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I am always confused by- and have to often look up the meanings of these words (it helps that English isn’t my first language).

The word “subject” seems to imply that it is subjected to an action, while the word “object” doesn’t seem to carry such a connotation. Why is it that a subject subjects an object to something, and not the other way around? Is there a puzzle piece that I am missing that could help me memorize this arrangement, as well as help me avoid feeling a measure of inner protest at the convention whenever I face it?

Is this question better suited for an etymological forum?

Thanks.

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  • Some earlier discussions philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/67064/37256. In particular the second by virmaior outlines the history where the meanings flipped. Sep 20 at 10:41
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    From EtymOnline, Subject:"From noun use of Latin subiectus "lying under, below"... some restricted uses in logic and philosophy are borrowed directly from Latin subjectum as "foundation or subject of a proposition," a loan-translation of Aristotle's to hypokeimenon." Object:"Latin obiectus "that which presents itself to the sight." Meaning "that toward which a cognitive act is directed" is from 1580s."
    – Conifold
    Sep 20 at 10:47
  • @Rusi-packing-up It is the meanings of "objective" and "subjective" that reversed around the time of Kant, the meanings of "object" and "subject" stayed as they are since the middle ages.
    – Conifold
    Sep 20 at 10:54
  • Big shift in meaning from the ancient Latin subiectum translating the Aristotelian Greek term for "something which can be predicated by other things, but cannot be a predicate of others" (so a grammatical/ontological term) to the modern one - from Hume to German idealism - meaning "an entity that has a relationship with another entity that exists outside itself (called an "object")", and thus an epistemological term. Sep 20 at 12:08
  • Thus, the modern use is based on the "model" of an object out there acting on a (human) subject that receive impressions/stimuli from the external and produces internal images/ideas about it. Sep 20 at 13:24
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This language is (perhaps) part of the legacy of Cartesian dualism. A subject in philosophical usage means an entity with subjective experience: literally, something that can be the subject of its own perception. An object is something that can be objectively (externally) experienced by a subject. Only subjects can impose themselves on objects: i.e., only a subject (noun) can subject (verb) objects to action.

Of course, the tricky part of this dualism is the question of whether a subject can exist separate from objects, or whether a subject must be an object first, or which objects even have the quality of subjectivity. Obviously one can choose to interact with other things as objects or subjects; surgeons, for instance, generally deal with humans as objects without regard for their intrinsic subjectivity. But does it make sense to deal with a tree or a rock as though it has some semblance of subjective experience?

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  • Interesting, but I'm not sure that "subject" is a Cartesian word. See Descartes’ Theory of Ideas but see Meditations, III for "object": "the object of my thought", "the existence of objects external to me". Sep 21 at 7:58
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    @MauroALLEGRANZA: Yeah, I wasn't sure either. I was pointing more towards the general mind/body duality (which is largely associated with Descartes) than to Descartes' actual work. I should probably just delete that association. Sep 21 at 14:00
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Your question asks about the meaning of the words subject and object. You say that subject has the meaning of a verb (as in, the king subjects the peasants to royal taxes), and wonder why object has no corresponding meaning.

In fact, object is a verb too. Subject and object stand for both nouns and verbs. "I object [to your argument]" would be an example of using object as a verb.

Nevertheless, subject means "action" and "autonomy" more than object does. In colloquial English, subjects are people who take actions. Object, well, they just set there and get acted upon. Dignifying a human with subjectivity means allowing them to make their own choices about their actions, and treating humans as objects means removing their humanity from them and treating them as instruments or means to an end.

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    There is also the pair of objective & subjective that establishes a hierarchy - “objective” stands above “subjective”, which is implied to be inferior, or a subset. I was given interesting links to this particular pair that I have to read up on before further commenting. In general, the meaning of the prefix “sub-” implies a lower level in a hierarchy. Finally, there is also the concept of “subject of the crown” which implies subordination to something yet again. Sep 20 at 17:40
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I think what you're missing is how our analysis of grammar and logic evolved historically.

It is based on notions introduced by Aristotle. To quote - following Wikipedia - the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy:

Aristotelian logic identifies a categorical proposition as a sentence which affirms or denies a predicate of a subject, optionally with the help of a copula. An Aristotelian proposition may take the form of "All men are mortal" or "Socrates is a man." In the first example, the subject is "men", predicate is "mortal" and copula is "are", while in the second example, the subject is "Socrates", the predicate is "a man" and copula is "is".

So a subject is called that because it is being subjected to an assertion.

(Aristotle wrote in Greek, while proposition, predicate, subject and copula are Latin words, so they must be later translations.)

The same analysis can be extended to all other indicative sentences (this is standard practice in traditional grammar):

  1. Socrates (subject) died (predicate)
  2. Socrates (subject) was cold (predicate)
  3. Socrates (subject) went cold (predicate)
  4. Socrates (subject) faced the death penalty (predicate)
  5. Socrates (subject) drank the conium (predicate)
  6. Aristophanes (subject) mocked Socrates (predicate)
  7. The death penalty (subject) was imposed on Socrates (predicate)
  8. It (subject) rains (predicate)

Here, predicates can also describe processes, events, or actions. The subject is still what the predicate is about. In some cases (such as 8), the subject is purely formal.

In many cases (4-7 here), the verb being used is not a copula, and requires the presence of one or more additional noun phrases, which are then called objects.

Now to your question. A subject is something that undergoes something; for sentences that describe an action with an object, it is the object, not the subject of the sentence, that undergoes the action; therefore, wouldn't it be more logical to apply the term subject to the object instead?

For instance, in Socrates drank the conium (3), the conium is subjected to being drunk, but Socrates is not really subjected to drinking the conium - the sentence describes him as taking an active role, rather than passively undergoing the action.

I think you're absolutely correct that this is the case for most sentences that describe actions with subjects and objects. What you've missed:

  1. The term subject is not limited to that type of sentence, but is applied to all sentences that express an assertion.
  2. It is not intended to describe the subject of an action, but the subject of the assertion the sentence makes - regardless of whether that assertion concerns an action.
  3. When it does, the subject of the assertion is still the subject of the sentence, even when the subject of the action being described is the object of the sentence. Socrates drank the conium is an assertion about Socrates, not (so much) about the conium.
  4. Subjects, propositions and predicates were introduced with the purpose of describing assertions, not actions; objects were later added when predicates were analysed in more detail; this terminology then became standard for describing the structure (grammar) of our languages, and that is their context of use. This terminology long predates the logical description of actions and events, which only took off in the 20th century.

Your question really is not so much a question of philosophy as it is a question of language. Greek and English happen to treat Socrates in Socrates is a man and Socrates mocks Aristophanes much the same way. This gives rise to a term subject that is applied to Socrates in both cases.

In an ergative language, subjects of intransitive sentences such as Socrates is a man are treated much more like the objects of transitive sentences. If our terminology had been developed by philosophers speaking ergative languages, the term subject might have been used in the way you propose.

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