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La cause

A re-thinking of causality in terms of structure was a central element of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse. Calling upon various resources in structuralist thought, this project also relied upon the specific sense of ‘cause’, and its relation to truth and the Real, in the Lacanian framework.

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In Aristotelian philosophy there are four categories of cause: material cause; formal cause; efficient cause; and final cause. As the concept suggests, the ‘material cause’ addresses the relation between an object and the material out of which it is made; wood is the material cause of a wooden table. The ‘formal cause’, by contrast, refers to the idea that precedes a theory of forms; the ‘idea’ in this sense is like that which a sculptor has in his mind before he makes a statue. The sculptor’s conception or idea of the final product is the ‘formal cause’ of the statue. Related is the ‘efficient cause’, the forerunner to what we typically call the ‘mechanical cause’. The essential intermediary between raw marble and the statue, the sculptor himself is the ‘efficient cause’ of the statue. The ‘final cause’, is the purpose, aim, or telos, of something, e.g., the final cause of a pen is writing.

Over the history of philosophy, Aristotle’s typology has been subjected to substantive interrogation and revision. With the advent of early modern rationalism in Descartes’ project, cause was reconfigured as a more unified category inextricably bound to reason itself. The formula causa sive ratio (cause, that is, reason) was at the heart of Cartesian metaphysics. This principle evolved into the immanent causality found in Spinoza’s philosophy. The critique of ‘final causes’ was an integral element of Spinoza’s project, and the distinction between ‘material’ and ‘formal’ cause was obviated in Spinoza’s materialist (or monist) metaphysics. While granting the phenomenon of ‘efficient causality’ at the modal level, Spinoza attenuated the explanatory value of this form of causality, considering it doomed to an interminable sequence of displacements in which a unique efficient cause, a stopping point of sorts, can never be located. Spinozist immanent causality reads causes as always immanent to their effects; what is more, the cause itself can only be rationally conceived departing from the network of its effects. It was this conception of cause that would be the most influential for the Althusserian reconfiguration of the Marxist theory of history in terms of structural causality.

Steeped in the philosophical tradition, Lacan made the category of ‘cause’ a central component of psychoanalysis. In Seminar XI, the first to be attended by the normaliens behind the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, Lacan ties cause to the concept of truth and works as well to distinguish it from the concept of law, in either a mechanistic or moral sense. He writes:

Whenever we speak of cause […] there is always something anti-conceptual, something indefinite. The phases of the moon are the cause of tides - we know this from experience, we know that the word cause is correctly used here. Or again, miasmas are the cause of fever - that doesn’t mean anything either, there is a hole, and something that oscillates in the interval. In short, there is only cause in something that doesn’t work [de ce qui cloche] (S XI, 21).

For Lacan, ‘cause’ is implicated with the concept of lack developed elsewhere in his thought and which was a central concept in the Cahiers. If law describes a certain mechanism, something that leads a chain or sequence to unfold in a certain way, cause refers to the essential missing element, the lack, the thing that doesn’t work, and that makes the sequence possible in the first place. Likewise, this lack functions as the truth of a situation, and here there is common ground with the Spinozist conception of immanent causality that conceives of all cause as an ‘absent’ cause, only present in its effects. Elsewhere in this same seminar, Lacan engages Aristotle directly, rethinking the categories of tuché and automaton. For Lacan, tuché describes the moment of the ‘encounter with the Real’ (S XI, 53), the ‘trauma’ that functions as the cause of a given sequence. By contrast, the concept of automaton describes the repetitive process as well as the law of this repetition, the ‘alienation of meaning’ (61) that evades the absent cause of the tuché.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

In the inaugural essay of the journal, ‘La Science et la vérité’ (CpA 1.1), Lacan explicitly ties the concept of cause to that of truth in his assessment of science. Via a discussion of Descartes’ principle of the cogito in terms of Freud’s principle ‘Wo es war, soll Ich werden’, Lacan claims that the ‘“must I” of Freud’s formulation […] brings forth the paradox of an imperative that presses me to assume [assumer] my own causality’ CpA 1.1:16; E, 865). In this ‘must’ the ‘cause is what is covered (over)’. Lacan observes that this paradox of self-assumed causality is not obviated in Spinoza’s conception of God as self-caused: ‘the Spinozian self-cause is also some-Thing other [Chose autre] than the Whole’ (CpA 1.1:16; E, 865).

Refusal to recognize this lack at the heart of causality (especially self-causality) is for Lacan tantamount to a refusal to recognize the truth about truth. Science, in particular, operates in a wilful ignorance of its own constitutive lack. ‘[O]ur science’s prodigious fecundity must be examined in relation to the fact, sustaining science, that science does-not-want-to-know-anything about the truth as cause’ (CpA 1.1:24; E, 874). Lacan then likens this rejection or ‘negation’ of truth to the foreclosure operative in psychosis. Truth as cause is central to Lacan’s conception of psychoanalytic practice and its specific ‘medium’:

It is the cause: not cause as logical category, but as causing the whole effect. Will you psychoanalysts refuse to take on the question of truth as cause when your very careers are built upon it? If there are any practitioners for whom truth as such is supposed to act, are you not them?

Make no mistake about it, in any case: It is because this point is veiled in science that you have kept an astonishingly well-preserved place in what plays the role of collective hope in the vagabond conscience that accompanies revolutions in thought (CpA 1.1:20; E, 869).

Lacan returns to the theme of ‘truth as cause’ in his ‘Réponses à des étudiants en philosophie sur l’objet de la psychanalyse’ in Volume 3, wherein he claims that any ‘revolutionary theory [e.g. Marxism] would do well to hold itself responsible for leaving empty the function of truth as cause, when therein lies, nevertheless, the first supposition of its own effectiveness’ CpA 3.1:9-10, trans. 110).

André Green develops the consequences of Lacan’s theory of the objet petit a as an object cause of desire in his contribution to volume three (CpA 3.2:20). And in this same volume Serge Leclaire also explores the function of the Lacanian object as the ‘cause’ of desire in a segment of his seminar published in the Cahiers (CpA 3.6:94).

In Volume 8, devoted to ‘the unthought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’, Patrick Hochart addresses the equivocal nature of ‘natural right’ in Rousseau’s political theory insofar as the political body and the obligation that subtends it are co-constitutive. In the constitution of the political body it is as if, in Rousseau’s own words, ‘the effect becomes the cause’. Hochart remarks: ‘That the effect can become the cause is what is necessary, and yet rigorously unthinkable according to the terms of classical logic’ (CpA 8.3:70).

Jacques-Alain Miller’s ‘Action de la structure’ (CpA 9.6) provides the most substantive development of the concept of structural causality, and the article ends with an interrogation of the concept of a doctrine of science and the quest that pertains to it, namely, science’s task to know its own causes (CpA 9.6:104-105). Alain Badiou’s ‘La Subversion infinitésimale’ concludes with an affirmation of ‘Cause’ as a properly scientific category, along with Mark, Punctuation, and Blank, to be opposed to the ideological categories of quality, continuity, temporality, and negation (CpA 9.8:136). Finally, Jacques Nassif’s assessment of Freud in this same volume lauds the advance in a conception of psychic causality that moves beyond Charcot’s hereditary and physicalist conception of trauma (CpA 9.10:163).

Select bibliography

  • Aristotle. Physics, trans. Robin Waterfield. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink, in collaboration with Héloïse Fink and Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.
  • ---. Le Séminaire, livre XI: Les quatre concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1973. Seminar IX: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Penguin, 1977.
  • Spinoza, Baruch. The Ethics, Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, Selected Letters, trans. Samuel Shirley. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992.