Wednesday, November 15, 2017


342. Process philosophy

According to Kant, we can know neither the ‘thing in itself’, out in the world, nor ourselves. Hegel turned this epistemological gap: we don’t know, into an ontological one; it does not exist. Žižek went along with Hegel, and, following Lacan, proposed that people craft an illusory ‘object-a’, for things and selves, as discussed in the foregoing items in this blog.

This objet-a is part, I propose, of what I have called an ‘object bias’: the irresistible urge to see the world and ideas, concepts, meanings in terms of objects.

Here I propose an alternative: let us shift the focus of our understanding of the world from object to process. I have argued for that in several places in this blog, concerning being, identity, cognition, truth, meaning, and democracy. I summarize this below.

I have referred to Heidegger’s view of ‘being’ not as a noun but as a verb. I deny identity as some fixed given, with some enduring essence, and presented it as a process of emergence in acting in the world. As an alternative to the idea of identity as an object I proposed the idea of identity as a position in developing networks of contacts with people. Inspired by Levinas’ philosophy of the other, I proposed that identity is developed in interaction with others, and that intellectual and spiritual progress requires openness to opposition by the other.   

In all this, I use the view from pragmatic philosophy ( Peirce, James, Dewey) that cognition is developed from interaction with the physical and social world. Instead of truth as some ‘thing to be found’, I employ the idea from pragmatist philosophy of truth as ‘warranted assertibility’, in a process of debate, and ethics not as a fixed order but as ‘debatable’, in Aristotelian ‘phronesis’ or practical wisdom, where ethical judgements depend on context.

I also use the work of Maxine Sheets-Johnstone that feelings, ethics and morality arise from interaction in movement and bodily interaction with others. This yields a ‘dynamic congruency’ between emotions and movement that is not a given but is ongoing. Among other things, this yields mirror neurons.

Mirror neurons are not present at birth and are not genetically determined in later development. Like other mental constructions they arise from networks of neuronal connections that emerge and develop in time, ‘sprout’ and are ‘pruned’ depending on how often they are activated and how productive they are. It is no coincidence that they arise in the motor regions in the brain, which govern movement.[i]

I present meaning not as some fixed reference, with a word as a label attached to a thing it refers to or ‘denotes’, but as a process of sense-making, of how to identify whether something belongs to some class, or whether something is true. This is done on the basis of connotations one attaches to things. I adopt the distinction between reference and sense from the logician/philosopher Frege. Reference concerns something as ‘given’, sense concerns ‘the way in which it is given’, as Frege put it, which I turned into ‘the way in which we identify something, an X as an Y’.

Sense depends on experience: connotations are collected along the course of one’s life, in a culture, in a series of contexts. A life course is unique to a person, and hence sense varies between people, yielding ‘cognitive distance’. 

Reference can be undetermined, with uncertainty, or difference of opinion, whether some object belongs to a class or not. It can also change. I used the example of a stuffed cow used as a chair. New connotations emerge from action in the world, and they may remain idiosyncratic or become publicly adopted. I used the ‘hermeneutic circle’ as a model of meaning change.

Perhaps the distinction between sense and reference can also be used to clarify Žižek’s notion of ‘master signifiers’ attached to the idealized ‘object-a’. He uses the example of the monarch as the master identifier of the social order. Here, the ‘objet-a’ is the intended reference, and the ‘master signifier’ is a leading sense maker for identifying it.

The peculiarity here is that what is referred to does not in fact exist, is a ‘phantasm’, as Žižek calls it, but people believe, or make believe, that it does exist. In other words, the reference has no ontological anchor, so that the sense of the signifier cannot be tested, and master signifiers can be manipulated, and become an instrument of ideology.

Žižek used the example of ‘professor’. Other scholars may have the same degree of knowledge, talents, and scientific achievements as the professor, but are not professors. Thus, Žižek claims, the term ‘professor’ is ‘empty’. It is not. It has sense, in helping to identify someone as a professor, also to people who cannot judge his/her qualities. It brings in a link with official standards, procedures and authorities appointed to appoint professors.

Thus, a master signifier yields institutionalized sense. Is it thereby indoctrination? It certainly is, but it is also a pragmatic necessity to avoid endless debate between different senses of scholarship, in order to get on with the job of appointing professors.

