Issue #53 June 2022

Dialectic of the Public and Private Uses of Reason: Kant and Lacan

Ignacio Iturria - "Gente de por acá" - (1997)

“If you think Kant is boring, think twice and read him.”

—Slavoj Žižek


“An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” seems unexceptional in the context of Immanuel Kant’s oeuvre—a minor text by a major philosopher. Published in the December 1784 issue of the Berlinische Monatsschrift, it was intended as nothing more than a short and modest response to an age searching for its own identity.

While Kant does not philosophise in this article, he does introduce two concepts with philosophical potential: the public and private uses of reason. The private use of reason Kant defines as the use of reason “in a certain civil post or office with which he is entrusted.”1placeholder To clarify this, he offers three examples: (1) an officer executing his orders; (2) a citizen paying his taxes; (3) a clergyman instructing his pupils and congregation. The public use of reason, by contrast, refers to the use of reason “as a scholar before the entire public of the world of readers.”2placeholder Hence: (1) the officer off duty is permitted to criticise the military service; (2) the citizen qua scholar is encouraged to voice his criticisms of the taxation system; (3) the clergyman outside of his duties may publish any well-thought-out critiques of his creed.

It seems at first that Kant is here advocating for nothing more than good old freedom of thought, i.e., the freedom to think, reason, criticise, and voice one’s opinions. If this were the case, then it would hardly be interesting to readers today. But curiously, if you read the article closely, this is not what Kant says. In fact, he nearly says the opposite.

Kant writes explicitly that it is the public use of reason that must be free, whereas the private use may be narrowly restricted—which, as Foucault underscores in one of his lectures, is “term for term, the opposite of what is ordinarily called freedom of conscience.”3placeholder And Foucault was not the first to remark about Kant’s peculiar diction either; even Moses Mendelssohn—a contemporary of Kant’s who responded to the same questionacknowledged that he “interprets the concept of ‘private’ in a sense which differs from the common usage of the term,” and described the distinction overall as “somewhat strange.”4placeholder

It is tempting to accuse Kant of mere linguistic confusion, as many scholars have. Nevertheless, I contend that we should reject this reading which, I am afraid, is too simple in its implications. Perhaps what is most strange about Kant’s distinction between “public” and “private” is not how it stands common usage on its head but how in spite of this, it still “makes sense” somehow. The same does not occur with most other oppositions. Suppose I claimed that boiling water was “cold” and iced water “hot”—you would immediately say that I am mistaken, either in my language or my sense of temperature. But matters are much more ambiguous when it comes to the opposition between “public” and “private.” Indeed, “public” is commonly associated with the state, public policies, or formal relationships, whereas “private” often relates to private affairs, personal opinions, or interpersonal relationships. Kant is not altogether unaware of these common associations either, as when he writes that private reason may also be used to pursue “public ends,” i.e., ends determined by the government.5placeholder But do we not also find instances of these words in everyday speech that lightly contradict their connotation? For example, we describe Cabinet meetings as “private” even though they involve public officials discussing public matters; we call opinion articles “public” even though they contain private thoughts and opinions.

Much has been written over the years against Kant’s counter-intuitive distinction, but none that I know of have actually defended it as we will attempt in this essay. This is likely because the article is often read outside of the context of Kant’s broader philosophy, which I argue, is a mistake. Penned just three years after the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason (1781) and one year before the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), my contention is that Kant was relying on the intuition of his larger philosophical system when he conceptualised the public and private uses of reason. And, as we shall see, when read in that context, we find a surprising consistency in the “confused” way Kant delineates between inner and outer across his theoretical and practical philosophy.

The following essay will be divided into three sections. According to Kant’s definitions, public and private reason can be differentiated with respect to two aspects: the agent and the addressee. The agent in both cases is relatively unambiguous: For private reason, it is anyone in a “certain civil post or office,” and for public reason, it is anyone in their capacity “as a scholar.” However, when it comes to the addressee, Kant only specifies one for public reason—“the world of readers”—and not for private reason. But judging from the examples he gives for private reason—the officer’s superior, the tax collector, the congregation—it is safe to place them under the general category of “respective parties.” The first two sections then will analyse the relationship between the two agents and the two addressees of public and private reason respectively. And in the third section, we will conclude with an attempt to prescribe a new way of understanding the practical applications of public and private reason based on our theoretical analysis.


Between Myself and I

The opposition between civil postholders and scholars appears straightforward at first, yet a closer look at the three examples given by Kant belies such simplicity. First and foremost, the distinction between the two agents is not symmetrical: Officer, citizen, and clergyman are all instances of various kinds of civil posts, yet despite this variety, Kant claims that all of them have the capacity to express their thoughts as scholars.

Kant’s notion of a “scholar” (Gelehrter) is indeed quite generous: Anyone can be a scholar insofar as they exercise public reason. This once again differs from the narrower common usage which designates a scholar as an academic, intellectual, or professor. That said, it is important not to misconstrue Kant’s scholar as simply a broadening of criteria either: As James Schmidt correctly notes, university professors are not necessarily “scholars” in Kant’s sense, for they too are just another civil post.6placeholder In this sense, a professor is analogous to Kant’s clergyman. The professor is employed by the university’s faculty to teach students about a subject according to a certain curriculum. Although he may have to exercise a good amount of reason to explain his subject, answer his students’ questions, and perhaps even structure the curriculum, his use of reason is nevertheless “private” since it is only exercised in a particular civil post to pursue particular ends.

Consequently, the distinction between the two agents may be reformulated as follows: It is not so much a distinction between two different social positions—civil postholder vs scholar—as it is between a position and a non-position. A scholar is not just any other social position one happens to occupy. One does not choose to be a scholar the same way one chooses to be an officer, doctor, or teacher, for instance. Rather, Kant’s language seems to suggest that being a scholar is an innate capacity within any rational human subject. This seems to be confirmed by the way Kant writes of the clergyman using public reason: “he enjoys an unrestricted freedom to make use of his own reason and to speak in his own person.”7placeholder

Interesting that Kant should write “speak in his own person”—what does this mean? It certainly cannot mean that public reason entails speaking about personal opinions or private affairs, for content is not the issue here. What is at stake instead is the role of the agent, the place of enunciation—either from the position of a civil postholder or the non-position of a scholar. But just how should we make sense of the two together—speaking in one’s own person as reasoning from a non-position? For this, we must turn to the first Critique for clues.

A necessary consequence of Kant’s doctrine of transcendental idealism is that the self is not one but two: There is consciousness of self qua empirical self-consciousness and consciousness of self qua transcendental subject. Kant takes great pains in the Critique to distinguish the two, insisting on their disparate ontological character. There is no necessary link between the transcendental subject and empirical self-consciousness, and the illusion that the two can somehow be equal is, in Kant’s view, one of the cardinal errors of rationalism.

The essence of the transcendental subject can be summarised in the famous statement that opens the B edition Transcendental Deduction:

“The I think must be able to accompany all my representations; for otherwise something would be represented in me that could not be thought at all, which is as much as to say that the representation would either be impossible or else at least would be nothing to me.”8placeholder

Experience would be impossible a priori without an original “I” capable of unifying the manifold of representations in one consciousness. Suppose that in trying to comprehend the statement, “The sky is blue,” I employ four separate individuals who would each consider only one part of the sentence—A considers “The,” B considers “sky,” C considers “is,” and D considers “blue.” No matter how studiously each thinks of their word or how close they huddle together while thinking, this could not possibly yield a complete and comprehensible thought since the meaning of the statement is only apparent when each part is understood together as a whole by one common subject. This subject Kant terms “the transcendental subject” or alternatively “the transcendental unity of apperception.”

