The Subject. Andy Blunden, 2005/6

Philosophical Foundations

A review of the history of philosophical conceptions of the subject has shown that early writers from Aristotle to Machiavelli understood the subject as a human community of which every citizen was an active individual component, with the social and political life of the city-state providing the fibres through which individual and community were identified.

In mediaeval Christian Europe, this unitary conception of the subject suffered from the remoteness of God and his Earthly representatives from the daily life of His flock. In response to this, an opposing conception of the subject grew up, in which individuals, in one way or another, claimed direct access to the mind of God, rather than mediated through the Church hierarchy. This gave rise to a variety of dualist conceptions of the subject which ultimately created the basis for modernity. Descartes’ rationalism marked the threshold from which this path of development became dominant.

In the preceding chapters, I have passed over that whole modern thread of development which stretches from Hobbes and Locke up to present day proponents of Artificial Intelligence and Behavioural Science, who either deny the existence of consciousness altogether, reduce consciousness to an epiphenomenon of biochemical processes in the brain, or as the passive response to the impact of stimuli upon the senses, or in one way or another analyse the human individual as one material system interacting with other material systems, or as a utility-maximising automaton.

Nor have I expended energy on criticising that spontaneous conviction that puts in the place of the subject some kind of Ego sitting in a control room behind the eyes like the persona in Woody Allen’s 1972 movie “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask.” All of these paths lead to something like a set of Russian dolls, burying the problem of subjectivity under successive layers of illusion.

It is all too often such banal conceptions of the subject that are used as straw men for critiques of the subject. Such critiques generally contribute some observation, while dismissing out of hand, not only those thinkers of earlier times who never knew such a conception of the individual subject, but that whole philosophical line of development beginning with Fichte which dispensed with the illusion of the Cartesian subject over 200 years ago.

Fichte’s thinking emerged directly under the impact of the French Revolution, and the further development of this critique with Hegel and then Marx expressed both the collapse of the old order in Europe and the new revolutionary forces unleashed by capitalism. Fichte, Hegel, Marx and then the American, Charles Sanders Peirce, provide a powerful critique of the empiricist and positivist conceptions of the subject.

It is not just a question of reinventing the wheel. A critical appropriation of this work may allow us to avoid the pitfalls into which we may have fallen as a result of the prejudices of our own times. The most formidable barrier to an understanding of subjectivity today is the combination of an unprecedented degree of individuation of social relations with the seeming powerlessness of the individual in the face of the global institutions.

There is a further barrier to a unitary conception of the subject in modernity. Ever since the collapse of Hegelianism in 1841, there has been neither the need nor the possibility of a comprehensive and totalising philosophical system like that of Hegel. But while philosophical system-building had to give way to the explorations of the positive sciences, the ever-expanding division of labour in the sciences has tended to bar the way to the solution of certain types of problem that span the academic lines of demarcation. Subjectivity is precisely such a problem.

If the problem of the subject is located within the science of psychology, then it remains embroiled in contradictions and dead-ends, because the content of consciousness is a cultural and historical process lying outside the domain of the individual. Further, the activity through which this content is formed in consciousness involves other people and is invisible to conventional scientific experimental methods which begin with the isolation of the subject. Naturally, those schools of psychology which are based on the cultural-historical activity concept of the psyche escape this criticism, as does to a lesser degree, object-relations theory.

Conversely, if the problem of the subject is located within the domain of sociology or political science, then it risks becoming inhuman nonsense, because in focussing on structures, institutions, narratives and discourses, the problem of the formation of motivation, capabilities and consciousness of the individual actors is either overlooked, made the object of ‘assumptions’ or imported from another discipline. By no means all schools of social science are equally prone to this criticism, as the influence of Marx and Hegel on social theory is vast. However, I believe the criticism has relevance for all those schools of social science which originate from positivism and structuralism of various kinds.

