Subjectivity Landslide

Calling conventional wisdom into question, the process of philosophy disintegrates support structures and propels ideas tumbling down the theoretical hillside. The crumbling, jumbling collapse into the ravine asks questions about reality in relation to comprehension and wonders if art can help formulate answers. Whether filling-in the widest gaps, or leaping over incremental chasms, tracing the “slippage” between German Idealism, Romanticism, and Post-Humanism requires a working definition of each distinction. Perhaps anything with a post prefix naturally needs its root examined. Ultimately fusing with more and more of the knowable universe, the artist/philosopher holds close the duty to experience and comprehend. Mapping the discerning self-mirage, we traverse precarious grounds and therefore always seem to need new sympathetic ideas. Thus, slippage is movement towards an enhanced understanding, forever shifting forward in time, repositioning the subjective in rapport with the objective. In approaching this challenge, enhanced clarity recognizes that the other is the object of the subject. The authentic spiritual quest is marked not by certainties but by inquiry seasoned with doubt.

The best way to trace Continental slippage and interpret what it entails is through subjectivity analysis, an essential problem in philosophy. Subjectivity is a diverse topic, encompassing among other things, intuition, imagination, possibility, truth and fiction, taste and pleasure, and perception. Furthermore, the concept of subjectivity only has meaning in contrast with objectivity. As the multifarious organization of the subject/object correlation evolves with increasing complexity, this discourse sketches intertextual relations along a theoretical trajectory, focusing on the role of art in contingent construction. Giving content form, the major “ism’s” delineating divergent philosophical schools of thought are employed as crucial reference nodes representing slippage succession. In each progressive case, the evolved idea of subjectivity becomes more and more uncertain as a conditional truth in its own capacity, intrinsically part of the human condition. In communication with other humanoids, we make art as an inventive comprehension investigation and creative expression medium.


Elevating human potential and abilities independent of any divine intervention, humanism posits man as the determinate hierarchy of authority. Although invented in the nineteenth century, the term retroactively is applied to intellectual and cultural developments that started in the fourteenth century (Audi 397). Nevertheless, like most philosophy, the concept has much deeper Pre-Socratic lineage. Around 530 BC, Protagoras said that the individual human subject is the standard of all things and as such, the subject determines all judgments of value. Judgments are at the heart of art, aesthetics, and morality. Although denying it, arguably Heidegger echoes the human self-centered understanding of existence as an unavoidable inherent consequence of the concept of “Being” (Heidegger 44). This follows since “we are always already involved in an understanding of Being” (Heidegger 45). Broadly considered, the human condition is defined by self-aware consciousness and its ramifications, because “the survival of a thinking-organization requires exchanges with that environment such that the human body can perpetuate itself there” (Lyotrad 13). These states of affairs will thus remain humanistic until the end of the species, even if technological advancement extends beyond the terrestrial realm. Eschewing established doctrine and blind faith, humanism favors critical thinking and evidence, obtained both empirically and rationally.


Sensory organs connect the subject with an external objective environment. Experience develops as the subject interacts with received sensations. Empiricism stipulates that all ideas or concepts derive from experience and that truth must be established by experience alone. In this way, sensory experience creates tentative knowledge, subject to continued revision and falsification. Aesthetically, artworks become external objects for human subjects to experience in an especially passionate and meaningful way. Heidegger’s discourses involve a wary play of disclosure and concealment describing a vacillating artistic philosophy attuned to matter as “the substrate and field for the artist's formative action” (Heidegger 152). In this regard, “being emerges into the unconcealment of its Being” (Heidegger 161). When attempting consciously to make sense of things, incomplete sensory information must be interpreted. Reason is the mental capacity concerned with forming conclusions, judgments, or inferences. Perceptions project psychologically into external space, accepted as immediate reality. Rationalism is the theory that reason rather than experience is the foundation of certainty in knowledge. Reflective thought, however, establishes reason as a subjective mental process that is experienced. Experience formulates in the present. Furthermore, affirmative assurance is almost certainly imaginary. These realizations comprise several obvious problems with the potential validity of rationalism. Nevertheless, art functions by catalyzing subjective reflection thorough original external stimulations. In this way, “the philosophy of spirit is an aesthetic philosophy . . . one cannot even reason spiritually about history – without aesthetic sense” (Bowie 334).