It is imperative that we do not read too much into this. The transcendental subject is nothing more than the prerequisite for the cognition of objects in experience, the empty point to which the unity of my representations is given, the pure “I think” that accompanies them, which never actually appears in any of my experiences. This point bears emphasising: What appears in my experience that I take to be “myself,” my perception of all the characteristics that define my identity, is something altogether different from the “I” of the “I think” and should be carefully distinguished from the latter.

The two can be discerned pre-eminently by the means through which I am conscious of them (whichever self this “I” refers to). I am conscious of the transcendental subject purely via the act of representing: By virtue of being aware of my experiences at all, these experiences must somehow be given “to me”; that is to say, it is implied by my experience alone that there is a unity of apperception, otherwise no experience would be possible. The “I,” in this case, is not an object in any of my experiences, and hence, my consciousness of self does not belong to sensibility; it is simply presupposed in my spontaneous act of representing.

This undoubtedly sounds quite far removed from what we commonly associate with our sense of self as a living, breathing subject replete with personalities and emotions. Kant names this commonplace notion of self “empirical self-consciousness,” which we are conscious of only through sensibility, specifically through inner sense.9placeholder This latter self is empirical instead of transcendental because it is given to us through experience rather than being presupposed in it. This is the self I reflect upon when I try to “know thyself,” that is, when I try to determine all the attributes that identify me as a unique and authentic person—my looks, personality, values, proclivities, hopes, fears . . . . All these features are derived from my experience of myself, I do not deduce them a priori. No amount of pure thinking can inform me that I am a compassionate person, for example. It is a trait I discover of myself whenever I find myself often caring for the needs of others and sympathising with their predicament.

The contents of empirical self-consciousness are thus entirely contingent: I know myself much in the same way I know any other object or person in my experience. But Kant adds to this a further turn of the screw: Not only is it invalid for me to derive the kind of person I am from the mere fact, “I think,” it is also invalid to derive therefrom that I am a person at all. This was Descartes’s great error when he attempted to derive from his well-known statement, “Cogito, ergo sum”—a statement Kant concurs with, incidentally—the innocent-looking conclusion that I am a res cogitans, that is, at the very least, I am a “thing that thinks.”10placeholder This is an illegal move, Kant argues, one that engenders the illusion that any rational psychology is possible, i.e., that we can somehow cognise the nature of our souls by pure reason. Put simply, this move from cogito (Descartes’s version of “I think”) to res cogitans is illegal because it abuses the categories of the understanding by applying them beyond what can be given in any possible experience. Categories like substance/accident or cause/effect have validity only in relation to experience. Therefore, while it is acceptable to say that my body is a substance, it is not acceptable to say that the transcendental subject or cogito is a substance, i.e., a thing that thinks, since it transcends my field of possible experience and hence can never appear as an object of my representation.

That said, Kant is fully aware that, at the same time, I cannot help but think of myself as a thing that thinks either. After all, what does it mean to claim that the “I” that thinks, the author of my thoughts and representations, is neither a substance nor a cause but somehow a cogito tout court? It borders on an analytic truth that by using the word “I” to refer to myself, I am referring to a simple, singular, indivisible entity. But this, Kant argues, is only true of the concept “I” and not of the object, which, of course, does not exist. Recall that for Kant, an object entails a combination of intuition and the categories; without intuition, the soul of rational psychology is nothing more than a hypostatised idea, a “thought without content,” an illusion of pure reason.

Iganacio Iturria - Untitled - (1996)

By now, it should be clear that the transcendental subject and empirical self-consciousness are not to be opposed as equals. The former is a transcendental condition that grounds the latter empirical representation. Is there anything I can know of myself as the transcendental “I” then? Kant’s answer is: nothing. Nothing except the bare fact that I am:

“In the transcendental synthesis of the manifold of representations in general, on the contrary, hence in the synthetic original unity of apper­ception, I am conscious of myself not as I appear to myself, nor as I am in myself, but only that I am. This representation is a thinking, not an intuiting.”11placeholder

In contrast to the wealth of empirical self-consciousness, the transcendental subject is a purely empty point bereft of any properties, qualities, and attributes since all empirical wealth derives from sensibility. All that remains, therefore, is the simple indexical—“I.”

From this, we are driven to conclude something quite radical apropos consciousness of self. That is: I am conscious of myself only as I appear to myself, never as I am in myself. In other words, I can know myself only as a phenomenon but never as a noumenal thing-in-itself. This statement is bound to engender some confusion and head-scratching at first since  instinctively, we would place our knowledge of ourselves in the category of noumena, not phenomena. As much as we can accept that we know things in the world only as appearance, it is tough to accept that we hardly know anything more about ourselves than we do about other objects in general. Surely, I must have some “special” kind of knowledge of myself as opposed to other things. I can never know, for instance, what it is like to be a table, or a bat, or another human being. And neither can other people know what it is like to be me, for that matter; they only know me as appearance. Only I have the privilege of knowing what it is like to be me. Indeed, there are certain types of knowledge accessible only to myself: Only I can know the contents of my mental states, only I can perceive my impressions, only I can feel my sensations. But Kant’s point is that there is nothing “special” about the nature of this knowledge: They nonetheless reach me the same way any other information reaches me—through experience, which belongs to the realm of phenomena.

Who, then, is my “real” self? The thing-in-itself in me more than myself? This remains a mystery. All I can know is that it exists but not what exists.

To think about the “I” in this way, as somehow split between the empirical and the transcendental, is counter-intuitive, to say the least. Kant even admits in the B edition that it is contradictory to think of ourselves at once as the active agent of representing and as the passive object of our representations:

“Here is now the place to make intelligible the paradox that must have struck everyone in the exposition of the form of inner sense (§ 6): namely how this presents even ourselves to consciousness only as we appear to ourselves, not as we are in ourselves, since we intuit ourselves only as we are internally affected, which seems to be contradictory, since we would have to relate to ourselves passively; for this reason it is customary in the systems of psychology to treat inner sense as the same as the faculty of apperception (which we carefully distinguish).”12placeholder

For Kant, this “contradictory” notion of self is just something we have to accept as a consequence of his system. He even claims that psychology, presumably of the empirical kind, is doomed to equate the two anyway, (mis)attributing both “I”s to one and the same autonomous and undivided self. And he is right: Every psychology does conceptualise the self in this way. All except one, however. I mean the most recalcitrant one—psychoanalysis. And of all the schools of psychoanalysis, it is Lacanian psychoanalysis especially (the most recalcitrant of recalcitrants) that I argue has the capacity to make sense of this contradiction. For, as we shall see, Lacan arrived at a strikingly homologous contradiction at the core of his theory of subjectivity—the ego and the subject.

Kant and Lacan—a bizarre combination, I know. The two seem to have almost nothing in common and everything in opposition. Yet I assure you this comparison, albeit abnormal and anachronistic, has much to offer conceptually. Though I must also acknowledge that there are some severe barricades to this interchange, three of which are especially damning:

  1. Conceptual framework: Kant’s transcendental psychology is neither empirical nor psychological, in contradistinction to psychoanalysis, which appears to be both.
  2. Reason vs the unconscious: This is the most obvious antagonism. Kant champions the powers of the understanding and reason above all—two things psychoanalysis explicitly targets. If anything, the point of psychoanalysis is to expose the irrationality at the core of our rational being, that which escapes our intellectual understanding.
  3. Purpose: Kant’s subject is introduced as the nucleus of his Transcendental Deduction. Lacan’s subject, on the other hand, is introduced principally for clinical purposes as a subject capable of change (otherwise psychoanalysis is useless), unlike Kant’s “I think,” which ostensibly has nothing to do with change.

These three barricades may seem to render our analysis hopeless at first, but rest assured, these sharp oppositions vanish pretty quickly upon closer investigation, thereby evincing the structural affinity beneath the surface disparities.