Discussions of the subject are frequently characterised by an alternation between psychology (or psychologistic speculation) on one hand, and then on the other hand, social structures and objective processes. Writers of social, historical or political theory who aim to ‘connect up’ their theories with some current of empirical social psychology face the problem of bridging a gap between two distinct bodies of theory. So, we have on the one hand individual subjects, and on the other hand, social subjects; but each is the object of a different specialised branch of science. A social movement is not a mass of individuals sharing a common psychological condition.

It is hard today to refuse to identify the subject with the individual, and therefore difficult to deny the ‘death of the subject’ if not its finality; the meaning of subjectivity tends to oscillate between the individual and an individual subject position in a narrative or discourse. The limitation of human agency to the occupation of a subject position, like all theories of oppression, highlights oppression but denies the possibility of emancipation; but then it turns out that individual agents can subject narratives to criticism and the adoption of subject positions turns out to be optional, so we are rescued from determinism after all.

This oscillation reflects a reality of course: the political and cultural world does indeed confront individuals as an objective and immovable structure, and the first thing one has to learn is that any room for manoeuvre you appear to have in that world is illusory, but then you learn about political struggle and the possibility of overthrowing or at least changing institutions and discourses. The world does indeed appear like individuals on one side and objective structures on the other. People even lead a double life, moving back and forth between a public persona while they are at work, and a private persona when they step out of their corporate personality.

The possibilities for change open up as soon as we enquire as to what mediates between the universal and the individuals, and between the particular structures of power and the individual objects of power, between public and private persona, between beliefs or ideologies and the individuals who believe in them. It is precisely in this area between the structural and the individual where the really interesting problems arise. For emancipatory struggle, we need a concept which brings individual, universal and particular into a single concept.

Let me explain what I mean by ‘a concept which brings individual, universal and particular into a single concept’. Hegel explained in the chapter on the Subject in his Science of Logic, that any concept must have individual, particular and universal determinations, and a concrete understanding of any concept required all the relations between these three determinations to be grasped. We explored this issue in Chapter 7 above. Hegel’s description of the subjective notion turns out to be a logical description of the Subject. So my insistence that any actual, living subject must include individual, particular and universal moments, as actual social relations, is mirrored by the insistence that a concrete concept of the subject must include individual, particular and universal determinations.

I reject the idea of the subject as an individual abstracted from the social relations which constitute that subjectivity; I reject the idea of the subject as a group of people sharing some common attribute, except insofar as it is accompanied by a corresponding self-consciousness; I reject the idea of the subject as a ‘subject position’ within a narrative or structure, in abstraction from the human being who adopts a subject position. The presence of all three moments is necessary to constitute a real subject. A group of people who lack an ideal which may constitute their self-consciousness, is not a subject. A group of people who lack actual forms of collaboration, is not a subject.

But I also reject those theories which deny the existence of subjects altogether or regard the suggestion that subjects exist as some kind of reactionary defence of Cartesian or individualist illusions. I also reject any suggestion that people are prisoners of discourses, narratives and structures beyond their control. Just as much do I reject utopian or dogmatic schemes for the overthrow of social structures by groups or individuals whose aim to rescue the world from its own illusions, rests on a claim of immunity from such illusions and freedom from the social processes which shape everyone else’s subjectivity.

Agency and Self-determination

The idea of the person as a sovereign individual subject has merit, but it can be readily seen that such agency as an individual possesses derives from their cooperative and trusting relations with others; what knowledge and belief they have resides in the language, art, and culture generally in which they partake along with others and have inherited from the past; and their identity is made and sustained only by the recognition extended to them from others around them. Thus an individual has agency and may be a subject relatively, but not absolutely.

I use the word ‘agency’ in the sense of ‘self-determination’. More broadly ‘agency’ means the capacity to do something, that is, having moral responsibility for one’s actions.

If someone or something does something, being a subject reduces to the question of whether they are morally responsible for the action and can be deemed to be the determining source or original cause of the action, or whether on the contrary, their action is seen as determined by structural factors, other human agents or circumstances which constrained them or conditioned their will towards the action. In law, human beings who have reached the age of majority and are not insane, etc., are deemed to be morally responsible for their actions. Corporate entities recognised by the law are also legal subjects in this sense.

