Subjectivity: Overview

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Subjectivity: Overview


In emulating the success of the physical sciences, the social sciences have traditionally been committed to the paradigm of objective knowledge. The norm of objectivity was understood as an ideal of disinterested, factual, replicable, lawlike knowledge of social reality, a type of knowledge that would demonstrably transcend both ideological controversies and commonsense knowledge, indeed a knowledge wholly independent of human interests, passions, and all subjective entanglements. Not surprisingly, this image of science polarized epistemological disputes into two extreme camps, the objectivist persuasion defending the ideal and a range of dissenting voices questioning the possibility or desirability of a purely objective knowledge of social life. Perspectives from the latter camp shared the belief that an authentic social science must accept the radically subjective nature of its research fields and devise methods and approaches to capture the phenomena of subjective life. What follows is a brief survey of some of these approaches to subjectivity.

Given the importance of human emotions, intentions, and reasoning in modern thought, it is useful to begin with philosophy. The founding moment of modern philosophy lies in René Descartess (15961650) defense of the cogito, the irreducible moment of subjective consciousness that persists as a foundation of objective, mathematical knowledge. Following Descartess lead, we see the philosophy of subjectivity branching into its various forms: the explorations of Immanuel Kant (17241804) and Johann Fichte (17621814) of the transcendental subject; G. W. F. Hegels (17701831) historicized vision of subjectivity as a genetic formation of spirit (in the 1807 Phenomenology of Spirit ); Karl Marxs (18181883) materialist account of the subject of history exemplified by revolutionary agency and praxis; and the emergence in the first part of the twentieth century of phenomenology as a descriptive philosophy of lived experience (in the work of Edmund Husserl [18591938] and his students).

There were also parallel movements within the human sciences. The debate between objectivism and subjectivism first came to public attention in the dispute at the end of the nineteenth century within German sociology between the Naturwissenschaft and Geisteswissenschaft images of science. Where the natural science model aspired to uncover objective laws, the human sciences foregrounded the spirited realms of human action, conscious agency, and the intentional life of singular individuals embedded in particular historical contexts. The well-known defense of subjective cognition in the work of Wilhelm Windelband (18481915), Heinrich Rickert (18631936), and Wilhelm Dilthey (18331911) entered modern sociology in Max Webers (18641920) version of a sociology of action based upon understanding actors motives (the so-called Verstehen or understanding approach to historical and social explanation). The subjective experience of historical agents is not to be reduced or discounted; rather, it is to be recovered through situation-ally sensitive contextual methodologies. Alongside the legitimate claims of quantitative methodologies, the social sciences must construct new and imaginative qualitative approaches to intersubjective experience.

Webers methodological writings were given a phenomenological grounding in the work of Husserls student, Alfred Schutz (18991959). Essentially Schutz followed Husserls argument that all scientific knowledge has its foundations in the pretheoretical world of practical action, the Lebenswelt or lifeworld of everyday experience (Husserl [1954] 1970). Rather than treating subjectivity as an irrelevance or hindrance to objectivity, the social sciences could only achieve rigorous knowledge by making this subjective world of practical life its central topic. The human sciences, in other words, presuppose a phenomenology of the social world (Schutz 1967).

Other traditions had come to the same conclusion from different routes. One of the most notable of these is the tradition of American pragmatism and its sociological correlate, symbolic interactionism. Theorists such as William James (18421910), John Dewey (18591952), and George Herbert Mead (18631931) viewed the social world as the outcome of the reflexive interaction of conscious agents. Human beings act and relate to one another through communicative, symbolic means. Because individuals symbolically construct their lifeworlds, the interactional processes involved must form the first topic of a genuine social science. When combined, European phenomenological sociology and American interactionist sociology have given rise to a wide range of approaches to subjective experience. Among the most influential of these are phenomenological sociology interpreted as a radical sociology of knowledge (exemplified by the work of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann [1966]); the eth-nomethodological sociology of Harold Garfinkel (1967) and Aaron Cicourel; the language-based perspectives of conversation analysis; the interactionist sociology of Erving Goffman (19221982) (1974) and the microsociology of subcultures and personal worlds influenced by Goffmans work (e.g., Becker 1964; Glaser and Strauss 1967; Sudnow 1972); phenomenological psychology and humanistic psychology (Psathas 1973); social studies of science as a subjective construction; and so on. In addition, we might mention the interdisciplinary-wide movements of qualitative methodology, feminist epistemology, structuration theory, and recent forms of critical theory (influenced by the work of Jürgen Habermas).

In the tradition of continental philosophy, the subject and subjectivity occupy a fundamental role in a number of theoretical perspectivesmost notably in the development of semiotic and structuralist ways of thinking that rejected the Cartesian cogito and humanist subject, and more recently in various strands of poststructuralist thought in which we find something like the return of subjectivity.

In the tradition of metaphysical humanism, the transcendental subject is thought to constitute the object through its active processes of representation (Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer [17881860]) or intentional syntheses (Husserl, Max Scheler [18741928], Jean-Paul Sartre [19051980], Maurice Merleau-Ponty [1908 1961], Paul Ricoeur [19132005], and others). The world is the totality of phenomenal appearances given to the constituting subject. Objects are correlated to subjective activities, functions, representations, and practices. This has been called the philosophy of consciousness. Questioning the primacy of consciousness produces a range of antisubjective positions. In this context, we might view psychoanalysis as the key to the rejection of the primacy of pure consciousness, with Sigmund Freuds (18561939) attempt to dethrone the privileged position of subjectivity by exploring the anonymous functions of desire and unconscious experience. Psychoanalytically oriented thought contests the primacy of the ego, particularly in the guise of the subject understood as a stable, proprietorial center of conscious acts. The structuralism of Roland Barthes (19151980) and Louis Althusser (19181990), for example, has extended this criticism by seeing the self as a subject-position created by ideological practices and social discourses.

This critique of the subject opened the way for a much more complex and diverse problematic of subjectivityemphasizing the changing historical, institutional, and cultural forms adopted by the subject within different fields of power (here the work of Martin Heidegger [18891976] and Michel Foucault [19261984] can be mentioned). More recent theorizing has criticized the Cartesian subject as an ideological pillar of masculine, Eurocentric culture. As black feminist and postcolonial theory has argued, the white mythology of the occidental subject helps to sustain patriarchy, womens oppression, colonialism, and phallocentric institutions more generally. Rather than positing a disembodied, essentialist, and metaphysical subject, the task poststructuralist and postmodern thought has set for itself is to deconstruct all essentialist conceptions of the subject in order to investigate the concrete relations and discourses that create different historical forms of embodied subjectivity.

SEE ALSO Goffman, Erving; Intersubjectivity; Objectivism; Objectivity; Structuralism


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Sandywell, Barry. 1996. Logological Investigations . 3 vols. London: Routledge.

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Sudnow, David, comp. 1972. Studies in Social Interaction . New York: Free Press.

Barry Sandywell