Human Action between Satisfaction and Obligation 2019


Action is a key dimension of the human being. Situated beyond the mere adaptive or instinctive behavior characteristic of most animals, human action is crucially mediated by language. In this regard, the question on action can be formulated as follows: are the main reasons that lead people to act imaginary, symbolic, or grounded in the “real” world? Can we talk about conditions of possibility for human actions as such? To what extent are duty, social responsibility, pleasure and enjoyment constitutive to human action? What does it mean to say that the surrounding world mobilizes us for acting? In order to give an answer to these questions a multi- and  interdisciplinary approach is needed. This course offers PhD-students the possibility of acquiring knowledge and methodologic strategies from different disciplines in order to grasp the complexity of human action.

Organising Committee

  • Emiliano Acosta (Department of History, Archeology and Arts, Philosophy and Ethics, VUB)
  • Angela Condello (Department of Philosophy University of Torino, Department of Law University of Roma Tre)
  • Georges Martyn (Faculty of Law and Criminology, Department of Interdisciplinary Study of Law, Private Law and Business Law, University of Ghent)
  • Willem Styfhals (Centre for Metaphysics, Philosophy of Religion and Philosophy of Culture, KUL)
  • Tiziano Toracca (Department of Literary Studies, University of Ghent - Department of Humanities, University of Torino)
  • Gertrudis Van de Vijver (Department of Philosophy and Moral sciences, University of Ghent

This activity is co-financed by the Doctoral School of Human Sciences of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.


In this course, we aim to investigate the meaning of human action in the contemporary era.. We focus in the first place on the tensions between obligation and satisfaction that characterize social and political life in our days. We all are caught in obligations of various kinds (among others: social, political, legal, ethical, religious and familial), implying in one way or the other the dimension of the fellow human being, but we are also mobilized by what (economically or individually) organizes the satisfaction of the human drives no matter the cost of it. In light of these tensions, we especially analyze two classes of human actions: the political action and the activity concerning labor or the professional sphere. Those actions, in fact, are among the foundational cornerstones of our modern democracies, and both are currently going through profound transformations, especially in Europe. Political engagement – as well as labor and professional engagement – appear to be more and more precarious, contingent, fragmented, incomprehensible and therefore dismissed, delegated or inflicted. How does the relation between obligation and satisfaction find expression in these current forms of human action? What is, for instance, the meaning of the act of taking care in this constellation? How do the Enlightenment claim for autonomy and self-fulfillment resonate in the current context? What is the role and place of (unconscious) desire in the midst of these transformations? Are we indeed, as could be expected from the viewpoint of capitalist discourse “compelled to obey and summoned to consume”?


The student can distinguish between two classes of human action in the light of the tensions between obligation and satisfaction: the political action and the activity concerning labor or the professional sphere.

- The student can critically analyze the mentioned two classes of human action.

The student can work multi- and interdisciplinary and integrate various practices, methods and conceptual apparatus in order to solve problems.

- The student has knowledge about the foundational function of the mentioned classes of human actions in our modern democracies - This is the reason why we propose to examine and discuss this topic from a multi-disciplinary perspective integrating both human and social sciences (especially: philosophy, law, literature and psychoanalysis).

- The student has knowledge about the profound transformations that led to the current crisis of European democracies.

- The student has knowledge about the precarious, contingent, fragmented, delegated or inflicted character of current political, labor and professional engagement.

- The student can critically and creatively give an answer to the questions i) how does the relation between obligation and satisfaction find expression in these current forms of human action? Ii) what is, for instance, the meaning of the act of taking care in this constellation? iii) how do the Enlightenment claim for autonomy and self-fulfillment resonate in the current context? and iv) what is the role and place of (unconscious) desire in the midst of these transformations?

- The student has knowledge of the conceptual and methodologic diversity of the questions concerning human action and is aware of the necessity and benefits of a multi- and/or interdisciplinary approach.


The school and the topic will be introduced by a general lecture.

Each of the three sessions will consist of two lectures by two professors, followed by questions and a large discussion, according to the Octavian discussion format. This discussion format was the invention of Dr. Peter Mitchell (Nobel Laureate in Chemistry in 1978). Usually several aspects of a topic are addressed in a sequence of half-hour sessions. Each half-our segment is introduced by a designated leader in a brief five-minute talk that sets the focus for the discussion, then the moderator asks for responses from the three or four individuals invited to start the discussion. After an initial round of comments, members of the audience may come up and sit in a vacant chair and wait to be recognized by the moderator. No one is supposed to speak except those seated at the table (or circle of chairs if no table is available). After a person has had its say, either from the audience or one of the original discussants, they are to return to a seat in the audience. Only the moderator and discussion leader are to remain at the table for the full time; only occasionally are all eight seats filled. The idea is to have a more open, less confronting discussion, allowing members of the audience to participate more fully. This format gives no one person control or an advantage and the audience becomes an active participant. Because there is never a one-one situation, there is a reduction of confrontation. The "rules" give just enough structure to keep a focused, orderly discussion and enough spontaneity such that there is freedom for self-organization in the "octalogue". Octavian sessions are best when focused upon some clear issues. In this respect, it is fine if they are responses to texts. Such papers could be expanded for publication later.

