Heidegger and Lacan
their most important difference
Janne Kurki

This paper presents only one main proposition: the most important difference – a kind of founding difference – between Heidegger and Lacan is formed by the question of science and the related theme of the formalization of language. This founding difference between them induces, in a way, all the other differences between them. The reader is supposed to be familiar with their writings, at least in general, and, thus, I focus on abstracting this difference in order to make it evident.

It has to be noted that this difference between Heidegger and Lacan lives on in the articulations of their heirs: thus, for example, Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy have inherited clearly a kind of Heideggerian position within this “debate” (which was never explicitly debated), [1] where as, for example, Alain Badiou seems to speak up for a kind of Lacanian position, as have done many other French thinkers, like the late Louis Althusser. In other words, by explicating this difference between Heidegger and Lacan we explicate an important question area of contemporary Continental thought. In fact, my bold claim is that if we do not conceptualize this problem properly, we miss the central point of gravity of contemporary thinking.

The Question of Science

For Heidegger, all sciences belong to and continue the metaphysical tradition of forgetting the question of the being of beings. For Lacan, every proper science means a break against, within and in regard to the metaphysical tradition of philosophy. From a Heideggerian perspective, Lacan is unable to see the metaphysical implications and presuppositions of all the sciences. From a Lacanian perspective, Heidegger’s interpretation of a science is, in the end, naive and totalitarian. In other words, Heidegger includes all discourses into the totality formed by the history of the question of (the meaning of) the being of beings. Besides this, Heidegger includes all sciences into a homogenic and homological group, the totality of science, which seems to be, not only a coarse judgment, but also simply a totally blind and incompetent misjudgment. In Lacanian jargon, this means that Heidegger himself presupposes the Other of the Other: for Heidegger, the question of the being of beings functions, in the last analysis, as the Other of the Other criticized by Lacan. For Lacanians, what is radical in sciences is their ways of constructing discourses through formalized languages, not some determined “scientific” proposition. This is why Lacan stresses again and again that psychoanalysis is a science, and not only whatsoever science, but the science of the subject of science. The subject psychoanalyses studies is the subject of signifiers approached formally as signifiers, without their signified. Psychoanalysis as Lacan sees it became possible only after scientific revolutions. From this perspective, psychoanalysis is always secondary in regard to scientific revolutions.

Heidegger rejects sciences and the formalization of language; instead, he returns to the poetry, especially to Hölderlin, and to the times when philosophy was still immersed within poetry, namely to the pre-Socratic thinkers. Neither Lacan nor Badiou has denied the importance of this return or the importance of what took place in Greek philosophy before, with and after Plato. However, the way in which both Lacan and Badiou construct their discourses makes their commitment to explication through formalization pretty clear: after mathematicians, Newton, Marx, Darwin, Einstein etc. the Heideggerian return means, in the end, from the perspective of constructing discourses of thinking, degeneration, not regeneration. From this perspective, the only thing shared by sciences is the explication and abstraction through formalization.

The Formalization of Language

Thus, the question of science and the question of formalization of language are, in a way, the parallax of the “same” problem: they form the two sides of Moebius strip. The question of science deals with the revolution in the ways and the rules according to which we claim something about the presence. The question of the formalization of language deals with the conditions we lay down for the systems of differences within which these claims are articulated. In other words, the question of science names the modern problem of relating oneself to presence, and the question of the formalization of language names the modern problem of relating oneself to absence.

To be frank, there are certain moments in Heidegger’s writings when he himself turns toward formalization of his language, for example, when writes the being of beings as Sein and when he demands that Dasein should be written as Da-sein. However, these exceptions are really exceptions and they are clearly against the overall tendencies of Heidegger’s discourse. In Lacan, the formalization is an on-going and, in fact, increasing tendency from the fifties to the eighties. The topological objects and knots are nothing but the crystallization of this tendency: whereas still in the Seminar XI Lacan states that his formalizations are something we need to support our discourse due to the impotence of our thinking, during his knot era he states explicitly that the formalization itself, namely the knot, is the real.

