top of page

Free Will and Determinism with Kant and Lacan

One of the classic problems in modern philosophy is that of free will - usually contrasted with its opposite of determinism. When engaging in any field of philosophy from ethics to metaphysics, one inevitably encounters the topic of free will and the question of whether or not humans possess it, and, if they do, to what extent. This discussion has given rise to debates centuries-long in duration between several different beliefs. Most of these beliefs fall under the broad categories of free will, determinism or some mixture of the two often referred to as compatibilism. In this writing, I will introduce the discussion of free will and determinism and explain the foundations for a Kantian-Lacanian theory of free will as interpreted by Alenka Zupančič in the second chapter of her book, "Ethics of the Real."

When explaining a well-known topic such as free will and determinism, it is helpful to return to the basic understanding of the issue, especially when a Kantian-Lacanian perspective is to be offered. It is for that reason that I turn to Paul Kleinman’s Philosophy 101. Kleinman writes,

“When discussing free will, philosophers look at two things: 1. What it means to choose freely 2. What the moral implications are of those decisions”

Thus, this writing will proceed as follows. First, the problem of free will shall be explained. Then, I will offer a Kantian-Lacanian theorization of free will, introducing key concepts from both thinkers (the Other, the transcendental subject, the Gesinnung, etc). This will be sufficient to answer the first question concerning what it means to choose freely. After that, the implications for this theory in respect to the field of ethics will be explained. This will answer the second question concerning what the moral implications are of free decisions.

To begin, free will can be conceptualized as the capacity of the subject to act without the constraint of external (or internal) influence. That is to say that when the subject acts freely - he is not determined by causes. The doctrine of free will holds that the subject is fundamentally free and therefore responsible for his actions.

Determinism is the opposite doctrine that all actions are ultimately determined by causes, which means that the question of responsibility is irrelevant. Hard forms of determinism even dismiss the notion of free will as an illusion. This doctrine became especially popular with the rise of modern psychology after Sigmund Freud’s discovery of the unconscious. This discovery shattered the conception of the subject as a rational and autonomous agent in control of his own destiny. It revealed that humans are not only determined by external causes but also by internal ones rooted in inaccessible parts of the psyche.

Immanuel Kant made similar observations about a century earlier in his theorization of human subjectivity. As Zupančič explains, “Kant holds that as human beings we are part of Nature, which means that we are entirely, internally and externally, subject to the laws of causality. Hence our freedom is limited not only from the outside but also from the inside: we are no more free ‘in ourselves’ than we are ‘in the world’.”

It is possible, according to Kant, to explain the actions of subjects or establish their motives by reference to external and internal causes, thereby proving them as predetermined.

This Kantian determinism challenges one of the fundamental beliefs of our contemporary conception of freedom. As Zupančič writes, “Kant does not try simply to encourage us to act according to our ‘deepest convictions’, as does the contemporary ideology advocating that we heed our ‘authentic inclinations’ and rediscover our ‘true selves’. Instead, the procedure of the Critique is based on Kant’s recognition of the fact that our inclinations and our deepest convictions are radically pathological: that they belong to the domain of heteronomy.”

Kant argues that freedom does not reside on the inside, as our internal self with all its prejudices, inclinations and drives is still determined. When one dives into the depths of the unconscious, one finds that it is merely a product of the social order and the past events in one’s life. As the words of Jacques Lacan remind us, “The unconscious is structured like a language.” What this means is that the internal self can be reduced to the domain of language and socio-symbolic interaction. This heteronomous domain is what Lacan calls the (big) Other.

Thus, the ‘psychological freedom’ of our inner selves “cannot be a solution to the problem of the possibility of freedom, since it is just another name for determinism.” Freedom must be found outside of the subject’s ‘pathology’ since this pathos is determined by the Other insofar as the Other is conceived as a Cause.

“How, then, and on what basis, can freedom be accounted for?,” asks Zupančič, “The answer to this question is quite surprising and turns, to a great extent, around the notion of guilt.” As Zupančič continues, “That which proves the reality of freedom — or, more precisely, that which posits freedom ‘as a kind of fact’, is presented here in the guise of guilt.”

Guilt is to be understood here in terms of its ‘paradoxical structure’. What this means is that there are certain occasions “where we can feel guilt even if we know that in committing a certain deed we were, as Kant put it, ‘carried along by the stream of necessity’” — that is, determined.

These cases of irrational or paradoxical guilt where the subject feels guilty about something ‘beyond his control’ are more common than one might think. The experience of guilt here revolves around the very frame which sustains ‘psychological causality’. The subject feels guilty about the very fact that he is ‘carried along’ by some causal structure or ‘stream of necessity’, and it is at this paradoxical moment that freedom is born.

As Zupančič explains, “The guilt that is at issue here is not the guilt we experience because of something we may or may not have done (or desired to have done). Instead, it involves something like a glimpse of another possibility or, to put it in different terms, the experience of the ‘pressure of freedom’.”

