The Subject: A Brief History

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[A post from Michael Burgess.  This reiterates some of the first half of our Popper episode.]

The Cartesian subject, the “I” of the “I think”, sits apart from the world, receiving it. Descartes’ 17th Century inheritors, the British Empiricists took “the world” to be little more than a series of sense perceptions, perhaps perceptions of something – but we would never know. Our view of the world is determined by a series of sense perceptions; if I encounter an illusion (a stick bent in water e.g.) I only know it is an illusion because of some later experiences which contradict earlier ones. Thus Berkeley went so far as to say “to be is to be perceived” (esse est percipi).

If one adopts this frame-by-frame view of experience many things go out the window including causation and inductive knowledge itself. For example, in a recording of a pool game we see the balls moving after being struck by a cue: however the patch of light (“cue”) moving across the screen does not cause the other patch of light (“ball”) to move: it only appears this way. The apparent coordination, according to Berkeley is provided by God: God’s mind is thus the transcendental editing studio coordinating all of our playbacks.

British Empiricism is therefore a kind of scepticism which reduces the world to atoms of sense perception. For Hume causation is a habit: we get used to one thing following another and so we say it causes it. But does it really take a repetition to infer causation? We only need to burn our hands once to be weary of trying again. It seems that causation is already baked into experience in a way which associates events spontaneously.  We thus transition to Kantian metaphysics to incorporate this insight.

Kant’s reply to the empiricists is an effort to preserve inductive knowledge, causation and ultimately science. In Kantian metaphysics we admit a fundamental division between ‘things-in-themselves’ (noumena) and the way things appear (phenomena).  Kant introduces a transcendental subject to perform the work of coordination, a mind with faculties that engage in harmonizing processes. These processes “make sense” of the world: they are responsible for causation, space, time and other features which arise out of a noticeable consistency across experience.

The transcendental subject is related to the Cartesian “I”. It is the case that when I say “I see” I can be speaking about something which is objective (eg. a tree) or subjective (eg. a memory of a tree), the “I” in both cases is by no means necessarily the same. “I” can “take things objectively”, I can switch between “being within the film” and seeing the film from the camera’s point-of-view: there is a subject with its own partial view derived from a transcendental subject with a complete view.

Fichte looked at this system and puzzled. If we have a series of phenomenal experience which are fundamentally separated from the noumena and if all the consistencies of experience are provided by the transcendental subject, what exactly is the noumena doing?  Fichte thus removed the noumenal from the equation entirely. Here Hegel enters, taking Fichtean metaphysics as a universal system for explaining the world and imbuing the transcendental subject (or “Spirit”) with a logic and structure. The Hegelian world evolves according to this logic (the dialectic) which synthesizes (sublates) contradictory social and historical forces into a progression so that each future moment incorporates and improves upon the last.

Marx recognized these dialectical forces in the operation of society and history but was wary of the metaphysics which underpinned them.  His “historical” materialism moves back to the alternative stream woven through British Empiricism that sense perceptions derive from a material world. Marx wants to imbue this world with the forces of its own organization so as to bake in their own self-directing structure. Thus Marx reduces the Hegelian transcendental subject to a fully material consequence of how the natural forces of the world work. What though, for the other side of the subject? If the ‘camera’ is reducible to material forces is then the “I” of “I see” also merely a product of historical forces?  Yes, both subjects are material.

Freud (and possibly Nietzsche) entered here and fleshed out this new material subject.  It is a composite made from an underlying inaccessible unconscious and a coordinating rationalizing consciousness. Across these two inner-worlds span the superstructures of the coordinating forces (transcendental, social and historical) that Marx and Hegel identified. The subject in relation to other subjects and to the world internalizes society and “civilizes” itself against a background of a turbulent inner psychological world. This composite subject is then not a unified person with a “rational self-interest” and inquiring nature but rather many contradictory and competing forces: a Superego which makes impossible moral demands, an Id of basic drives and an Ego which tries to make sense of it all.

However British and German Idealism were the metaphysical systems of the 19th Century. It is this metaphysical milieu that the next generation of philosophers rejected: Carnap, Husserl, Russell, Heidegger, etc.  Husserl turned towards consciousness as the bedrock on which to found a new science of philosophical investigation. He posited a systematized Fichtean model without the Kantian trappings.  Consciousness is the unified foundational “world” from which all knowledge and science is derived. We must therefore formally bracket (put aside) questions of what “underpins” consciousness and turn towards a direct and systematic investigation of consciousness itself. It is with this gesture that Husserl invents phenomenology.

In Husserl’s phenomenological system we retain a neo-Kantian “transcendental ego” – a unifying, organizing aspect of the subject. It is against this that Heidegger reacts. For Heidegger the world is not like a large surface over which the transcendental ego hovers but a real and dark expanse which is partially illuminated by the subject (which he calls Dasein) and in this area of illumination (clearing) the world “shows itself” to human beings in its various modes of existence.  Sartre, following Heidegger, also moves into a more realist phenomenology noting that the transcendental ego is formally a view from nowhere: that it is not present within the phenomenal itself and thus by Husserl’s own method ruled out. We are then left with a perplexing realist phenomenology: a “world” which is neither material nor ideal and in which subjects are embedded as ontologizing forces.

Levinas develops this position into a fully social (‘subject-ive’) ontology. Enter a radically new metaphysical space which rejects materialism, idealism and both the Heideggerian and Husserlean positions. Subjects and their relation to one another constitute the world. Add to this Aluthusser who co-opts Lacan and Freud, phenomenologizing their clinical (contra philosophical) project.

Lacan adds language to Freud, making the psychological processes of the subject fundamentally linguistic processes. Ideology is the superstructure of this social metaphysics out of which subjects emerge, their identities and their constitution.  This is effectively a neo-Hegelian system in which society and the world are subject to forces driven by a transcendental subject, but without the transcendental subject. A world coordinated by Freudian composite subjects, structured by linguistic processes rather than the material ones.

Within Lacan however there is a Real and within Freud there is the material. The unstable metaphysics of this era settles into a new “transcendental materialism” which coalesces in the work of Slavoj Zizek. In this metaphysical system Hegel, Marx, Freud, Lacan are united. The material world contains its own motive-forces but it is not the mechanistic realist vision of “billiard balls colliding.”  It is closer to the realist phenomenology of Heidegger. In Zizek’s system we finally get an account of material transcendence: how it can be that from a material world there can emerge large coordinating forces. The site of the transcendental in this system is within subjects which are generated from a union between the material and the social. In the social we have the Lacanian linguistic superstructures and in the material we have empirical bodies.  In the moment the subject comes into being so does the transcendental.  This is a “constructive materialism” wherein the constructive processes are provided by Hegel and Lacan and the material processes by Marx.

And so today, the Subject is the site of the amalgamation of this history of metaphysics incorporating the thoughts of these major philosopher since Kant.

- Michael Burgess


  1. Avatar of Wayne Schroeder

    Wayne Schroeder

    October 20, 2013

    Thanks for that view of the metaphysical forest of the subject. I was thinking of doing something similar only from a description of the individual trees–what each subject looks like.

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