Psychoanalysis and Science
Eric Laurent

Author’s Bio


Is psychoanalysis a science? How does it find a standing amongst the sciences? These crucial questions repeat themselves in the teaching of Lacan. As they repeat themselves, they receive different replies. We are not going to consider all of them, not going to exhaust them. We are going to concentrate on a single point: how Lacan put back into question in the name of psychoanalysis the classical epistemological postulate which claims to define a science by its object.

When Lacan intervened in it, psychoanalysis was the object of a lively debate: is it a science of nature or a science of culture? The Hungarian psychoanalytical school, with the ethnologist Geza Roheim and the biologist Michael Balint, was particularly torn by debates of this kind. In the adventures of Wilhelm Reich the Viennese encountered another, more political and social way of exploring the scientific postulates of the Freudian discipline. From the 1920’s until his death, Freud never stopped redefining psychoanalysis from the point of view of civilisation and its discontents. Without renouncing in any way the drive as “rudder” with one end of the stern-post in biology and the other in grammar, he kept open the trans-individual perspective of psychoanalysis. Past and present collective modes of organization—religion and politics—are for Freud indissociable from psychoanalysis whose curative mission is for him more global than individual. The paradox of his modus operandi, from case to case, one by one, is only apparent.

At the end of the 1930’s Lacan established his epistemological point of departure in two texts, one from 1936 and the other from 1938. In “Beyond the reality principle,” he proposes the term “complex” as ‘the most concrete and fertile one to have been brought into the study of human behavior in opposition to the concept of instinct which had been shown to be inadequate and sterile in this domain’. Two years later, in Les complexes familiaux, he adds that in this opposition one recognizes ‘translated into psychological terms … the essential character of the object studied: its conditioning by cultural factors ai the expense of natural factors’. This ‘a; the expense of seems today to be the key-term. Lacan refuses to consider one of the options in the alternative culture/nature and proposes, on the contrary, to maintain the predominance of the relation to the counterpart insofar as man is, from the beginning, a “denaturalized” animal, exiled from a felicitous union with nature by the vital misery of his, early years. This first proposition has a number of repercussions: as far as we are concerned, we will limit ourselves to questioning the absolute separation between natural science and cultural science in order to determine the object of psychoanalysis. On this point we shall probably already meet the premiss Lacan established in his text of 1965, “Science and truth” (Écrits), advancing in another direction, as formulating ‘the opposition between exact sciences and conjectural sciences which can no longer be held’ today.

In this way, from his entry into psychoanalysis. Lacan endangers the intellectual comfort of those who believed that a vague reference to biology was enough and that, whatever the progress of this science and its branches, the Brucke/Helmholtz model adopted by Freud at the beginning of his work remained adequate to anchor psychoanalysis in science.

In any case, we see that Lacan’s point of view cannot be reduced to a culturalist proposition. It consists in a subversion of any myth of naturality in the heart of psychoanalysis.

The decisive step in the 1950’s which Jacques-Alain Miller has called “Lacan’s hypothesis about the unconscious”, the definition of the unconscious as structured not by the complex or by me imago but like a language, will radicalise the epistemological question. Beginning here, the scientific horizon of psychoanalysis will have to be sought in the forms of knowledge produced by the formulation of the discourses: languages and logics. To the point, still happening, at which exact science and conjectural science—according to the terminology proposed by Lacan—join up.

We shall limit ourselves today to formulating two observations on the development of Lacan’s epistemological point of view. The first refers to the mode of emptiness introduced by what Lacan calls the subject of science. The second refers to the relation that the “subject of the drive” maintains with excess generated by the objects produced by science.

The subject of science and emptiness

According to a certain epistemological current, the sciences can only be defined by the relation they have with the local knowledge that they develop. As for other currents, it is possible to establish alongside the plurality of science, the relation of science itself with the beyond of knowledge; truth.

Karl Popper and his students were able to impose a singularity on the Anglo-Saxon domain which was not favorable. For Sir Karl, a statement is scientific if an ordered experiment can invalidate it. To the thesis according to which science is a set of confirmations of knowledge, he opposed another: “what can be falsified is scientific.” In this way, he situated the position of truth in science. In order then to deduce that science pursues and carries to its culmination the task of the science of being, that the true philosophical activity of our time is epistemology such as be practised it.

