Science and Truth: an Introduction I
Dylan Evans

Author’s Bio

In the reading room at the British Library, a number of subject- headings are displayed in white lettering above the bookshelves at regular intervals around the circular wall. Anyone who wishes to consult Freud’s works will find that these are located exactly mid- way between two of the subject-headings. These two headings are ’science’ and “religion”.

The librarian at British Library is certainly not the only one to have wondered about the status of psychoanalytic theory. From its very first days, psychoanalysis has been the subject of an intense debate over whether or not it truly merits being described as a science. Freud himself, however, had no doubts. ‘While it was originally the name of a particular therapeutic method,’ he wrote in 1924, “it has now also become the name of a science—the science of unconscious mental processes” (Freud, 1925d: 70). In The Future of an Illusion, he went on to contrast the scientific approach employed by psychoanalysis with childishness of religion (Freud, 1927c).

On this point, Lacan agrees completely with Freud. His boldest statements come towards the end of The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, when he states that “psychoanalysis is not a religion. It proceeds from the same status as Science itself (Lacan, 1964: 265). These claims invite reflection on the nature of scientific enquiry and psychoanalytic research, and Lacan hoped that such reflection would both throw light on psychoanalysis and also “may even enlighten us as to what we should understand by science.” (Lacan, 1964: 7).

Lacan’s engagement with these questions can be traced back to some of his earliest writings on psychoanalysis. However, it is not until 1964, in The Four Fundamental Concepts, that these questions receive his full attention. This seminar is followed by that on Problèmes cruciaux pour la psychanalyse (1964-5), in which he seeks to support his claims for the scientificity of psychoanalysis by further developing his earlier (1961-2) remarks on the topological figures of the moebius strip, the cross-cap, and Klein’s bottle. The following seminar, L’objet de la psychanalyse (1965-6), also deals extensively with questions of science, thus completing a kind of trilogy. The text which forms the basis of the principle seminar programme in the London Circle this year, “Science and truth”, is in fact a transcript of the first talk in the 1965-6 seminar.

In this text, Lacan takes up a number of themes from the two previous seminars. One important theme revolves around the concept of “Science itself”, La science (Lacan italicizes the definite article here and spells it with a capital L). This, Lacan argues; is a strictly modern phenomenon which must be rigorously distinguished from all pre-modem simulacra of scientific enquiry. “Science itself” first emerges in the seventeenth century with the birth of modem physics, which is also the moment of the Cartesian cogito. These two events are not merely related by some accident of time; Lacan argues that the Cartesian subject is none other than the “subject of science”, the subject implied by the axioms”of the scientific method.

Lacan bases this account of the history of science on the writings of Koyré, whose account of Newtonian physics seems to have been a great influence on Lacan. In addition to Koyré, Lacan is indebted to the philosophical work of Bachelard and Canguilhem, which clearly place him in the rationalist rather than the empiricist tradition in the philosophy of science. In other words, for Lacan, what marks a discourse as scientific is a high degree of mathematical formalization. This is what lies behind Lacan’s attempts to formalize psychoanalytic theory in terms of various mathematical formulae. These formulae also encapsulate a further characteristic of scientific discourse (perhaps the most fundamental one in Lacan’s view), which is that it should be transmissible (Lacan, 1973: 60).

Lacan’s allegiance to the rationalist tradition helps to explain the often biting criticisms which he levels at much modern scientific research. These criticisms are almost always aimed at forms of science based on empiricist assumptions (whicb Lacan regards ultimately as a false form of science), and not at science itself. When he criticises modern science for ignoring the symbolic dimension of human existence and thus encouraging modern man “to forget his subjectivity” (Lacan, 1953: 70), he clearly has sueh empiricist vehicles as communication science and behaviourist psychology in mind. Thus Lacan is not criticizing Science itself, but only a particular form which he regards as a deviation from ‘true science’.Thus it would certainly be wrong to describe Lacan as a luddite, fiercely opposing the advance of any and all scientific enquiry. Far from it; he insists that the subject of psychoanalysis can only be the subject of science, for in the era of science it is impossible to recapture any ‘humanistic’ subject. Indeed, Lacan stresses that this is what separates Freud from lung. Whereas lung wanted to restore ‘a subject gifted with depths’, a subject with some direct, archetypal access to knowledge (which can be seen as a form of intuitionism), Freud insisted that an exclusively rational route to knowledge is now such a common presupposition that it cannot be ignored. In stating that psychoanalysis operates only on the subject of science, Lacan is arguing that psychoanalysis is not based on any appeal to an ineffable experience or flash of intuition, but on a process of reasoned dialogue, even when reason confronts its limit in madness.

