To Interpret the Cause: From Freud to Lacan
Jacques-Alain Miller

(Originally published in Newsletter of the Freudian Field: Volume 3, Numbers 1 & 2, Spring/Fall 1989)

My first point is entitled: Aetiologia. But first let me dispel any conception that my title, “To Interpret the Cause,” is a Lacanian catch-phrase. When Freud introduces the wolf dream in Chapter IV of his History of an Infantile Neurosis, he stresses this very point; that he was convinced – and he mentions that his patient accepted his conviction – that the cause of the infantile neurosis of the Wolf Man was hidden behind the dream. The text says precisely: “das hinter ihm die Verursachung seiner infantilen Neurose verborgen sei.”1

So, this farfetched interpretation, Freud’s augury about the dream, going from its explicit content to its concealed content, is an interpretation aiming at the cause, the hidden cause. And the very notion of the hidden cause is central to psychoanalytic practice and to psychoanalytic theory. At this preliminary point, which I have made to accustom you to the very idea of the cause, let us not forget that from the outset Freud’s investigation began as a tentative aetiology of the psychoneuroses. Aetiology means a discourse of causes. From the start, Freud was going in search of causes. And you re- member that at the beginning he was looking for actual causes of the psychoneuroses. For instance, he considered the practice of masturbation as a cause for deficiency of sexual potency and for the neuralgias. Then, Freud had to concede that psychoneuroses were present effects of past causes, and not actual causes. Moreover, he conceded that the real past causes were hidden to the consciousness of the patients. And, it is in this past that Freud was obliged to invent the very concept of repression. That is to say, he rein- vented the concept of a hidden cause with deferred effects, Nachträglich, a triggered après-coup, a posteriori, and by a second event. In the famous case of the Wolf Man, this concept of the Nachträglich is present on every page. It is the major text by Freud which presents


precisely this; that those effects are as a posteriors. In the Wolf Man case, the second event which triggers the effects of the hidden cause is the famous dream itself.

So, I believe that I am on a very solid ground when I propose that psychoanalysis has always been a discourse about the cause. And psychoanalytic practice has always been looking for the cause. Let us take a shortcut now. What is a cause? If we refer to the case of the Wolf Man, there is no ambiguity in Freud’s answer. The cause, broadly spea- king, is the sexual act between the father and the mother as absorbed by the one-and-a- half-year old child. In psychoanalysis, interpretation not only aims at the cause, we may even say, interpretation stumbles on the cause. For instance, the use of the myth of Oedi- pus in psychoanalytic practice, the Freudian Oedipus that is the symbolic frame of inter- pretation insofar as interpretation aims at the cause, conceived here as the sexual rela- tionship, the erotic relationship, which binds together father, mother, child – the family. And, we may even say, that the Freudian cause taken as pre-Oedipal cause is the key to the transference insofar as transference may appear to be a repetition of the fundamental relations of the patient to the parents.
Newsletter of the Freudian Field: Volume 3, Numbers 1 & 2, Spring/Fall 1989
And you know the consequences of this point of view. It paved the way for inter- pretations of transference construed as “paternal” or “maternal” transference. You know that some modern analysts say that Freud analyzed from the position of the father, that he accepted the position of the father in the transference, and they prefer that the maternal position now be more operative in analysis. In any case with this reference to the Oedipal cause, you also have a key to the various theories of transference. Transference and inter- pretation are, as you know, the classical pair of interrelated notions. I am not going to give the would-be classical presentation of this pair of notions, however, because I gave it in some sense four years ago in Amherst, Massachusetts, at the colloquium on trans- ference.2 At that time, I was preoccupied with giving the classical presentation of this pair of notions.

Today I am going to try, if I may say so, to break new ground by following Lacan in understanding what psychoanalysis is about; new ground in understanding, in articulat- ing as they say, the desire of psychoanalysis. And this talk falls in the same sequence as my course in Paris, whose title this year is “Cause and Consent” [1988]. I see Bruce Fink here who attends my course and participates in my weekly seminar. Well, perhaps, he would tell you, in effect, that what I have been saying here is precisely the point I was trying to


present fifteen days ago in Paris, and which I continue to come back to. And this point is also an effort to give a unified theory of the Freudian field or to see how Lacan has given such a unified theory of the Freudian field. I do not know if I will have time to get that far, but that is my aim.

