Subject (philosophy)

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A subject is a being who has a unique consciousness and/or unique personal experiences, or an entity that has a relationship with another entity that exists outside itself (called an "object").

Subjective consciousness is a state of consciousness in which a person is constantly aware of his or her self as well as outside factors. The study of this state has achieved high priority in the modern philosophy of mind, the mind-body problem or consciousness studies, as made popular by, e.g., David Chalmers. Subjective consciousness refers to the inner, private experience of (mainly) human beings. It is associated with the qualia made famous by Chalmers et al. This state is not to be confused with objective consciousness or the neural correlates of consciousness—though this confusion existed for much of the 20th century attendant on the rise of behaviourism and positivism and the decline of the interest in introspection made popular in the 19th and early 20th century by Edmund Husserl and William James. The lack of this state, as occasionally implied by physicalists and their ilk, would raise the question of who is the internal observer, for which all the neural processing takes place. To eliminate this internal observer leads to infinite regress. The alternative is to accept the observer or homunculus. This state is also associated with ancient Hindu studies of the mind as well as to many modern teachers, such as the Dalai Lama, U.G. Krishnamurti or G.I. Gurdjieff.

Personhood is the status of being a person. Defining personhood is a controversial topic in philosophy and law and is closely tied with legal and political concepts of citizenship, equality, and liberty. According to law, only a natural person or legal personality has rights, protections, privileges, responsibilities, and legal liability.

Object (philosophy) Technical term in modern philosophy often used in contrast to the term subject

An object is a technical term in modern philosophy often used in contrast to the term subject. A subject is an observer and an object is a thing observed. For modern philosophers like Descartes, consciousness is a state of cognition that includes the subject—which can never be doubted as only it can be the one who doubts—and some object(S) that may be considered as not having real or full existence or value independent of the subject who observes it. Metaphysical frameworks also differ in whether they consider objects existing independently of their properties and, if so, in what way.


A subject is an observer and an object is a thing observed. This concept is especially important in Continental philosophy, where 'the subject' is a central term in debates over the nature of the self. [1] The nature of the subject is also central in debates over the nature of subjective experience within the Anglo-American tradition of analytical philosophy.

Continental philosophy Set of 19th- and 20th-century philosophical traditions from mainland Europe

Continental philosophy is a set of 19th- and 20th-century philosophical traditions from mainland Europe. This sense of the term originated among English-speaking philosophers in the second half of the 20th century, who used it to refer to a range of thinkers and traditions outside the analytic movement. Continental philosophy includes German idealism, phenomenology, existentialism, hermeneutics, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, French feminism, psychoanalytic theory, and the critical theory of the Frankfurt School and related branches of Western Marxism.

The sharp distinction between subject and object corresponds to the distinction, in the philosophy of René Descartes, between thought and extension. Descartes believed that thought (subjectivity) was the essence of the mind, and that extension (the occupation of space) was the essence of matter. [2]

René Descartes 17th-century French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist

René Descartes was a French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist. A native of the Kingdom of France, he spent about 20 years (1629–1649) of his life in the Dutch Republic after serving for a while in the Dutch States Army of Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange and the Stadtholder of the United Provinces. One of the most notable intellectual figures of the Dutch Golden Age, Descartes is also widely regarded as one of the founders of modern philosophy.

Mental substance idea held by dualists and idealists, that minds are made-up of non-physical substance

Mental substance is the idea held by dualists and idealists, that minds are made-up of non-physical substance. This substance is often referred to as consciousness.

Subjectivity is a central philosophical concept, related to consciousness, agency, personhood, reality, and truth, which has been variously defined by sources. Three common definitions include that subjectivity is the quality or condition of:

German idealism

Subject as a key-term in thinking about human consciousness began its career with the German Idealists, in response to David Hume's radical skepticism. The idealists' starting point was Hume's conclusion that there is nothing to the self over and above a big, fleeting bundle of perceptions. The next step was to ask how this undifferentiated bundle comes to be experienced as a unity – as a single subject. Hume had offered the following proposal:

Consciousness state or quality of awareness or of being aware of an external object or something within oneself

Consciousness is the state or quality of awareness or of being aware of an external object or something within oneself. It has been defined variously in terms of sentience, awareness, qualia, subjectivity, the ability to experience or to feel, wakefulness, having a sense of selfhood or soul, the fact that there is something "that it is like" to "have" or "be" it, and the executive control system of the mind. Despite the difficulty in definition, many philosophers believe that there is a broadly shared underlying intuition about what consciousness is. As Max Velmans and Susan Schneider wrote in The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness: "Anything that we are aware of at a given moment forms part of our consciousness, making conscious experience at once the most familiar and most mysterious aspect of our lives."