So Kant reminds us repeatedly that transcendental idealism is not a psychology, rational or empirical. But that is great! Because neither is psychoanalysis, actually. Although no history of psychology is complete without mentioning Sigmund Freud, the bulk of post-Freudian psychology is very much anti-Freudian. “Sure, Freud had significant impacts on psychology, but he was wrong about nearly everything!” is what you will hear from the average psychologist today. It is no wonder then that Lacan, the great Freudian, was anti-psychology, often criticising it for its normative and reductive account of the psyche. In particular, he despised behavioural psychology for its conformist agenda to regulate and control human behaviour and had special contempt for ego psychology (though virtually every psychology today is egoic) for betraying Freud’s fundamental project. Psychology was too dominated by “illusions of wholeness and synthesis, nature and instinct, autonomy and self-consciousness,”13placeholder Lacan thought. And in response, he announced his famous “Return to Freud.”

One thing should be clarified at the outset: The psychoanalytic reproach to psychology is not that it misses some profound spiritual kernel of our psyche that supposedly resists translation into data or escapes capture by scientific instruments. If anything, the psychoanalytic worldview is even more brutally deterministic. No, what psychology overlooks by concentrating on the neurobiological substratum of our psyche is instead the linguistic basis of our subjectivity: how we exist within a signifying network, how our reality is mediated by language, how the reign of the signifier mutates our self-identity. In Lacan’s view, what differentiates us above all from other beings is not some immaterial soul but the materiality of the signifier, our access to the Symbolic order, i.e., the order constituted by language we find ourselves always already embedded in. And it is precisely this order which gives rise to the unconscious.

The unconscious is not a psychological concept. And psychology can know nothing of the unconscious (save for its reduction to automatically performed mental activities) insofar as it remains attuned to stable, orderly, and consistently observable phenomena. To hear the unconscious, however, we must tune in to a different frequency—not the “subtext” of our speech (the excess of what we mean over what we say) but precisely the “textas such (the excess of what we say over what we mean). Those who have bought into the popular (mis)understanding of psychoanalysis as a “depth psychology” will ineluctably be confused here: The unconscious is not some treasure buried in the unreachable trenches of the psyche. On the contrary, the unconscious is a “surface” phenomenon; it is “hidden” but only in plain sight, in the signifiers we use (or that, in fact, use us). Thus, the lesson of psychoanalysis is not “Look deeper into yourself, interrogate your past, introspect . . .” for the unconscious is not housed within the echo chamber of the ego but remains radically outside it, unable to ever be integrated or domesticated.

Once I was browsing through the Freud Museum’s website, and I was surprised to find a rather profound question hiding in an FAQ section. It said: Instead of asking “Where in the brain is the unconscious?”, ask “Where in the unconscious is the brain?” That is, why does the brain arouse so much fascination in us? What does it represent in our fantasies?14placeholder Could we not apply the same logic to transcendental psychology? Instead of asking “Where in the brain is the transcendental schema?”, the more accurate question should be “Where in the transcendental schema is the brain?” This shift in perspective, simple as it may be, is quite drastic in its implications: It illustrates the impossibility of naturalising psychoanalysis and transcendental psychology. Even if cognitive science could one day present a complete account of the operations in our brains, nevertheless, this presentation itself must already presuppose the categories, in particular, causality. The same is with psychoanalysis: One cannot “get behind” the unconscious any more than one can “get behind” the transcendental schema. We are always already caught up in them, and there is no point of view from which we can extricate ourselves from their cuffing since every point of view already presupposes them. For this reason, psychoanalysis is decidedly more transcendental than empirical and more structural than psychological.

Pursuing this parallel further, we notice Lacan’s principal critique of psychology rings in consonance with Kant’s: Just as Kant accuses psychology of conflating empirical self-consciousness with the transcendental subject—“it is customary in the systems of psychology to treat inner sense as the same as the faculty of apperception (which we carefully distinguish)”15placeholder—so too, Lacan accuses it of mistaking the ego for the subject, which psychoanalysis carefully distinguishes.

The ego is comparable to empirical self-consciousness, and its status for Lacan is Imaginary. This can be understood in a few ways. The ego is fabricated via identifications: Despite its conviction to the contrary, the ego is not some primary or original soul who subsequently identifies and interacts with others; instead, it is the product of this process of identification, its status is secondary. What I take to be my “authentic” identity is always ridden with artificiality and alterity; its essence is a fantasy modelled on and by others. It is only through mirroring the appearances of others—the way people walk and talk—taking up their interests—for instance, philosophy—and adopting their signifiers that filter my self-perception—“You’re such a clever boy!”—that my ego is forged. Therefore, recognition of my ego as myself is always a méconnaissance, a misrecognition, an alienating recognition. I mistake these identifications from without for expressions from within so that my ego can secure a sense of coherence, substance, and wholeness. But at bottom, this semblance of stability is merely the outcome of the reification and reappropriation of borrowed fragmentary experience, and hence is “Imaginary.” The ego for Lacan is ultimately nothing more than an appearance, an illusion, even a symptom, which is narcissistic in its constitution and defensive in its function.

Beyond the ego is where Lacan situates the subject—a term preloaded with considerable philosophical baggage, almost all of which he discards, leaving behind an unrecognisable shell that often leads one to wonder why he insists on it anyway. The Lacanian subject is not anything one would recognise as a human being, i.e., the human ego. Rather, the subject is Other to the ego, encompassing it and opposing it.

A helpful way to begin approaching the subject is to juxtapose subject with substance. We should resist the tendency to construe the subject as any kind of substance, be it a subjectivised substance or an active substance, for the subject is decidedly non-substantial and therefore can never be presented to us as an object. In contrast to the ego, the subject has no coherence, no substance, no endurance. “It is rather a flash, a pulse, a spark, a type of truth-possibility,”16placeholder writes psychoanalyst Derek Hook. The subject is less an entity and more an “event.” Counter-intuitive as this description sounds, it should not strike us as too foreign. It is one of Kant’s revolutionary achievements—one he perhaps did not fully appreciate himself—to have been the first to explicitly conceptualise a non-substantial subject. Descartes came close with his vortex of doubt that is the cogito, which he subsequently undermined, but even then, his formulation was only implicit at best.17placeholder

Another way we might approach the subject is through Lacan’s matheme: “$.” Crucial here is the bar that strikes through the “S”—representing the subject as divided, split, never self-transparent nor fully identical to itself. As such, it stands categorically opposed to substance, exemplifying negativity instead of positivity, division instead of unity, contradiction instead of coherence. To quote Hook’s succinct exposition:

“Utterly contingent on the productions of speech that, paradoxically, it itself produces, this subject is at once constituted in and as speech. In this sense the subject encompasses an irreconcilability: it is the disjunction (the ‘real’) evinced between the act of speaking (enunciation) and what is spoken (statement), two facets of speech which can never quite be fully reconciled. At once something that is constituted (by speech) and self-constituting (in speaking) this subject-as-rift is nothing other than the barred subject of the unconscious which psychoanalysis endeavours to treat.”18placeholder

At once that which speaks and is spoken, ever torn between the subject of the enunciation and the subject of the enunciated—is this not homologous to the contradiction Kant was getting at? That we intuit ourselves only as passively affected, yet at the same time, we are actively authoring our representations? More precisely, it is this very contradiction itself that Lacan properly calls “the subject”—the subject is both the split subject and the subject qua split—and it designates a gap in the Symbolic order, an impossibility within the field of possibility that evades any signification but is also requisite for its (mal)functioning. This Real inherent in the Symbolic equally finds expression in what Kant calls the “transcendental subject = X.” For, what is this “X” if not the name for the very gap in the transcendental structure, the impossibility within the field of all possible experience that evades any representation under the categories yet is also the supreme Ground of all one’s experiences?

But what about the unconscious? By situating the subject beyond the ego, Lacan thereby implies that it is also beyond consciousness; indeed, the Lacanian subject is the subject of the unconscious. But this appears to be in direct contradiction with Kant’s subject, unequivocally the subject of apperception, which is by definition self-conscious. Yet are the two really irreconcilable?

