The Dreaded Humanist Debate

In 1960s France, there was a huge controversy among philosophers and others over so-called “humanism”. Rhetoric was excessive and overheated on both sides of the debate, promoting unhealthy and shallow polarization, but the topics dealt with were of great importance.

To begin to understand the various positions on this, it is necessary to realize that connotations of the word “humanism” in this context were quite different from what is usual in English. The third meaning listed in Google’s dictionary result, attributed to “some contemporary writers”, does at least have the virtue of expressing a position in philosophical anthropology, which is what was at issue in the French debate (in contrast both to Renaissance literary humanism and to explicitly nonreligious approaches to values).

Europe has an old tradition of self-identified Christian humanism. After the publication of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts in the 1930s, non-Stalinist Marxists began talking about a Marxist humanism. In France after World War II, even the Stalinists wanted to claim the title of humanist. In his famous 1945 lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism”, the notoriously anti-religious and individualistic writer Jean-Paul Sartre surprised some people by placing his existentialism under a common “humanist” banner with Christians and Stalinists. What they all wanted to assert under the name of humanism was a particular view of what it is to be a human, emphasizing the centrality of free will and consciousness, and identifying humanness with being a Subject.

In the 1960s, these views were sharply criticized by people loosely associated with so-called “structuralism”, including Foucault, Althusser, and Lacan. The “structuralist” views denied strong claims of a unitary Subject of knowledge and action; rejected any unconditional free will; and took a deflationary approach to consciousness. Sartre and others launched vehement counter-attacks, and the debate degenerated into little better than name-calling on both sides.

In my youth, I was exposed first to views from the “humanist” side, and accepted them. Then I became aware of the “structuralist” alternative, and for a while became its zealous partisan.

In the Odyssey, Odysseus had to navigate between the twin hazards of Scylla and Charybdis. Since the millenium, I have emphasized a sort of middle way between “humanism” and “structuralism” — inspired especially by Aristotle and Brandom, and now with added support from Ricoeur.

Now I want to say, there is no Subject with a capital “S”, but I am highly interested in the details of subjectivity. There is no unconditional free will (and I even doubt the existence of a separate faculty of “will” distinct from reason and desire), but I am highly interested in voluntary action as discussed, e.g., by Aristotle and Ricoeur. I prefer to sharply distinguish apparently immediate “consciousness” from other-oriented, mediate, reflexive “self-consciousness”, putting most of the philosophical weight on the latter.

Meaning, Consciousness

I generally translate talk about consciousness into talk about meaning and related commitments. It doesn’t seem to me that anything is lost in the conversion; all the content is still there.

The notion of consciousness as a sort of generalized transparent medium of immediate presence that is somehow also tied to our sense of self and agency may seem intuitive, but it is actually the product of a long cultural development. It seems to belong to what Lacan called the Imaginary. Plato and Aristotle addressed the full range of human experience without any dependency on something like this. (See also Intentionality.)

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.

Split Subject, Contradiction

The Žižekians, referencing Lacan, like to talk about a “split subject” that is noncoincident with itself. In broad terms, I think this is useful. What we call subjectivity is divided, and lacking in strong unity. (See also Pure Negativity?; Acts in Brandom and Žižek.) But it seems to me that if we try to speak carefully about this, we should not then go on using singular articles like “the” or “a”.

I tend to think subjectivity is not just fractured or un-whole, but also actually consists of a complex overlay of different things that we tend to blur together. In particular, it seems clear to me that a common-sense, biographical “self” whose relative unity over time is trackable by relation to the “same” physical body — or by Lockean continuity of memory — is not the same as what we might in a given moment view from a distance as an individualized ethos, or up close as a unity of apperception. This is, I believe, the same distinction that Brandom discusses in terms of sentience and sapience.

Ethos and unity of apperception, and their constituent values and conceptions — the very things that most properly say “I”, and play the functional role of an ethical “subject”, or of a subject of knowledge — are profoundly involved with language, social relations, and what Lacan in his earlier work called the Symbolic and the “Other”. These instances of sapience are pure forms whose identity can only be expressed in terms of sameness of form — nonempirical, but inseparable from a larger ethical world — and simultaneously intimate to us, but by no means strictly “ours”. (See also Self, Subject.)

Where I am still a bit torn is that I also feel that emotions — which I’ve been locating on the former, “self” side — are fundamental to subjectivity as a whole, but I have theoretically separated them from the main locus of transcendental ethical and epistemic subjectivity, even though they play an essential role in making it possible. One logical solution would be to say this just means subjectivity as a whole is more than just ethical and epistemic. Another would be to say that there is a separate kind of emotional subjectivity. I’m not entirely satisfied yet, because I think feeling combines these, but the noncoincidence of our factual selves with our ethical and epistemic being seems very important in understanding how we overcome empirical limitations.

The Žižekians will perhaps remind us that they were not talking about a split between self and subject, but about a split within the subject. I think we habitually overstate the degree of unity and identity we attribute to selves, subjects, and things in general, so I’m fine with that, too. They also want to expand this into a general “ontological” point, which I see as a semantic point.

