Second, conversion will bring consciousness to alter its reflective self-understanding. Prior to conversion, consciousness thematizes its essential nothingness so that it reflectively understands itself to have a fixed identity. Conver- sion brings consciousness to reflectively understand that because it is essentially nothing, it is free to determine its own existence. By reflectively understanding that it is essentially free and adopting a pre-reflective fundamental project which reflectively affirms this freedom, conversion brings consciousness to a fundamentally “new, ‘authentic’ way of being” (Sartre 1992, 475). This new authentic way of being alters consciousness’s understanding of, and relation to, the other (Sartre 1992, 12). While, prior to conversion, consciousness understands that the other is an objectifying threat to the pure subjective freedom it pre-reflectively understands itself to be, conversion brings consciousness to understand and reflectively accept that: 1) the other is another free subject with its own independent project rather than the objectifying threat consciousness understands the other to be prior to conversion; and 2) because it is only through the objectifying look of the other that it becomes aware of the objective body in which it exists, the other plays a necessary and crucial role in the full disclosure of all the structures of its being (Sartre 1992, 499).

Consciousness’ altered understanding of the other brings it to alter its comportment towards the other. Prior to conversion, social relations between consciousnesses conform to a subject/object, conflictual opposition in which each seeks to objectify the other to maintain its privileged subjectivity (Sartre 2003, 276-326). Because conversion brings consciousness to reflectively understand that the other is another subject with its own independent project and that the other is necessary for the full disclosure of its being, the converted consciousness no longer seeks simply to affirm its subjectivity in opposition to the other. Conversion brings consciousness to empathize and express “solidarity” (Sartre 1992, 479) with the other’s situated freedom. This sense of empathy and solidarity manifests itself in consciousness’s reflective support for, and affirmation of, the other’s attempts to secure its practical freedom (Sartre 1992, 279, 282, 330, 508).

While this brief explanation does not highlight all of the aspects of post-conversion social relations, it should, I hope, highlight that it is only once consciousness has undergone conversion that it will be able to alter its comportment towards the other so that it reflectively recognizes, respects, cares for, and affirms the other’s practical freedom (for a more detailed discussion of what conversion means for Sartrean social relations see Rae [2009]). This is important for Sartre’s discussion of the pledge in the Critique of Dialectical Reason because, as noted, the pledge brings the concrete individual to express solidarity with the other and explicitly affirm that he will care for the other’s practical freedom in the way that Sartre has previously argued is only a possibility for the converted consciousness. Thus, while Sartre never explicitly makes this connection, I want to suggest that, because it is only the social relations of converted consciousnesses that allow each individual to reflectively recognize, respect, care for, and affirm the other’s practical freedom in the way necessary for the creation and continuation of an organized group, it is only once all potential members of the group have chosen to undergo conversion to a pre-reflective fundamental project that has the affirmation of freedom as its end that each member can open himself to the other in the way necessary for the pledge and the organized group it instantiates to exist.

To sustain its loose but integrated structure, however, the pledged group must differentiate the functions that each member undertakes; it must organize itself. Only by organizing itself can the group maintain a permanent structure that will allow each to express his subjectivity, while being sufficiently closely knit that, should it be required, the members can bind even closer to one another. The notion of an organization has two functions: “the word ‘organisation’ refers both to the internal action by which a group defines its structures and to the group itself as a structured activity in the practical field, either on worked matter or on other groups” (Sartre 2004, 446). The organization defines the group members to external non-members, while also providing each individual with a particular differentiated function. This differentiation unifies the organization while also allowing practical problems to be solved.