Overbearing power may of course force someone’s hand, and there can be issues of inadequate knowledge, or being deceived; all these factors are well-known to legal theory and I accept conventional legal wisdom here in very large measure. That someone may have been conditioned or predisposed ideologically towards a course of action, or swept along by the tide of events has no impact on their moral responsibility for their actions. It is in just this sense that I use the term ‘agency’.

Aside from international and corporate law, legal theory is heavily prejudiced towards the recognition of individuals as subjects of law. The actual scope of the agency available to human beings is quite restricted, and correspondingly, the scope of wrongs which may bring an individual subject before a court is quite limited. Corporate entities seem to have subject to even fewer obligations. No-one is hauled before the courts for heightening social inequality, promoting individualism or undermining social cohesion, and vast injustices are perpetrated without a breach of any law. So the conclusions which can be drawn from legal theory are quite limited; but the concept of legal, and therefore moral, responsibility as worked out in legal theory is adequate to our task, even though the scope of wrongs and goods and the definition of subject with which we are concerned is much wider.

In structuralist literature, ‘agency’ is used only in the sense in which an organism is the agent for the spread of a disease or a cog-wheel is the agency for the torque it transmits to the axle. I do not use the word ‘agency’ in that sense, but rather in the sense of being the source of an action, or ‘self-determination’. Whereas ‘self-determination’ carries the connotations of freedom from compulsion by another party and of recognition as a moral equal by other subjects, I use the word agency to connote moral responsibility which is never unqualified, but always relative and has degrees.

Followiny Kant here, I say that a subject is only fully a subject when its agency is such that it has self-determination. ‘Self-determination’ is synonymous with ‘sovereignty’ and has gained its most precise elaboration in the domain of international law. In the law of nations, it is commonly accepted that a subject (such as a nation) may be self-sufficient in the absolute sense of being capable of sustaining itself, at least in principle, without commerce of any kind with other subjects. This in-principle self-sufficiency gives to the subject the capacity to enter into or withhold itself from contracts with other subjects. Its relations with other nations, therefore, are on the basis of moral equality and mutual recognition, in which each party determines its own actions freely, having regard only to domestic imperatives, treaties or contracts freely entered into with the other parties or laws to which they can deemed to be party by dent of full, free and equal participation in the ‘family of nations’.

When Kant spoke of the person as a sovereign subject he meant ‘sovereign’ in precisely the sense it is used in international law; that is, the subject is “subject to no other laws than those he gives to himself, either alone or at least along with others.” The key phrase is obviously ‘along with others’ and the issue is the sense in which a mortal individual person can be deemed to have participated in making laws ‘along with others’ when those laws have been, in actuality, passed by institutions before he or she was born.

The solution proposed here differs from that of Kant since, rather than appealing to Reason as the source of the moral law, we follow Hegel in posing the relations between an individual and the law-giving institutions from the standpoint of the relations of subjectivity. It is only to the extent that a person is able to see that a law which governs them has been determined by a process which gives recognition to their own subjectivity that self-determination is possible. That is, that their subjectivity is recognised by others as a legitimate and equal member of the ‘family of subjects’.

Such self-determination therefore has two components: on the one hand the subject has to be able to freely determine their own actions without compulsion or manipulation by others (pre-supposing sufficient strength and experience to withstand force and deception), and on the other hand, they must be recognised by others as an equal participant in the determination of the shared conditions of life of all subjects. If under these conditions a subject is able to say ‘I freely assent to that law’, then they can be deemed to have made that law ‘along with others’.

As is the case in international law, a party may be in actuality in control of their own actions and not subject to manipulation or overweening force, but if recognition by the other subjects is withheld (perhaps out of prejudice or malice), then they are denied status as full subjects. Being denied the opportunity to participate in the family of nations, they are unable to give their assent to laws and deem themselves to have legislated them ‘along with others’. Conversely, a party may be recognised as a subject by other subjects, but if in actuality they are subject to manipulation and compulsion, their status as subjects remains fraudulent.

