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.

Saturday, September 30, 2017


335. Understanding Žižek: Psychotherapy of politics

Here I start a series of items in which I seek to understand Slavoj Žižek, and to engage in comments. Žižek is original, entertaining, humorous, and provocative, but to me also difficult to understand. He makes interesting, challenging observations and then, in the fragmented, lapidary manner of his presentation, veers off in different directions, and I get lost. With his terminology, he indulges in outrageous hyperbole that rattles my inclination to nuance. Žižek uses concepts from Lacan, and those I find even more difficult to understand. Meanings seem to shift from one setting to another. However, Žižek is addressing important, fundamental issues, so I keep on trying. My understanding is so limited and dubious that I will not claim to explain Žižek and Lacan. I use their ideas to develop ideas of my own, and they may well be in conflict with what Žižek and Lacan intended to say.

I need help to understand Žižek, and I found some in a presentation, on YouTube, by Marcus Pound[i], and in a study of Žižek’s thought by Frank Vande Veire[ii]

Žižek is inspired by the psychotherapy of Lacan, and applies it to politics. What is this about? The point, Pound tells us, is that both the self and social order are hidden, fantasized, idealized objects (called ‘objet-a’ by Lacan) that guide our conduct but remain subconscious, in the dark, dodging the agenda of debate. That connection was an eye-opener to me.

For Lacan, the subject, the self is not a given, but forms itself in interaction with the Other. That is also my view.

The meaning of the ‘objet-a’ varies. It is an idealized, fantasized, subconscious object, dreamed up to give some illusory identity or unity to a thing, a self, or the social order. Lacan presented it in analogy to an algebraic symbol that can take on different numerical values. Different images can fill in the objet-a, depending on the circumstances. It can be ‘scopic’, visualizing the object, or ‘invocatory’, invoking authority or conformance. A monarch stands for the social, legal order. One ‘master signifier’ is attempted to represent all other signifiers, but this never covers all.

The ‘objet-a’ is also presented as an object and cause of desire; of what the Other wants from us that we should rejoice in, in what is called ‘jouissance’, in a desire that can never be fully fulfilled. There is always an ‘excess’ or ‘surplus’ that cannot be caught. Thus, it is not so much an object of desire that might be reached as the lack of something that could completely satisfy desire.  

A good example, I think, is trust. It is elusive, mercurial, difficult to grasp, and impossible to fully achieve. When we think we have it, distrust slits in. It is symbolized by a national flag or anthem, wedding rings, and as simple a thing as a handshake. We grab what is up for grabs. 

For the social order, Žižek uses the notion of the symbolic order, derived from Lacan, and used also by Henry Bourdieu. It is taken as an ‘objet-a’. The visible, rationalized order of established, dominant powers of vision and discourse manages to avoid discussion of its often dubious tacit, taken for granted origins, assumptions, principles, concepts and meanings that are not and cannot be fully specified, always remain hidden to some extent. It cannot function otherwise.  

A similar idea arises in the works of Michel Foucault, with his notion of  ‘regimes of truth’. I compared Žižek and Foucault on this point in item 244 of this blog. There, and in item 226, I also considered the possibility for the individual to escape from the clutches of that order and develop an authentic identity, which remained an unsolved problem for Foucault.

The symbolic order is dressed up and veiled in ideology. A current example is market ideology. It lured socialism into ‘shedding its ideological feathers’ of ideals of equality, solidarity, care and social justice. While condemning socialist ideology, neo-liberal market ideology projected itself as being free from ideology, and to be of obvious and universal validity, that all reasonable people should see and acknowledge. ‘It’s the economy, stupid’, Bill Clinton said in the 1992 presidential campaign, and that slogan has spread across the capitalist world. If you did not go along, you were backward and dumb, behind the times, not to be taken seriously.

That neo-liberal market ideology has been supported by established economic dogma. Economists claim that they are value-free scientists, while in fact economics is based on a utility ethics that rules out considerations of intention, motive, morality and virtue. Individuality is abstracted in some universal, autonomous, anonymous voter, void of features. With market ideology hidden and other ideologies dropping out, politics fades into bureaucratic technocracy. From that, the present populist revolt has been born, reviving old seemingly forgotten ideologies of race and nation.

