......• Madness and Habit in German Idealism:
.............Discipline between the Two Freedoms - Part 1 •

.........Slavoj Zizek

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Madness and Habit in German Idealism:
Discipline between the Two Freedoms - Part 2

The shift from Aristotle to Kant, to modernity with its subject as pure autonomy: the status of habit changes from organic inner rule to something mechanic, the opposite of human freedom: freedom cannot ever become habit(ual), if it becomes a habit, it is no longer true freedom (which is why Thomas Jefferson wrote that, if people are to remain free, they have to rebel against the government every couple of decades). This eventuality reaches its apogee in Christ, who is "the figure of a pure event, the exact opposite of the habitual". [1]

Perhaps, this Hegelian notion of habit allows us to account for the cinema-figure of zombies who drag themselves slowly around in a catatonic mood, but persisting forever: are they not figures of pure habit, of habit at its most elementary, prior to the rise of intelligence (of language, consciousness, and thinking). [2] This is why a zombie par excellence is always someone whom we knew before, when he was still normally alive – the shock for a character in a zombie-movie is to recognize the former best neighbor in the creeping figure tracking him persistently. (Zombies, these properly un-canny (un-heimlich) figures are therefore to be opposed to aliens who invade the body of a terrestrial: while aliens look and act like humans, but are really foreign to human race, zombies are humans who no longer look and act like humans; while, in the case of an alien, we suddenly become aware that the one closest to us – wife, son, father – is an alien, was colonized by an alien, in the case of a zombie, the shock is that this foreign creep is someone close to us…) What this means is that what Hegel says about habits has to be applied to zombies: at the most elementary level of our human identity, we are all zombies, and our "higher" and "free" human activities can only take place insofar as they are founded on the reliable functioning of our zombie-habits: being-a-zombie is a zero-level of humanity, the inhuman/mechanical core of humanity. The shock of encountering a zombie is not the shock of encountering a foreign entity, but the shock of being confronted by the disavowed foundation of our own human-ness.

There is, of course, a big difference between the zombie-like sluggish automated movements and the subtle plasticity of habits proper, of their refined know-how; however, these habits proper arise only when the level of habits is supplemented by the level of consciousness proper and speech. What the zombie-like "blind" behavior provides is, as it were, the "material base" of the refined plasticity of habits proper: the stuff out of which these habits proper are made.

As Catherine Malabou notes, Hegel’s Philosophy of Spirit begins with the study of the same topic that Philosophy of Nature ends with: the soul and its functions. This redoubling provides a clue to how Hegel conceptualizes the transition from nature to spirit: "not as a sublation, but as a reduplication, a process through which spirit constitutes itself in and as a second nature." The name for this second nature is habit. So it is not that the human animal breaks with nature through the creative explosion of spirit, which then gets "habituated," alienated, turned into a mindless habit: the reduplication of nature in "second nature" is primordial, it is only this reduplication that opens up the space for spiritual creativity.

Habit is conceived by Hegel as unexpectedly close to the logic of what Derrida called pharmakon, the ambiguous supplement which is simultaneously a force of death and a force of life. Habit is, on the one hand, the dulling of life, its mechanization (Hegel characterizes it as a "mechanism of self-feeling"): [3] when something turns into a habit, it means that its vitality is lost, we just mechanically repeat it without being aware of it. Habit thus appears to be the very opposite of freedom: freedom means creative choice, inventing something new, in short, precisely breaking with (old) habits. Think about language, whose "habitual" aspect is best emphasized by standard ritualized greetings: "Hello, how are you? Nice to see you!" – we don’t really mean it when say it, there is no living intention in it, it is just a "habit"...

On the other hand, Hegel emphasizes again and again that there is no freedom without habit: habit provides the background and foundation for every exercise of freedom. Let us, again, take language: in order for us to exercise the freedom in using language, we have to get fully accustomed to it, habituated (in)to it, i.e., we have to learn to practice it, to apply its rules "blindly," mechanically, as a habit: only when a subject externalizes what he learns into mechanized habits, he is "open to be otherwise occupied and engaged." [4] Not only language, a much more complex set of spiritual and bodily activities have to be turned into a habit in order for a human subject to be able to exert his "higher" functions of creative thinking and working – all the operations we are performing all the time mindlessly, walking, eating, holding things, etc.etc., have to be learned and turned into a mindless habit. Through habits, a human being transforms his body into mobile and fluid means, soul’s instrument, which serves as without us having to focus consciously on it – in short, through habits, the subject appropriates his body, as Alain points out in his commentary to Hegel:

When freedom comes it is in the sphere of habit. /…/ Here the body is no longer a foreign being, reacting belligerently against me; rather it is pervaded by soul and has become soul’s instrument and means; yet at the same time, in habit the corporeal self is understood as it truly is; body is rendered something mobile and fluid, able to express directly the inner movements of thought without needing to involve thereby the role of consciousness or reflection. [5]

More radically even, for Hegel, living itself (leading a life) is for us, humans, something we should learn as a habit, starting with birth itself. Recall how, seconds after birth, the baby has to be shaken and thereby reminded to breath – otherwise, it can forget to breath and die… Effectively, as Hegel reminds us, a human being can also die of a habit: "Human beings even die as result of habit – that is, if they have become totally habituated to life, and spiritually and physically blunted." [6] Nothing thus comes "naturally" to human being, including walking and seeing:

The form of habit applies to spirit in all its degrees and varieties. Of all these modifications, the most external is the determination of the individual in relation to space; this, which for man means an upright posture, is something which by his will he has made into a habit. Adopted directly, without thinking, his upright stance continues through the persistent involvement of his will. Man stands upright only because and insofar as he wants to stand, and only as long as he wills to do so without consciousness of it. Similarly, to take another case, the act of seeing, and others like it, are concrete habits which combine in a single act the multiple determinations of sensation, of consciousness, intuition, understanding, and so forth." [7]

Habit is thus "depersonalized" willing, a mechanized emotion: once I get habituated to standing, I will it without consciously willing it, since my will is embodied in the habit. In a habit, presence and absence, appropriation and withdrawal, engagement and disengagement, interest and disinterest, subjectivization and objectivization, consciousness and unconsciousness, are strangely interlinked. Habit is the unconsciousness necessary for the very functioning of consciousness:

"/…/ in habit our consciousness is at the same time present in the subject-matter, interested in it, yet conversely absent from it, indifferent to it; /…/ our Self just as much appropriates the subject-matter as, on the contrary, it draws away from it; /…/ the soul, on the one hand, completely pervades its bodily activities and, on the other hand, deserts them, thus giving them the shape of something mechanical, of a merely natural effect." [8]

And the same goes for my emotions: their display is not purely natural or spontaneous, we learn to cry or laugh at appropriate moments (recall how, for the Japanese, laughter functions in a different way than for us in the West: a smile can also be a sign of embarrassment and shame). The external mechanization of emotions from the ancient Tibetan praying wheel which prays for me to today’s "canned laughter" where the TV set laughs for me, turning my emotional display quite literally into a mechanic display of the machine) is thus based in the fact that emotional displays, including the most "sincere" ones, are already in themselves "mechanized." - However, the highest level (and, already, self-sublation) of a habit is language as the medium of thought – in it, the couple of possession and withdrawal is brought to extreme. The point is not only that, in order to "fluently" speak a language, we have to master its rules mechanically, without thinking about it; much more radically, the co-dependence of insight and blindness determines the very act of understanding: when I hear a word, not only do I immediately abstract from its sound and "see through it" to its meaning (recall the weird experience of becoming aware of the non-transparent vocal stuff of a word – it appears as intrusive and obscene…), but I have to do it if I am to experience meaning.

If, for Hegel, man is fundamentally a being of habits; if habits actualize itself when they are adopted as automatic reactions which occur without subject’s conscious participation; and, finally, if we locate the core of subjectivity in its ability to perform intentional acts, to realize conscious goals; then, paradoxically, the human subject is at its most fundamental a "disappearing subject".

This habit’s "unreflective spontaneity"(70) accounts for the well-known paradox of subjectively choosing an objective necessity, of willing what unavoidably will occur: through its elevation into a habit, a reaction of mine which was first something imposed on me from outside, is internalized, transformed into something that I perform automatically and spontaneously, "from inside":

If an external change is repeated, it turns into a tendency internal to the subject. The change itself is transformed into a disposition, and receptivity, formerly passive, becomes activity. Thus habit is revealed as a process through which man ends by willing or choosing what came to him from outside. Henceforth the will of the individual does not need to oppose the pressure of the external world; the will learns gradually to want what is."(70-71)

What makes habit so central is the temporality it involves: having a habit involves a relationship to future, since habit is a way which prescribes how I will react to some events in the future. Habit is a feature of economizing the organism’s forces, of building a reserve for the future. That is to say, in its habits, subjectivity "embraces in itself its future ways of being, the ways it will become actual."(76) This means that habit also complicates the relationship between possibility and actuality: habit is stricto sensu the actuality of a possibility. What this means is that habit belongs to the level of virtuality (defined by Deleuze precisely as the actuality of the possible): habit is actual, a property (to react in a certain way) that I fully posses here and now, and simultaneously a possibility pointing towards future (the possibility/ability to react in a certain way, which will be actualized in multiple future occasions).

