Research and Insights

Where does a subject actually begin, and where does it end? This question, which may seem somewhat peculiar and far from economic problems for most people, is fundamental to how we think about and consequently organize the economy. A closer look reveals that the question of the limits of the subject is of great relevance to the assessment of the legitimacy of private appropriation – a fact that can be clarified by a historical perspective, thanks to emancipatory achievements, especially the anti-slavery movement, a subject can belong to no one, even in completely marketised societies, but everything external to it can.

Asked about the spatial limit of the subject, which this article aims to focus on, most people would likely respond that it is the skin that serves as the inner-outer boundary between the human subject and the objective world. However, the idea of a human as a self-contained reservoir, as a homo clausus, is problematic. It artificially divides the existential interconnectedness of our existence into a subjective inner world and an objective outer world.

This division is crucial for the economic dimension of the human-nature and human-human relationship, as questioned, especially by feminist political ecology (e.g., Gottschlich et al. 2022). The experience of being personally affected on the level of bodily sensations, as will be shown, can serve as an empirical guide for criticizing the notion of the self-contained individual.

The Historical Emergence of Homo Clausus

In his 1939 work "The Civilizing Process," Norbert Elias (1997a; 1997b) critically reconstructs a specific human image for Western modernity, which he calls homo clausus. This is the idea of a self-contained individual who is "enclosed within himself by an invisible wall from everything outside, including all other people" (Elias 1997a: 52).

Through extensive historical research, Elias shows that this idea of a human "self in the shell" (ibid.: 57) is an expression of historically evolved forms of social coexistence. This human image developed over several centuries and was reinforced, not least, by various specialist discourses. Regarding the skin, which is now commonly understood as the cipher for the outer limit of a human container, Michel Foucault's (1988) studies point to an interesting shift. With the advent of pathological anatomy at the end of the 18th century, the understanding of the skin fundamentally changed. Formerly considered permeable, it paradoxically began to be perceived as a closed shell, especially through the anatomical practice of opening it. Henceforth, it appeared as the outer boundary of a human container hiding the interior of the body from the doctor's gaze.

In this context, Elias questions whether it is reasonable, in terms of an "appropriate understanding of man" (Elias 1997a: 56), to uncritically make homo clausus the basis for analyses in social sciences. Regarding the theoretical problems of economics in focus here, he points out (1997a: 52) that the notion of the self-contained individual emerged "in connection with certain types of interdependence, with the social ties of people to each other" – one could also say – in relation to the respective relations of production.

The Iron Cage of the Self-Contained Individual and its Ideological Usefulness

According to this observation, the construction of a sharp inner-outer boundary of the subject becomes economically relevant where the question of legitimate access and appropriation rights is at stake. If the essence of a human subject is found at the skin's boundary, then the social-ecological habitat with which we are existentially intertwined as mammals, no longer belongs to it. In the homo clausus concept, humans are reduced to isolated things, which, as Karl Marx (MEW 40: 512) polemically formulated, are "dehumanized to the point of starvation." This has at least two effects on the organizational forms of the economic: on the one hand, the human self is deprived of its living space, and the “external” environment becomes available for unrestricted private appropriation. On the other hand, this creates a kind of existential deficiency that each person has to deal with individually. Within prevailing property relations, the subject is confined to the iron cage of a self-isolated individual, from which only solvency leads out. With the latter, we can then purchase portions of the "external," strictly speaking, buy them back.

As a result, the homo clausus concept not only shapes the human-nature relationship but also significantly influences the relationship between people. In connection with the latter aspect, it must be added that the self-contained individual is typically presented as an autonomous adult person. Elias (1997a: 50) writes: "From the fact that [man] came into the world as a child, from the whole process of his development into an adult and as an adult, this human image is considered insignificant.” Therefore, a critique of the typical capitalist devaluation of the care sector, additional to the patriarchal dimension (Bauhardt 2019), should emphasize the crucial contribution that homo clausus has historically played and continues to play in this context.

Finally, the criticized human image with its denial of existential interconnectedness is ideological for at least two reasons: firstly, it is in clear contradiction to empirical facts, and secondly, it generates specific forms of neediness, which can be exploited in the form of commodities. And eventually, for the benefit of a few, the resulting profits of this commodity-driven satisfaction can be privately appropriated.

The Sphere of Embodied Sensations as an Empirical Basis for Critique

With regard to the described human image, it is worth referring to a scientific discipline that allows us to uncover and criticize its inherent reductionism based on empirical observations. It is called phenomenology of the felt body (“Leibphänomenologie” in German), or in other words, the science of the forms of embodied experience.

