The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Subject (philosophy)

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:

  • What the color green 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 green 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.

For some ways of thinking, subjectivity implies not simply a passive relationship to the world and the sense impressions it causes in subjects, 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 or groups thereof. 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 by society. (This leads to the view that different things are right in different societies.) Another ethical subjectivist might define "good" as "that which I desire". One implication 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.

See moral relativism for a less philosophical, more postmodern consideration of related issues. See meta-ethics for alternative philosophical views about the meaning and function of ethical sentences.

Subjectivism in probability

In probability, a subjectivist would tell you that probabilities are simply degree-of-beliefs by rational agents, with no objective reality. Unlike a frequentist, a subjectivist would be happy to accept that we can deduce the probability that the sun will rise again tomorrow merely from its age, colour, chemical composition, and so forth. Unlike an objectivist, a subjectivist has no problem with differing people giving different probabilities to an uncertain proposition, and all being correct. See Bayesianism.

In practice, it's quite tricky to get humans (or, if we ever met any, other rational agents) to tell you what their degrees of belief are - we do all kinds of things like hedging our bets, exerting peer pressure, being suspicious, not trusting our friends, and/or searching for patterns - in general, all the things which mark us as intelligent beings but probability researchers seem to see as a downside.

To get around this, one may call upon people to 'put their money where their probabilities are'. In a thought-experiment of Bruno de Finetti, 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 I say specify 3-to-1 odds against the theory of evolution, my opponent may then choose whether to require me to risk $1 in order to win $3 if the theory of evolution is revealed to be true, or to require me to risk $3 in order to win $1 if evolution proves false. See coherence (philosophical gambling strategy). Confronted with material gain or loss, most people quickly change their quoted odds to be more accurate. So effective is this method that it has been designated by some as the fundamental meaning of probability: the willingness to take or place a bet.

See also

Last updated: 05-09-2005 12:26:45
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04