It has to be noted, however, one thing: the formalization of language takes place always within a situation. Thus, the language to be formalized is always specific to that situation. For example, Lacan formalized the theoretical language of psychoanalysis, Newton formalized the language of physics etc. It is ridiculous to formalize natural languages that are used in the endless number of situations (which means, of course, that the contemporary so called “analytic philosophy” is ridiculous, from the hard-liners like Quine to the soft-liners like Putnam and Rorty, including the Finns Jaakko Hintikka – referred by Lacan himself, too – and Georg Henrik von Wright).


All this has certain consequences of which I present two:

1) First of all, a Lacanian thinker should never miss or deny the importance of sciences. This does not mean blind obedience to all kinds of discourse presenting themselves as science, on the contrary: from this perspective, there are sciences only on and of the presence and every science aims at the formalization of its language. Thus, for example, didactics or psychology are not and will never be sciences. Similarly, natural sciences can never say anything about meanings: you can use the best possible functional magnetic resonance imaging for observing what takes place in the brain of a speaking being, but you will never catch any meanings but only biological processes within the brain.

2) Secondly, the formalization of language is, however, partly independent of the question of science. For philosophy – which is not and will never be a science – the formalization of language forms the supporting guideline, the way to abstract and explicate its articulations.

In order to argue for the formalization within philosophy and the independence of sciences from metaphysics, I present ‘The Logic of Monogamy’. It is, on the one hand, a continuation of Lacanian theories; and, on the other hand, a withdrawal through formalization from a certain part of Freudian heritage of psychoanalysis, from the part that does not recognize the independence of sciences from philosophical speculations.

The Logic of Monogamy


In Ils se marièrent et euront beaucoup d’enfants (France, 2004), the director Yvan Attal introduces three men who are friends and whose relations to women differ from each other: the first one is married and without a lover (and his marriage seems to be an endless hell); the second one is married, but he has also a lover (and this arrangement does not seem to be an easy solution either); and the third man is a steady bachelor and he has an endless series of women, besides which he becomes a father during the story. The theme is expressed explicitly: whether to devote oneself to one woman or to the possibility to have all the women – and whether to bind oneself to this opposition (one “realized” woman vs. all the possible women) or to break this logical division with, for example, a lover. In other words, it is a question of the logic of monogamy and the nature and necessity of this logic. All this is softened by humor that partly veils the severity of the skeleton of the film, but not too much: this is a question that touches everybody living in monogamy, like the most of Western people and the most of women in the Moslem nations do.

Essential broadening to this setting is brought about by the question of children, for it is the birth of new human life that reorganizes the logic of monogamy as if from the inside of this logic. With the birth of a new human being, the black and white setting of one “realized” vs. all the possibilities has to be transformed into a system with more nuances.

Because I am interested in the logic of monogamy, I will put into the brackets the problem of sex as the oppositions between a man and a woman and between homosexuality and heterosexuality. My bold statement is that, for the logic of monogamy, the sex (as articulated by the oppositions man/woman and hetero/homosexuality) is, in the end, irrelevant. The central logical terms of the logic of monogamy include: one, all, possible, realized, but/except, all-but/except and one+third. For all of these, the sex is insignificant.

One realized vs. all the possible ones

The love for one has, no doubt, its biological background. This biological background is not, however, central for the pure logical approach, for the place of biology is, in regard to the logic of monogamy, the place of mythology. In other words, one cannot solve biological/mythical problems with the logic of monogamy. In any case, everybody who has lived or worked with the babies knows that for a baby its relationship to its first caretaker – in many cultures usually to its mother – is a special one and nobody is equal to the mother in baby’s eyes. This is a fundamental empirical fact, not a logical one. As noted, this empirical fact functions, no doubt, also as the mythical root of monogamy, but exactly because of this, it is irrelevant for the logic of monogamy.

