the three persons

From: Jay Lemke (
Date: Tue Oct 05 2004 - 20:53:32 PDT

In a few moments of the discussion about Rommetveit, renewed in my mind by
proximity in time of reading to some of the identity/Roth Intro and
activity&education discussions, I was fascinated by some messages that
seemed to contrast meaning/mediation vs. experiential approaches, and this
seemed to me related to the idea of a project for a "second-person psychology".

I'll need more time to go back to RR's version of this idea, but it
resonated for me with earlier discussions here about Bakhtin (central for
Wertsch and others of us), especially a while ago around Deborah Hicks'
re-reading of B's work on "answerability".

It happens that I've been toying lately (after a meeting with Jim Gee and
friends this summer) with a notion of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person modes of
interaction in learning environments, or more generally in attentional
spaces, including those of ordinary life (not that I make much distinction
any more between face-to-face or hand-to-thing traditional realities and
our more mixed breed realities-virtualities).

It is strange (and instructive in a closer historical analysis I won't
attempt here) that the only part of the "experiential" as, say,
phenomenology would define it, that made it into the canonically
"empirical" is the 3rd person part: things observed as if from outside and
as if non-interactively. Presumably this is what positivist science makes
of the earlier notion of "sense data". But my senses, and I suspect yours,
don't just register what I "observe". They also register what I do, how I
feel, and my interactions with other persons and non-person tools,
artifacts, etc. That is, I experience also in a 1st person sense as actor,
agent, and patient, and in a 2nd person sense as interactant, partner,
respondent, etc.

At least one, and eventually the dominant, "scientific" psychology rejected
1st person empirical sense-data as insufficiently communicable,
verifiable-by-others, agreeable-upon, etc. to ground the specific rhetoric
of "objective truth" being built to make a field that was respectable by
the standards of the elder sciences. Phenomenology has tried repeatedly to
rehabilitate "feeling" or experience-1st-person as basic to what we know,
with not much success, even in contra-positivist alternative practices and
rhetorics (with, of course, a few exceptions).

But while 1st vs 3rd is a debate we think we understand, 2nd person
experiential-empirical sense-data seems still at the outer reaches of
theoretical conceptualization. I think it must be at the core of
Rommetveit's discussions of "inter-subjectivity", but he seems more
interested in the social-interactional and social-cultural foundations of
the possibility of inter-personal communication, than in what we make (or
don't make) of the actual experience of being-in-interaction, of being in
Buber's "I-Thou" relationship, or even in a Goffman "with". One way to make
the point is to say that 2nd person experiencing cannot be reduced to a
composite of 1st and 3rd. We are not, or at least not solely, isolated
acting, perceiving (and even feeling) ego's. Interaction is not just
observing the other [3rd] and acting in turn [1st]. It is also a
being-part-of, an experience of our being as partial in a larger whole. The
extreme cases for experiencing it are experiences of one-ness or merging in
sexual union, or in high moments of dancing-with-a-partner, or
conversations which seem to take a life of their own beyond either party's
explicit control or intention, or even such moments in playing a musical
instrument (the partner can indeed be a nonhuman). While these are
extremes, I believe the 2nd person mode of experiencing is a component of
all experience ... and that sense-data, or any view of empirical reality,
that omits it is as fatally flawed as one that omits the 3rd-person mode
(as in solipsism) or the 1st (as in radical objectivism, or naive empiricism).

I suspect that the 2nd person mode of experience may be very uncomfortable
for personalities in our culture that fear ego-loss, loss-of-control,
domination by the Other, dependency, etc. Such footwear may fit many feet
in the history of scientific psychologies and objective-empiricist
philosophies, originators and followers. (I invoke no gender stereotypes.)

But whysoever, there seems at least one neglected Person in the sense-data
trinity that could be well worth developing a lot further.


Jay Lemke
University of Michigan
School of Education
610 East University
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Tel. 734-763-9276

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