David Hume Scottish philosopher, economist, and historian

David Hume was a Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist, who is best known today for his highly influential system of philosophical empiricism, scepticism, and naturalism. Hume's empiricist approach to philosophy places him with John Locke, George Berkeley, Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes as a British Empiricist. Beginning with his A Treatise of Human Nature (1738), Hume strove to create a total naturalistic science of man that examined the psychological basis of human nature. Against philosophical rationalists, Hume held that passion rather than reason governs human behaviour. Hume argued against the existence of innate ideas, positing that all human knowledge is founded solely in experience.

Skepticism or scepticism is generally a questioning attitude or doubt towards one or more items of putative knowledge or belief. It is often directed at domains, such as the supernatural, morality, theism, or knowledge. Formally, skepticism as a topic occurs in the context of philosophy, particularly epistemology, although it can be applied to any topic such as politics, religion, and pseudoscience.

"...the imagination must by long custom acquire the same method of thinking, and run along the parts of space and time in conceiving its objects. [3]

Kant, Hegel and their successors sought to flesh out the process by which the subject is constituted out of the flow of sense impressions. Hegel, for example, stated in his Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit that a subject is constituted by "the process of reflectively mediating itself with itself." [4]

Immanuel Kant Prussian philosopher

Immanuel Kant was an influential German philosopher in the Age of Enlightenment. In his doctrine of transcendental idealism, he argued that space, time, and causation are mere sensibilities; "things-in-themselves" exist, but their nature is unknowable. In his view, the mind shapes and structures experience, with all human experience sharing certain structural features. He drew a parallel to the Copernican revolution in his proposition that worldly objects can be intuited a priori ('beforehand'), and that intuition is therefore independent from objective reality. Kant believed that reason is the source of morality, and that aesthetics arise from a faculty of disinterested judgment. Kant's views continue to have a major influence on contemporary philosophy, especially the fields of epistemology, ethics, political theory, and post-modern aesthetics.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel German philosopher who influenced German idealism

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a German philosopher and an important figure of German idealism. He achieved wide recognition in his day and—while primarily influential within the continental tradition of philosophy—has become increasingly influential in the analytic tradition as well. Although Hegel remains a divisive figure, his canonical stature within Western philosophy is universally recognized.

Hegel begins his definition of the subject at a standpoint derived from Aristotelian physics: "the unmoved which is also self-moving" (Preface, para. 22). That is, what is not moved by an outside force, but which propels itself, has a prima facie case for subjectivity. Hegel's next step, however, is to identify this power to move, this unrest that is the subject, as pure negativity. Subjective self-motion, for Hegel, comes not from any pure or simple kernel of authentic individuality, but rather, it is

Aristotelianism tradition in philosophy

Aristotelianism is a tradition of philosophy that takes its defining inspiration from the work of Aristotle. This school of thought, in the modern sense of philosophy, covers existence, ethics, mind and related subjects. In Aristotle's time, philosophy included natural philosophy, which preceded the advent of modern science during the Scientific Revolution. The works of Aristotle were initially defended by the members of the Peripatetic school and later on by the Neoplatonists, who produced many commentaries on Aristotle's writings. In the Islamic Golden Age, Avicenna and Averroes translated the works of Aristotle into Arabic and under them, along with philosophers such as Al-Kindi and Al-Farabi, Aristotelianism became a major part of early Islamic philosophy.

"...the bifurcation of the simple; it is the doubling which sets up opposition, and then again the negation of this indifferent diversity and of its anti-thesis" (Preface, para. 18).

The Hegelian subject's modus operandi is therefore cutting, splitting and introducing distinctions by injecting negation into the flow of sense-perceptions. Subjectivity is thus a kind of structural effect – what happens when Nature is diffused, refracted around a field of negativity and the "unity of the subject" for Hegel, is in fact a second-order effect, a "negation of negation". The subject experiences itself as a unity only by purposively negating the very diversity it itself had produced. The Hegelian subject may therefore be characterized either as "self-restoring sameness" or else as "reflection in otherness within itself" (Preface, para. 18).