Causes Versus Law

Now, let us take a second point, which I shall call “Causes Versus Law.” This is still pre- liminary. The first two notions of cause and law are easily confused I would say, one with the other. As a matter of fact, thinking in a scientific framework, we consider that there is a fixed relationship between cause and effect, a stable and fixed relationship. And so we may try. Eventually scientific investigation aims to formulate laws of the relationships between a given cause and a given effect. That is elementary epistemology – which is not our central topic today – so I shall skip a lot of the various concentrations I cover in my course. What is central in the idea of a law, from the scientific point of view, is – I would select two words – first, regularity. When there is a law, we anticipate the regularity of the manifestation of the effect once a cause is present. So, a law allows anticipation of what is going to take place. It allows predictions. When we have laws and no capacity for prediction, we always wonder if we truly have a law, if it is truly a science.

I do not know if it is a bad memory for some of you [reference to a recent stock- market plummet], but there are various phenomena in the economic field which cast a certain doubt on a scientific rationale, for instance, of the economy. Nevertheless, there are always prices in economy; such novelties are not for psychoanalysis. When you can
Newsletter of the Freudian Field: Volume 3, Numbers 1 & 2, Spring/Fall 1989
not even predict, and you have a whole lot of laws, you wonder what field you are in. So, regularity.

And, second, I would say, continuity. As a matter of fact. When a cause is in- scribed in a law such that you may say the same cause produces the same effect, you are faced with a continuous chain because you may ask of the cause itself, what is the cause that causes this cause? That is to say, a cause is at the same time the effect of another cause. So, when you inscribe the cause in laws, you are, as a matter of fact, faced with a chain of necessity, determinism, where you have not – it is very difficult to do – pin- pointed a cause. You have a chain of causes and effects, and when you think about that in a theoretical way, you wonder where this chain of


cause and effect begins. And you know that those who introduced the scientific discourse in our culture in the seventeenth century were inclined to have, had to have, a theory of God which – we are accustomed to making a separation between science and religion made a link between science and religion. From the start, scientific discourse was grounded precisely on this continuity of causes and effects.

The cause I am talking about, the cause in psychoanalysis – the word cause is in the very title of the École de la cause freudienne – the cause we are speaking of, the Freudian cause, is a cause with another content. It is a cause – not as inscribed in a law of regularity and continuity, but rather a cause which so preoccupied David Hume in the 18th century when he showed that the very term the “cause”, as separate, as primary, was non-conceptual. And, you know that the reasoning of Hume triggered the philosophical effort of Kant himself. I cannot take up again the argument of Hume. And you know, perhaps, that Karl Popper, in our century, has built all his schemology on Hume’s argu- ments about causality I cannot give you a resume of these arguments, but you may un- derstand that, if you have a continuity in this way, you may never be able to pinpoint the cause as separate. So, as a matter of fact, if you think of the relationship between cause and chain, you may understand that cause, the very notion of cause, involves a breaking up of the chain. That is to say, the question of the cause can only appear when there is a breaking up of the chain. So, you may ask, where is the cause at the very moment where there is this lack? I would say, in the concept of causality as distinct from legality, one finds a concept of cause as distinct from law. And it always implies the notion of a missing link. You direct yourself to the idea of cause precisely when there is this missing link. That is to say that discontinuity, and not regularity, is essential to the notion of causality. And, if you think – let me take a shortcut – of the chain as a chain of signifiers, precisely the famous chain of signifiers, well, you may understand that with the concept of cause, the chain of signifiers …. Well, I would put it like that:

S – S’ – S”- S”’- S””
You may understand that cause necessitates the removal of one signifier, as being the

missing link. And this removal of one link is precisely what

S – S’ –


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