For democracy, I proposed to replace the current perspective of positioning, in voting for a political party and its programme, once in four or five years, by an ongoing process of being involved in making and implementing policy, in a ‘commons’, at least on a local level, in citizens councils.  

To summarize all this, I used the motto of ‘imperfection on the move’.    


[i] Maxine Johnstone, ‘Movement and mirror neurons: A challenging and choice conversation’, Phenomenology and the cognitive sciences, vol. 11/issue 3, p. 385-401.

Saturday, November 11, 2017


341. Dealing with democracy

In item 339 of this blog, I discussed Žižek’s diagnosis of the problem of liberal democracy as being unable to provide a shared ‘ideal object’, ‘objet-a’, of a good ‘symbolic order’ that appeals to society as a whole, and is universally recognized and seen as the Law, to be obeyed unconditionally. Representation of the people in terms of a God-appointed monarch has been lost, and in democracy society is broken up into partial interests represented in rival political parties. This yields an inconsistent, messy, tangle of laws and regulations that do not and cannot satisfy everyone, and is seen as arbitrary, at best a result of political incompetence, and at worst as a conspiracy of a devious elite.

If I follow Žižek’s thought, people still have an urge towards some idealized order that does not exist, and is dressed up in ideology, symbolized with salient ‘master signifiers’. In a democracy this would yield rival ideologies, which then provide an obstacle for the compromises that need to be achieved in coalition governments. This is perceived as betrayal to the ideology. As a result, democracies have gravitated towards a neglect of ideology, particularly in the loss of socialist ideology, which results in a bureaucratic technocracy, and further betrayal and loss of  the ‘objet-a’.

Disenchanted with this, people are now seduced by populism, instigated by a leader who claims to represent the people as a whole, as the embodiment of the people or of a shared ‘objet-a’ with appealing ‘master signifiers’. The problem with this, as identified by Žižek, is that this authoritarian leader also cannot make good on his promises of cohesion and successful representation of all, and to hide that, any failure to do so is attributed to some scapegoat, such as the Jews for the Nazi’s, and refugees or ‘the ruling elite’ for current populists.

The only alternative, I think, is to muddle through with democracy but somehow improve it and make it more acceptable.

For this, one possibility is for political parties re-adopt ideologies, to avoid technocracy, and offer alternative ‘objets-a’, even if the clashes between them complicate the political compromises needed for coalition governments.

I see this presently happening in the Netherlands, in a record breaking length of an attempt to form a coalition government after the election in 2017. Sensing the hot breath in their necks from populism they re-enact ideologies that either pacify populist instincts or re-establish liberalist lore.

Another possibility is for people to wake up and renounce their aspiration towards an objet-a with an exclusive ideology and the illusory ideal of universal, equal outcomes of justice and fully rational and coherent policies.  

Conceptually, perhaps the most fundamental requirement is that of dropping the illusion of a universal order, to appreciate diversity and to accept that justice varies across individuals and the conditions they are in. Even more fundamentally, I think, is the need to shed what I have called the ‘object bias’, in seeing the symbolic order as a thing with a clear identity, and then to see it, rather, as a process of development, in deliberation and conflict, regulated in debate. To aim not for full and complete substantive justice that is equal for all, but the best possible procedural justice. Imperfection on the move.

I have been pleading to replace the utility ethics underlying liberalism with a form of virtue ethics, with virtues defined as competencies for achieving the good life. I showed that I was aware of the problem that this might yield a new paternalism, prescribing how to achieve the good life, and that I want to maintain the liberal idea of freedom for people to decide for themselves what constitutes the good life.

For that, I proposed a distinction between procedural virtues, needed for a just conduct of deliberation and political compromise making, and more substantive virtues that support individual choice of the content of the good life. The first is a public matter, the second is not. I also noted that in fact the traditional, ‘cardinal’ virtues of reason(ability), courage, moderation and justice have that nature of procedural virtues.

That is also in agreement with my stance towards markets. We need them but we also need to curtail them in their limits and failures. They need to be formed and informed by virtues of reasonableness (which includes openness), courage (to be responsible to society and to counteract perverse interests and incentives), moderation (in remuneration and profit), and justice (fairness, equitability).
    
