In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Subjectivity in the Twentieth Century
  • Jonathan Rée (bio)

Breaking with the past, I suppose, is the predominant theme in twentieth-century discussions of subjectivity, and in particular breaking with Descartes—breaking not so much with the details of his writings, as with the whole tendency of his thought. And, if the histories of philosophy are to be believed, Descartes’s determination to take nothing on trust marked an epoch. It was as if he did not know his own strength, as he brought the entire fabric of medieval certainties crashing down around him, and had to dash for cover within his own private subjectivity, with only one fragment of his former self-confidence left to cling to, namely his certainty of his own existence as a mind, a thinker of thoughts. This small Cartesian relic is what the eighteenth-century histories of philosophy called, in a curious piece of macaronic doggerel, “the cogito” (le cogito, das Cogito): that is to say, “the I think.

Then, from out of his desolate “cogito,” Descartes, spider-like, spun out a world—the modern world, in fact, that is to say, the material world, the materialist world, the world of the Enlightenment; perhaps the western and imperialist and protestant and capitalist ethnocentric and phallocentric technological world as well—a world not of meaning and love and laughter and tears, but of abstract thinking; not of flesh and tastes and smells and sounds and sights, but of material particles going about their lonely business surrounded by the frightening silence of infinite space, in indifferent conformity to universal causal laws.

Some of these particles, according to the script assigned to the Cartesians, would in due course come together to form animals, and some of these would take the shape of human beings. And for one particular case—its own—each human being will know for sure that it is more than just a physical machine. It will know that it also has, or rather is, a “cogito,” enthroned in the nerve center at the middle of its head. And it will assume that other “cogitos,” just like its own, are in residence somewhere behind other people’s eyes. But this will of course only be a conjecture, since it has only external evidence to go on. For all it knows, other people could just be machines rigged up to give the impression that there is a thinker cogitating away somewhere inside. [End Page 205]


Twentieth-century approaches to subjectivity are dominated by the anxiety not to be Descartes. They are loud with obsessively repeated farewells to the abstractions of classical physics on the one hand, and to the idea of subjectivity as a detached and unhistorical intellectual sanctuary on the other. For those who want to put down a date for this transition, I would suggest, on the authority of Virginia Woolf, December 1910.

“On or about December 1910,” according to Woolf, “human nature changed.” 1 It emerged from the depths, like “one’s cook,” she says (104). “The Victorian cook lived like a leviathan in the lower depths, formidable, silent, obscure, inscrutable; the Georgian cook is a creature of sunshine and fresh air; in and out of the drawing-room, now to borrow the Daily Herald, now to ask advice about a hat” (109). From the beginning of 1911, subjectivity could range the world on its own account, without needing to bow to the stern conventions of the old Cartesian world.

And this change, she went on, was going to necessitate a reform of the novel, which is of course the form of literature which specializes in subjectivity. The old-style novelists confined themselves to describing the external conditions of subjectivity, as if they could capture the life of the cook by observing the deliveries arriving at the back door and sampling the dishes sent up on the dumb-waiter. Asking this kind of novelist what it is like to live a life was “like going to a boot maker and asking him to teach you how to make a watch,” Woolf says (104).

Woolf’s word for this obsolete approach to character was “materialist.” The materialist approach—one might also call it...

Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 205-217
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.