Intersubjectivity and the Second Person: Empathy and Ethics

Katharine A. McGovern and Bernard J. Baars

While our personal consciousness is basic, understanding the subjectivity of others carries us  into a wider realm.   Human infants show very early abilities to “mentalize” and communicate with others as conscious experiencers.  These abilities are impaired in autism, schizophrenia, and personality disorders. Studies of Rumanian orphans strongly suggest that human infants need the intersubjective perspective to develop and prosper. Such interactions are vital for constructing ourselves from childhood onwards.  

Brain studies show regions involved in primary consciousness, but also those needed to perceive the intentions of other human beings, and to attune our actions and emotions to theirs.  In these images we can begin to see the neural bases of empathy, intentionality, and the “I-Thou” stance described by Martin Buber. Finally, for students of consciousness themselves, the second person perspective brings along a unique set of ethical imperatives.

Dr. Katharine A. McGovern is Program Director and Associate Professor in the
Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology at the California Institute for
Integral Studies in San Francisco. Her PhD is in Cognitive Psychology from
the Center for Research in Human Learning at the University of Minnesota.
Her interests are in human language, the psychology of consciousness,
intersubjectivity, mother-child attachment, emotion, and spiritual

Dr. Bernard J. Baars is Affiliate Research Fellow at the Neuroscience Research Institute in San Diego, Associate Director of the Center for Consciousness Studies, University of Arizona, Tucson, and Distinguished Consulting Faculty member at the Saybrook Graduate School in San Francisco. Over the last twenty years Baars developed Global Workspace Theory, one of the standard theoretical views of consciousness in contemporary science. GWT has now grown with new brain evidence, computational modeling by Stan Franklin, University of Memphis, and neural network models. Baars is co-editor of Consciousness & Cognition, a journal from Elsevier Science, and Science &
Consciousness Review. (

Baars and McGovern recently taught "Consciousness: The WebCourse," sponsored
by the Center for Consciousness Studies of the University of Arizona.  They expect to teach further WebCourses and WebSeminars via the Center for Consciousness Studies.