Lacan also chose to consider the links between science and truth but in order to deduce something very different. In agreement with French epistemology in the way Bachelard and Koyré developed it, he insisted on the radical discontinuity introduced by the inception in the sixteenth century of mathematical physics which established, after Galileo, a new regime of scientific activity in general. Sciences as intellectual activity existed before this: the calculations of the Chinese and Egyptian astrologers did not wait for the century of genius, and nor did the Greek geometers. Chinese physics and chemistry, capable of producing bronze and very remarkable canons, besides gunpowder, ensuring the success of the armies of the Empire of the Middle Dynasty, did not wait for mathematicalphysics. Needham was able to demonstrate in his studies on Chinese science to what point physics and chemistry preceding science had experimental aptitudes.

What was at stake with Galileo is very different. From the moment when the conjunction of the preoccupations of the well-diggers in Florence with mathematical calculations cut off from the will of the master was produced, science penetrates into the sublunar world in a way which escapes any discourse which pretends to master it. Science does not have any need of heroes and martyrs in order to ensure i;s expansion; apparently, it is enough to be open to anyone who leafs through its writings. In his Galileo Galilei, Berthed Brecht grasped in a remarkable way the profound changes operated by science in the traditional figures of the great man.

Lacan accepts the “epistemological break” of French epistemology but in order to radicalize it, having remained broken down in its task of explaining the new status of science in the world—to explain it, it had remained too attached to the reduction by which each science defines its object. Indeed, epistemology ensures that no science is a science at all except by describing its slow reduction from the enormous field it confronts initially to obtaining a limited object.

In the very terms of Bachelard, science goes from the complex to the simple, and Koycré has shown that the definition of the object of physics supposes the invention of a new concept, acceleration, hence the definition of a new movement, a movement of uniform acceleration. Accepting favourably the results obtained by this proposition, Lacan considers it insufficient and questions it in an explicit way in 1965: “for I don’t know that it (epistemology) has fully taken into account by the means of that decisive mutation which by way of physics founded Science itself in the modern sense, a sense taken as absolute.”

To the diversity of objects in play in the different sciences., Lacan opposes “a (radical) modification in our position of subject in a double sense: that it is inaugural and that science is always reinforcing it more.” In 1964 Lacan asks what a science which could include psychoanalysis would look like, The following year, he takes a step towards that inclusion, in advancing the concept of the “subject of science.”

His point of departure consists in reconsidering the Cartesian cogilo defined as a moment of ‘rejection of all knowledge’. The term rejection (rejet) carries a lot of weight because Lacan uses it for psychosis; throughout his teaching he himself brought into focus the relations between science and psychosis. That does not imply that they are confused, but rather that psychosis and science have the same model as do obsessional neurosis and religion.

Lacan reads the first meditation of Descartes as the rejection of knowledge, which implies its reappearance in the being of the subject, under the form of the “I am”, which “attempts to found for the subject a certain anchorage in being (un certain amarrage dans l’être), whence the subject of science is constituted. What Lacan understands by this term is a radically new way of conceiving of the subject: as the product of an operation which strictly concerns knowledge.

Armed with the subject of science, Lacan was able to re-read the Freud of “Splitting of the Ego in the Process of Defense’ and “The Loss of Reality in Neurosis and Psychosis.” Indeed, Freud defined the splitting of the subject as an operation which concerns knowledge with respect to the existence of the maternal penis. From the logical structure of the subject of the fetish is deduced his place in being. “The Loss of Reality in Neurosis and Psychosis” establishes the same movement between rejection and anchoring. What is lost in psychosis cannot be distinguished from what returns in that place, Freud emphasizes. Negative phenomena are no longer anything but a time of productive phenomena.

The discussion thus considered from the perspective of rejection allowed Lacan to refuse a certain reading of the term “psychic reality” in Freud. The reading consisted of opposing it to “perceptible reality’ by the system Pept-Cs. in such a way that it would suffice to rectify the subject’s relation to his psychic reality, understood as fantasy, in order to situate himself in reality—such as it is and as sense data inform us about it. The fundamental scope of the subject is not the perception of something which would already be present but of something which comes in the place of what has been submitted to doubt, rejected. This scope is made of what was bejahgt, admitted, and what was rejected, aussgestossen, in accordance with the terms that Freud employed in Die Verneinung. The real of the subject’s position, his place in being (here we admit the equivalence of two formulations, even it means discussing them) depends not on the positivity of a perception but on a previous, rejecting movement. That does not imply a confusion of the two.

