Subject (philosophy)

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The term subject ( Latin subiectum 'that is thrown under '; Greek ὑποκείμενον hypokéimenon 'the underlying') has been assigned different meanings in the history of philosophy . Originally, the term denoted an object of action or a state of affairs about which a statement is made.

With the reflection on one's own knowledge was made fortune in the modern era , a change in meaning. The concept of the subject has now been restricted to the knowing ego . The idea of ​​a dualism of a (spiritual) inner world and a (material) outer world arose . Since then, in philosophy, subject has been understood as the human spirit , the soul , the self-determined and self-determining self-consciousness. From this, however, a philosophical problem arises, because the world no longer inevitably appears to a subject "as it really is", rather everything that is perceived now becomes subjective as it is cut to size by the subject's cognitive apparatus ( subject-object split ). By focusing on things in the world, the subject is the carrier of so-called intentional acts. The intentional objects of knowledge are then represented in thought and referred to as objects .

These epistemological positions were repeatedly criticized in philosophy, and attempts were made to work towards overcoming the subject-object schema. In addition to the epistemological, the term subject has other meanings: In action theory , the subject is the bearer of free will and decisions. The original meaning of the term subject as an object is still preserved in grammar , linguistics and in the field of law as a legal subject . While in philosophy the body including the cognitive apparatus is viewed as an object, the concept of the subject in the social sciences and in psychology refers to the whole person as a carrier of conscious and unconscious action .

Conceptual content

The concept of the subject, which has its origin in philosophy, is the subject of a large number of sciences that consider it from different perspectives. These include above all psychology, law, literature and history, medicine, anthropology and, last but not least, sociology and structural subjects such as semiotics. Given this breadth, a clear definition of the term does not make sense and could not follow the dynamic development in the individual subjects.

It is essential, but not sufficient, for a subject that it is a spatially and temporally determined being that relates to itself in thinking, i.e. has a self-confidence . Originally, the term referred to individual individuals who form the material basis of a subject. The transition from the individual to the subject results from the attribution of mental abilities and a soul as well as the expectation that the individual can determine his or her actions on the basis of more or less free decisions . The subject can approve or disapprove of their own actions and opinions as well as those of others. In the 19th century the term was expanded to include collective subjects, as Marx used to describe the proletariat as a revolutionary subject. Subsequently, groups of people (the rural population, the unemployed, the youth) or institutions (the government, the party, the company, the association) are also spoken of as a subject, if a collective capacity to act is assumed for these entities . Finally, one also finds the concept of the abstract or mystical subject such as art, history, the economy, a system or Hegel's world spirit , which are at least seen as the driving force behind social developments.

Sustainable characteristics of the subject concept are named:

  • the personal pronouns (I, you, he ...) as grammatical subjects
  • the self-referential I (self-knowledge, self-confidence)
  • the individual cognitive consciousness (singularity, individuality, conveying meaning)
  • the responsible subject (self-determination, autonomy)
  • the communicative ego (intersubjectivity, inescapability of language)

With regard to philosophical disciplines, a distinction is made between the active, creative and autonomous subject of epistemology from the subject as a something, a passive object of observation in ontology . Both perspectives have a metaphysical reference. The epistemological question is directed to the unconditioned and absolute as the ultimate foundation of knowledge, while ontology deals with the existence of the subject as being in relation to being in itself. For the epistemological the subject is more the underlying (hypokeimenon), for more ontologically oriented philosophers of life and existence , in psychoanalysis and social theory from Marx to modern sociology, it is more the subject ( subiectum ), the problem of external determination, the is exposed to social submission and social constraints. In cognition, the (appearing) object determines the subject; in action, however, the subject itself becomes active and makes the object the object of its action. While in epistemology from Descartes to Kant the function of reason of a judging subject was in the foreground, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche in particular focused on the will of an acting subject and thus the question of free will .

The philosophy of language of the 20th century has shown that humans access the world through language. On the other hand, language is tied to people. In every speech act the validity claim is raised by the subject. In terms of depth grammar, every sentence can be traced back to the form “I say X”. It is always the speaker as the acting subject who takes responsibility for the validity of the sentence. This insight agrees with Kant's thesis that the logical unit “I” is contained in every idea. The idea of ​​a subject's dependence on a relationship with a communication community, its necessary intersubjectivity, builds on the already existing idea of ​​a subject. "I can only determine another ego as another ego if I was already familiar with subjectivity ."

Speech about the subject is essentially predetermined by the linguistic framework, the sociolect , which results from the underlying paradigm of the theory that determines the respective discourse . A subjectivity that limits the discourse is contained in every speech and in every text. The juxtaposition of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie in Marx is socially critical, while Niklas Luhmann uses the pair of terms system and environment to describe a constructivist social theory. With Kant, the talk of the completely abstract transcendental ego (see below) is decisive for his analysis of the starting point of all knowledge, while Sigmund Freud dealt on the empirical level with the distinction between the conscious and the subconscious as the elements determining the ego in order to gain insights for psychoanalysis win. Just about the language and the identity and the role of the subject as one sex ( gender determined) or a social group.

A question connected with the consideration of the subject is that of identity, especially over time. On the one hand, it is discussed to what extent a subject remains identical with himself when the conditions of his life change significantly. The path from child to experienced mature person plays just as much a role as illness (e.g. dementia ) or breaks in life through the experience of borderline situations . Change in life also means change in the identity of the subject, so that one can only speak of a unified subject if one grasps the unity in the diversity of history, roles, interests, life plans and the changing worldviews of a subject. On the other hand, there is the problem of how the subject, as a separate object in consciousness, can be thought of as identical to itself without getting caught in a thought circle. The thought of immediate, intuitive evidence that I am identical with myself is tautological . Wittgenstein showed a possible way out of this thought problem, who described the reasons for statements about direct experience as meaningless (see below). Another approach is to describe self-awareness not as a psychological act of reflecting a consciousness on itself as an object, but as an immediate familiarity with the psychological process. One has to distinguish the phenomenon of hearing a sound from the idea of ​​hearing a sound. Familiarity with oneself is then a pre-reflective, temporally identical quality of consciousness.

The circle that arises from the idea of ​​self-consciousness as a reflection of consciousness on itself also escapes modern neurophilosophy when, instead of starting from a uniform, punctual conception of consciousness, it describes consciousness as a space in which there are special spheres for perceiving, thinking, feeling and remembering and in this room there is also a level for reflection and identity. Consciousness is then no longer something different from itself. One can then no longer speak of a representation of consciousness in consciousness, but consciousness becomes a process of experience.

Concepts in the story

Ancient and Middle Ages

Deviating from the modern understanding, one can essentially distinguish three meanings of the term subject in the ancient and medieval tradition:

  1. ontologically every being as a bearer of properties, accidents , actions or habitus, comparable to the concept of a substance about which something can be said ( subiectum haesionis or attributionis );
  2. logically or grammatically the subject as a sentence object of which a predicate is said ( subiectum praedicationis or propositionis ), and
  3. the subject of a science or generally the subject of an occupation ( English subject / matter ; subiectum occupationis or tractationis ).

In Aristotle 's writing on the categories , the term subject serves to distinguish something independent from something dependent. The dependent accidents cling to the independent subject.

On the other hand, concrete things given by intentional acts were regarded as objects, which are already present as objects in consciousness. For example, Wilhelm von Ockham distinguished the esse subiectivum as the being of things from the esse obiectivum as the being of thoughts in the mind.


René Descartes is considered to be the founder of the modern subject philosophy, who “makes thinking a principle”, but still uses the term subject in his meditations in the premodern sense. Although he already has the substantiated Moy (I), he called the subject res (thing) and substantia . The mind is called the subject insofar as it is the carrier of the cogitationes (thoughts, ideas). The spirit becomes an independent, thinking substance, a res cogitans , which confronts the material as something expanded ( res extensa ). Descartes' attempt to prove the certainty of the thinking self-reference as the only undoubted certainty ( cogito, ergo sum ), whereby the thinking ego becomes the basis of all scientifically comprehensible reality is decisive for the way into modern times .

Doubt should no longer be removed in a God-given certainty of salvation, but in one's own thinking. Even if Descartes presented a proof of God to justify human abilities , because he had to presuppose the existence of God in order to overcome doubt, his thinking is the way to deism , to an impersonal God. With this he became "the advocate of an emancipated enlightenment that tears itself away from God , of a self-assertion of man against God" . As a subject, the person is “ for himself ” and no longer for another. It can no longer be seen as an object, as an object owned by another. The changed concept of the subject leads to the ideas of freedom and self-realization of man.

Descartes stands for the transition from the ontological to the epistemological meaning of the subject concept. While he thought the mind, the consciousness , to be purely incorporeal, he also created the question of how the material world is influenced by the mind, a subject that has been identified as a body-soul problem in the philosophy of mind up to the philosophy of the present enough. Descartes' own solution was a dualism of the mutual substantial interaction of body and mind. By contrasting the spirit with the body and nature, Descartes gave man the leading role in the triad with world and God.


The empiricist John Locke was like Descartes, a representative of epistemological dualism . He developed an image theory , according to which external objects are imprinted on the consciousness of the knowing subject. Even if Locke assumed that the mind acquires the content of thinking exclusively through the path of perception, the mind is still capable of thinking and an ever reflective consciousness. As with a camera obscura , the perceptions of material things (sensations) are passively recorded as representations in immaterial consciousness. Through reflection, these representations are in turn recorded and structured in an internal perception (reflections).

“Because consciousness always accompanies thinking and makes everyone what he calls his self and how he differs from all other thinking beings, this is where personal identity alone consists, ie. H. the sameness of the rational being "

The reflections of consciousness also enable the person to determine his identity.

“To see what the possible identity is, we must consider what person means; and I think that this is a thinking, understanding being who has reason and considerations and can consider itself as the same thinking being at different times and in different places, for which it can only be done with the help of what is inseparable from thought and what is essential Consciousness is able because it is impossible for anyone to perceive something without at the same time perceiving that it is perceiving. "


For Leibniz there is an inner life principle, an expansionless monad that is inherent in every individual and establishes both the physical shape and his self-confidence. As with Locke, this self-confidence determines the identity of the subject through reflection. On the lower level of consciousness, the mind creates clear images and ideas from the dark perceptions. In the upper level of consciousness, the reflexivity of the mind causes reflection on “what is called 'I', necessary and eternal truths. People as subjects think of being, of substance, of the simple or the composite, of the immaterial and of God himself, in which we imagine that what is limited in us is found in him without limits . “ The monad of the individual shows the whole world from the perspective of the individual subject. This also includes the infinity of the cosmos in this individual, time-limited subject. The individual is part of the space-time continuum. This allows the subject to transcend itself and experience God as the basis of its own self-confidence.

In contrast to Descartes, Leibniz manages without the dualism of mind and body due to his theory of monads. Leibniz overcame the geometrical conception of the body of substance and was able to explain divisibility and continuity. In contrast to the empiricists, the Leibnizian subject is endowed with inherently given abilities that it actively uses in processing perceptions; it is based on a "principle of individuation". This God-given monadic structure of reason causes the individual to align his consciousness with the world ( pre-stabilized harmony ). This fundamentally deterministic solution offers no explanation or justification for the freedom of the subject.


Like Locke, David Hume was in the tradition of empiricism. All content in the awareness created by the sensory perception in the form of impressions ( impressions ) and ideas ( ideas ), which are shaped by the imagination of the impressions. Unlike Locke, however, Hume refused to speak of an identity determined by consciousness. For him the subject was not a single thing or substance. Instead, he devised a bundle theory of the mind, according to which “what we call mind is nothing but a heap or collection of different perceptions [something grasped in the mind] linked by certain relations; and it is wrongly assumed that the mind has perfect simplicity and identity. "

Similar to Kant later, Hume emphasized that the way the sensory impressions are processed do not allow any conclusions to be drawn about external reality. The knowledge of the objects of knowledge is never independent of the subject. Laws of nature can never be observed. Man concludes regularities of nature from the habit of his perceptions. It differs from Kant in Hume's view that there is no guarantee of constancy in nature. This also means that the concept of the subject cannot be obtained from experience. The consequence is a pragmatic skepticism of Hume, according to which man has to assume the existence of the objects of knowledge and a self consisting of body and mind in order to cope with his life tasks, but has no definitive certainty about it.