Above all, an awareness is needed, and commitment, to what in the preceding item in this blog I called Levinassian freedom: the highest level of freedom from prejudice that arises from opposition by the other, which is to be sought and valued as an opportunity rather than avoided as a threat.

Another conceivable fundamental reconceptualization might be to no longer see democracy in terms of representation in parties with their political programmes and corresponding ideologies, in which voters can periodically position themselves, but as a process of policy formation and execution in which people participate, in some ‘commons’. Instead of a clash between party ideologies there then is a clash in debate between people and their views and convictions.  

Some combination is also conceivable, of political parties for some areas of policy, on the national and supranational level (such as the EU), and local commons for local provision of amenities and services.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

340. Levels of freedom revisited

Here I revisit the different levels of freedom that I discussed earlier in this blog (item 49), to make a connection with the discussion of Kant and Žižek in the preceding items.

On the lowest level is the freedom as usually seen in ordinary language: the freedom from constraint or interference. One can do what one likes. This is also called negative freedom. God gave Adam and Eve the freedom to sin.

Beyond that there are freedoms in the form of access to sources of ‘the good life’. First, there, comes the freedom of Kant: freedom in the form of being freed from the impulses of lust, desire, addiction or self-interest, in unconditional obedience to ‘the Law’, the symbolic order, of what it is ‘right’ to do, untainted by personal urges or interest. I characterized this as follows: not following what one wants but what one thinks one should want. Kant gave humanity the freedom not to sin.

This leads to the problems identified by Kant and discussed at length by Žižek, that such Law is arbitrary, unclear, ambiguous, indeterminate, and contradictory, depending on contexts of action, and therefore cannot be justified in terms of justice and rationality. Also, it originates from grabs of political power, and therefore needs to be hidden. As a result, according to Žižek some illusionary, non-existent ideal ‘objet-a’, is taken to stand in for it, absconded and dressed up in ideology. The freedom of Žižek now is to break free from it. Since Kant defined deviation from the Law as evil, Žižek accepts that this freedom is evil, and most evil, or ‘diabolically’ evil, as he calls it, when it is not motivated by desire or self-interest, but as a matter of principle, in pursuit of a new symbolic order. I characterized this as a change of what one thinks one should want.    

Beyond that, I claimed, on the highest level there is freedom in the form of ability not to exercise one’s views and convictions about the good but to change them; not to change or replace the Law, but one’s thinking about it. By many, this change of oneself is held to be impossible. I argued that it is possible but for it one needs the opposition form others with their views and convictions. I was inspired to this by Levinas’ ‘philosophy of the other’, so I now call it the freedom of Levinas.

My point now is that this latter freedom is the freedom needed to make democracy work.

There still is the issue, a recurrent theme in this blog, how to escape from the symbolic order. For Foucault: how to achieve an authentic life, and he had no answer. For Žižek, a break with it is evil, even ‘diabolically’ so. I think there is way out.

In my discussions of meaning, I used the difference, proposed by de Saussure, between the established, synchronic order of ‘langue’, and the creative, open-ended, diachronic process of ‘parole’, living language use, which yields openness of meaning. I tried to formulate that also in terms of the hermeneutic circle.

I now propose that something similar applies more widely, in the ‘excess’ or ‘surplus’ that Žižek claimed for the ‘objet-a’. If the order cannot be fully specified, it is open, and this yields a possible escape. The indeterminacy of the ‘objet-a’ is not to be deplored but to be celebrated, whether it concerns our view of objects in the world, our self, or the symbolic order. Imperfection on the move. If this is accepted, exit from the existing order may be odd, quaint, and will certainly cause some isolation, lack of recognition, and loneliness, but it is not diabolical. People should read poetry more.    

Saturday, October 28, 2017


339. Authoritarianism or democracy

A leading question for Žižek has been: why would people obey ‘the law?’ The Law here is the whole of laws, rules, regulations and habits that form the ‘symbolic order’.

