Subject (philosophy)

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In philosophy, a subject is a being which has subjective experiences or a relationship with another entity (or "object"). A subject is an observer and an object is a thing observed.

The following are examples of subjective experiences (all examples of qualia):

  • What the color red looks like to me;
  • What a musical tone sounds like to me;
  • What pleasure and pain feel like to me.

And their corresponding objective analogues:

  • The red surface;
  • The musical instrument producing oscillations in air;
  • The things that induce pleasure or pain.

The object is the thing perceived; the subject is the one who perceives.

Subjectivity emphasizes an individual's having not just a passive relationship to the world and the sense impressions it causes, but also agency, an active engagement with that material. Agency might be thought to occur simply in the act of interpretation of sense data, making choices about how to allocate meanings to those data. Or it might be thought to occur in a stronger sense, acting upon the world and changing its organization to suit the subject's goals. In the latter case, a feedback loop of modified world - new sense data - new modification might be established, with open-ended consequences. Baldwinian evolution may be a candidate instance of such a feedback system.

In critical theory and psychology, subjectivity is also the actions or discourses that produce individuals or 'I'; the 'I' is the subject -- the observer.


Epistemic subjectivity

The word subjectivity is also used to refer to the antithesis of objectivity as an epistemic virtue: one who judges according to personal feelings or intuitions, rather than according to objective observation, reasoning, and judgment, is judging subjectively.


Subjectivism is a philosophical tenet that accords primacy to subjective experiences. In an extreme form, it may hold that the nature and existence of every object depends only on someone's subjective awareness of it. One may consider the qualified empiricism of George Berkeley in this context, given his reliance on God as the prime mover of human perception.

Metaphysical subjectivism

Metaphysical subjectivism is the theory that perception creates reality, and that there is no underlying, true reality that exists independent of perception. One can also hold that it is consciousness rather than perception that creates reality. This is in contrast to metaphysical objectivism.

This holding should not be confused with the stance that "all is illusion" or that "there is no such thing as reality." Metaphysical subjectivists hold that reality is real enough, and that physical objects do exist. They conceive, however, that the nature of reality as related to a given consciousness unit is created and governed by that consciousness.

Subjectivism and panpsychism

One possible extension of subjectivist thought is that conscious experience is available to all objectively perceivable substrates. Upon viewing images produced by a camera on the rocking side of an erupting volcano, one might suppose that their relative motion followed from a subjective conscious within the volcano. These properties might also be attributed to the camera or its various components as well.

In this way, though, subjectivism morphs into a related doctrine, panpsychism, the view that every objective fact has an inward or subjective aspect.


The invention of machines that can "see", "hear", or otherwise observe and record events provides a thought experiment (offered by Winston Churchill, who is not otherwise known as a philosopher) that is difficult for subjectivists to explain. Let us set up an automatic camera to record events in a place that no human (or other creature reasonably considered "conscious") can observe. Say that it is set inside a volcano, for example. The camera is later retrieved and its photographs, with date markings, are observed. Did the events recorded in the photographs really happen even though no one consciously observed them? Did the conscious observation of the photographs themselves somehow suddenly cause them to depict events that apparently happened at an earlier time?

One explanation of this scenario from a subjectivist perspective is that the events in the photographs didn't really happen at all. Only the photographs came into existence as the observer went to collect the results of their test.

Ethical subjectivism

Ethical subjectivism is the meta-ethical view that ethical sentences reduce to factual statements about the attitudes and/or conventions of individual people. An ethical subjectivist might propose, for example, that what it means for something to be morally right is just for it to be approved of. (This can lead to the view that different things are right according to each idiosyncratic moral outlook.) Another kind of ethical subjectivist might define "good" as "that which I desire".

A related view is that of conventionalism, which considers ethical sentences to be representations of the attitudes of a number of persons in a culture or society.

One implication of these views is that, unlike the moral skeptic or the non-cognitivist, the subjectivist thinks that ethical sentences, while relative or subjective, are nonetheless the kind of thing that can be true or false.

Subjectivism in probability

In probability, a subjectivism stands for the view that probabilities are simply degrees-of-belief by rational agents in a certain proposition, and which have no objective reality in and of themselves. For this kind of subjectivist, a phrase having to do with probability simply asserts the degree to which the subjective actor believes their assertion is true or false. As a consequence, a subjectivist has no problem with differing people giving different probabilities to an uncertain proposition, and all being correct. See Bayesianism.

In attempting to justify subjective probability, Bruno de Finetti created the notion of philosophical coherance. According to his theory, a probability assertion is akin to a bet, and a bet is coherant only if it does not expose the wagerer to loss if their opponent chooses wisely. To explain his meaning, de Finetti created a thought-experiment to illustrate the need for principles of coherancy in making a probabilistic statement. In his scenario, when someone states their degree-of-belief in something, one places a small bet for or against that belief and specifies the odds, with the understanding that the other party to the bet may then decide which side of the bet to take. Thus, if Bob specifies 3-to-1 odds against the theory of evolution, his opponent Joe may then choose whether to require Bob to risk $1 in order to win $3 if the theory of evolution is revealed to be true, or to require Bob to risk $3 in order to win $1 if evolution proves false. In this case, it is possible for Joe to win over Bob. According to de Finetti, then, this case is incoherant.

See also


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