With its new concept of a transcendental philosophy came Immanuel Kant is only possible to realize that objective knowledge if the objects by the cognitive faculties of the subject constituted be. In his work, the subject becomes an abstract thought, a transcendental ego that precedes all empirical experience and is the supreme presupposition of all knowledge. A knowledge is only possible if it is accompanied by the "I think". In contrast to passive sensualism , in Kant the spontaneity of the understanding is active and, within the framework of the a priori given pure forms of perception of space and time, as well as the categories as pure understanding concepts, through synthesis with the empirical perceptions, has a direct effect on knowledge. In this way the subject himself creates the worldview available to him.

"[...] the conditions of the possibility of experience in general are at the same time conditions of the possibility of objects of experience and therefore have objective validity in a synthetic a priori judgment."

The reality and the objects of knowledge are just as accessible to the subject, as it allow the subjective conditions. Therefore the idea of ​​oneself in the transcendental subject must remain a limit concept. In the reflection on oneself, the “I think” remains abstract and differentiated from the empirical “I am”. Any more detailed determination of the content would lead to a circle or an infinite recourse ( Münchhausen trilemma ). The step to the empirical ego is only possible through intuition and thus through the perception apparatus. The transcendental I is the point at which all processes of consciousness come to unity. Subjectivity and objectivity are mediated in it. This purely mental self is the place of self-awareness that is the basis of practical action. “That, I think, expresses the act of determining my existence.” Like the “I exist”, the “I think” is a “necessary constitutional determination of propositional attitudes” and not a normal epistemological object in consciousness. The synthesis in Kant is a similar construct to the bundle of experiences in Hume. Correspondingly, with Kant the subject is only an idea and does not have the character of a substance as with the rationalists or Locke (first paralogism , B 402-404 and against Moses Mendelsohn B 412-415). Even the idea of ​​identity is already a statement about the I in time and is thus empirical (third paralogism, B 408-409 or A 361-366). Contrary to Hume, however, Kant did not reject the idea of ​​a subject, but retained it as a borderline concept and thus made it the anchor of his transcendental philosophy. The third paralogism in particular turns against the temporal dimension of a dynamic ego, as it was later determined in German idealism. "Kant opposes what would later become the principle of the post-Kantian systems, and his criticism of Cartesian dogmatism applies equally to Fichte, Hegel or Feuerbach."

The problem with this conception of Kant is that it does not provide a bridge to the “empirical I”, to practical action. The epistemological construction does not establish the freedom to act. Kant himself showed this in the antinomies of pure reason . A causality in the sense of cause and effect would bind action to the laws of nature, according to which free will does not appear possible. All that remained for him was to postulate a causality out of freedom for practical reason . Freedom cannot be proven, but it is a fact of practical reason. Even if the human subject as an empirical subject the causal laws of nature, so he is autonomous and at any time for his actions responsible . Through the recognition of morality and other persons the man himself becomes a person. In Kant's unconditional demand for respect for the other, there is already the beginning of a philosophy of intersubjectivity.

“The idea of ​​moral law alone, with the respect that is inseparable from it, cannot properly be called a disposition for the personality; it is the personality itself. "

In his theoretical philosophy, Kant was primarily concerned with determining the limits of knowledge, and not with an investigation of the empirical subject. He has dealt with questions about human conditions and inclinations, which he did take into account, in various other writings and in a series of lectures on empirical subjects. Interpretations that see the Kantian concept of the subject as an approach to transcending the infinite, such as B. Richard Kroner do not do justice to Kant.

German idealism

One can interpret the concepts of idealism of Fichte and Hegel as an attempt to overcome the subject-object division of the modern age by positing an absolute in which the opposition of subject and object is canceled. With Fichte this is the absolute I, with Hegel the absolute spirit.

In order to overcome the dualism of the transcendental ego and thing in itself that still existed in Kant , Johann Gottlieb Fichte declared the transcendental subject to be the supreme principle on which everything is based. This absolute ego is the starting point for all human activities and puts itself in an “ act of action ” just like the non-ego , which stands for everything that cannot be ascribed to the ego. Reality and ideality are determined by the absolute subject. The subject is a condition of one's own action and therefore unrestrictedly free.

“The ego posits itself, and it is by virtue of this sheer positing through itself; and conversely: the I is, and it posits its being by virtue of its mere being. - It is at the same time the doer, and the product of the act, the active, and that which is produced by the act; Action and deed are one and the same; and therefore this is: I am an expression of an act; but also the only possible one, as must be evident from the whole of science. "

With Hegel the subject is no longer a fixed point of philosophy, but an element of his system.

"Furthermore, living substance is being, which in truth is subject, or what the same thing means, which in truth really is, only insofar as it is the movement of self-positing, or the mediation of becoming one with oneself."

In the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit , Hegel describes truth, substance and subject as something identical .

"According to my insight, which only has to justify itself through the representation of the system itself, everything depends on understanding and expressing the truth not as substance, but just as much as subject."

From an epistemological perspective, truth arises when the object of knowledge (substance) and the knowing subject attain identity. This equation corresponds to the traditional concept of truth, according to which object and thought must agree ( adaequatio rei in intellectu ). The self-movement of thinking (subject) and reality (substance) are united in the spirit , so “that being is thinking.” Hegel overcomes the solipsism of pure reflection on consciousness ( Berkeley , Kant, Fichte) by describing reality as constant dialectical process of interaction considered.

In Hegel, unlike Kant, the object of knowledge is not outside of consciousness, but rather becomes in consciousness, i.e. H. generated as a concept. Therefore, in referring to the object, the subject always refers to itself. In this way, consciousness becomes self-consciousness . This is realized in a dialectical step from the union of consciousness (= concept) and object. The conscious or even knowing subject emerges from the grammatical subject.

"Since the concept is the object's own self, which presents itself as its becoming, it is not a resting subject that unmoved bears the accidents , but the moving concept that absorbs its determinations."

For Hegel, subjects are the “concrete general” in which history , socio-cultural institutions and social knowledge are reflected. The subject cannot therefore realize freedom individually, but only in relation to other subjects. The individual consciousness stands opposite the consciousness of the other, which it cannot understand as a product of its own. The mediation between one's own consciousness and that of others through the objective spirit above the individual arises in the mutual struggle for recognition , in which law, morality and social morality are realized.

The individual subject becomes part of the collective folk spirit and this in turn enters the world spirit in the dialectical process , which as a mythical subject is elevated to the highest authority.

“This formal determination is essentially the spirit which world history has as its scene, property and field of its realization. He is not someone who drifts around in the external game of coincidences, but rather he is the absolute determinant and absolutely firm against all coincidences that he uses and controls for his use. "

Hegel's thinking of the necessary intersubjectivity leads into the modern theories of communicative action in Apel and Habermas and in Honneth's theory of recognition , in which recognition becomes the basis of the subject's self-experience. On the other hand, Hegel's system remains limited to the level of the spirit, which subsequently led to very different questions among his successors.


Johann Friedrich Herbart took a realistic position in opposition to German idealism, to which he also counted Kant.

“The ego of idealism was just the first subject of my independent research. The impossibility of this ego is its first result. The inevitable consequence was the complete abandonment of all idealism, as an incorrect view in every form. This is how my realism came about in a purely theoretical way. "

In the nominalistic world view of idealism, according to Herbart, there is no point of reference for the ego to an objective world. That is why an I cannot put a not-me. The background is Herbart's theory of education. From his point of view, the subject cannot be deduced, but only found. Idealism is solipsistic and has no access to the outside world. Herbart renounced a priori validity claims and called for a conceptual analysis as the basis of philosophy. A term is defined by its characteristics. While any content of a concept can nominalistically be posited, reality offers an objective yardstick by which the contents of the concept are determined independently of subjective thinking. Correspondingly, the concept of the I is determined by its characteristics in the self-conception. The idea of ​​the ego is not produced by a transcendental intuition, but brought about by an independent external world.

“Only we can imagine our own ideas anew; we can do the ideas. which we ascribe to ourselves differ from the things presented; we are conscious of manifold activities which have reference to the same, as thinking, volition, the excitement of our feelings, desires, passions, through the partly given, partly only reawakened ideas. Since our inner being now becomes the scene for various changes that take place on it: we again have an idea of ​​this scene, by virtue of which it is not merely the form of the coexistence of all other ideas, but a real object itself; namely the idea of ​​me, with which words the peculiar self-confidence of each expresses itself. "

The idea of ​​an I generated in reflection has its own reality and is determined by a bundle of features that are not arbitrary.

Referring to Kant's anthropology, Herbart developed a genetic theory of the development of self-confidence, in which the small child first grasps his own body and only speaks of himself in the third person, before it describes itself as an I and as it grows up through increasing education one increasingly differentiated distinction between himself and the outside world developed. Herbart also emphasized the influence of society on the development of the concept of the self.

Similar approaches can be found in Wilhelm von Humboldt , who criticized Kant's idea of ​​pure autonomy, or in Friedrich Schleiermacher , who emphasized the concrete rather than the abstract individuality of the human being.


The physician and philosopher Rudolf Hermann Lotze was one of the first to combine philosophy with empirical psychology and physiology. Unlike Herbart, he tended more towards idealism without taking on the absolute claim of German idealism. Lotze rejected the idea of ​​innate concepts such as Kant's categories. He also dealt critically with Herbart and emphasized that the ideas are not images. Sensations are subjective reactions to external stimuli, which also depend on the physiological constitution of the subject. In this he agreed with Kant, but saw a temporal earlier of the sensations that are only processed through thinking.

"In another sense, all of our sensations are only subjective, that is, only appearances in our consciousness that have nothing to do with the outside world. Ancient times already maintained this, modern physics continues to paint it: the world outside of us is neither quiet nor loud, neither light nor dark, but is as incomparable to all of this as, for example, candy with a line. Nothing happens except us but movements of various forms. "

From his psychological and physiological investigations Lotze came to the conclusion that the phenomena of spirituality could not be grasped with the results of the natural sciences.

“The concept of the ego is usually defined in such a way that it is both subject and object of consciousness. However, this definition, correct in itself, fits every being who participates in this general character of such identity; but when we speak of self-consciousness, we do not just mean the general form of activity which you and he have as well as I do, but we mean the knowledge by which I differ from you and him. It would be useless to claim that I am the subject and object of my knowledge, while He is the subject and object of his, as long as one does not have immediate clarity about the difference between what is mine and what is not mine or his. This difference cannot be taught by a mere theoretical consideration, for which you and I would be just two equivalent examples of such an identical subject-object. "

Basically, mind as something immaterial and body as something physical are separated from each other. Lotze viewed the spirit as a combination of “non-spatial atoms” - similar to Leibniz's monads. This means that mind and matter can be understood as two sides of a reality that are not mutually exclusive ( psychophysical parallelism , methodical occassionalism ).

"With the presupposition we have eliminated the only difficulty that could prevent us from indulging in that thought of an inner spiritual life which pervades all matter."

While the physical outer world can be experienced by everyone, the spiritual inner world is only accessible to the subject himself. One can only know about the soul of the other by analogy. The distinction that self-consciousness is the sphere that differs from the non-ego of the rest of the world says nothing about the meaning or meaning of the subject. The identity of subject and object, which is given by the fact that thinking and thought coincide, says nothing about what separates “mine” from “your”. For Lotze, the ego is a “more or less dark point” in which self-confidence remains the “incompletely recognized” because it has different qualities. The blurring results solely from the fact that the subject is the bearer of the self as well as the subject as the object of contemplation and finally the subject as the self-contemplating, reflective self. The subject is thus also determined by the conditions of self-observation. What is decisive for Lotze's conception of the subject and also for his other philosophical concepts is that both the feeling based on perception and the thinking are accompanied by feelings of pleasure and displeasure. It is these feelings that lead in a step-by-step process to the sensual, aesthetic and moral development of self-confidence.

"Whatever the nature of the soul may be, and whatever motive it may have for the existence of self-consciousness, this consciousness, like sensual feeling in the past, is only conveyed through feeling."


Arthur Schopenhauer represented an idealism that kept a critical distance from the positions of Fichte and Hegel and in some respects linked to Kant. In his work, space and time, as in transcendental aesthetics, are pure forms of perception a priori in the Critique of One Reason. Instead of the categories, however, Schopenhauer used causality alone .

“In the class of objects now presented for the subject, the principle of sufficient reason appears as a law of causality, and I call it as such the principle of sufficient reason for becoming, principium rationis ufficientis fiendi. All objects represented in the overall conception, which makes up the complex of experiential reality, are linked with one another with regard to the entry and exit of their states, thus in the direction of the passage of time. "

Just as objects are linked to one another in nature through causality, their constitution in the mind is also effected through causality.

"The senses deliver nothing more than the raw material, which the mind first of all transforms into the objective conception of a body world regulated by law by means of the given simple forms of space, time and causality."