In this reading of Freud the link between science and psychoanalysis is founded on the identity of the operation of the subject of science and of the subject of the unconscious. The psychoanalytic unconscious, founded in the discussion of the subject, would never have been able to emerge before scientific experience. The man of re-emerging humanism does not lead to psychoanalysis despite his preoccupation with love; it is more the Pascalian man, the mathemaiisation of human experience in the conjecture of probability, which will lead us there.

Knowledge is not obtained in the name of man but in the name of the subject linked a knowledge but which it is demonstrated that he was already there, suddenly. In order that one may believe it, in order that one believe in the unconscious, it will be necessary for science to discover an ordered knowledge to a point previously unthinkable. Lacan makes his perspective precise in his “Italian note” of 1974. What is crucial in science does not reside in if, mode of transmission by the matheme but in what refuses it, in what ceaselessly escapes and permits new refutations. Lacan uses the Popperian term of refutation in order to link refutation and rejection. “To believe that science is true on the pretext that it is transmissible (mathematically) is a properly delusional idea that each step of science refutes by rejecting a first formulation to old means. By virtue of this fact there is no progress that would be notable because what follows is not known. There is only the discerning of a knowledge in the real.” This accounts for the belief of certain actual researchers, for whom knowledge is posed in the real. written in mathematical language, by God himself. Newton maintains he read the great divine book with its mechanics in the same way that he would have read the Book of Daniel. Contrary to the belief held for a time in the nineteenth century, not only were the great physicists not spontaneous atheists but, moreover, it seemed especially difficult for them to become so.

The reason for the consistency of psychoanalysis is its articulation, not with the belief of scholars, but with the “subject of science.” Freud is not a man of a scientific epoch but a man of all time—to paraphrase Ben Johnson speaking of Shakespeare—in as much as according to Lacan, he linked the unconscious with the subject of science. Freud got out of the impasse of the fin de siecle Viennese spirit by inventing a new concept: the divided subject.

Where is this subject to be met? What is his mode of being? The most contrary to the Lacanian orientation—the title of a course by Jacques-Alain Miller—would be to give body to the subject of the unconscious by making it a homunculus. The error, the epistemological obstacle, against which other disciplines before psychoanalysis knock up, is to pretend to incarnate it according to the teleological term used by Lacan. For example, when considering permutation groups of a certain number of statements which operate in the configuration of the structure of myth, one attributes to them a pre-logical character. The same thing happens when a Piagetian child, passing from a topological orientation in what concerns the world to metric space is qualified in the same way. We could add the child of psycholinguistics.

It is precisely where the subject has been most “disincarnated”, in game-theory, linguistics and logic, that access to a new knowledge is gained. What Lacan calls in 1965 the “work of structuralism” is the rejection uf the incarnation of the subject of supposed knowledge which subsists in a mode of a particular presence, the last approximation to which is the incompleteness theorem of Godel. This theorem demonstrates how in a system as well defined as arithmetic there will always be indemonstrable true propositions. In 1964, Jacques-Alain Miller proposed the term ’suture’, or rather the impossibility of such a suture between knowledge and truth, to designate this phenomenon.

To speak of subjective incidence in a given discipline that Lacan proposes is “a very special mode of the subject which has only a topological index… (a subject) in internal exclusion to its object.” This subject, produced by a truth which reserves itself for knowledge, emerges, sent like algae against the rocks in a baroque cascade. Psychoanalysis has access in the treatment to a certain practice of this subject as the latter acquires in it an ethical status. Lacan says in his “Founding Act” of 1964: “a practice of theory is required without which the order of affinities that we call the conjectural sciences design will remain at the mercy of a political derivative which supports itself with the illusion of universal conditioning.” Although psychoanalysis admits no other subject than the subject of science, it notes that the ‘for all’ that the application of science supposes produces in the master the illusion of a universal treatment. In the meantime, multiplication of the means of calculation by computer always allows larger sets to be treated. This illusion of mastery provokes in the mirror the illusion of the neurotic subject who struggles not to be a number and to preserve a status of exception by carrying it to the height of narcissistic rage or of hysterical insurrection, also of obsessional sabotage which, striving for the piece of number, touches it again ceaselessly and errs ritually in calculation. The subject ol the unconscious is “for all”, but the facts of desire and the replies of jouissance are singular. By using the distinction between the universal and the existential logical quantifiers. Lacan carries this dialectic to an extreme, showing that not only does the universal not imply existence but also that the existential is an objection to the “for all” of the universal. In its references to the existence of the psychoanalyst this dialectic is carried to its apotheosis.

