Acts in Brandom and Žižek

Both Brandom and Žižek recognize what Brandom has called the “world’s stubborn recalcitrance to mastery and agency”, and yet hold out for the possibility of transformative action.

Brandom ingeniously secures the practical reality of choice through the indirect route of an Enlightenment idea that we can only be bound by values to which we have at least implicitly committed ourselves. The recalcitrance of the Real prevents this from becoming a subjectivism, specifically by virtue of his complementary thesis that the meaning of our commitments is not up to us. But actively taking responsibility for things beyond our power turns out to indirectly have a kind of efficacy. Retrospectively, this may change meant reality.

A lengthy article by Fabio Vighi and Heiko Feldner discusses agency in Žižek from various angles. This account at least is happily free of the Badiouian narrowing of consideration to a few inflationarily conceived “exceptional” acts that afflicts some of the Žižekians (see “Hard” Kantianism?). The concern is with acts in general, and subjectivity in general. Here I can find a good deal more common ground.

For Žižek, our desires are not our own, but the split in the subject that makes us never fully ourselves also connects us with the social. A subject is contrasted with subjectivation. Although passive, alienating subjectivation is inescapable, it also can never be complete. A subject is positively constituted by its own nonidentity or “impossibility” (i.e., impossibility of complete identity with itself). According to Vighi and Feldner, “this decentred kernel of otherness embodies my self-consciousness, the only place where I have a chance to locate the truth about myself”. The conscious activity of individuals is said to be not free, but we can nonetheless accomplish a free act through identifying with the destabilizing effect of what is “in us more than ourselves”. They argue that Žižek does not hypostatize an abstract negativity in the way that I think Sartre did.

Žižek himself wrote that “To ‘pass to the act’ means to assume the risk that what I am about to do will be inscribed into a framework whose contours elude my grasp” (Tarrying with the Negative, p. 31). This connects agency with the Lacanian Real. He also wrote that freedom corresponds to “my ability to choose/determine which causes will determine me. ‘Ethics’, at its most elementary, stands for the courage to accept this responsibility” (The Parallax View, p. 203).

So, despite huge differences in approach and terminology and Žižek’s negative comments about Brandom, on this question at this level of abstraction, there is a similar practical import.

“Hard” Kantianism?

Kantian Deeds (2010) by Henrik Jøker Bjerre is a book-length argument for a Žižekian Kant, with extensive, relatively polite polemical discussion of Brandom and John McDowell. Non-Žižekian readings of Kant are labelled “Soft”, while a Žižekian reading is introduced as a uniquely “Hard” Kantianism.

The main ingredients seem to be an identification of Kantian freedom with voluntarism; literal endorsement of Kant’s argument that reason necessarily leads to antinomies, as a segue to Žižekian contradiction; and a Heideggerian argument for the importance of metaphysics and the question of Being. Bjerre combines these in an attempt to justify claims for the importance of an extraordinary, “extra-moral” morality in Kant alongside ordinary morality. Ordinary morality is made to sound more like social conformity.

Each part of the above summary seems wrong to me. Here I won’t repeat contents of the above-linked articles that give some of my reasons.

While I welcome the elementary insight that Kantian morality involves more than rule-following, there seems to be no real textual basis in Kant for the “extra-moral” morality of a nonrational “surplus” of the deed that this book imports or invents. Simultaneously, the breadth and substantiality of Kant’s actual discussions of “ordinary” morality is much diminished, in order to leave a bigger territory for the putative extra-moral.

Dominik Finkelde’s Excessive Subjectivity: Kant, Hegel, Lacan, and the Foundations of Ethics (2017; German edition 2015) continues along a similar path. “To put it plainly, for Kant the subject is either premoral or extramoral” (p. 8). If Kant said anything suggesting that, I would attribute it to his rather pessimistic view of human nature, not to any endorsement of arbitrariness. We are treated to the spectacle of a Kant made to sound like a Badiouian decisionist. Again, a “deed” presented as fundamentally irrational is everything, and this is supposed to be the way to social emancipation. This is illustrated by a description of Rosa Parks’ historic refusal to sit in the back of the bus as effectively a Badiouian disruptive “event” leading to a new arbitrary “truth”. Never mind that racial segregation in the U.S. was an obvious, egregious violation of ordinary Kantian respect and universality, which any truly honest person could see as irrational all along. Rosa Parks’ action was not at all arbitrary, but rather full of meaning.