In a monogamy that functions in both ways (both sides of a pair are devoted fully to their partner), it is a question of giving to the other an exclusive love/sexual enjoyment. What is central for the logic of monogamy is the setting determined by this exclusiveness: on the one side is my chosen one/the one who has chosen me, this one and only, this realized relationship within which sexuality is practiced, included and narrowed; on the other side are all the possibilities (including this one that, on the other side, excludes all the other possibilities). In other words, there is the opposition between the in-principle-determined-and-realized-but-non-transparent “one” that is more than a possibility and the almost-totally-non-determined “all the possibilities”:

Schema 1: The founding logical opposition of monogamy


However, the actual logic of monogamy is not as simple as the above-presented founding opposition. On the both sides, there appears usually – and, again, this is an empirical, non-logical fact that, in all its non-logic is, however, the very condition for the continuation of monogamy – a special “but/except”. On the side ruled by the one that is more than a possibility, there appears often, even if not always, another than the one, namely the third one of the couple: the child. The side that is ruled by all the possibilities is determined, on the other side, by a central factor that limits these possibilities: the prohibition against incest. Thus, the one that is more than a possibility becomes “one+third”, and all the possibilities become “all-except”:

Schema 2: The buts/excepts of the founding opposition of monogamy

In fact, monogamy can go on only through these buts/excepts of its founding opposition: only if the pair gives birth to the third one can the humankind, empirically, exists in the future, and only if the children do not marry their parents can a monogamy exists (for, in a traditional monogamy, the father and the mother are already engaged and not free to be chosen). Of course, these two buts/excepts are logically dependent on each other and together they form the non-logical excess of monogamy – around which monogamy is structured.


Thus, I have presented the logic of monogamy, based, not on the sex, but on the logical terms. In other words, the logic of monogamy is, as such, independent of the sex. The questions of sex and hetero/homosexuality are, from this perspective, irrelevant and particular components of monogamy.

The implications of this paper are provocative and they can be summarizes thus: in regard to desire, enjoyment, marriage etc. the sex is of no importance. On the contrary, the concern for the sex belongs to biological discourses: the sex is not a philosophical category, but a coarse abbreviation for the innumerable functions of probability proper to biological realm. This means that the sex can be studied meaningfully only through natural scientific methods: the sex is nothing but what becomes present through those methods. It is clear that this arrogant statement has its targets.

1) First of all, the main targets are the crude feministic theories from Judith Butler and Luce Irigaray to Jane Fonda. For example, Butler’s Gender Trouble presents a ridiculous reading of Lacan and, if possible, even more ridiculous reading of biological observations. This kind of mess is possible only when we confuse philosophical concepts with scientific concepts and do not bother to read the original texts. If Butler had even tried to explicate her statements through some kind of formalization, she would probably have noticed even by herself the ridiculousness of her statements.

2) Secondly, the kernel of Lacanian theory on sexuality is the discontinuity between the sex and the desire. Thus, my intention at the Lacanian front is to underline the simple, but often forgotten axiom of the discontinuity between the biological sex and the desire. This discontinuity is the origin of such fundamental Lacanian concepts like the imaginary and the fantasy. In other words, this fundamental gap is what the imaginary and the fantasy veil. The first time this discontinuity was explicitly articulated by Lacan was in “Beyond the Reality Principle” (1936)’: the human sexual behavior is independent of the biological sex. Here are the roots of the concept of imaginary and, thus, of the triad RSI. Again, the concept of fantasy names this “same” gap, or the way this gap is veiled – and what would the Lacanian field be without the concept of fantasy!

3) What it comes to psychoanalytic theory, this problematic area brings forth the never-ending debate of the relation between psychoanalysis and biology – articulated again and again by such names like Freud, Lacan and Laplanche. The implications of this paper are evident: leave to biology what belongs to biology and concentrate on what is yours, namely, on the logic and dynamics of desire, enjoyment, fantasy, identification, symptoms and signifiers. The sex is to be explicated by natural scientific methods, in other words, it is something that is present. But natural sciences can say nothing about what is absent, for example, about the system of difference (the symbolic), the absent cause of desire (the object a) etc. For example, the logic of desire is created historically by control and inhibitions, but also by baits and structures, ideals and images; here, one factor is, if you live within monogamy, the logic of monogamy.

Thus, the final conclusion of all this is the only radical conclusion to be drawn: psychoanalysis can say nothing about the topic of sex. Thus, ‘The Logic of Monogamy’ introduces – with a help and support of formalization – a sex-free logic of organizing and structuring desire, enjoyment, identifications and symptoms. Such is the future of psychoanalysis – and, in the end, such was one of the fundamental discoveries of Lacan.


