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Philosophy and Psychoanalysis


The relations between psychoanalysis and philosophy are close, complex, and full of conflict. Freud, Lacan, and a few other writers assuming a psychoanalytic viewpoint persistently situated themselves in relation to philosophy, making use of it and explaining psychoanalytic terms by reference to it. For their part, philosophers have regarded psychoanalysis with a mixture of fascination and suspicion, and have subordinated it to the needs and objectives of philosophy, which has allowed them to contest or reject it.

The meaning and scope of Freudian enquiry have been evaluated differently by the two disciplines. For Freud, philosophy has repeatedly been concerned with the question of the unconscious. Indeed, thinkers before Freud have posited the unconscious. In the philosophic tradition, however, either the unconscious is mystic and impossible to grasp, so that its relation to the psyche remained buried in obscurity (Eduard von Hartmann and the Romantics), or the psyche was identified with consciousness (René Descartes, Franz Brentano), with the result that psychological investigation overlooked the unconscious. These philosophers misunderstood unconscious mental activity. They did not suspect to what extent unconscious "phenomena" (primary and secondary processes, the processes of the id and the ego) were similar to and yet different from conscious phenomena.

Freud exposed the paradox of the philosopher, caught between the wish for a totalizing and unifying vision and the need to put an individual stamp on his work. Freud believed that psychoanalysis could expose the subjective and individual motivations behind philosophical doctrines that claimed to result from an impartial effort of logic (see his derivation of systems from two sources in Totem and Taboo [1912-1913a]). Psychoanalysis can also demonstrate the weak points of a philosophical system. There is a link among these two findings, the singular focus of philosophy on "conscious awareness," and the uncovering of philosophical paradox. To acknowledge unconscious processes is to recognize the impossibility of any pure transparent knowledge of the world and of thought to itself. Less negatively, on the interpretation of art proposed by Freud, philosophy could be considered an intellectual work of art.

Nonetheless, Freud maintained that psychoanalysis is a natural science with a specific object. For it has an empirical content that is experienced in everyday psychic phenomena and in analysis and that is manifested in ways governed by a determined protocol: unconscious mental processes, infantile sexuality and the Oedipal structure, transference, resistance, and repression. This same content can be grasped a posteriori in fundamental concepts and coordinated in a theory that Freud called "metapsychology." As distinct from biology and psychology, metapsychology refers to a psychology that runs up against the unconscious. Freud did not hesitate to apply such conceptions to Immanuel Kant's thought by suggesting, for example, that the superego is the metapsychological version of the categorical imperative. As for the death instinct, Freud noted the differences but also the proximity of his concept with that of Arthur Schopenhauer.

Yet psychoanalysis wanted to go further. It seeks to "translate metaphysics into metapsychology," that is, not only to capture the subjective motivation of a philosopher but to propose a global interpretation of mental life, one of the most fundamental aspects of philosophy. For psychoanalysis, the mental process takes place in three stages: "endopsychic perceptions," including unconscious psychic phenomena, supply an "obscure awareness"; this is objectified by projection onto the outside world and is reflected in the construction of a supersensible world; finally, metapsychology translates this supersensible metaphysical world into a psychology that takes unconscious processes into account (Assoun, 1976).

At the same time, Freud downplayed his knowledge of philosophers, especially Friedrich Nietzschewhether from fear of being dispossessed of his discovery or from real ignorance, it is difficult to say, especially given the ambiguous link that connects Freud to philosophy and science. Freud, who was initially very interested in philosophical thought (1985), attempted to reconcile in metapsychology (which he called "the metapsychological sorceress") his enthusiasm for speculation and the requirements of scientific practice.

It must be pointed out that Freud never contested the primacy of consciousness. For although the unconscious is located at the juncture of the psyche and the body, it is inaccessible via the body. Therefore, it must be approached by the only avenue left open to us: consciousness. It is through the data of consciousness, and principally language, that we are able to infer unconscious processes.