“The world is my imagination” means that there is no observed without an observer, no object without a subject. Schopenhauer wanted to solve the solipsistic problem of transcendental idealism, which opens up no access to practice, to action, through metaphysics of the will: “the innermost being of the world” is will. With Schopenhauer, the will takes the place of the thing itself. With Kant, will (subject) and representation (object) are not separate processes, but two aspects of a single, identical process.

“The act of will and the action of the body are not two objectively recognized different states that are linked by the bond of causality, are not in the relationship of cause and effect, but are one and the same, only given in two completely different ways. The action of the body is nothing else than the objectified, that is, act of will which has come into view. "

For Schopenhauer, the body-will identity is already given in the sensations such as pleasure and pain. This identity can neither be grasped conceptually nor graphically. Access to the world is thus intuitive knowledge and “the only gateway to truth”. Object and subject are "inseparably linked as necessary parts of a whole". According to Schopenhauer, the knowing subject cannot know itself, but can only experience it as something willing. There is no such thing as “cognition of cognition.” The body-will identity means that man is an object of self-consciousness both indirectly as an external appearance and is also given directly from within in his own wishes and will as a subject.

In order to advance to the absolute, man must free himself from the conditionality of his will and become a pure subject. The way to get there lies in art and contemplation , which enables a “state of pure objectivity of perception”.


Ludwig Feuerbach , originally a Left Hegelian , broke away from classical idealism. He developed a systematic critique of the conventional concept of subject in traditional philosophy and came up with an anthropologically oriented new conception of philosophy. He reproached Hegel, rationalism , but also pantheism , for having split off thinking from the subject in an inadmissible way by making self-confidence, understanding and reason an absolute authority. Man becomes a purely thinking being, while in this view the body only has an unreal existence. Thinking as the thinking of the absolute spirit remains stuck in itself. With such an alienation one cannot grasp the concrete reality and thus the essence of the human being.

"The philosophy that deduces the finite from the infinite, the definite from the indefinite, never brings it to a true position of the finite and definite."

Materialism and empiricism, on the other hand, have the advantage that they make what really exists at the core of their considerations. The realism of modern science is an expression of the new times. However, this perspective, in which the human being is viewed through the eyes of an anatomist or chemist, cannot penetrate the essence of human beings either. Materialism is the foundation of the edifice of human knowledge, but not the edifice itself. Materialism cannot deny the mind without denying itself. So the only sensible way is to go back to humans.

“Kant is right, the subject must precede the object in the investigation. But the subject changes over time. We are no longer mathematical, a priori, we are empirical, a posteriori people and subjects. That is the difference between the Kantian, the 18th, and the 19th century. "

Real being is not the thought or the concept as in Hegel, but the reality perceived by the senses. Sensations come before thinking, so that sensuality has an intrinsic meaning that precedes thinking. Thinking is always abstraction, being is always the concrete. The original human experience of the world must not be masked out by philosophy in that it remains anchored in language. The individual, the human being, is only grasped through feelings and sensations. The human being is immediately aware of being without already reflecting on it. Because man lives in the world of his knowledge, he is already presupposed in the act of knowledge. Knowledge is therefore necessarily subjective and cannot lay claim to truth. Truth only arises in community with other people. As a subject, man is dependent on the relationship to nature and fellow human beings.

"The new, the only positive philosophy [...] has no schibolet , no special language, no special name, no special principle - it is the thinking person himself - the person who is and knows himself as the self-conscious being of nature, as the essence of history, as the essence of states, as the essence of religion - the human being who is and knows himself as the real (not imaginary) absolute identity of all opposites and contradictions, of all active and passive, spiritual and sensual, political and social qualities. "


As a Young Hegelian , Max Stirner criticized Hegel's systematic approach in The One and His Own .

“Hegel condemns what is his own, what is mine, the 'opinion'. 'Absolute thinking' is that thinking which forgets that it is my thinking, that I think and that it is only through me. "

For Stirner, the individual subject is unique and must in no way be subjected to totalization. In the same way, he also resisted an appropriation of the subject by religion.

“Why am I being branded if I am a 'God-denier'? Because one places the creature above the Creator [...] and needs a ruling object. I am to bow under the Absolute. I should. "

Stirner is concerned with the fact that man is finite and cannot escape the randomness of nature. The criticism of the authority of the state and of social constraints, which Stirner called “training”, is also directed against Hegel. This only restricts individual freedom of choice and personal responsibility.

"Since the state is only concerned with itself, as is not otherwise possible, it does not take care of my needs, but only takes care of how it kills me, ie how to make another I out of me, a good citizen."


Like Stirner, Søren Kierkegaard also placed the concrete individual at the center of his thinking. Unlike Hegel, he did not want to investigate "what it means to be human at all, even speculators get to know something like that, but what it means that you and I and he, we all, each for himself, are human" . He held against Hegel's speculative system philosophy for having lost sight of the individual human existence through abstraction . “The systematic idea is the subject-object, is the unity of thinking and being; Existence, on the other hand, is precisely separation ”. “The philosophical proposition of the identity of thinking and being is precisely the opposite of what it seems to be; it is the expression for the fact that thinking has completely left existence, that it has emigrated and has found a sixth continent where it is absolutely sufficient for itself in the absolute identity of thinking and being ”.

Kierkegaard considers the relationship to oneself from the contradictions of human existence, which for him cannot be removed. Self-confidence is not something that is separate from human beings and can be analyzed separately. It is an act of self-to-yourself. Man is part of the infinite world process and at the same time finite in his existence.

“Man is spirit. But what is spirit? Mind is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relationship that relates to itself. Man is a synthesis of infinity and finitude, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short a synthesis. "

One of its key assumptions is that there is no such thing as objective truth. A philosophy in the system has to start. Every knowledge objectively produced by science can only be approximate, because the world is infinite, whereas the existing human being is only finite.

“All essential knowledge relates to existence, or: only knowledge whose relationship to existence is essential is essential knowledge. The knowledge that does not turn inward in the reflection of inwardness concerns existence, is essentially considered accidental knowledge, its degree and extent essentially indifferent. "

Kierkegaard's criticism of Hegel is aimed at the dialectical suspension of the contradictions of existence in thought. Abolition means abstraction in thinking, which above all also abstracts from existence. But existence is what philosophy is supposed to explain. "It is the task of the subjective thinker to understand himself in existence." Thinking is possibility that becomes reality in the ever-growing existence.

“Science arranges the moments of subjectivity in a knowledge of them, and this knowledge is the highest, and all knowledge is a suspension, a removal from existence. This is not true in existence. If thinking despises fantasy, then fantasy in turn despises thinking, and it is the same with feeling. The task is not to abolish one at the expense of the other, but the task is equality, simultaneity, and the medium in which they are united is existence. "

Kierkegaard developed a three step theory in which human existence can be. These stages are the aesthetic (perceptual), the ethical and the religious way of encountering the world.

In the aesthetic stage man only encounters life in internal reflection. The aesthetic person always lives in the moment, masters the art of enjoyment and the development of one's talents, always lives in a certain relativity and is therefore only aware to a certain extent. He is indifferent and acts directly according to his sensual perception, according to existing traditions and conventions. These are, however, threatened in modern times, so that people have doubts and have to create their own orientation.

“Our time has lost all substantial provisions of family, state, clan; it has to leave the individual to himself, in such a way that he becomes his own creator in the strict sense. "

Anyone who does not succeed in shaping their life according to their wishes, who recognizes that external things do not convey any meaning, is confronted with the negative side of aesthetic life. He falls into despair and melancholy.

An ethical life leads to autonomy when one is ready to take responsibility in the awareness of oneself. The reflection reaches beyond itself. Ethical life is a life in conscious decisions, a life in either - or. Choices are existential and do not take place in pure thinking. The philosopher, who, like Hegel, abolishes opposites in thinking, has no answer to questions of ethical decision-making. The first fundamental choice of man is not a decision for the good, but a decision through which one wants to live an ethical life at all or excludes it. Man chooses himself and thus reaches a truth that corresponds to his own well-being in the sense of a well-understood self-interest.

“The individual thus becomes conscious of himself as this particular individual, with these particular abilities, these inclinations, these drives, these passions, as influenced by this particular environment, as this particular product of a particular environment. But when man becomes aware of himself in this way, he takes on everything under his responsibility. "

Man can only experience God through faith. Then he must accept himself as an existence created by God. If man tries to grasp God with his intellect, he must fail.

"The self is the conscious synthesis of infinity and finitude, which relates to itself, whose task it is to become oneself, which can only be achieved through the relationship to God."

Marx and Engels

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels took over from Feuerbach the turn to the empirical.

“The presuppositions with which we begin are not arbitrary, not dogmas, they are real presuppositions from which one can only abstract in imagination. It is the real individuals, their action and their material living conditions, both those found and those produced by their own action. These prerequisites can therefore be determined in a purely empirical way. "

But Feuerbach was not radical enough for them. In the theses on Feuerbach , they demanded that society should be the subject of empirical human practice.

"The unit d. People with d. People, based on the real difference between people, the concept of the human species drawn down from the heaven of abstraction to the real earth, what is it different from the concept of society? "

Above all, from the point of view of Marx and Engels, Feuerbach does not consider the historical process of changes in social conditions ( historical materialism ), in which not only the individual but also the human being as a species becomes a subject. Marx saw the separation of subject and object as rooted in the first acts of exchange . In his opinion, it was Epicurus who, with the formulation of the concept of appearance, brought an intellectual juxtaposition of the ego with an objective world into the discussion.

In the beginning it was the worker who, as a subject, produced a thing (commodity), the object, through work . The capitalist relations of production result in a reversal of subject and object. An alienation arises in which the worker no longer owns the object he produces and himself becomes the object of the production process by being viewed as a means of production . The result is the “ reification of the social determinations of production and the versubjectification of the material foundations of production.” The subject in this reversal becomes on the one hand the produced object and on the other hand capital.

In a further step, Marx turns the object of production as the subject into the automatic subject , which is the principle prevailing in society.

“Indeed, value here becomes the subject of a process in which it changes its size under the constant change of the forms of money and commodity, repels itself as surplus value from itself as original value, utilizes itself. Because the movement in which he adds added value is his own movement, his utilization, i.e. self-utilization. "


Friedrich Nietzsche formulated a fundamental criticism of the modern concept of the subject . He called Descartes' idea of ​​an ego “fable”. This is based on the fact that Descartes already presupposes the ego as existing in the grammatical sentence “I think” and thus creates a circle.

"In the end, too much has been done with this' it thinks': this' it 'already contains an interpretation of the process and does not belong to the process itself. Here, according to the grammatical habit, one concludes:' Thinking is an activity, every activity involves one, who is active, consequently - '. "

“For in the past, people believed in 'the soul' as they believed in grammar and the grammatical subject: they said, 'I' is a condition, 'think' is a predicate and conditioned - thinking is an activity for which a subject is the cause must be thought. Now one tried, with admirable tenacity and cunning, whether one could not get out of this net - whether perhaps the reverse was not true: 'think' condition, 'I' condition; 'I' therefore only a synthesis that is made through thinking itself "

Nietzsche's assessment of Kant's theoretical philosophy is somewhat milder.

“Basically, Kant wanted to prove that the subject could not be proven from the subject - neither could the object: the possibility of a pseudo-existence of the subject, i.e. 'the soul', may not have always been alien to him, that thought which as Vedanta philosophy has already been there on earth in tremendous power. "

In contrast to Kant's assessment, Nietzsche saw Hegel's philosophy, in which the world spirit is a god-like, inevitable authority, a construction that does not allow a way out of the room of pure thought.

“This story, understood in Hegelian terms, has been called with scorn the walk of God on earth, which God in turn is only made through history. This God, however, became transparent and understandable for himself within the Hegelian cranium and has already ascended all dialectically possible stages of his becoming, up to that self-revelation; so that for Hegel the climax and the end of the world process coincided in his own Berlin existence. "

Nietzsche rejected the talk of the subject as a semblance that was erected in order to defend the idea of ​​freedom. Nietzsche himself advocated unlimited determinism .

“The subject (or, to put it more popularly, the soul) has perhaps been the best belief on earth so far because it made it possible for the majority of mortals, the weak and the depressed of every kind, that sublime self-deception, weakness itself as freedom to interpret their way of being as a merit "

“Only through forgetting that primitive world of metaphors , only through the hardening and rigidness of a mass of images that originally streamed out of the primordial faculties of human imagination in heated fluid , only through the invincible belief that this sun, this window, this table is a truth in itself In short, only because a person forgets himself as a subject, namely as an artistically creative subject, he lives with some calm, security and consistency; if he could just get out of the prison walls of this belief for a moment, his 'self-confidence' would be over immediately. "

Like Stirner, Nietzsche rejected Hegel's idea that morality in the state creates the basis for individual freedom and assessed social norms as taming and subjugating the subject.