[1] It is improbable that Heidegger and Lacan would have discussed this matter during Heidegger’s visit to Lacan’s home in 1955.

Art: Anna Gaskell, untitled # 8 (wonder), C-print, 1996.


Facebook Comments


  1. T.
    Posted July 9, 2008 at 1:15 am | Permalink

    Why the Heidegger?

  2. perfume
    Posted July 9, 2008 at 1:54 am | Permalink

    Why not?

  3. Posted July 9, 2008 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Several positions are attributed to Heidegger, without a single reference to any of Heidegger’s texts. Is this a case of the author projecting themselves onto an imaginary Heidegger? Perhaps because actually reading what Heidegger really wrote would contradict everything attributed here to an imaginary Heidegger?

  4. perfume
    Posted July 9, 2008 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    Very much so, in the order of Carmelo Licita Rosa’s terms “the toilette of the Other….”

  5. alphonse
    Posted July 9, 2008 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    “Perhaps because actually reading what Heidegger really wrote would contradict everything attributed here to an imaginary Heidegger?”
    Does that mean that Heidegger’s Rectoral Addresses as his Political texts are known, belong to the realm of the imaginary? Meaning that Heidegger never was Rector at Freiburg, or that he never was a member of the Nazi Party? I hope I am mistaken…

  6. alice
    Posted July 9, 2008 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

    alphonse – I presume the certain Other is better related to Heidegger’s soul – with “soul” I mean his writings – or the emotional, intellectual energy impulsing his dubious activities

  7. MIkel Parent
    Posted July 10, 2008 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Two very quick things:

    1. I find no “imaginary” Heidegger here. Only the Heidegger that I’ve read over many years; a Real, Symbolic, and Imaginary Heidegger. Besides, to formalize my language, there are at-least-two Heideggers.

    2. I am wondering how formalization in Heidegger operates as a narrative, not of sex, but of sexuality. Zizek has an interesting take on this in several places (I think Parallax View and Ticklish Subject). I cannot rehearse the specifics of his argument here, from memory, but the importance of the argument lies in the manner in which it allows one to come full circle with respect to formalization. That is, it seems to me what is missing from this paper is a stronger connection between Heideggers thought and its underlying sexualized (phantasy) logic.

    3. Where in Heidegger can we find a stronger turn toward formalization? One example: look at any number of the political texts included in this edition of The Symptom and you will immediately see the logics of formalization at work, explicitly- the people as choosing between assuming their destiny or not (possibility bound to/through the Other as a mere background or medium for the arrival of that future), the logic of exception (this is an exceptional moment for an exceptional people) etc. etc. Thus, it seems that the Heidegger most represented here is the post World War II Heidegger (after the ‘turn’). Yet, the earlier Heidegger’s language is much more attuned to the types of formalization presented above.

  8. Janne Kurki
    Posted July 12, 2008 at 12:22 am | Permalink

    1) In regard to Heidegger. The central question here is the position of the question of the meaning of the being of beings. My statement is that, for Heidegger, this question itself functions as the Other of the Other. The corollary of this is what I call the most important difference between Heidegger and Lacan. In other words, due to fact that the question of the meaning of the being of beings functions as the Other of the Other, Heidegger deals with the question of science as he does. From the perspective of the question of the meaning of the being of beings, sciences do really look like continuation of metaphysics. The moment the question of the meaning of the being of beings looses its position as the Other of the Other – that moment can arrive due to practical participation in scientific research or, for example, by reading Lacan, Badiou or Althusser – the moment one notices the essential differences between metaphysical and scientific propositions and discourses.

    2) In regard to the sex. Unfortunately, I have not been clear enough about the difference between the sex and sexuality. The basic statement is simple: on the one hand, the sex is nothing but what natural sciences produce it to be; on the other hand, sexuality is not determined by the sex. The logic of monogamy structures sexuality and it has absolutely nothing to do with the sex. The logic of sexuality/monogamy can and has to be analyzed in logical terms, for it depends on signifiers, not on biology.

  9. MIkel Parent
    Posted July 12, 2008 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    From Janne Kurki’s comment (above):

    “From the perspective of the question of the meaning of the being of beings, sciences do really look like continuation of metaphysics.”

