The best books for understanding the work of Slavoj Žižek

Adrian Johnston Author Of Zizek's Ontology: A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity
By Adrian Johnston

Who am I?

Thanks to developing interests in both psychoanalysis and German idealism during my time as a student, I came across Slavoj Žižek’s writings in the mid-1990s. Žižek immediately became a significant source of inspiration for my own efforts at interfacing philosophies with psychoanalysis. By the time I began writing my dissertation – which became my first book, Time Driven: Metapsychology and the Splitting of the Drive – I had the great fortune to meet Žižek. He soon agreed to serve as co-director of my dissertation and we have remained close ever since. I decided to write a book demonstrating that Žižek is not dismissible as a gadfly preoccupied with using popular culture and current events merely for cheap provocations.

I wrote...

Zizek's Ontology: A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity

By Adrian Johnston,

Book cover of Zizek's Ontology: A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity

What is my book about?

Slavoj Žižek is one of the most interesting and important philosophers working today, known chiefly for his theoretical explorations of popular culture and contemporary politics. This book focuses on the generally neglected and often overshadowed philosophical core of Žižek’s work—an essential component in any true appreciation of this unique thinker’s accomplishment. His central concern, Žižek has proclaimed, is to use psychoanalysis (especially the teachings of Jacques Lacan) to redeploy the insights of late-modern German philosophy, in particular, the thought of Kant, Schelling, and Hegel.

By taking this avowal seriously, Adrian Johnston finally clarifies the philosophical project underlying Žižek’s efforts. His book charts the interlinked ontology and theory of subjectivity constructed by Žižek at the intersection of German idealism and Lacanian theory.

The books I picked & why

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Critique of Pure Reason

By Immanuel Kant, Paul Guyer (translator), Allen W. Wood (translator)

Book cover of Critique of Pure Reason

Why this book?

In Žižek’s view, philosophy as we know it today does not well and truly begin until the late-eighteenth century, with Kant’s critical-transcendental “Copernican revolution.” The Critique of Pure Reason inaugurates this revolution. It insists on the ineliminable centrality of the structures and dynamics of minded subjectivity for the constitution of what we experience as objective reality. Moreover, on Žižek’s psychoanalytic rereading of Kant’s epoch-making 1781/1787 masterpiece, Kant anticipates, among many other things, Lacan’s idea of an internally divided subject as the ultimate unconscious condition of possibility for how we humans register and understand ourselves and our world. Moreover, the Kant of the first Critique is crucial for Žižek as the inspiration for the entire tradition of post-Kantian German idealism so central to Žižek’s own philosophical program.

Philosophical Investigations Into the Essence of Human Freedom

By F.W.J. Schelling, Jeff Love (translator), Johannes Schmidt (translator)

Book cover of Philosophical Investigations Into the Essence of Human Freedom

Why this book?

Schelling’s 1809 Freiheitschrift is one of Žižek’s favorite philosophical works of all time. Schelling therein strives to develop an account of evil as a positive ontological reality unto itself, rather than a negative rendition of it as a simple privation of goodness. In so doing, he is led to elaborate a metaphysics in which determinism, à la a Spinoza-inspired ontological monism, and freedom, à la the self-legislating subject of German idealism, are rendered compatible. As part of this vision, Schelling distinguishes between “ground” and “existence”—with free subjectivity depicted as the resurgence, within the pacified, stable reality of existence, of the unruliness of shadowy, primordial ground. Žižek’s repeated recourses to quantum physics for ontological insights are heavily reliant on this Schelling in particular.

Hegel's Science of Logic

By Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, A.V. Miller (translator),

Book cover of Hegel's Science of Logic

Why this book?

By Žižek’s own admission, Hegel is as important to him as Lacan. And, Hegel’s mature Logic, spelled out in greatest detail in his hulking Science of Logic, sits at the very center of the entire Hegelian system in all its sprawling, encyclopedic scope. In the Science of Logic, Hegel elaborates and explores at great length the basic categories most fundamental to the very intelligibility of anything whatsoever. In addition to delineating the various conceptual contents contributing to reality being knowable, Hegel also provides, in the Science of Logic, a virtuoso display of the ways of thinking peculiar to his (in)famous speculative dialectics. One cannot fully appreciate Hegel without appreciating his Logic. Likewise, one cannot fully appreciate Žižek without appreciating Hegel.

Beyond the Pleasure Principle

By Sigmund Freud, James Strachey (translator),

Book cover of Beyond the Pleasure Principle

Why this book?

Of all Freud’s writings, 1920's Beyond the Pleasure Principle occupies a special place in relation not only to Žižek’s conception of psychoanalysis but also to his philosophical/theoretical framework as a whole. This is the text in which Freud introduces his audacious and controversial hypothesis of the “death drive” (Todestrieb). It is not until 1920 that Freud fully brings to light tendencies within the psyche disrupting and disobeying the pleasure principle, forces of negativity able to suspend (if only momentarily) the psyche’s usual pursuits of gratification, satisfaction, well-being, and the like. Žižek repeatedly insists that his core intellectual agenda ultimately is to demonstrate an underlying equivalence between the Cogito-like subject of German idealism and the death drive as per Freud and Lacan.


By Jacques Lacan, Bruce Fink (translator),

Book cover of Écrits

Why this book?

One prominent feature of Žižek’s oeuvre that initially brought him to fame is his impressive ability to make Lacan’s writings and ideas crystal-clear and tangibly concrete—and this by contrast with Lacan himself, who often is described as “notoriously difficult.” Écrits is Lacan’s magnum opus, containing his most important essays and articles from the 1930s through the mid-1960s. Although the volumes of Lacan’s Seminar are comparatively easier to read, Écrits provides the single most comprehensive survey of Lacan’s thinking provided by Lacan himself. This 1966 book contains such Lacanian contributions to psychoanalytic theory as the mirror stage, the unconscious structured like a language, and the Real-Symbolic-Imaginary triad. Neither Lacan nor Žižek can be fully comprehended without a tour of the Écrits.

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