Žižek castigates the fake freedom of choice professed by capitalism, with advertising and internet manipulating choice. This is well-trodden ground in the literature, but Žižek uses, here also, categories derived from Lacan: the imaginary, the symbolic and the real. According to liberal lore, the autonomous, rational economic agent should base its choice on the utility of the real. In fact, he/she has been guided to choose on the basis of the symbolic: depending on your life style, and the image you want to project, you choose one brand or the other. An example Žižek uses is that of the four-wheel drive Range Rover, the pioneering master of rough terrain, used for the trivial urban commute. Now, Žižek, claims, the emphasis is shifting to the imaginary, the experience one has, with the product offering authentic experience.

So, while Foucault struggled with the capture in the symbolic order that prevents the individual from achieving authenticity, now that order wins the ultimate victory of crafting the experience of authenticity.           


[i] On 30 September 2013.
[ii] Frank vande Veire, Tussen blinde fascinatie en vrijheid; Het mensbeeld van Slavoj Žižek, 2015, Nijmegen: Vantilt.

Saturday, September 23, 2017


334. Crossing distance or crossing it out

In this blog, and elsewhere, I have discussed the benefits and problems of what I called ‘cognitive distance’, variety of thought. Too much distance makes collaboration difficult, too little distance can yield boredom and stagnation. Therefore, there is ‘optimal distance’: large enough to make contact potentially interesting, but not so large that this potential cannot be realised. Crossing distance requires effort and experience in dealing with people who think differently. As this ability grows, one can deal with greater distance.

One of the problems of present society is that people isolate themselves in segregated groups, with different group identities, as discussed in the preceding item in this blog. They become unable and unwilling to engage in reasonable debate, giving and assimilating constructive criticism, and see difference as an assault on their identity. Rather than crossing distance, distance is crossed out.

This due, in part, to the development of the ‘filter bubbles’ created by internet companies (Google, Facebook Amazon, ….) who tailor information, in the form of news, gossip, and product offerings, to the profiles of people constructed on the basis of past choices and contacts. People get served with what they are used to. This reduces cognitive distance.

Partly, the development is due also to people seeking their identity in culturally homogeneous groups, as discussed in the preceding item of this blog.

The romanticism of being nested in a culturally homogeneous group, with shared blood, soil, and national mythology, wins out from the romanticism of transcending boundaries and engaging in adventures of the new.

The process becomes a vicious circle, with lack of trust and understanding further tightening the noose of cultural identity, and people nestling deeper in their cultural cocoons. .

Lacking practice in dealing with people who think differently, at larger cognitive distance, one unlearns how to cope with it. People neglect to learn to give and absorb constructive criticism. Differences of view condense and harden in differences of identity, which are less open to compromise and negotiation.

This cultural entrenchment is to the detriment of both individuals and society. Individuals suffer from a narrowing of perspective that stints intellectual and spiritual development. Society loses its ability for reasonable debate, to reconcile different views and interests in peace and trust.

Saturday, September 16, 2017


333. The curse of identity

I my treatment of identity in this blog (in item 8) I distinguished between individual and collective or cultural identity. Note that the term ‘identity’ entails sameness, in being identical to oneself, or identical to others belonging to the same cultural identity.

It is becoming a curse how people take collective identity as the basis for life, and for their outlook on society. The trouble with such identity is that it is exclusive: excluding, judging, discriminating, rejecting those that do not belong to that identity.

The notion of identity steps into the trap of essentialism, which, I have argued in this blog (in item 10), derives from an ‘object bias’ in thought (item 29). That bias bases abstractions such as identity, culture, justice, human nature, good and bad, virtue, etc. on metaphors of objects in time and space.

Particularly catching is the container metaphor: one treats a concept as a box in which something is in or out. Here: you have a certain identity or not, and if you do that is because you partake in some essence belonging exclusively to that identity. You are an Aryan or Jew, white or black, male or female, member of a nation or not. You cannot be in two boxes at the same time, or partly in and partly out.

As I argued earlier in this blog (item 209), an alternative conception of identity might be that of a node in networks that is more or less distant from other nodes, in terms of connections that are shared directly or indirectly, yielding a notion of identities that overlap more or less.