    Thank you for this. I have always had trouble formulating exactly this point in a concise way.

    One more question regarding the non-relation between sex and sexuality: can one propose then that the discourse of biology, with respect to contemporary ideological constructions of sexuality, ultimately functions as a ‘metaphysical remainder’ in the guise of supposed raw material fact?

    Let me restate: can one also see Heideggers’ insistence on the ‘metaphysical’ foundation of (what he calls) science confirmed in terms of the fetishization of sex as determining sexuality since, according to this logic, biology operates as the Other of the Other of sexuality?

    I totally agree with the notion that sexuality (and its various deployments-monogamy et. al.) operates according to a logic of signifiers and not biology. Yet, the article makes clear, contemporary cultural discourses on sexuality tend to plug up the non-relational logic (here the logic of monogamy) with a ‘metaphysical’ use of ‘biology’. Thus, what appears as the “meaning” of sexuality/sex, is actually a screen against the lack of meaning, the non-relational logic.

    So, yes, one should always ruthlessly formalize.

    Thank you very much for your article and your comments. They have been very helpful.

  10. Janne Kurki
    Posted July 15, 2008 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    I would make a clear difference between 1) a science and 2) the individual opinions of scientists:

    1) Natural sciences themselves are, from a Lacanian-Althusserian perspective, non-metaphysical. Their propositions on the presence, founded on empirical facts, are constructed in non-metaphysical ways. However, this statement presupposes that those propositions stay within their correct limits. Thus, genetics can tell us only on the construction of proteins within human bodies and we have to study this construction one protein by protein. Different calculations of general inheritance percents of, for example, different diseases – not to speak of sexuality – are usually very close to nonsense and differ greatly from one scientist to another and do not stand critical statistical analysis. The central point is that the limits of a science change historically, and if we want to define them in detail we have to do it working within that special scientific discourse in that historical situation. Thus my proposition is that today the most nuanced, manifold and complex concept of the sex is to be found in natural sciences like genetics, epigenetics, endocrinology etc. – in so far as those discourses stay within their proper limits. These scientific discourses use highly formalized, non-natural and non-human languages, including, for example, the so called Human Genome Project.

    2) Individual scientist have great tendency to overestimate their expertise, and they think often that they can tell everything about everything. Using the authority they have gained due to their scientific work, they easily confuse, for example, ethical opinions with scientific propositions. In regard to the sex and sexuality, we have an excellent example of this kind of confusion or overstepping limits, namely, the studies on homosexuality done using the MRI. First of all, in those studies, scientists easily presuppose that a difference within biological organism is the cause of homosexuality, not an effect of homosexuality or the manifestation of homosexuality at the biological level. Secondly, they do not mention that the differences between individuals are usually much bigger than the small statistical differences they have found. Thirdly, their definition of homosexuality is usually so naive that it makes one wonder if there is a single homosexual human being whose sexuality were so simple construction.

    Thus, I would say that yes, quasi-scientific propositions have been pronounced and used metaphysically. However, a science is not a collection of propositions, but a way to produce propositions on the presence in a certain historical situation. If we compare this to philosophy, we have a parallel situation: philosophy is not a set of propositions, but a way to produce them – and not everything presented as philosophy is philosophy.

  11. copan
    Posted December 17, 2008 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Just one comment:
    “Lacan stresses again and again that psychoanalysis is a science”…
    That is not for sure, and it’s not that simple. Lacan stresses that the subject of psychianalysis is the subject of the science (science and truth 1965), but the fact that de Lacan worked in the formalization of the expirience of psychoanalysis doesn´t means psychoanalysis is a science. M. Mannoni, for example, affirmed the contrary. The ethics of psichoanalysis and its respect for the singularity are in fact contrary to the scientific method.
    On the other hand, Lacan never denied that science could be the culmination of methaphisics; what its real for Lacan (a) its something that scapes from the any possibility of scientific formalization. Lacan’s topology and formulas are not recognized by the scientific community, because, if psychoanalysis is science, it would be a different kind of science, perhaps much closer to “being of beings”, or perhaps in a negative way (le parletre, the lack of being)…

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