We will provide the students and all the other participants with specific material beforehand (readings will be provided at least one month before). On the first day there will be a public lecture (advertising will be provided, and students will be widely informed and invited).


a)         General Introduction to the seasonal school and to the topic (1 hour)

b)         Three sessions: (i) Psychoanalysis, Law and Action, (ii) Action and Contemplation: four hours each, including plenty of time for the Octavian discussion, (iii) Acting Politically

c)          Public Lecture of 1 hour followed by an extensive discussion of 1 hour

Dates and Programme

Day 1: 10 June 2019

13:00 - 14:00 General Lecture introducing the seasonal school by the main organizers: Gertrudis Van de Vijver (UGent), Angela Condello (University of Torino).

First session: Psychoanalysis, Law and Action - Coordinated by Angela Condello (UniTo, Roma Tre)

14:00 – 15:00 Alberto Andronico (University of Catania): “Protect me From What I Want. Law and the Evaporation of the Father” (session in French, Q&A both French and English)

The lecture focuses on the relationship between subject, desire and law. The starting point is a contemporary art piece entitled “Protect me from what I want” - but why should someone or something protect us from what we want, and desire? By drawing from some traditional questions of general legal theory, we shall then focus on the approach of Jacques Lacan on these issues in order to present an alternative perspective in the interdisciplinary studies on law.

15:00 – 16:00 Gertrudis Van de Vijver (UGent): “The experience of satisfaction and its significance for the psychoanalytical act”

Jacques Lacan discusses in his seminar L’acte psychanalytique the specific nature of the act through which the analyst passes from analysand to analyst. The point we wish to stress through this seminar is that Lacan highlights in the first place the fact that it is not on the basis of an authoritative knowledge (grounded in a point external to him and to be instructed upon him, through the sciences, for instance, or the authority of the leader) that the analyst comes to this point; it is by (re-)turning to the proper body and to the ways in which need-satisfaction gets disconnected from (or contingently connected with) another satisfaction, a properly subjective one, one that obeys the symbolic requirements, one that is inscribed into repetition and history and that Lacan coins Jouissance. This can explain that there is “no act of the act”, as there is, to Lacan, “no metalanguage”, “no Other of the Other”. As with Kant, “the constraint is the possibility”: it is only from within the subjective meanderings in the search for satisfaction that something can become an act. We shall spell out the epistemological consequences of the fact that the act of the analyst is to be understood from within Jouissance, and argue that the explicit choice to operate within the confines of this negativity has fundamental ethical and political consequences that differ from most forms of activism that we encounter today.

16:00 - 16:30 Coffee break

16:30 – 18:00 Octavian discussion on the topics of the talks given by Alberto Andronico and Gertrudis Van de Vijver

20:00 -22:00 Public Lecture (Auditorium Kruithof, Blandijnberg) by Peter Goodrich (Cardozo Law School, New York): “Retinal Justice: Rats, Maps, and Masks”

A judge springs out of his car on the way to court in downtown Chicago and takes photographs of an inflatable rat. A while later he inserts these photographs into a decision involving another inflatable rodent. Judges now regularly insert pictures in judgments but there is no study either of the genres or the precedential status of these modern visual emblemata, these pictorial interventions in the record. Using a comparative visual corpus of 500 images extracted from diverse common law jurisdictions, this multimedia performance will address the impact of graphics, gifs, emojis, pictures, google earth, screenshots, photographs, film and animé on legal decision making. For the second time in tellurian jurisprudence Professor Goodrich will anatomize, schematize, choreograph, analyze and classify the imagery of judgment.