Guilt over the subject’s ‘psychological causality’ hints at another imaginable possibility where the subject is not determined by a particular ‘stream of necessity’. Thus, “paradoxically, it is at the very moment when the subject is conscious of being carried along by the stream of natural necessity that he also becomes aware of his freedom.” In other words, it is when the subject realizes and feels guilty about the fact his actions are determined by pathological motives handed to it by the Other that the subject can free itself from said Other.

Zupančič further explains this by reference to a paraphrased dictum of Freud, which states, “Man is not only much more unfree than he believes, but also much freer than he knows.” She continues,

“In other words, where the subject believes himself to be free (i.e. on the level of ‘psychological causality’), Kant insists upon the irreducibility of the pathological. He insists that it is possible to find, for each and every one of our ‘spontaneous’ actions, causes and motives which link it to the law of natural causality. Let us call this line of argumentation the ‘postulate of de-psychologizing’ or the ‘postulate of determinism’. However, when the subject has already been detached from all psychology — that is, when the latter is revealed to be just another type of causality, and the subject appears to be nothing but an automaton — Kant says to this subject: and yet it is precisely in this situation that you are freer than you know. In other words, where the subject believes himself autonomous, Kant insists on the irreducibility of the Other, a causal order beyond his control. But where the subject becomes aware of his dependence on the Other (such and such laws, inclinations, hidden motives…) and is ready to give up, saying to himself: ‘This isn’t worth the trouble’, Kant indicates a ‘crack’ in the Other, a crack in which he situates the autonomy and freedom of the subject.”

This crack in the Other is the locus of freedom. Since, as Kant observes, there is no Cause of the Cause, the subject finds himself to be free. “That is why the subject can be guilty (i.e. free to have acted otherwise) even though his actions are thoroughly determined by causal laws.” The subject is responsible for the causal laws which determine him. In other words, the subject himself can be understood as a sort of Cause of the Cause or the Other of the Other in Lacanian terms.

Lacan follows a similar line of reasoning in his departure from structuralism. Zupančič writes, “Of course, Lacan follows structuralism in its ‘de-psychologizing of the subject’. In his words, ‘the unconscious is structured like a language’. This means that in principle we can submit the subject’s symptoms and actions to a process of interpretation (Freud’s ‘deciphering’) which establishes their ‘causal’ provenance… However, if structuralism ultimately identifies the subject with structure (the Other), Lacan intervenes, at this point, in a very Kantian manner: he introduces the subject as a correlative to the lack in the Other; that is, as correlative to the point where the structure fails to fully close in upon itself.”

This lack in the Other is the site of freedom, the point at which the actions of the subject cannot be fully accounted for by causal determination but which account for this determination in the first place. When Lacan says, “There is no Other of the Other,” what he means is that there is a gap in the Other that cannot be filled by another Other. When considering the symbolic domain of language, there is no metalanguage or Other outside language that creates and guarantees the contingent laws and meanings of signifiers that determine the subject. There is no Other that functions as the Cause of the Cause. There is only a void.

This void becomes apparent when Lacan defines the subject via the shifter ‘I’ in relation to the ‘act of enunciation’. The ‘I’ in linguistics is an indexical or shifter which refers to the subject’s act of speaking itself. The ‘I’ opens up a void in the Other because it does not signify but rather designates the subject of enunciation as an elusive and shifting entity devoid of meaning absent the act of speaking and yet still not fully signifiable. The subject is constituted in the speech act by the context of the statement but only to an extent. The Other, however, is only constituted and constructed in the process of enunciation and cannot exist without it, which means that “the Other and the statement have no guarantee of their existence besides the contingency of their enunciation.”

As Zupančič explains, “This dependence cannot in principle be eliminated from the function of the Other, and this is precisely what attests to its lack. The subject of enunciation does not and cannot have a firm place in the structure of the Other; it finds its place only in the act of enunciation. This amounts to saying that the depsychologizing of the subject does not imply its reducibility to a (linguistic or other) structure. The Lacanian subject is what remains after the operation of ‘de-psychologizing’ has been completed: it is the elusive, ‘palpitating’ point of enunciation.” This contingent point of the subject’s enunciation prior to the enunciated statement itself is what constitutes the interdependent subject and the Other. The subject’s act of speaking, then, can be considered a sort of Other of the Other.

This elusive Lacanian subject which remains as an irreducible excess beyond the Other is identical to the Kantian transcendental subject, the empty place from which the subject acts freely. Since it is ultimately the subject that remains after the process of ‘de-psychologizing’ derived from the ‘postulate of determinism’, the subject is what constitutes or rather ‘chooses’ the Other. This is why the subject experiences guilt over his ‘psychological causality’. The subject, from a transcendental perspective, recognizes the freedom he had to choose or construct his frame of causality, his Other.