As I argued in item 265, individual identity is formed in interaction with other people, and their being different helps us to escape from prejudice and myopia.    

I proposed that human cognition has adopted the object bias as a result of a long evolution where adequate identification of things moving in time and space was a prerequisite for survival. In present society it is working against us, jeopardizing the survival of humanity.

Psychologically, and also as an outcome of evolution, identitarianism arises from, and enhances, the ‘parochial altruism’ that I also discussed in this blog (in item 205). Humans have an instinct for altruism within their group, at the price of suspicion against outsiders.

In the notion of identity, I propose, parochial altruism and the container metaphor form a vicious pair. You belong to a identity or you do not, and if you don’t you are suspect.  

We should try to loosen the noose of parochial altruism with cultural means, extending the perceived boundary of the group, to extend the reach of altruism, but we are doing the opposite, in the present re-emergence of nationalism and other forms of identitarianism.

There are several ideas of identity formation. One is that of the autonomous individual, emerging from the Enlightenment and liberalism, as a footloose, cosmopolitan, hedonistic individual from nowhere and anywhere. Another form is that of identifying with some single-issue group: pro- or anti- abortion, white supremacists, black supremacists, gender supremacists, animal rights activists, environmental activists, and so on. A third form is identification with a nation’s mythical ‘blood and soil’. On the whole, then, individualism is either supreme or it is lost in group identity. If you are not black you carry the guilt of slavery, if not a female the guilt of male domination, and so on.

What happened with tolerance, recognition and acceptance of differences of opinion, race and religion, with empathy and solidarity across groups, needed for democracy? That was found in forms of both liberalism and socialism that now both seem to be in eclipse. Now, tolerance of other identities comes to be seen as betrayal of one’s own identity. 

There is more to identity groups becoming segregated and inimical. I will discuss that in the next item.

Saturday, September 9, 2017


332. Truth as a trojan horse

From the classical Greeks, western thought has inherited an urge towards truth at all cost. But that drive has turned out to be a trojan horse. As in the work of Nietzsche, for example, it has been shown that, to tell the truth, there is no truth.

A dominant view, for long, has been that truth is reference to something in reality, representing reality. According to one tradition this lies in elementary observation statements that refer to objective reality as we see it. Here, facts form the rock bottom of truth.

This view was demolished by Kant, who claimed that observation is formed by mental frames, such as those of space, time, and causality, that do not reveal objective reality as it is in itself.

Another tradition, going back to Plato, is to see reality as we observe it as confused, chaotic and in flux, while real reality lies behind that, in the form of universal, eternal ideas. This was also the recourse that Descartes took to ‘clear and distinct ideas’ as the basis for truth, and Spinoza with his ‘adequate ideas’.

Both forms of truth as reference have been taken down in postmodern thought, in the idea that human beings, and different people in different ways, mentally construct both observation and ideas, which eliminates objective truth. Ideas and words do not represent reality but constitute it, making what we see as reality. Yet we secretly maintain belief in the myth that we see the world as it is. It is difficult to act in the world without it.   

Also, many have shrunk back from the resulting relativism exhibited by postmodernism. If there is no objective truth, is there any difference left between mere opinion and truth? Then every opinion is as good as any other, and the basis for rational debate seems to disappear. And if there is no basis for debate, what remains to settle differences is violence.

Is there a way out? Can we save facts while acknowledging that they are not (fully) objective. As noted by Kant, facts without theory are blind, theory without facts is empty.   

There is a way out, in the notion of truth as ‘warranted assertibility’, taken from American pragmatic philosophy, which I have been using in this blog.

For a theory to have the best possible truth value, it must be shown to ‘work’ in terms of logic, purported facts, and application. While facts can be disputed, because they are informed by theory, they are still often, though not always, more reliable than theoretical speculation.

A case where facts depend on theory is that of black matter. It has never been observed, but its assumption is needed to account for movements of galaxies. Releasing the notion does not become an option until an alternative theory for accounting for those movements is found, as may now be happening, in an emerging information theory of the universe.      

With truth as warranted assertibility, counter to postmodern relativism debate becomes more important than ever. Precisely because we cannot grasp objective truth, the only chance we have of correcting our errors is debate, in confrontation between different views constructed by different people along different course of life, in different environments.  

