The "return of the subject" as a historico-intellectual problem

History and Theory 43 (1):57–82 (2004)
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Recently, a call for the “return of the subject” has gained increasing influence. The power of this call is intimately linked to the assumption that there is a necessary connection between “the subject” and politics . Without a subject, it is alleged, there can be no agency, and therefore no emancipatory projects—and, thus, no history. This paper discusses the precise epistemological foundations for this claim. It shows that the idea of a necessary link between “the subject” and agency, and therefore between the subject and politics is only one among many different ones that appeared in the course of the four centuries that modernity spans. It has precise historico-intellectual premises, ones that cannot be traced back in time before the end of the nineteenth century. Failing to observe the historicity of the notion of the subject, and projecting it as a kind of universal category, results, as we shall see, in serious incongruence and anachronisms. The essay outlines a definite view of intellectual history aimed at recovering the radically contingent nature of conceptual formations, which, it alleges, is the still-valid core of Foucault’s archeological project. Regardless of the inconsistencies in his own archeological endeavors, his archeological approach intended to establish in intellectual history a principle of temporal irreversibility immanent in it. Following his lead, the essay attempts to discern the different meanings the category of the subject has historically acquired, referring them back to the broader epistemic reconfigurations that have occurred in Western thought. This reveals a richness of meanings in this category that are obliterated under the general label of the “modern subject”; at the same time, it illuminates some of the methodological problems that mar current debates on the topic



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