Kant describes pure apperception curiously as “an act of spontaneity,”19placeholder i.e., the synthesis of the manifold of representations is performed without conscious volition; it must have always already happened in order for me to have conscious experience in the first place. In psychoanalytic terms, original apperception is (paradoxically) primally repressed20placeholder—not to be confused with secondary repression (the expulsion of specific thoughts from consciousness), but as in repression as such qua founding act of the subject. But am I not at least (empirically) conscious of this act of spontaneity? Sure, but in that case, I am simply conscious of the fact that the act has occurred, which amounts to saying nothing more than I am conscious that I have an unconscious, i.e., I am aware that the unconscious works, but not as it is working.

Further, the unconscious is not hopelessly at odds with reason either. Of course, we are not going to argue that “reason is unconscious” or “the unconscious is rational.” This would be a vulgar simplification on par with the misunderstanding that “language is unconscious” or “the unconscious is a language.” What Lacan actually said was: “The unconscious is structured like a language,” i.e., the unconscious is structured and operates within language. By the same token, all we wish to argue is that reason, analogous to language, likewise harbours the possibility of the unconscious.

Iganacio Iturria - "Hstorias Cotidianas" - (n.d.)

To explain this requires that we first understand the unconscious is Other. But not as an auxiliary consciousness, an alter ego, the “other side of me.” Neither should we subscribe to the popular imagination’s caricature as that which rests beneath the tip of the iceberg. Instead, the unconscious is active: It intrudes into conscious life, hijacks our speech, twists our meanings—none of which can be harmlessly assimilated into the ego’s self-identity. The Weltanschauung of the ego is hopelessly Parmenidean: “Whatever is is, and what is not cannot be.” To that, Freud responds: The unconscious is not, yet here it is. It is here in the form of disruptions that the ego stamps as errors coming from nowhere, as intrusions coming from the outside. Yet the unconscious is not coming simply from the outside but from the inside, or rather, it problematises the very topology of inside/outside, dissolving their barriers into a dialectic.

Now, unpacking such a dialectic calls for some assistance, and if you will allow me, I wish to introduce one further parallel into our analysis that will prove immediately useful—Hegel. In his exposition of the inner/outer dialectic from his Lesser Logic, Hegel offers an unexpected clue for connecting the unconscious to reason:

“[T]he reason of the child as such is on hand at first merely internally . . . ; for the child, this merely internal character, as the will of his parents, the familiarity with his teachers, and generally the rational world surrounding him, has the form of something merely external. . . . Reason, at hand in the child at first only as an inner possibility, is made actual by education, and so too, conversely, the child becomes conscious of the ethical world, religion, and science as something that is its own and internal to it, after these had first been regarded as an external authority.”21placeholder

This ordinary-looking example deserves to be read carefully. Hegel neither says “internalise reason,” to overcome its initial alterity by integrating it into our being, nor “submit to reason,” analogous to how the ego complies with the reality principle. This unidirectional assimilation of outer to inner or inner to outer misses the dialectical nature of Hegel’s point entirely. A more accurate interpretation, I argue, would be modelled on Freud’s maxim for psychoanalysis: “Wo Es war, soll Ich werden.”

Lacan translates this (atypically) to read: “Where it was, there it is my duty that I come into being.”22placeholder Here both the “it” (Es) and the “I” (Ich) refer to the subject and not—as is standardly (mis)interpreted—to the id (das Es) and the ego (das Ich). This presence of the article “das” is easy to overlook but has profound consequences for what Freud intended psychoanalysis to be.23placeholder Thus, the maxim does not mean “The ego shall subdue the id” or “The pleasure-seeking id shall conform to the reality principle of the ego.” On the contrary, the ego is the one dethroned, and it is the subject “I” that must assume responsibility for its unconscious and recognise itself in pure Otherness. The same applies to Hegel’s reason. Reason as something merely inner at first confronts the subject as radical alterity, an external authority it must conform or submit to. The task of education then, like psychoanalysis, consists in bringing the subject to realise that in this Otherness, it is confronted by none other than itself, that the forces of the rational world are, in actuality, not opposed to it but its own free self-expression.

How does this relate to Kant? Well, Kant performs the exact same conceptual move in his practical philosophy. There we find our intuitions turned inside out once again, not unlike with “public/private.” At first glance, the practical pair he introduces, “autonomy/heteronomy,” seems straightforward enough, bearing the usual connotations of “freedom/coercion.” On a second reading, however, as one can expect by now, a quasi-speculative twist is added to their meaning. What is typically considered “autonomous,” e.g., the capacity to freely pursue our passions, desires, inclinations, is for Kant decidedly “heteronomous,” even if the intentions are altruistic and benevolent.24placeholder For, by acting upon our interests, Kant argues, we are only playing out our pathological clockwork, predetermined by the laws of nature, commanded by wills we cannot will. To become truly autonomous then, the only choice is to obey the moral Law, to do one’s duty, to act from the categorical imperative legislated by practical reason. The paradox here is hard to miss: Man is not free to obey the moral Law, he is free by obeying the moral Law.

Again, Kant’s point is not to “internalise the moral Law” since morality would be impossible unless the moral Law were within us in the first place.25placeholder Neither is it to “submit to the moral Law,” to harmonise my desires with its necessity, for that would be mere legality, not morality—a distinction Kant repeatedly emphasises.26placeholder A truly autonomous moral act, Kant writes, “cannot be effected through gradual reform but must rather be effected through a revolution in the disposition of the human being . . . .”27placeholder The irony being that this “revolution” cannot but feel heteronomous to the ego or empirical self-consciousness: It is a restraint on its pathological inclinations, an obligation it would rather not fulfil. Except this foreign conscience is not an Otherworldly intrusion but, in fact, a manifestation of the moral Law within. To paraphrase Lacan (whose retranslation of Freud’s maxim already educed its ethical message): Where the moral Law was, there it is my duty to come into being.

I hope it is clear now that Kant and Lacan are not such strange bedfellows after all. Even their purposes align in the end: What is the point of Kant’s second Critique if not to proclaim that the transcendental subject is capable of change?

All this leads us back to the beginning. And I would not have taken such a winding path if it did not elucidate something pivotal about Kant’s civil postholder and scholar. We can now easily account for their peculiar asymmetry by matching them with the corresponding pairs: empirical/transcendental self or ego/subject.

Naturally, the civil postholder corresponds to empirical self-consciousness or the ego. “Civil posts” or “offices” can be read simply as more concrete terms for empirical appearances or Imaginary identifications. Kant’s examples of the officer, citizen, and clergyman all exemplify the passive roles and identities assumed in everyday social interactions as mere cogs in the machine, as non-autonomous individuals.

Among these various social positions, however, exists a unique position, or more precisely, a non-position exempted from the network of social reality which Kant calls the “scholar,” corresponding to “the transcendental subject” or “the subject (of the unconscious).” Understood through the latter, we can now see why the scholar is not any particular civil post one might hold but a universal (non-)position anyone can undertake. Anyone, irrespective of their position in society, has the capacity to make use of public reason and publish their thoughts to the world. As such, the role of the scholar is fundamentally egalitarian and free.

Private reason, on the other hand, is unfree because it is used only to pursue particular ends, either determined by others or by oneself. Ultimately it makes no difference because, for Kant, empirical self-consciousness is an appearance like any other—and Lacan, following Rimbaud’s “Je est un autre,” goes even further here to claim the ego is an other—which is why reasoning for one’s own private ends is just as heteronomous as reasoning for ends determined by others. Only through public reason, as Kant writes, can one enjoy the unrestricted freedom to speak in one’s own person, with the specification that “one’s own person” sensu stricto refers to the rational scholar within us. That is to say, to speak freely in one’s own person is to reason as the pure “I” of the “I think.” This “I” is not the particular “I” used when expressing an opinion, say “I think chocolate tastes better than vanilla,” but the universal “I” used when arguing, “I think everyone should have access to healthcare.” The latter is free and autonomous insofar as it does not express a merely subjective claim but an objective one supported by sensible grounds that appeals to the rational scholar within us all.