Day 2: 11 June 2019

Second session: Action and Contemplation - Coordinated by Tiziano Toracca (University of Ghent, University of Torino)

9:00 - 10:00 David Ayers (University of Kent) "History as Agency: Utopia, Hegel and Bolshevism"

It is a famous historical curiosity - the ramifications of which are still very much with us - that the Enlightenment, having developed the study of society and history as quasi-natural objects, was to culminate in the Hegelian view of history as the movement towards freedom. For Hegel, reason itself was at work behind the scenes compelling the general shape of human actions even where those actions were driven selfishly by the passions. Marx and Engels discarded this view of history as driven by reason 'behind the scenes' but, in developing elements of a theory of the inevitability of historical change in terms of class struggle failed really to give any viable view of agency. Since they rejected the projections by Utopians such as Saint-Simon and Fourier for their concreteness, and presented the future of human potentials as almost imageless, they left a legacy in leftist political thought in which the symbolic cause of action is that which is to be destroyed, not that which is to replace it. Cultural and political theory in the early period of Bolshevism ran into these legacy problems in a substantial way. In this talk I will review the trajectory of this philosophical legacy and set out how the literature of Utopia - most usually in an unconscious manner - tackles but with limited success the task of finding a way to properly occupy the collective imaginary with a positive motive for action.

10:00 - 11:00 Angela Condello: “The disclosure of humanity, today. Action and Contemplation in digital society”

The definition of “action” changes continuously. With shifting paradigms, the political and juridical vocabulary through which action and humanity are defined - and consequently through which lives are regulated (and protected) - should shift, too (G. Anders). But the timings are different and so we find ourselves in some sort of «conceptual short circuit» in which - for instance - we try to understand whether sending an email, or writing a project for a start-up, can be considered as «work». In order to analyze what I consider a «conceptual short circuit», I resort to Hannah Arendt’s tripartite system on the human condition and on human engagement, trying to observe the superimpositions and confusions between the three terms through which she deconstructed this field: labour, work and action.

11:00-11:30 coffee break

11:30-13:00:  Octavian discussion format on the topics of the talks given by David Ayers and Angela Condello

13:00-14:00 lunch break

Third session: Acting Politically - Coordinated by Gertrudis Van de Vijver

14:00 -15:00 Emiliano Acosta (VUB) “Speaking, acting, thinking: on what some philosophers say about political animals”

In this talk, I propose an examination of what Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza and Kant have said about the political nature of the human being. This short lecture aims at understanding their claim that the human being per definitionem and per naturam is a political animal. In order to get a clear concept of their political ontology, I propose to focus on the way they deal with speaking, acting and thinking when defining the human being. I begin with a discussion on political ontology based on some passages of Plato’s Politeia and Aristoteles Politica. Then I analyze the difference between state of nature and civil society in Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. Finally, I present the main findings of my reading of the Kantian conception of the human being in historical and political perspective in his  “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim” and the first appendix of his “Toward Perpetual Peace” (students have to read and prepare these last two writings for the Octavian discussion).

15:00- 16:00 Alessio Baldini (University of Leeds):‘The (im)moral imagination: radical good and demonic politics in the TV series Gomorrah’

The TV series Gomorrah poses a challenge to the view that there is an internal relation between the aesthetic and the moral merits of an artwork. For all its cinematic brilliance, Gomorrah is a morally problematic artwork, as the beautifully shot and immersive narrative makes viewers imaginatively inhabit the lives and minds of members of the Camorra underworld. From similar cases, Eaton (2012, 2016) concludes that the artistic achievement of such immoral narrative fictions consists in tempting viewers to sympathize with or even admire evil characters. In this paper, I argue that, on the contrary, a morally sensitive audience can gain moral knowledge from engaging fully with an immoral narrative fiction – as suggested by Kieran (2003, 2006). I will proceed in two steps. First, I will claim that Gomorrah can heighten its viewers’ sense of what I call the ‘radical good’, namely the ineliminable residue of goodness that flickers even in darkest recesses of the narrative imagination. And this effect is achieved precisely because the narrative does not attenuate the viewers’ imaginative exposure to the Camorra’s demonic politics, which is on display in all its hideous brutality. It is not just that the characters collectively purse wicked goals by causing great harm and act viciously in the personal domain. It is also that the narrative prescribes an ambivalent attitude toward the fictional story, urging viewers to feel an intense participation in the characters’ deeds, thoughts, and feelings. However, the audience might not respond to Gomorrah in the way I have just described. And in the second part of my argument I will further specify the two conditions for such a response to obtain. By looking at how actual audiences respond to Gomorrah, I will contend that viewers should be in a position not to experience the imaginative resistance that will prevent them from engaging with the fictional narrative. Also, viewers should be ready to pick up on the moral cues dispersed within the narrative fiction. And there are multiple reasons why they might fail to do so – they might be committed to the idea of aesthetic autonomy, feel a sense of aesthetic wonder or admiration, be morally insensitive, and so on.

