The Four Modes of Understanding

 In Building Knowledge

In earlier posts, I wrote on the distionction between objectivity and subjectivity and I also wrote about intersubjectivity as mutually understood subjectivity.  In this post, I’ll explain this new notion of transjectivity, which can be understood as the interplay between subjectivity and objectivity.  This term “transjective” might have been coined roughly simultaneously by both Cory David Barker of Achitectonics and John Vervaeke of Awakening from the Meaning Crisis.

We can say that the objective mode of understanding is focused on our outer world and that the subjective and intersubjective modes of understanding are focused on our inner world, but sometimes there is a complex interdependence between these worlds that is not easy to sort out.  There must be many points of knowledge that are clearly objective, such as that which is seen and/or heard, and it seems reasonable that there are also many points of knowledge that are intersubjective, such as what pain feels like, and there are probably also points of knowledge that might be somewhere in between.  And so the difference between objectivity and intersubjectivity is better understood as a spectrum rather than a fine line.

There would need to be aspects of first-person experience that are similar among different people in order to develop anything beyond each person’s own pure subjectivity for any degree of mutual understanding to be possible.  Now, it is likely that each knowing subject has unique structures of consciousness such that it would be impossible for anyone to fully understand how things are from another’s point of view, but it is reasonable to conclude that there are some aspects of experience that are common to any population of beings in which mutual communication occurs.  Objective understanding is formed as the members of a population communicate with each other through one or more shared medium and are able to understand a neutral point of view with regards to objects that are external to them.  Intersubjective knowledge is formed as the members of a population are able to communicate and come to understand the ideas and/or the structures of consciousness that are shared amongst the group, or at least that are similar enough such that members of the community can relate to the inner experiences of the other who is trying to convey what they are thinking and feeling.  Inner experiences are unique to each person, and this differs significantly from person to person, but there is also the potential for a certain amount of relatability between people such that one person can envision the perspective of another, despite not personally having those experiences.

There are some phenomena in life that are somewhere between objective and intersubjective.  These are phenomena that can be observed and measured within our shared outer world but where only considering the objective factors would not give a full picture of the dynamics of the situation because they also depend on certain socio-cultural contextual factors.  For this, we can consider probably any social situations in which people often find themselves, such as going with one’s family to a restaurant or giving a presentation at work or being stopped for questioning by a police officer.  In each situation, there are objective factors, such as where and when the events occur, what specific people were involved, what each person says, how they move their arms and legs, etc.  These are the factors that can be measured and quantified and mutually understood by people with minimal personal bias, but the socio-cultural meaning behind these acts is often disputable by the people who were on different sides of these social encounters.  This is because the objectively verifiable facts in these situations do not tell the whole story.  There are also related subjective and intersubjective factors, such as what each person is thinking and feeling and what each person thinks and feels about each other person and what each person’s motives were for acting as they did towards each other.  Thus, we can see that there would be inherent limitations to our knowledge if we were to insist on only ever considering the objective facts of these situations.  Sometimes if we failed to take into account people’s individual perspectives, conscious interactions, personal identity, and their social standing in relation to each other, then we are missing important nuances.

We can then identify a fourth mode of understanding called transjective, which depends on the interplay and interaction between the objective and intersubjective factors.  This depends on a mixture of direct and indirect communicative tactics, both intra-medium and extra-medium social verification, in order for people to develop mutual understanding of these situations.  This is mutual understanding that is based not only on the refinement of mental models of the public access information (the outer world) but also how this is interdependent on private access information (the inner world).  Transjectivity usually doesn’t rise to the same level of mutual understanding as objectivity.  However, there is more potential for mutual understanding than intersubjectivity because these scenarios do involve a lot of public access knowledge in the outer world, which means that there are usually significant facts that are not disputable by anyone witnessing the events in some manner.  Despite this, we do need to keep in mind that they are also partially dependent on each person’s inner world and how they relate to the outer world.  The mere fact that someone witnesses social interactions and understands the objective aspects of the phenomenon might give them a false sense of fully understanding the associated intersubjective aspects as well.  If a person doesn’t work to envision each person’s unique perspective on the situation, then they are likely to subconsciously assume that their own individual perspective is universal.

