.........Spinoza, Kant, Hegel and... Badiou!

.........Slavoj Zizek

[space] nav gif nav gif nav gif nav gif nav gif nav gif nav
gif nav gif nav gif

section II: Kant - Hegel

section III: Badiou!


One of the unwritten rules of today's academia from France to the US is the injunction to love Spinoza. Everyone loves him, from the Althusserian strict "scientific materialists" to Deleuzean schizo-anarchists, from rationalist critics of religion to the partisans of liberal freedoms and tolerances, not to mention feminists like Genevieve Lloyd who propose to decipher the mysterious third type of knowledge in Ethics as feminine intuitive knowledge surpassing the male analytic understanding... Is it, then, possible at all not to love Spinoza? Who can be against a lone Jew who, on the top of it, was excommunicated by the "official" Jewish community itself? One of the most touching expressions of this love is how one often attributes to him almost divine capacities - like Pierre Macherey who (in his otherwise admirable Hegel ou Spinoza), against the Hegelian critique of Spinoza, claims that one cannot avoid the impression that Spinoza had already read Hegel and in advance answered his reproaches... Perhaps, the most appropriate first step to render problematic this status of Spinoza is to draw attention to the fact that it is totally incompatible with what is arguably the hegemonic stance in today's Cultural Studies, that of the ethico-theological "Judaic" turn of deconstruction best exemplified by the couple Derrida/Levinas - is there a philosopher more foreign to this orientation than Spinoza? Or, even, more foreign to the Jewish universe which, precisely, is the universe of God as radical Otherness, of the enigma of the divine, of the God of negative prohibitions instead of positive injunctions? Were, then, the Jewish priests in a way not RIGHT to excommunicate Spinoza?

Yet, instead of engaging in this rather boring academic exercise of opposing Spinoza and Levinas, what I want to accomplish is a consciously old-fashioned Hegelian reading of Spinoza - what both Spinozeans and Levinasians share is radical anti-Hegelianism. My starting hypothesis is that, in the history of modern thought, the triad of paganism-Judaism-Christianity repeats itself twice, first as Spinoza-Kant-Hegel, then as Deleuze-Derrida-Lacan. Deleuze deploys the One-Substance as the indifferent medium of multitude; Derrida inverts it into the radical Otherness which differs from itself; finally, in a kind of "negation of negation," Lacan brings back the cut, the gap, into the One itself. The point is not so much to play Spinoza and Kant against each other, thus securing the triumph of Hegel; it is rather to present the three philosophical positions in all their unheard-of radicality - in a way, the triad Spinoza-Kant-Hegel DOES encompass the whole of philosophy...

(This simplified picture should, of course, be further elaborated. What about the interesting mediate role of Lyotard who passed from paganism to the celebration of Jewish Otherness? And do we not find in Derrida's development a shift symmetrical to that of Lyotard, from Hegel back to Kant? That is to say, in his otherwise unreadable professorial What Is Neo-Structuralism?, Manfred Frank was right at one point: in his insistence on the link between Derrida's differance and the Hegelian self-differentiating movement of the absolute Concept - in the early Derrida, there is no place for "deconstruction as justice" in the sense of justice-to-come, of justice as the the "indeconstructible condition of deconstruction," of the Messianic promise of total redemption... One of the commonplaces about Lacan is that the same goes also for him: the Lacan of the early 1950s was Hegelian (under the influence of Kojeve and Hyppolite, of course), often directly designates the analyst as the figure of the Hegelian philosopher, the work of analysus as following the Hegelian "cunning of reason," the end of analysis as "absolute knowledge," the mediation of all particular content in the universal symbolic medium, etc.; in clear contrast, the "Lacan of the Real" asserts some traumatic core of the Real which forever resists being integrated into the Symbolic - and he does this by way of linking the Freudian das Ding with the Kantian Thing-in-itself. 1 We can clearly discern here the contours of the Lacan of symbolic castration: the Thing is prohibited, and this prohibition, far from thwarting desire, sustains it - in short, the symbolic order functions like Kant's transcendental screen through which renders reality accessible and simultaneously prevents our direct access to it?