Also, there is an evolutionary argument for a form of realism to remain. If we assume that the world exists in some form, even if unknowable to us, and we construct ideas on the basis of interaction with it, then in evolution and personal development ideas that are not to some extent adequate to that world would not have survived. False ideas obstruct survival.

That argument is not air-tight, however. I have speculated before, in this blog, that human thought operates on the basis of an object-bias: we think of things and abstractions, such as truth, and identity, as if they are objects, of concepts as if they are containers. That may have served humanity well for a long stretch of its evolution, as hunter-gatherers, but may now be working against survival.

Lacan characterized philosophy as love of truth, not truth as power but as weakness, a lack. I would revise that as follows: love not as closure, as terminal, but indeed as a lack, but a shifting one, imperfection on the move.

Saturday, September 2, 2017


331. Just reward and allocation

What is a just reward or remuneration? A soccer star or pop star earns many times more than, say, someone in nursing. Is that justified? The soccer player and pop singer have a talent that they have developed with great commitment end effort, and that is an accomplishment. They also have the luck that their particular talents are scarce and in demand. Here we find the economic argument of utility as satisfaction of demand. People are prepared to pay more for a good soccer match or pop concert than for medical care.

Then, it is necessary to recognize other values than only success in a market, such as value for society, in contributions to society. However, one can also argue that the soccer player or pop singer have cultural, symbolic value. The soccer player as symbol for the hero who takes risks and overcomes pain and opponents, and does that together, in a team. One can see the singers song as an expression and celebration of human emotion.

One can argue that talent is mere luck, but one can also argue that everyone has talent for something, however modest, and that utilizing talent not only has instrumental, economic value, as a source of income, but also intrinsic value: it is satisfying to do something you are good at, and for that one should be willing to sacrifice at least some economic value.

Justice also requires the virtue of moderation: one can be immoderate in ambition and
excellence, but not at the cost of others, and should be willing and able to engage in give and take.

Also, economic success arises not only from talent and commitment, and supply and demand, but also builds on a vast heritage of institutions (rule of law), culture (knowledge), and infrastructure (roads, technology, etc.). That heritage has been produced at the cost of blood, sweat and tears of many generations, who had to conquer it all. This calls for some modesty, and the willingness to share the returns from that heritage with those who were less lucky in the lottery of genes and birthplace.

Next to remuneration for work, how about allocation of scarce resources? Is that to be left entirely to markets? The argument for markets is to let scarcity lead to higher prices, which evokes new supply that resolves the shortage. That does not apply when there are hard constraints, for example from nature. Temporary shortage can lead to extortion, as in the supply of water after a disaster.

Markets cannot cover everything. Alternative forms of allocation are a lottery, queue, rationing, and ‘attribution’: allocation according to certain criteria. A degree or Nobel prize requires attribution of merit, and would lose its value when sold to the highest bidder.

Some measures are debatable for other reasons. How about letting rich dentists shoot a rhino at an exorbitant price, to use the proceeds for protecting rhino’s? What if due to a ban on child labour people die from hunger? Perhaps one should first abolish hunger and get children to school, and then forbid child labour.  

Markets are clever in circumventing non-market allocation. Michael Sandel[i] recounts the story of the mayor of New York who wanted to offer a free concert to the citizens, rich and poor, in the park, but because of limited capacity they had to queue for free tickets. An entrepreneur had vagrants stand in queue to collect tickets which he then auctioned to the rich.  

An example of attribution is attribution of merit, as in a contest or a prize. Another is attribution according urgency, as the triage in hospitals, with a waiting list in case of equal urgency.      


[i] Michael Sandel, What money can’t buy, Penguin 2013, p. 79.

Saturday, August 26, 2017


330. How to discriminate

Discrimination happens all the time. Some people get better jobs than others, more reward for the same job, more civil rights, and rewards while not doing anything for it. Discrimination has a bad name, but in some cases it is defensible, even laudable. What is what here?

When defensible it is better called distinction. One gets more according to clear criteria, such as accomplishment, as in winning a prize, or in selection based on talent. How about looks? Why not, if there is selection according to height or strength?

