Riffing On Subjectivity

Glendale, California
Sunday, October 1, 2017


Riffing On Subjectivity

Many of my patients struggle with the word subjectivity.

And who can blame them?

It’s a tough word.

Subjectivity refers to the human subject, the experience of being human. It describes your sense of your self. If you reflect on your experience of reading this right now, you are noticing your subjectivity.

I write in my backyard right now. I look out over my small garden, seeing the plants, the bird feeders and the fountain, hearing a few birds chirping, and viewing the patio table strewn with notebooks, articles, and one now-warm Amstel Light beer. In doing so, I notice my own subjectivity.

Supposedly, the word subjectivity has two distinct meanings:

  1. The quality of being based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions. In other words, you feel subjected to an influence. The media shapes us all, as I’ve noted in prior posts, as do our interpersonal relationships, our jobs, our lives.
  2. The quality of existing in someones mind rather than the external world. This definition refers to the idea that others, hopefully, know you exist. They think about you; they contact you. You are a subject to them.


No wonder folks find it so difficult.

But it gets worse.

In philosophical circles, subjectivity has become increasingly popular as a topic. If you look it up, you’ll see a sharp increase in its usage during the 1960s. It’s big in psychoanalysis; prior to that, it was big in existential philosophy. That philosophical school concerns itself with the problems of existence—like death, meaninglessness, responsibility and aloneness.

I know.


Philosophers add a third definition. They use it to refer to being a subject, broadly meaning an entity having agency, a capacity to act upon or wield power over some other entity.

Strangely then, agency is also considered part of subjectivity.

Agency refers to willfulness. For example, I am the agent of writing this blog. I planted most of the backyard flora, bought the bird feeders, and put in the fountain.

(Actually, it weighs a ton and so paid someone else to put it in.)

If you think about it, though, the word subjectivity seems more related to passivity than activity.

I am the subject of a police inquiry. (Thankfully not.)

I have been subjected to abuse. (Not too badly.)

I am the subject of a novel. (Sadly not.)

Notice how these words suggest your subjugation, your powerlessness, even your slavishness. You cannot help it. If you read this, you know the English language.

Did you choose it? Probably not. You were subjugated into it.

You wear Western clothing. You don’t wear a toga; you don’t wear a boubou (or bubu). You were also subjugated into that.

Subjugation means the action of bringing someone or something under domination or control.


And it’s so close to the word for own personal experiences!

I despise most of the words in my own field. However, I particularly like the word intersubjectivity. It baffles my patients even more. I use it mostly in couples therapy.

Intersubjectivity refers to the process in which persons share their subjectivities with one another. It’s an easy way to think about intimacy: Your intimates are persons who know you, with whom you share your hopes, dreams, fears; they understand your subjectivity (or part of it).

Think about how intensely private are our own conscious experiences.

Unless you are hallucinating out on Colorado Boulevard—shouting obscenities, running from space aliens, or feeling as if your skin is being flayed—no one knows your private thoughts or feelings. They are your own silent worlds; they represent, arguably, the only thing you truly own.

In truth, we walk around in a state of incredible aloneness just like the existentialists say.

No one knows our private selves unless we share them.

I recommend sharing them.


(If you like this blog, please tell your friends, family, and pets to subscribe by opening up alankarbelnig.com, clicking on any blog, scrolling to the bottom, and signing up. Like any selfless writer, I always seek more readers. Thanks so much! – Alan)





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