Subject as Object

by Thomas Cummins

in architecture, art, philosophy, psychology, self-portraiture

Even though the individual might presume s/he is somehow special, s/he needs verification in the real world – either by another person or by an object that somehow reflects his/her specialness (like a trophy or a car for example.) So when one person meets another person for the first time, there is a fight for recognition from the other.”

How does one concisely articulate Kant’s destruction of our feeble notions about space and time? In Jaspers’ series on the great philosophers, he explains that Kant began by not bothering to question if we can know anything but, instead, he opted to take the more practical approach of asking the obvious question of how it is that we do, in fact, know some things. For example, how is it possible that I can have some mastery over space and time and know, ahead of time, that if I leave Chicago now I will probably arrive in Minneapolis in about seven hours? Kant was extremely interested in how the interior thoughts of the individual (the subject) were able to correlate with his/her environment (an object) and Kant’s subsequent inquiry into this subject-object relationship led him to some fundamental questions that philosophy had previously ignored. Jaspers explains that the subject-object relationship was such an inherent part of the human condition that it had been overlooked for thousands of years but it still, nonetheless, remained a simple, yet perplexing, question – “The thing that I know is not myself; what is it then? I am not unless I have objects, sensory data, before me; what indeed am I without them?” Therefore, Jaspers notes that there is no thinking without an object and, therefore, consciousness operates in the dichotomy between the thinking subject and the thought object.

Kant realized immediately that he was doing something revolutionary and he delved further to decisively question whether the existence in space and time that we perceive derives essentially from our interior, as previous Rationalists like Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz had insisted, or rather from our worldly experiences, as the Empiricists like Locke, Berkeley, and Hume had argued. Kant, by questioning whether time and space really exist, proposed that these dimensions are simply products of the human imagination. Jaspers elucidates some of Kant’s basic arguments on the dimensions of space as mere figments of the mind by explaining space cannot be withdrawn from experience because it is from the very start, at the base of every experience and the fact that it is impossible to form a representation without space; but one can conceive of a space without objects. Jaspers says that Kant’s main argument for the illusion of space, though, was “The insights of geometry are not gained from experience but are verified in experience. How is this to be accounted for? The subject, by its form of intuition, recognizes a reality that has previously been formed by it.”

Kant comes to similar conclusions with time and so it follows that it is as if we are forever looking through what one could call space-time goggles. If we were to wear green-tinted goggles, everything would have to appear to us green. So as part of the human condition, we are born with these irremovable space-time goggles and everything has to appear to us in only space and time. Therefore, the space-time dimensions are not, necessarily, characteristics of our environment but are rather structures of our mind that conform all sensory experience into something we can comprehend. Any order that we see in our surroundings is exactly the order we have projected onto it or as Jaspers puts it – “The subject, by its formation of intuition, recognizes a reality that has been previously been formed by it.” This is why I know that I can leave Chicago and probably be in Minneapolis in about seven hours because these are the dimensions and rules that my mind dictate and work in. Jaspers notes that Kant had taken a radical approach and that he does not, like earlier philosophers, investigate objects. What he inquires into is our knowledge of objects. This so-called Copernican revolution refocused on the individual as the ultimate source of his/her own experience (albeit as an oblivious creator) and it effectively helped to rejuvenate the arguments of the Rationalists after Humes formidable skepticism. To say that the mind is nothing more than a blank slate, as the Empiricists believed, is tantamount to saying that a bathtub full of silicon chips is a computer. Much like a computer, the mind has to be preconfigured to process information in the logical manner that it obviously does. Moreover, this Copernican revolution was not limited solely to the dimensions of space and time but constituted the entire experience of the individual, including causality and substance which were only two of twelve different mental categories that Kant had also designated as well.