There are interesting conceptual consequences of this notion of habit. Ontologically, with regard to the opposition between particular accidents and universal essence, habit can be designed as the "becoming-essential of the accident"(75): after an externally caused accident repeats itself, it is elevated into the universality of the subject’s inner disposition, i.e., into a feature that belongs to and defines his inner essence. This is why we cannot ever determine the precise beginning of a habit, the point at which external occurrences change into habit – once a habit is here, it obliterates its origin and it is as if it was always-already here. - The conclusion is thus clear, almost Sartrean: man does not have a permanent substance or universal essence; he is in his very core a man of habits, a being whose identity is formed through the elevation of contingent external accidents/encounters into an internal(ized) universal habit. - Does this mean that only humans have habits? Here, Hegel is much more radical – he accomplishes a decisive step further and leaves behind the old topic of nature as fully determined in its closed circular movement versus man as a being of openness and existential freedom: "for Hegel, nature is always second nature"(57). Every natural organism has to regulate the exchange with its environs, the assimilation of the environs into itself, through habitual procedures which "reflect" into the organism, as its inner disposition, its external interactions.

The ontological consequences of this (self-)reflection of the external difference into inner difference are crucial. In one of the unexpected encounters of contemporary philosophy with Hegel, the "Christian materialist" Peter van Inwagen developed the idea that material objects like automobiles, chairs, computers, etc. simply DO NOT EXIST: say, a chair is not effectively, for itself, a chair – all we have is a collection of "simples" (i.e., more elementary objects "arranged chairwise" – so, although a chair functions as a chair, it is composed of a multitude (wood pieces, nails, cushions…) which are, in themselves, totally indifferent towards this arrangement; there is, stricto sensu, no "whole" a nail is here a part of). It is only with organisms that we have a Whole. Here, the unity is minimally "for itself"; parts effectively interact. [9] As it was developed already by Lynn Margulis, the elementary form of life, a cell, is characterized precisely by such a minimum of self-relating, a minimum exclusively through which the limit between Inside and Outside that characterize an organism can emerge. And, as Hegel put it, thought is only a further development of this For-itself.

In biology, for instance, we have, at the level of reality, only bodily interacting. "Life proper" emerges only at the minimally "ideal" level, as an immaterial event which provides the form of unity of the living body as the "same" in the incessant change of its material components. The basic problem of evolutionary cognitivism - that of the emergence of the ideal life-pattern - is none other than the old metaphysical enigma of the relationship between chaos and order, between the Multiple and the One, between parts and their whole. How can we get "order for free," that is, how can order emerge out of initial disorder? How can we account for a whole that is larger than the mere sum of its parts? How can a One with a distinct self-identity emerge out of the interaction of its multiple constituents? A series of contemporary researchers, from Lynn Margulis to Francisco Varela, assert that the true problem is not how an organism and its environs interact or connect, but, rather, the opposite one: how does a distinct self-identical organism emerge out of its environs? How does a cell form the membrane which separates its inside from its outside? The true problem is thus not how an organism adapts to its environs, but how it is that there is something, a distinct entity, which must adapt itself in the first place. And, it is here, at this crucial point, that today's biological language starts to resemble, quite uncannily, the language of Hegel. When Varela, for example, explains his notion of autopoiesis, he repeats, almost verbatim, the Hegelian notion of life as a teleological, self-organizing entity. His central notion, that of a loop or bootstrap, points towards the Hegelian Setzung der Voraussetzungen:

Autopoiesis attempts to define the uniqueness of the emergence that produces life in its fundamental cellular form. It's specific to the cellular level. There's a circular or network process that engenders a paradox: a self-organizing network of biochemical reactions produces molecules, which do something specific and unique: they create a boundary, a membrane, which constrains the network that has produced the constituents of the membrane. This is a logical bootstrap, a loop: a network produces entities that create a boundary, which constrains the network that produces the boundary. This bootstrap is precisely what's unique about cells. A self-distinguishing entity exists when the bootstrap is completed. This entity has produced its own boundary. It doesn't require an external agent to notice it, or to say, 'I'm here.' It is, by itself, a self-distinction. It bootstraps itself out of a soup of chemistry and physics. [10]

