Zizek, and Brandom on Agency and Responsibility: Part 1

Philosopher Robert Brandom one of the most respected contemporary living thinkers in the analytic tradition has recently written a book on Hegel called ‘A Spirit of Trust’. His book is extremely challenging; as well as the obvious difficulty of interpreting Hegel’s work, Brandom explicates Hegel in terms of the technical work of analytic philosophers such as Frege, Wittgenstein, Kripke, Sellars etc.  Having one of the giants of analytic philosophy engage with Hegel’s work in book length detail is important for the discipline. One of the selling points of Analytic Philosophy at its inception, was its move away from purported Hegelian obscurity. Bertrand Russell, for example, argued that the new logic being developed by Frege and Russell would put philosophy on a scientific path that made Hegelian philosophy look antiquated. The fact that over a hundred years after Russell dismissed Hegel as an antiquated thinker, philosophers in the discipline Russell helped found are still trying to come to terms with Hegel’s work makes Russell’s dismissal of Hegel look hopelessly naïve.

Pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty argued that the analytic philosophy championed by Russell was a futile attempt of philosophy to remain in its Kantian phase and to cordon off a workspace for philosophers that couldn’t be gobbled up by the natural sciences. For Rorty, analytic philosophy had yet to move beyond its Kantian phase into its Hegelian phase. Since Rorty’s death it is fair to say that Hegel still isn’t a central figure. Philosophers like Robert Pippin and Robert Brandom take Hegel very seriously but overall Hegel is still a marginal figure in analytic philosophy.

In his blurb for Brandom’s book James Conant hoped that ‘A Spirit of Trust’ would do for Hegel’s ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’ what Strawson’s ‘The Bounds of Sense’ did for Kant’s ‘A Critique of Pure Reason’ in Analytic Philosophy. It is hard to believe that Brandom’s book will have a similar impact. Strawson’s book served as a short clear expression of Kant’s ideas that translated Kant into the language of analytic philosophy. Brandom’s work is almost as complex and dense Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and to grasp his interpretation of Hegel one would need to be intimately familiar with technical work in the philosophy of language. It is doubtful that Brandom’s book will be read by many people other than those already interested in Brandom’s work or analytic philosophers who are already familiar with Hegel’s work.

One thing that Brandom’s book may have in common with Strawson’s ‘The Bounds of Sense’ will be that a lot of theorists from the Continental Philosophy tradition will dismiss it as another attempt by an analytic philosopher to domesticate radical ideas of a great thinker. Slavoj Zizek a world-famous philosopher in the Continental tradition has written on Hegel in various different places culminating in his massive book ‘Less Than Nothing: Hegel and The Shadow of Dialectical Materialism’ (2013). Zizek’s take on Hegel is every bit as challenging as Brandom’s. Zizek interprets Hegel through the lens of Lacan, Marx, de Saussure, Heidegger, Freud etc. So understanding Zizek’s take on Hegel demands as much of a grasp of Continental philosophy, as understanding Brandom’s take demands a good grasp of the intricacies of Analytic Philosophy. In fact reading Zizek and Brandom’s different takes on Hegel one could be forgiven for thinking of Hegel as a kind of elaborate Rorschach test onto which people project their own idiosyncratic obsessions.

Zizek read an early draft of Brandom’s ‘A Spirit of Trust’ and accused him of attempting to normalize Hegel and to ignore the wilder aspects of Hegel’s philosophy. Zizek’s paper ‘In Defence of Hegel’s Madness’ (2015) criticises some of Brandom’s takes on Hegel. It is worth evaluating these claims of Zizek’s as his criticisms reveal some differences in argumentative style between analytic and continental philosophers. Zizek offered three primary criticisms of Brandom’s take on Hegel:

  • The first strand of his criticism of Brandom is an obscure criticism of Brandom’s treatment of determinate negation and mediation. Zizek’s uses the work of linguist Saussure to criticise Brandom’s understanding of the nature of negation and mediation. And chastises Brandom for reducing absolute idealism to a semantic thesis.
  • The second strand of Zizek’s criticism focuses on Brandom’s bent stick example of negation revealing a contradiction between our representation and the thing in-itself. Zizek chastises Brandom for misrepresenting Hegel. While Brandom thinks that contradictory things exist in our incompatible representations of the object not the object itself; Zizek parses Hegel as arguing that contradictions can exist in nature: “Does Brandom not do here the exact opposite of Hegel? When Hegel confronts an epistemological inconsistency or “contradiction” which appears as an obstacle to our access to the obstacle itself (if we have incompatible notions of an object they cannot all be true), Hegel resolves this dilemma by way of transposing what appears as an epistemological obstacle into an ontological feature, a “contradiction” in the thing it self. Brandom, on the contrary, resolves an ontological inconsistency by way of transposing it into epistemological illusion/inadequacy, so that reality is saved from contradiction.” ( Zizek ‘In Defence of Hegel’s Madness’ p. 794)
  • The third strand of Zizek’s criticism focuses on Brandom’s take on agency and responsibility. “Brandom and Hegel are here opposed in a way which is far from concerning just an accent: Brandom asserts the transcendental primacy of trust which is always -already presupposed by any reductionist-suspicious ironic attitude, while Hegel’s entire effort goes into explaining why trust needs the detour through irony and suspicion to assert itself-it cannot stand on its own…This is the price that both Pippin and Brandom pay for their “renormalization” of Hegel as a thinker of discursive recognition: a regression into Kantian dualism of the domain/level of empirical reality and the separate normative domain of rational argumentation. Whatever Hegel is, such dualism is incompatible with his thought.” (ibid pp.804-809)


It would be beyond the scope of this blog-post to consider all of Zizek’s criticisms of Brandom so in this blog-post I will consider what I take to be one of Zizek’s primary criticisms; his claim that Brandom’s view on agency and responsibility is radically wrong. I will return to Zizek’s other criticisms in later blog-posts.

One of Zizek’s major criticisms of Brandom related to how Brandom handled unintended consequences.  Brandom used a toy model to discuss a case where a person could cause a disaster without thereby being responsible for the disaster. Brandom gives an example of a person pressing a doorbell with the intention of getting the attention of the occupant of the house. Unknownst to person who pressed the bell it has been rigged to explode when the bell is pressed. By pressing the bell person x inadvertently killed the occupant of the house. On Brandom’s understanding of the above toy model we couldn’t hold the person responsible for the death of the occupant although by pressing the bell the person is indeed part of the cause of the occupant being killed.

Brandom interpreted Hegel’s views on agency and responsibility under the guise of Donald Davidson’s philosophy of action. He broke Davidson’s theory of action up into five different elements.

  • One and the same event can be described or specified in many ways.
  • One important way of identifying or singling out an event is in terms of its causal consequences.

Moving ones finger and pressing the doorbell and causing the bomb to go off can be classed as one event because of its causal consequences.

  • Some, but not all, of the descriptions of an action may be privileged in that they are the ones under which it is intentional.

Potential descriptions of an event expand with the passage of time; Davidson calls this fact “the accordion effect” (ibid p. 388).


  • What makes an event, performance, or process an action, something done, is that it is intentional under some description.

Pressing the doorbell was intentional, while causing the bomb to go off wasn’t intentional. Setting off the bomb was something that was done, though it wasn’t intentional under that description it was intentional under other descriptions e.g. ringing the doorbell. The performance is an action under all its descriptions and specifications, including all the distant, unforeseeable, consequential ones that come in under the accordion principle. But what makes it an action is that it was intentional under some specifications. (ibid p. 388)


  • What distinguishes some descriptions as ones under which a performance was intentional is their role as conclusions in processes of practical reasoning. (Brandom ‘A Spirit of Trust’ pp. 387-389)

Pressing the doorbell was something the agent had a reason to do, provided by ends purposes or goals he endorsed, commitments he acknowledged, or values he embraced. Those reasons in the form of ends, purposes, goals, commitments, or values provide premises for potential pieces of practical reasoning justifying the practical conclusion that he ought to bring about an event satisfying a description such as pressing the doorbell but not setting off a bomb.( ibid p. 389)

Zizek’s response to Brandom’s toy model is firstly to note that Brandom hasn’t ruled out unconscious motivations for the person pushing the bell ( In Defence of Hegel’s Madness p. 799). This is a truly bizarre thing for Zizek to ask for. Brandom is using a thought experiment to illustrate a case where a person accidently causes the death of the occupant while not being plausibly responsible for the death. Instead of speculating on the purported unconscious motivations of a subject of a thought experiment Zizek would be better served by constructing a thought experiment of his own to illustrate what he thinks Brandom misses.