A representative of this discipline is Hermann Schmitz (1928-2021), the founder of New Phenomenology (e.g., Schmitz 2016). Along his developed epistemology, it becomes clear that the relationship between the subject and the environment is by no means a rigid inner-outer boundary. Instead, the boundaries between the subject and the objects of the "external" world are fluid, as can be illustrated by simple everyday examples; consider the skilled use of a tool, such as riding a bicycle or eating with cutlery. If the objects of our everyday use were mere things of the "external" world, as suggested by the human image of homo clausus (in line with classical epistemological theories), we could hardly intentionally use them, if at all.

In contrast, a neo-phenomenological perspective shows that, in the case of familiar use of objects, we perceive them as something that palpably belongs to the self. In such situations, a "subject boundary", if it should exist at all, is temporarily suspended or at least shifted to the edges of practical execution; a phenomenon for which Schmitz (2016: 184) has developed the term "felt incorporation” (“Einleibung” in German). We usually become aware of what successful ‘felt incorporation’ means only when it poses difficulties, i.e., when we get on an unfamiliar vehicle or use chopsticks instead of a knife and fork. Then the world of things becomes resistant, as resistant as the capitalist world of goods when trying to get some food from the supermarket without a means of payment.

The neo-phenomenological critique of neglecting existential interconnectedness can also be applied to the care sector. In this context, too, the sphere of embodied experiences can serve as an empirically reasoned  objection to the idea of an autonomous human container. An illustrative example from recent history is the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, people found themselves in a situation where the bodily perceptible concern about not being cared for in case of medical emergency spread. In this context, people gained empirical insight into the existential necessity of care work and palpably realized that the autonomy of a self-contained individual is rather a modern ideology than embodied reality (Schulz 2021).

What numerous studies about deficiencies in the care sector in previous years failed to achieve, namely creating a collective awareness of the problem, was achieved overnight through being affected on one's own body. Suddenly, the mutual interdependence of people gained empirical evidence by bodily sensations, leading to widespread criticism of prevailing forms of organizing care work.

Conclusion – Existential Economics as an Emancipatory Process

Notwithstanding the historically evolved notion of self-contained individuals, the sensation on one's own body allows us to reevaluate the boundaries of the subject based on empirical insights. On the level of the embodied, we find a basic experience that can be used as a guide for assessing the legitimacy of property-related inclusion and exclusion criteria, as well as for questioning the reasonable organization of existential public services like the sector of care work (especially regarding the latter, see Schulz 2020). We are not externally and disconnected from things and other people, but we are existentially entangled with both spheres in a bodily perceptible manner – an overall context in which an economics oriented toward the human image of homo clausus conceptually must fail.

Regarding an economics that is aware of these embodied interdependencies, two aspects should be emphasized: on the one hand, there must be a strict analytical distinction according to subjective and individual experience. That means that on the one hand the experiences to be used as empirical evidence are highly subjective, as no one can feel my hunger or my concern about not being cared for in case of a medical emergency. Such experiences possess a specific dimension of evidence that New Phenomenology (Schmitz 2011: 73 ff.) calls "subjective factuality”. Nevertheless, on the other hand, they are clearly by no means individual in the sense of social status or socio-cultural mediation.

Moreover, it is crucial to recognize that a re-measurement of the boundaries of the subject is the continuation of an emancipatory project. While the proposed perspective suggests a subject-theoretical shift of boundaries outward, it has historically been the opposite way, i.e., the shift of boundaries inward, that is characteristic of the form of economic exploitation called slavery. It is no coincidence that one tried to legitimize the disenfranchisement of the affected people during its heyday by denying them the ability to subjectively experience an inner world. The goal was to extend the boundary of legitimate access from the outside until one supposedly only dealt with an object of the external world – a strategy that, incidentally, continues to this day concerning the human-animal relationship.

The required negotiation process about the presented boundary shift inevitably carries – and one should harbor no illusions here –  an enormous socio-political explosive power. However, in view of the increasingly devastating consequences of current border regimes, be they of a subject-theoretical or geographical nature, this negotiation seems more urgent than ever. In this respect, the two greatest tragedies that Western societies are currently facing, the socio-ecological crisis and the glaringly inhumane handling of migration movements, have a similar origin: empirically unfounded demarcations that are not merely ideological, but existentially devastating.


Disclaimer: This article is a translated version of the intervention that was originally published in German language as part of the Economists For Future Debate Series in the online magazine Makronom. Hence, some of the linked references are in German. 

About the author:

Manuel Schulz studied sociology and economics in Marburg, Germany, and finished his PhD in 2022 at the Department of General and Theoretical Sociology at the University of Jena in Germany. His research focuses on new phenomenology, general economic and social theory, and time-theoretical analyses in the field of financial market sociology. Starting from March 2024, he will realize a research project on the foundations of an existential-philosophical economic sociology at the University of Cologne. The author’s research can be accessed here.