How to Understand Human Sociality?

Humans are social beings. We all have experienced the importance of feeling part of a group, relating to others, being with others, not just next to each other. But how should we go about understanding our own sociality? Where does it begin, and what is its foundation? What is more fundamental – recognising the individual differences between myself and the other I encounter one-to-one or experiencing daily life from within a largely anonymous social collective where everyone is pretty much like everyone else? A branch of philosophy known as phenomenology explores these and related questions to understand our sociality. 

Division in Phenomenology

In a recent paper on group identification, philosophy professor and director of the Center for Subjectivity Research Dan Zahavi summarised his view on what he described as a crucial division within phenomenology. This division concerns the question of how to understand the foundations of human sociality. Zahavi writes: “Should one prioritise the concrete face-to-face encounter and highlight the importance of the difference between self and other (cf. Sartre 2003: 269–270), or should one rather focus on an everyday being-with-one-another characterised by anonymity and substitutability, where others are those from whom “one mostly does not distinguish oneself” (Heidegger 1996: 111)?” (2019, p. 252). 

I propose to shift our thinking about this question from the either/or structure presented here to a more comprehensive view which recognises the continuity between both positions. A useful conceptual tool for this purpose is the hermeneutic circle (Gadamer explored it in detail in his great work Truth and Method). According to Gadamer, all our understanding is hermeneutic (i.e. interpretative) and follows the structure of a loop where the whole contextualises our understanding of the parts that, in turn, get integrated into the whole re/shaping it. 

Human sociality can be thought of in these terms as an iterative hermeneutic circle. The ‘we’ that constitutes my everyday being-with-others such that I mostly do not distinguish myself is the whole that contextualises how I understand myself and the other I encounter face-to-face. This encounter, however, especially when consciously attended to, can alter my pre-existing assumptions that informed my initial interpretations and thereby change them. Such modified understanding gets integrated into the whole, updating the way it will contextualise my future encounters with other others. 

In this light, neither the part nor the whole alone can serve as an adequate foundation of sociality. Instead, it is the iterative hermeneutic loop structure that explains our being as relational (social) individuals.  

keep exploring!

Image credit: Photo by Susanne Jutzeler, suju-foto on

One thought on “How to Understand Human Sociality?

  1. Pingback: What Is A Good Book? Philosophical Response – humanfactor

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