CriticaLink | Lacan: The Mirror Stage | Terms


A basic distinction in philosophy is the difference between subject and object. We recognize this distinction in our terms "objective" (dealing strictly with the knowledge derived from our observation) and "subjective" (reacting in a manner based on emotions and attitudes of an individual). In psychoanalytic theory, the term "subject" refers to the sum of the physiological and psychological operations that sustain a human individual as a "person". The human subject has both mental and bodily dimensions.

Psychoanalysis is critical of the Cartesian vision of the subject as a centered, autonomous "I" whose self-awareness can be taken as a foundation for philosophical inquiry. For psychoanalytic theorists like Freud and Lacan, the subject's autonomy and self-awareness is constantly undermined by impulses from the id and steered by the pressures of the superego. In this sense, "individual" is an inaccurate synonmym for "subject" because the Freudian model of the subject is divided into at least three conflicting parts.

A good way to understand the differences between theoretical approaches is to examine what they emphasize in (and leave out of) their accounts of the human subject. Feminism, for example, may pay particular attention to the body as a site of cultural impositions based on gender norms; Marxism may focus on the subject as a source of productive (and exploitable) labor and as itself the product of ideological conditoning.