Continental philosophy

The thinking of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud provided a point of departure for questioning the notion of a unitary, autonomous Subject, which for many thinkers in the Continental tradition is seen as the foundation of the liberal theory of the social contract. These thinkers opened up the way for the deconstruction of the subject as a core-concept of metaphysics.

Sigmund Freud's explorations of the unconscious mind added up to a wholesale indictment of Enlightenment notions of subjectivity.

Among the most radical re-thinkers of human self-consciousness was Martin Heidegger, whose concept of Dasein or "Being-there" displaces traditional notions of the personal subject altogether. With Heidegger, phenomenology tries to go beyond the classical dichotomy between subject and object, because they are linked by an inseparable and original relationship, in the sense that there can be no world without a subject, nor the subject without world. [5]

Jacques Lacan, inspired by Heidegger and Ferdinand de Saussure, built on Freud's psychoanalytic model of the subject, in which the " split subject" is constituted by a double bind: alienated from jouissance when he or she leaves the Real, enters into the Imaginary (during the mirror stage), and separates from the Other when he or she comes into the realm of language, difference, and demand in the Symbolic or the Name of the Father. [6]

Thinkers such as structural Marxist Louis Althusser and poststructuralist Michel Foucault [1] theorize the subject as a social construction, the so-called poststructuralist subject. [7] According to Althusser, the "subject" is an ideological construction (more exactly, constructed by the "Ideological State Apparatuses"). One's subjectivity exists, "always already" and is discovered through the process of interpellation. Ideology inaugurates one into being a subject, and every ideology is intended to maintain and glorify its idealized subject, as well as the metaphysical category of the subject itself (see antihumanism).

According to Foucault, it is the "effect" of power and "disciplines" (see Discipline and Punish : construction of the subject (subjectivation or subjectification, French : assujettissement) as student, soldier, "criminal", etc.). Foucault believed it was possible to transform oneself; he used the word ethopoiein from the word ethos to describe the process. [8] Subjectification was a central concept in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's work as well. [9]

Analytic philosophy

In contemporary analytic philosophy, the issue of subject—and more specifically the "point of view" of the subject, or "subjectivity"—has received attention as one of the major intractable problems in philosophy of mind (a related issue being the mind–body problem). In the essay "What is it like to be a bat?", Thomas Nagel famously argued that explaining subjective experience—the "what it is like" to be something—is currently beyond the reach of scientific inquiry, because scientific understanding by definition requires an objective perspective, which, according to Nagel, is diametrically opposed to the subjective first-person point of view. Furthermore, one cannot have a definition of objectivity without being connected to subjectivity in the first place since they are mutual and interlocked.

In Nagel's book The View From Nowhere , he asks: "What kind of fact is it that I am Thomas Nagel?". Subjects have a perspective but each subject has a unique perspective and this seems to be a fact in Nagel's view from nowhere (i.e. the birds-eye view of the objective description in the universe). The Indian view of "Brahman" suggests that the ultimate and fundamental subject is existence itself, through which each of us as it were "looks out" as an aspect of a frozen and timeless everything, experienced subjectively due to our separated sensory and memory apparati. These additional features of subjective experience are often referred to as qualia (see Frank Cameron Jackson and Mary's room).

See also



  1. 1 2 Heartfield, James (2002). "Postmodernism and the 'Death of the Subject'". The Death of the Subject. Retrieved 28 March 2013.
  2. Descartes, René. "LIII". The Principles of Philosophy . Retrieved 19 July 2016.
  3. Hume, David. The Philosophical Works of David Hume (1826 edition) , p. 27, at Google Books
  4. Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit
  5. Farina, Gabriella (2014). Some reflections on the phenomenological method". Dialogues in Philosophy, Mental and Neuro Sciences, 7(2):506–2.
  6. Elizabeth Stewart, Maire Jaanus, Richard Feldstein (eds.), Lacan in the German-Speaking World, SUNY Press, 2004, p. 16.
  7. Edel Heuven, "The Poststructuralist Subject and the Paradox of Internal Coherence", M.Sc. thesis, Wageningen University and Research, 2017, p. 2.
  8. Foucault, Michel (2006). The hermeneutics of the subject : lectures at the Collège de France, 1981-1982. New York: Picador. p. 237. ISBN   9780312425708.
  9. Gary Genosko (ed.), Deleuze and Guattari: Deleuze and Guattari, Routledge, 2001, p. 1315.


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