The conclusion to be drawn is thus that the only way to account for the emergence of the distinction between the "inside" and "outside" constitutive of a living organism is to posit a kind of self-reflexive reversal by means of which - to put it in Hegelese - the One of an organism as a Whole retroactively "posits" as its result, as that which it dominates and regulates, the set of its own causes (i.e., the very multiple process out of which it emerged). In this way - and only in this way - an organism is no longer limited by external conditions, but is fundamentally self-limited - again, as Hegel would have articulated it, life emerges when the external limitation (of an entity by its environs) turns into self-limitation. This brings us back to the problem of infinity: for Hegel, true infinity does not stand for limitless expansion, but for active self-limitation (self-determination) in contrast to being-determined-by-the-other. In this precise sense, life (even at its most elementary: as a living cell) is the basic form of true infinity, since it already involves the minimal loop by means of which a process is no longer simply determined by the Outside of its environs, but is itself able to (over)determine the mode of this determination and thus "posits its presuppositions." Infinity acquires its first actual existence the moment a cell's membrane starts to functions as a self-boundary.

Back to habits: because of the virtual status of habits, to adopt a (new) habit is not simply to change an actual property of the subject; rather, it involves a kind of reflexive change, a change of the subject’s disposition which determines his reaction to changes, i.e., a change in the very mode of changes to which the subject is submitted: "Habit does not simply introduce mutability into something that would otherwise continue without changing; it suggests change within a disposition, within its potentiality, within the internal character of that in which the change occurs, which does not change." [11] This is what Hegel means by self-differentiation as the "sublation" of externally imposed changes into self-changes, of external into internal difference - only organic bodies self-differentiate themselves: an organic body maintains its unity by internalizing an externally imposed change into habit to deal with future such changes.

If, however, this is the case, if all (organic, at least) nature already is second nature, in what, then, does the difference between animal and human habits consist? Hegel’s most provocative and unexpected contribution concerns this very question of the genesis of human habits: in his Anthropology (which opens Philosophy of Spirit) we find a unique "genealogy of habits" reminding us of Nietzsche. This part of Philosophy of Spirit is one of the hidden, not yet fully exploited, treasures of the Hegelian system, where we find the clearest traces of what one cannot but name the dialectical-materialist aspect of Hegel: the passage from nature to (human) spirit is here developed not as a direct outside intervention of Spirit, as a direct intervention of another dimension disturbing the balance of the natural circuit, but as the result of a long and tortuous "working through" by means of which intelligence (embodied in language) emerges from natural tensions and antagonisms. [12] This passage is not direct, i.e., Spirit (in the guise of speech-mediated human intelligence) does not directly confront and dominate biological processes – Spirit’s "material base" forever remains the pre-symbolic (pre-linguistic) habit.

So how does habit itself arise? In his genealogy, Hegel conceives habit as the third, concluding, moment of the dialectical process of the Soul, whose structure follows the triad of notion – judgment – syllogism. At the beginning, there is Soul in its immediate unity, in its simple notion, the "feeling soul": "In the sensations which arise from the individual’s encounter with external objects, the soul begins to awaken itself."(32) The Self is here a mere "sentient Self," not yet a subject opposed to objects, but just experiencing a sensation in which the two sides, subject and object, are immediately united: when I experience a sensation of touch, this sensation is simultaneously the trace of the external object I am touching and my inner reaction to it; sensation is a Janus-life two-faced entity in which subjective and objective immediately coincide. Even in later stages of the individual’s development, this "sentient Self" survives in the guise of what Hegel calls "magical relationship," referring to phenomena that, in Hegel’s times, were designated with terms like "magnetic somnambulism" (hypnosis), all the phenomena in which my Soul is directly - in a pre-reflexive, non-thinking way - linked to external processes and affected by them. Instead of bodies influencing each other at a distance (the Newtonian gravity), we have spirits influencing each other at a distance. Here, the Soul remains at the lowest level of its functioning, directly immersed in its environs. (What Freud called the "oceanic feeling," the source of religious experience, is thus for Hegel a feature of the lowest level of the soul.) What the Soul lacks here is a clear self-feeling, a feeling of itself as distinguished from external reality, which is what happens in the next moment, that of judgment (Urteil – Hegel mobilizes here the wordplay of Urteil with Ur-Teil, "primordial divide/division"):

The sensitive totality is, in its capacity as an individual, essentially the tendency to distinguish itself in itself, and to wake up to the judgment in itself, in virtue of which it has particular feelings and stands as a subject in respect of these aspects of itself. The subject as such gives these feelings a place as its own in itself. [13]