Modern institutions like universal suffrage may contribute in some ways to the creation of circumstances in which individuals have self-determination and are therefore to be recognised as subjects in the full sense, but they are a long, long way from being sufficient conditions. In large measure, the individual-as-subject remains fraudulent.

Individual Rights

Modern institutions such as the market, the electoral system, the courts and so on, all institutionalise the idea of the individual person as a sovereign subject (provided they are citizens, and not children, felons or certified insane). This has created a prejudice in favour of taking the person as a sovereign subject to be a fact, or at least a norm, rather than the possible end of a still-unfinished, long drawn-out historical process.

Likewise, calls for ‘equal rights’ invariably have in mind persons, not subjects, as the bearers of such equal rights or status. Children have rights for instance, although they are not subjects, as do insane people, felons, etc. Interestingly however, it is invariable social movements, and not individuals, who are the claimants in fights for equal rights, but social movements claim rights on behalf of individuals. Making sense of this entails understanding the role of individuals and social movements in the construction of subjectivity. Equally, while justice certainly ought to be given to each person, what counts as justice is neither universally given nor subject to the whims of individuals; rather, what counts as justice is the outcome of social movements and political struggles, and is constantly under question at any given moment. So the very meaning of justice is comprehensible only in terms of concrete subjectivity.

So the inscription of the individual in so many modern institutions of justice cannot be taken as proving the thesis of the person as subject. At the current juncture in history, those rights which we enjoy as persons are what I would call ‘abstract rights’; important nonetheless, but until agency, identity and knowledge are individuated in the same way (something which is actually unthinkable), these rights remain abstract. By abstract rights, I mean the right to vote, the right to free expression, equality before the law, rights to welfare, protection of the law, etc. – the very broad category of rights which are normally extended equally to all citizens and/or residents of a country.

In contrast to abstract rights, concrete rights are rights founded in concrete relations of subjectivity, that is to say, agency, belief and identity. Rights are in fact only meaningful when measured in relation to subjectivity.

It is all very well that I have an equal right with everyone else to vote or be elected to Parliament, to read a book or to have my book published, to worship in Church or to be ordained as a priest, watch the TV news or have my views broadcast as news. But concretely, while I may already vote, read, worship and watch the news, my ‘equal right’ to sit in Parliament, publish a book, minister or broadcast are illusory, as they depend on my concrete agency, my subjectivity, something which I do not have by right, but which I must construct along with others. And yet it is obvious that my right to vote is useless without someone to vote for, my right to read useless without a book worth reading, my write to worship useless without a virtuous priest, my right to watch TV useless without good programming. All these ‘concrete’ rights hinge on the ‘investment’ I have in someone else by virtue of relationships which are comprehensible only in terms of subjectivity.

Making sense of rights and justice therefore presupposes an adequate conception of the subject. The need for an adequate concept of the subject is even clearer if we turn to the problem of virtue and the good life.

Aristotle held that the good life meant working for the good of the polis, while ‘a polis too, like an individual, has a work to do; and that polis which is best adapted to the fulfillment of its work is to be deemed greatest’. Virtues were those acquired habits, abilities and preferences which contributed to the success of the polis, to the extent that the polis is in its turn providing a good life for its people. The polis ‘has work to do’ just as the individual ‘has work to do’. Virtue then is only possible in the context of knowing what work one has to do, that is, within some historically extended practice or institution, i.e., in our terms, as part of some social subject. Alasdair MacIntyre sums this up with “The good life for man is the life spent in seeking for the good life for man.” [After Virtue, p. 204]

MacIntyre interprets the significance of the ancient polis for modern time as practices. So virtues are to be acquired in relation to practices – professions, life-roles, arts, disciplines or whatever. The conduct of the various practices are invariably regulated and furthered by institutions which manage their work by in one way or another offering rewards. But, according to MacIntyre (and I agree with him), because these external rewards offered by institutions invariably have the capacity to corrupt, by becoming the end in themselves, it is only the goods which are internal to the practices the enjoyment of which are the aim of virtue.