As I discussed in item 337 of this blog, for Žižek obedience requires some ‘obscene lust’, called ‘jouissance’(adopted from Lacan), lust even in knowing that one will never be able to obey completely, always feeling guilty, as Kant recognized, of not having obeyed ‘purely’, acting on hidden motives of pleasure, self-interest and hypocrisy.

I wonder. Isn’t there more pleasure in breaking the rules, in a romantic urge of transgression, in self-manifestation or ‘thymos’? Perhaps one could even say that rules are needed to enable the pleasure in breaking them.

I see neither the actual presence nor the philosophical need of a masochistic pleasure of obedience, and I would stay with the simpler explanation that disobedience is punished by isolation or ostracism. On a deeper level, my argument would be, as I have argued extensively in this blog, that selves are developed in interaction with others, and perhaps some awareness or even pleasure in this is built into human instinct.

To me, Žižek becomes more interesting when he claims that it is unclear what, precisely, is demanded by the ‘big Other’ of the Law. As Kant already recognized, the symbolic order in place has no clear, consistent, objective foundation. It is an outcome of historical process, in clashes of interest and grabs of power. That order is not only impossible to state coherently and fully, but has no foundation in logic, rationality or ethics, and is a scandal that needs to remain hidden. This is difficult to accept, and people grasp at some ‘fantasmatic’ non-existent ideal, called ‘objet-a’ (a term taken from Lacan).

Here emerges the problem of liberal democracy: decision making arises from a clash of special interests that, like bumper cars in a fancy fair, yield outcomes no-one could predict and perhaps no-one really intended, with unforeseen casualties. It yields an often incoherent, even self-contradictory tangle of rules and regulations.  

Žižek now argues, convincingly in my view, that this needs to be hidden in the phantasm of an order that is not to be questioned. This imagined order used to be embodied in some unquestioned authority, in the form of a monarch with divine investiture. The question is: When that disappeared, what was to come in its place?

The iconic historical case is that of the French revolution. The aim was to eliminate all special interests, of the king, the clergy and the nobility, and to institute the ‘general will’ of the people. But who was to represent that? Any claim to representation would be suspect, hiding special interest, and so the revolution ended in slaughtering itself, in a ‘virtuous terror’. 

What is needed, Žižek claims, is some other idealized (‘phantasmatic’) something, an ‘objet-a’, that is not questioned, and is dressed up in ideology. He argues that this requires some leading ‘master-signifier’, to symbolize this object, providing a focus to effectuate blind, willing, even eager conformance. That can be a national flag, national anthem, the glitter and soap of royalty, or hero entrepreneurs that symbolize the glory of capitalism and the wonders of the market.

 Žižek offers the example of the Rumanian revolution against Ceausescu, where protesters waved the national flag with the central red star cut out of it, with the resulting hole demonstrating the elimination of the master signifier.

When the emperor was seen not to wear any clothes, and now in politics the democratic order is unmasked as yielding arbitrary and often partially unjust and even at times irrational, or counter-productive results, there is a call for just and rational government, without the recognition that this cannot in fact be achieved. Political parties that claim to offer representation only represent partial interests, waving rival ideologies.

This frightening void, Žižek argues, is now filled by populist claims to yield the desired, unified society, in a unity of the people, embodied in an authoritarian leader with unquestionable authority, with master-signifiers dug up from national history, and polished into appealing myths. This hides the fact that here also not everyone can be satisfied, promises will not be kept, and outcomes will again be partially unjust, incoherent, irrational, and so on. In authoritarian regimes, the blame for this is shifted onto some scapegoat that carries the blame of failure. For the Nazis it was the Jews, for Stalinism the revisionists betraying socialist purity. For present populists it is the refugees, non-western immigrants, or some guilty conspirational ‘elite’. The scapegoating of refugees feeds on what earlier in this blog I discussed as ‘parochial altruism’.

In the end, Žižek winds up in seeking freedom in breaking out of the ruling symbolic order by grasping a new mastery for itself, with some new master signifier that gives no quarter to demands for rational and ethical justification. But that just yields a continuation of the exercise of blind power.

There is, in my view, no alternative to dealing with democracy as best we can. That is the subject for a later item.        

Thursday, October 19, 2017


338. The Other as threat or opportunity?

Here I continue my attempts to understand Žižek.