Looks and talent are based on luck, a draw in the lotteries of genes and location of birth. Accomplishment also requires courage, commitment, endurance, sacrifice, resilience, and absorbing pain. Mere looks do not.  

When, then, does distinction switch into discrimination? Looks may not require effort but are at least individual. Discrimination arises, I think, when distinction is based on mere membership of a group, according to race, religion, ideology, gender, or age, regardless of individual characteristics or actions.

Is that always to be condemned? What about membership of the Ku Klux Klan, a fascist or a terrorist group? Usually, discrimination is considered all right when politically correct, in a certain community. Its moral acceptability depends on what form it takes. It is wrong when resulting in unequal civil rights, such as refusing fascists the rights to a fair trial, or freedom of expression short of inciting violence or hatred. It is not necessarily wrong if n those rights are maintained and, again, people are treated as individuals, not merely as members of a group.

Is profiling all right then, according to race, for example, where group membership is not used by itself, for judgement, let alone conviction, but only as a trigger for attention, based on crime statistics, say, for further investigation of individual conduct,?

In this blog I have argued for virtues far beyond economic merits of efficiency or utility, but efficiency is still one of many considerations. There is an argument of efficiency here: given the statistics and scarce resources of control, it is efficient to focus on certain groups. But is that the practice? What if people were profiled as bankers, say, for further investigation of ethical conduct, given the experience of unethical banking? Or are statistics used selectively as an excuse for unethical, discriminatory profiling?     

Saturday, August 19, 2017


329. Art and hope

Recently, Rudi Fuchs, curator for a sculpture exhibition in Amsterdam, associated art with hope. For art, things are not necessarily as they are, can be different. Art offers new ways in and new ways out. Liberation, escape from stagnation or despair. That intrigued me.

To hope is to have a goal, with positive and realistic expectations of ways to get there, and confidence in agency, ability to do it. Without the realism hope becomes false, wishful thinking. Hope entails an expectation that ‘things will be all right’, depending in part on one’s own actions, but also on outside forces that one cannot control. This brings the notion of hope close to the notion of trust, as I discussed in item 107 in this blog.

What of that applies to art? The new ways in and new ways out. Escape.

A good illustration is a strophe from a poem by Baudelaire, from the section Spleen et ideal of his bundle Les fleurs du mal (the flowers of evil). Spleen here is heaviness of spirit, existential anguish, disgust, boredom, paralysis. The hope lies in escaping from it into the ideal, perfection. The title of the poem is Elevation. I first give the French text and then my English translation.

Derrière les ennuis et les vastes chagrins
Qui chargent de leur poids l’existence brumeuse,
Heureux celui qui peut d’une aile vigoureux
S’elancer vers les champs lumineux et serains.

Behind the troubles and the vast griefs
That weigh down misty experience,
Happy is the one who with a powerful wing
Can launch himself into fields luminous and serene.

Is this picture of art too pretty? How about the Marquis de Sade, Celine, Dostoyevsky? Do they yield hope? Such art also can be seen as an escape, in liberation from constraints of morality and law. But hope is positive, and how positive are those? How, if at all, can this be seen as escape into an ideal? Dostoyevsky said that without God humanity is irreparably evil. Does art here show hopelessness rather than hope?

Art is creative destruction. Perhaps destruction may need to take place first, to make room and create an incentive for the new. Is that how de Sade may be seen: destroying old morality to make room for a new one?

How about the sublime? Think of a hurricane, thunderstorm, or a forbidding mountain. Those inspire awe, astonishment, respect, fear perhaps, transcend the beautiful, and are beyond human grasp and influence. According to Kant it is beyond art, which would only yield a bad imitation of the sublime in nature. It transcends but cannot be achieved, and then lies beyond hope. Yet it is sometimes applied to art, such as a work of Bach or Beethoven, say.

If hope is required for trust, and art can produce hope, one might expect that art can help trust. However, when producing novelty, new ways in and new ways out, art also yields uncertainty, and can produce broken expectations, yielding broken trust. Given its uncertainty, trust requires courage, and that would seem to apply also to art. Art may be an exercise in courage, and thus may help people in learning to manage trust.

So, apart from the intrinsic value of art, it has value for society in bringing transcendence, Baudelaire’s ‘elevation’, and in developing and exercising hope, courage and trust.