Seminar XI, Lacan struggled to overcome this Kantian horizon - the clearest indication of it is his reactualization of the concept of drive. Drive functions beyond symbolic castration, as an inherent detour, topological twist, of the Real itself - and Lacan's path from desire to drive is the path from Kant to Hegel. This shift in late Lacan from the "transcendental" logic (symbolic castration as the ultimate horizon of our experience, emptying the place of the Thing and thus opening up the space for our desire) to the dimension "beyond castration," i.e., to a position which claims that, "beyond castration," there is not only the abyss of the Night of the Thing which swallows us, also has direct political consequences: the "transcendental" Lacan is obviously the "Lacan of democracy" (the empty place of Power for whose temporary occupancy multiple political subjects compete, against the "totalitarian" subject who claims to act directly for the Other's jouissance), while Lacan "beyond castration" points towards a post-democratic politics. - There are thus three phases in the relationship of Lacan towards the tension between Kant and Hegel: from the universal-Hegelian self-mediation in the totality of the Symbolic, he passes to the Kantian notion of the transcendent Thing which resists this mediation, and then, in an additional twist, he transposes the gap that separates all signifying traces from the Otherness into the immanence itself, as its inherent cut.)


So what is Spinoza? He is effectively the philosopher of Substance, and at a precise historical moment: AFTER Descartes. For that reason, he is able to draw all (unexpected, for most of us) consequences from it. Substance means, first of all, that there is no mediation between the attributes: each attribute (thoughts, bodies...) is infinite in itself, it has no outer limit where it would touch another attribute - "substance" is the very name for this absolutely neutral medium of the multitude of attributes. This lack of mediation is the same as the lack of subjectivity, because subject IS such a mediation: it ex-sists in/through what Deleuze, in The Logic of Sense, called the "dark precursor," the mediator between the two different series, the point of suture between them. So what is missing in Spinoza is the elementary "twist" of dialectical inversion which characterizes negativity, the inversion by means of which the very renunciation to desire turns into desire of renunciation, etc. What is unthinkable for him is what Freud called "death drive": the idea that conatus is based on a fundamental act of self-sabotaging. Spinoza, with his assertion of conatus, of every entity's striving to persist and strengthen its being and, in this way, striving for happiness, remains within the Aristotelian frame of what a good life is - what is outside his scope is the what Kant calls "categorical imperative," an unconditional thrust that parasitizes upon a human subject without any regard for its well-being, "beyond the pleasure-principle," and that, for Lacan, is the name of desire at its purest.

The first philosophical consequence of this notion of Substance is the motif on which Deleuze insists so much: the univocity of being; among other things, this univocity means that the mechanisms of establishing ontological links which Spinoza describes are thoroughly NEUTRAL with regard to their "good" or "bad" effects. Spinoza thus avoids both traps of the standard approach: he neither dismisses the mechanism which constitutes a multitude as the source of irrational destructive mob, nor does he celebrate it as the source of altruistic self-overcoming and solidarity. Of course, he was deeply and painfully aware of the destructive potential of the "multitude" - recall THE big political trauma of his life, a wild mob lynching de Witt brothers, his political allies; however, he was aware that the noblest collective acts are generated by exactly the same mechanism - in short, democracy and a lynching mob have the same source. It is with regard to this neutrality that the gap which separates Negri and Hardt from Spinoza becomes palpable: in The Empire, we find a celebration of multitude as the force of resistance, while in Spinoza, the concept of multitude qua crowd is fundamentally ambiguous: multitude is resistance to the imposing One, but, at the same time, it designates what we call "mob," a wild, "irrational" explosion of violence which, through imitatio afecti, feeds on itself and self-propels itself. This profound insight of Spinoza gets lost in today's ideology of multitude: the thorough "undecidability" of the crowd - "crowd" designates a certain mechanism which engenders social link, and THIS VERY SAME mechanism which supports, say, the enthusiastic formation of social solidarity, also supports the explosive spread of racist violence. What the "imitation of affects" introduces is the notion of trans-individual circulation and communication: as Deleuze later developed in a Spinozean vein, affects are not something that belongs to a subject and is then passed over to another subject; affects function at the pre-individual level, as free-floating intensities which belong to no one and circulate at a level "beneath" intersubjectivity. This is what is so new about imitatio afecti: the idea that affects circulate DIRECTLY, as what psychoanalysis calls "partial objects."

