Witnessing and Organization: Existential Phenomenological Reflections on Intersubjectivity

By Borgerson, Janet | Philosophy Today, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Witnessing and Organization: Existential Phenomenological Reflections on Intersubjectivity


Borgerson, Janet, Philosophy Today


This essay addresses the shared concerns of philosophy and organization studies regarding intersubjectivity and self/other relations. It draws in particular on existential-phenomenological notions of "witnessing." Witnessing, often conceived in the context of testimony, obviously involves epistemological concerns, such as how we come to know through the experiences and reports of others.1 The witness in such a role has been described as "author and ventriloquist for the object world, adding nothing from his mere opinion, from his biasing embodiment."2 However, I shall argue that witnessing as a mode of intersubjectivity does offer understandings that involve questions about how people come to be.3 More specifically, I want to consider the positive potential of "witnessing" to disrupt intersubjective completeness or closure, particularly as this relates to work in the field of organization.

Trained in philosophy, I arrived in Stockholm, Sweden, a decade ago and began working as a researcher with management and organization scholars. My colleagues were trained in engineering, in project management, or business disciplines more generally. In preliminary conversations, I immediately discerned an unfamiliar meaning in the use of the term "organization," one that evoked not the expected sense of a static entity or pre-existing structure, but rather a morphing, often insubstantial, constantly produced co-creation - as if organizations were living organisms. Moreover, discussions of iteration, performativity, excess, intersubjectivity, and identity co-creation in organization studies demonstrated potential for philosophical interventions. I found these, and other, somewhat unexpected theoretical openings made me want to raise questions about a possible collaboration between philosophy and organization studies. Of course, historical, as well as idiosyncratic, conditions can be obviously invoked to explain this particular form of organization studies, and alternative approaches do exist;4 however, I have found the pragmatic insights of a more philosophical approach to be both inspiring and productive.

Any endeavor claiming the usefulness and relevance of philosophy to the field of organization must consider a basic question, that is, what insights or innovations, if any, does philosophy make possible that other approaches do not. Moreover, what one means by the term philosophy will determine the resources considered available for ensuing investigations. Furthermore, diverse thinkers' work manifests various, though often related, understandings of intersubjectivity; and one might turn specifically to one or another of these figures to explore particular expressions of intersubjectivity in the field of organization. In this essay, though, I want to suggest that it is continental thought that best offers existential-phenomenological foundations for comprehending intersubjectivity, a basic feature of organization research.

Therefore I will explore the role intersubjectivity has played in organization studies research and consider some innovations in continental thought that push forward alternative models of intersubjectivity. I will begin with an existential phenomenological base for investigating why intersubjectivity matters. I shall then turn to a few selected examples in organization studies, including theoretically informed fieldwork studies, and research that attempts to explicate a conceptual development of organization theory. These examples reveal emergent concerns about restricted identities and closure in organizational settings and, therefore, suggest an opening for witnessing.

Existential Phenomenology and Intersubjectivity

Phenomenology can be defined as the study of the movement of consciousness through time - including the way things appear to us. What appears is said to be "given" or presented to the subject, partly in the sense that one finds oneself, as subject, enmeshed in a life-world beyond what might be considered "chosen. …

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