The “subject of science” and the “subject gifted with depths”, are not the only subjects whom Lacan mentions in the article. Indeed, the article prolifera’:es with different subjects, the relationship between which is not immediately apparent and invites further reflection. Thus, in addition to the two subjects already mentioned, and the kng-farniliar “subject of the enunciation” and “subject of the signifier”, Lacan also introduces new terms such as the “responsible subject”, the ’suffering subject’, and the “subject of understanding”. Such distinctions introduce greater complexity into the Lacanian theory of subjectivity, and undermine any simplistic account of Lacan’s thought that is content with merely outlining his distinction between the subject and the ego.

As well as discussing the subject of science, Lacan is also concerned to elucidate something about the object of science. There is something about this object, Lacan argues, which has remained obscure ever since the birth of modern science, and upon which psychoanalysis can perhaps throw some light. However, it is not simply a question of identifying the object of Science itself, but also a question of identifying the object which is unique to psychoanalysis. For two decades prior to the paper on science and truth, Lacan had been arguing that a science is only constituted as such by isolating and defining its particular object of enquiry. Thus in 1946 he had argued that psychoanalysis had actually set psychology on a scientific footing by providing it with a proper object of enquiry —the imago (Lacan, 1946: 188). Hence when, in the 1965 paper which is our text for this year, he isolates the objet petit a as the object of psychoanalysis, he is in effect claiming a scientific status for psychoanalysis (Lacan, 1965: 863).

This brings us back to our initial problem. What status are we to attribute to psychoanalytic theory? Is it a truly scientific discourse? Lacan’s confident claims in 1964 about psychoanalysis ‘proceeding from the same status as science’ seem to imply that it has already attained scientific status. However, in “Science and truth”, only a year later, there are signs that Lacan is becoming more cautious. Thus he now distinguishes psychoanalysis from science on the grounds that each has a different mode of relationship to truth as cause. His growing uncertainty is reflected by apparently contradictory statements in the same paper; he both states that psychoanalysis is not a science but a “practice” (pratique) with a “scientific vocation” (Lacan, 1965: 863), and also speaks of ‘the psychoanalytic science’ (Lacan, 1965: 876). By 1977 he has moved even further away from the confident claims of 1964, and now explicitly denies that psychoanalysis is a science.

Psychoanalysis is not a science. It has no scientific status – it merely waits and hopes for it. Psychoanalysis is a delusion—a delusion which is expected to produce a science… It is a scientific delusion, but this doesn’t mean that analytic practice will ever produce a science. (Lacan, 1976-7: Ornicar? 14: 4 [seminar of 11.01.77])

However, this statement is perhaps less categorical than it seems at first sight. For in psychoanalytic theory, ever since Freud’s remark on the similarity between delusions and philosophical systems, there has been an awareness of the logical rigour of psychotic phenomena (Freud, 1912-13: 73). Indeed, in his later work, Lacan goes on to describe psychosis as “an essay in rigor”, and half-jokingly (but only half) muses that if he had been a little more psycholic he might have produced a more rigorous theorisation of psychoanalysis than he did. However, in the paper on science and truth, it is not psychoanalysis that Lacan compares to a delusion. but science itself; he describes science as “a fully realised paranoia” (Lacan. 1965: 874). This is because scientific constructions resemble the architecture of a delusion in their rigour and explanatory power, and because both science and paranoia are based on the operation of foreclosure.

Thus the statement in 1977 that psychoanalysis is not a science but a delusion invokes an opposition that is simply not present, even undermined, in the 1965 paper on science and truth. In terms of the 1965 paper, the statement that psychoanalysis is a delusion can only be read as confirming its scientific status. This radical position places, Lacan at an even further distance from the empiricist tradition than do his appeals to rationalist philosophers. And this is what makes Lacan particularly impervious to’the kind of criticisms levelled at psychoanalysis today by Anglo-American philosophers of science. Inspired by Eysenck’s famous tirade against psychoanalysis in the 1970’s (Eysenck & Wilson, 1973), a new generation of philosophers have argued in recent years that psychoanalytic theory is not scientific because it is not falsifiable (eg. Grunbaum, 1984; Macmillan, 1991;’ Esterson, 1993). Such criticisms are based entirely on the empiricist account of science which Lacan rejects.

Despite their inadequacies, the criticisms of Grunbaum, Macmillan and Esterson raise complex and important issues in the philosophy of science which could be profitably reworked in the light of Lacan’s 1965 paper. However, although the question of whether or not psychoanalysis can be called a science is an important matter for debate, it is perhaps more interesting in the present situation to step back from this debate for a time and to consider the question as to why the accusation of unscientificity carries so much weight. The answer is surely that science occupies a hegemonic place in modem society as the exclusive means of access to “the truth.”

It follows from this that the question raised by the accusations of unscientificity is that of the relationship between science and truth. It is thus not only important to examine what we understand by “science” but also important to clarify what we mean by “truth.” Does something qualify as truth only when it can be validated by the discourse of institutionalized science? Or does modern science, as Lacan argues, derive its power precisely from the fact that it wishes to know nothing of truth as cause? It is to these questions that the London Circle will turn its attention this coming year.