Reflections on Reality

The Big Other as the Expressive Autonomy of Normative Statuses

Lacques Jacan


In dealing with the big Other, it is crucial to be attentive to the interplay between the anonymous field and the subject impersonating it.

—Žižek, Slavoj. (2012).

The Žižeko-Lacanian notion of the Big Other has often been invoked as a kind of reproach to all normative statuses, whether they express an autonomous convention or a contingent individual case of difference from the norm (Žižek 2012, p. 76; Žižek 2001, p. 53[1]; Žižek 2000, p. 76[2]). Accordingly, it has been suggested that the mere repetition of assertive gestures can approximate efficacy by making a particular, unforeseen, and ontologically ungrounded interpretation stick (Žižek 2012, p. 370[3]). In the course of this essay, I will offer a reading of individual intentionality and social normative statuses, and the participatory horizon these two interfaces share. This discussion will open out a pragmatic trajectory through which the notion of the Big Other as a referent of projected desires can be rejected, without remainder, in exchange for the reciprocal recognition of normative statuses as supervenient to individual autonomy. The benefit of this radicalisation is the re-opening of a space where thought continues to be a relevant mode of opposition to regressive, oppressive, and decadent normative statuses in dialogue with an autotelic, and global normative field.

While it is possible to use fictions as analogies for concrete situations, the comprehensive semantic commitments of such fictions, treated de dicto, depend on the agent’s awareness of their fictionality. In this case they become realities endowed with normative commitments in their position as analogical referents of a concrete situation. Treated de re the fictionality of these stimuli remains inferentially non-decomposable because these ‘fictions’ do not sufficiently distinguish themselves from the ‘concrete situations’ to which they must stand in relations of material incompatibility, and inferential consequence for the inquirer. In order to comprehend the ontological referents of such disparate fictions one must first necessarily acquaint oneself with the horizon where inferential states necessitating other states, and making others impossible, allow a robust explication of synthetic apperceptive judgement and its conceptual commitments. While a fiction analogous to a particular concrete world may be interpreted to uphold the strings of hypotheses that belong to it, other disparate and logically disjunctive individual universes in some “crazy pluralistic ontology” (Žižek 2012, p. 38) cannot be invoked as the necessary and sufficient criteria for normative judgement of such individual sets of commitments assumed to be implicit in the vocabulary of the fiction in question[4]. “The whole interpretive problem arises when this result is read as merely negative: such a reading generates the need to fill the gap, to propose a new positive theory—which is what the late Plato then attempts to do, passing from one supplement to another, from chora in Timaeus to … But what if such a reading is conditioned by a kind of perspectival illusion, involving a failure to see how the result is not merely negative, but is in itself already positive, already what we were looking for? To see this, one has only to effect a parallax shift and grasp the problem as (containing) its own solution” (Žižek 2012, p. 42). For, when we talk of fictionality we have already invoked the normative commitments implicit in the coherence of the referent ‘fiction’, and how it may be distinguished from concrete world situations by inferential explication of its relations of material incompatibility and consequence for the interlocutor’s life world. There is no Big Other out there who allows the agent to prejudge these disparate ‘fictions’ from within his inferential relations of consequence, and material incompatibility according to a normative reality that furnishes these judgements without appeal to a merely phenomenal ‘self’. The normative is equal parts social and personal, autonomous and supervenient to personal autonomy for the simple reason that it is not subject to the arbitrary trends of judicature, academic and philosophical schools while continuing to remain the express referent of discourses that demand normative recognition (Malle & Nelson 2003). The social dimension of the normative is complemented, and curtailed, on the individual level of rational integration by communal practices of reciprocal recognition and rational doxastic updating of the normative statuses corresponding to the force of the better reason in currency among the individual discursive expressions articulated under the vocabulary wherein the concept finds occasion (Ibid., p. 17; Brandom AI & P, 2007).

Though the Big Other does not exist (Žižek 2012, p. 42) for agents that invoke situations non-decomposable to propositional contents, agential will invokes its own suggestive ineptness for explication as the One motivating principle corresponding to his intentions, and desires as an agent who subscribes to the existential statuses of his inferential nexus. The absence of the Big Other necessitates that the agent take responsibility for his own commitments to the objects of his discourse. Thus, the agent stands in place of the Big Other when he invokes “…[t]he autonomously acting will, in the ends which” the agent “pursues in relation to the existence [Dasein]” he “has before it, has an idea [Vorstellung] of the circumstances which” his “existence involves. But since, on account of this presupposition, the” agent “is finite, the objective phenomenon [gegenständliche Erscheinung] is contingent for” him, “and may contain something other than what was present in” his “idea [Vorstellung] of it. It is, however, the right of the” agent “to recognize as” his “action, and to accept responsibility for, only those aspects of” his “deeds which” he “knew to be presupposed within” his “end, and which were present in” his “purpose” (Hegel 2011, § 117). Thus, it is quite possible to conceive the impossible; only, this in a way that is impossible to explicate, and impossible to execute, and therefore properly futile, and non-committal for the agent articulating its particular commitments according to normatively determined criteria of synthetic judgement. Ultimately, because we cannot “…posit a realm of ideas actually exterior to Cosmos…” limiting “ourselves to the One-All of the eternally changing reality…” that “reveals itself to be nothing at all” (Žižek 2012, p. 45) we are compelled to examine all that it is not suffered to be by the consensus of all discursive communities involved in the process of giving and asking for reasons, and accepting the semantic externality of normative criteria of sufficient and necessary conditions (Brandom HRR 2007; Brandom 1994, p. 18- 46). More specifically, the specific judicial apparatus of the discursive community, its regimens and modalities of doxastic update, in conjunction with the state of normative discourse, and its continual expression as appeals to normative judgement in individual participation in discourse are actually the reciprocally recognised inventory, or the autotelic summa of semantic conventionalism.

