Subjectivity and the Inner Life

Subjectivity is our experience of the rich interplay of motivations, sensations, emotions, and thoughts which vie for our attention. To help illustrate what I mean by subjectivity consider the following example:

Leaning back on the chair in our office you use your tongue to dig out a raspberry seed stuck in your molars from your morning smoothie. You begin to think about your breakfast and wondering what might be for lunch when a coworker sneaks up behind you. You are startled but glad to see them and settle into light conversation.

You scan their face and notice some new acne the makeup couldn’t quite cover while you nod along. You both hear your belly rumble and you both chuckle while you contain your slight embarassment. You excuse yourself, head to the toilet and on that throne you begin to reflect on your time at this job.

Happy moments like the one you’ve had come to mind, but there is this deeper feeling of stagnancy and inadequacy. You finish up, walk out, and continue to weight conflicting emotions and thoughts until you bump into another coworker who breaks your train of thought, invites you to lunch, and you’re off.

In this example we could break down our subjectivity into the following:

Sensations: chair on back, tongue on teeth, finger on shoulder, makeup face with acne, stomach grumbling, getting up and walking, pants to toilet seat, walk out, new face.
Motivations: hunger, socialize, excretion.
Emotions: fear from tap, glad talking, embarassment from stomach, mild bittersweet somberness on toilet, glad again for lunch.
Thoughts: trouble focusing today, morning smoothie, imagining lunch, christ you scared me, look at that pimple, shut up stomach, gotta poop, I deserve a new job but these people are nice, lunch time baby.

Throughout this person we see the attention shift from the sensation of a chair, to mild hunger, to instinctual fear, to coming thoughts. All of these different sources of information are being watched and responded to with little critical thought. But on the toilet where most great thoughts come, there was one moment different from the rest.

That moment illustrates the inner life: our personal way of perceiving and responding to our subjectivity. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the inner life is its ability to evaluate the subjectivity, perceptions, and responses its based in. While subjectivity is in large-part reflexive and task-oriented, the inner life is more reflective and its task (if there is one) is more abstract. Consider a movie scene to further illustrate the dissonance that can occur between the inner and the outer:

Often I wonder about this invisible hand guiding a person’s behavior, and this is what I’ve come up with.


All of us share the same machinery which makes up our subjectivity, but the configuration we each and ways we respond to them vary widely.

Internal Stimuli

Sensations, motivations, emotions, and thoughts are all in large part internal stimuli. Our experience of them is not readily perceptible to the external world, and yet they exert great influence over our behavior. Let’s describe each in more detail so we can better understand how these pieces come together to compose our subjectivity.


Motivations usually arrive from the many needs we have ala Maslow. Physiological needs such as the need for water, air, oxygen, excretion, liveable temparatures, and nutrition. Safety needs for shelter and non-threatening environment. Both of these are E (existence) needs. Then there are R (relationship) needs. These needs are for either love / belonging needs which are a need for sociability. Then there are self-esteem needs which attempt to acquire competence and the feeling of being capable, self-acceptance, etc. Self-esteem is very curious because its ballast lies in different sources for everyone, but it seems be tied to our ability to satisfy either our R or G needs. Our body even has ways to protect ourselves from things which may rob us of our self-esteem through defense mechanisms. Lastly are the G needs which are more abstract and solely unique to us. These are the needs for meaning, purpose, authenticity, and self-actualization.

Other motivations don’t even arise from a need. Motivations such as the need for sex, that of habit, tasks, but we experience them much like a regular need. Language itself communicates motives to us through wishes, beliefs, existential concerns, and may play a role in creating motives as well.

Some properties about how ungratified needs feel, one need gratifying multiple things, and especially how needs create pain in us and gratification eliminates the need which is felt as pleasure.


Sensations come in through five senses and mostly dissapear. Sensory specific satiety.


Emotions are instinctual responses which convey a feeling externally as well as internally. They are a nonverbal way of conveying information especially in dire situations. Often emotions are reflexive, but they can also take on a reflective dimension. Their mediums are the face, body, and voice. Emotional information can also be relayed through text, movement, and other artistic mediums.


Thoughts seem to come from nowhere, but are usually the result of some stimulus other than thought. For example we may not notice our hunger, but may suddenly start thinking about food. Or a song may be playing so low we can’t register it, but find ourselves humming that song only to confusingly recognize it seconds later. Thoughts are usually triggered by sensations, motivations, or emotions, or even thoughts themselves.

We have some hand in guiding thoughts to accomplish certain tasks like write a blog post or continue a conversation, but unlike those which come freely these take conscious effort. Language is the medium of thoughts although pictures play a part.


Identity is the net aggregate of our character, which is mostly carried out by habit. Habits are mostly accidental, but are hopefully formed with some concious thought and input from our inner life.

Personality more so describes certain inclinations with respect to our relationship needs. How much do we need to be in company, how much do we need to be alone, how quickly are we satiated. Do our thoughts tend to be laced with judgment? Do we respond more often with our feeling or thoughts? These are the sort of things that a Myers-Brigg answers. As we see, it gives a picture that may help describe how we relate to ourselves and other people. But it is not the full picture, as it does not describe the battleground within that is full of considerable diversity.

Rules in civilizations, cultures, and social settings

For most of us our identity comes into fruitiion within certain cultures, at certain social settings, and within certain civilizations. These spaces where we live impose rules on us which curb and promote certain behaviors, and in turn affect the actions we take and the people we become.

Art and Artist. We may be interested in who we are beyond the particular space and time we grew up, and certain peculiarities of our unique makeup

Inner Life

Consider subjectivity as a series of demands and responses. Basically one eye that is watching and responding to the circus in front of it. It looks left at sensations, then right to emotions, then back to some thoughts on and on. Occasionally little information is coming in and this eye can relax and even close a bit. When this eye closes an eye behinds it opens up. This eye rewatches and judges what the first eye has done and thinks about what it will do and might do. Its tied more to memory and imagination then it is to time itself. When this light is on its trying to solve more abstract problems, ruminating with itself about itself. Sometimes as a result of buildup (this varies person to person as well, ex is dreaming), other times to work on gratifying higher R needs and def G needs, etc. Wants to understand and influence; lives in the world of meaning. So the image is a circus of demands with one eye attending to all of these urgent things, which during moments of calm that eye closes and another opens up.

relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation.

Id, Ego, Superego actually describe the situation well, although my explanation makes it much more clear. Want to read some Lacan to to refresh myself on what he brings to the table. But I like this so far.


Existential needs and concerns

Self knowledge and acceptance

Daimons and being driven (socrates and denial of death). Understanding and coming to terms with our subjectivity. Make unconcious conscious.


Guided by emotion, interpretation not a record.



  • Evolutionary origins of mental health: similar to Darwin’s paper on emotions in animals. Stanford Page is a great resource. Here are some observations that could develop this idea, maybe I should also take a course on it from the best schools:
    • Stressed birds pluck their feathers, and other animals exhibit similar behaviors like dogs which are made to wear cones. This is OCD behavior and is an actually synodrome captured in DSM-5.