"Man was made really predictable with the help of morality and the social straitjacket."

Correspondingly, Nietzsche did not follow Kant in setting practical reason and the consequent duty to himself to act morally. For him morality is exclusively a social practice. It emerged from the balancing of power and has become a mere habit.

“Morality is preceded by compulsion, yes, for a while it itself is compulsion to which one submits to avoid pain. Later it becomes custom, later still free obedience, finally almost instinct: then, like everything that has long been used and natural, it is linked with pleasure - and is now called virtue. "


The pragmatic action theory of Charles Sanders Peirce is a three-digit, dynamic semiotic process is based. With this conception, Peirce turned against the image theory of empiricism in Hume as well as against the assumption of a priori structures of consciousness in rationalism and Kant. Instead of the dual relationship of subject and object, the relationship to the object takes place in a relation to a sign and an interpretant . Peirce rejected the psychological analysis of the subject that becomes necessary when looking at intentionality or introspection , replacing it with the concept of a dynamic semiotic process with an infinite string of characters that develops in a continuous flow.

A sign stands for something to the idea which it produces, or modifies. Or, it is a vehicle conveying into the mind something from without. That for which it stands is called its object; that which it conveys, its meaning; and the idea to which it gives rise, its interpretant. [...] Finally, the interpretant is nothing but another representation to which the torch of truth is handed along; and as representation, it has its interpretant again. Lo, another infinite series.

“A sign stands for something in the imagination that it creates or changes. Or it is a vehicle with which something is transported from the outside into the consciousness. What it stands for is called an object; what is transported, its meaning; and the idea it transports to its interpreter. […] In the end, the interpreter is nothing but a representation to which the light of truth is passed, and as a representation he again has an interpreter. So another infinite series. "

- CP 1,339

Out of an immediate, completely undifferentiated feeling (possibility = firstness) the awareness of the other, of a counterpart, of reality (reality = secondness) arises. In this duality, subject and object still stand without any reference to one another. Only the sign as a representation creates a relationship between object and subject as an interpretant (necessity = thirdness). Peirce records “the difference between the knowledge object and the subject by connecting both poles through their being represented”.

With Peirce it is not the subject that determines the shape of the object, but there is a dependency of the sign on the object, which in turn is reflected in the effect of the sign on the subject. The entire process of perceiving and thinking is to be understood as a sequence of interacting signs.

I use the word “Sign” in the widest sense for any medium for the communication or extension of a form (or feature). Being medium, it is determined by something, called its Object, and determines something, called its Interpretant or Interpretand

“I use the word sign in the broadest sense for any medium of communication or expression of a form (a characteristic). As a medium, it is determined by something called an object, and in turn determines something called an interpreter. "

For Peirce, the idea of ​​a person is also the result of a dynamic drawing process. Personality is an idea that, due to its infinite possibilities, cannot be fully described in a finite period of time. It is created by coordinating and linking ideas.

This personality, like any general ideas, is not a thing to be apprehended in an instant. It has to be lived in time; nor can any finite time embrace it in all its fullness.

“This personality, like any general idea, is not a directly tangible object. It has to be lived in time; and no finite time can grasp it in all its fullness. "

- CP 6.155

Part of the personality is that the organism is able to shape the future.

This reference to the future is an essential element of the personality. Were the ends of a person already explicit, there would be no room for development, for growth, for life; and consequently there would be no personality. The mere carrying out of predetermined purposes is mechanical.

“This relationship to the future is an essential element of personality. If a person's ultimate purposes were already open, there would be no room for development, for growth, for life; and consequently there would be no personality. The mere execution of predetermined purposes is mechanical. "

- CP 6.157

Consciousness is a collection of representations. As characters, these themselves become the object of interpretation in the character string. In this reflection, self-awareness emerges as the recognition of a private self (CP 5.255, 5.266). The renewed reflection on self-confidence leads to self-control , which includes self-examination and self-correction and influences the willingness to act.

The power of self-control is certainly not a power over what one is doing at the very instant the operation of self-control is commenced. It consist (to mention only the leading constituents) first, in comparing one's past deeds with standards, second, in rational deliberation concenrning how one will act in future, in itself a highly complicated operation, third, in the formation of a resolve, fourth , in the creation, on the basis of the resolve, of a strong determination, or modification of habit.

“The influence of self-control is certainly not an influence on actions at the very beginning of the process of self-control. It consists (to name only the leading features) firstly in the comparison of past actions with standards, secondly in reasonable consideration of future action intentions, which is in itself a highly complicated process, thirdly in the formation of a decision, fourthly on the basis of the decision in a development of a strong commitment or change in a habit. "

- CP 8.320

The autonomy of the subject and thus the ability to value aesthetic values, to act ethically and to draw logical conclusions is based on the ability to control oneself.

If the self can only realize itself through its commitments to ideals and if the commitment to ever higher ideals necessarily requires ever greater surrenders of the self, then the true self can emerge only when the futile ego dissolves. The self-centered self is an anarchical force: Such a self rests upon the most complete surrender of egoism.

“If the self can only be realized through the application of ideals, and if the recognition of higher ideals necessarily requires a greater task of the self, then the true self can only emerge when the useless ego dissolves. The self-centered self is an anarchic force: such a self rests on a most complete surrender of egoism. "

- CP 7.571

In the interpretation of Karl-Otto Apel and Jürgen Habermas, Peirce replaced the transcendental subject in Kant with the communication community. This is not shared in the more recent Peirce interpretation because in Peirce's semiotic process the subject has an independent relationship to the community, even if it is not independent of it. For Peirce, the community is a person who loosely consists of individuals on a higher level. (CP 5.421)


As a scientist, Ernst Mach criticized the fundamental notion of the unity of things. The world does not consist of things, but of various basic elements that are put together in consciousness to form complexes of sensation. Sensations arise from sensory data and cannot be further reduced. The psychic (ideas) and the physical (perceptions) are just two different aspects of a unified reality ( neutral monism ). The sensory complexes are only relatively stable and are subject to changes over time.

“The sensations are not 'symbols of things' either. Rather, the 'thing' is a thought symbol for a complex of senses of relative stability. Not things (bodies), but colors, tones, prints, spaces, times (what we usually call sensations) are actual elements of the world. "

The idea of ​​the ego is also just a complex of sensations made up of various elements.

“It is not the ego that is primary, but the elements (sensations). [...] The elements form the I. "

Like all ideas of things, the ideas of ego or body are only makeshifts that are generated in the consciousness in order to be able to orientate oneself better in life practice. Because the I cannot be clearly defined, dynamic and fleeting, one can no longer speak of an identity. For Mach, therefore, the idea of ​​an I was “unsaved”.


Sigmund Freud developed a concept of the psychic which differed from that of science-oriented medicine as well as that of traditional philosophy. In particular, he criticized the equation of consciousness phenomena with the psychic. He was primarily concerned with subjective experience, regardless of objective circumstances. The psyche also includes the unconscious, which, according to Freud, is primarily determined by preconscious psychological structures and patterns such as urges, needs and affects (by the "it"). Only on this basis do reflected perceptions, thoughts and memories (the "I") arise, which in turn are influenced by internalized norms, values ​​and dictates of the environment (the "super-ego" conflicting with the id). The variety of preconscious and unconscious influences determine the content of consciousness, which only includes a section of id, super-ego and ego and which is always distorted by repression and sublimation in relation to an objective reality . Pure rationality, as assumed by Kant, is, according to Freud, an illusion. He therefore warned:

“But you never allow yourself to be tempted to enter the reality rating in the repressed psychological formations and, for example, to disregard fantasies for the formation of symptoms because they are not realities, or to derive a neurotic feeling of guilt from elsewhere because no crime actually carried out can be proven . "

Freud's criticism of the traditional philosophical concept of the subject had a major influence on philosophical conceptions, especially since the second half of the 20th century. His cultural-theoretical considerations acquired a special meaning, in which he constructed a constant conflict between the natural drives of the subject, the id, and the equally ever-present social demands as super-ego on the individual as a determining factor of individual self-consciousness, the ego. According to Freud, in mass society it can happen that a majority of individuals replace their own ego ideal with a specific object, an ideology or a charismatic leader, and limit their own possibilities of satisfaction in favor of the community.


For George Herbert Mead , who philosophically can be assigned to pragmatism, but mainly dealt with social-psychological topics, the emergence of self-confidence is based on an interaction and communication process. Mead maintained the juxtaposition of inside and outside.

Social psychology is behavioristic in the sense that it begins with an observable activity - the dynamic social process and the social actions that make it up - that is examined and scientifically analyzed. However, it is not behavioristic in the sense of ignoring the individual's internal experiences - the internal phase of that process or activity. On the contrary, it is primarily concerned with the emergence of this type of experience within the process as a whole. "

Mead's theory is behaviorist in that he understands the emergence of the self as part of a process of stimulus and reaction between the subject and a “significant other”. For Mead, too, the empirical self was the starting point. In place of the transcendental subject, he put the community of communicating and acting people. Similar to Peirce, he viewed consciousness as a functional state.

“If we understand mind or consciousness functionally and as a natural, not as a transcendental, phenomenon, it becomes possible to grasp them in behavioral terms. In short, it is not possible to deny the existence of mind, consciousness or mental phenomena, nor is it desirable. "

However, phenomenal awareness is not enough to explain self-awareness. To this end, Mead developed a theory of interaction. An important starting thesis is that the foreign consciousness is primary and a prerequisite for the idea of ​​a self. The child first perceives his environment and only in the demarcation to the environment also himself. Through its own actions, it learns how the environment reacts and thus develops an empathic feeling that it uses in communication with its outside world. Mead described the communication as an exchange of signs, following Wundt's national psychology . Signs or gestures are signs that are expressed through behavior. If they have a meaning, they become a symbol. If the parties involved agree on the meaning, there is a significant symbol. Significant symbols are above all linguistic expressions. Social action is based on the mutual use of significant symbols. People take on roles in communication. They learn this in the early childhood phase in free play (= play ; e.g. mother - child) and in the course of development by playing with rules (= game ; e.g. board games or football). Communication with the environment has a decisive influence on the development of the mind.

“The behavior of all living organisms has a fundamental social aspect: The fundamental biological or physiological impulses and needs that are based on all these forms of behavior - especially hunger and sex drive, i.e. the needs associated with nutrition and reproduction - are broadest Sense of social character or have social implications, since they presuppose social situations and relationships for their satisfaction by the respective organism. "

In role play, people learn to change perspective and empathize with others. This empathy also enables him to perceive himself by looking at himself from the perspective of the other. Mead called this image, which someone develops of himself from the outside perspective, the “Me” (= I). This Me stands for the social identity in which the view of the other is reflected. It is a representation of the self-image that is controlled and reflected upon. In contrast, there is the “I” (= I) as a moment of personal identity. This is an expression of the drives and feelings of the subject and thus spontaneous, creative and impulsive. The mediation of the "I" with the "Me" creates an awareness of the self, which is not gained introspectively, but depends on understanding others.

“The result of the respective social act is clearly separated from the pointing gesture by the reaction of another organism to it, a reaction that points to the result of this act as it shows this gesture. This situation is only given on the non-spiritual, unconscious level before it is analyzed on the spiritual or conscious level. "

Thinking is a social process that consists in exchanging significant symbols. The identity of the self is thus always a social identity that is determined both by the significant other and by society as a generalized other. Individual and society are in an indissoluble relationship. A "logical universe" emerges as a system of common meanings.

"And only by the fact that individual individuals adopt the attitude or the attitudes of the generalized other towards themselves, a logical universe is possible, that system of common or social meanings which every thought presupposes as its context."


Edmund Husserl's phenomenology is an approach that takes up Descartes' and Kant's questions again and expressly deals with the relationship between the ego, thought and thought from the perspective of the subject's experience. Husserl deliberately refrained from dealing with the objective world, which he excluded from his analyzes ( epoché ), and concentrated on the principles of direct experience as the starting point for knowledge (phenomenological reduction). In doing so he placed the services and processes of consciousness with regard to experience at the center of his investigations. By strictly separating the world of the objects of experience (the noema as appearing perceptual contents) and the process of experience (the noesis as activity in consciousness), his considerations are systematically based on the subject-object split. Considered on a different level, the opposition between subject and object does not come into view at all with Husserl, because he excluded the question of the reality of the world from the start (transcendental idealism).

