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(1) The focus of an experiment, usually the human ‘subject matter’, or (2) the morally responsible, active agent of action.


‘Subject’ comes from the Latin translation, subjectum – ‘that which is thrown under’ – of the Greek term coined by Aristotle, (hypokeimenon). For Aristotle, ‘subject’ meant that which underlies an existing thing, the substratum which makes the thing what it is and to which attributes may be attached. It also meant ‘subject’ in the grammatical sense, in which a predicate is ‘what is said of a subject’. In the sense of what is underneath, in mediaeval England, ‘subject’ came to mean the subject of a king’s power, and in Shakespeare’s time ‘subject’ still meant the subject matter of a poem or a murder plot. It is this sense of ‘subject’ which is continued in today’s usage as the subject of an experiment.

The Aristotlean meaning of ‘subject’ was inverted when Descartes used ‘subject’ to mean the cogito, the thinking mind to which thoughts are ‘attached’. For Kant, the ‘subject’ was “the transcendental subject of thought, which is cognized only by means of the thoughts that are its predicates.” This sense of subject as a cognitive, active and moral agent but which is transcendental¸ remains the dominant meaning in philosophy.

The Subject in CHAT

CHAT writers commonly use ‘subject’ in the sense (1) both for experimental subjects and the subject matter of lessons, etc., and its meaning will be obvious from the context. A. N. Leontyev extended the sense (2) to refer to any active organism, even an amoeba, as well as ‘collective subjects’ and is taken as a form of material interaction (“a physical, material subject” – 1978 §3.2), not ‘transcendental’:

“Psychic reflection, taken in the system of connections and relations of the matter of the subject himself, is only a special state of this matter, a function of his brain; taken in the system of the subject’s links and relations with the world around him, it is an image of this world” (Leontyev 1947).

Leontyev did not develop his idea of a ‘collective subject’, which he broached in The Development of Mind, but such a conception would suggest a CHAT response to more recent critiques of the subject. When we consider the object of activity in Leontyev’s work, in the context of the Hegelian subject-object relation, then a ‘collective subject’ of some kind is implied.

In Engeström's Activity Theory, the subject is one of at least 6 elements in the model, and means an individual actor or a group.

"In the model, the subject refers to the individual or sub-group whose agency is chosen as the point of view in the analysis." (CATDWR, 2003)

But there is a strong sense that the model itself represents a collective subject, which 'share the same general object and who construct themselves as distinct from other communities'


Center for Activity Theory and Developmental Work Research (2003), What are CHAT & DWR,

Kant, I. (1787). The Critique of Pure Reason,

Leontyev, A. N. (1947). Apropos the Historica Development of Consciousness, in The Development of Mind,

Leontyev, A. N. (2009). The Development of Mind.

-- AndyBlunden - 17 Nov 2013


Topic revision: r5 - 26 Nov 2013, AndyBlunden

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