Central and East European
Society for Phenomenology

Conference | Paper

The Role of the Third in the Genesis of a We-Perspective

Lucia Angelino

Thursday 2 December 2021

12:10 - 12:50

Zoom 1-2

The philosophical problem I address in this talk is centered on the question how can the conditions of the emergence of a “we-perspective” in a group made up of many be best conceived of. Should one prioritize the concrete face-to-face encounter between self and other, and highlight the importance of the I-You relation—as a key to the proper understanding of the foundations of a “we-perspective”—, or should one rather focus on the much more complex social configurations involving the figure and the function of the Third (le tiers)?

My thesis is that in order to account for the genesis of a “we-perspective” in large-scale and polyadic configurations of the “we,” one needs to shift the theoretical focus from the You to the Third; from dyadic face-to-face (immediate) relations of reciprocity between I and You , self and other to ternary relations of “mediated reciprocity” involving the figure and the function of a third party, who is at the same time an Other for the I and a representative of the symbolic order.

The decisive point to be retained in this context is that the Third (le tiers) is to be understood as a person (e.g., an external observer, a witness, or a third in-group agent) rather than as a realm of being (e.g., a shared object or a common project). In this sense, as Fischer has clearly pointed out, “The third [...] means ‘another’ whose functions are different from the ‘first other’ (the simple alter ego).” In other words, the third is to be seen as a third in-group agent who might give rise to complex social configurations, which cannot be fully explained with reference to the dyadic model of ego and alter ego. This line of reasoning (which I call the “Turn to the Third” in social theory, initiated by Simmel and Freud) is familiar in the social sciences. In contemporary German social philosophy and sociological theory (Berger and Luckmann), one finds critical reflections on the Third as a key to understanding the emergence of complex social configurations—such as political and media institutions—, which cannot be fully explained with reference to the dyadic model of ego and alter ego. Rarely, however, one finds principled reflections on the function of the third within philosophical debates on the “we.” So far, these two debates have developed in isolation from each other, with the unfortunate consequence that several opportunities for the deepening of our understanding of the “we” in its multiple facets have been lost. That the intervention of a third redefines dyadic relationships (between ego and alter ego), and at the same time also plays an important role in the transition from small groups (group of two or dyadic group) to larger social units (group made up of many or plural group), as well as from interactions to institutions, is an unquestioned point in the social theory debate. I argue that it also has an important role to play in the process of group identification and, therefore, in the transition from the first-person singular (“I-perspective”) to the first-person plural perspective (a “we-perspective”).

In the first section of the talk, I consider the dyadic model, focused on the importance of the I-You relation, which is typically applied to account for the emergence of a “we-perspective,” and I highlight the limitations of such a model. In the second section, I outline an alternative framework centered on the Third by drawing inspiration from Sartre’s account of the genesis of groups in the Critique of Dialectical Reason, and by focusing on the ideas of Freud’s Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego that enrich and clarify the Sartrean alternative model. In a final move, I explore the epistemological and heuristic potentials of this alternative framework centered on the Third (le tiers) in contemporary research on the “we,” particularly as applied to account for the emergence of a “we-perspective” in groups made up of many. In so doing, I intend to show that the Third has an important role to play in the constitution of large-scale, polyadic, and mediated configurations of the “we,” which go beyond the here and now and involve the plural positions of you and they.