It is hard to know what type of thought experiment Zizek could appeal to demonstrate the inappropriateness of Brandom’s toy model. Suppose we added into the model that the guy who pressed the doorbell had a history with the occupant. The occupant had stolen guy x’s girlfriend, had gotten jobs x had applied for, held views that guy x felt were heinous. Here we could speculate that guy x unconsciously resented the occupant. But even if we did speculate that guy x hated the occupant; this doesn’t do much work in the thought experiment. The point of the thought experiment was that by fiat guy x pressed the button and didn’t know it was connected to a bomb. Therefore, even though he was causally implicated in the bomb going off, he wasn’t responsible for the death. Even if we add to our thought experiment that the guy unconsciously hated the occupant; we still have no evidence that he is responsible for the death.

Now Zizek can change the stipulation that guy x knew nothing about the bomb being connected; but doing so is creating a new thought experiment it does nothing to engage with the intuitions pumped by the original thought experiment. Sometimes in a thought experiment adding more detail makes the intuitions being pumped less clear and require further thought. But Zizek’s argument that we should consider unconscious motivation adds nothing to the thought experiment and leaves the intuitions that Brandom was trying to pump entirely untouched.

Aside from Zizek’s pointless use of unconscious motivations to interpret Brandom’s thought experiment he also makes another criticism. His second criticism is that the example is too contrived and unrealistic to be instructive. A toy model is useful in demonstrating that a person x could cause a state of affairs without being responsible for it. Nonetheless, a perfectly legitimate criticism is that outside of these idealized thought experiments things are more complex and hence the toy models are largely irrelevant to actual lived reality.

Now this is a complex topic. Idealization is a vital tool in the hard sciences. Physics, which is by far and away the most successful science uses idealizations all of the time (point masses, centre of gravity etc), and it would be considered a poor criticism of physics to say that their idealizations simplify reality; that is precisely their point to help us construct tractable models. Using an analogy from physics one could argue that Zizek criticising Brandom using toy models is as silly as criticising Einstein or Newton for using models.

However, I don’t think that this analogy holds. Firstly, philosophers have been using toy models (idealizations) for centuries and haven’t necessarily been successful in solving their problems. It would be poor practice for philosophers to try to piggyback off the success of physics in solving their problems using idealizations, to assert that philosophers are always justified in using idealizations despite not having a comparable level of success. Idealizations haven’t paid their way in philosophy in the way they have in physics. Secondly, and more importantly, while Idealizations have paid their way in science; so have the plucky critics who pointed out the unrealistic aspect of the idealizations noting the various aspects of reality they don’t explain. Pointing out the weakness and limitations of various toy models has been a spur for scientific progress since the inception of the scientific method. In this sense I think Zizek is justified in criticizing Brandom for using overly simplistic toy models.

Zizek offers us a different thought experiment to help us think about the case of unintended consequences. Zizek asks us to consider the case of a person who believes in Marxist philosophy and who thinks it will bring about a better world; such a person would never admit to wanting the horrors of Stalinism to have occurred. But nonetheless there is a clear sense in which it wouldn’t be absurd to hold them responsible for the horrors of Stalinism. There was a sense in which the horrors were implicit in the philosophy. There is a perfectly legitimate sense in which one could claim that despite the person not intending x the person is somewhat responsible for the occurrence of x.

So here we have two competing thought experiments which from a logical point of view aren’t at odds. We could say that in thought experiment 1 the person caused the event but isn’t responsible for it, while in thought experiment 2 the person ( didn’t really cause the event), but bears some responsibility for supporting the philosophy that led to the event.

Given that Zizek’s thought experiment doesn’t refute Brandom’s what was his point in using it? The obvious answer is that in real life we don’t ever have a clear-cut answer to how to attribute responsibility. Lived reality is ambiguous between reasons and causes. For this reason, Brandom’s thought experiment can be dismissed as an unrealistic example which has little relation to lived reality.

Other examples could be produced to illustrate Zizek’s point. In his recent book ‘The Deep History of Ourselves’ neuroscientist Joe LeDoux has argued that we are only really justified in attributing conscious states of fear to linguistic creatures such as ourselves who have a sufficiently structured neocortex.  Le Doux argues that when we see animals such as rats engage in fear behaviours we should be sceptical of interpreting these behaviours as evidence of conscious states. Le Doux’s argument is sophisticated and draws on mountains of empirical data to support his claims. He also goes out of his way to argue that such a philosophy of animal cognition shouldn’t be used to justify animal cruelty.