Throughout his life, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan always engaged with philosophy and philosophers. The landscape and aims of psychoanalysis have changed since Freud, but a secret heritage remains. Lacan could rightly claim, "What I tried to do with my Borromean knot is nothing less than the first philosophy that seemed likely to me to hang together." He referred to philosophy as an "irreparably mistaken path," against which psychoanalysis affirms its belief in the unconscious. But his differences from Freud are considerable. Lacan's originality can be traced, at least partially, to his unique learning. He was grounded in contemporary philosophy and possessed an understanding of modern science, especially linguistics, mathematics, mathematical logic, information theory, and game theory. Such science, profoundly connected to the nominalist current that appeared in European philosophy in the fourteenth century (William of Ockham) and was extended by Descartes and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, tends to separate the sign from the referent, or signified, and to emphasize the value of the signifier. Even though he profoundly distorts the meaning of the concepts he borrows from philosophy and science, Lacan can be understood only if the origin of those concepts is properly situated: the concept of the signifier arose in linguistics and nominalist thought, that of the real in its opposition to the world arose from Martin Heidegger's concept of being-in-the-world (Dasein ), that of the other and the big Other (the primary caregiver) arose in reference to the work of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Also important is philosophical thinking on alterity (otherness) in general (from Plato to Hegel and Emmanuel Levinas [1906-1995]).

Indeed, it is difficult to talk about desire (a concept foreign to Freud) without recalling the discourse of master and slave, about the subject without reference to Descartes, or about the thing without reference to Heidegger's or Kant's notion of the thing-in-itself. But aside from his concepts, Lacan's project, although not metapsychological, is to form a distinct psychoanalytic discourse that diverges from university discourse, to which philosophical discourse is assimilated (see Lacan's theory of the four discourses [1991]). Through the construction and study of Borromean knots, Lacan felt he was able to achieve what Freud had foretold: "There is a place beyond the Oedipal complex, where we enter into the reality test and where we experience a jouissance [enjoyment] beyond the pleasure principle." Lacan felt he had written the much sought-after philosophical discoursea discourse that possessed, if not scientific rigor, at least philosophical rigor (Juranville, 1984).

We again face the ambiguity confronted at the start: the nature of the subject. Here the point of disagreement between philosophy and psychoanalysis has to do with the subject that engages in these discourses: even if the subject of the unconscious is the Cartesian subject (philosophical discourse), that subject, as conceived by Lacan, has been divided, separated, and split (psychoanalytic discourse). Lacan's relation to philosophy is original and singularly complex. It is impossible to adjust to the needs of psychoanalysis the logic of the signifier (for which Lacan's use of Borromean knots is the ultimate extension) and Freud's discovery of the unconscious without a misappropriation of philosophy, principally Descartes's "Cogito, ergo sum" (I think; therefore I am) (Lacoue-Labarthe & Nancy, 1992).

Psychoanalysis always appears to the philosopher as a source of the uncanny, which is difficult to integrate in rational thinking. How can one practice philosophy after Freud? asked Monique Schneider (1989). There has been a dizzying array of responses to this question; here it will suffice to sketch a few of the main arguments. The point of view generally adopted is that of the unconscious, which naturally cannot be introduced without placing limits on the question. Marxists (Georges Politzer, Herbert Marcuse), phenomenologists (Eugen Fink, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty), hermeneuticians (Paul Ricoeur), philosophers of the 1960s (Gilles Deleuze, Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, Michel Henry), Ludwig Wittgenstein and his commentators (Jacques Bouveresse), philosophers of science (Karl Popper, Adolf Grünbaum), analytic philosophers (in France, Pascal Engel, Centre de recherche en epistémologie appliquée [Center for Research in Applied Epistemology]) have all developed a discourse on psychoanalysis and the unconscious. Some of their criticism is directed at the scientific status of psychoanalysis, which is violently rejected by Popper, Grünbaum, and Bouveresse. Others, such as Ricoeur, felt they could demonstrate its validity by treating it as a form of hermeneutics. Marcuse saw psychoanalysis as an instrument of sexual liberation. Deleuze saw it as an instrument of destruction: "In opposition to psychoanalysis I have claimed only two things: it breaks everything produced by desire, it crushes every utterance. By doing so it shatters both sides of the arrangement: the mechanistic articulation of desire and the collective articulation of utterance." Lyotard made brilliant use of the concepts developed by Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a) to construct an aesthetic philosophy. Others, like Henry in Généalogie de la psychanalyse (1985) or Jean-Marie Vaysse in L'inconscient des modernes (1999), attempt to demonstrate how Freud's thought derived from Descartes "Cogito, ergo sum," as it did for Benedict de Spinoza, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. Jacques Derrida is a separate case. Even though, like his predecessors, he feels that only his principal concepts (here différence [difference], archi-écriture [original writing], deconstruction) are capable of addressing the arguments of psychoanalysis, among philosophers he remains, together with Lyotard, one of the most knowledgeable about psychoanalysis and, since the 1970s, one of the most engaged with psychoanalysis.