The individual, therefore, fulfils a specific function in the organization. However, Sartre maintains that fulfilling a specific function does not constrain the individual’s practical freedom because: 1) she voluntarily fulfils the activities of her function (Sartre 2004, 467); 2) the common activity of the organized group protects her from the external threat’s annihilation of her practical freedom; and 3) being a member of an organized group allows her to work together with others to achieve ends she would not be able to achieve if she worked on her own. Thus, while it may appear that fulfilling a fixed function alienates the individual from her practical freedom, Sartre explains that

this alienation (at least at this level) is only apparent: my action develops, on the basis of a common power, towards a common objective; the fundamental moment which is characteristic of the actualisation of the power and the objectification of the praxis is that of free individual practice. (2004, 458)

From this we see that the organized group is not a transcendent other that alienates the individual from his practical freedom; the organized group is so structured that the individual contributes to the common praxis by freely fulfilling his own specific function. Sartre notes that this creates a fundamental difference between the internal structure of the group-in-fusion and the organized group. Whereas all members of the group-in-fusion are focused on the same immediate end (the immediate overcoming of an immediate threat), the spontaneity of the group-in-fusion ensures it lacks a coherent organizational structure; each individual simply acts in the way he thinks is most appropriate to his immediate situation. In contrast, the semi-permanence of the organized group creates an effective organizational structure that co-ordinates each individual’s praxis and allows each individual to express himself freely within the limits of his function. This co-ordination allows each member of the organized group to contribute to the common activity that realizes his own and the other’s practical freedom. Furthermore, each member of the organized group reflectively understands that the organized group is grounded in her own individual praxis. Each realizes that it is she who directs the group, shapes the group, and determines the common praxis of the group; the group does not appear as an other that directs her activity. As Sartre explains,

the only direct and specific action of the organised group, therefore, is its organisation and perpetual reorganisation, in other words, its actions on its members. By this, of course, I mean that common individuals settle the internal structures of the community rather than that the group-in-itself imposes them as categories. (Sartre 2004, 463).

But while the organized group allows each individual to combat an external threat effectively, the goal of each individual’s praxis is not the group; it is the common threat that necessitates the creation of the organized group. To privilege the group would be to risk turning it into a transcendent totality that dictates how each individual is to act. This would alienate the individual from his practical freedom because his actions would be predetermined by the group. For this reason, Sartre insists that the organized group exists to further the individual’s practical freedom; the individual does not exist to serve the ends of the organized group. The organized group is, therefore, an example of the sort of spontaneous, organized, democratic, and fundamentally open group formation that affirms rather than constrains the individual’s practical freedom that T. Storm Heter (2008, 121) argues Sartre defends in the Critique of Dialectical Reason. It is precisely because the organized group enhances rather than constrains the individual’s practical freedom that I want to suggest Sartre holds that each individual’s practical and political activity should be directed towards becoming a member of an organized group.

However, while being a member of an organized group enhances the individual’s practical freedom, Sartre recognizes that the organized group will, logically, give rise to structures that will subsequently constrain the individual’s practical freedom. The different functions of the organized group help establish a permanent unifying common bond between all its members. But while the organized group privileges the individual’s praxis over the function, the reification of these functions will lead to the alienation of the individual from his practical freedom. Rather than focusing on the organized group as a form of common praxis in opposition to an external threat, the function of the group can become reified and valued for itself. Put differently, because the organized group is maintained by each individual fulfilling her specific function, it may appear that the function is the essential aspect of the group, while the individual is the inessential aspect. Rather than realising that the activity of the function is dependent on the praxis of a particular individual fulfilling that function at a specific time, it may be thought that the function can be performed by anyone. This change in perspective leads the individual to be thought of as an interchangeable monad in an overarching totality. The group becomes the important aspect which directs and determines the content of the activities that each individual must undertake. Sartre calls this atrophied group formation the institution.


Institutions constrain the individual’s practical freedom because the function of the institution becomes more important than the individual fulfilling that function (Sartre 2004, 600). Two consequences arise from this: First, the individual is no longer perceived to be unique; he is seen to be a mere object capable of being replaced by another individual; and second, the individual is prevented from freely expressing himself in the actual world because he becomes trapped by the dictates and norms of the function he fulfils in the institution. Contrary to the function of the organized group, the function of the institution does not allow the individual to choose freely and spontaneously how to fulfil the tasks constitutive of his function. The function of the institution dictates in advance how the individual is to act. Moreover, the privileging of the function over the individual ensures that each individual interacts with the other through the function that each undertakes. Individuals of institutions do not spontaneously and freely interact with one another. Each must comport himself towards the other in a specific pre-determined manner. The result is that the “third-party is still my brother, but he is almost or completely unknown” (Sartre 2004, 587). Each individual recognizes that he is working towards a common goal with other individuals, but the structure of the institution prevents him from freely interacting with them. Their interaction is mediated by the formal functions, structures, and norms of the institution, which prevent each from forming an organic bond with the other members of the institution. Because the institution constrains the individual within its boundaries, rules, and structures while dictating how each individual will interact with the other, it does not contribute to the realization or affirmation of the individual’s practical freedom. For this reason, Sartre calls the institution a “degraded group” (Sartre 2004, 600).

