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Answering Slavoj Žižek’s Question: Kant’s Unpopularity

In his book, Žižek analyzes why Kant and his progeny have been struggling philosophically in recent years, while offering a partial defense of their views.”


As Slavoj Žižek opined as far back as his 1999 book The Ticklish Subjectthe broadly Kantian theory of the subject and morality remains widely unpopular in critical circles. In his book, Žižek analyzes why Kant and his progeny have been struggling philosophically in recent years, while offering a partial defense of their views. 

One of the most important philosophical ideas in liberal thought has been that the individual—or the subject (as it is sometimes called)—should be at the center of moral and political analysis. For Locke, each individual possessed natural rights to life, liberty, and property, which no government could abridge. For J.S Mill, the individual was to be regarded as sovereign over himself or herself. And more prominently still, for Immanuel Kant, the individual subject was the only being which could have intrinsic worth beyond price. This was because only the individual could have the good will to legislate the moral law. It is hard to stress how influential these ideas have been—and the role they’ve played in putting the individual and their acts at the epicenter of our thinking.

This view, however, has been associated with vulgar humanism, liberal conformism, and capitalist apologetics. This perhaps explains why the 18th century Prussian’s contemporary disciples such as Jürgen Habermas and John Rawls are consistently criticized by more radical commentators. What I want to explore in this brief article is where this strong opposition comes from—beyond the more technical contentions with this or that philosophical point in the Kantian system. I believe the key reason Kantian theories of the subject and morality remain unpopular is primarily because so much moral emphasis is placed on the values of actions. By contrast, many contemporary philosophers, following the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, believe it makes more sense to look at the value of life and more specifically “how to live.” The more emancipatory connotations of the latter position naturally make it more attractive to critical theorists, as well as a great variety of activists. 

Kant and the Philosophy of Life

In some respects, claiming Deleuze comes across as more emancipatory than Kant may seem a strange argument. After all wasn’t Kant the philosopher of human freedom par excellence—the liberal’s liberal who claimed that only the subject’s good and “free” will were intrinsically valuable for themselves? Of course, there is something to this old cliché, and, as I’ve explained elsewhere, I think this at least partly accounts for why many contemporary traditionalist conservatives like Yoram Hazony express such disdain for Kantianism. Kantianism’s strong emphasis on individual freedom runs counter to a commitment to traditionalism—and to a state’s enforcement of national and religious homogeneity. 

But this emphasis on freedom of the good only stresses one side of the Kantian argument. The other side is the strong emphasis on duty—in particular our obligation to submit our actions to the judgements of practical reason. For Kant, this duty means that the subject can only act in ways that are consistent with the moral law given by practical reason. In Kant’s Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Moralsthe moral law takes the form of the “categorical imperative,” which is formulated in several different fashions within the short text. The most famous, of course, is that we should only act so that we could will the maxim of our action to become universal law, with Kant’s insistence that we treat each person (and ourselves) as ends in themselves rather than just means to an end. Beyond these categorical imperatives, Kant insists in the Metaphysics of Morals (and other works) that we have various kinds of imperfect duties—such as to help the poor—as a requirement to inculcate various virtues to strengthen our commitment to duty. 

Taken as a whole then, the Kantian theory of the subject and morality places a great deal of emphasis not just on freedom but on what kinds of acts are morally permissible in different contexts. In typical Enlightenment fashion, it is various forms of reason that are to guide us in making these fine grained distinctions between different moral and immoral actions, with comparatively little attention is placed on the emotional and creative dimensions of human subjectivity. Indeed, Kant insists that the only acts the subject takes which have moral worth in themselves are those undertaken purely from a commitment to duty. He occasionally concedes that generating art and cultural products to strengthen the virtues—or developing what Arthur Ripstein in Force and Freedom would call political institutions preserving the “rightful condition” for moral subjects—may help advance the Kantian project. But these are ultimately ancillary concerns next to the radical insistence on individual practical reason and commitment to duty being the basis for moral acts. 