The difficult relations between philosophy and psychoanalysis arise primarily from the fact that both investigate the same field, human experience (including sexuality, life, death, suffering, relations with the world in culture and work) but operate within this field according to opposite principles, consciousness in the case of philosophy and the unconscious in the case of psychoanalysis. The unconscious is expressed in everyday life but is especially present during analysis, where transference and resistance occur. Except for Derrida (1987; 1998), most authors do not really consider the reality of transference and its paradoxical nature. One thing is certain, however. A dialogue with philosophy and epistemology will enable psychoanalysis to better understand its ambiguous status, which falls somewhere between science and fiction.

Bernard Lemaigre

See also: Alterity; "Claims of Psychoanalysis to Scientific Interest; " Cognitivism and psychoanalysis; Determinism; Dualism; Four discourses; Hermeneutics; Kantianism and psychoanalysis; Merleau-Ponty, Maurice; Monism; Perceptual identity; Phenomenology and psychoanalysis; Primary process/secondary process; Psychoanalytic epistemology; Sartre and psychoanalysis; Thought identity; Unconscious, the.


Assoun, Paul-Laurent. (1976). Freud, la philosophie et les philosophes. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Bouveresse, Jacques. (1991). Philosophie, mythologie et pseudo-science: Wittgenstein lecteur de Freud. Combas, France:Éclat.

Derrida, Jacques. (1987). The post card: From Socrates to Freud and beyond (Alan Bass, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

. (1998). Resistances of psychoanalysis (Peggy Kamuf, Pascale-Anne Brault, and Michael Naas, Trans.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4: 1-338; 5: 339-625.

. (1912-1913a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.

. (1985). The complete letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887-1904 (Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Henry, Michel. (1985). Généalogie de la psychanalyse: Le commencement perdu. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Juranville, Alain. (1984). Lacan et la philosophie. Paris: Presses universitaires de France.

Lacan, Jacques. (1991). Le séminaire. Book 17: L'envers de la psychanalyse (1969-1970). Paris: Seuil.

Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe, & Nancy, Jean-Luc. (1992). The title of the letter: A reading of Lacan (François Raffoul and David Pettigrew, Trans.). Albany: State University of New York Press. (Original work published 1973)

Schneider, Monique. (1989). Philosopher après Freud. L'univers philosophique: Encyclopédie philosophique universelle (pp. 720-731). Paris: Presses universitaires de France.

Vaysse, Jean-Marie. (1999). L'inconscient des modernes: Essai sur l'origine métaphysique de la psychanalyse. Paris: Gallimard.

Further Reading

Grunbaum, Adolph. (1993). Validation in the clinical theory of psychoanalysis: A study in the philosophy of psychoanalysis. Madison, CT: International University Press.

Holt, Robert. (1997). Psychoanalysis and the philosophy of science. Madison, CT: International University Press.

Lear, Jonathan. (1990). Love and its place in nature: A philosophical interpretation of freudian psychoanalysis. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

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