As discussed in item 336 in this blog, according to Žižek the self is hidden, or ‘empty’ or ‘nonexistent’ in his parlance, but people adopt the ‘phantasmatic’ illusion of an identifiable self, the Lacanian ‘objet-a’.

Following Althusser, Žižek claims that to become a subject one needs to be addressed by an other. I agree, from my perspective that the self is constructed from interaction in the world, in particular with other people. However, Lacan, and with him Žižek, does not think the subject is constituted by the address from the other, as Althusser thinks, but that this address contributes to the subjects illusion of having an objectifiable self, in and of itself, prior to the address.

Now even if that is an illusion, this leaves open the possibility that in fact the subject is constituted by the address of the other, among other forms of interaction between people. And that is my position: the self is in fact constituted by interaction, but thinks he/she already had this self, and that it is the reason he/she is addressed.  

Now, the point here is that Žižek also follows Althusser in seeing this address by the other as a threat: ‘what does he/she want from me?’ or ‘Che vuoi?’, as Žižek says. Why assume this as a threat? It is, in my view, to be seen as an opportunity, indeed as necessary to have a self. And why is the address seen as a threat if it is seen as being motivated by the prior identity that the subject (erroneously) thinks it already had? Is it not more plausibly seen as a recognition, even appreciation, an expression of interest?   

In this blog, and more extensively in an earlier book[i], I argued that to have any idea of a self one needs to look at oneself from the perspective of an other. I used the insight from Maxine Sheets-Johnstone[ii] that being suckled by a mother, in spurts of sucking and resting, exchanging coos an gurgles, babies lay the basis for the alternation, give and take, enunciation and assimilation, of conversation. Babies have an apparently instinctive inclination towards being positively open and expectant towards a stranger, as well as an instinct towards suspicion and aversion. It depends on experience which is confirmed as a more enduring trait. Children jostling and cavorting in the school yard are exploring the boundaries of pain and body, as part of developing a sense of self, and a basis for empathy and morality. This contributes to the development of mirror neurons. In a further development, I used the philosophy of Levinas extensively, also in this blog, to argue that we need the other to have a chance of achieving some of the highest possible form of freedom, namely that of freedom from prejudice.

Indeed, as Althusser and Žižek claim, there is radical uncertainty concerning what the other wants or will do. To take the opportunity of being inspired by the other, one needs the courage to take the risk involved. That is also indispensable for trust. That, in my view, is the most fundamental reason to consider courage a virtue. It is wise, then, not to fall into blind trust. Trust entails giving room for action to another, but when duped, one can reign in this room. Taking inevitable risk, to grasp the opportunity presented by the other, one is also wise to develop resilience to setbacks, and to maintain some reserve to fall back on in case of loss.

I do admit that this is fraught with obstacle and difficulty. I have argued that there is ‘cognitive distance’ between people, which includes intellectual distance, in understanding and meanings, as well as moral distance, in different ethical beliefs and moral impulses.

Now, Žižek conducts his analysis of the subject for his investigation of ideology, and I find that important. If I understand correctly, the argument is as follows. The fearful address by the other needs to be pacified by ascribing some meaning to it that one shares. In fact, as also argued earlier in this blog, actions are largely determined by subconscious impulse, and reasons are mostly rationalizations post hoc. In human interaction, in society, this rationalization takes the form of ideology. We claim reasons for conduct while in  fact choice and action is determined by hidden prejudice and impulse. Now, again if I understand correctly, to pacify the threat of the address by the other, one needs to have a shared ideology.     

Here I agree: to cross distance, in particular moral distance, one needs some shared ideology. In terms of Wittgenstein’s language games: one must share the appropriate game, depending on the context. The rules of the game have the same role as ideology. They are arbitrary, and could well be different, in a different game, but they must be observed for this particular game to be played.

Now, what if ideologies are in conflict? If address by the other is seen as a threat, then something that does not fit into one’s own rationalization of conduct is castigated. When the address is seen as an opportunity, on the other hand, one may receive it to question one’s ideology, a possible opening to a new game. But that also requires that one rids oneself of the illusion that the adopted ideology is somehow objectively valid and true, and not the dubious rationalisation that in fact it is.   


