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Unable to separate the term subject from the notion of consciousness, Freud placed it in opposition to the external world or the object, or in their reciprocal reversal (1915e). In "New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis" (1933a [1932]) Freud said the ego was "in its proper sense a subject" (p. 58)not as an essence, but a function to be filled.

Jacques Lacan (1966) changed this by referring to the subject as "the subject of the unconscious" in its "unwitting" dimension, its ex-centricity in relation to itself. The subject is the "it" that the "I" speaks of when the I wishes to refer to itself as unconscious. Or rather, the subject is this very split between the "I" and the "it." The ego, for its part, is not the "I": a precipitate of identifications, it becomes the locus of misapprehension. How, then, is it possible for "the subject to recognize and name his desire"? The answer is that the truth speaks, even if the words spoken convey both the lie of desire and its truth, and even if "the I that speaks is not the same as the I that is spoken."

The Other gives language its sense and the subject is an effect of that sense. The subject of the unconscious is "the subject represented by a signifier for another signifier," and the only important thing is the degree of difference between the two signifiers. The Imaginary also enters into its determination through that which is imagined about the object a, the only object that can be transferred for transference into the place occupied by phallic lack. Thus, "the truth that the I of the unconscious tells us is that only this nothingness sustains it."

Accordingly, for Lacan, the aim of treatment was not to fill this gaping nothingness, but to manifest it and potentially to express it through sublimation . . . or by training psychoanalysts. He emphasized that the kind of listening that took place in analysis often took wrong turns, and thus attempted, in his last years, to reequilibrate his system, notably by using the topological figure of the Borromean knot, to give "consistency" to the Real, the Symbolic, and the Imaginary: "The subject is what is determined by the figure in question: Not that he is in any sense its double, the subject is conditioned by the points at which the knot catches and tightens in these points."

The Lacanian subject is thus very different from the one based on Freudian metapsychology. Lacan's approach upends the theory of subjectivity by making the subject the subject of the drives, who sometimes directs them and at times is directed by them.

This subject is alien to itself, split between the Self and itself, though there is a constant reciprocity of relations between the mind's agencies, and reversibility of the economic and dynamic transformations within the personality as a whole. Among the various modalities of representance, representation appears as the bridge or articulation between the economic dimension and that of meaning, the product of work whose conscious or unconscious quality constitutes modalities that are more or less contingent or necessary, depending on the case, within the figure of tension that is desire.

If, for Freud, the lifting of repression produced conscious awareness, today the emphasis has shifted onto whether or not a new, "subjectivable" meaning can possibly emerge, be assumed by the subject, and through the effects of deferred action [après coup ] that constitute psychic reality, itself become a function of both internal constraints and effects of the psychic reality of the object. Piera Aulagnier's "I," the study of the originating conditions of the process of subjectification (Cahn), and the related Aufhebung (sublation, supersession) illuminated by the notion of transitionality (Roussillon) are new approaches centered on the internal and external elements at stake in the splittings and exclusions that oppose this subjective appropriation. Here, in contrast to the problematics of neurosis, where the work of analysand naturally predominates, it is the work of the analyst that is revealed to be determinant, to contain that work, absorb it, and connect its productions.

Raymond Cahn

See also: Alienation; Ego; Ego (analytical psychology); Ego (ego psychology); I; Identity; Imaginary identification/symbolic identification; Individual; Individuation (analytical psychology); Object; Object a ; Other, the; Phenomenology and psychoanalysis; Philosophy and psychoanalysis; Self; Self-consciousness; Subject of the unconscious; Want of being/lack of being.


Aulagnier, Piera. (2001). The violence of interpretation: From pictogram to statement (Alan Sheridan, Trans.). Hove, East Sussex, and Philadelphia: Brunner Routledg. (Original work published 1975)

Cahn, Raymond. (1991). Du sujet. Revue française de psychanalySE, 55, 5-6, 1371-1490.

Freud, Sigmund. (1915e). The unconscious. SE, 14: 159-204.

. (1933a [1932]). New introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 22: 1-182.

. (1940a). An outline of psycho-analysis. SE, 23: 139-207.

Lacan, Jacques. (1977).Écrits: A selection Alan Sheridan, Trans.). New York: Norton. (Original work published 1966).

Roussillon, René. (1995). La métapsychologie des processus et la transitionnalité. Revue française de psychanalyse, LIX.

Further Reading

Ogden, Thomas. (1994). Subjects of analysis. Northvale, NJ: Aronson, Inc.