“The virtues are ... those dispositions which will not only sustain practices and enable us to secure the goods internal to practices, but which will also sustain us in the relevant kind of quest for the good, by overcoming the harms, ...” [After Virtue, p. 204]

Isn’t it clear than that virtue arises only in the context of an individual being part of some historically extended and significant social and cultural practice, in other words, in connection with concrete subjectivity, in the sense undersood here. Virtue is not just impossible for an individual, but unthinkable, so long as the individual is conceived independently of some concrete moral identity in relation to some social subjectivity. The ‘good person’ and the ‘good life’ are meaningless outside of a concrete subjectivity.

Hegel’s Concept

The philosophical conception of the subject on which I rely is that of Hegel, modified by Marx’s insistence that Hegel’s Spirit is nothing other than the purposive activity of human individuals and his critique of bourgeois society, supplemented by Charles Sanders Peirce’s idea of the subject as semiosis.

Hegel made Spirit the underlying substance of his philosophy. Everything that happens, every twist and turn in history, every new movement in art, every victory at war, is the work of Spirit, acting behind the backs of human actors. But it would be a grave mistake to think that this aspect of Spirit – making history the work of a pre-existing, extramundane, totalising Will – in some way undermines the value of Hegel’s idea. Even for Hegel, totality is a outcome, not a hidden presupposition. When Hegel says that Spirit ‘is the nature of human beings en masse’ then we can leave it at that and ascribe absolutely nothing else to spirit than this.

Just as Fichte insisted that ‘I think’ does not prove the existence of an I which thinks, we can say that the activity of Spirit described by Hegel does not prove the existence of a Spirit which acts.

So we must rightly reject ideas such as those which see every event in the world at a certain moment as being an ‘expression’ of a ‘world crisis’ or ‘spirit of the times’ or claims of lesser scope which still take for granted the capacity of thought-forms to maintain a separate existence from any real human activity in order to then be able to ‘manifest’ themselves in such activities. Universals cannot exist other than by means of particular formations of the activity of individuals in which the universal plays some mediating role. Processes can only ‘manifest’ themselves here and there by means of actual connecting links of some kind. This is not to deny the existence of universals though. No institution, group, discourse or narrative can have any continuing and meaningful existence other than through the mediating role of universals, as well as the activity of the individual human beings who perform them.

But the converse is just as true. An individual human being is nothing but a lifeless pile of hydrocarbons, apart from the way his or her activity is mediated by universal, ideal products of human culture, whether in the form of language, bodily hexus, tools, crops and buildings, social institutions, practices or whatever.

Hegel has shown us in great detail in his Science of Logic, how subjects are formed by the activity of people who draw out the real relations in a process through conflict, each necessarily representing at any given time only partial insights into the necessary relationships of a thing. The outcome is not given at the outset, but is arrived at agonistically in just the way any effective problem-solving strategy arrives at a solution through a process of creation and discovery. If the solution was implicit in the problem, it was only so provisionally, and never necessarily uniquely. No process of problem-solving is ever final.

What we arrive at is a kind of pragmatism in which it is ‘activity’ which is the key concept. My basic claim is that the subject is a self-conscious system of activity. By ‘activity’ I mean activity in the sense first given to it by Fichte but given a more concrete form by Hegel and Marx, plus additional insights provided by Peirce’s broader concept of semiosis. That is to say ‘activity’ means objective-subjective human practice, inclusive of the mediating cultural and historical artefacts. By a self-conscious system of activity, I mean a system of activity which has reached a level of reflexivity, and is capable of having itself as object.

It is important to see that the conception of activity which we have here is one of mediated activity, activity mediated by the use of symbols or signs or tools or artefacts or language or whatever, but mediated activity. That is, like Peirce, we see activity as essentially a three-sided relation in which each component mediates the relations between the other two.

