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Throughout the 20th century, this question has been a focal point for psychologists, philosophers, and social scientists. Depending on one’s answer, very different philosophical paradigms emerge. After a century of dialogue and reflection, we begin to realize how difficult it is to separate the subject from the world. There is no clearly delineated boundary between inside and outside, between subjectivity and the objective world. It is becoming more and more clear that the self-experience of the subject, in all its complex forms, is determined by psychological, social, and political influences, and that it is indeed a very fragile construction. Furthermore, philosophers like Kant or Hume argue convincingly that all forms of experience must necessarily have a subjective and an objective dimension, which leads to the conclusion that a person’s view of the world is determined by the constitution of her subjectivity as well. One can draw this idea to a radical conclusion: Not only is there no world separate from our experience of it, there is also no subject, or subjective process, that can be separated from its environment. Subsequently, a radical constructionist could declare that there is no such thing as the “subject” in the sense of a naturally evolving psychological agency, as if it ripens like an apple on the tree. From this point of view, the ego is only a social construct, and the term “subject” refers to the underlying psychological process that produces ego-identity. Ideas like individual autonomy, or freedom as the self-determination of a conscious subject, are only the consequences of complex historical, social and political processes that determine the role of individuals in society. The ideas people hold of themselves are ideological constructions; they create the illusions of agency and personal power, but these are oftentimes delusional mechanisms that have much in common with psychotic features. From a social-constructivist point of view, the ego is not an autonomous agency or naturally evolving entity, but a stream of experience, and this experience has an inside and an outside boundary: one is the subject, the other the real.

The idea of an autonomous ego has flourished in the Western intellectual tradition based on a philosophical duality of mind and body. The duality derived from religious beliefs about the existence and the immortality of “souls.” The philosophical argument for this duality can be explained easily. We usually operate with an image of ourselves that separates us from our experience. Sensual data must be experienced by an underlying substratum, something that we can also call the human subject, and that cannot be identical with experience, or else there would be no self-consciousness, no reflection, and no memory. Just like sound is different from the ear, so is the experience of the world different from the subject itself. In this line of thinking, the subject is an information-processing system that transforms sensual data into experienced reality. This process is layered, and mostly unconscious, and it gives us a sense of active control over ourselves and our environment. We are largely unaware of the physiological and psychological machinery that transforms sensory input into human experience. Consciousness itself is a mysterious quality of mental processes, one in which it can fold back onto itself, and this self-reflection creates an awareness of oneself that gives rise to what we know as “ego.” Once self-awareness exists, the subject sees itself as different from its experience of the world, and the difference becomes a strong inside-outside distinction, a juxtaposition between the ego and the world. This duality informs our thinking: we begin to see binary distinctions everywhere, even though there is not much evidence for a universal duality in our surrounding reality.[2]

The first philosopher who attacks this foundation of Western philosophy in a systematic approach is Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). He writes in Beyond Good and Evil:

“With regard to the superstitions of logicians, I shall never tire of emphasizing a small, terse fact, which is unwillingly recognized by these credulous minds—namely, that a thought comes when “it” wishes, and not when “I” wish; so that it is a PERVERSION of the facts of the case to say that the subject “I” is the condition of the predicate “think.” ONE thinks; but that this “one” is precisely the famous old “ego,” is, to put it mildly, only a supposition, an assertion, and assuredly not an “immediate certainty.” After all, one has even gone too far with this “one thinks”—even the “one” contains an INTERPRETATION of the process, and does not belong to the process itself. One infers here according to the usual grammatical formula—”To think is an activity; every activity requires an agency that is active; consequently”… It was pretty much on the same lines that the older atomism sought, besides the operating “power,” the material particle wherein it resides and out of which it operates—the atom. More rigorous minds, however, learnt at last to get along without this “earth-residuum,” and perhaps some day we shall accustom ourselves, even from the logician’s point of view, to get along without the little “one” (to which the worthy old “ego” has refined itself).”[3]

In his analysis, he describes the ego as a linguistic construction – just as we assume that an activity must have an actor, we assume that thinking must be done by a subject. A closer analysis shows that this is not the case, since thoughts are not produced “at will” – when a thought comes to one’s mind, who is the actor?  We get confused about who we are, because we use language as if it were reality, and since we operate as masters within speech,  we automatically assume that the ability to speak about reality also gives us the power to shape and transform this reality. But reality is not synonymous with language.

The reason for this confusion lies in the symbolic nature of the human subject. Language consists of a system of signifiers, and signifiers are a special class of non-natural signs. For them, the relation between the sign and what it signifies is not naturally determined; therefore signifiers can represent anything, even the void itself. Once humans begin to express themselves within language, by giving names to objects, or representing themselves within language through the pronoun “I,” a symbolic world of inner experience has been created. Symbols and signifiers that express the subject in relation to its environment are the materials that create meaning for us. The reality in which subjectivity constitutes itself is random and opaque; but the human being is a creature who is driven by this instinct to generate meaning, just like birds build nests. Everything that enters our lives becomes the material by which we create meaning and identity when it is translated into language. This meaning can range from mythologies, religions, philosophies and ideologies, to sophisticated scientific world-views. The events that form our lives are oftentimes trivial, random, or ugly, but they initialize our existence and make life real, not just a thought process. We begin to free ourselves from the randomness of these events by ritualizing them, repeating them, or assigning a meaning to them that originates in our needs rather than in reality itself. The constitution of subjectivity itself can be compared to the creation of a language. Signs become symbols when people use them in order to create their own definitions of what things are. Language, therefore, does not primarily describe reality for us; it mainly carries a system of order that originates in the human need to organize the world according to our needs.

A language cannot be created at will; a context of interpretation has to exist prior to the creation of any language. This implies that there is a dimensional shift, a gap between reality and language. Neither language nor the subject emerges continuously from reality; each comes into existence as a discontinuity. Once it exists, it transforms the reality within which it exists forever, because it creates new systems of signification which are themselves real. The human being is random, contingent, and nevertheless absolute. It bridges the gap between the symbolic order and the real: As ego it is an object of language, and at the same time it is the subject that speaks, the animal capable of language, and therefore caught up in a process of meaning-making. Language creates reality, but it is also a symbolic space that tries to mirror and describe “real” reality, that which lies outside the human mind. This duplication causes the confusion that has haunted our thinking for millennia, and has caused all kinds of philosophical errors.

[2] Here are some examples for binary distinctions that form our world-views: mind/body, life/death, finite/infinite, good/bad, descriptive/prescriptive, culture/nature, present/past, male/female, subject/object, yin/yang, and so on.

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche: BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL. Translated by Helen Zimmern. Chapter 1, Number 17.