The constitutive elements of reason and self-conscious determination of reason, through a wilful negation of the free scope available for mediation among fictional and real worlds, are the stuff of asking and giving reasons for beliefs and dispositions in a discursive community (Brandom 2008[5]; Hegel 2010, § 216). So, even though the individual agent may chose at variance with good reason an absurd vellity not of this world as the real state of affairs this action only impairs his worthiness for judgement, and not the criterions which make this possible within the discursive community to which the agent belongs. Thus, at the level of individual intention, an agent may intend consequences that are not explicit in the terms of the stated intention, e.g. a prisoner planning an escape may not have intended to kill a guard, but he may have had to anyway (Moore 2010, p. 451)[6]. Is it not the case that the premeditated nature of some actions described as criminal obliges the perpetrator to adequately respond to the commitments entailed in the inferential consequences and material incompatibility of his actions in relation to the determinate normative criteria of judgement (Ibid.)? The notion of mens rea, or the ideational component of a criminal action are what allow the criminal to see his actions as deviations from the normative commitments of legal statutes, and allow the latter to access his performance as illegal and meriting punishment (Moore 2010; Malle & Nelson 2003). This way of looking at the atomised constructivism of normative statuses as attitude-dependent allows one to appreciate the gestalt of the autonomous individual who is intelligible, responsive and committed to the responsibility of making himself intelligible, responsive and obedient to its determinations. “The attitude-dependence of normative force… is intelligible only in a context in which the boundaries of the content—what I acknowledge as constraining me and by that acknowledgment make into a normative constraint on me in the sense of opening myself up to normative assessments according to it—are not in the same way attitude-dependent” (Ibid., p. 15).

It goes without saying that the sole purpose of any contemplative activity is to explicate the practical business of how one may understand that one knows something such that it can be explained in terms of a more primitive, or generic, explanatory vocabulary. It is hoped by such analysis to explicate the core commitments of a position and thereby expedite action in accordance with individual, and public, reason. The notion of intentionality carries with it the commitment to be able to explicate what relations of inferential consequence, and material incompatibility obtain from an action that is to be called intentional; it is a negotiation between personal discursive attitudes and normative vocabularies that circumscribe such discursive artefacts. A pragmatic approach to a substantive concept of intentionality must entail an account of what may be adduced to the formal commitments of a judgement that is intentional if it is to hold against normative discursive elements that are irreducible to representative, or descriptive practice (Brandom 2008, p. 6; Brandom 1994, p. 46). Such an account can perhaps best be elicited by interrogating the counterfactual robustness of inference ranges that coincide with the discursive range of said intentional action. Since the very action of positing intentional character to an expression assumes force there must be in principle a final order of appeal to the validity of expressions of inferential and material incompatibility and consequence entailed by a position (Brandom HRR 2007). Then, autonomy for the individual consists in claiming the normative postulates about inferential and material incompatibility and consequence of a position are valid without appeal to personal intentional vocabulary. As a corollary, we can say, the autonomy of the idea from individual caprices is enshrined in the non-inferential practices which preceded discursive expression and the institution of normative postulates. Since, to know empirical facts implies an understanding of what constitutes necessary, and sufficient conditions at least in some cases, with varying degrees of success, it is also already to know what ought to be done in such cases, even if in a similarly vague and fallible way (Ibid., p. 5). Then, it follows that the irreducible components of discursive praxis are already part of the normative vocabulary which makes intentional expression of commitments possible as an empirical matter of determination, and they contain attitudinal ranges that have found expression in norms derived from the practical experience of discursive subjects.


Looking at normative statuses and intentional autonomy of subjects as constitutive of the realm of discursive praxis as such we can explain the emergence of the symbolic order entire from non-discursive, and non-inferential practices. Indeed, the initiation of symbolic exchange presupposes the intelligibility of the concept not yet present in the efficient and practical dimension of symbolic interaction. Thus, the Big Other cannot be said to be inexistent; for it is precisely this inexistence that is its proper determination as the indeterminate grounds for an autonomous process of normative expression mediated by individual appeals to the force of reasons given and received among discursive communities. Just as the very absence of laws impresses the need for laws on rational discursive beings, the Big Other simulates its sufficient but contingent relations of inferential consequence and material incompatibility to the subject’s discourse in relation to an autonomous field of normative criteria for judgement. The Big Other, inasmuch, as its minimal/liminal function is to illuminate and authorise the expressive contentfulness of inward states belonging to individual apperceptions (Žižek 2012, p. 74[7]), participates in the elements of discursive practice that are non-decomposable to intelligible postulates of a more generic kind. Thus, the locus of the Big Other is circumscribed not to the discursive commitments of a particular position endorsed by one individual, or a whole regime, but to the non-discursive elements that are implicated in the pragmatic affair of the sociology of discourse. Such a view of the Big Other is highly original, and does away with the perverse injunction to disregard all normative statuses as pathic projections, while opening a way into the symbolic register of the normative by leveraging the coeval autonomous expression of individual intentionality, and normative pragmatic conventionalism, as moments of the same dialectical progression.


