Dichotomies and Triads

Hegel always took care to foreswear, somewhat counter-factually, any commitment to triads, Marx cared not a hoot for any such thing, but Peirce was insistent on the importance of the triadic relation. I side with Peirce on this issue. Wherever we see a relation, we look for the mediating term.

The dichotomous relationships which lie at the heart of positivist, structuralist and poststructuralist theory act, in my view, as a barrier to understanding. The dichotomy acts in two ways: firstly, in response to every proposition, it asks what is denied, excluded or reflected; which is all very well, but secondly, it splits the universe into two independent realms according to what is given and what is denied or reflected. As a result of the failure of the two worlds to be perfect mirror images of one another (there can be no final one-to-one relationship between signifier and signified), each then becomes a self-sustaining and meaningless tautology. The rupture of the world of activity into signifiers and signified is the archetypal case. Dichotomy is the logic of choice for the professional dogmatist, since by its means he can rule in a world composed entirely of text, unchallenged by events in the world beyond the text.

The Peircean or Hegelian trichotomy on the other hand, responds to every relation, every contrast and every meaning by asking what mediates the relation. This has the effect of everywhere generating yet new avenues for enquiry, and instead of rupturing the field of activity into mutual alien and meaningless realms, makes connections between what was otherwise separated. Fichte’s notion of activity, mediating between subject and object, did away with dualism of Kant’s transcendental subject and thing-in-itself. Although Fichte’s activity was not itself mediated activity, it was Fichte’s insight which opened the way for the Hegelian and Peircean systems. The sign-object-interpretant trichotomy is the archetypal case.


Further, I take from Hegel the idea of the avatar, that is to say the person who acts as the incarnation of a ‘logical’ term in a relation or process, be it individual, universal or particular, or the icon, symbol or index of Peirce’s semiotic. The avatar can play a role in the theory of the subject similar to the role ‘subject position’ has played in some theories which aim to eliminate the subject in favour of a narrative or structure.

Any number of studies of group psychology, beginning with John Dewey’s, have demonstrated that if the logical processes required for problem-solving are divided up amongst the members of a group, then the group can perform very effectively. Organisers, social planners and military leaders since time immemorial have known that logical division of labour amongst a group is the optimal means of dealing with unforeseeable stresses. Hegel used the same idea in relation to the study of social, cultural and historical processes, based on the observation that groups and movements will spontaneously adopt this kind of division of labour. That is to say, the idea of a narrative with its dramatis personae may be broadened to include the whole range of relations and processes which Hegel and Peirce had in mind in devising their logical systems. In each theory or discourse or narrative there are roles for individual, universal and particular, for icon, symbol and index and for rheme, dicent and argument, and not at all limited to these concepts. Put this together with Peirce’s observations that a ‘person’s circle of society is a sort of loosely compacted person’, and that ‘all deliberations that really and sincerely agitate our breasts always assume a dialogic form’, and we see that the conception of logical reasoning merges with the conception of organisation and Hegel’s remark that ‘spirit is the nature of human beings en masse’ begins to take on a more specific and comprehensible meaning.

The Coincidence of Agent, Cogito and Identity

I have defined the subject as the coincidence of agency, cogito and identity. This identity makes sense because moral responsibility is unthinkable for some entity which lacked relevant knowledge or self-consciousness.

The courts cannot hold someone morally responsible for adverse results of actions which were in no sense known or predictable to them; if you are culpable for an action then it is for some reason other than the unknowable consequences of your action. And if you did something unintentionally which would otherwise be illegal, it would be for some reason other than that action for which you would be culpable.

Likewise, an entity which has knowledge or self-consciousness but is not a moral agent could not be a subject in any meaningful sense. All kinds of inanimate entities from street signs to computers have knowledge, and children not only have knowledge, but at a certain age acquire self-consciousness as well, but it is only when they attain a degree of mastery over their own life that they become subjects; legally, a child below the age of majority is not a subject.