The specialization inherent to the activities of each member of the institution means that each individual is not only segregated from other members of the institution that do not engage in his specialization, but, because the institution predetermines the way in which he is to fulfil his function, the individual of the institution tends to adopt a specific manner constituted by specific pre-determined mannerisms, behaviors, actions, and ways of being. He becomes what Sartre calls an “organisation man” (Sartre 2004, 605). Organization man defines himself in terms of his function in the organization. His existence revolves around freely subordinating himself to the role he fulfils in the organization. While the individual of the organized group freely adopts the behavior and activities required by his role, there is still a direct and recognized relation between his privileged position and his function. This ensures that the way the activities of the function of the organized group are fulfilled is freely determined by the individual. The function of the institution, however, pre-determines how the individual is to act. Rather than freely determining his actions, organization man must conform to predetermined roles. Because his function dictates how he is to act, the institution alienates the individual from his free spontaneity, constricts his actions, and makes him impotent in regard to the content of the function he fulfils.

There is, however, another aspect to the way the structure of the institution, and in particular the way its sovereign-structure, alienates the individual from his practical freedom. According to Sartre, the different functions of the institution form a hierarchy headed by a sovereign. This sovereign has overall authority, but more importantly he is the focal point for the members of the institutions. It is the sovereign who dictates how the institution will act, what it will be directed towards, and the manner in which each member will comport himself (Sartre 2004, 607–609). The sovereign-structure ensures that not only is each individual subordinate to the sovereign, but each individual subordinates hisfreedom to the fulfilment of the dictates of the sovereign. Rather than choosing how he will live, organization man orients his being around the dictates of another: the sovereign. As Sartre explains, “provided that the goal of the sovereign really is the common object of the group, no one will have any aim other than serving the sovereign himself, and everyone will pursue the common aim, not because it is common, but because it is the object of free sovereign praxis” (2004, 631). By fleeing from his freedom, organization man is the epitome of someone who lives in bad faith.

Thus, the institution alienates the individual from his practical freedom through: 1) its objective structures and pre-determined behavioral schemas, which dictate in advance how he is to act; and 2) the sovereign who demands that the individual follow his dictates. Alienation is, therefore, a constitutive aspect of the individual’s experience of the institution. Not only does his immediate function alienate him from his practical freedom, but the overall structure of the institution alienates him from freely expressing himself in the actual world by dictating how he is to live, what he is to do, and when he is to do it.

While the isolation inherent to the institution shares certain similarities with that of series being, in many ways the alienation of the institution is worse. While both the series and the institution are ways of being that constrain the individual’s practical freedom, it becomes clear through Sartre’s description that the institution creates far more insidious and complete forms of alienation, domination, and constraint than are found in the series. While the series directs individual activity, it still leaves the individual with the option of directing herself towards the external object in certain non-determined ways. For example, the individual at the bus stop could alter her attitude towards others, or she could engage them in conversation. However, Sartre implicitly insists that such is the constraint and domination found in the institution that its structures severely constrain each individual’s attitude towards the other and, more importantly, each individual’s capacity to interact with the other. Because the way of being instantiated by membership of an institution is more pervasive, constrained, and debilitated than the ways of being found in other group formations, it is by being a member of an institution that the concrete individual’s practical freedom is most constrained.

It must be remembered however that Sartre’s criticisms of the constraints imposed on the individual’s practical freedom by the structure of the institution do not apply to all group formations. Other group formations, most notably the group-in-fusion and the organized group, do not constrain the individual’s practical freedom; they contribute to its realization. Indeed, given that his entire oeuvre is concerned with the affirmation of the individual’s ontological and practical freedom, I do not think it is controversial to say that Sartre is implicitly defending those group formations that enhance the individual’s practical freedom. While he recognizes that it is up to the individual to choose to affirm her own practical freedom, Sartre holds that membership of an organic, democratic, and open group formation, as found in the group-in-fusion and especially the organized group, is essential if the individual is to be practically free.