Iganacio Iturria - Untitled - (1989)

The Public Inside

Now that we have explored the public/private distinction in terms of the agent, our interest turns to the addressee—the world of readers and respective parties. This section will be less tortuous and convoluted than the last since we have already established the hermeneutic relationship between Kant and Lacan, which will be important for elucidating what follows.

The way Kant draws the line here is equally counter-intuitive and deserving of attention. The relationship between the world of readers and any respective parties is likewise asymmetrical: One is highly specific, the other so indeterminate Kant does not even bother to give it a name. Moreover, Kant insists on a specific pairing of the agent and addressee: The scholar is always correlated with the world of readers, the civil postholder with their respective parties. This aligns nicely with Lacan’s pairing of subject/big Other and ego/little other. I suggest we pursue this parallel further and see where it leads.

Kant describes “the use that an appointed teacher makes of his reason before his congregation is merely a private use; for a congregation, however large a gathering it may be, is still only a domestic gathering . . . .”28placeholder This is strange; most of us would not call a church a “private space.” When we go to church, we go as our “public” selves: We maintain manners and appearances, follow rules of social conduct, and try to get along with strangers. Not to mention that it is simply customary to designate a large gathering, like a congregation, as “a public.” Despite this, Kant remains steadfast: A congregation is still only a private domestic gathering. Legally speaking, this is accurate: Churches, mosques, synagogues, etc., are not generally considered public spaces since they are not open to all and have the right to forbid entry. Yet it is also clear that Kant is not preoccupied here with legal definitions between private and state ownership either. How, then, should we understand this categorisation?

If we interpret Kant’s agent of private reason as corresponding to the ego, then by inference, its addressee would be what Lacan called “the (little) other.” In keeping with Kant’s assorted examples—superintendent, tax collector, congregation—the other refers to any other empirical self-consciousness equivalent to mine, “other” egos with whom “my” ego can have intersubjective relations. These others are basically reflections of my own ego, or my ego a reflection of theirs. It is at this level of Imaginary identifications that I have interpersonal relationships of conflict, competition, cooperation, and exchange with others I take to be “just like me.”

What about the public, then? According to Kant, “public” understood “in the proper sense of the word”29placeholder refers neither to the state nor a community but specifically to the world of readers (Leserwelt). While some have drawn attention to Kant’s predilection for “readers,” it is worth noting that he only uses “Leserwelt” once; often, he simply says “Welt” or “world.” This is not meant to be taken literally, of course. Reason does not have to be exercised in front of the entire world for it to count as public reason. Neither does one’s writings have to be read by every reader alive in order to count as scholarly. The world in question here is only imagined, though not Imaginary.

Lacan’s term for Kant’s world would bethe (big) Other.” The Other is arguably Lacan’s most multifaceted concept, so I will not enumerate all its aspects here.30placeholder Only three are notable for our purposes. First, the Other stands beyond the Imaginary: It is Symbolic, trans-subjective, offering a point of reference beyond the deadlocks of intersubjective relations. This transcendent character of the Other is most readily observable when conflicts or disagreements arise. Often an appeal is made to an arbiter outside the immediate conflict who will settle the disagreement in accordance with a Symbolic code of ethics or conduct or the rules of the game. Similarly, when miscommunication ensues due to semantic misunderstanding, one typically has recourse to a dictionary to settle the dispute by invoking the “official” definition.31placeholder “Official” is the insignia of the Other: Something is made official only through its registration in the Symbolic order that the Other embodies.

Incidentally, you may have noticed the Other’s paradoxical ontology: It is at once a space and a subject. Indeed, the Other is both the symbolic order and its authority figure. But the same is true also of the public and the world: Just as we “speak in public/the world” as much as we “speak to the public/the world.”

Second, the Other is present whenever we use language. Any statement of mine cannot only be meaningful to me, it must also be meaningful to the Other. That is, it must be constructed according to a standard set of semantic and syntactic rules that guarantee the integrity of signification. Were these rules to break down, so would signification for others and for myself. This is why language, by its very nature, is public. And it is in this sense, we should understand Lacan’s aphorism: “A letter always arrives at its destination.” Take suicide notes, for example. Who are they actually addressed to? Not always to a loved one or a close friend, but even if they are, they are never addressed to them directly. A suicide note is, by design, indirect; it has to be “left behind.” The note arrives on time only when it arrives too late: The delay between the time the note is penned and when it is read is integral to its function. Nevertheless, this account misses something imperative: This delay with respect to the little other (family member, friend, etc.) is only secondary to a more fundamental instantaneity. Even though a suicide note is never sent, we can say that it is received immediately after it is written, as attested by the victim’s readiness to end their life. Received by who? By the big Other to whom the message is legible. After all, suicide notes are never just a goodbye to someone close, they are also a goodbye to the world.

Here we have a case where our common intuition of public and private undergoes a dialectical reversal: That which is most personal and private—feelings of anguish and suffering I cannot even confess to my family and friends—finds proper expression only in a form mediated by the public. But maybe this example is too dramatic. Consider instead whom we find it easier to open up to when facing difficulties. The obvious choice seems to be those in our innermost circle—they are the people we can trust with our most intimate thoughts, concerns, and problems. Yet research and experience show the exact opposite: the best confidants are strangers. Sociologist Mario Luis Small found that people often confide in “weak ties” rather than “strong ties.”32placeholder In reality, confiding in strong ties entails a unique set of complications, e.g., the interests and expectations of the confidant, the after-effects of your confidences on their perception of you . . . . For instance, a graduate student may find it harder to discuss his worries about funding with his close friend and fellow student than a stranger due to competition. From a Lacanian perspective, this is a common problem with Imaginary ego-other relations: They always have the potential to engender rivalry. In these cases, the optimal confidant is not the little other but the big Other, i.e., someone who incarnates radical Otherness, capable of offering an external perspective, like a stranger or “weak tie.”33placeholder

As a final example, let us speculate about introverts and extroverts. These terms have become so ubiquitous nowadays that we have no hesitation diagnosing others as one or the other. The contrast is obvious enough: Public beings are extroverts, whereas the private ones are introverts. But couldn’t the same be said contrariwise? Extroverts are outgoing and sociable, but however large their social group may be, it is only a “private” or “domestic” group. Introverts, on the other hand, may withdraw from idle social interactions, but only because their hearts are in “public” intellectual discussions. That would explain why many introverts, despite being quiet in real life, actually make great vloggers. Rather than making small talk, they would much prefer speaking their thoughts to a camera.34placeholder Cameras nowadays are much more than mere recording devices, impassively spectating our lives as we film them. If anything, the advent of vlogging has demonstrated that the camera has come to play an active role in our lives, acting as a listener, a confidant, an interlocutor, even a companion. Just pay attention to how vloggers interact with others in everyday life, then immediately turn to the camera to discharge their actual thoughts. Or how, when an argument with their friends reaches a stalemate, they turn to the camera and ask, “What do you think, guys? Leave a comment down below.” This raises the obvious psychoanalytic question: How are we so invested in an inanimate object? What role has the camera come to adopt in our psychic framework today? A preliminary answer would be: the big Other qua world of viewers.

This brings us to the final aspect of the Other: its extimacy. This neologism coined by Lacan—a cross between “exterior” and “intimate”—perfectly encapsulates Kant’s public/world in essence: The world of readers is at once exterior to the subject—it represents an external point of reception that can never be fully individualised—and an intimate part of the subject—the scholar who addresses the world can speak freely in his own person.