Perhaps the Žižekians are more comfortable talking about “a” or “the” subject in part due to their doctrine of the ubiquity of contradiction. Todd McGowan in Emancipation After Hegel (2019) nicely distinguishes the Žižekian notion from the old confusion between contradiction and conflict or polarity — and from immediate self-contradiction — but still wants to maintain that the standard logical law of noncontradiction ultimately “refutes itself”, and that Hegel thought this as well. This argument combines a laudable awareness of some of the practical issues with identity, with a logically invalid use of the distinction between explicit and implicit self-contradiction.

Hegel meditated profoundly on the difficulties of applying logic to meaningful content and to real life. He strained language to the breaking point trying to express his conclusions.

On the frontiers of mathematical logic today, the so-called law of identity has been replaced by a requirement to specify identity criteria for each formally defined type, and identity in general has been weakened to isomorphism. (See also Form as a Unique Thing.)

Real-world applications of strong identity typically involve loose “extensional” reference to things assumed to be the same, and a lot of forgetting. The linchpin of old “identity thinking” was inattention to difficulties of formalization from ordinary language — basically an illegitimate moving back and forth between formal and informal domains, resulting in lots of homogenizing confusion of things that ought to be distinct. Weaker, “intensional” assertions about identity as specifiable sameness of form make it the exception rather than the rule. What come first conceptually are distinctions within the manifold, not pre-synthesized things already possessed of identity. Where things are not the same to begin with, contradiction — far from being omnipresent — is not even potentially at issue. (See also Self-Evidence?)

Meanwhile, Sellars and Brandom have revived material inference about meant realities in contrast to formal logic, which deals with purely syntactic relations between presumed extensional “things” with presumed identity. Things Kant and Hegel said about Understanding and Reason can be nicely understood in terms of the relation between syntactic inference about symbolic terms standing for formless extensional “things” and substantive, material inference about the actual form of meant realities. Especially in the reading of Hegel, not having the resource of this distinction available now seems positively crippling.

Finally, Aristotle, who originated the law of noncontradiction as a kind of ethical imperative, and stands in the background to all of Hegel’s discussions of logic, was himself rather cautious and tentative about applying identity to real things, and in his logic was also mainly concerned with (composition of) material inferences, which have more to do with the actual form of things .

Hegel never violated Aristotle’s imperative not to say opposite things about the same thing said in the same way. What he did was to constantly point out the gap between reality and traditional semi-formal logic applied to ordinary language — not to encourage us to reject logic, but rather to refine and sublimate it. (See also Aristotelian and Hegelian Dialectic.)

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.)

Mutual Recognition and the Other

Part of what I like so much about both Aristotle and Brandom is that they each offer a sustained non-Subject-centered development of what I broadly think of as meta-ethical concerns, including subjectivity itself.

Since I first encountered him in the 1970s, Lacan’s broad perspective on subjectivity as decentered always seemed very sensible and right to me, and in accord with the epistemic modesty I have attributed to Plato and Aristotle. At this very broad level, there is an important consonance here.

A large emphasis on language is obviously another point Aristotle, Brandom, and Lacan all have in common, but while I have previously suggested a possibility of bidirectional translation specifically between relational structures and inferentialist modes of expression based on a common denominator of Hegelian determinate negation, the difference between metaphoric-metonymic and normative-inferential approaches to language is huge.

Lacan identified what he called the Other primarily with language analyzed in Jakobsonian terms, and with Levi-Straussian “Law”. Now I want to focus on the latter aspect. This seems to be just normativity, albeit in global synchronic relational form rather than the fine-grained interactive diachronic form developed by Brandom.

To say that the unconscious is the discourse of the Other in this sense results in an anonymous, social unconscious rather than a personal, biological one, which I find highly intriguing. It also puts the unconscious and normativity in the same “place”. At first that made me worry about explaining primary process from a Brandomian point of view, but I have decided there is no requirement to do that. I am inclining toward a view that primary process and normativity would each pick out aspects of what goes on in that hypothetical anonymous, role-based social subjective “place”, and that those aspects would be basically orthogonal.

The Other seems to be mainly considered as synchronic and global, viewed from a distance, whereas mutual recognition is a fine-grained, ongoing interactive process. The Other could be hypothetically considered as the global synchronic product of the whole mutual recognition process. Conversely, mutual recognition could be considered a detailed, internal, genetic explanation of the Other that Lacan never contemplated.

I have yet to find mutuality in Lacan. He talked a fair amount about Hegel, but through a Kojèvian lens. Kojève had stressed the struggle for one-sided recognition associated with Mastery. Lacan seems to have regarded love as primarily a narcissistic phenomenon, which I cannot agree with. (See also Imaginary, Symbolic, Real.)

Primary Process

Lacan saw both language and the primary process of the unconscious as mainly governed by Jakobsonian metaphor and metonymy. While especially well adapted to accounting for poetry, word salads, and dreams, the Jakobsonian approach seems insufficiently constrained to be able to account for proprieties of inference; but then, it was not developed for that purpose. (See also Imaginary, Symbolic, Real.)