Accordingly, Husserl made a sharp distinction between the transcendental and the empirical ego:

“An incredibly peculiar science comes into our field of vision, a science of concrete transcendental subjectivity, as given in possible and real experience, which forms the extreme opposite to the sciences in the previous sense, the objective sciences. Among these there is also a science of subjectivity, but of objective, animal subjectivity belonging to the world. But now it is an absolutely subjective science, so to speak, a science whose object in its being is independent of the decision about the non-being or being of the world. It seems like her first, her only object to be mine, the philosophizing, transcendental ego and only to be able to be. "

The phenomenological reduction, the disregard of any natural attitude and of all concrete empirical contents, leads to the fact that a “pure consciousness” remains as a residue as the object of observation . Just as Kant was of the opinion that the “I think” must be able to accompany all my ideas (see above), Husserl also took the view that through the transcendental reduction in pure consciousness, in the end a pure I remains, which alone is unchangeable and permanent is. Every act of consciousness (feeling, wanting, thinking) leads to a change.

"In contrast, the pure I seems to be a fundamentally necessary, and as something absolutely identical in all possible and real change of experiences, it cannot count as a real part or moment of the experiences themselves."

The pure I is a “transcendence in immanence ”, ie something that is indescribable in and of itself outside of the stream of consciousness, only given in reflection. The pure I is the “I pole” of experiences, which are the “medium of self-life”. The pure I is not only the abstract point of reference of the experiences captured in the reflection, but also has an active effect insofar as it creates a habitus in the flow of experiences that is permanent in the flow of consciousness.

"The ego has a history and from its history it creates something habitual to it that remains as the same ego."

In contrast to the pure I, the personal I is constituted in consciousness and is bound to the body. In the course of time, the personal ego develops various abilities that are connected to the idea of ​​“I can”. In the reflection on the personal ego, this is an appearance just like all other things. It is an object of self-knowledge and self-awareness and can develop and change.

The idea of ​​the pure and the personal I gained in the phenomenological reduction was jointly referred to by Husserl as the “concrete I”. This conception of the concrete ego does not yet allow a statement about the conditions of the possibility of knowledge. In order to get there, Husserl developed the concept of the transcendental ego in a further essay, an “eidetic-transcendental reduction”. In this vision of essence, which he gained through variation, Husserl came to analyze the experience of the foreign. The other is first given in consciousness as an object. Through intuitive empathy, however, I understand that the other person has the same subject feeling, including the experience of the world and the outside world, as I do. For Husserl, it followed "that the assumption of an existing reality that is not given in consciousness is nonsensical."

“Transcendence in every form is an immanent character of being that constitutes itself within the ego. Every conceivable sense, every conceivable being, whether it is called immanent or transcendent, falls into the realm of transcendental subjectivity as that which constitutes meaning and being. "

Husserl's phenomenology is particularly accused of forgetting language and history as well as undervaluing the dialogical moment in the emergence of the relationship to oneself, which the latter seeks to overcome only in the consideration of the lifeworld. The prominent phenomenologist Bernhard Waldenfels sees the close connection between ego and logos in Husserl as an abbreviated isolation. Specific further developments can be found with Alfred Schütz and his students Berger and Luckmann .


Similar to Peirce, Alfred North Whitehead assumed a procedural structure of the universe in process and reality (= PR). The smallest elements he called “real individuals” or (equivalently) “real events”. He imagined the entire universe as an organism consisting of these basic elements, which in turn is subdivided into mutually influencing and merging substructures through relationships ( nexus ), each of which again forms an organism, whereby individual organisms can be elements of a higher-level organism.

Within this worldview, Whitehead developed a concept of subject that deviates from all traditions. Each of the smallest events, but also more complex organisms, have an inside and an outside perspective. Whitehead called the outside perspective, that which can be demarcated from the entity, the object. Objects are thus relative from the inner perspective, which Whitehead analogously referred to as subject. Subjects are thus a moment of a real individual who is at the same time an object from the perspective of other real individual beings. There is a contrast between subject and object. Traditionalist philosophy presupposes a subject as substance and contrasts it with an object. Whitehead explicitly contradicted what Kant called the "Copernican turn" that the subject constitutes objects.

"Organistic philosophy reverses this analysis and explains the process as a course from objectivity to subjectivity, namely from the objectivity on the basis of which the external 'world is a datum, to the subjectivity through which there is an individual experience."

- PR 292

In parallel to the actual phases of perception, Whitehead distinguished three levels of sensations (prehensions), namely physical, conceptual and expressive sensations, in a kind of theory of experience, of the grasping events. These phases of sensations represent the process of self-constitution. They correspond to the spiritual pole of real individuals. Sensation is the transition of data from the external world into subjectivity. (PR 93) It is the link between subject and object. In physical sensation, initial data arise through the encounter with other real events. In conceptual comprehension there is no longer any direct contact with the outside world. Rather, assessment categories are formed as timeless individuals. Whitehead understood a term as the analytic work of universals. In the third phase, the physical and conceptual sensations are finally linked to form a “logical subject”. The expressive feeling is a conclusion from the first two phases. It is the result of the process of a real individual, which Whitehead calls "superject" in a neologism , which confronts the subject as the content of the process of a real individual. The superject is the goal towards which a real individual is constituted. Every superject, every fulfillment of a real individual, is not static, however, because it contains the potentiality in a new process, to enter a new real individual.

“It is essential for the teaching of organistic philosophy that the concept of a real individual as the unchanged subject of change should be completely abandoned. A real individual is at the same time the experiencing subject and the superject of his experiences. It is a subject-superject, and no half of this description can be disregarded for a moment. "

- PR 75-76

The characterization of the subject as subject-superject tries to make it clear that the subject is always something that is experienced (result) and experiences in an ongoing, self-constituting process. The subject does not create the process of experience, but is an increasingly changing element of it and, as a result, the superject that contains the potential to enter into a new real event.

The British philosophers Samuel Alexander and Conwy Lloyd Morgan as well as CD Broad took a position similar to Whitehead , who developed a philosophy of emergence , which regards the formation of consciousness as an evolutionary phenomenon that cannot be adequately explained biologically.


In his early work, the Tractatus logico-philosophicus , Ludwig Wittgenstein developed an image theory of language based on the logical atomism of his teacher and friend Bertrand Russell . His considerations show whether statements a priori from experience are possible, an analysis similar to Kant, but even more to Schopenhauer :

  • "The sentence is a truth function of the elementary sentences." (The elementary sentence is a truth function of itself.) (TLP 5)
  • "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world." (TLP 5.6)
  • "I am my world" (the microcosm ) (TLP 5.63)
  • "The thinking, presenting subject does not exist." (TLP 5.631)
  • "The subject does not belong to the world, but it is a limit of the world." (TLP 5.632)
  • “Where in the world can a metaphysical subject be noticed?
You say it's just like the eye and field of vision. But you really don't see the eye.
And nothing in the field of vision suggests that it is seen by one eye. "(TLP 5.633)
  • “This has to do with the fact that no part of our experience is also a priori.
Everything we see could also be different.
Everything we can even describe could also be different.
There is no a priori order of things.

Wittgenstein represented a realistic ontology and postulated the existence of simple objects. (“The world is the totality of facts […]” (TLP 1.1)). Since statements about the world are only possible through experience, an idealistic position leads to solipsism , which absolutizes the subject. The transcendental I forms the boundary to the world and the empirical I is part of the world.

  • “Here you can see that solipsism, carried out strictly, coincides with pure realism. The ego of solipsism shrinks to a point without expansion, and the reality coordinated with it remains. "(TLP 5.64)
  • “So there is really a sense in which philosophy can speak of the self in a non-psychological way. The ego enters philosophy because the world is my world. The philosophical I is not the human being, not the human body, or the human soul, of which psychology is concerned, but the metaphysical subject, the limit - not a part of the world ”(TLP 5.641).

In the pragmatic turn of Wittgenstein's late philosophy, the subject becomes the rule follower who is an active member of a language community. (e.g. PU § 199) The thinking subject of traditional philosophy no longer comes into view here. An explicit discussion then takes place again with the discussion of the possibility of a private language (PU §§ 256-271). As a result, he comes to the conclusion that a private language that is not understandable to a third party makes no sense. Language and with it the talk of an “I” or a subject is intersubjective. It assumes a language community in which the meaning of words is practiced in a common language game . This also applies to Wittgenstein in the event of qualia :

“What about the word 'red' - should I say that this designates something that confronts us all, and that everyone should actually have another word besides this word to designate their own perception of red? Or is it like this: The word 'red' denotes something we know together; and for everyone, moreover, something only known to them? "

- PU § 273

Wittgenstein has pointed out that the word "I" is used in two ways. In "object usage" one uses the word like an outsider with reference to a physical property and can also be wrong about an observation. In “subject use”, on the other hand, it is not about recognizing a person, but about communicating an immediate knowledge about which one cannot be mistaken because it corresponds to the content of consciousness. This is the case even when the thought corresponding to the content of consciousness is objectively wrong. The difference in meaning is that the objective use relates to cognitive statements for which there is a truth criterion, while the subjective use relates to expressive statements. Cognitive statements can only be possible, while expressive sentences always relate to actual facts. “I know that I am in pain” always means “I am in pain” (see PU § 245). “The question, 'Are you sure it's you who is in pain?' would be nonsensical. ”A prerequisite for the use of the ego as an object is that those communicating have agreed that everyone uses the ego in the sense of subject use in order to be able to enter into communication at all. "Your body" can only be said if one assumes that the other assumes an identity of his body with himself as a subject.


For Martin Heidegger , subject philosophy is the center of occidental metaphysics . Heidegger was Edmund Husserl's assistant , who with his transcendental phenomenology was still in the line of tradition of Descartes and Kant. Heidegger tied in methodically with phenomenology, but rejected Husserl's approach of the “transcendental subject” and instead aimed at a “destruction” of traditional subject philosophy. This contrasted a way of thinking that metaphysics tries to overcome insofar as it no longer allows a solid foundation in metaphysical ultimate justifications (such as the subject). Instead, it tries to grasp precisely the “abysmal” of all human existence that opens up without the solid ground of ultimate justifications. The separation of subject and object does not allow a direct relation to the world. It is constructed :

"Belief in the reality of the" outside world ", whether rightly or wrongly, proving this reality, whether sufficient or insufficient, it presupposes, whether expressly or not, attempts like this, do not control their own soil in full transparency, an initially worldless or . Subject not sure ahead of its world, which basically first has to assure itself of a world. Being-in-a-world is placed on apprehension, assumption, certainty and belief right from the start, an attitude that is itself always a well-founded mode of being-in-the-world. "

Husserl's concept leads to a reductio ad absurdum : the subject is itself a being. If everything that is in the epoché is bracketed, then the subject must also be bracketed and there is thus nothing left that remains as the object of Husserl's phenomenological analysis. Because the subject is inevitably something that is in-the-world, philosophy must start in the lifeworld and include the historical-sociological conditions of the subject. In that the subject, which Heidegger calls Dasein, becomes aware of its possibilities, it designs itself.

“Because of its essential state of being, Dasein has a kind of being in which it is brought before itself and revealed to it in its thrownness. Thrownness, however, is the kind of being of a being which is always its own possibilities, in such a way that it understands itself in and out of them (projects itself onto them). Being-in-the-world, which originally includes being with what is at hand as well as being with others, is always for its own sake. "

For Heidegger, the human being is a “thrown draft”, which can no longer be addressed in the classical sense as a subject facing a world external to him.


Karl Jaspers , like Kierkegaard, related concepts of traditional philosophy such as subject, object, spirit or consciousness to the concept of existence, largely building on Kant.

Existence is one of the words for reality, accented by Kierkegaard: everything that is essentially real is only for me because I am myself. We are not just there, our existence is entrusted to us as the place and body of the realization of our origin. "

Jaspers, who coined the term subject-object split , described subjectivity and objectivity in three stages. The objective is the objective exterior. It is always something that is thought (appearance in the Kantian sense) which, in its generality, claims validity for both cognition and action. “Thirdly, the objective as the true is the whole in which the right becomes a moment. The thing as an object and as its validity is dead existence; the thing as a living whole is an idea. In the end, the subject is not confronted with objects, but lives in a world. ”As a consciousness in general, the subject, on the other hand, is “ the not individual, abstractly conceived ego of thinking directed towards the external, objective. ” It is a comprehensive medium that provides everything to him Includes those encountered. At the same time, it is an individual consciousness that is empirically determined. As a rational being, the subject is a consciousness of validity "that submits to compelling insight." In the spirit of Kant, Jaspers states that the appearances are constructions of the subject, which, however, are bound to things that cannot be determined as such.