Renik, Owen. (1998). The analyst's subjectivity and the analyst's objectivity. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 79, 487-498.

Smith, Henry. (1999). Subjectivity and objectivity in analytic listening. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 47, 465-484.


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sub·ject • n. / ˈsəbjəkt/ 1. a person or thing that is being discussed, described, or dealt with: I've said all there is to be said on the subject | he's the subject of a major new biography. ∎  a person or circumstance giving rise to a specified feeling, response, or action: the incident was the subject of international condemnation. ∎  Gram. a noun phrase functioning as one of the main components of a clause, being the element about which the rest of the clause is predicated. ∎  Logic the part of a proposition about which a statement is made. ∎  Mus. a theme of a fugue or of a piece in sonata form; a leading phrase or motif. ∎  a person who is the focus of scientific or medical attention or experiment.2. a branch of knowledge studied or taught in a school, college, or university.3. a citizen or member of a state other than its supreme ruler.4. Philos. a thinking or feeling entity; the conscious mind; the ego, esp. as opposed to anything external to the mind. ∎  the central substance or core of a thing as opposed to its attributes.• adj. / ˈsəbjəkt/ (subject to) 1. likely or prone to be affected by (a particular condition or occurrence, typically an unwelcome or unpleasant one): he was subject to bouts of manic depression.2. dependent or conditional upon: the proposed merger is subject to the approval of the shareholders.3. under the authority of: legislation making Congress subject to the laws it passes. ∎  under the control or domination of (another ruler, country, or government): the Greeks were the first subject people to break free from Ottoman rule.• adv. / ˈsəbjəkt/ (subject to) conditionally upon: subject to bankruptcy court approval, the company expects to begin liquidation of its inventory.• v. / səbˈjekt/ [tr.] 1. (subject someone/something to) cause or force to undergo (a particular experience of form of treatment): he'd subjected her to a terrifying ordeal.2. bring (a person or country) under one's control or jurisdiction, typically by using force.DERIVATIVES: sub·jec·tion / səbˈjekshən/ n.sub·ject·less / ˈsəbjək(t)ləs/ adj.


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Subject is a term derived from the Latin subiectum, meaning what is thrown under or underlies and signifying a substrate or foundation that is determined or specified by something else, whether the determiner be a predicate, an attribute or property, an accident, or an object. It has various meanings in different disciplines. In logic the subject is that to which some predicate is attributed or of which some property is scientifically demonstrated. see predication; science (scientia). In the philosophy of nature the subject may be either the substratum that underlies accidental change, viz, substance or secondary matter, or that which underlies substantial change, viz, primary matter (see matter and form). In psychology the subject is the individual who experiences a psychological state (the self) or who is the object of clinical or experimental study; the term may also refer to a po tency or to the soul or one of its faculties as the proper locus of a particular act or habit. In metaphysics the subject is something that subsists in itself and does not depend upon another as the material cause of its existence; this is substance as distinguished from accident (see subsistence). In epistemology the subject is the knower, distinguished precisely as such from the thing known, or object (see knowledge). In social and political philosophy the subject is either the individual person who comes under the authority of another or the physical or moral person bound by a particular law.

Subjective is a derivative of subject and is also used in many senses. It may refer to the personal, as opposed to the impersonal, and accent the feelings, tastes, and desires that affect a particular action or judgment. It may signify what occurs in the human mind or in a knowing subject as opposed to what exists objectively and independently of the knowing process, particularly when emphasizing the apparent, the unreal, and the illusory. It may refer to the content of consciousness, stressing the latter's interiority as opposed to its exteriority. It may indicate, finally, something characteristic of the phenome na, the data of sense experience, as opposed to the reality of the thing-in-itself.

See Also: relativism; idealism.

Bibliography: p. foulquiÉ and r. saint-jean, Dictionnaire de la langue philosophique (Paris 1962) 697699. a. lalande, Vocabulaire technique et critique de la philosophie (8th ed. Paris 1960) 103641, 106669. r. eisler, Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe, 3 v. (4th ed. Berlin 192730) 2:165172. a. guzzo and v. mathieu, Enciclopedia filosofica, 4 v. (VeniceRome 1957) 4:759764. w. b. selbie, j. hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, 13 v. (Edinburgh 190827) 11:908909. j. m. baldwin, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology, v. 2 (New York 1928) 607610.