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Summary of New Year Projects – 2019


2018 was a good year for me, but it wasn’t productive when it comes to my research and writing. And really, this lack of productivity goes back further than a year. At most, I’ve been able to write only a few things over the past 3-4 years. Some reviews for Anarchy A Journal Of Desire Armed, some blog posts, the course material to be used for some presentations at East Bay Anarchist Bookfair and the Berkeley Anarchist Study Group. The main reason why is because I have set myself some fairly mammoth goals which modify the whole framework from which I want to think about things and inevitably write about them. So for this New Year update, I’m going to outline those goals.

The two overall goals have been (and will continue to be) thus:

  1. To bring into coherence my approach to philosophy and its application to historical, (a)political practice.
  2. To apply the above to our contemporary situation living in a cybernetic society.

1) To bring into coherence my approach to philosophy and its application to historical, (a)political practice.

I have been an existentialist for a long time. It is where I began with philosophy and it is where I have remained. Although I have also been an anarchist for almost as long, it was from reading Albert Camus’ The Rebel that I learned about Max Stirner, Andre Breton, and some other big influences on my approach to anarchism. A big part of this foundation in existentialism comes from my interest and education in psychology; or in other words, the problem of individual freedom has always seemed to me like a problem that can only be addressed by first attempting to understand what an individual is. As a community college student, most of the classes I took were in psychology and specifically, social psychology. Although this took me beyond the conventional boundaries of existentialism, especially when reading those anarchists who have also stressed the importance of social psychology (see Dennis Fox’s work), the more I have studied psychology the more that existential psychoanalysis has seemed to me to be the most applicable to this larger interest in individual freedom.

So as an existentialist and an anarchist, I have been searching for social psychological frameworks that both adequately situate the individual in their environments and also have the capacity to preserve said individual’s freedom and lived experience. And by environments, I mean all the environments… their regional ecological environments, their social environments, how they’re situated overall in history. To say the least, this kind of overarching method is harder to come by than one may think at first blush. A good deal of social theory (anarchist and otherwise) situates the individual adequately-enough, but it doesn’t actually provide the argumentation or justification for individual freedom since it begins with broad analysis of various institutions like the State, capitalism, etc. and relies on mere assertions regarding how it is that individuals are or can ever be free. This is an issue that becomes even more clear when post-structuralist thinkers have been incorporated into anarchist theory. On the other hand, there aren’t that many conventional philosophers influencing social theory who are willing to take on the task of arguing for actually existing individual freedom. When there are, they are often thinkers who don’t address the challenges of Structuralism and post-Structuralism, retaining the naive bourgeois concept of the Cartesian rational individual. Alternatively, there have been the existentialists.

Of course, the popular reading of existentialists often ignores the social and political aspects of existentialism. This isn’t helped by the fact that most existentialist philosophy also ignores it. However, throughout the 20th Century, existentialism did grow into a philosophy with a social theory. This can be see in Sartre’s later works, though not only in those works by that thinker. One of the main reasons existentialism hasn’t been recognized in its social theory is that Sartre’s work on this wasn’t translated into English until the 1990s. Current scholarship is still catching up. And although Sartre died describing himself as an anarchist, from what I have translated from French websites shows that the French anarchists didn’t accept him as one. The reason my be similar in France as it is in the United States… anarchists in France may not have read his later works. What is often called “The Turn Towards Post-Structuralism in French Theory” may also have contributed to this situation.