Works Cited

Brandom, Robert. (1994). Making it Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, & Discursive Commitment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Print.

Brandom, Robert. (2007). History, Reason, and Reality. Accessed on July 7, 2013. Retrieved from < .com/watch?v=83UAq2JUFNc >. Web.

Brandom, Robert. (2007). AI and Pragmatism. Retrieved from Accessed on July 7, 2013. < >. Web.

Brandom, Robert. (2008). Animating Ideas of Idealism: A Semantic Sonata in Kant and Hegel, Lecture 2 Autonomy, Community, and Freedom. Pittsburgh University Website. Accessed July 7, 2013. Retrieved from <… /AII2%20%20NSC%20Handout%20d.doc‎ >. Web.

Hegel, George, Friedrich, W. Wood, Allan, W. Ed. Nisbet, H., B. Trans. (2010). Elements of the Philosophy of Right. New York, USA: Oxford University Press. Print.

Malle, Bertram, F. & Nelson, Sarah, E. (2003). “Judging Mens Rea: The Tension between Folk Concepts and Legal Concepts of Intentionality”. Behavioral Sciences and the Law 21: 563–580. Print.

Moore, Michael, S. (2010). Placing Blame: A Theory of Criminal Law. New York, USA: Oxford University Press. Print.

Žižek, Slavoj. (2000). The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology. New York, NY: Verso. Print.

Žižek, Slavoj. (2001). On Belief. New York, NY: Verso. Print.

Žižek, Slavoj. (2012). Less than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. London, UK: Verso. Print.

[1] “…the space of implicit meanings, surmises, etc., which can no longer be controlled” (Žižek 2001, p. 53).

[2] “[D]oes not Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit tell us again and again the same story of the repeated failure of the subject’s endeavour to realize his project in social substance, to impose his vision on the social universe – the story of how the ‘big Other’, the social substance, again and again thwarts his project and turns it upside-down?” (Žižek 2000, p. 76). The answer to this rhetorical question is, of course, no. The Hegelian story doesn’t fail to mention that autonomy for the individual is precisely the product of the Big Other’s mediation of arbitrary individual desires (Hegel 2010, § 92), and this in turn legitimates folk, or individualistic, conceptions of what counts and what does not count as adherence to the symbolic commitments of discursive practice (Brandom 1994, 2007, 2008; Malle & Nelson 2003).

[3] “The subject’s desire is here the transcendental void, and the object is a contingent ontic filler of this void. For the drive, in contrast, the objet a is not only the metonymy of lack, but a kind of transcendental stain, irreducible and irreplaceable in its very contingent singularity, not just a contingent ontic filler of a lack. While the drive involves getting stuck on a contingent stain‐object, dialectical negativity involves a constant process of “un‐sticking” from all particular content: jouissance ‘leans on’ something, hanging on to its particularity—and this is what is missing in Hegel, but operative in Freud”. (Žižek 2012, p. 370).

[4] The view that all crazy and contradictory positions entailed by different readings of a concrete situation hold equally strongly on the agent is unsupportable, and in this respect I must differ most vehemently with my interlocutor Slavoj Žižek. See Žižek, Slavoj. (2012). Less than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. London, UK: Verso. Print. p. 40 onwards.

[5] “… [T]he process that synthesizes an apperceiving normative subject, one who can commit himself in judgment and action, become responsible cognitively and practically, is a social process of reciprocal recognition that at the same time synthesizes a normative recognitive community of those recognized by and who recognize that normative subject: a community bound together by reciprocal relations of authority over and responsibility to each other” (Brandom 2008, p. 22).

[6] Moore, Michael, S. (2010). “§ 11 Intentions and Mens Rea”. Placing Blame: A Theory of Criminal Law. New York, USA: Oxford University Press. Print. PP. 447- 477.

[7] “The big Other is a virtual order which exists only through subjects “believing” in it; if, however, a subject were to suspend its belief in the big Other, the subject itself, its “reality,” would disappear. The paradox is that symbolic fiction is constitutive of reality: if we take away the fiction, we lose reality itself. This loop is what Hegel called “positing the presuppositions.” This big Other should not be reduced to an anonymous symbolic field—there are many interesting cases where an individual stands for the big Other. One should think not primarily of leader‐figures who directly embody their communities (king, president, master), but rather of the more mysterious protectors of appearances—such as otherwise corrupted parents who desperately try to keep their child ignorant of their depraved lives, or, if it is a leader, then one for whom Potemkin villages are built.18” (Žižek 2012, p. 72).