Neither social emancipation nor philosophy benefits from all this metaphysics and all this apologetic for arbitrariness. Moreover, the denigration of reason and ordinary ethics as inherently “conservative” weakens the real basis of emancipation. (See also Kantian Will; In Defense of Ordinariness.)

Pure Negativity?

I’m still hoping to arrive at a more constructive engagement with the Žižek school of contemporary Hegel interpretation. Žižek’s reading is more “metaphysical” than the Aristotle-and-Brandom-inspired one I’ve been developing here, and I’m not fond of his penchant for showmanship, but there is a broad proximity of concerns. I’m looking now at Sbriglia and Žižek, Subject Lessons: Hegel, Lacan, and the Future of Materialism (2020). The unusual “materialism” at issue here is openly proclaimed to be a development of German idealism. The contributors seek to distinguish themselves from other recent currents of so-called “cultural materialism”, “new historicism”, “new materialism”, and “object-oriented ontology”. I’ve briefly reviewed one of the representative works from which the Žižekians want to distinguish themselves.

Common to all these trends, the Žižek school, and the work pursued here is a rejection of a classic Cartesian Subject. As against the others, the Žižek school and I both also want to nonetheless affirm the importance of subjectivity. While I am not a Lacanian, I also think Lacan deserves serious engagement, and the Žižek school is pursuing that.

Sbriglia and Žižek write that “the self-limitation of the phenomenal that renders matter un-whole, the fact that the phenomenal field is in itself never ‘all’, never a complete, consistent whole, is strictly correlative to subjectivity as such” (p. 10, emphasis in original). Mladen Dolar in his contribution writes, “Subject is rather the very impossibility of substance to be substance” (p. 38). Žižek in his contribution adds, “when Kant asserts the limitation of our knowledge, Hegel does not answer him by claiming he can overcome the Kantian gap…. the Kantian gap already is the solution: Being itself is incomplete…. This dimension gets lost in Fichte and Schelling, who both assert intellectual intuition” (pp. 107-108, emphasis in original). This seems exactly right.

I would add that for similar reasons having to do with criteria of identity, there is an impossibility like Dolar’s (developed by Aristotle himself in the central books of the Metaphysics) for Aristotelian “what it was to have been” a thing to just be the kind of quasi-grammatical substrate that came to be commonly understood by Latin substantia. The above-quoted formulations are a big advance over notions of mere epistemic incompleteness due to the inexhaustibility of a naively conceived in-itself. In my more Aristotelian language, not only do we rational animals never have a completely univocal perspective on the whole, but we should not be afraid to speak of equivocal determination in the real. Equivocal determination is still determination, but it is incomplete.

My only caveat to Sbriglia and Žižek’s formulation would be on the Schellingian sound of “self-limitation of the phenomenal”. It seems to me the Žižek school sometimes wants to put a Schellingian spin on Hegel’s famous “substance is also subject” claim, which would be an unfortunate regression. I think Hegel not only wanted to sharply distinguish his perspective from that of Schellingian identity philosophy, but succeeded in doing so.

Sbriglia and Žižek use the picturesque Lacanian language of a “hole in reality” as a defining characteristic of subjectivity, commenting that “the inaccessibility of the transcendent In-itself… is a result of the inscription of the perceiving subject into reality” (ibid). I prefer to minimize implicit identity claims, and thus to say (some) subjectivity rather than “the” subject. In some contexts, I think this is merely a terminological difference. Insofar as they just mean a decentered subjectivity with roots in the unconscious, the formulation seems fine, provided “perceiving” is taken as referring to something like Hegelian “Perception” and higher levels of the Phenomenology, not to something like his intended-to-be-discarded starting point of putative empirical “Sense Certainty”.