The analyst and the excess of the objects of science

In the “Italian note” from 1974, Lacan indicates that Freud in creating the International Psychoanalytical Association made the function of the analyst exist in the world. Today, “there is some analyst” functioning. But, does there exist one, or are there only servants of psychoanalysis, of a mystery which goes beyond us? In order TO reply to this question, there is no reason to begin with an ideal definition of the function but with the result when it is set going, that is the objet a which is produced as reject of the analytical operation, limit and point of arrest in the domain of application of the function.

Psychoanalysis, as a practice of disidentification, as rupture by the unchaining of the subject of the unconscious, of the established identifications, produces an emptiness and in this operation leaves a remainder. This operation permits the analysand-subject new possibilities. The knowledge that the subject produces about his jouissance can allow him “to support in the fantasy the most effective realizations and the realities to which he is most attached.” But in psychoanalysis, if it is carried to its end. it is a matter of going beyond, to the point at which the objects of the fantasy and the being of the subject separate. We can illustrate this by using the painting that appears on the cover of The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis; Holbein’s The Ambassadors. It is not a question of adding one more trick to the background, but of perceiving (he death’s head in anamorphosis.

In Seminar XVII The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, four years before the “Italian note”, Lacan brings out in a different way the same point about the moment when the production of objects for science intersects with the production of the object for psychoanalysis. Chapter eleven, entitled “The furrows of the alethosphere”, begins with an observation on the objects produced by science. Science allows us to see, not the objects already present initially, but the objects it itself produces as a result of its own operation. Lacan clearly takes sides a rationalist epistemology which generates the development of science from the results of its calculus. Science adds objects to the real. Hence the term Lacan invents, operévoir, coined from opérer (to operate) and perçevoir (to perceive). How does the subject link itself to these productions since it does not do so by means of sense-perception? The example Lacan takes is that of the cosmonauts. In space they are moored to earth by the means which permanently supply them with calculations, permitting them to know where they are and what they can do. Nonetheless, they are limited to keeping up an exchange of words which is very poor in information. This participation of the voice permits them, says Lacan. although having no perception of the entities which populate the universe and which are produced by science, to keep up their morale. Throughout their mission, they will be certain that they are men and women.

We have the following sequence, science produces the object-cause and immediately finds the means to unite the subject to this object by virtue of the voice. It is what the voice hides in a complete deception in order to set up the subject. Psychoanalysis for its part must operate in this retracing by means of which it gives some voice everywhere in order to keep itself in the productions thai receive operators. That is the knowledge that psychoanalysis can bring into the world where the discourse of capitalism, encouraged today by science, distributes what we might call gadgets which drown the truth and the jouissance of the subject.

If psychoanalysis can proceed by backtracking from this excess of production of objects, it can only do it in any case by following the path of the furrow traced by science. Il is by adding itself to the world as the result of an operation thai psychoanalysis can bear witness to the destiny of the drive such as it is elaborated in psychoanalysis. It is a matter of discovering, beyond phallic signification, how the crossing of the fantasy can be transmitted outside meaning. In these two aspects, that of the emptiness of the subject of science and that of the excess of the objects it produces, psychoanalysis is confronted with the horizon of its ethics. It is a matter for psychoanalysis of breaking with the imaginary just as mathematics has, since the Greeks, been able to break with the figure. The inventory of the imaginary has already been made. Lacan ends his “Italian note” thus: “The knowledge designated by Freud as the unconscious is invented by the human for its durability from one generation to (he next, and now that it has been inventoried, one knows that it’s proof of a frantic lack of imagination.” The exhaustion of fantasies has already been done. From thence the desire “to plug an organ on into the instrument.” Not to plug into the nerves a microphone with a voice or a television screen in order to feel the eye but to plug something logical into the device produced by psychoanalysis.

The unique proof of the effect that psychoanalysis produces in the way an epoch lives the drive is to verify it by the result of psychoanalysis. It determines the pass as the experience and the device which must contribute to the passing of psychoanalysis towards science. The pass is the mark which permits (he verification of a subject who operates/perceives (aperçoit) the sexual.