It should be possible to develop higher levels of mutual understanding of the transjective than the intersubjective, but this does require more mental effort, so this mode of understanding is unfortunately ignored by many people when analyzing social situations.  Transjectivity is probably the most difficult mode of understanding to identify and to fully conceptualize because it does involve a mixture of direct and indirect tactics to achieve mutual understanding.  Phenomena of this sort are neither objective nor intersubjective, and it is probably easier to think of anything we can identify or talk about would clearly fall into one or the other of these categories.  Transjective phenomena are often more difficult to conceptualize because they involve an interplay of other people’s perspective on things that differ slightly from one’s one and that are simultaneously dependent on some things in people’s minds and also on states of affairs in the shared physical space.

The difference between the four modes of understanding (subjective, intersubjective, objective, and transjective) can be visualized as a triangle, where purely subjective is at the bottom, intersubjective is at the upper left corner, and objective is at the upper right.  Any phenomenon that would be plotted closer or further away from any of the three edges would represent the degree of pure subjectivity vs. intersubjectivity vs. objectivity.  The transjective lies at the top of the triangle, between objective and intersubjective.  This triangle can be situated on a graph of rectangular coordinates wherein any possible phenomenon, whether it might be mutually understandable or not, can be plotted within the triangle.  All knowledge, beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and perceptions are within the triangle, which means that the shaded area represents the total space of possible understanding and any conceivable experience, whether they are in one person’s own mind shared by multiple people.

We can draw a vertical line going through this triangle, which is the Y axis that represents degrees of mutual understanding.  Everything that one might experience starts off as purely subjective, and thus is at the bottom center (zero on the X and Y axes).  This is where any phenomenon begins because they always start as private access and then mutual understanding can be developed from there through communication.  Thus, the process of social verification is what leads to an idea being plotted higher up from this starting point.  In other words, when a phenomenon has a higher degree of mutual understanding, it is plotted higher on the Y axis.

There are tactics that can be employed to develop mutual understanding, but some of these involve direct reference and some involve indirect reference.  In order to develop mutual understanding of some phenomenon, usually a sequence of communicative tactics need to be employed and this can sometimes be a mixture of direct and indirect.  The ratio of direct vs. indirect is what determines the X coordinate.  When more direct intra-medium tactics are used, those would fall on the right (positive +X) side and when more indirect extra-medium tactics are used, those would fall on the left (negative -X) side.  This triangle is not symmetrical.  The shape of this triangle extends up and to the right more than to the left because a higher degree of mutual understanding is possible with objectivity and a lower level of this is possible with transjectivity and intersubjectivity.

With the highest level of objectivity, there is a clearly understood process for social verification.  For example, if we want to know how to navigate through roads to reach a destination, we can describe what paths to follow and what turns to make at what points and what landmarks one would see along the way and also what one will observe at the endpoint so that they will know that they have reached the intended destination.  If we want to evaluate things that we can see or hear, we can use instruments to measure them, we can have an objective process for doing this, and the results can be socially verified because we are all hearing and seeing the same thing.

If a phenomenon is purely subjective then there is no way to do this, but we should maintain open mindedness, since many subjective phenomena can rise to the level of intersubjectivity through persistent interpersonal communication.  If we want to evaluate things like art or the effect our possible actions might have on people, then what we want to measure would be emotional power.  There is no objective way to measure that.  Despite that, we might be able to come to reasonable social verification processes for this sort of evaluation, and thus to create a certain degree of mutual understanding of such phenomena.  This would be a level that, admittedly, would fall short of objectivity, but where there would still be a meaningful degree of mutual understanding.

Sometimes, depending on the phenomenon in question, we have to settle for lower levels of mutual understanding offered by transjective or intersubjective.  An unbiased, quantified, and mind-independent description of reality is something we should aim for whenever we can, but that is not always possible for all phenomena.  For aspects of life that cannot be fully understood objectively because of the partial or full dependence on the inner world, it makes more sense to accept a slightly lower level of mutual understanding, if that is the consequence for conceptualizing the phenomenon properly.  We do need to be able to talk with each other about our inner worlds and how this relates to the outer world and we need to find the most effective and reliable way of accomplishing this.

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