The Problem of the Subject(s)

PROSPECTS OF LEGAL SEMIOTICS, Anne Wagner, Jan Broekman, eds., Springer 2010

27 Pages Posted: 8 Mar 2011

See all articles by Louis E. Wolcher

Louis E. Wolcher

University of Washington School of Law

Date Written: 2010


When asked, ‘Who says “I”?’, the thirteenth century Japanese Zen master Dōgen replied, ‘It is [the word] “I” that says “who”’. His answer implies that there is no actual ego or human subject corresponding to the pronoun ‘I’, and that the so-called subject is really just an illusion produced by the grammar of our language. In general, the Western philosophical tradition disagrees with Dōgen. In fact, it bequeaths us separate grammars for discussing what it takes to be two different kinds of subjects: the causal subject and the grounding subject. The causal subject stands in a relation to the world. Its concept always depicts two things and their relationship to one another. This subject acts strategically as the cause of effects: it uses the object world and other human beings as means to its ends. But the causal subject is also itself caused; it is an effect of history in the largest sense of the word. Such a one is fated by grammar and custom to become an object and a means in its own right: an object for scientific inquiry and knowledge, for example, and, more generally, a means to the ends of other causal subjects.

The concept of the grounding subject, in contrast, is that of an origin rather than a cause. In Greek terms, this subject is an archē as opposed to an aitia. It also corresponds to the original Latin meaning of the word ‘subject’: it is thrown (jacere) under (sub). The grounding subject stands under its world as (not in) an unmediated relation to the projects of its doppelganger: causer ground.

This second subject has taken many historical forms and gone by many different names, including the soul (Plato), practical freedom (Kant), the ego that posits itself (Fichte), spirit (Hegel), existential freedom (Heidegger), the I-Thou relation (Buber), and the ethical I (Levinas). In one way or another, the idea of the grounding subject performs its primary task within the moral sphere: it is supposed to provide a foundation that explains how it is possible for the causal subject at once to accomplish something in the world and to refute Plautus’s argument that man is wolf to man (homo homini lupus est). The idea of the grounding subject, like Dr. Jekyll, yearns to make the causal subject (Mr. Hyde) at least potentially more worthy and just than a mere natural force, such as a pouncing lion or a falling boulder.

Time and again, however, the essential grammatical separateness of these two subjects is forgotten, and the concepts of the grounding subject and the causal subject are conflated. On the one hand, we are told that the more ‘the’ subject (or Dasein, or whatever) calculates and uses the object world and other human beings as means – the more strategically ontic and technological it is – the less authentic it is (Heidegger), the less it inhabits the cradle of real life (Buber), the less it acts freely and in good faith (Sartre), and the less genuinely ethical it is (Levinas). But on the other hand, we are also told by other responsible and respectable thinkers that the more rationally and strategically this allegedly unitary subject acts, the more effective it is likely to be in achieving its ends (e.g. Weber). Everyday experience confirms this strategic lesson: those who control (or aspire to control) politics, law, and the economic order routinely harness what Marcuse calls ‘the frightful science of human relations’ to produce massive results by successfully modelling human beings as biological response mechanisms, akin to Pavlov’s salivating dogs (cf. Agamben). Given the foregoing antinomy, the most pressing juridical and moral question facing twenty-first century humanity seems to be: How can law and politics become at once effective and just, coercive and compassionate, responsive and responsible? How, in short, is it possible (to borrow Kant’s somewhat quaint terminology) to use oneself and other human beings simultaneously as ends and as means?

Nietzsche once said that the great danger of all direct questioning of the subject about the subject lies in the fact ‘that it could be useful and important for one’s activity to interpret oneself falsely’. Wittgenstein generalised Nietzsche’s warning: ‘Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself’. This paper tries to heed both warnings. It shows that the idea of the grounding subject represents a desperate and ultimately futile attempt to repress awareness of (and evade personal responsibility for) the essential sadness and tragedy of the world. It alleges that the most thought and reason can ever do is provide the human body with a thin tissue of grounding statements made up of symbols and images. These symbols and images will never span the vast existential distance separating the grounding subject from the causal subject, our ends from our means, our words from our deeds, and, more generally, human suffering and all of the seemingly endless casuistries that we offer to justify it. Go ahead and dream your dreams and plan your plans – but do not ever try to convince yourself that ‘they’ (the dreams and principles) genuinely underlie and justify what you do in the world. Using principles of justice is natural if not inevitable. Feeling principled and just, on the other hand, makes for a hell on earth that can be just as horrible as the hell made by those who give unbridled license to a ravening will to power.

Suggested Citation

Wolcher, Louis E., The Problem of the Subject(s) (2010). PROSPECTS OF LEGAL SEMIOTICS, Anne Wagner, Jan Broekman, eds., Springer 2010, Available at SSRN:

Louis E. Wolcher (Contact Author)

University of Washington School of Law ( email )

William H. Gates Hall
Box 353020
Seattle, WA 98105-3020
United States

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