Oddly, but importantly, if the thesis is right, then the «I» comes into sentient being, even thinking and acting, precisely by being acted on in ways that, from the start, presume that non-voluntary, though volatile field of impressionability. Already undone, or undone from the start, we are formed, and as formed, we come to be always partially undone by what we come to sense and know.

Butler, Judith

Sense of the Subject
Katzmarcik, Lina
Ed. cit
Sense of the Subject
New York, Fordham University Press, 2015


Judith Butler, born in Cleveland, Ohio on February 24th, 1956, is a philosopher whose theories on gender, sexuality, and identity have been influential in philosophical feminism from the late 20th century onwards, particularly in the fields of queer and feminist theory. Butler obtained her Ph.D. at Yale University in 1984 and since 1993 has been teaching at the University of California, Berkeley. Politically speaking, Butler has shown active support towards lesbian and gay political issues and has openly voiced her criticism of Zionism, stating that Israel should not be the representative voice of all Jewish people. Some of her most well known and most influential works include Gender Trouble (1990) and Bodies that Matter (1993) which critically discuss matters of sex, gender and sexuality in relation to the —somewhat polemic— works of Freud, Derrida, and Foucault.


Sense of the Subject consists of several philosophical essays that Butler has written over the years. Whilst exploring fundamental questions such as the impossibility of self-narration, desire, and interdependence both in writing and in real life, Butler creates a narrative dialogue with influential philosophers such as Hegel, Kierkegaard, Descartes, Spinoza, Malebranche, Merleau-Ponty, Freud, Irigaray, and Fanon. In these texts, Butler diverges from her more well-known work on feminist and gender studies, giving the reader a rare look at her philosophical writing when entirely removed from what she is most renowned for. Sense of the Subject is, perhaps, more of a cathartic exercise for the writer than a collection of philosophical musings. To sum up the crux of this intricate work; it is a study of the human duality, and reading the essays as a collective allows for a unique insight into the development and evolution of Butler’s thought process regarding ethics, gender, sexuality and what it means to be an «I» when there’s always a «you».


Sense of the Subject consists of an introduction followed by a collection of essays written and gathered over the course of two decades and thus beautifully portraying the evanescence and transiency of human thought, belief and identity. In this intricately written assembly of words and reflections, Butler both problematises and explores the significance and true meaning of the «I» in relation to the «You» and the «They» and thus the credibility and possibility of self-narration in the face of the paradoxical human quest for autonomy and individuality. On her journey of inquiry into the sense of the subject, she creates a philosophical dialogue with Freud, Hegel, Spinoza, Descartes, Merleau-Ponty and Fanon in an attempt to both understand and explain fundamental issues such as ethics, sexuality, gender, and race. She depicts the impossibility for any one person to extricate themselves from the interwoven net that exists between the «I» and the rest of the world, that everybody and everything also exists within «me» (when the «me» is simultaneously the «you» and «they») and that such concepts as acting and being acted upon are not mutually exclusive. It is interesting, also, how Butler draws from Spinoza’s view on suicide; how nobody can take their own life because, at such a time, external forces are acting upon the person contemplating a premature end to their existence, thus blurring the boundaries, the lines, between the external and the internal world. It poses the question: do we really ever have control of our own lives and does it really matter? In Butler’s characteristic style, the text touches upon such deep questions and once done reading more questions have been posed than answered. Sense of the Subject is a beautiful, refined lesson in philosophy, empathy and the fragile interdependence of the human species. Reading Sense of the Subject gives great insight into the minds of some of history’s great thinkers, witnessing how they share and expand theories, finding fault with, refining, and reconsidering them. Butler explores how Descartes doubts the physical body and plays with the concept that the body is not only made by language but of language, and how to separate the two, and that reality and fiction are not opposites, but interlinked concepts that are mutually dependent. Butler uses Freud’s own words against him when exploring humanity and the self, taking the concept of meta-textuality, and showing a deep understanding of his work, for how could she problematise Freudian notions such as narcissism or the Ego, without fully understanding them first? Butler then goes on to converse with Fanon about what destroys a person when they are destroying themselves and with Merleau-Ponty about the need to be «touched» in order to animate what she calls the «sentient subject», before she investigates, on her own and with the reader, whether there is love in Hegel’s language. After reading, or rather experiencing, Sense of the Subject the question remains whether or not such a thing as a Paradox even exists and new questions arise, posed by Butler’s own philosophy: that I am in charge of forming myself but at the same time I am inseparably connected to everything that was before me and everything that is with me. And when I say «I», I am also saying «you».

Katzmarcik, Lina (2017), "Judith Butler. Sense of the Subject", Lletra de Dona in Centre de Recerca ADHUC-Teoria, Gènere i Sexualitat, Barcelona, Centre de Recerca ADHUC-Teoria, Gènere i Sexualitat / Universitat de Barcelona, fecha de consulta.

Edita: ADHUC—Centre de Recerca Teoria, Gènere, Sexualitat
(cc-by-nc-sa 3.0)
Katzmarcik, Lina

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