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La méconnaissance

For Lacan, miscognition is a type of inadequate knowledge connected with the imaginary. Althusser and the Cercle d’Épistémologie suggest that miscognition is a fundamental mechanism of ideology.

In Jacques Lacan’s early theory of the imaginary order, the relation between the ego and the other is caught in a dialectic that tends towards paranoia. The ego attempts to identify with the other but, since it has no identity of its own, it tends to usurp the other’s place. All imaginary relations are alienating: ‘alienation is constitutive of the imaginary order. Alienation is the imaginary as such’.1 The mirror-image is alienating in that it is not possible to ‘coincide’ with one’s reflection; the relation with others in competition for the love of the Other is also alienating, always at risk of collapsing into paranoiac rivalry. ‘The initial synthesis of the ego is essentially an alter ego, it is alienated’.2 Miscognition or mis-knowing [mé-connaissance] is therefore intrinsic to the imaginary order.

Lacan insists that there is still a ‘cognitive’ element to miscognition. ‘Miscognition is not ignorance. Miscognition represents a certain organisation of affirmations and negations, to which the subject is attached. Hence it cannot be conceived without correlative knowledge […] There must surely be, behind his miscognition, a kind of knowledge of what there is to miscognise’.3 In ‘Presentation on Psychical Causality’ (1946), Lacan developed the relations between the concept of miscognition and ‘belief’, particularly in its delusional forms. ‘To miscognise [méconnaître] presupposes recognition [reconnaissance], as is seen [especially] in systematic miscognition, where we must certainly admit that what is denied is in some way recognised’.4 Nevertheless, miscognition is restricted by its imaginary misprision of ‘symbolic knowledge’ [savoir].5 Ultimately, connaissance is at the service of savoir, imaginary knowledge can only be grounded by an irreversible entrance into the symbolic order. If the latter has its own ‘gaps’ or ‘faultlines’, these are different in kind to the distortions of the imaginary order. The relation between savoir and non-savoir [non-knowledge] instead requires a modification in the relation between subject and Other.6 In Seminar XI, Lacan makes a distinction between ‘alienation’ and ‘separation’, claiming that alienation is a necessary condition for entrance into the symbolic order, but that it is overcome through a process of ‘separation’ from the Other.7

Louis Althusser incorporates the concept of of méconnaissance into his theory of ideology. As David Hawkes puts it, ‘For Althusser, “ideology” is the imaginary way in which people experience their real lives, the ideal representation of a material process’.8 Miscognition of material processes is intrinsic to ideology, and the understanding of material processes as structures does not result in the transcendence of ideology. However, once these material processes are understood structurally, ideological miscognition can be put in its place and its influence restricted.

On this point, Althusser borrows from Spinoza’s theory, as outlined in the Ethics, of the difference between the first, ‘imaginary’ level of knowledge, and the second ‘intellectual’ level of knowledge. Spinoza argued that ‘when we look at the sun, we imagine it as about two hundred feet away from us, an error which does not consist simply in this imagining, but in the fact that while we imagine it in this way, we are ignorant of its true distance and of the cause of this imagining. For even if we later come to know that it is more than six hundred diameters of the earth away from us, we nevertheless imagine it as near’.9 When we understand the real distance of the sun to the earth, and the real astronomical motion of the stars and planets, we have arrived at the second kind of knowledge, based on the intellect. But to understand the true distance of the sun from the earth does not alter our ‘affection’ by the sun, even if it does alter the significance of the affection.

In his 1964 essays ‘Marxisme et humanisme’ and ‘Freud et Lacan’, as well as his 1966 ‘Trois Notes sur la théorie du discours’, Althusser incorporates Lacanian ideas about miscognition into his theory of ideology. He argues that ‘recognition’ and ‘miscognition’ are intrinsic to ideology.10 But he denies that they are related to knowledge [savoir], and dismisses Lacan’s ideas about overcoming ideology by entering into a relationship with the truth as ‘cause’ as themselves ideological.11

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

In ‘Suture’ (CpA 1.3), Jacques-Alain Miller proposes that the ‘logic of the signifier’ can help to analyse the foundations of logic, and thus overcome the ‘miscognition [méconnaissance] that is characteristic of the field of logic’ (39 trans. 25). Insofar as it attempts a ‘movement back’ that overcomes this miscognition, the status of the logic of the signifier is ‘archaeological’.