Anyway, the above is just a long-winded way of me saying that I’ve never been satisfied with Marxism, nor American sociology, nor much anarchist social theory when it comes to developing a coherent system that both situates the individual in their historical environment while also preserving the freedom of the individual and the free choices they make while living said history. Fortunately for me and mostly because of better financial situations, I have been able to finally study Sartre’s later works through both primary and secondary sources. What this looks like right now is that I am reading these two books:

They’re dense, but not as dense as Sartre’s the Critique of Dialectical Reason and they’ve been especially helpful since part of this project, I feel of necessity, must also include an engagement with post-structuralism. So far, I’m learning a lot. But probably due to spending so many years attempting to apply existentialism to social theory on my own, Sartre’s conclusions about much of this aren’t a huge alteration to what I had already been thinking. What is important for me is that it is all there. Sartre’s engagement with Marxism, Historical Materialism, other forms of Sociology, and the question of Individual Freedom. I’m sure as I move forward with this research, there will be a lot that enlightens me. For instance, where as Marx centers the development of History on human labor, Sartre centers it in individual praxis. It is also directly relevant to my project that Sartre develops this method of historical analysis into a way of differentiating such social forms as the group, from the institution, from the atomized (serial) existence of the individual in mass society, from other forms. He also does not leave out commentary on anarcho-syndicalism …but I haven’t gotten to that yet.

My hopes are that throughout studying all of this, I will be able to more systematically read History in general, and the specific history of the context that I… that we are situated in. The other part of it, the existential psychoanalysis, is also key in this Sartrean method. But, I don’t feel the need to elaborate on that just yet. The way that I want my writing to read when I am ready to be productive with it are like the following articles… a sort of mix (but not a substantial mix) of the one article that situates anarchists in the broader non-Left of the United States (and the individual anarchist in that situation), with the sort of existential psychoanalysis that could take such things into consideration as the burn-out discussed in the second article:

What is the Left?

The US Left doesn’t quite exist.

Everything you might call “the socialist movement” — anarchists, Marxists, democratic socialists — is on the edges of a bigger phenomenon. A few months ago a multi-year study was published, finding that the strongest predictor of an individual’s politics isn’t demographics, party affiliation, or even self-identified ideology. Rather, the US has seven distinct segments with their own ideologies, demographics, social networks, and “basic values” (for instance, how they raise children). US politics happens through that set of political subcultures.


How Millenials Became the Burnout Generation

“That’s one of the most ineffable and frustrating expressions of burnout: It takes things that should be enjoyable and flattens them into a list of tasks, intermingled with other obligations that should either be easily or dutifully completed. The end result is that everything, from wedding celebrations to registering to vote, becomes tinged with resentment and anxiety and avoidance. Maybe my inability to get the knives sharpened is less about being lazy and more about being too good, for too long, at being a millennial.”

“My refusal to respond to a kind Facebook DM is thus symptomatic of the sheer number of calls for my attention online: calls to read an article, calls to promote my own work, calls to engage wittily or defend myself from trolls or like a relative’s picture of their baby.”


The end-goal, of course, is to develop a proficiency with such method that it can be applied to contemporary anarchist praxis. This leads to the other overall goal…

2) To apply the above to our contemporary situation living in a cybernetic society.

I spent so much time talking about overall goal #1 because I have recently published a collection of notes that address this overall goal #2. One of the major issues for me with goal #1 is that all this research is going to provide very little direct commentary on what I’m calling the Cybernetics Question. In my opinion, the Cybernetics Question creates challenges to the institutional analysis that I don’t think the Left, nor anarchists belonging to it or distancing themselves from it, are adequately responding to. A recent guest on the Brilliant podcast, Andy Robinson does talk about a lot of these important challenges. Here’s a list of some of his work and also some of Feral Faun’s:

Democracy vs Desire: Beyond the Politics of Measure – Andy Robinson

Ethnic Politics as Integration- Andy Robinson

Thinking from the Outside: Avoiding Recuperation – Andy Robinson

The Cybernet of Domination – Feral Faun


I really feel like I’m at an impasse until I am comfortable with the methods I’m trying to learn from goal #1. I have many opinions about many things, anarcho-drama included. But, that opinion is informed by a much more superficial understanding than I plan to develop over 2019 and beyond. Along with the works mentioned in the section on overall goal #1, I’m deeply studying works on existential psychoanalysis which include clinical practice, case studies, and contemporary approaches. Since I’m not an academic (my only degree is a GED), this isn’t anything I’ve been trained to understand and apply. It’s an uphill battle with my time-management and confidence. In the end, I truly think that I won’t be the only person to benefit from this and it’s my hopes that this work will produce a helpful contribution to anarchist thought and practice.