If the consciousness is a dichotomy between the thinking subject and a thought object, then it would not be long before Hegel came along and questioned further what exactly happens when the thought object is another person. It then follows that the consciousness is a dichotomy between the thinking subject and another thinking subject. Kojeve’s famous lectures on Hegel’s Slave/Master allegory details, psychologically, how the individual forms his/her identity despite the fact that we are usually focused on something outside our self. Kojeve begins by reiterating Kant’s insight that “The man who contemplates is ‘absorbed’ by what he contemplates; the ‘knowing subject’ ‘loses’ himself in the object that is known. Contemplation reveals the object, not the subject” and he goes on to say that “The man who is ‘absorbed’ by the object that he is contemplating can be ‘brought back to himself’ only by a Desire; by the desire to eat, for example.” Accordingly, even though we are focused mainly on other objects, our Desire motivates us to the point of saying “I…” Once we acquire the object of the Desire, like food perhaps, we destroy, transform, engulf, or “negate” it. In this manner, the ‘I’ “preserves its own reality by the overcoming of a reality other than its own, by the ‘transformation’ of an alien reality into it own reality, by the ‘assimilation’, the ‘internalization’ of a foreign, ‘external’ reality.”

Because people naturally tend to objectify everything around them, the question again has to arise as to what exactly happens when one person hypothetically meets another person for the first time. Accordingly, “one sees in the other only an animal (and a dangerous and hostile one at that) that is to be destroyed.” Both would presumably objectify the other and, by doing so, they would deny and question eachother’s uniqueness and identity. The original individual “has the ‘subjective certainty’ of being a man. But his certainty is not yet knowledge. The value that he attributes to himself could be illusory; the idea he has of himself could be false or mad. For that idea to be a truth, it must reveal an objective reality.” Even though the individual might presume s/he is somehow special, s/he needs verification in the real world – either by another person or by an object that somehow reflects his/her specialness (like a trophy or a car for example.) So when one person meets another person for the first time, there is a fight for recognition from the other. By obtaining the recognition of another, they prove themselves, they transform the purely subjective certainty that each has of his own value into objective, or universally recognized, truth. Paradoxically, the end result is “Self-Consciousness exists in and for itself in and by the fact that it exists for another Self-Consciousness.” The Desire that intitially forms the ‘I…’ is now, specifically, a Desire for another’s Desire. Indeed, “the ‘origin’ of Self-Consciousness is … a fight to the death for recognition.”

This battle for recognition cannot end in murder, however, for the recognition of the other would never be obtained and would ultimately defeat the original purpose of the fight. In the end, there has to be a Master, who conquers through superior force, and a Slave, an inferior being who submits his/her will so as not to be eliminated. While the Slave now recognizes the Master as the superior being, this recognition is one-sided because the Master, in return, only views the Slave as an object. However, the recognition the Master fought so hard to win is ironically never fufilled because he is recognized by someone whom he does not recognize. Moreover, others recognize the Master as Master only because he has a Slave and so the Master’s existence is forever dependent on a being which he never acknowledges.

The most ironic thing of all is that, in the end, it is ultimately only the Slave who achieves the self-affirmation that both of these entities seek. This, in part, is due to the fact that the Slave is actually motivated to change for the better while the Master, on the otherhand, is idle with victory and forever content to effortlessly consume the products of the Slave. While, initially, the primitive competitors were completely subject to the forces of nature, the Slave has now turned the tables and mastered nature to work according to his will. The Master, on the otherhand, is always precariously at the mercy of nature because s/he is forever dependent on his/her base Desires as well as on the Slave whose work fulfills these base Desires. As Kojeve explains “The Master, who does not work, produces nothing stable outside of himself. He merely destroys.” Hegel, therefore, comes to the conclusion that it is only by work, that man realizes himself objectively as man. Only after producing an artificial object is man himself really and objectively. When the time we spend on this earth is converted and focused into an object of work, we see our temporal efforts reflected in physical space within an actual tangible object and therefore, as in the case of art, we are now capable of seeing a manifestation of our own soul.

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