Since the time of the ancient Greeks, the term aesthetics was used to represent the ability to receive stimulation from any combination of the five subjective human senses. This implies the duality of an external realm received and understood though sensation internally processed and interpreted. Epistemologically visual imagery is used as intermediary information for managing an externally physical world. In 1735, Alexander Baumgarten recontextualized the word aesthetics to signify taste, or judgment of beauty (Audi 74). By redefining aesthetic response as pleasure in the excellence of sensory perception, he gave the word a particular significance, thereby formulating its modern usage. For Baumgarten, as the subject establishes a personal relationship with experience, “the rules of art are simply different from the rules of logic” (Bowie 5). Thus from the very beginning of modern aesthetics, the question of truth attached to individual perceptions is in play (Bowie 6). Truth in art involves both subjectivity and objectivity. A work of art is an object fashioned of physical materials made perceptually available to a subjective observer by a subjective creator. Integral to the artistic object/subject distinction are the relative positions of the artist and the audience. The subjective components of motivation and inspiration formulate the artist’s experience. In this light, the artwork is objective form assigned to subjective experiential content. The artwork remains objective from the standpoint of the audience, yet only has value within their personal subjective response. An unavoidable tension thus exists, between the artist’s judgments and the judgments of others, and their contrasting interplay is part of the human condition. This slippage between different subjective experiences centered on a singular objective communication was significant to Kant’s transcendental explorations.

German Idealism

Kant’s philosophy is the determining point of departure and foundational anchor for German Idealism that emerged in the late 18th century. In this speculative philosophical movement, Kant conformed to Baumgarten’s aesthetic word usage by employing judgments as subjective. Furthermore, in Kant’s formulation, art response relates to internal but universal feelings of pleasure and not to external object manifestation. For Kant, idealism entertains the prospect that discernible object properties are only incomplete and illusionary appearances fabricated by perceiving subjects. Thus knowledge and meaning is not something those objects possess “in themselves” apart from experience. Kant’s project was to determine the “conditions of possibility” (Bowie 184) that must exist for concept formation and subjective experience to function. In this empirical constitution, both time and space are not “objective and real but rather subjective conditions” (Caygill 378) forming necessary universal laws of the human mind. The subsequent Idealistic Germanic philosophers reacted in various ways to Kant’s ultimately unknowable mind-independent material objects. Among these, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, and Schopenhauer all conformed and diverged in interesting ways. Fichte attempted to ground his entire system upon subjectivity, “to give the subject itself the ‘unconditioned’ role in determining how nature is to be understood” (Bowie 27). Schelling explored self-identity by demonstrating how the thinking subject cannot be fully transparent to itself, and “advanced arguments as to why reason cannot ground itself in subjectivity” (Bowie 8). For Schelling, art is supposed to “make the highest point of philosophy available to intuition,” (Bowie 39) “as a means of coming to terms with the cognitively inaccessible motivating forces upon which reason is founded” (Bowie 262). From a deviating direction, Schopenhauer proposed that a blind, purposeless energy expresses itself in perpetual human strivings and in the forces of inorganic matter. For Schopenhauer, “aesthetic experience temporarily redeems one from the fundamental suffering in which life consists” (Bowie 270). This is because “only by losing ourselves as individual, sensuously receptive subjects can we achieve a state which is not dominated by the transient world of pain and pleasure” (Bowie 264). Hegel was an extremely influential Post-Kantian Idealist that considered realty as a temporal unfolding of Geist (spirit/mind). His idea incorporated a sense of purpose, that each person's individual consciousness or mind is really part of an Absolute totality, ultimately available through self-consciousness. This had far-reaching influence and result, with his supporters split between two major factions. The “Young Hegelians,” prominently represented by Marx, promoted a revolutionary agenda using historical dialectic concepts insisting on the social medium of subjective existence. Marx transformed Hegel’s Geist into “nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought” (Marx 14). On the other hand, the “Old Hegelians” uncritically accepted Hegel’s romantic view that the historical dialectic of advanced European societies represented the summit of progress. Both these Hegelian positions are somewhat problematic, “because the whole point of his [Hegel’s] thought is that if you adopt one bit you are forced to adopt the rest, the two being inextricably connected” (Bowie 141). Nevertheless, many of those who adapted and expanded German Idealism with their own interpretations can be considered more or less romantic.