In short, no entity which lacked one of these essential characteristics could be recognised as a subject.

Nevertheless, because they are three distinct notions of the subject, realisations of the each notion will always necessarily fail to fully coincide with another. For example, an Australian Aborigine who identifies herself as an Aborigine, but due to having been taken from her family at an early age, she may not be able to speak ‘her own’ language and may be ignorant of ‘her own’ culture. The mismatch between the person’s self-consciousness or identity and their knowledge is a real source of inner conflict for their subjectivity. Another example: a person belongs to a voluntary organisation whose ideals they fervently believe in, but the structure of the organisation makes it impossible for them to contribute to policy-making and despite the organisation making what are in their view grave errors. A final example, a people who have been displaced from their homeland, and despite having a collective self-consciousness and shared cultural knowledge, by being denied a homeland, are denied the forms of self-organisation necessary to attain nationhood and self-determination. Such a people suffer a pain form of subjective dissonance.

Knowledge, power, and identity are each constructed by different processes. The ‘normal’ development of a subject supposes that the three processes coincide, within a single system of activity, so that the relative dissonance between them leads to problems of subjectivity like those mentioned in the examples above.

I define a subject as a self-conscious system of activity. As such, a system of activity will normally develop forms of knowledge which make sense within the system of activity that constitute it. Definition of a subject as a self-conscious system of activity makes sense of why agency, knowledge and identity normally coincide.

As a philosophical conception, the important requirement for a concept of the subject is that it offer an intelligible framework for insights and problems, whether from psychology, sociology, political science or ethics. I believe that the concept of the subject suggested here qualifies by these criteria.

Nevertheless, the modern world is characterised by the merging of formerly distinct national and cultural groupings into a single worldwide division of labour. Failing the kind of unitary self-consciousness which a monotheistic religion may have once aspired to, subjectivity cannot take the form of a multiplicity of distinct subjects. Rather subjectivity is multiply determined, overlapping and articulated. I use the word ‘subjectivity’ to denote an individual being part of a social subject where it is understood that the social subjects are overlapping and articulated, and consequently the normal situation for a self-conscious, free individual is the participation in a multiplicity of subjects. Since the ‘social subject’ cannot therefore exist as something clearly delineated and distinct, the word should be understood accordingly. Social subjects are normally ‘fuzzy’.

Nothing in this situation detracts from the possibility of human beings attaining self-determination and free subjectivity. While being a full citizen of a city-state which has attained national self-determination is the archetype of subjectivity, it is not difficult to understand the meaning of these terms when applied to the ‘fuzzy’ situation of modern society.

The kind of issues I am concerned with include the nature and causes of poverty and marginalisation and approaches to remedying it, learning and how expectations of a young people’s position in society are formed, sociability and the capacity of people to form mutually beneficial social bonds, the motivations underlying social and political struggle, the causes and remedies of injustice, how to counteract the manipulation of people by fear and anxiety, what forms of self-organisation are viable in the modern world, and so on, and so on. All these issues bear on the central problems of social justice today. And they are problems in which the subject is central, but they are problems neither of psychology nor sociology alone.

I have made vague and unsubstantiated accusations in respect to the concept of subject utilised by other writers. What I must do now is to move to a closer examination of a range of writers on psychological, political and sociological themes and examine in detail what they have to say. The aim will be to concretise the conception of the subject as a self-conscious system of activity.

A term which perhaps best expresses what subjectivity means in modern society is the term coined by Amartya Sen, ‘critical voice’. ‘Critical’ connotes having sufficient knowledge and social recognition to be free of compulsion, manipulation, ‘false consciousness’ or deception. Insofar as what is connoted is only ‘voice’, then the cynical remark that “we have a voice all-right, but no-one is listening,” would apply; so, by ‘critical voice’ we mean an ‘informed voice in the corridors of power’ or ‘in the places that matter. As Sen indicates, the concept of critical voice makes the conditions necessary for its realisation easily understandable.