Speculative Web Space

NUPSA Philosophy Sessions (c) William Pascoe, 2018 (independently written and produced, this content is not owned or provided by UON or any Government or Commercial entity, except externally sourced material)

Home Resources Bibliography


'Subject' and 'Object'

These are two of the most confusing words in Philosophy because they are used to mean very different things in different situations and by different philosophers. Sometimes they mean the opposite of what we think they mean and some meanings seem to contradict other meanings and sometimes these two words seem to mean the same thing.

Here's a few different ways in which these words are used:

In common speech: The word 'subject' can mean 'whatever we are talking about or studying' and so on. For example, we might study the subject 'Maths' or 'English'. If we are having a conversation about birds, we might say, "The subject we are discussing today is 'birds'". At the same time we might say that 'birds' are the 'object' of our study - ie: the thing we are studying. So when we are talking about or studying something it could either be called the 'subject' or 'object'. Using the word 'object' is closer to it's technical meaning in linguistics. We sometimes also say, 'subjective' to mean what depends only on my own judgment or experience, as when we say, "I don't like this art, but you do, so it looks good or not is subjective." in contrast to 'objective' when we say, "It doesn't matter what you say, if anyone drops a 1 kilogram weight it will fall at the same speed towards the earth - it's an objective fact." Other ways 'subject' can be used are to refer to someone who is subordinate to king or lord as in "A loyal subject."; and to enforce some ordeal or difficult task on someone, "He was subjected to 5 years hard labour." or "At the open mic we were subjected to 2 hours of amateur poetry." All these meanings relate to philosophy, but not always in the way you might think.

In linguistics: In linguistics there is a distinction between the 'subject' and 'object' of a sentence. The 'subject' is that which is doing. The object is that which has something done to it. For example, in the sentence, "I eat the apple." The subject is 'I' and the object is 'the apple'. In the sentence, "You made a table." The subject is 'You' and the object is "a table". Sometimes, in linguistics the distinction is between 'subject' and 'predicate'. The predicate is merely anything is the part of the sentence that depends on the subject. There doesn't need to be a specific object. For example, "I walk." has the subject 'I' and the predicate 'walk'. In the sentence 'I walk to the shop' the predicate is 'walk to the shop'. The point is that the subject simply 'is' without reference to other things, but the predicate (such as the act of walking) exists there only in relation to the subject (there is no walking unless there is a subject who walks). This is a distinction in linguistics that sometimes becomes important in philosophy.

In rational vs empirical debate and relativism: 'Subjective' is that which depends on or pertains to me, or the individual person. 'Objective' is that which exists independently of me. This can sometimes result in confusion as philosophers argue different points about what is subjective and objective. In particular in Enlightenment philosophy there was a debate about knowledge from experience and knowledge from reason. In common language when we say 'subjective' we normally mean things that relate to our own individual thoughts and feelings and by 'objective' we mean to the real material world outside of us, that exists independently of our thoughts and feelings. However, for some philosophers it's almost the opposite. The outside world can only be experienced through our senses and our senses are fallible so for rationalists the only 'objective' knowledge, ie the only knowledge that is true regardless of our subjective experience and opinion is rational knowledge of the mind such as mathematics. For these philosophers our perceptions of the world are only subjective experiences. By contrast empiricists would argue that the only objective knowledge is the sense perception itself - rational knowledge is derived from the plain fact of our perceptions and experiences and so is subjective and fallible. However, this doesn't mean that knowledge of the world outside of us is 'objective' - on the contrary many argue that it is only the fact that we perceive as we do, the specific perception, that is objective, and the real objects beyond that are not directly knowable. The overall point is that sometimes by 'objective', in philosophy, we do not always mean the real material world assumed to be the same for all, and by 'subjective' we do not always mean our personal thoughts and feelings varying from person to person.

In ethical discourse: The terms 'subject' typically refers to something capable of their own thoughts, feelings, judgments and other 'human' abilities. An 'object' is something without these, usually some material things, such as rocks, chairs or machines. There would be some debate about where between 'subject' and 'object' plants and animals are. One of the main points in popular ethics is that we should not treat 'subjects' as if they were 'objects', hence the term 'objectification'. This usually means that we should treat someone as if they have their own thoughts and feelings and, crucially, their own aims and objectives, and their own judgment of the situation and of ourselves. So we should not 'use' people as if they were no more than a tool to meet our own ends or satisfy our own desires - that would be to objectify them. Also, 'objectification' can be used politically to avoid considering other people, or even to persecute and kill them, as if they were not human and without their own feelings, opinions, etc, just like ourselves. Also, in popular ethics, 'stereotyping' is an objectification because it assumes that any particular individual of some type will automatically do certain things and have certain qualities, rather than have their own individual, thoughts and feelings and be capable of making their own judgments.

In philosophy the term 'subject' can correspond to the term 'self' when there are discussions of 'Self and Other'. However, in philosophy, this 'Other' is not necessarily the 'Other' as used in popular ethics which is usually assumed to be an other person who is objectified because they are different to us. One problem with this popular understanding of 'other' as always being 'objectified' is that it seems that to treat people ethically we must treat them, or make them, the 'same' as us, or equivalent to ourselves. Many have noted that can also be a kind of violence or objectification - to assume that people must be made the same to be equal denies and invalidates their differences. It can make it seem that there is only one valid way to be, which is violent and destructive toward another way of being another set of values, or another identity - to make the same is to destroy that other.

In philosophy of Ethics it's important to understand the distinction of Self and Other usually implies an other who may indeed be treated violently as an object, but may also be recognised as an 'Other' who is like me in their ability to think, feel, judge, etc, but who is also, definitively, not me, who is different to me in ways I cannot even understand, and this is precisely what differentiates them from being an 'object' (where an 'object' is something I can understand).

In post structuralism: Post-structuralist thinkers often seek to 'deconstruct' our underlying assumptions. These assumptions are often binary oppositions, such as 'subject' and 'object'. Rather than see these as 'natural' or 'true' distinctions they look at the history of how these distinctions came to shape our understanding and our world, and how they came to be and have changed. Even the distinction between 'true' and 'false' can be criticised in this way and so can something so basic as the 'self'. What it even means when we say, 'I' or 'you' has changed over time and varies across cultures, and may vary even from moment to moment. So too, this distinction between subject and object is called into question and criticised. When we think of ourselves, we treat out 'subjectivity' as the 'object' of our thought. Our 'self', is an 'object' that we think about, something that exists in the world, and we ascribe various attributes and abilities to. If we are the subject that does the thinking, when we think about ourselves we also become the object of our own thinking ('one hand grasping the other' in the words of Levinas). Seeing the 'subject' as a constructed 'object' or the 'object' of our own consciousness does not begin with Post-structuralism, but it is an important part of it. Foucault in particular has investigated extensively the history and meaning of 'subjectivity' and how this effects what we do to each other, especially in terms of politics, government and punishment.