Intersubjective Reality

By Abel Merawi

Intersubjective-RealityDecember 24, 2019 ( -- Imagine a young European teen in 1187 who heard that Saladin defeated the crusader army at the Battle of Hattin and conquered Jerusalem. He then heard the Pope’s mission and joined the Third Crusade to recapture the holy city accompanied by his mother’s prideful tears. Fast forward to the present, imagine a European youth who joined Amnesty International and went to Syria in order to protect the human rights of refugees accompanied by the joyful tears of a proud mother. This is the image Yuval Noah Harari paints in his book ‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow’ to show the nature of intersubjective reality. He then claims, “We want to believe that our lives have some objective meaning and that our sacrifices matter to something beyond the stories in our head. Yet, in truth, the lives of most people have meaning only within the network of stories they tell one another.”

One of the distinct features of human beings is the ability to create reality from the figment of their imagination. In our attempt to understand the world, we distinguish reality as objective and subjective. An objective reality is a measurable and concrete reality that exists even outside our perception and knowledge. For instance, gravity is an objective reality that existed before and after the apple fell on Newton’s head and made him discover, not invent gravity. On the other hand, subjective reality is shaped by personal beliefs and feelings. For instance, I might love or hate a certain object or idea without any concrete evidence, simply based on the beliefs and emotions I attach to it. In addition to the two, there is another dominant form of reality, which Harari calls intersubjective reality. It is a sort of reality that finds its inception in our imagination and take control of our objective and subjective reality. In this article, our focus will be on intersubjective reality. We will attempt to explore its manifestations in the past and present, and then contemplate its implications for the future.

History reveals voluminous situations in which intersubjective reality has dominated the life of human beings in various ways. On the one hand, in the name of intersubjective reality, we have conquered land, waged ‘holy’ wars, killed millions in concentration camps, fought wars in the name of an ideology and committed much atrocity to make the past appear as a history of bloodshed. On the other hand, thanks to intersubjective reality, we have built industries, established banks, created democratic governments, guaranteed human rights, and eased our burden using scientific and technological advancements. We see it from the ideologies used by kingdoms to recent governing ideologies such as socialism, fascism, communism or capitalism. People actually believed in such stories and transformed them into intersubjective realities, for which they devoted or sacrifice their lives.

Now that we have seen the general manifestations, it is time to take one dominant intersubjective reality of the past and shed some light on the issue. Let us take monarchy as a specific example and see how its intersubjective reality has given kings legitimacy and made the people obedient. Just as in many other nations, Ethiopia had been ruled for centuries by kings, who claimed to have a divine right to rule the people through lineage to King Solomon. Many of our emperors even changed their names during coronation to claim divine authority. Upon closer scrutiny, the monarchs never had the capability or power to rule the people. Their power originated from the people who believed the imaginary story they were told. As many people developed a true belief in this story of kings, the fictional story became more powerful than the objective reality. If someone comes with such a story now, the person may even be sent to a mental institution. We should realize that it is through intersubjective reality that governments and religions have dominated the world in the past. It is worthy to remember this because it also gives us a clue about the present.

The talk about the past is not to condemn the people as fools who got tricked by one imaginary story after another. If we do so, we have to pass the same judgment about ourselves as well, because we are not much different. Centuries later, some of our choice and actions in war and peace will certainly be viewed with disbelief. Our modern age is characterized by capitalism through a free-market economy and equality in the form of liberal democracy. Harari explains this in his first book, ‘Sapiens’ and in his second book ‘Homo Deus’. He stresses the fact that there is an intersubjective reality behind international institutions such as the UN, EU, and AU; behind concepts of human rights and nationality; behind the currency or money and the financial institutions that represent it; and behind every institution such as religions and schools. They all exist and guide our lives because we have agreed collectively to believe in their existence. For instance, Ford the man and Ford the company have independence existences. Ford, the man, has died a long time ago and, even if the current CEO or other employees of the company are fired, Ford the company will continue to exist. If the company commits a crime, we don’t accuse the stakeholders but the company itself because we have agreed to give it an independent existence through our intersubjective reality. In the same manner, every reality which exists through our shared agreement does not have an objective existence, yet it continues to dominate our lives.  

The realization of this fact makes us wonder what we should do with this knowledge. As mentioned previously, intersubjective realities do not necessarily have evil outcomes. At times, they can be useful to our existence. The devotion of the European youth during the Crusade War and the one during the present Syrian war have found meaning to their lives in the intersubjective reality of their times. They assumed to support a noble cause in accordance with the narrations of their times. Similarly, all of us live our lives and find its meaning through the narratives of our age. Some find meaning in fighting for justice on a world scale. Others find causes in inter-ethnic conflict based on minor differences. It would be wise to pause from time to time and reevaluate our values. This helps us avoid being victims of the time. It will also help us consciously create an intersubjective reality that will make the future of humanity better than the past. After we accepted human rights, we have managed to end slavery and torture. Imagine what we can do when we create values that cater to the life of every individual and for the ecosystem.


Abel Merawi is Addis Ababa-based contributor for He can be reached through this form.

Other articles by Abel Merawi:

Seeking Cosmic Justice

National Myths: Makers and Destroyers of Nations

Are We Truly Free?

Maturity: The Prerequisite to Freedom and Democracy

Loyalty to Truth, Not to Group

The Value of Work

The Flaws with Ethiopian Political System

Intellectuals and the People

Where Are Our Pathfinders?

The Allegory of the Cave and Its Lessons to Leaders

The Truth Behind Humanity

The Seven Virtues

The Seven Deadly Sins

What is the right thing to do?

Building National Identity

Adey Abeba and the Spirit of Change

Mob Violence

Living the Truth as a Human Being

Hubris - The Tragedy of Not Learning from Others

The Era of Group Mentality: Us vs Them

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