The Critique Of The Subject
The idea of a decentered subjectivity composed of multiple, socially constructed and context-dependent identities began to emerge during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the writings of a variety of thinkers including William James (1842–1910), Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), and the critical theorists Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) and Theodor Adorno (1903–1969). These and other thinkers initiated a widespread reevaluation of the philosophy of the subject in the West, and during the twentieth century the "critique of the subject" was debated across a wide array of academic disciplines. Over time the general idea of a decentered multiple subject gained increasingly wide acceptance. With this shift, more specific conceptualizations of it, such as mestiza consciousness and multiple identity, emerged to attempt to integrate the multiplicity, diversity, and contradiction into the philosophical understandings of the subject and identity. Such theoretical formulations have generated new philosophical questions, questions that still remain matters of inquiry and debate.
Early modern conceptions of the subject.
Early modern conceptions of a centered subjectivity can be traced in part to Cartesian dualism in which the mind and its thinking essence were seen as functioning independently of the body and the material world (René Descartes; Discourse on Method, 1637; and Meditations, 1641). The writings of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) also oriented modern thought on the subject. On traditional readings of his philosophy, Kant defined the self as a fully self-transparent, self-conscious, self-consistent, and transcendent free will—what is commonly understood as an autonomous ego. For Kant, the autonomy of the subject depended on the self-legislation of the will (i.e., on living by rules that one gives to oneself). Thus the Kantian subject possessed free will only to the extent that the social dynamics surrounding the self did not dictate its thoughts and actions. Ideally, therefore, this Kantian noumenal or transcendental self was guided or centered by a consistent, rational set of universal principles that the subject held independent of, perhaps even despite, its surroundings. In this sense, the Kantian subject could be described as unencumbered (not socially constructed or embedded), centered (as a single psychic entity made whole by its orientation to the universal principles of right), and unitary (internally consistent, with uniformity and conformity toward its centering elements).
Modernist critiques of the centered subject.
Critiques of the Kantian account of the subject emerged from a variety of quarters, on a range of grounds. Often referred to collectively as the "critique of the subject," these criticisms are not, as is sometimes thought, limited to postmodernist critiques of the Enlightenment project. On the contrary, modernist thinkers who endorsed many Enlightenment principles were among the earliest to reject the Kantian account of the subject. The writings of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, for example, fall into this category. Like others in the Frankfurt School and Critical Theory tradition, Horkheimer and Adorno retained the Enlightenment's commitment to rational reflection as a critical means to social justice and social transformation. Yet, they also rejected the exclusionary logic of Enlightenment reason.
In their critique of Enlightenment reason and the conception of the unencumbered, centered, and unitary subject, Horkheimer and Adorno contend in the Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) that the "Enlightenment behaves toward things as a dictator toward men. He knows them in so far as he can manipulate them [and] … [i]n the metamorphosis the nature of things, as a substratum of domination, is revealed as always the same" (p. 9). For Horkheimer and Adorno, this logic of identity—this logic of "same" within the Enlightenment tradition and its conceptions of the "unity of the subject" and "its correlate, the unity of nature" (p. 10) homogenized and manipulated the self and nature through a denial of the multiplicity and chaos inherent in both. They argued that by using a logic of identity to mask the unruly multiplicity of the self and nature and by vilifying that multiplicity as unreason, Enlightenment thought ultimately distorted and concealed the very human subjectivity that it sought to advance and protect. Extending this argument to his critique of the Kantian subject, Adorno stressed in Negative Dialectics that a viable account of the self must attend to the connections between ethical action and the "nonidentity" of the self. For Adorno, the diversity, multiplicity, and nonidentity of the self distinguishes it from the social forces that form it, for "[w]hatever stirs in a man contradicts his unity" (p. 277).
Freudian and psychoanalytic critiques of the subject.
Horkheimer and Adorno's critiques of the centered subject were not unrelated to those of Sigmund Freud who, like Horkheimer and Adorno, remained committed to various aspects of the Enlightenment project while nonetheless rejecting the Enlightenment conception of the centered, unified subject. Freud's theory of the unconscious differentiated the self into the ego, id, and superego, and divided it also into the conscious and unconscious. This differentiation rejects the idea that the subject is centered by a single, fully self-conscious, self-transparent, or self-defining identity and ego. Freud, in short, "decentered" the self by theorizing its fundamentally divided character. Later, Jacques Lacan (1901–1981) influentially echoed and extended Freud's critique of the centered, unitary, and unencumbered autonomous ego. Lacan stressed that by asserting the ego's mastery of the world through its separation from the world, the idea of a unified ego served as a shield from reality. This comforting shield—the fantasy of ego—imposed a false unity and rigidity onto the self that hid the more multiple and fragmented character of subjectivity.
Postmodernist and poststructuralist influences.
Freudian and Critical Theory critiques of the subject represent attempts to usefully amend, rather than abandon all aspects of the Enlightenment project. Such critiques decentered the subject by regarding it as divided in character. They also insisted on its multiplicity and its chaos, thus rejecting the idea of the subject as a uniform or self-consistent whole. In addition, post-modernist and poststructuralist critiques of centered subjectivity have been advanced within a wide variety of scholarly fields. These critiques of the subject have often been combined with more general rejection of the Enlightenment project with its insistence on universal truth, reason, necessary human progress, and in particular the tendency of Enlightenment thought to privilege a white male European worldview as the universal standard of truth and rationality.
Among the earliest and most influential of these critiques of the centered subject were those of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), who related the "chaos in oneself" to the process of self-remaking, a self-overcoming that he took to be the key to escaping the homogenizing morality of the West's religious and Enlightenment traditions (1966). For Nietzsche, subjectivity is characterized by diversity—and it is the subject that can secure human freedom and excellence over time.
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