Constructing ‘Subject’: ‘In-dividuus’


Here is an excerpt from the translation of the Vishnu Purāṇa [1840] by the remarkable Horace Hayman Wilson, first translator of the Rig Veda and the first occupant of the Boden chair for Sanskrit at Oxford:

The sense of Ahankára cannot be very well rendered by any European term. It means the principle of individual existence, that which appropriates perceptions, and on which depend the notions, I think, I feel, I am. It might be expressed by the proposition of Descartes reversed; ‘Sum, ergo cogito, sentio,”

[See: Cogito ergo sum. Both are short-stops from Shūnyam.]

You will have more luck getting a roomful of Biologists agreeing on a definition for the word ‘Alive’, or Logicians for the word ‘Reason’, than you will with a roomful of Psychologists defining the word ‘Subject’. 

The Bio-Engineer knows it is a silicon-chip atop the neurons and between the firing synapse. The Geneticist sneers at this simplification at what is  clearly a Gene [imminent in its discovery]. [DNA, perhaps?]

We won’t even broach the Mystics for now. But a particularly famous one from India is: ‘The sense of ‘I-ness”, which means whatever you want it to mean. [Inner-Self? Spirit? Soul?]

We go low-tech. We ask the Grammarian.

‘The Subject of a sentence is the person, place, thing, or idea that is doing or being something. It is what acts or is acted upon.’

Ego is Latin for ‘I’. The Cambridge definition reads: ‘Your idea or opinion of yourself’. Note the self-loop.

Is there a Little Fellow behind your nose and between your ears, a Teddy Bear behind your heart and beneath your ribs, a Viewing Voyeur inside your eye and beneath your brow, that sees and thinks and feels and acts and makes you laugh and makes you cry?

If you find this language flip, I shall give it some gravitas.

Is there to be found, either by observation or by inference, and outside of an unexamined, inherited authority and unquestioned convention an ‘Independent and Separated Observer, ‘Self’, Subject’ in the guise of:

A Physical Body, a Cell, a DNA Code, an Awareness, a Totality, a Nullity, an Unity, an Ego, an Energy, a Life-Force, an Intelligence, an Existence, an ‘Organizing Principle’, an ‘Inner Being’, a Spirit, a ‘Soul’…

An ‘Independent and Separate Knowing Ontological Presence as Entity, Process or Abstraction’?

Go ahead and add any I may have missed. Don’t be shy.

Perhaps there is a Teddy Bear behind your heart and beneath your ribs. We are going to hunt the critter down.

‘Individual’: from the Latin, In-dividuus: that which is ‘Indivisible-Further’, as in a-tomous for ‘atom’.

Any wedge of cheese that I can cut once, I can cut twice. Or thrice. In fact I can cut it as fine as I want. I just need sharper and stronger knives.

I can if I am in the mood, cut it a trillion times. Then anther trillion. And just keep going. But this can get tedious. And what I am cutting no longer tastes like cheese. So where should I stop?

[Make sure to do all this in broad daylight. And do not nick the Higgs-Boson, a.k.a. the ‘God-Particle’, else the scientists at CERN will get very upset.]

What applies for cheese, applies for carrots and broccoli. At some point they get tossed into the salad.

The Atom in Physics, the Element in Chemistry, the Axiom in Logic, the Point in Mathematics, the Word in Language, the Morpheme in Linguistics..

Do you remember where you stopped before climbing into your salad?

Who Am I ? And Who Are You?

This idea of ‘I’ cuts a wide swath. It is not just for Vegans. It is the original question. And the final fault line.

This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?’ wrote Leo Tolstoy [I’ve tried to finish: ‘War and Peace’. Twice.]

Taking a wider view is Dr. Samuel Huntington. From his: ‘The Clash of Civilizations’, that sits on every Foreign Ministers bookshelf.

A Civilization is the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity… Civilizations are the biggest ‘We’. [And] cultural identity is the central factor shaping a country’s associations and antagonisms…

The question: ‘Which side are you on? has been replaced by the much more fundamental one: ‘Who are you?’ Every state has to have an answer. That answer, its cultural identity, defines the state’s place in world politics, its friends and its enemies.’

Its a big subject. We’ll do it in small pieces.  

The late Dr. Huntington was the Albert J. Weatherhead University Professor and Director of Harvard’s ‘Center For International Affairs’.