Thus, the subject can be said to have the ability to choose or ‘incorporate’ a particular pathology or motive into his frame or maxim, the causal order which guides him. This is called the ‘incorporation thesis’. “We must attribute to the subject the decision involved in the incorporation of this drive or incentive into his maxim, even though this decision is neither experiential nor temporal.” Zupančič argues that this decision of incorporation is unconscious, “or, in Kantian terms, on the level of the Gesinnung, the ‘disposition’ of the subject which is, according to Kant, the ultimate foundation of the incorporation of incentives into maxims.”

However, despite the fact that this decision is on the level of the Gesinnung, the subject is nonetheless responsible for it because the subject is condemned to be free. In psychoanalytic treatment, the subject is also faced with the duty of assuming responsibility for his unconscious. This is called ‘the choice of the neurosis’.

However, for the purposes of her argument, Zupančič renames this process 'the psychoanalytic postulate of freedom’. This is because the end of analysis constitutes a change in perspective where the subject recognizes the freedom he had in choosing his neurosis. It is at this moment when the “initial choice can be repeated — the analysis comes to its conclusion as it brings the subject to the threshold of another (second) choice, that is, when the subject finds once again the possibility of choice.”

This possibility of free choice presents the possibility of an ethical act. It is at this point that we can begin to answer the question of what constitutes a moral and immoral action. However, first, we must understand what Lacan means when he conceptualizes the subject as a ‘divided subject’ in the context of ethics.

According to Zupančič, “Jacques-Alan Miller describes such a division as involving a choice where, on the one side, we find the life of pleasure, the love of life, of well-being, everything that belongs to the order of pathos or pathology proper, to the order of what we may feel; and, on the other side, the moral good as opposed to well-being, with the obligations it entails and is susceptible of entailing, that is, the negation of every pathos.” The subject, therefore, is divided between the unfree and heteronomous order of pathology and the free and autonomous order of morality.

Zupančič explains that the subject of practical reason — the subject with the capacity to engage in moral reasoning — faces a choice between these two versions of himself. However, a paradox is involved which prevents the ethical subject from ever choosing himself as pathological.

“The subject cannot choose himself as pathological without ceasing to be a subject as a result. The choice of the S is an excluded, impossible choice.” This is because this ‘choice’ would be motivated by pathological drives and determinations, by a form of ‘psychological causality’. It would be choosing the unfreedom of a pathological ‘ego’ rather than the freedom of subjectivity. Because of this, the ethical subject cannot choose himself as pathological since this ‘choice’ could not be made by an ethical or free subject.

“The other choice would simply be that of choosing oneself as subject, as the ‘pure form’ of the subject, which is the form of division as such.” This is the only possible free choice of the subject as it is chosen after depsychologizing is complete and the subject realizes his transcendental freedom beyond the order of pathology. The choice of division itself, then, is the ethical choice of freedom.

According to Zupančič, “Evil, radical evil, is something that can be defined only in paradoxical terms as the ‘free choice of unfreedom’.” It is the choice of surrendering causality to the Other. Good, on the other hand, is the free choice of freedom. It is when the subject encounters a surplus of freedom — transcendental freedom — from the lack in the Other and makes an ethical decision. “It is only at this place that the constitution of the subject as an ethical subject becomes possible,” Zupančič writes.

An act is ethical, according to Zupančič’s interpretation of Kant, when the subject makes something his duty, acts only for the sake of this duty and accepts full responsibility for the act. This is what Kant calls the ‘categorical imperative’. The implication of this is that the ethical subject cannot claim that his duty was imposed on him by the Other, determined by some outside force or causality. This claim would be what constitutes an unethical decision or the rejection of freedom.

This claim is also what characterizes other interpretations of Kant which conceive of the categorical imperative as “a test which would enable us to make a list of ethical deeds, a sort of ‘catechism of pure reason’." Zupančič says it is “wrong to conceive the Kantian categorical imperative as a kind of formal mold whose application to a concrete case relieves the moral subject of the responsibility for a decision… The whole point of Kantian argumentation is the exact opposite of this automatic procedure of verification: the fact that the categorical imperative is an empty form means precisely that it can deliver no guarantee against misjudging our duty.”

Other interpretations of Kant, therefore, along with other moral theories, fall into an unethical trap that attributes the actions of the subject to an outside force beyond his control, thereby freeing him of responsibility. This force can be embodied in the 'categorical imperative', the Law, or even the Good. What is common to all these forms of 'morality' which displace responsibility is that they are premised on a fundamental misrecognition of the subject's freedom in relation to the Other.

In conclusion, as Zupančič writes, “The ethical subject springs from the coincidence of two lacks: a lack in the subject (the subject’s lack of freedom connected to the moment of the ‘forced choice’) and a lack in the Other (the fact that there is no Other of the Other, no Cause behind the Cause).”

The surplus freedom realized by this second lack is what constitutes the transcendental subject who possesses the ability to make an ethical act. This ethical act is founded upon the choice of the divided subject based on the recognition of the inescapability of freedom. It is the consequence of the freedom presented to the subject after the traversal of his pathology. The free act, therefore, is the choice of one's pathology. What makes this act ethical is the assumption of responsibility.

48 views0 comments
bottom of page