16:00 – 16:30 Coffee break

16:30 - 18:00  Octavian discussion on the topics of the talks given by Emiliano Acosta and Alessio Baldini


10th June: Faculty of Arts and Philosophy, Ghent University, Blandijnberg 2, room 120.083 - Lecture Peter Goodrich: Blandijnberg, Auditorium Kruithof

11th June: Faculty of Arts and Philosophy, Ghent University, Blandijnberg 2, room 120.043


  • Emiliano Acosta (Mendoza, 1978, PhD at Cologne University 2008) is professor of philosophy at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and guest professor at UGent. He is alumni of the Young Academy of Belgium (Flanders), member of the executive board of the Belgian Society for Religious Studies (BABEL), coordinator of the Latin-American Fichte Society (ALEF) and of the political philosophy network "Re-Thinking Europe" and editor-in-chief of Revista de Estud(i)os sobre Fichte. His research focuses on political philosophy and modern philosophy (dialectics, ideology, hegemony, religion and democracy, mechanisms of exclusion in cosmopolitan discourses in the German High Enlightenment and in contemporary political philosophy).
  • Alberto Andronico is Full Professor of Legal Philosophy at the University of Catania. He is the Director of “Teoria e Critica della regolazione sociale” for which he edited “La legge di Lacan”(2016). He works on legal source and legal orders and he is currently focusing on the relationship between subject, desire and law. He has written widely on law and deconstruction with particular focus on Derrida. He has been visiting and teaching at the EHESS and at the Université Catholique Louvain la Neuve.
  • David Ayers is Professor of Modernism and Critical Theory. He is the author of Wyndham Lewis and Western Man (Macmillan, 1992), English Literature of the 1920s (Edinburgh University Press, 1999) Modernism: A Short Introduction (Blackwell, 2004) and Literary Theory: A Reintroduction (Blackwell: 2008). His current work, funded by a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship, is titled ‘Internationalism and the Idea of Europe’ and concerns the cultural impact in Britain of the Russian Revolution and the formation of the League of Nations, with an emphasis on the 1920s.
  • Alessio Baldini graduated in Italian literature from the University of Siena (2003), where he later completed a MA (2008) and a Doctorate (2009) in Italian literature and literary theory. In 2010 he was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship at the University for Foreigners of Siena. In 2012, he was appointed Lecturer in Italian at the University of Leeds. In 2016, he became Lecturer in Italian Culture.
  • Angela Condello is Adjunct Professor (Jean Monnet Module “Human Rights Culture in the EU” 2017-2020) at the Department of Philosophy and Educational Sciences at the University of Torino, where she also coordinated the Jean Monnet Project “I work, therefore I am European” ( She is Adjunct Professor of Law and Humanities at the Law School, University of Roma Tre.
  • Peter Goodrich is a Professor of Law and Director of Law and Humanities at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. He is the managing editor of Law and Literature and serves on the editorial board of Law and Critique. He is co-editor of the critical legal studies book series 'Discourses of Law' published by Routledge. Peter Goodrich was one of the founding academic staff in the Birkbeck Law School. Goodrich has been at Cardozo Law School since 2000 and teaches courses in Contracts, Jurisprudence, Film and Law, and Gender and Law. He obtained his LL.B. in 1975 from the University of Sheffield and his Ph.D. in 1984 from the University of Edinburgh. His scholarly work is wide ranging in its engagement with questions of law, interpretation, history, institution, rhetoric, visuality, and aesthetics.  Goodrich's favorite case involves carrying a wife across the threshold into their newly purchased house. However, the house was not constructed to their liking and the husband correspondingly dropped the wife. They successfully sued for emotional damages.
  • Gertrudis Van de Vijver received both her undergraduate and graduate training in Ghent University, apart from a brief study stay in Paris in 1988. She became a professor at that institution in 2000. She is a member of the Centre for History of Philosophy and Continental Philosophy (HICO) at Ghent University. Between 2005 and 2010, she led an interdisciplinary research project that involved philosophers, biologists, bio-engineers and communication scientists, and currently runs, with Emiliano Acosta, the research platform Re-thinking Europe, devoted to the philosophical study of political and legal issues surrounding Europe and the European Union. Her research is mainly concerned with issues of complexity, self-organization and teleology in the life sciences, psychoanalysis and the study of cognition, for which she developed a transcendental epistemology, centring on the idea of co-constitution.

Registration fee

Free of charge for Doctoral Schools members of UGent, VUB and KU L.


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Teaching material

For each session, participants must read the literature which will be discussed. This will improve the level, intensity and efficiency of the discussions and will enforce the proposed multidisciplinary approach, namely the intersection between humanities, law and psychoanalysis.

Number of participants

Maximum 25

Evaluation criteria (doctoral training programme)

Full attendance and active participation in the discussion.