Iganacio Iturria - "Hstorias Cotidianas" - (n.d.) [detail]

Enlightenment in Practice

In this essay, we have endeavoured to demonstrate that Kant’s peculiar distinction between the public and private uses of reason is not misguided but consistent with his broader philosophical project. To this end, we have also made extensive use of Lacan’s psychoanalytic insights as guidance for navigating Kant’s (counter-)intuition. The purpose of doing so is not to simply equate critical philosophy with psychoanalysis but to construe both as complementary such that one can shine a light on the other’s ambiguities.

That said, our analysis hitherto has only been theoretical, attempting to elucidate Kant’s uses of reason with recourse to highly abstract concepts like the transcendental subject, empirical self-consciousness, the ego, the unconscious, etc. But let us not forget that Kant’s intention was chiefly practical. His goal was to prescribe a clear method for enlightening humanity. Hence, one final question remains: How can our theoretical analysis so far update our practical understanding of Kant’s prescription?

To recapitulate what we have established:

  1. Private reason belongs to the Imaginary: It relates the civil postholder/empirical self-consciousness/ego to respective parties/others.
  2. Public reason belongs to the Symbolic: It relates the scholar/transcendental subject/subject of the unconscious to the world of readers/Other.

It may seem that, with the help of some metaphysical and psychoanalytical terminology, we have finally managed to delineate Kant’s two uses of reason perspicuously and without ambiguity. However, we must beware that such an understanding nevertheless runs the risk of remaining somewhat too simplistic. And I must disappoint you that no sooner have we sharply separated the two than we would have to confound them again since such a hard and fast distinction ends up obfuscating the properly dialectical relationship between the Imaginary and the Symbolic, and by extension, between public and private reason.

Here it becomes necessary to transcend Kant’s philosophy and subject it to Hegelian scrutiny. Let us revisit the distinction made earlier between the particularity of private reason and the universality of public reason. It would be an oversimplification to oppose the two externally as if they did not interpenetrate. Private reason is not simply a means of directing reason towards particular ends as opposed to public reason, which, according to Kant’s dictum “Argue as much as you will and about what you will; only obey!35placeholder, reasons for the sake of reasoning alone. One must realise that this abstract injunction to “Argue!” (Räsonniert36placeholder) is, in actuality, utterly vacuous. For what does it mean to reason purely for reason’s sake? Even the three exemplars Kant offers—an officer reproaching the military service, a citizen arguing about the injustice of taxation, a clergyman critiquing the doctrine he teaches—ultimately fail to measure up to this pure and disinterested use of reason. They may purport to make claims with universal validity, yet does not the subjective position from which those claims are made belie their objectivity? Maybe the officer was bitter about his superiors, maybe the citizen just did not want to pay his taxes, maybe the clergyman was starting to lose his faith. Like Kant’s hypothetical and categorical imperatives, there is always an ambiguity: Did I act purely from the moral Law, or was I acting out of ulterior, perhaps even unconscious, motives? How can I be sure that in carrying out my duty, I do not derive any surplus-enjoyment? Analogously, when I make use of public reason and publish my “objective” arguments, how can I be sure that I am purely in service of reason itself and not rationalising my own egoistic agenda? This is a question Kant leaves unanswered.

But the solution is not outside our reach, and here theory rejoins practice. Presupposed in the line of questioning above is that we are dealing with two substantial subjects of reason—the Kantian/Lacanian ego vis-à-vis the Kantian/Lacanian subject. It is apparent now why Kant claimed the transcendental illusions were inevitable or why Lacan claimed psychoanalysis was anti-egoic. It bears repeating that the scholar, insofar as he is understood as the Kantian/Lacanian subject, is a non-substantial agent, one who speaks from the position of no position. In practice, this means we cannot simply distinguish between two equal and substantial uses of reason—sometimes I choose to reason as the ego, other times as the subject—and elevate one over the other. One cannot stress this enough: (the subject of) the unconscious is not a tangible enduring entity, some other spirit inhabiting half my psyche. Its concept is exhausted by the unconscious’s fleeting manifestations—slips of tongue, bungled actions, the dream-work, etc.

Consequently, I cannot give myself up to pure public reason any more than I can surrender myself to the forces of my unconscious. The public use of reason is not a kind of theurgy whereby I invoke the divine spirit of Logos to speak through me. This is absurd, especially when couched in these terms. The result of which will not lead to enlightenment but to Stalinism.

As Slavoj Žižek illustrates in a short but loaded text entitled “The Two Totalitarianisms,” it is too simplistic to construe Stalinism as a betrayal of the Enlightenment. Consider the Stalinist show trials. Unlike in Nazi Germany, the accused in the Soviet Union were required to confess to and explain their crimes in public. This seems senseless: Why demand trials when in both cases, the accusations were fabricated, the conviction predetermined regardless? The Nazis never demanded that the Jews confess to their plot; in fact, the more they denied it, the guiltier they were. The reason, Žižek argues, is that “Stalinism conceived itself as part of the Enlightenment tradition, according to which, truth being accessible to any rational man, no matter how depraved, everyone must be regarded as responsible for his crimes.”37placeholder

But was not Stalinism exemplary of the violent suppression of public discourse, the brutal silencing of any opposition, the subjugation of all beliefs to the state ideology, in short, terror and totalitarianism? Absolutely. Yet this misses the Hegelian twist: This ensued not as the result of the abolition of Enlightenment ideals but, on the contrary, their unrelenting realisation.

Stalinism was a perversion of Enlightenment in the strict clinical sense: as the subject’s self-instrumentalisation for the Other’s will-to-enjoy. The Stalinist subject was an inhumanely rational subject, purged of their singularity, hollowed out as mere instruments of Historical Reason. And this applied to everyone: from the leader of the Party to enemies of the people. Everyone was equally considered to be autonomous subjects capable of partaking in universal Reason. Consequently, it was required that the enemies of the people, unlike the Jews, condemn their own actions in the light of universal Reason the same way a Catholic confesses to their sins owing to the divine conscience within them. Isn’t this precisely the  result of pure public reason when we pursue its consequences to the end?

It is no wonder why post-war philosophy has been hypercritical of universality ever since, scrutinising its every facet for seeds of a new totalitarianism. Learning from history, the new world ought to celebrate difference over identity, singularity over universality. It should be pluralistic and heterogeneous, with the new form of unity being tolerance. Yet I contend we should be sceptical of mere tolerance. Tolerance can become problematic not because it is too charitable but because it is too narcissistic. It perpetuates this narrative of harmonious integration of diversity into an Imaginary whole which eschews the Real antagonisms in society. Besides, despite attempting to vaccinate society against the toxic proclivity towards totalisation, it quickly ends up engendering a toxicity of its own—acting as a defence mechanism that, on the surface, grants the other freedom of speech while simultaneously depriving them of the ears that would listen.

The challenge accordingly is how to rehabilitate the universal in a way that eschews its oppressive, normative, and totalitarian dimensions. In other words, how to rescue public reason. Some modest advances can be made on this front if we return to the insubstantiality of the subject, this time by passing through Hegel.