I get less comfortable with their talk about “the” subject as an abyss of pure negativity. Here I hear echoes of Sartre. While this is neither a substantial Cartesian-medieval intellectual soul nor even a Husserlian transcendental Ego, talk about “pure” negativity or an “abyss” seems to imply a kind of immanent infinity, albeit stripped of traditional theological associations. Sartre used this kind of metaphysics of negativity to bolster an extreme voluntarist anthropology, ironically transferring claims from old bad theology to the service of a strident atheism. Alain Badiou, who is a significant influence on the Žižek school, began as a Sartrean, and is perhaps the most outspoken extreme voluntarist today. I think it is a disservice to bring Sartre and Badiou into the reading of Hegel. Voluntarism is at root a naked expression of the attitude of one-sided Mastery, and should have no place in a discourse that aims at emancipation. Emancipation cannot come from an imposition of will. It comes rather from the increase of justice through processes furthering concrete realization of the autonomy of reason and mutual recognition. (See also Independence, Freedom; Freedom Without Sovereignty.)

Claims of immanent infinity may get a bit of added credibility these days, due to circulating complaints against Kantian “finitude”. It is easy to superficially enlist quotes from Hegel that appear to support such complaints. Here I want to explicitly defend the Kantian perspective of the essential finitude of human reality, relating it back to the happily rather than unhappily finite perspective of Aristotle, and supporting that by an Aristotelian-Brandomian reading of Hegel. A perspective of human finitude can also draw on charitable understandings of much traditional wisdom.

I do also think there is an inherently good but distinctly inhuman Hegelian “negative infinity” that can be anonymously intimate to our finite reality and the formation of our values, through the mediation of second nature, without actually being “us” or “ours” or immanent in us. Even if that negative infinity is to be identified with the “pure Self” Sbriglia and Žižek mention from Hegel’s 1805-06 lectures, it should not be identified with any empirical or existentialist or common-sense self. The Žižek school’s way of expressing this is to speak of a “split subject” or a split in the subject. Various strands of traditional wisdom can be seen in retrospect to have bearing on such a distinction as well. Members of the Žižek school would probably eschew any favorable reference to “traditional wisdom” of the kind I am making here as incompatible with academic-leftist credentials important to them, but Hegel himself often showed an irenic and even valorizing attitude on matters of this sort. (See also Acts in Brandom and Žižek; Self, Subject; Empirical-Transcendental Doublet.)


Alain Badiou (b. 1937) is probably the leading living philosopher in France today. He is a very complex figure who writes well-organized, multidimensional books and says things that are sometimes quite insightful, but who takes a number of fundamental positions I find utterly antithetical. To oversimplify in the extreme, I read him as a highly original Sartrean existentialist who borrowed a few arguments from Sartre’s structuralist nemesis, and added a lot of layers of his own. Somewhat unfortunately in my view, he has become very influential in continentally inclined academic leftist circles. Slavoj Žižek, who offends my sensibilities less often and catches my interest more, has dedicated books to Badiou.

One thing I appreciate is that unlike some others of his generation, Badiou unapologetically identifies himself as a philosopher in the classical sense. I also like the fact that he overtly puts a high value on reasoning (though I think at a deeper level he is more committed to several kinds of voluntarism, including those of Rousseau, Sartre, Mao, and the Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt). I appreciate his sharp-tongued critique of identity politics and some of his other social criticism, but think he draws some very wrong conclusions about the way forward (again in a voluntarist direction). I like the way he integrates diverse interests like mathematics and literature, but strongly object to his claims about political implications of classical versus constructive mathematics. If one were to make such a connection, it seems to me that contrary to what Badiou says, constructive mathematics — with its nonreliance on assumptions — would be the more “liberating”.

Badiou has developed an elaborate and very original account of agency and subjectivity. I like the fact that Badiouian subjects are emergent rather than pre-existent. Unfortunately, his concepts of subjectivity and agency are both extremely narrow and extremely inflationary. Subjectivity and agency are grounded in an arbitrary, exceptional decision to embrace an arbitrary, exceptional new “truth” that cannot be rationally comprehended. Then on the basis of this arbitrary truth, subjects may exceptionally constitute themselves through fidelity and purely formal logical consistency. Rational development begins only after — and on the basis of — an utterly arbitrary decision. In the context of the initial decision, he invokes the Kierkegaardian leap of faith, and promotes a reading of the apostle Paul as the prototype of a revolutionary. He has no use for rational analysis of social conditions. It all comes down to a kind of arbitrary revolutionary will, calling to mind the worst excesses of Robespierre and Mao.

I note in passing that he has promoted a useful clarification of abstraction as a kind of subtraction.