All problems arise from this paradoxical short-circuit of the feeling of Self becoming a specific feeling among others, and, simultaneously, the encompassing container of all feelings, the site where all dispersed feelings can be brought together. Malabou provides a wonderfully precise formulation of this paradox of the feeling of Self:

Even if there is a possibility of bringing together feeling’s manifold material, that possibility itself becomes part of the objective content. The form needs to be the content of all that it forms: subjectivity does not reside in its own being, it ‘haunts’ itself. The soul is possessed by the possession of itself. (35)

This is the crucial feature: possibility itself has to actualize itself, to become a fact, or, the form needs to become part of its own content (or, to add a further variation on the same motif, the frame itself has to become part of the enframed content). The subject is the frame/form/horizon of his world AND part of the enframed content (of the reality he observes), and the problem is that he cannot see/locate himself within his own frame: since all there is is already within the frame, the frame as such is invisible – or, as the early Wittgenstein put it: "Our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits."(Tractatus 6.4311) Like the field of vision, life is finite, and, for that very reason, we cannot ever see its limit – in this precise sense, "eternal life belongs to those who live in the present" (ibid.): precisely because we are WITHIN our finitude, we cannot step out of it and perceive its limitation. The possibility to locate oneself within one’s reality has to remain a possibility – however, and therein resides the crucial point, this possibility itself has to actualize itself qua possibility, to be active, to exert influence, qua possibility.

There is a link to Kant here, to the old enigma of what, exactly, Kant had in mind with his notion of "transcendental apperception," of self-consciousness accompanying every act of my consciousness (when I am conscious of something, I am thereby always also conscious of the fact that I am conscious of this)? Is it not an obvious fact that this is empirically not true, that I am not always reflexively aware of my awareness itself? The way interpreters try to resolve this deadlock is by way of claiming that every conscious act of mine can be potentially rendered self-conscious: if I want, I always can turn my attention to what I am doing. This, however, is not strong enough: the transcendental apperception cannot be an act that never effectively happens, that just could have happened at any point. The solution of this dilemma is precisely the notion of virtuality in the strict Deleuzian sense, as the actuality of the possible, as a paradoxical entity the very possibility of which already produces/has actual effects. One should oppose this oppose Deleuze's notion of the Virtual to the all-pervasive topic of virtual reality: what matters to Deleuze is not virtual reality, but the reality of the virtual (which, in Lacanian terms, is the Real). Virtual Reality in itself is a rather miserable idea: that of imitating reality, of reproducing its experience in an artificial medium. The reality of the Virtual, on the other hand, stands for the reality of the Virtual as such, for its real effects and consequences. Let us take an attractor in mathematics: all positive lines or points in its sphere of attraction only approach it in an endless fashion, never reaching its form - the existence of this form is purely virtual, being nothing more than the shape towards which lines and points tend. However, precisely as such, the virtual is the Real of this field: the immovable focal point around which all elements circulate. Is not this Virtual ultimately the Symbolic as such? Let us take symbolic authority: in order to function as an effective authority, it has to remain not-fully-actualized, an eternal threat.

This, then, is the status of Self: its self-awareness is as it were the actuality of its own possibility.

End of Part 1


[1] Catherine Malabou, The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, temporality and Dialectic. NYC: Routledge, 2004.

[2] I owe this observation to Caroline Schuster (Chicago).

[3] Encyclopaedia, Philosophy of Spirit, Par. 410, Remark.

[4] Encyclopaedia, Par. 410. .

[5] Alain, Idées, Paris: Flammarion 1983, p. 200 (quoted from Malabou, p. 36).

[6] Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Par. 151, Addition.

[7] Encyclopaedia, Philosophy of Spirit, Par. 410, Addition.

[8] Encyclopaedia, Par. 410, Addition.

[9] Peter van Inwagen, Material Beings, Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1990.

[10] Francisco Varela, "The Emergent Self," in John Brockman, ed. The Third Culture, New York: Simon and Schuster 1996, p. 212.

[11] Felix Ravaisson, De l’habitude, Paris: Fayard 1984, p. 10; quoted from Malabou 58.

[12] Hegel makes this point clear in his Logic: "The activity of thought which is at work in all our ideas, purposes, interests and actions is, as we have said, unconsciously busy /…/ [E]ach individual animal is such individual primarily because it is an animal: if this is true, then it would be impossible to say what such an individual could still be if this foundation were removed."(Science of Logic, p. 36-37).

[13] Encyclopaedia, Philosophy of Spirit, Par. 407.

Slavoj Zizek's Bibliography

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