“It is true that the perception of the objectivities is linked to the subjective conditions; things are not in themselves what they are for the subject. But their formation by the subject and their appearance for the subject are based on something given, malleable, appearing in the object and in the existing subject. "

As a psychologist, on the other hand, Jaspers saw that Kant did not take the genetic development of consciousness into account.

"Something completely different from the Kantian transcendental construction of subjectivity as a condition of objectivity is the analysis of subjectivity in the historical-psychological view of man as the creator of spiritual structures."

Jaspers adopted from Brentano and Husserl the view that all thinking is intentional.

"Consciousness as 'intentional' has something before it, to which it, thinking, is related in a way that is incomparable to any other relationship with the world."

Jaspers considered the juxtaposition of subject and object to be necessary because the reflective thought is also an appearance. According to Kant's insight, the limits of object consciousness cannot be crossed.

“The transcendental thought can be summarized in the formula: no object without a subject. However, then immediately the misunderstanding arises as if the subject or consciousness in itself were there and everything was an object solely through its condition. In contrast, the sentence is to be pronounced the other way around with the same right: no subject without an object. Because there is no consciousness without something to focus on. Compared to the accusation that Kant was made of making the reality of the world the subjectivity of an appearance, he developed from the outset with unsurpassable clarity that the subject or the ego as I observe myself, just like the real object, is only a ' I 'is' how I appear to myself'. Subject and object are both appearance "

However, the world of subject and object does not capture being as a whole. The connection between the things of reality constitutes the existence, which the human being grasps as a feeling of transcendence and which he can only approach through indirect description. Jaspers called this approach to the “encompassing” existential illumination.

“Being is no longer being in itself when it is in the split between subject and object, unity and plurality, general and individual, and yet we can only experience, speak, and think of being in this split . The split as such, through its illumination, points to a where from, shows itself as an intermediate state, but without our being able to get out of the intermediate state. The encompassing relationship that holds the split together, incomprehensible and constantly present, to be addressed in parables and nowhere to be derived from another, is the all-encompassing structure of our thinking as consciousness in general. "


Martin Buber distinguished between the fundamentally different relationships between “I-It” on the one hand and “I-You” on the other. The I-It relationship describes the relationship between subject and object in which the individual opens up the world through perceiving, imagining, willing, feeling or thinking. This is about experience and the use of things. In contrast, the I-You relationship is a relationship between two subjects who are aware of the other as a person. In the I-It relationship one can seize an object. The I-you relationship is about a reciprocal relationship in which the you is just as much a subject for me as I am a you for the other. The relationship between you and me alternates between activity and passivity. Only through the relationship with a you does one's own identity arise, in that the I becomes a you for the other. The I-You relationship is spontaneous, direct and mutual and goes beyond pure understanding. Me and you are equal. This is the basis of the dialogic principle. Buber understood the bond of one person to another person as the origin of human reality, which leads to one's own realization of reality. “All real life is an encounter.” The I becomes real by living in the interior of the you and thus participating in its real life.

Buber saw an important consequence of his distinction in education. Only if a teacher does not look at his pupil from the I-It perspective, but recognizes him as a you, can he acquire trust and thus fulfill his task by taking part in the life of the pupil with empathy. "Pedagogically fruitful is not the pedagogical intention, but the pedagogical encounter."


The French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty , who dealt very intensively with perception, saw, similarly to Heidegger, in the difference between subject and object in epistemology the problem that the phenomenon of immediate and unmediated perception, which only gives access to “meat “Enables the world, cannot be captured. Because in the “still mute experience” subject (body) and object (world) are still closely intertwined.

“Through the idea of ​​the subject as well as that of the object, our relationship to the world and to us, which is based on belief in perception, becomes a relationship of adequation through knowledge. The two concepts do not illuminate the belief in perception, but tacitly make use of it and draw conclusions from it. And because the development of science shows that these conclusions are inherently contradictory, we must necessarily go back to this belief in order to illuminate it. "


The genetic epistemology developed by Jean Piaget starts with the ontogenesis of the subject. The child's thinking differs qualitatively from that of adults. The early child is not even aware of himself as a subject. Piaget rejected the existence of the concepts a priori, the categories, assumed by Kant, but assumed that humans have acquired assimilation schemes in the course of evolution that serve to create structures from perception. The decisive difference to Kant is that he imagined this situation as a dynamic development process. Piaget called this "dynamic Kantianism ". An adjustment ( adaptation ) takes place between the subject and the environment in that the subject adapts the representation of the object in consciousness, its cognitive scheme of a concept, through construction, so that it is suitable for action ( assimilation ). The subject participates actively and constructively in the knowledge. On the other hand, the subject adapts its options for action so that they meet the requirements of the environment ( accommodation ). The ability to create schemes is innate. Through experience, the schemes become more and more filled and more and more abstract. At first, schemes are only representations of sensory motor perception, then representations of sensory motor perception and finally symbols that are independent of concrete perception as the basis of abstract mental operations.

Development processes and new knowledge are triggered by the fact that assimilation and accommodation lead to different results. One discovers something new that does not fit into one of the existing schemes, or an existing, adapted scheme offers no possibility of being adequately managed through action. According to Piaget, man has a natural striving for balance. That is why people try to correct schemes in the event of irritation or, for example, through trials and practice to adapt their options for action so that the conflict is resolved ( equilibration ). This concept is very similar to the concept of cognitive development in Peirce, which can be traced back to Alexander Bain , who described it with the cornerstones of doubt and conviction .

Structuring the development of knowledge in phases is essential for Piaget’s theory. In the early sensorimotor phase there is no differentiation between subject and object. The infant first conquers the space above its body. Actions are still isolated in themselves and no ego-reference is established. Only gradually is the outside world perceived in the form of other people. It is only in the second year of life that objects become the object of coordinated actions, in which the child sees himself as the origin of actions. A change only occurs with the language in which the objects are assigned general properties and structures and relationships are formed. Only then does the recognition of general laws develop and the ability to act operationally. The process of constant learning and an ever-evolving approach to reality continues. "One can get closer and closer to the world of objects without, however, having the certainty of having grasped it in a final form."

Critical theory

The Critical Theory joined the Freudian theory, according to which culture is the result of displacement operations in different strands. Max Horkheimer characterizes critical theory as the “intellectual side of the historical process of the emancipation of the proletariat”. This includes the idea that the other side, social practice, is the object of theory. Horkheimer still follows the Enlightenment idea of ​​the emancipation of the subject, but thereby retains the idea of ​​the idealistic subject-object split. The task of critical theory is a “transformation of the social whole” in such a way that the alienation in modern society that prevents the subject from becoming one with himself is abolished.

"Critical thinking contains a concept of the human being which conflicts with itself as long as this identity is not established."

The critical theory turns against the instrumental reason , through which the subjects and objects dissolve into practical constraints, especially in technical and economic contexts.

“Subject and object both become null and void. The abstract self, the legal title to logging and systematising, has nothing in opposition to one another than abstract material, which has no other property than being a substrate for such possession.

In the socio-critical analysis, critical theory tries to overcome the contrast between rationality, with which the mind tries to control itself, and a subjectivity, in which the human being strives to mimetically adapt to nature.

"Man's rule over himself, which establishes his self, is virtually always the destruction of the subject in whose service it occurs."

As a psychoanalyst at the Frankfurt School, Erich Fromm , in collaboration with Horkheimer, designed a materialistic social psychology as an important element of critical theory. The psychological instinctual apparatus of the subject is intermediate between the economic basis and the theory. The more the father loses authority through the increasing dominance of the capitalist mode of production, the more socialization no longer takes place through him, but through the internalization of social authority, which increasingly shapes the superego as a dominant factor. The father becomes the representative of social violence. However, Fromm broke away from the Frankfurt School in the course of his emigration and in his later writings he emphasized the question of the basic psychological needs of the human being. Fromm developed a “new humanism” in which love, the aggressiveness and destructiveness (Freud's death instinct), the hunt for happiness in modern consumerism, can be overcome through love as the basis of human existence. Fromm now represented a "belief in people and their ability to develop to ever higher levels, through belief in the unity of the human race, through belief in tolerance and peace, as well as in reason and love as those forces that human beings in enable you to realize yourself and to become what you can be "

Even Theodor W. Adorno emphasized the claim of critical theory, the dialectical contradictions of subjective experience reveal.

Because in the current phase of the historical movement its overwhelming objectivity consists only in the dissolution of the subject, without a new one having already arisen from it, individual experience necessarily rests on the old subject, the historically condemned, that for itself still is, but no longer in itself. It thinks it is still certain of its autonomy, but the nullity that the concentration camp demonstrated to the subjects already overtakes the form of subjectivity itself. "

He found Hegel ambivalent about the question of the object. Although he resisted “against the reification and absolutization of individual determinations” in the dialectical standardization of subject and object, he has “escaped [manipulated] the highest critical moment, the criticism of totality, of the finally given infinite. [...] He thought away the difference between the conditioned and the absolute, giving the conditioned the appearance of the unconditional. In the end he did injustice to the experience he draws on. ”Adorno stuck to the“ indissolubility of the objectively non-identical in the subjective concept ”, so that in this respect he“ honors Kant versus Hegel ”. On the other hand, Adorno distanced himself from Kant's transcendental subject, since the latter does not capture the subject's social conditioning. He therefore regards the subject as an empirical subject that is not self-determined, but rather dependent on the power structures that prevail in a society.

“The supposedly self-contained subject is essentially mediated by what it separates from, the connection between all subjects. Through the mediation, it becomes what it does not want to be according to its freedom-consciousness, heteronomous. "

In this definition of the subject, the equation with a holistic individual, thought of as an empirical person, is expressed.

"Because the concept of the subject is as little to be emancipated from existence, from the 'object' as that of the object is from the subjective function of thinking."

Adorno identified Freud's superego with morality in society, which for him is the result of social repression and thus the source of conscience. Society forces the individual to renounce his instincts, who themselves have no legitimation. Social repression, for its part, arises from the instinctual structure of the individual.

"The isolated individual, the pure subject of self-preservation, embodies in absolute contrast to society its innermost principle."

For Jürgen Habermas , the early critical theory failed because of the exhaustion of the paradigm of the philosophy of consciousness. Its intention is to further develop it by considering a communication theory as a new paradigm.

"Objective thinking and purposeful action serve to reproduce a 'life', which is directed through the surrender of cognitive and capable subjects to an intransitive self-preservation blindly directed towards themselves as the only 'purpose'."

Only by turning to a theory of intersubjective understanding can the limitation of rationality to "instrumental reason" be overcome. The result is the universal pragmatics developed by Habermas .


Emmanuel Lévinas put the question of the subject in a direct context to ethics and in the relationship to another. In doing so, he broke away from the primacy of ontology as the first philosophy, following the Aristotelian tradition, and introduced a Jewish perspective:

“I found the fact in Jewish thought that ethics is not a simple region of being. The encounter with the other person offers us the original meaning in general, and in its extension one finds all further meaning. Ethics is a crucial experience. "

The otherness of the other is absolute for the subject, not because of individual differences, but through the individual existence inherent in the other. Levinas distinguished himself from the idea of ​​a totality in classical metaphysics. With Hegel, the self and the other cancel each other out in the unity of the absolute subject. Similarly, in Husserl's absolute subjectivity or Heidegger's focus on the logos of being, there are no references to the other as a separate, independent being. Dealing with the other cannot be limited to phenomenological or ontological analyzes. The relationship to the other contains something that transcends the finite totality into the space of the infinite, into the “beyond of being”. This beyond cannot be grasped linguistically because language persists in this world. “The beyond-of-being always shows itself, however, where it shows itself in what is said, in a puzzling way, that is, by already betraying itself.” The other is not created through the constitution of a transcendental subject. The other meets the subject without it being able to influence it. It is an occurrence for the subject. The subject is not the first or the last, but something that is received and passive in relation to the other, through which it is first constituted. The subject is not self-sufficient but entangled with the other. The other receives the right to be recognized as his own. This is the subject's responsibility to the other. It is existentially impossible for the subject to “evade responsibility, care and standing up for the other.” This irrefutable demand from the other calls into question the freedom and spontaneity of the subject.