[i] Bart Nooteboom, Beyond humanism: The flourishing of life, self and other, 2012, Palgrave-Macmillan.
[ii] Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, The roots of morality, 2008, Penn State U. Press.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

337. Hidden social order[i]

Next to knowledge of the world, concerning ethics Žižek also starts with Kant, with his second Critique, of Practical Reason. Let me say from the start that here I deviate almost totally from Kant and Žižek. In epistemology I am a Kantian but in ethics I am not. There, I am an Aristotelian, going for a virtue ethics rather than a duty ethics.

According to Kant, the human being has a natural urge towards survival, in drives for food, sex, and protection, as well as a natural urge towards social recognition and respect. Beyond that, it also has a potential for a rational, unconditional commitment to a universal moral law, in particular the Kantian categorical imperative. That commitment must be unconditional, going against natural urges, desire and self-interest. One obeys the law not because one supports it or believes in it, or out of a mutual interest in a ‘social contract’, but because it is the law.

I am not throwing this out. Democracy requires acceptance of the law as an outcome of political contestation and compromise, even if it does not suit one.

Kant recognized that the law in place is often the outcome of a usurpation of power, and may not conform to considerations of justice. One may then criticise the law, but only while obeying it. He therefore condemned the French revolution, in particular the execution of Louis XVI. But once the revolution has established a new order one must obey that unconditionally.

Kant calls this freedom: freedom not to follow the impulse of natural urges, emotions, or self-interest. At the same time, it is odd to call the unconditional conformance to the law a form of freedom, since it constrains action, which is a form of unfreedom.

God gave Adam and Eve the freedom to sin, Kant gave humanity the freedom not to sin.

In my treatment of freedom, in this blog, I distinguished between negative freedom, in constraints upon actions, and positive freedom, which gives access to the good life, and I distinguished several levels of the latter freedom. The first level is oriented not to what one wants, but towards what one would want to want. That would include a Kant-like orientation, in a turn from impulse towards duty. However, there I would connect it to virtues, such as the virtue of justice, and I would not rule out satisfaction of natural urges as part of the good life. I find it highly perverse to define morality in terms of a denial of human nature. Kantian duty ethics has caused manifold harms of hypocrisy and suppressed feelings.      

Kant recognized forms of evil, in the difficulty to adhere to the law unconditionally, in suppression of impulse and self-interest. One evil is hypocrisy, in pretending to follow the law while going against it, hiding the self-interest involved. An extreme form is to reject the legitimacy of the law, as in a revolutionary movement. The most extreme is to not accept any law, in the moral duty to reject any and all moral duty, as in the work of de Sade. As Žižek formulated it: there are ways of ‘doing the right thing for the wrong reasons’, and ‘doing the wrong thing for the right reasons’.

According to Žižek, obedience to the law cannot be based only on rational acceptance and discipline or punishment of transgression, and must entail belief in some non-existent, fantasized, well-funded, just law, Lacan’s ‘objet-a’, with a perverse ‘lust going beyond lust’, ‘jouissance’, in following the law while knowing that its demands can never be fully satisfied, and feeling lust even in that failure. Ideology hides the arbitrary nature and violent origins of the law. Rationally, consciously, people know it is not real but emotionally, tacitly, they grasp the phantom.

Žižek goes further. The ‘jouissance’ includes some surreptitious deviation from the social order that is publicly acknowledged, such as acceptance of homosexuality or denunciation of misogyny, but with shared guilty pleasures, pursued in complicit secrecy, like intimations and occasional practice of homosexuality in the army, and misogynist jokes in a locker room.  

Žižek also refers to Blaise Pascal, who proposed that conformance to the law, and religious ritual, arises not from rational understanding and consent or belief but from habit, social inculcation, and from that habit produces belief. Ritual is the vehicle for this. It is not that one kneels because of faith but one acquires faith from kneeling. Rituals in organizations, and rituals of elections and voting are not conducted from belief in justice and democracy, but serve to turn make-believe into belief.   

Here, Pascal was surprisingly close to modern insights from brain science that deny the presence of free will. We act from social habits that breed unconscious drives determining choice and producing acts, which we rationalize afterwards with pious intent.