His first big book was Being and Event. I believe the emphasis on Being is misguided, as is that on set theory. His highly original attempt to redefine events, truths, and subjects that we actually care about as limited to the exceptional cases is quite fascinating, but ultimately spoiled by a rather arbitrary canonization of particular exceptions, and by the voluntarist root agenda.

His early Theory of the Subject included elements of a sort of Lacanian Maoist reading of Hegel. I suspect the young Slavoj Žižek attended the original seminars on which it was based, and got significant inspiration there. At this stage, Badiou was emphasizing a so-called “scission of the subject” in Lacan, while attempting to relate it to the more general Maoist “One divides into Two” dogma.

While I think Lacan himself deserves serious consideration, “One divides into Two” is a subtheoretical atrocity that would not only undo all of Hegel’s careful work to develop a concept of determinate negation, but also completely reverse the thrust of Engels’ quite reasonable account of the conditional, relative status of opposites in Anti-Dühring. “One divides into Two” reduces dialectic to crude talk about opposed forces. Badiou still defends this. (See also Contradiction vs Polarity; 1968; Antiphilosophy; “Hard” Kantianism?; Johnston’s Pippin; Weak Nature Alone; Democracy and Social Justice.)

I am even more disturbed by Badiou’s apparent strong sympathy for the work of the political and legal theorist Carl Schmitt, who was an ardent Nazi, and wrote key legal opinions legitimizing Nazi actions. Schmitt’s Nazi involvement seems much worse than Heidegger‘s, and his thought far less mitigating. I just read a couple of secondary accounts of Schmitt for the first time — a bunch of stuff about will and enemies. There are more lessons here about the political evils of voluntarism. Badiou’s explicit references to Schmitt are apparently only the tip of an iceberg. I now realize there are many more implicit resonances in his texts.


Difference is not a univocal concept. X and Y may be orthogonally different like “day” and “raining”, or they may be relationally different like “black” and “white”. Things of whatever sort that are relationally different from each other are materially incompatible; things that are orthogonally different from each other are not materially incompatible.

Aristotle and Hegel both emphasize the importance of what I just called relational difference as the principal source of meaning and intelligibilty. Information theory, arithmetical subtraction, and the Euclidean logos or ratio between two magnitudes are all purely concerned with relational as opposed to orthogonal difference.

I’d like to point out that Saussurean phonological difference — say, the distinction between a “b” sound and a “p” sound — is also a relational difference, not an orthogonal one. Interpreting the sound as “b” is materially incompatible with interpreting the sound as “p”. (Brandom’s reference to Saussure as pre-Kantian and pre-Fregean on the ground that the latter worked with subsentential units of analysis in what was actually phonology is an unfortunate mistake.)

The famous 20th century “structuralism”, for which Saussurean difference was widely considered to have been a launching point, did not seem to be explicitly much concerned with inference, but it was very much concerned with the relational kind of difference, and in this way should be considered a potential ally of inferentialism rather than an opponent. Popular accounts do not much mention the role of 20th century French epistemological rationalism in the structuralist ferment, but I think it was significant, and that this could support additional connections to the inferentialist project. Synchronic structure is an expressive metaconcept, in no way inherently conflicting with a simultaneous recognition of the importance of diachronic process.

Writers like Deleuze and Badiou, on the other hand, and perhaps even someone like Rorty, while making valid points against our culture’s obsession with identity, have unfortunately chosen to valorize nonexclusive difference. This is not the answer. Ironically, an exclusive focus on nonexclusive, orthogonal difference leads back to undifferentiated sameness, via incommensurability. Deleuze and Badiou actually celebrate this, with slogans like “pluralism = monism” or “generic multiplicities”. This is precisely the night in which all cows are black. Even Kant’s point about the infinity of each person tends in this direction.

As Hegel saw clearly and pointed out in the Encyclopedia Logic, the polemic of Reason against Understanding should not lead us to try to throw out determinateness. Understanding wants to lock everything down under Identity, which is ultimately disastrous. The indiscriminate valorization of orthogonal Difference, on the other hand, ultimately destroys meaning and intelligibility. We should be looking for an Aristotelian mean (outside of, rather than between) these one-sided, shallow, and unattractive extremes.

I want to say that difference, when unbounded, ceases to be what I wanted to mean by difference. A thoughtful dwelling on relational difference, with due attention to real-world contingency and ambiguity, would be my candidate for the mean. (See also Determinate Negation; Conceptual, Representational.)