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Le sens

A central concept in modern logic, phenomenology, and psychoanalysis, ‘meaning’ was a category subjected to formalist interrogation throughout the Cahiers pour l’Analyse.

In modern logic and linguistics, semantics is the study of meaning, as opposed to syntax, which is concerned with the formal structures of language. In effect, however, there are three notions of ‘meaning’ that have bearing on the theoretical project of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse: the logical, the phenomenological, and the psychoanalytical.

One of the major advances of Gottlob Frege’s efforts to ground modern logic was his distinction between the German words Sinn and Bedeutung. Though either term can, depending on context, be translated into English as ‘meaning’, Frege’s distinction turns on that between ‘sense’ (Sinn) and ‘reference’ or ‘denotation’ (Bedeutung). For Frege, the ‘sense’ of a concept or an expression was a matter of its internal coherence and its place in a cognitive web of signification. By contrast, the Bedeutung or ‘reference’ of a phrase involves an appeal to a correlate external to the phrase itself. In this case, two phrases may have the same Bedeutung, but a different Sinn, e.g., the ‘morning star’ and the ‘evening star’ have the same Bedeutung (the planet Venus), but the sense of the two is not the same, depending on the context in which they are uttered. In this regard, ‘sense’ is a richer, more ample category than ‘reference’ or ‘denotation’. The ‘meaning’ (Sinn) of a term is not reducible to its real-world reference (Bedeutung).

The richness of meaning was not Frege’s primary concern, however, as it would be for phenomenology (which, via Husserl, had common origins with Fregean logicism in a critique of psychologism). One of the goals of phenomenological philosophy is to gain access to a pre-predicative experience that provides a ground of meaning anterior to denotative reference. This aspect of phenomenology is clearest in its correlate in twentieth-century textual and literary criticism: hermeneutics. Related to the term ‘hermetic’ (itself a reference to the Greek god Hermes, the messenger) hermeneutics seeks to uncover meanings that lie beneath the surface of a text. The reading practices of Althusser, one of the prime influences on the Cahiers, were explicitly opposed to hermeneutics and its putatively religious pathos. Althusser did not deny the effect of ‘sense’; he refused to locate it in an elsewhere apart from the text itself. (In this way, though with different investments, Althusser was closer to the Fregean formalized model of sense production). No anterior ‘meaning’ is waiting to be revealed in a text; this is an illusion projected by the reader’s imaginary. Rather criticism and analysis ought to operate only on the surface, understanding the text’s construction and making clear the discursive silences or symptoms that render the text operative. (This emphasis on surface, along with a conception of sense as an ‘effect’ or an ‘event’, would also be paramount in Gilles Deleuze’s Logic of Sense, published in 1969).

Althusser’s ‘symptomatic reading’ was heavily indebted to Lacan, in whose project several concepts of meaning are in play. As with the German Sinn, likewise the French sens communicates both ‘sense’ (as in, ‘that makes sense’, ça fait du sens) and ‘meaning’ (as in, ‘the meaning of a phrase’, le sens d’une phrase). The French term also evokes a trajectory, tendency, or direction (as in le sens d’une file, the direction in which a line or queue is moving). In other words, in French, meaning qua sens is sometimes bound up with a teleology, a notion of ultimate meaning. There is moreover another way to express ‘meaning’ in French, through the verbal expression vouloir dire, which is used in such instances as ‘what do you mean?’ [Qu’est-ce que vous voulez dire?]. Translated literally, this question asks, what do you want (or will) to say. In this regard, then, meaning is inextricably bound to desire, a will or desire to speak and to be understood, to have one’s meaning come across. Compromised by desire, the full transmission of meaning was a nigh impossible task in Lacan’s view. His later commitment to the matheme (mathème) as a means of ‘transmitting’ his teaching was an effort to circumvent the desiring pathos of ‘meaning’ in ordinary language communication.

Against phenomenological hermeneutics, the Cahiers pour l’Analyse explored the relations and resonances between a logical account of meaning, such as one finds in Frege, and the psychoanalytic investigation of meaning and desire in Lacan’s work. The common element was a tendency toward formalisation that refused to treat meaning as located in an interiority that it is thought’s task to access or contemplate.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

Though an omnipresent concern in the Cahiers, direct invocations of the problematic of ‘meaning’ are rare in the articles that comprise the journal. In his article ‘Suture’ (CpA 1.3), Jacques-Alain Miller cites Jacques Derrida’s work on Husserl as an influence on his own analysis of the logic of the signifier anterior to logic itself, but with a caveat: ‘That this step repeats something of that which Derrida has shown to be exemplary to phenomenology, will conceal to none but the most hasty this crucial difference, that here miscognition finds its point of departure in the production of meaning. We can say that it is constituted not as a forgetting, but as a repression’ (CpA 1.3:39, trans. 25). The ‘production of meaning’ that is Miller’s concern here is the sens of Frege’s discourse in the generation of the series of whole numbers, departing from zero. Against phenomenological ‘forgetting’ – which would require a hermeneutics of recovery – Miller emphasises the active role of repression in the constitution of meaning and the emergence of the subject.

In the first of his several seminars to appear in the Cahiers, Serge Leclaire explicitly addresses the need of the psychoanalyst to sidestep or work past the apparent meaning of an analysand’s speech in order to understand the ‘unconscious meaning’ that supports it (CpA 1.5:57). But again this is not a matter of hermeneutics in that the focus of the analyst is precisely on the ‘chain of signification’ that comprises the analysand’s discourse, rather than a speculation on meanings that inhere in the discourse but which somehow remain unsignified.

The relation between logic and meaning is explored throughout Volume 10 of the Cahiers, devoted to formalisation. Jacques Brunschwig re-assesses Aristotelian logic in CpA 10.1 and a short text of Bertrand Russell’s concerning his own theory of logical types is also reproduced in this volume (CpA 10.4). Jean Ladrière addresses the problem of semantics’ relation to syntax via an exposition of the Löwenheim-Skolem theorem (CpA 10.6), while Robert Blanché broaches the subject as well in his account of interpropositional connectors (CpA 10.7). The volume ends with Jacques Bouveresse’s presentation of Wittgenstein and the latter’s critique of efforts to impute a properly ontological meaning to mathematics (CpA 10.9).

Select bibliography

  • Althusser, Louis, et. al. Lire le Capital. Paris: Maspero, 1968. Reading Capital, trans. Ben Brewster. London: New Left Books, 1970.
  • Deleuze, Gilles. Logique du Sens. Paris: Minuit, 1969. The Logic of Sense, ed. Constantin V. Boundas, trans. Mark Lester and Charles Stivale. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.
  • Frege, Gottlob. ‘On Sense and Reference’ (1892). In Translations of the Philosophical Writings of Gottlob Frege, eds. and trans. P. Geach and M. Black. Oxford: Blackwell, 1980.
  • Husserl, Edmund. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, First Book (1913), trans. Fred Kersten. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1983.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink, in collaboration with Héloïse Fink and Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.
  • ---. Seminar XX, Encore: On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge (1972-73), ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Bruce Fink. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999.