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Humans as subjects

Updated on October 8, 2015
The outlines of the shape of men as an artwork. The art is an object but are the men considered subjects?
The outlines of the shape of men as an artwork. The art is an object but are the men considered subjects? | Source


"There is no difference between a human being and a subject in Philosophy". Such a statement implies that a human being and a subject is one and the same but I beg to differ. A subject is understood as an observer in contrast to an object which is observed. I believe the relationship between a human and a subject changes with the political context in which he lives in. In this essay, I will prove that there exist a difference between a human being and a subject by considering various philosophers’ texts and perhaps in the process even identify what exactly differentiates the two.

Humans as Thinking Subjects

A basic anthropology, which dates back as far as Plato, considers humans to be rational beings. As time passed by, philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau developed that anthropology to one that still emphasized society and also suggested that humans’ lives can be divided into two: the public and private spheres. Rousseau, in his 'Social Contract', explained that the former is where rationality is upheld by observing ‘only the common interests’ whereas the latter is where individuals’ ‘particularities’ may exist as long as they do not intrude in the public sphere so ‘ that there should be no partial society within the State’. He expands on how human beings actually become good citizens ‘in relation to the State’ by being good subjects who actively act upon the ‘common interests’ and forego their ‘private interests’ because ‘the general will is always right and tends to the public advantage’. In essence, the power of the State effected the change in rational humans to become subjects who adopts identities of citizens. With that in mind, a human being is thus not necessarily a subject automatically as there are various groups of humans who are unqualified to be subjects to the State for example people of unsound minds.

Humans as Believing Subjects

However, Saint Augustine’s views oppose such discrimination. Although his views seem to agree with Rousseau when he pointed out, “If it is an assembled multitude, not of animals but of rational creatures, and is united by a common agreement as to what it loves, then it is not absurd to call it a 'people', no matter what the objects of its love may be", he regards all individuals as subjects naturally and not only those who are rational. In his book, 'The City of God against the Pagans', he mentions a pastoral model where the relationship between a pastor and his followers is compared to a shepherd's relationship to his flock of sheep. The pastor is suggested to be of a different and possibly superior species than his followers due to his transcendental powers he obtains from God. Augustine’s anthropology is that everyone is made up of the body and the soul which reflects human’s physical and spiritual needs respectively. In such a model, the followers devote their body and soul to God, through the pastor, for ‘salvation’. Augustine’s text proved how only humans can be properly subjected to God’s will if they ‘believe’ and ‘obey God, and the reason faithfully rules the vices in lawful order.’ After reading Michel Foucault‘s ‘The Subject and Power’, one can see how Augustine’s pastoral model fits well as an epitome of the Christian institution. Foucault noted how the pastors have a unique type of power which was ‘salvation oriented’, ‘oblative’ and in particular ‘individualizing (as opposed to legal power)’. The pastor gains full obedience from each believer mainly by ‘knowing the inside of people’s minds’ and ‘souls’ through confessions. Confessions gives the pastor ‘a knowledge of the conscience and an ability to direct it’. Despite Foucault’s stand that humans are not always subjects, Augustine proves that humans need no legal power enforced on them to be considered subjects as they are spiritual beings who practise self-examination. Effectively, his pastoral model considers all humans as subjects who adopt identities as believers on a personal basis. Hence, Augustine’s pastoral model shows how a human being and a subject is one and the same especially when guided by their own conscience and the pastor’s supervision through confessions.

5 stars for Foucault's works

Humans as Political Subjects

Nevertheless, Foucault also observed that Augustine’s pastoral model is just an application of a practical tool he calls ‘political technology’ which includes ‘Christian techniques of examination, confession, guidance’ and ‘obedience’. This observation rationalizes the pastoral model which was based on faith and knowledge of the Other. It is apparent then that self-examination is a by-product of the ‘technologies of power’ which are used by pastors to create subjects out of human followers. Furthermore, in ‘The Subject and Power', Foucault explored what it means to be a modern subject. He realized that in relation to the modern subject, the pastoral model is still important and relevant as there is an emphasis on individuality as well as the society. In a modernized model which combines the best of Rousseau’s general will model and Augustine’s pastoral model, Foucault recognized the possibility of applying both ‘totalizing’ and ‘individualizing’ ‘political technologies’. He described how ‘totalizing’ technologies expect everyone to be rational universally and simultaneously, the ‘individualizing’ aspect requires each citizen to find rationality within them. Human beings are then actually made into subjects through ‘regimes of knowledge’ that are both ‘totalizing’ and ‘individualizing’ and it is clear then that humans are not necessarily subjects, not until they have been put under the influence of the ‘technologies of power’. Fundamentally, Foucault showed that Rousseau’s and even Augustine’s political model ‘transforms human beings into subjects’ who are ‘tied to his own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge’ through ‘individualization techniques and of totalization procedures’.


In conclusion, both Rousseau and Foucault correctly identified the matter that differentiated a human being and a subject as actually a process but Foucault made a better and more accurate conjecture that remains consistent even with Augustine’s claims in his pastoral model. He recognized how the applications of regimes of power in modern political systems cater to each and all (in his ‘Omnes et Singulatim’) of the citizens in the country making them subjects subtly. Therefore, a human being is evidently not equivalent to a subject but the human being which has undergone regimes of knowledge or ‘education’ can then be equated to a subject.

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Do feel free to drop me feedbacks or messages in the comments box below. We could even engage in a healthy debate and philosophical banter on any matter pertaining to the topic at hand if there is something that you wish to raise. Thank you for reading my writings!


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