The next philosophical consequence is the thorough rejection of negativity: each entity strives towards its full actualization - every obstacle comes from outside. In short, since every entity endeavors to persist in its own being, nothing can be destroyed from within, for all change must come from without. What Spinoza excludes with his rejection of negativity is the very symbolic order, since, as we have learned already from Saussure, the minimal definition of the symbolic order is that every identity is reducible to a bundle (faisceau - the same root as in Fascism!) of differences: the identity of signifier resides solely in its difference(s) from other signifier(s). What this amounts to is that the absence can exert a positive causality - only within a symbolic universe is the fact that the dog did not bark an event... This is what Spinoza want to dispense with - all that he admits is a purely positive network of causes-effects in which by definition an absence cannot play any positive role. Or, to put it in yet another way: Spinoza is not ready to admit into the order of ontology what he himself, in his critique of the anthropomorphic notion of god, describes as a false notion which just fills in the lacunae in our knowledge - say, an object which, in its very positive existence, just gives body to a lack. For him, any negativity is "imaginary," the result of our anthropomorphic limited false knowledge which fails to grasp the actual causal chain - what remains outside his scope is a notion of negativity which would be precisely obfuscated by our imaginary (mis)cognition. While the imaginary (mis)cognition is, of course, focused on lacks, these are always lacks with regard to some positive measure (from our imperfection with regard to god, to our incomplete knowledge of nature); what eludes it is a POSITIVE notion of lack, a "generative" absence.

It is this assertion of the positivity of Being which grounds Spinoza's radical equation of power and right: justice means that every entity is allowed to freely deploy its inherent power-potentials, i.e., the amount of justice due to me equals my power. Spinoza's ultimate thrust is here anti-legalistic: the model of political impotence is for him the reference to an abstract law which ignores the concrete differential network and relationship of forces. A "right" is for Spinoza always a right to "do," to act upon things according to one's nature, not the (judicial) right to "have," to possess things. It is precisely this equation of power and right which, in the very last page of his Tractatus Politicus, Spinoza evokes as the key argument for the "natural" inferiority of women:

/.../ if by nature women were equal to men, and were equally distinguished by force of character and ability, in which human power and therefore human right chiefly consist; surely among nations so many and different some would be found, where both sexes rule alike, and others, where men are ruled by women, and so brought up, that they can make less use of their abilities. And since this is nowhere the case, one may assert with perfect propriety, that women have not by nature equal right with men. 2

Rather than score easy points with such passages, one should oppose here Spinoza to the standard bourgeois liberal ideology, which would publicly guarantee to women the same legal status as to men, relegating their inferiority to a legally irrelevant "pathological" fact (and, in fact, all great bourgeois anti-feminists from Fichte up to Otto Weininger were always careful to emphasize that, "of course," this does not mean that the inequality of sexes should be translated into inequality in the eyes of the law...). Furthermore, one should read this Spinozean equation of power and right against the background of Pascal's famous pensee: "Equality of possessions is no doubt right, but, as men could not make might obey right, they have made right obey might. As they could not fortify justice they have justified force, so that right and might live together and peace reigns, the sovereign good." 3 Crucial in this passage is the underlying FORMALIST logic: the FORM of justice matters more than its content - the form of justice should be maintained even if it is, as to its content, the form of its opposite, of injustice. And, one might add, this discrepancy between form and content is not just the result of particular unfortunate circumstances, but constitutive of the very notion of justice: justice is "in itself," in its very notion, the form of injustice, i.e. a "justified force." Usually, when we are dealing with a fake trial in which the outcome is fixed in advance by political and power interests, we speak of a „travesty of justice" - it pretends to be justice, while it is just a display of raw power or corruption posing as justice. What, however, is justice is "as such," in its very notion, a travesty? Is this not what Pascal implies when he concludes, in a resigned way, that if power cannot come to justice, then justice should come to power?