Hegel extols Kant’s “I think” as “one of the profoundest and truest insights to be found in the Critique of Reason”38placeholder on the grounds that it expresses the universality inherent within us all and the possibility of transcending our particularity to engage in the free act of thinking. That said, Hegel does reproach Kant for the manner he articulated this fact, writing in his Lesser Logic that he “used the awkward expression that the I accompanies all my representations . . . .”39placeholder What makes this expression “awkward” is that it represents universality only extrinsically as mere commonality. The “I think” is that which is common among all my representations—for Hegel, this conveys far too little. True universality, a concrete universality, does not merely consist in pointing out and clustering together a set of properties common to all. Rather, it has to be an active universal which inheres within and animates the actual world:

“Thinking as an activity is thus the active universal and, more precisely, the universal that acts upon itself in so far as its accomplishment, i.e. what it produces, is the universal. Represented as a subject, thinking is a thinking being, and the simple expression for a concretely existing [existierenden] subject that thinks is I.”40placeholder

What is astounding about this text is that Hegel does not speak of a subject who thinks. His point instead is reminiscent of Nietzsche’s: “a thought comes when ‘it’ wants, and not when ‘I’ want.”41placeholder Yet, contra Nietzsche, Hegel asserts that this “it” is the “I” but not “just that famous old ‘I’.”42placeholder For this “I” is not the deliberate author of its thoughts but rather the consequence of the process of thinking. It is thinking that is active, acting upon itself to reproduce its universality, while the subject is merely the representation of this self-relating universal. To recast this in a Lacanian tone: It is not so much a question of a subject, the grammatical “I,” who does the thinking as it is a question of how in thinking a subject can come into being. Thus, inasmuch as the ego is concerned, we might hazard to claim that this thinking is, in fact, unconscious.

Radical as this conjecture seems, it is soon substantiated by Hegel himself in a remark that sounds as though it could have come out of Lacan’s mouth:

“Given that language is the product of thought, nothing that is not universal can be expressed in it either. What I only mean, is mine, belonging to me as this particular individual. If, however, language expresses only what is universal, then I cannot say what I mean only. And the ineffable, feeling, sentiment are not what is most exquisite and true, but instead the most insignificant and untrue.”43placeholder

Insofar as we think in language, which is true for both Kant and Hegel, the product of our thinking will always be universal despite our particular intentions since the signifiers we use are universal. Even by uttering the mere words “I think,” I ineluctably make a slip of tongue, so to speak: “I mean to refer to myself as this one individual, excluding everyone else. But what I say (namely, ‘I’) is precisely each and every one, the I excluding everyone else.”44placeholder Ultimately, what matters for Hegel and Lacan is what I say, not what I mean. Meaning is always Imaginary, a figment of the ego’s imagination. It is the signifier that founds meaning, not meaning that founds the signifier. This is why the psychoanalyst only attends to the letter of what is said—therein resides the subject of the unconscious.

Further, it is not just speech that falls outside of my complete control; as we established earlier, reason demonstrates similar properties too. Although the process of reasoning and thinking (which we shall equate) is mainly governed by conscious activity, something nevertheless eludes my egoic control, escapes my conscious volition, defies my motives, and, as it were, reasons on its own. This point should not sound too outlandish: Everyone knows that reasoning is an inherently risky activity. That is why most people try to avoid exercising public reason in public, preferring instead to read from a script or fall back on canned responses. Reasoning is anxiety-inducing because it always harbours an openness that it could all fall apart, that one’s conclusions can betray one’s intentions, and that even the most tightly wound argument can come undone. What is more, once reason has spoken, its judgment cannot be overturned.

This unpredictability of reason is true especially for Hegel since thinking (done properly) is always dialectical. But this is also only a stone’s throw away from Kant, who was the first to demonstrate that pure reason, i.e., the use of reason that transcends all possible experience, necessarily produces insoluble contradictions (at least in the antinomies), not unlike the Freudian unconscious which notoriously “knows no contradiction.”

To conclude: What pertinence does Kant’s distinction between public and private reason still have for us today? If read naïvely, then I would say not much. It would simply be another, albeit more convoluted and confusing, means of advocating freedom of thought, something we are all accustomed to already. However, my contention is, if we read it against the background of Hegel, Lacan, and Kant himself, then the message is more sophisticated than it initially appears. The two uses of reason are neither separate nor dissociable but inter-coiled in a dialectical relationship, which is to say, in short: Any universal argument is inevitably belied by private intentions; however, the proper response to this is neither to enforce an abstract universality nor to concede to thoughtless tolerance, but to embrace that in reasoning there is the possibility of reasoning beyond oneself. And it is this—this potential to thwart self-interest for the sake of a transpersonal universal that is the proper freedom of the public use of reason. This freedom is not so much the freedom of thought we are used to—the freedom to maintain one’s own opinions independent of others—but the freedom of thought: the freedom that thinking in itself bestows upon us since it is our own a priori activity.

Zifeng is an autodidact whose interests span the sciences and the humanities. He is currently spellbound by German idealism, especially its intersection with psychoanalysis.

Works Cited

Brook, Andrew and Julian Wuerth. “Kant’s View of the Mind and Consciousness of Self.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Last modified October 8, 2020.

Descartes, René and Bernard Williams. Descartes: Meditations on First Philosophy: With Selections from the Objections and Replies. Edited by John Cottingham. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Evans, Dylan. An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 1996.

Foucault, Michel. “What Is Enlightenment?” In Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, edited by Paul Rabino, 303–319. New York: The New Press, 1998.

Freud Museum London. “The Unconscious: Frequently Asked Questions.” Last modified December 5, 2019.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Basic Outline, Part I: Science of Logic. Edited by Klaus Brinkmann and Daniel O. Dahlstrom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: The Science of Logic. Edited by George Di Giovanni. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Hook, Derek. Six Moments in Lacan: Communication and Identification in Psychology and Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 2018.

Kant, Immanuel and Allen W. Wood. “An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?” In Practical Philosophy, edited by Mary J. Gregor, 11–22. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Kant, Immanuel and Christine M. Korsgaard. Kant: Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Edited by Mary Gregor and Jens Timmermann. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Kant, Immanuel and Robert Merrihew Adams. Kant: Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason: And Other Writings. Edited by Allen Wood and George Di Giovanni. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Edited by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Lacan, Jacques. “The Freudian Thing, or the Meaning of the Return to Freud in Psychoanalysis.” In Écrits, translated by Bruce Fink, 334–363. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007.

Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Nietzsche: Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. Edited by Rolf-Peter Horstmann and Judith Norman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Schmidt, James. “The Soldier, the Citizen, and the Clergyman, with a Postscript on Professors: Kant on Private Reason (Part II).” Persistent Enlightenment (blog). August 11, 2014.

Schmidt, James. “What Enlightenment Was: How Moses Mendelssohn and Immanuel Kant Answered the Berlinische Monatsschrift.” Journal of the History of Philosophy 30, no. 1 (1992): 77–101.

Small, Mario Luis. Someone To Talk To. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Žižek, Slavoj. “The Two Totalitarianisms.” London Review of Books 27, no. 6, March 17, 2005.


Immanuel Kant and Allen W. Wood, “An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?” in Practical Philosophy, ed. Mary J. Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 18.


Immanuel Kant and Allen W. Wood, “An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?” in Practical Philosophy, ed. Mary J. Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 18.


Michel Foucault, “What Is Enlightenment?” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, ed. Paul Rabino (New York: The New Press, 1998), 307.


James Schmidt, “What Enlightenment Was: How Moses Mendelssohn and Immanuel Kant Answered the Berlinische Monatsschrift,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 30, no. 1 (1992): 77–101,


Kant writes of the private use of reason: “for many affairs conducted in the interest of a commonwealth a certain mechanism is necessary, by means of which some members of the commonwealth must behave merely passively, so as to be directed by the government, through an artful unanimity, to public ends (or at least prevented from destroying such ends).” Kant and Wood, “What Is Enlightenment?”, 18.


See James Schmidt, “The Soldier, the Citizen, and the Clergyman, with a Postscript on Professors: Kant on Private Reason (Part II),” Persistent Enlightenment (blog), August 11, 2014,


Kant and Wood, “What Is Enlightenment?”, 19.


Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, ed. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), B132, 246.


For a more extensive analysis of Kant’s conceptualisation of consciousness of self, see Andrew Brook and Julian Wuerth, “Kant’s View of the Mind and Consciousness of Self,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, last modified October 8, 2020,


Almost immediately after proving “I am, I exist” in the Second Meditation, Descartes follows up with the question: “But what then am I?” To which he answers: “A thing that thinks. What is that? A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines and has sensory perceptions.” René Descartes and Bernard Williams, Descartes: Meditations on First Philosophy: With Selections from the Objections and Replies, ed. John Cottingham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 16–23.


Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B157, 259.


Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B153, 257.


Dylan Evans, “Psychology,” in An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1996), 156.


“The Unconscious: Frequently Asked Questions,” Freud Museum London, last modified December 5, 2019,


Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B153, 257.


Derek Hook, Six Moments in Lacan: Communication and Identification in Psychology and Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 2018), 174.


To my knowledge, Kant was never on Lacan’s mind when it came to his formulation of the subject. Descartes’s cogito was always the preferred comparison instead, albeit his own radical reinterpretation of it. In Seminar XI, he says: “in the term subject . . . I am not designating the living substratum needed by this phenomenon of the subject, nor any sort of substance, nor any being possessing knowledge in his pathos, his suffering, whether primal or secondary, nor even some incarnated logos, but the Cartesian subject, who appears at the moment when doubt is recognised as certainty—except that, through my approach, the bases of this subject prove to be wider, but, at the same time much more amenable to the certainty that eludes it. This is what the unconscious is.” Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998), 126.


Hook, Six Moments in Lacan, 174.


Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B132, 246.


Primal repression differs from secondary repression (what we usually call repression, as the repression of . . .)  most prominently in that the former, just like Kant’s synthesis of the manifold, is atemporal—it is not “a specific psychical act, localisable in time, but as a structural feature of language itself . . . .” Evans, “Repression,” 168.


Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Basic Outline, Part I: Science of Logic, ed. Klaus Brinkmann and Daniel O. Dahlstrom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), §140, 209.


The translation of Freud’s most important maxim is far from being uncontested. The standard English translation by James Strachey reads: “Where it the id was, there the ego shall be.” The problem with this, however, is that it implies that the goal of psychoanalysis is to strengthen the ego and subdue the id, thereby giving rise to ego psychology. Thus, in contradistinction to the standard interpretation, we should maintain that the ego, following Freud, is not the master of its house, with the emphasis that it never was and never will be. Hence Lacan’s elucidation: “Wo (Where) Es (the subject devoid of any das or other objectifying article) war (was [était]—it is a locus of being that is at stake, and that in this locus), soll (it is a duty in the moral sense that is announced here, as is confirmed by the single sentence that follows it, bringing the chapter to a close) Ich (I, there must I—just as in French one announced “ce suis-je,” “it is I,” before saying “c’est moi,” “it’s me”) werden (become [devenir]—not occur [survenir], or even happen [advenir], but be born [venir aujour] of this very locus insofar as it is a locus of being).” Jacques Lacan, “The Freudian Thing, or the Meaning of the Return to Freud in Psychoanalysis,” in Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007), 347.


Whenever Freud mentioned the ego and the id, he expressly wrote “das Ich” and “das Es,” which translated literally means “the I” and “the it.” This raises the question then, which Lacan rightly underscores, as to why Freud left out the articles for this formulation specifically. See ibid.


Kant writes in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals: “there are many souls so attuned to compassion that, even without another motivating ground of vanity, or self-interest, they find an inner gratification in spreading joy around them, and can relish the contentment of others, in so far as it is their work. But I assert that in such a case an action of this kind—however much it conforms with duty, however amiable it may be—still has no true moral worth, but stands on the same footing as other inclinations . . . .” It is remarks like these that have earned Kantian deontology its reputation as a superegoic morality, which demands the impossible and punishes positive effort. Immanuel Kant and Christine M. Korsgaard, Kant: Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, ed. Mary Gregor and Jens Timmermann (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 13–14.


In Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason published in 1792, Kant clarifies: “The restoration of the original predisposition to good in us is not therefore the acquisition of a lost incentive for the good, since we were never able to lose the incentive that consists in the respect for the moral law, and were we ever to lose it, we would also never be able to regain it.” Immanuel Kant and Robert Merrihew Adams, Kant: Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason: And Other Writings, ed. Allen Wood and George Di Giovanni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 67.


It is of crucial importance in Kantian ethics that a genuine moral act cannot be done merely in accordance with duty but must be done from duty. That is, it has to be done for no other reason than it is my duty. Only the latter, in Kant’s view, has genuine moral worth. See Kant and Korsgaard, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.


Kant and Adams, Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, 68.


Kant and Wood, “What Is Enlightenment?”, 19.


Kant and Wood, “What Is Enlightenment?”, 18.


For a detailed discussion of the big Other’s many facets, see Hook, Six Moments in Lacan, 12–46.


Of course, dictionaries do not represent the absolute authority of language either; they merely record common usage. But in a way, that is precisely Lacan’s point: No authority can be absolute, “The big Other doesn’t exist,” it will inevitably be inconsistent, unreliable, and barred just like the subject that appeals to it.


See Mario Luis Small, Someone To Talk To (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).


The big Other does not necessarily have to be a figure of authority like a judge in court or a priest in confession. Strangers, too, can be great stand-ins for the big Other insofar as they represent the world of social norms.


Social media is incredibly fascinating when you consider it from a psychoanalytic standpoint. There is so much more to the phenomenon beyond the hackneyed “mirror stage” (unfortunately the only Lacanian concept that has settled in the popular imagination so far). Sure, the excessive recording, editing, and filtering of our lives do much to buttress our egos and distort our reality. But this is hardly interesting at all: Our reality has always been distorted, dramatised, sensationalised, if not by images, then by words. Can you imagine a more violent tool that edits, filters, and distorts reality than language? What truly deserves our attention with the development of social media are the friendships we are building with the camera.


Kant and Wood, “What Is Enlightenment?”, 22.


As Foucault points out, in his famous dictum of Enlightenment, “Argue as much as you will and about what you will; only obey!” (sonniert, so viel ihr wollt, und worüber ihr wollt; nur gehorcht!), the German word Kant uses is “sonieren,” which in the Critiques does not refer to just any use of reason but to a use of reason that has no other end but itself. “sonieren” means to reason for reasoning’s sake alone. Foucault, “What Is Enlightenment?”, 306.


Slavoj Žižek, “The Two Totalitarianisms,” London Review of Books 27, no. 6, March 17, 2005.


Hegel writes in his introduction to “The Science of Subjective Logic or The Doctrine of the Concept”: “It is one of the profoundest and truest insights to be found in the Critique of Reason that the unity which constitutes the essence of the concept is recognised as the original synthetic unity of apperception, the unity of the “I think,” or of self-consciousness. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: The Science of Logic, ed. George Di Giovanni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 515.


Hegel, Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, §20, 53.


Hegel, Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, §20, 51.


This quote comes from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil and can be read as an implicit critique of Descartes’s cogito argument: “As far as the superstitions of the logicians are concerned: I will not stop emphasizing a tiny little fact that these superstitious men are loath to admit: that a thought comes when ‘it’ wants, and not when ‘I’ want. It is, therefore, a falsification of the facts to say that the subject ‘I’ is the condition of the predicate ‘think.’ It thinks: but to say the ‘it’ is just that famous old ‘I’ – well that is just an assumption or opinion, to put it mildly, and by no means an ‘immediate certainty.’ In fact, there is already too much packed into the ‘it thinks’: even the ‘it’ contains an interpretation of the process, and does not belong to the process itself. People are following grammatical habits here in drawing conclusions, reasoning that ‘thinking is an activity, behind every activity something is active, therefore –.’” Friedrich Nietzsche, Nietzsche: Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, ed. Rolf-Peter Horstmann and Judith Norman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 17–18.


Friedrich Nietzsche, Nietzsche: Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, ed. Rolf-Peter Horstmann and Judith Norman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 17.


Hegel, Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, §20, 52–53.


Hegel, Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, §20, 53.


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