“Just because animals may not suffer the way we do does not mean that they do not experience some kind of distress and discomfort, and suffer from body injury or illness in their own way. My position should therefore in no way be used as a rationale for torture, abuse, or mistreatment of animals.” (Le Doux ‘A Brief History of Ourselves’ p. 331)

Imagine though that Le Doux’s philosophy caught on and was used to justify treating animals even more cruelly than is practiced today. There is a defensible sense where we could treat Le Doux as somewhat responsible for this cruelty if it could be shown that say there was a spike in animal cruelty following his philosophy of consciousness being adopted. This responsibility would exist even though Le Doux didn’t want such cruelty to occur. The responsibility would be mitigated by his explicit claim that people shouldn’t use his theories as a justification for animal cruelty. However; if it could be shown that his views on animal consciousness being adopted did lead to a spike in animal cruelty then we could be justified in holding him somewhat responsible. Now it is highly unlikely that any animal cruelty will occur as a result of theoretical issues in the neuroscience of consciousness. Nonetheless the bare possibility is another example of the type of responsibility that Zizek thinks is important to think about.

Another example of people being held responsible for behaviour they didn’t explicitly want to happen is in the area of exploitation being used to keep the capitalist machinery running. As privileged citizens of a Western capitalist society we are beneficiaries of a system that exploits countries all over the planet. In being willing participants in a Capitalist society we are somewhat responsible for sweat shops, Oil wars etc.

Cases like the committed Marxist’s responsibility for the terrors of Stalin, the scientists responsibility for the application of their theories, or the citizen of a western Capitalist societies responsibilities for international exploitation are far more interesting and instructive than Brandom’s toy model.

We saw above that Zizek criticized Brandom for not considering unconscious motivations in his toy model. As I noted the objection made little sense as the model was simply being used as a tool to analyse actions and events. When we discuss more real realistic cases, like the case of the committed Marxists, things become more complicated. Here, we cannot rule out of our analysis unconscious motivations influencing the behaviour of the communist, and these motivations can be used to judge the degree to which we can hold the person responsible for the horrors of Stalinism.

There is a school of thought which Brandom dismisses as the hermeneutics of suspicion. The primary proponents of this school are the likes of Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, etc. In this school of thought a person may verbally subscribe to a particular philosophical position, they may justify it by reasons, but ultimately the reasons they use are a sham. To give a cliched example, in the Freudian tradition there is a mode of interpretation that involves questioning the motivation of the critics. Thus a critic may argue against Freud on the grounds that there isn’t sufficient evidence to support his claims about the status of the unconscious. However, a Freudian would interpret these arguments by applying Freudian theory. Thus, they could argue that Freud is an authoritative father figure, and that as children the critics primary authority figure was their dad. And our psychoanalyst could argue that when a critic attacks Freud they are really unconsciously attacking their own father and not Freud himself.

This Freudian approach of attacking the motives of critics is rightly criticised for question begging against their critics. Nonetheless, the approach is still pretty common and isn’t just restricted to Freudians; Marxists, Nietzsche, Evolutionary Psychologists also use such hermeneutics of suspicion. A common thread in Evolutionary Psychologists is to dismiss arguments from theorists on the left about social justice as merely unconscious forms of social signalling to ones peers.

Brandom discusses the hermeneutics of suspicion in relation to normative responsibility. He makes a distinction between local attempts at using the hermeneutics of suspicion and global attempts. A good example of a local attempt to apply the hermeneutics of suspicion would when a teenager begins to reflect on the fact he is a Christian because everyone in his culture is. But if he was born in a different community he would have become a Buddhist or a Muslim. This teenager may reflect that his reasons for believing in God are just post-hoc rationalisations to justify his cultural indoctrination. Proponents of global hermeneutics of suspicion would argue that all modes of reasoning can explained away in terms of causal sequences such as childhood experiences, unconscious evolutionary signalling etc of which we are unaware. For Brandom the hermeneutics of suspicion is an attempt to reduce normative reason giving explanations to causal explanations. Brandom argues that explanations that we only believe proposition x because of certain childhood experiences, reduces our reasons to the status of causal sequences. But he doesn’t think that global hermeneutics of suspicion holds up to critical scrutiny. His argument is the familiar one that any attempt to explain away reasons entirely in terms of causes is self-refuting; as if the proponent of the thesis really believed the thesis he would have no argument for it. His own thesis would be subject to similar unmasking so couldn’t be taken too seriously. In short if you are a global sceptic about reasons you cannot appeal to reasons to make your case.

Brandom’s discussion of the hermeneutics of suspicion is a key point of difference between Zizek and Brandom’s interpretation of Hegel. However to analyse the debate further would require a discussion of the philosophy of history. In the next blog-post I will evaluate how both Zizek and Brandom’s different takes on agency effect their interpretations of the philosophy of history, Hegel, and the nature of responsibility.

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