Kant gets involved into a similar predicament when he distinguishes between the "ordinary" evil (the violation of morality on behalf of some "pathological" motivation, like greed, lust, ambition, etc.), the "radical" evil, and the "diabolical" evil. It may seem that we are dealing with a simple linear graduation: "normal" evil, more "radical" evil, and, finally, the unthinkable "diabolical" evil. However, upon a closer look, it becomes clear that the three species are not at the same level, i.e., that Kant confuses different principles of classification. 4 "Radical" evil does not designate a specific type of evil acts, but an a priori propensity of the human nature (to act egotistically, to give preference to pathological motivations over universal ethical duty) which opens up the very space for "normal" evil acts, i.e., which roots them in human nature. In contrast to it, "diabolical" evil does designate a specific type of evil acts: acts which are not motivated by any pathological motivation, but are done "just for the sake of it," elevating evil itself into an apriori non-pathological motivation - something akin to Poe's "imp of perversity." While Kant claims that "diabolical evil" cannot actually occur (it is not possible for a human being to elevate evil itself into a universal ethical norm), he nonetheles asserts that one should posit it as an abstract possibility. Interestingly enough, the concrete case he mentions (in Part I of his Metaphysics of Mores) is that of the judicial regicide, the murder of a king executed as a punishment pronounced by a court: Kant's claim is that, in contrast to a simple rebellion in which the mob kills only the person of a king, the judicial process which condemns to death the king (this embodiment of the rule of law) destroys from within the very form of the (rule of) law, turning it into a terrifying travesty - which is why, as Kant put it, such an act is an "indelible crime" which cannot ever be pardoned. However, in a second step, Kant desperately argues that in the two historical cases of such an act (under Cromwell and in the 1973 France), we were dealing just with a mob taking revenge... Why this oscillation and classificatory confusion in Kant? Because, if he were to assert the actual possibility of "diabolical evil," he would found it impossible to distinguish it from the Good - since both acts would be non-pathologically motivated, the travesty of justice would become indistinguishable from justice itself. And the shift from Kant to Hegel is simply the shift from this Kantian inconsistency to Hegel's reckless assuming of the identity of "diabolical" evil with the Good itself. Far from involving a clear classification, the distinction between "radical" and "diabolical" evil is thus the distinction between the general irreducible propensity of human nature and a series of particular acts (which, although impossible, are thinkable). Why, then, does Kant need this excess over the "normal" pathological evil? Because, without it, his theory would amount to no more than the traditional notion of the conflict between good and evil as the conflict of two tendencies in human nature: the tendency to act freely and autonomously, and the tendency to act out of pathological egotistic motivations 5 - from this perspective, the choice between good and evil is not itself a free choice, since we only act in a truly free way when we act autonomously, for the sake of duty (when we follow pathological motivations, we are enslaved to our nature). However, this goes against the fundamental thrust of the Kantian ethics, according to which the very choice of evil is an autonomous free decision.

Back to Pascal: is his version of the unity of right and might not homologous to Nietzsche's amor fati and eternal return of the same? Since, in this unique life of mine, I am constrained by the burden of the past weighing on me, the assertion of my unconditional will to power is always thwarted by that which, in the finitude of being thrown into a particular situation, I was forced to assume as given. Consequently, the only way to effectively assert my will to power is to transpose myself into a state in which I am able to freely will, assert as the outcome of my will, what I otherwise experience as imposed on me by external fate; and the only way to accomplish this is to imagine that, in the FUTURE "returns of the same," repetitions of my present predicament, I am fully ready to assume it freely. However, does this reasoning not also conceal the same formalism as that of Pascal? Is its hidden premise not "if I cannot freely chose my reality and thus overcome the necessity which determines me, I should formally elevate this necessity itself into something freely assumed by me"? Or, as Wagner, Nietzshe's great nemesis, put it in The Twilight of Gods: "Fear of the gods' downfall grieves me not, / since now I will it so! / What once I resolved in despair, / in the wild anguish of dissension, / now I will freely perform, gladly and gaily." And does the Spinozean position not rely on the same resigned identification? Is therefore Spinoza not at the extreme opposite of the Jewish-Levinasian-Derridean-Adornian hope of the final Redemption, of the idea that this world of ours cannot be "all there is," the last and ultimate Truth, that we should stick to the promise of some Messianic Otherness?

The final feature in which all the previous ones culminate is Spinoza's radical suspension of any "deontological" dimension, i.e., of what we usually understand by the term "ethical" (norms which proscribe us how we should act when we have a choice) - in a book called Ethics, which is an achievement in itself. In his famous reading of the Fall, Spinoza claims God had to utter the prohibition "You should not eat the apple from the Tree of Knowledge!" because our capacity to know the true causal connection was limited: for those who know, one should say: "Eating from the Tree of Knowledge is dangerous for your health." This complete translation of injunction into cognitive statements again desubjectivizes the universe, implying that true freedom is not the freedom of choice but the true insight into necessities which determine us - here is the key passage from his Theologico-Political Treatise:

/.../ the affirmations and the negations of God always involve necessity or truth; so that, for example, if God said to Adam that He did not wish him to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, it would have involved a contradiction that Adam should have been able to eat of it, and would therefore have been impossible that he should have so eaten, for the Divine command would have involved an eternal necessity and truth. But since Scripture nevertheless narrates that God did give this command to Adam, and yet that none the less Adam ate of the tree, we must perforce say that God revealed to Adam the evil which would surely follow if he should eat of the tree, but did not disclose that such evil would of necessity come to pass. Thus it was that Adam took the revelation to be not an eternal and necessary truth, but a law - that is, an ordinance followed by gain or loss, not depending necessarily on the nature of the act performed, but solely on the will and absolute power of some potentate, so that the revelation in question was solely in relation to Adam, and solely through his lack of knowledge a law, and God was, as it were, a lawgiver and potentate. From the same cause, namely, from lack of knowledge, the Decalogue in relation to the Hebrews was a law. /.../ We conclude, therefore, that God is described as a lawgiver or prince, and styled just, merciful, etc., merely in concession to popular understanding, and the imperfection of popular knowledge; that in reality God acts and directs all things simply by the necessity of His nature and perfection, and that His decrees and volitions are eternal truths, and always involve necessity. 6

Two levels are opposed here, that of imagination/opinions and that of true knowledge. The level of imagination is anthropomorphic: we are dealing with a narrative about agents giving orders that we are free to obey or disobey, etc.; god himself is here the highest prince who dispenses mercy. The true knowledge, on the contrary, delivers the totally non-anthropomorphic causal nexus of impersonal truths. One is tempted to say that Spinoza here out-Jews Jews themselves: he extends iconoclasm to man himself - not only "do not paint god in man's image," but "do not paint man himself in man's image." In other words, Spinoza moves here a step beyond the standard warning not to project onto nature human notions like goal, mercy, good an evil, etc. - we should not use them to conceive man itself. The key words in the quoted passage are: "solely through the lack of knowledge" - the whole "anthropomorphic" domain of law, injunction, moral command, etc., is based on our ignorance. What Spinoza thus rejects is the necessity of what Lacan calls "Master Signifier," the reflexive signifier which fills in the very lack of the signifier. Spinoza's own supreme example of "God" is here crucial: when conceived as a mighty person, god merely embodies our ignorance of the true causality. One should recall here notions like "flogiston" or Marx's "Asiatic mode of production" or, as a matter of fact, today's popular "postindustrial society" - notions which, while they appear to designate a positive content, merely signal our ignorance. Spinoza's unheard-of endeavor is to think ethics itself outside the "anthropomorphic" morality categories of intentions, commandments, etc. - what he proposes is stricto sensu an ontological ethics, an ethics deprived of the deontological dimension, an ethics of "is" without "ought." (What, then, is the price paid for this suspension of the ethical dimension of commandment, of the Master Signifier? The psychoanalytic answer is clear: superego. Superego is on the side of knowledge; like Kafka's law, it wants nothing from you, it is just there if you come to it. This is the command operative in the warning we see everywhere today: "Smoking may be dangerous to your health." Nothing is prohibited, you are just informed of a causal link. Along the same lines, the injunction "Only have sex if you really want to enjoy it!" is the best way to sabotage enjoyment...).


1 It was Bernard Bass who articulated in detail such a Kantian reading of Lacan - see Bernard Baas, De la Chose a l'objet, Leuven: Pieters 1998.

2 Baruch Spinoza, A Theologico-Political Treatise and A Political Treatise, New York: Dover Publications 1951, p. 387.

3 Blaise Pascal, Pensées, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1965, p. 51.

4 I rely here on Alenka Zupancic, The Ethics of the Real, London: Verso 2001.

5 According to Kant, if one finds oneself alone in the sea with another survivor of the sinken ship, near a floating piece of wood which can keep afloat only one person, moral considerations are no longer valid - there is no moral law preventing me from fighting to death with the other survivor for the place on the raft, I can engage in it with moral impunity. It is here that, perhaps, one encounters the limit of the Kantian ethics: what about someone who would willingly sacrifice himself in order to give the other person a chance to survive - and, furthermore, is ready to do it for no pathological reasons? Since there is no moral law commanding me to do this, does this mean that such an act has no ethical status proper? Does this strange exception not demonstrate that the ruthless egotism, the care for personal survival and gain, is the silent "pathological" presupposition of the Kantian ethics - i.e., that the Kantean ethical edifice can only maintain itself if we silently presuppose the "pathological" image of man as a ruthless utilitarian egotist?

6 Spinoza, op.cit., p. 63-65.


Slavoj Zizek's Bibliography

Slavoj Zizek's Chronology

© lacan.com 1997/2007
Copyright Notice. Please respect the fact that this material in LACAN.COM is copyright. Available only through EBSCO Publishing, Inc.
It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose.