Subjectivity involves understanding oneself as an autonomous, reflexive subject, defined by one’s emotions and individual experiences rather than by the external roles and obligations that one fills. Charles Taylor (1991) points to a “massive subjective turn of modern culture,” stemming from a cultural shift towards seeking self-fulfillment and a higher quality of life. This pursuit of self-fulfillment manifests as the construction of an individual path to happiness, as people live life more in terms of their own subjective experiences than in terms of rules or duties handed down from external sources. So, for example, a person might understand their sense of morality as inherent to him or herself as an individual, rather than as accepted without alteration from a religion. Heelas and Woodhead (2005: 2-3) describe the subjective turn as a “turn away from ‘life-as’ (life lived as a dutiful wife, father, husband, strong leader, self-made man, etc.) to ‘subjective life’ (life lived in deep connection with the unique experience of my self-in-relation).”
Subjectivity requires agency in order to act upon an object. The degree to which subjectivity is limited to humans is a source of debate. Theories such as Actor Network Theory differentiate between the subjectivity of agents and human subjectivity (Latour, 2005), whereas other theories focus exclusively on humans as subjective agents acting on each other and on non-subjective objects.
Considering subjectivity in terms of embodiment raises interesting questions on the subject of the body and the self and the experience of “being-in-the-world” as an embodied human subject (Merleau-ponty, 1962). If one is not defined by what one does, then there must be a separate, inner “self” that has some distance from the body and its actions. If a person is not (or does not choose to be) identified by, for example, his or her job, then that physical and emotional performance and investment is differentiated from the person’s subjective identity. This perception requires what Lionel Trilling (1974) refers to as “internal space,” an awareness of oneself as an individual who might be of interest and mysterious to others; people experience their bodies as housing a private inner self that can be separated from their external actions and performances. Individuals understand their embodied experiences – especially their emotional experiences – as creating a subjective understanding of the world that is more authentic than a prescribed, external set of rules.
Approaching one’s research in a subjective way requires acknowledging that one’s own ideas, emotions, and biases are too closely intertwined with the way one views the world to be separated. Methodologically, an awareness of subjectivity raises questions about how one can objectively claim to “know” something, without that knowledge being influenced by one’s own subjective experience. It also raises questions about the ability of one person to know or understand another’s motivations. In this case, bodies can be used to obscure as well as to reveal – a face-to-face interaction might lead to a different understanding of a person’s motivations and choices than a phone interview or a written account. Being aware of subjectivity means being cognizant of the layers between one’s own understanding and that of another person.
Heelas, Paul and Linda Woodhead. The Spiritual Revolution. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.
Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: an Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Phenomenology of Perception (New York: Routledge, 2012 [originally published in 1945]).
Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception is a classic in the philosophical study of the body. Arguing that the body is the medium of perception (perception understood as the primary way we grasp reality in an intelligible manner), Merleau-Ponty sought to overcome the mind-body distinction that was present in Descartes, and remained present in his philosophical predecessor, Husserl (see above). One of Merleau-Ponty’s most important contributions is the fact that we are not distinct from the world, but “bathed” in it. In other words, we are as much a part of the world as the world is a part of us; and we come to understand this through the ways we use our bodies. For example, in order to read something, we must adjust our eyes—and also our bodies—in order to get at the right distance from a text in order for us to read it. Get too close or too far away, and a text becomes unintelligible. These descriptions underscore for Merleau-Ponty the reality that our bodies are the very medium of perception, of intelligibility; and because of this, Merleau-Ponty came to understand our existence as inseparable from our physical, social, and cultural surroundings.
Taylor, Charles. The Ethics of Authenticity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991.
Trilling, Lionel. Sincerity and Authenticity. The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972.
Trilling’s book is based on a series of lectures he gave at Harvard in 1970. He examines literature as he considers “the moral life in the process of revising itself,” exploring a period of history during which sincerity had become the central focus of moral life and was, over time, being replaced by authenticity as the central focus. This shift in moral life followed people beginning to conceive of themselves as individuals with “internal space” that differentiates them from others; thus being true to oneself, to paraphrase Polonius, became an important measure of an individual’s morality.