I am closer here to Pascal than to Žižek. I think that the more or less automatic conformance to established order is not produced by some hidden lust, but from assimilation of social practices one needs to conform to for reasons and instincts of social survival and acceptance. Is that in any way similar to Žižek’s ‘jouissance’? I do agree with Žižek that there is a hidden bad consciousness involved, of the arbitrariness and injustices of the established order, which needs to buried in the rationalizations of ideology.  

Bankers rationalize their perverse behaviour with market ideology.


[i] Here also, an important source for me is: Frank vande Veire, Tussen blinde fascinatie en vrijheid; Het mensbeeld van Slavoj Žižek, 2015, Nijmegen: Vantilt.

Friday, October 6, 2017


336. Hidden things and selves

Žižek departs from Kant’s philosophy, in his first Critique, of Pure Reason, and modifies it, using views from Hegel and Lacan. While Kant proposed that we cannot know reality (‘the Thing’) as it is ‘in itself’, Žižek follows Hegels view that this ‘Thing’ is ‘empty’ or ‘non-existent’. This transforms an epistemological void (we don’t know it) into an ontological one (it does not exist).

Let me note, in passing, that I disagree. Here, I remain a Kantian: we don’t know, but we cannot but believe that ‘it’ exists, even if in some objectively unknowable way. This is important for my evolutionary argument, stated in this blog, that thought has developed from interaction with the world, and therefore in some way, for some prolonged time, must have had some adequacy concerning the world, or else it would not have survived.

While I am primarily a nominalist, some vestige of realism remains. I can clarify this with the multiple causality of Aristotle that I have used several times in this blog. Concepts and meanings in language are shaped according to the final cause of interest, the formal cause of mental construction, the conditional cause of context, the exemplary cause of mimicry and culture, but also the material cause of reality. From reality we mentally craft perceptions and ideas that suit us, in interaction with others in a culture.     

It is difficult to accept that things in the world, selves, and social order do not really exist, are not some substance, do not have determinate, consistent, stable properties. Žižek claims that for all three, people adopt an illusory notion of a phantasized, thing, called ‘objet-a’ in the terminology of Lacan, and we lustfully cling to it, in ‘jouissance’.

I am tempted to connect this notion of the ‘objet-a’ with my notion of an ‘object bias’, according to which we conceptualize according to a metaphor of objects in time and space.

Kant postulated that we cannot know the self. Žižek agrees with this, and so do I. The self is not accessible to itself. We cannot step outside ourselves to inspect ourselves. The self cannot know itself, in the same way that the eye cannot see itself. We do not have ideas, as things we can look at, handle, and turn around to inspect. We do not have ideas, we are them. The self is not an objective, outside bystander in the world, as implied in Descartes’ notion of the self, but involved, immersed in it, constituted from interaction with it.

This idea has been adopted more widely. According to Heidegger, the self is not a being in the sense of an object but in the sense of a verb, being constituted by acting in the world. Deleuze and Guattari also saw thought as a force field in which we participate. Thought is not in us, we live in thought. ‘The self is not an objectifiable thing that could be the substantial bearer of the origin of meaning’ (Vande Veire, p. 49).

Here also, Žižek goes further, over the top, in my view, as he so often does, and posits that the self is ‘empty’ or non-existent. Here, he follows David Hume’s denial that there is a self with any identifiable identity. The self is just a flux of perceptions and thoughts.

I disagree with that. Not being able to know or observe the self does not mean that there is no self, or that we cannot experience it in any way. Earlier in this blog, I argued that there is some coherence in the body, in the buzz of neuronal and endocrinal activity that regulate body and mind. Without that the body would not survive. While we cannot see how it all ties together, and cannot survey it, we do experience it. We cannot see the eye, but we experience seeing.

Here also, Žižek postulates that we grasp a mythical, non-existent self as an entity, an ‘objet-a’. I agree. We have an urge towards an identity, even if we can only get it as a make-belief. It is difficult not to think of a self in such a manner. Again, we exercise an object bias in seeing the self as an object in time and pace, and we attach some essence to it that constitutes its identity.

Third, the social order of laws, regulations and customs also is grasped, intuited as some object. That is the subject for the next item.