The ancestry of Romanticism is traced back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, including his idea of the noble savage. He claimed that civilization forces unnatural yearning and seduces the subject away from an authentic natural and original freedom. This prospect of a culturally pure subject influenced Nietzsche in terms of authoritarian passion suppression (60). Arguably more significant, both Marx and Freud informed philosophical subjectivity through either a noble past or genuinely savage unconsciousness. Freud in particular identifies an artist as “originally a man who turns away from reality because he cannot come to terms with the renunciation of instinctual satisfaction which it at first demands, and who allows his erotic and ambitious wishes full play in the life of phantasy” (Freud 305). Even ideas of the Post-Humanistic thinker, like those articulated by Foucault’s archaeology of an unconscious episteme, can depend on a romantic reaction against the scientific rationalization of nature. “Envisaged apart from all criteria having reference to its rational value or to its objective forms,” the episteme establishes knowledge as “its conditions of possibility” (Foucault xxii). Romanticism transforms Idealism by emphasizing emotional response as a necessary pre-condition of perception and self-awareness. That we psychologically participate in knowledge formation instead of viewing it from the outside was clearly articulated by Nietzsche. Firmly supporting subjective dominance in defining the human condition, from this position life is much more than a fixed objective substratum. Romantically the universe is a unified and interconnected whole, bursting with subjective tendencies and value judgments. Every variety of sentient being harbors its own unique method of apprehending reality. Seeking the truth of reality, each of these divergent apprehension modalities conceal as much as they reveal. Reason, logic, and scrutiny can misrepresent reality by fracturing it into disconnected inert entities. Thrown into the world, the individual becomes accustomed to emotions that significantly contribute to knowledge construction. Rather than an object for analysis and manipulation, existence is an emotional experience.

Existential Phenomenology

Nietzsche’s reaction to German Idealism/Romanticism is an apparent subjective departure from Kant and his followers, supporting a “growing understanding that the world has no metaphysical structure whatsoever” (xiii). Nietzsche believed that the” thing-in-itself” is knowable as an interpretation with multiple potential meanings, and “people might come to understand something of that which is most remote from them, something of the great passion of the knowledge-seeker who steadfastly lives, must live, in the thundercloud of the highest problems and the weightiest responsibilities” (351). His early thinking emphasized Apollonian and Dionysian opposition as impulses in subjective artistic formulation, “through which some pent-up primordial force is finally released” (Nietzsche 234). In this regard, ecstasy as a means of subjective alteration plays an important role in his subsequent thought, subverting the oppressive restraints of the powerful. This was elaborated by Foucault’s notion of experience limits, or living life on the edge of normality. Thus Foucault’s “limitation is expressed not as a determination imposed upon man from outside . . . but as a fundamental finitude which rests on nothing but its own existence as fact” (314). Nietzsche was radically humanistic by staunchly claiming that all ideas emanate from unique subjective perspectives, but critical of philosophical humanism as being over-idealistic. Thus, no value judgment can transcend cultural formations or individual description, and the “artists always lie in wait to discover such things and to draw them into the realm of art” (Nietzsche 86). Here subjectivity is less an advancement of knowledge but rather more the urgency of treating life itself as an immanent art form. Underneath the surface distinctions that render subjectivity variance, art is an experiential foundation.

The Absolute as an expression of Geist embodies a special purpose becoming completely self-aware. By pulling “apart the structures” of contingent truth, paradigm slippage is revealed in a Hegelian historical dialectic of human subjectivity. It was Hegel who “started the attempt to explore the irrational and integrate it into an expanded reason” (Keenan127). From a primordial position, Heidegger’s ontological project emphases in all of its senselessness “Being,” eager to make sense of our capacity to make sense of things. Fundamentally, he asks, “Why are there beings at all, and why not rather nothing?” (Heidegger 110). Passing through the door opened by Nietzsche’s deconstruction of knowledge and identity, but less invested in the issue of human will and power, Heidegger attacks “the preconception [which] shackles reflection on the Being of any given being” (Heidegger 156). Influenced by Husserlian phenomenology and Kierkegaardian existentialism, the existential phenomenology contraction is a philosophical slipstream encouraged and nurtured by Heidegger’s thinking. Thus, “Being” issues a challenge to the humanist tradition and its metaphysical notion of fixed subjectivity, repositioning the formation of artistic subjectivity toward the art of disclosing, “a happening of truth at work” (Heidegger 162).


Structuralism indicated an embryonic movement beyond humanism by stipulating the possibility of an objective overarching system influencing the human condition. This repositioned philosophy as an effort to uncover a given structure that lies beneath human behavior. The goal here is to discover and decipher universal and constant laws of abstract culture, with language a critical structural component. Nevertheless, as Irigaray tells us, “the possibility that there may be several systems modulating the order of [subjective] truths” (109) problematizes the structural concept. Thus emerged Post-structuralism, a continental philosophic response of the late 20th century that disputes the possibly of structural integrity. In this slippage, understanding is essentially unstable because of both inherent complexity and the embedded nature of Being in the world. The required separations from structures that allow for their understanding impede understanding in their entrenchment. Post-structuralism found stimulation in the rich vein of Hegelian reinterpretation. These slippage movements widened the breach between the universal Kantian subject and the dialectical Hegelian subject. For example, following the interrogation motif, Derrida queries Heidegger’s anxious relation to “Spirit,” showing a troubling residue of the metaphysical “determination of thingness” (Derrrida 15) to be draped around subjectivity.

Post-humanism refers to a critique of humanism, emphasizing a fundamental change in our understanding of the self and its relations to the natural world, civilized society, and artistic aesthetics. This reformulated position recognizes abstract cultural stratifications as human determinants. Lyotard interrogated humanistic subjectivity as explicitly “inhuman” in relation to the happenstance of time. He identified “the pointlessness of any periodization of cultural history . . . for the single reason that it leaves unquestioned the position of the now” (Lyotard 24). In other words, a legitimate subjective perspective on succession is disobedient in a contingent and indefinable present. As art informs subjectivity, Lyotard reiterates, “the aesthetic grasp of forms is only possible if one gives up all pretension to master time through a conceptual synthesis” (33). Thus a work of art is novel in its subject formation “in direct proportion to the extent that it is stripped of meaning” (Lyotard 106). Furthermore, how can meaning be assigned from inside the assumed known? Along this same fissure, Foucault is explicitly post-human, seeking “a philosophical foundation for the possibility of knowledge,” (335) culminating in his declaration that “man is only a recent invention” (xxiii). A thought is only valid, indeed only possible, once it has been constructed and classified in a form we find accessible. As elucidated by Foucault, “to imagine, for an instant, what the world and thought and truth might be if man did not exist, is considered to be merely indulging in a paradox” (322). Nevertheless, the finite nature of something, or everything, need not negate itself as a source of knowledge. The indefinite abyss is the shadow cast by humankind emerging in the field of knowledge. Can consciousness ever be anything other than a representation? Committing the future to memory, perhaps intuition and art can go deeper than representation.

The Dust Settles

Transported down slope, Glissement is a process of becoming -- a continuous theoretical and philosophical movement reactive to a dynamic existence correlation. When pondering the avalanche, we must recognize that potentially everything crashes down. We are intrinsically part of the objective world we inhabit, an objectivity contrasted to the subjectivity of response. Considering subject/object tension, there is always a desire to expose the concealed, because if nothing is hidden then there is nothing about which to be concerned. “To let unconcealment show itself” (Heidegger 113) is perhaps the most meaningful task. Forever insatiable is the desire to know. Forming a base of operation established from perceived pattern recognition, stability is an illusion designed to comfort. Yet without continuous variation, there would be nothing to perceive. Difference is at the core of subject generation, approachable aesthetically through artwork. Shaking the foundations, difference also grounds slippage, the messy movement away from a knowledge sanctuary.

Works Cited

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Bowie, Andrew. Aesthetics and Subjectivity: From Kant to Nietzsche. Manchester [u.a.: Manchester University Press, 2003. Print.

Caygill, Howard. A Kant Dictionary. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of Human Knowledge. New York: Vintage, 1994.

Freud, Sigmund, and Peter Gay. The Freud Reader. New York: W.W. Norton, 1989.

Heidegger, Martin, and David F. Krell. Basic Writings: From Being and Time (1927) to the Task of Thinking (1964). San Francisco, Calif.: Harper San Francisco, 1993.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which is Not One. Trans. Catharine Porter. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Keenan, Dennis K. Hegel and Contemporary Continental Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Inhuman. Trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991.

Marx, Karl, and Ben Fowkes. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy Volume 1. New York: Penguin Books in association with New Left Review, 1990. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Ed. Bernard Williams. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.