Brandom sees any descriptive, formal view of language such as the Jakobsonian one as ultimately parasitic on a nonformal, normative, and material-inferential view. For rational, discursive purposes where we want deontic modal constraints, Brandom’s approach works very well. Brandom’s account focuses on the normative and inferential meaning of ordinary empirical concepts, and has nothing to say about free metaphor and metonymy, which also have a big place in the wider world; but then, it was not developed for the latter purpose.

I don’t mean to suggest any facile symmetry here, just the bare possibility of some reconciliation in view of the fact that the main concerns of the two approaches are mutually exclusive. Saying that a view is parasitic on another view is very different from saying it is wrong. The question is whether it is fair to expect that Brandom’s claim of parasitism at a general level of formal on “material” and of descriptive on normative approaches imposes on Brandom an obligation to be able to explain any possible formal account in his terms, including one mainly designed for a case well outside his focus. I think it does impose on him an obligation to be able to explain any formal account addressing the scope of determination of empirical concepts, but does not impose an obligation to be able to explain something like metaphor and metonymy. So, at least in this measure I do think the perspectives can coexist.

In my youth when I was a linguistically experimental poet among other things, I put more stress on metaphor and metonymy myself. At that point, I still believed in rational intuition, did not really think of reasoning in terms of language, and was even a bit disdainful of breaking things down into steps. Now I think all intuition is secondary to some prior development. As soon as I encountered Brandom’s argument about the priority of inference over representation, it seemed very right, and I began to engage with other aspects of his work from there. We could squint and say metaphor and metonymy are forms of representation, but if so it is certainly not empirical conceptual representation, so I’m inclined to think in that case we’re dealing with an Aristotelian homonym.

Imaginary, Symbolic, Real

I’ve been feeling a need to say something about the controversial French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Due to his provocative personality and style, he evoked extreme hostility from some quarters, not all of which was unjustified, but I still think he is important. (Wikipedia has a relatively balanced summary article.)

American psychoanalysis has been much more narrowly medicalized than Freud’s original work. While trained as a psychiatrist, Lacan went in the opposite direction and engaged even more extensively with philosophy, literature, the arts, linguistics, logic, and mathematics. Among many other things, he developed a rich notion of three orders — Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real — in which we simultaneously participate.

The Imaginary seems to me to elaborate on Spinoza’s poignant words about human illusions in the Ethics. Lacan notably maintained — against the implicit mentalism of the American ego psychologists — that the ego is a product of alienated Imaginary identification.

The Symbolic or the “Other” is the order of language and culture and social relationships, within which I would place what I have been calling second nature and the transcendental. Lacan argued that speech originates neither in the subject nor the ego but in the Other. The unconscious for Lacan is not something primitive, and is not a deep interiority. He said the unconscious is the “discourse of the Other”, and is structured like a language. “I” belongs to the Other. We are our words. He even said our desire is the desire of the Other. Lacan was associated with many famous avant-garde writers and artists, and himself spoke and wrote in a linguistically experimental style with much wordplay, while embracing a structuralist view of language.

The Real in Lacan’s earlier work seems to me to recall a sort of Spinozist whole. In his later work, it especially foregrounds what Brandom called the world’s “stubborn recalcitrance to mastery and agency”. Earlier in his career, Lacan had tended to emphasize a therapeutic transition from the Imaginary to the Symbolic. Later, he began to stress the importance of the Real as something that is impossible and contradictory from the point of view of the univocal synchronic order of the Symbolic. He developed a series of topological and other mathematical metaphors for characterizing things like subject/object relations in terms much richer than simple duality.

Lacan’s seminars, the main primary source, are now mostly available in English. The vast secondary literature is very uneven in quality. I found the biography by Elizabeth Roudinesco and the works of Bruce Fink helpful for getting some orientation. (See also Meaning, Consciousness; Therapy; Primary Process; Mutual Recognition and the Other; Pure Negativity?; Split Subject, Contradiction.)

My own thought about subjectivity is summarized in Ethos, and related articles directly or indirectly linked from there. See the Subjectivity section for more.


Martha Nussbaum wrote a book on the therapeutic intent of Hellenistic philosophy with respect to emotions. This was a particular extension of the broader ancient idea that philosophy was not just a theory of the world, but the way to the good life for a rational animal.

It actually seems to me that there could be such a thing as clinical philosophy. (To the partial extent that I think I understand Lacanian psychoanalysis, that seems to me to be a significant part of what Lacan was doing. He would have disagreed, because he claimed to have a point of view superior to that of the philosopher, but what makes his work interesting to me is the philosophical content and the way it is related to the clinical context.)

Ultimately, I think it is hard to separate ethics from something like therapy. Aristotle did not think this way. He in effect considered ethical discourse to be for the happy few who really don’t need therapy. But if we push ethics in a more democratic direction, then we do need therapy.