“This questioning of my spontaneity through the presence of the other is called ethics. The strangeness of the other, the fact that he cannot be traced back to me, my thoughts and my possessions, only takes place as a questioning of my spontaneity, as ethics. The metaphysics, the transcendence, the reception of the other by the same, of the other person by me, occurs concretely as a questioning of the same by the other, that is, as ethics. "

“Pluralism presupposes a radical otherness of the other, I do not simply understand the other in relation to myself, but I stand opposite it at the start of my egoism. The otherness of the other is in him and not in the relationship to me, it reveals itself, but I have access to it from myself and not through a comparison of the I and the other. "

“The other as the other is not an understandable form that is bound to other forms in the process of intentional 'disclosure', but a face, proletarian nakedness, penniless; the other is the other; going out of oneself, approaching one's neighbor; transcendence is closeness, closeness is responsibility for the other, substitution for the other, atonement for the other, condition - or uncondition - of hostage. "

“It doesn't fill me with good, but it forces me to be good, better than the good to be preserved. To be good means deficit, decay and folly in being - it is excellence and height beyond being. This means that ethics does not represent a moment of being, but that it is different and better than being. "

Levinas described the subject in a three-tier relationship to its exteriority, its external world, which is determined by the other. These three stages can be understood as a descent to the original. The knowing subject is the intentional ego, which, as with Husserl, differs in act of consciousness and object of consciousness. The thought figure of the intentional ego is impersonal, without historical identity and a general characteristic of all people. In contrast, the separate subject is a singularity, an absolute being-for-itself. Through its egoism, this subject relates its environment to itself and appropriates it as part of itself. However, it cannot completely take possession of its lifeworld, so that it is also confronted with threats and destructive elements. The only certainty is death as the limit of his lifeworld. Only the receiving subject can preserve the strangeness of the other. The respect for the other, the recognition of his freedom and independence only opens access to the idea of ​​infinity, to a transcendence that lies outside of thought. By being called upon by the other, the subject is given the opportunity of ethics, love, compassion and direct encounter with God.

Since there is also a third party alongside the other who is a different other to the other, the demand for justice arises; because the third party has the same right to recognition and the assumption of responsibility as the other.

"In the vicinity of the other - to the point of obsession - all the others beset me, the others are for the other, and already the obsession cries out for justice, it demands measure and knowledge, it is consciousness."


In his essay Subject and Power , Michel Foucault explained that the subject of the subject can be seen as an essential drive for all of his work. He understands the subject as the empirical ego that is culturally and historically determined.

“The word subject has two meanings: it denotes the subject who is subject to the rule of another and is dependent on him; and it denotes the subject who is bound to its own identity through consciousness and self-knowledge. "

Foucault turned against the idea of ​​an autonomous subject and emphasized the historicity of humans and their integration into social living conditions. He therefore rejected Husserl's idea of ​​a transcendental self on principle.

“But if there is one path that I reject, then it is the one (you could call it the phenomenological path in general) that gives absolute priority to the observing subject, who ascribes a fundamental role to an action, who attaches its own point of view to the Origin of all historicity - in short, which leads to a transcendental consciousness. "

Compared to traditional philosophy, the modern understanding of the subject is strongly influenced by thinking in terms of structures.

“You discover that man's possibility ultimately rests on a set of structures that he can think and describe, but of which he is not the subject or modern consciousness. This reduction of people to structures in which they are integrated seems to me to be characteristic of today's thinking. "

In the course of his work, Foucault has found very different approaches to a critical cultural philosophy which, as “archeology” or “genealogy”, are intended to shed light on the background of current social structures or discourses. A discourse is “a field of regularities for different positions of subjectivity”. Such fields are religion, economics, science, sexuality or politics. Foucault asks about the role and functions of a subject within such a discourse. The human being thus becomes a “subordinate sovereign, a viewed observer”. He demonstrates this view, for example, in the study The Birth of the Clinic .

“In the hospital, the patient is the subject of his illness, i. H. it is a case; in the clinic it is only about one example: Here the patient is an accident of his illness, the temporary object of which she has seized. "

For Foucault there is no order in history that is subject to the reason of a world spirit as in Hegel's. Man is something special (particular), for which no universal laws apply. Rather, his life and death are determined by chance and contingency .

"These are the caesuras that split up the moment and tear the subject apart into a multitude of possible positions and functions."

Beyond the question of the direct disciplining of the subject, which is also an issue in surveillance and punishment , Foucault developed the concept of governmentality , which characterizes the practice of modern society of regulating the individual subject's own dynamics no longer through direct compulsion, but through the Rules of a system such as the liberal economic order or a parliamentary form of government. A self-control arises on an institutional and supra-individual level, in which the subject is indirectly forced to a "normal" behavior by a set of rules. Deviating behavior that disrupts “security” will be sanctioned.

Foucault opened up a new perspective with studies on technologies of the self , in which he dealt with subjective self-interpretation and the practices of self-understanding. He was concerned with "forms in which the individual affects himself." The topic is questions about how cultural conditions influence how the subject gains a certain attitude to his ethics, his soul and his body.


Also in the system theory of Niklas Luhmann the subject-object split is still effective, by distinguishing between mental and physical systems and thus between an inner and an outer world.

“Man may appear as a unit to himself or to observers, but he is not a system. A system can certainly not be formed from a majority of people. Such assumptions would overlook the fact that the human being cannot even observe for himself what is happening in him in terms of physical, chemical, living processes. His life is inaccessible to his psychic system, it has to itch, hurt or draw attention to itself in some other way in order to stimulate another level of system formation, the consciousness of the psychic system, to operations. "

Communication , the key concept in Luhmann's systems theory, always takes place on the empirical, observable level, so that it would be a mistake to speak of the knowledge of a subject. For Luhmann, it is not the human being that carries knowledge, but rather his consciousness. Because one cannot see from observation how someone perceives, but only based on reactions that he perceives, the type of perception must remain a black box for Luhmann . The ability to cognize is a property of the psychic system consciousness, which becomes active in a self-reflexive manner by reducing complexity and constructing the contents of consciousness .

“Every reference, be it to the system itself or to its environment, is a construct of observation. The distinction objective / subjective (in the sense of modern language usage) thus collapses and is replaced by the distinction self-reference / external reference, which is a structural moment of observation itself in each case and in both directions. "

In perception, consciousness is a passive element of communication and not an independent acting subject.

“It would therefore hardly be appropriate to say that consciousness itself determines what it puts into communication. Communication specifies itself in the limitation of what is consciously possible. Precisely for this reason it misses out on realities when one declares consciousness (whose consciousness?) The subject of communication and knowledge. "

Luhmann's conclusion is: "We can also give up the concept of the subject." For him, the talk of the subject had a historical, socio-psychological function in the context of the Enlightenment, in order to facilitate the detachment from religious worldviews.

“After the high-risk rejection of all religious or metaphysical-cosmic institu- tion of knowledge, one could not immediately take the next step and let go of any thought of an ultimate external foundation. This step was met as far as possible and what had the function of an external foundation was transferred to the consciousness. For this, consciousness had to be understood as a ´transcendental´ state of affairs going beyond empiricities, as ´subject´ of the world. Thus the self-reference of consciousness, called the subject, could be used as a source of knowledge and as a source of knowledge of the conditions of knowledge. "


Donald Davidson developed a linguistic-philosophical argument to explain how self-knowledge comes about . For him there are "three types of knowledge":

  • immediate knowledge from a first-person perspective ,
  • causal, insecure knowledge through perception and
  • inferred by observing the behavior of others knowledge of other minds .

For Davidson these three forms of knowledge cannot be reduced to one another . As essential, unsolved problems of philosophy in this context he mentions:

  • the explanation of how the knowledge of the outside world can be described on the basis of the knowledge of one's own consciousness,
  • the question of how far knowledge of the psychic of others goes beyond the purely observable and
  • the inability to come up with a solution to the mind-body problem .

Davidson takes the thesis that a satisfactory answer to all three questions is to be sought in whether and how it can be stated that subjective truths based on convictions can also be reconciled with an objective truth. It must be checked whether there is an insurmountable logical or even epistemological barrier between spirit and nature. This roughly corresponds to Kant's question whether the conditions of the possibility of knowledge permit objective knowledge.

The difference between direct knowledge of one's own psychic and indirect knowledge of the other's psychic is also referred to as the problem of the asymmetry of knowledge. Behaviorists like Mead or Davidson's teacher Quine were basically of the opinion that this asymmetry could largely be overcome by observing behavior. For Davidson this assumption is a petitio principii that there is no sufficiently secure justification for this hypothesis. Like Kant, Davidson is concerned with the refutation of skepticism , which at the same time includes a rejection of idealism. His argument is - as with Wittgenstein - that humans depend on communication in a common language. Communication succeeds when an interpreter assumes that an utterance corresponds to the attitude of a speaker and when he understands the meaning of the utterance, he can check whether the utterance corresponds to his own perception or his own knowledge. The interpreter assumes that the speaker perceives the world in a similar way to himself (principle of correspondence) and he assumes that the speaker's utterances are fundamentally coherent (principle of coherence ). Davidson speaks of a "benevolent interpretation".

This thesis says that the interpersonal agreement about propositional utterances provide an objective yardstick. When another confirms the content of a perception or a thought, one can accept it as true. It follows from this that the better one knows one's own consciousness and the meaning of statements about it, the more one knows about the consciousness of another subject. By expressing your own thoughts (first-person perspective), you can determine their truthfulness based on the reaction of an interpreter. In this respect, one's own thoughts, their logical structure and their meanings are a result of communication. The always existing blurring is reduced by constantly checking the meaning of terms on the basis of statements about perceptions and thoughts, similar to how physical measuring devices are brought to a certain degree of accuracy through calibration and calibration. In linguistic communication there is therefore no barrier between nature and spirit, if one looks at communication holistically ( holism ) and allows a certain fuzziness (indeterminacy).

“Our thoughts are something 'internal' and 'subjective' because we know them in a way that no other person can know them. But although having a thought is necessarily something individual, this does not apply to the content of the thought. Conceptually, the thoughts we have in mind are located in the world in which we live and which we know we inhabit with others. Even our thoughts about our own mental states occupy the same conceptual space and are located on the same public map. "

Self-knowledge is founded on the knowledge of the other psychic and the world. Only in this triad can a person understand himself as a subject who necessarily participates in a communicative community.

Brain and subject

A completely new look at the question of the subject arises from neurophilosophy , which as a discipline had its first impetus in the 1980s and, due to the interdisciplinary connection between neuroscience and philosophy of mind, led to a sometimes very controversial dialogue between natural scientists and philosophers . As early as 1892, William James distinguished between a physical self, a mental self and a spiritual or spiritual self. Karl Popper and the neuroscientist John Eccles had given the debate an early impetus with their joint work Das Ich und seineirn 1977. Patricia and Paul Churchland opened up a radically materialistic perspective on the subject . What these considerations have in common is that the brain is the place of the self, which is to be explained in more detail through empirical studies.

Central to the discussion is the difference between the first-person perspective , in which one experiences phenomena of consciousness subjectively through self- observation, and the external view, which inevitably has to be adopted in neuroscientific investigations. Like psychologists, neuroscientists have no direct access to the mental states of consciousness of their patients and can only interpret what is observable ( neuronal correlate of consciousness ). In the external perspective, the subject remains the object of investigation. A distinction is made between a neural (physical) and a mental (phenomenal) consciousness. The neural observations for their part remain closed to subjective perspective. Nobody can perceive their own brain and its activities. You only have access to your own brain from the outside through imaging procedures, as every third person has.

The naturalistic challenge

The history of materialism goes back to Leucippus , Democritus and Epicurus . In the Age of Enlightenment , La Mettrie should be mentioned from 1750 , followed by d'Holbach and Helvétius . Forerunners in the 19th century were Ludwig Büchner , Heinrich Czolbe , Jakob Moleschott or Carl Vogt ( materialism dispute ).

This tradition continues today, among others, Daniel Dennett , who advocates radical functionalism . He regards the human mind as a virtual machine

“You enter the brain through the eye, go along the optic nerve, all around the cerebral cortex, look behind every nerve cell and then suddenly appear in daylight at the tip of a motor nerve impulse, scratch your head and wonder where the self has gone is. "

For him, the content of consciousness is linked to neural processes. Mental phenomena such as self-confidence or intentionality are useful tools for the organism to orientate itself in the world. They are just as much a subject of scientific research as physical or chemical facts. It is therefore more beneficial to make behavior the subject of research rather than subjective experience. Behavior is explainable because there are real, recurring patterns ( real patterns ). To investigate behavior from the external perspective, he proposed a method that he called "heterophenomenology", as opposed to classical introspective phenomenology. Statements about intentional states are collected and systematized without evaluating them in terms of their truthfulness. The analysis of these statements enables predictions about future behavior.