It is not hard to see why the dimension of Kantianism emphasizing the morality of acts would be looked at skeptically by theorists devoted to emancipation. While even Foucault could find much to admire in Kant’s arguments for freedom of the will and against heteronomy, the pivot to demanding the free will of the subject to conform to duty—and suggesting that only such a good will has intrinsic value—can come across as highly abstract and moralistic. This is not to suggest that any theory of emancipation can do without establishing parameters for which human actions should be morally permissible. But what theorists like Deleuze emphasize is the importance of asking how to live, since the creativity and evolution of the world (and individuals) also has tremendous value. 

Deleuze and the Importance of Life

“My actions, then, are distinct from my life as a whole. In fact in the modern period the concern with one’s life as a whole is diminished. Some philosophers have taken this languishing of concern with a whole life as a philosophical loss. The question How should one act? divorces one’s deeds from oneself in a way that is alienating. Our morality fails to be integrated into our lives; it exists out there, apart from the rest of our existence. If a person is forced to ask about how to act without at the same time seeing the answer to that question as being related to one’s particular life, then one’s relation to morality becomes fissured.” – Todd May in Gilles Deleuze: An Introduction 

The beat authors encourage us to see life not as a task to complete but as potential to be developed in a huge variety of different ways. It is not simply the actions we undertake which are important but the person we become by doing them. 

One of the more interesting theoretical developments in recent years has been the resuscitation of interest in the vitalist tradition, well-summarized by York University’s Christopher Satoor in his doctoral work. Gilles Deleuze falls within this tradition—albeit in an unusual place—and has done more than any other thinker in stressing the need to emphasize the value of life and not simply the value of acts. From his pioneering Nietzsche and Philosophy onwards, Deleuze stressed that the philosophy of acts always presupposed some exterior source of moral transcendence, which vindicated or condemned the subject’s actions. The most obvious example was, of course, God, who remained so integral to the philosophy of acts that even when Kant pushed the Divine outside the limits of pure reason in the first Critique, he still felt compelled to bring him back as a necessary postulate of practical reason in the second. By contrast, Deleuze followed Nietzsche in claiming that we should abjure the transcendent theories of being associated with the philosophy of acts and focus instead on life as it is lived and experienced. In particular, this meant stressing the creative potentials in human existence, rather than stressing the need to conform this potential to moralistic strictures. In Thousand Plateaus with Felix Guattari, Deleuze gives this an inspiring twist by stressing his admiration for the American beat authors like William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. The beat authors encourage us to see life not as a task to complete but as potential to be developed in a huge variety of different ways. It is not simply the actions we undertake which are important but the person we become by doing them. 

This is, of course, deeply connected to the critique of 20th century capitalism developed in Anti-Oedipus and Deleuze’s pioneering work on societies of control (a term borrowed from Burroughs). The emancipatory project, at the core, is these works are an insistence that the realization of human creative potential is of great value, and it is being constrained by contemporary society. Unfortunately, while I think the impetus of this project is sound, it is constrained by Deleuze’s unwillingness to conceptually frame and name the major contemporary problem: which is the constraints on democratic freedom and the commodification of all spheres of life by the logic of neoliberalization.  This probably results, at least in part, from Deleuze’s too hasty insistence on moving beyond materialism, which ironically sometimes leads back to the vulgar idealist emphasis on art and culture as the means of bringing about emancipation. I think we can do quite a bit better, which is why realizing the value of life may mean going beyond a Deleuzian understanding of reality.

Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at or added on Twitter via @MattPolProf.

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Nick Opyrchal
Nick Opyrchal

As Alenka Zupancic comments, Kant’s concept of moral and ethical duty is radically liberating as it is something from utterly outside of the neoliberal ‘individual’ – the Kantian ethical impulse is the same as the call of the Lacanian ‘Real’ to follow ones desire, which is sometimes utterly opposed to one’s symbolic identity (and the ideology of capitalism which creates this symbolic identity). The Deleuzian vitalist project of re-invention and expansion, the play of identity as described in this article does not have the same liberating potential when we look at todays capitalism; what is more indicative of today’s capitalism… Read more »