[b. a. gendreau]


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SUBJECT A traditional term for a major constituent of the SENTENCE. In a binary analysis derived from logic, the sentence is divided into subject and predicate, as in Alan (subject) has married Nita (predicate). In declarative sentences, the subject typically precedes the verb: Alan (subject) has married (verb) Nita (direct OBJECT). In interrogative sentences, it typically follows the first or only part of the verb: Did (verb) Alan (subject) marry (verb) Nita (direct object)? The subject can generally be elicited in response to a question that puts who or what before the verb: Who has married Nita?—Alan. Where concord is relevant, the subject determines the number and person of the verb: The student is complaining/The students are complaining; I am tired/He is tired. Many languages have special CASE forms for words in the subject, such as the nominative in Latin; and in English the subject requires a particular form (the subjective) in certain pronouns: I (subject) like her, and she (subject) likes me.

Kinds of subject

A distinction is sometimes made between the grammatical subject (as characterized above), the psychological subject, and the logical subject: (1) The psychological subject is the theme or topic of the sentence, what the sentence is about, and the predicate is what is said about the topic. The grammatical and psychological subjects typically coincide, though the identification of the sentence topic is not always clear: Labour and Conservative MPs clashed angrily yesterday over the poll tax. Is the topic of the sentence the MPs or the poll tax? (2) The logical subject refers to the agent of the action; our children is the logical subject in both these sentences, although it is the grammatical subject in only the first: Our children planted the oak sapling; The oak sapling was planted by our children. Many sentences, however, have no agent: Stanley has back trouble; Sheila is a conscientious student; Jenny likes jazz; There's no alternative; It's raining.


The last sentence also illustrates the absence of a psychological subject, since it is obviously not the topic of the sentence. This so-called ‘prop it’ is a dummy subject, serving merely to fill a structural need in English for a subject in a sentence. In this respect, English contrasts with languages such as Latin, which can omit the subject, as in Veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered: with no need for the Latin pronoun ego, I). Like prop it, ‘existential there’ in There's no alternative is the grammatical subject of the sentence, but introduces neither the topic nor (since there is no action) the agent.

Non-typical subjects

Subjects are typically noun phrases, but they may also be finite and non-finite clauses: ‘That nobody understands me is obvious’; ‘To accuse them of negligence was a serious mistake’; ‘Looking after the garden takes me several hours a week in the summer.’ In such instances, finite and infinitive clauses are commonly postposed and anticipatory it takes their place in subject position: ‘It is obvious that nobody understands me’; ‘It was a serious mistake to accuse them of negligence.’ Occasionally, prepositional phrases and adverbs function as subjects: ‘After lunch is best for me’; ‘Gently does it.’

Subjectless sentences

Subjects are usually omitted in imperatives, as in Come here rather than You come here. They are often absent from non-finite clauses (‘Identifying the rioters may take us some time’) and from verbless clauses (‘New filters will be sent to you when available’), and may be omitted in certain contexts, especially in informal notes (Hope to see you soon) and in coordination (The telescope is 43ft long, weighs almost 11 tonnes, and is more than six years late). See ANTICIPATORY IT, WORD ORDER.


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A. one who is under the dominion of a sovereign, etc. XIV;

B. (philos.) †substance XIV; matter operated upon XVI; (gram.) XVII; thinking agent XVIII. ME. soget, sug(i)et, later subiect (XVI) — OF. suget, soget, subg(i)et (mod. sujet) — L. subjectus m., subjectum n. pp. of subicere, f. SUB- + jacere throw, cast.
So subject adj. that is under the rule of a power XIV; exposed or liable to XIV. — OF. — L. subject vb. make subject, XIV. — (O)F. subjecter or L. subjectāre, frequent. f. sub(j)icere, subject-, subjection XIV. — (O)F. or L. subjective †pert. to one who is subject XV; pert. to the subject in which attributes inhere XVII; pert. to the thinking subject XVIII. — L.


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subject, the subject A term used in preference to alternatives such as ‘actor’ and ‘individual’ by writers in the structuralist tradition. Its use indicates a rejection of what such writers regard as the humanist assumptions carried by the alternative terms. More specifically, what the use of the term minimally indicates is a rejection of the idea that individual human beings are the sole originators of social relations. Whether or not its presence also indicates that subjects are simply the bearers of social relations, and/or the sole substance of sociality, varies from author to author. See also ALTHUSSER, LOUIS.


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1. Term in mus. analysis meaning a motif, phrase, or melody which forms a basic element in the construction of a comp. Thus, in sonata-form, one has the 1st and 2nd subjects, sometimes more. These are introduced in the exposition, then developed and recapitulated.

2. In fugue, the melodic theme which is stated at the beginning, reappearing at various places and pitches during the comp. The answer is the imitation of the subject.