Dennett advocates a theory of intentional stances, according to which intentional terms such as thinking, wanting, feeling, experiencing or feeling are formed to describe the behavior of other individuals. They have a practical function because they can be used to explain wishes and beliefs and to predict future behavior without having to resort to causal causes. In addition to the intentional descriptions, there are also physical ( physical stances ) and functional ( design stances ) descriptions of the same behavior. Because of their pragmatic usefulness, intentional attitudes are indispensable for people, regardless of whether they represent a situation correctly. For Dennett, intentional and functional descriptions are fictional. Talking about the mental is purely metaphorical. Propositional statements about mental states are interpretations of physical facts. Reality can only be described on the physical level - in relation to the subject, especially in biology and neurosciences. In the physical world, intentional attitudes have the function of satisfying the needs of systems. Dennett sees such systems not only in living beings, but also in mechanical devices such as a chess computer that wants to win. Even a thermostat has intentions for him, namely to create a certain room temperature. Such an attribution is possible for him because speaking of intentionality is for him a certain way of describing a physical state. Humans are nothing more than perfect semantic machines.

Another naturalistic interpretation of intentionality goes back to Fred Dretske . While Dennett's position can be characterized as "non-factualism", Dretske accepted intentions as real. Intentions are internal states that have a "correlation" to external objects and facts. There is a causal connection between the object and the intentional state. The common example of this is a car's speedometer, which shows its speed. The difference between a human and a machine, however, is that machines only react immediately to signals, while humans also understand the meaning of signals. Although the drug sniffer dog recognizes from his perceptual abilities that a piece of baggage contains drugs, he does not know that this finding may result in a longer prison sentence for the holder of the baggage. Dretske's thesis is that meanings are also the cause of human action.

In the German-speaking debate, naturalistic positions are represented by, among others, the philosopher Ansgar Beckermann , the neuroscientists Gerhard Roth , Wolf Singer and the psychologist Hans J. Markowitsch .

The explanation gap

Thomas Nagel is known for his essay What is it like to be a bat? . With this work, Nagel pointed out that the dominant discussion in the analytical philosophy of the mind about mental states in the 1970s had not yet solved the fundamental problem of the transition from a biological-neural explanation to the tangible phenomena of consciousness.

“The most important and characteristic property of conscious mental phenomena is still very little understood. Most reductionist theories don't even try to explain them. A careful and thorough investigation will show that no currently available concept of reduction is applicable to them. "

Part of the wholeness of the subject is that it can qualify experiences as its own, which belong to its being, and that this wholeness cannot be grasped descriptively, but is immediate. For humans it feels in a certain way that is difficult to describe to have a sense of oneself.

“The fact that an organism has conscious experience at all essentially means that it is somehow to be that organism. There may be further implications as to the form of the experience; there may even be (though I doubt it) implications regarding the behavior of the organism. Basically, however, an organism has conscious mental states if and only if it is somehow to be this organism, if it is somehow for this organism. "

With this feeling of being a certain subject, it is important that this is connected with the knowledge that the subjective experience of the outside world, i.e. a third person, is not accessible. Even if the bat's brain states could be fully explained neuroscientifically, no one would know what it feels like to have bat consciousness.

“If the subjective character of the experience can only be fully grasped from a single perspective, then every step towards greater objectivity, ie less attachment to a specific experience perspective, does not bring us closer to the real nature of the phenomenon: it leads us further away from her. "

With his presentation, Nagel updated a thesis that Emil Du Bois-Reymond had already formulated in 1872 in a lecture on the limits of the knowledge of nature :

“Something new occurs at some point in the development of life on earth, which we do not know and whose determination is not important here, something new, previously unheard of, something again like the essence of matter and force and like the first movement incomprehensible . [...]. This new incomprehensible is consciousness. I will now, as I believe, show in a very compelling way that not only with the present state of our knowledge, consciousness cannot be explained from its material conditions, which everyone probably admits, but that, according to the nature of things, it can never be explained from these conditions will be explainable. "

Joseph Levine described this open, seemingly unbridgeable question as an explanatory gap :

“We have excellent reasons to believe that mental phenomena [...] must be physical and / or natural phenomena. On the other hand, we also have excellent reasons to believe that conscious experience cannot be explained physically and / or scientifically. "


In contemporary philosophy, John Searle took up the question of intentionality again in a form that can already be found in Franz Brentano :

"The basis of both psychology and natural science is [...] above all the inner perception of one's own psychological phenomena, which becomes a source for them."

Intentionality as a representation of mental states presupposes consciousness as a subjective experience. For Searle, intentionality is an intrinsic characteristic of the mind. "Mental phenomena are caused by neurophysiological processes in the brain and are themselves characteristics of the brain." With this, he primarily turns against the computer metaphor for mental processes.

“When the question is asked, 'Can we assign a computational interpretation to the brain?'; then the answer is trivially: yes, because we can assign a computational interpretation to anything and everything. If the question is, 'Are brain processes in themselves computational?', Then the answer is trivially: No, because nothing is computational in itself - except of course the case where a person consciously and intentionally goes through arithmetic steps. "

The decisive difference to the computer is that the mind as subjective consciousness intentionally refers to an outside world and is thus the basis of action. Intentionality has no independent existence, but is an always present characteristic of an experience. Only through the directionality of the intentionality can a subject act consciously and perform speech acts . With Searle, thinking precedes language. For Searle, consciousness includes “ontological subjectivity”. “Every state of consciousness is someone's state of consciousness”. Consciousness is a real phenomenon of a real world that cannot be grasped by a third person without reduction. Although he grants consciousness an independent existence, Searle does not want to fall into a dualism. He therefore regards consciousness as an emergent function of the brain that has developed in the course of evolution. The brain is a biological system like any other human organ that contains the function of consciousness just as the stomach contains the function of digestion. Searle explains a connection between neural states and consciousness phenomena as a process of upward causation.

"From what we know about the brain, it seems to me to be quite obvious that mental macro-phenomena are all caused by lower-level micro-phenomena."

Because consciousness is an emergent phenomenon of the biological organ brain, it has causal effects through intentional reference. It is therefore also the subject of neuroscience and must be researched through it.

“I am not saying that consciousness is not a strange and wonderful phenomenon. On the contrary, I think we should be amazed at the fact that evolutionary processes have produced nervous systems that are able to create and maintain subjective states of consciousness. "

Bennett and Hacker

Similar to Eccles and Popper, the neuroscientist Max Bennett and the philosopher Peter Hacker have commented on the possibility of explaining mental phenomena through neuroscientific research. In doing so, they orientate them strongly to Wittgenstein's late philosophy. They characterize self-confidence as “a human being's only ability to reflexive thinking and knowledge, which stands and falls with language possession.” They particularly criticize the hidden transfer of the Cartesian dualism between body and mind to the relationship between body and brain. In the talk of a brain that perceives, thinks, feels and wants, which is particularly widespread in the neurosciences, they believe that only the “mind” is replaced by the “brain”, without any changes to the basic model of thought. Here they see a “ mereological fallacy ” in which a part (the brain) is attributed properties that can actually only be predicted by a person as a whole. Among many others, they criticize António Damásio , Gerald M. Edelman , Nicholas Humphrey and Colin Blakemore as prominent examples .

Bennett / Hacker reject the concept of a "self" as a separate entity . For them it is a self-illusion. The self does not have an ontological status of its own. There is no "I" in me. With the first-person pronoun a person describes himself holistically. The statement “I am Christoph” does not describe Christoph's ego, but the whole person. A statement “I was in Hamburg yesterday” cannot be meaningfully translated into “my self was in Hamburg yesterday”. “The experiential subject, correctly understood, is not an entity with the name“ the I ”or“ the self ”, but the living person.” Thoughts are not perceived, but the person thinks.

Part of the Bennett / Hacker conception is the thesis that language is not a “translation” of non-linguistic thinking. Language then precedes thinking, not the other way around. You are opposing a view already held by Locke that words represent ideas in the mind. Rather, the meaning of words is independent of images. Statements can be understood even without creating an image. Similarly, language is not required to think, but language expands the horizon of thinking. In the course of language acquisition, the child learns to express perceptions, to establish relationships and finally to use personal pronouns. It develops the ability to relate to someone else and to oneself. It reacts to the perceptible behavior of its environment.

“The young child instinctively responds to parental emotions; it reacts without thinking or inferring to the tender care on the part of the parents, to their anger, to their approval and disapproval, to their smiles and tears. The idea that the child (or his brain) to the to do, a model 'of the spirit of his parents, construct' needs, which is then placed in a position whose behavior predict is certainly just as ludicrous as the idea that that the chick, kitten or puppy constructs a model of the mind of its parents. "

Only when the child has learned to grasp and describe his perceptions, sensations, experiences and thoughts as his own, can he also reflect on them. For this reason, language is constitutive for self-confidence. Only then can a person deal with their dispositions and abilities and come to self-knowledge and gradually develop an autobiography and an awareness of identity. Bennett / Hacker consider the description of self-awareness as an "inner sense", the gaining of knowledge about oneself through introspection, an inner self-sensing as the basis of self-conception to be a mistaken idea.

“The key to understanding self-awareness, what it is and what makes it possible, does not lie in neural self-sensing mechanisms in the brain, but in normal human command of speech. And the key to understanding its neural basis lies in understanding the neural conditions of the possibility of the forms of thought that are a question of the possibility of speaking. These may or may not be associated with neural self-scanning units. "


Theory of the self-model according to Thomas Metzinger

The theory of the self-model developed by Thomas Metzinger is based on the scientific results of the neurosciences , similar to how Franz Brentano and Wilhelm Wundt used the results of psychological considerations in their time. He describes the content of self-consciousness immediately given in subjective experience as the "phenomenal self". Metzinger provocatively speaks of an “I-illusion” because a self or a subject is not given as a physical unit. Brain structures and various reactions in the brain when stimulated accordingly can be observed. Because direct access to subjective experience is not possible due to the first-person perspective, Metzinger suggests a phenomenological approach to explain self-confidence. Metzinger assumes as a fact that humans have cognitive knowledge from their inner perspective. When it comes to introspection, three phenomenal properties seem particularly important to him:

  • With “Meinigkeit” he describes the fact that individual phenomena experienced in the space of consciousness are perceived as one's own. This is the affiliation of body, feelings and thoughts with the self.
  • “Selfhood” characterizes a pre-reflective self-confidence. The “I-feeling” is experienced as always present and inevitable.
  • The experience always has a perspective that starts from a centered I and is directed towards something outside of this I. Self-consciousness includes the intentional relation between the ego and the world perceived as outside, which has the ego as its center.

At the empirical neurobiological level, imaging methods have shown that complex activation patterns are associated with the activity of self-reflection, especially in the cortex . Anomalies due to brain injury or mental illness show that physiological changes affect the phenomenal self, which can lead to loss of opinion or selfhood ( phantom pain , schizophrenia, etc.). Functionally, one can understand the neuronal states and their changes as causal mechanisms that control the interaction with the environment in a stimulus-response relationship. The input comes not only from the five senses of perception, but also from internal organs, blood pressure or other areas of the brain such as the upper brain stem or the hypothalamus , which have an influence on emotions and moods. The functional states form the "core-I" ( core-self ), composed of a biological, evolutionary formed, base, and the influences of the outside world. In this core ego, representations, including the self-representations, are formed which combine to form the content of the phenomenal self.

The key question in the self-model is how the elements of the phenomenal self, i.e., opinion, selfhood and perspectivity arise from the neural states. One can imagine a radio as a metaphor , with which very specific frequencies lead to a meaningful content. Metzinger speaks of "autoepistemic [self-recognizing] unity". The process includes, on the one hand, the presumed “phenomenal transparency”. This ensures that the representations in the brain are not represented as representational processes but as objects that are immediately present. This “filter” excludes the fact of representation as such in the process of presentation. In this way the naive realism arises in everyday life , which assumes that the world is as it appears as an idea. Metzinger sees the cause, on the one hand, of the high processing speeds in the brain and, on the other hand, the evolutionary effect that this type of environmental perception is particularly suitable for securing human existence. On the other hand, processes are responsible for the phenomenal self, which Metzinger calls the “intentionality relation”. The representations contain references to something, which can also be references to one's own thinking. A multitude of intentionality relations running at the same time creates a space of consciousness in which perceptions, memories and spontaneous imaginations are contained. It is in these relationships that perspectivity and a sense of the present emerge, through which the first-person perspective is extended over time and experienced as an ongoing process.


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