In the concluding discussion of the first instalment of Serge Leclaire’s Seminar ‘Compter avec la psychanalyse’, Miller asks Leclaire whether he thinks that the efficacy of analytic intervention rests on a truth that is already operative, or whether the efficacy of truth is inseparable from the knowledge [connaissance] of the phenomena. Miller mentions that this is a problem for political practice, because it can all too readily occur that ‘a practice can have efficacy while completely miscognising the cause’ (CpA 1.5:58). Therefore, he says, in order to hold a rigorous discourse on analytic practice, one must integrate the concepts of truth, knowledge and action.

In his ‘Note sur l’objet de la psychanalyse’ (CpA 2.5), Leclaire suggests that ‘psychoanalysis marks the entry into everyday life of a new dimension, the unconscious’ (CpA 2.5:125). Although many believe that ‘the psychoanalytic revolution is done, the unconscious recognised’, Leclaire states that to take such a view would indicate the unsettled ‘miscognition’ [méconnaissance] that ‘seems necessarily to accompany every approach to this new dimension’.

In ‘L’objet (a) de J. Lacan, sa logique, et la théorie freudienne’ (CpA 3.2), André Green discusses ‘miscognition’ as a ‘failure to know’ [faute de savoir]. Green suggests that the psychoanalytic mechanisms of ‘progression-regression’ and ‘suture-cut [coupure]’ (CpA 3.2:21/170) should be referred to ‘developments engendered on the plane of knowledge’ [savoir], and to the processes of miscognition and failure of knowledge that occur along the way. The production of meaning or signification [significantisation] compensates for the loss of the object, but ‘traces of the work’ of knowledge remain detectable by analysis. In such cases, Green suggests, analysis of the objet petit a remains the ‘surest guideline’, and the ‘index of the truth’ of the subject’s desire.

In ‘Le Point du signifiant’ (CpA 3.5), Jean-Claude Milner claims that the ‘logic of the signifier’ accounts for the ‘mirage-effects’ produced in Plato’s Sophist, and allows us to perceive the structural necessity of Plato’s own ‘miscognition’ of the logical mechanism he uncovers (in the analysis of the relations of being, rest, and movement) (CpA 3.5:78).

François Regnault’s ‘Le Pensée du Prince’ (CpA 6.2) discusses Descartes’ miscognition of Machiavelli’s purpose in writing The Prince. ‘It must not be said that Descartes does not understand Machiavelli’s realism: he knows and declares that in politics one can use immoral means […] Descartes’ deafness is more fundamental, and the whole of classical politics is deaf with him. Nor does he make objections to Machiavelli […]. He does not come up against any contradiction, nor against any obstacle. There is nothing he is trying to escape. It is just that he totally miscognises another place, a difference without identity’ (CpA 6.2:32). What he misses is ‘the very place of history’ as a space of action.

In his article on Hume’s political theory (CpA 6.5), Bernard Pautrat contends that Hume reveals ‘the illusion of an autonomous psychological subject, conscious of the truth of its desire and the means by which it can claim its satisfaction’ (CpA 6.5:72). Hume shows us the existence of a ‘constitutive miscognition’, in the sense of an insurmountable ‘weakness’ of human nature. Alluding to Georges Canguilhem’s essay ‘Qu’est-ce que la psychologie?’ [‘What is Psychology?’] (CpA 2.1) and to Althusser’s recent work on ideology, Pautrat notes that this illusory function continues to ‘found psychology as an ideology as such’ (CpA 6.5:74).

In ‘Action de la structure’ (CpA 9.5), Jacques-Alain Miller argues that miscognition is characteristic not just of the imaginary order, but of subjectivity itself. ‘Fundamentally, the subject is deceived: its misunderstanding or mistake [méprise] is constitutive’ (CpA 9.6:98). For Miller, the domain of perception studied by psychology is fundamentally marked by ideology:

The psychological sphere, that of volitions and appetites, in other words of motivations, … is derived from the functional miscognition of the structuring process, with the result that people always act in the light of an end, i.e. in the light of what they perceive as useful. Since the adequate systems that elaborate this miscognition of the cause form, for Claude Lévi-Strauss, the object of ethnology, this latter remains a psychology, and we must rely on psychoanalysis to delimit the field of psychology (99).

The Hegelian notion of alienation, which presupposes the possibility of an autonomous sphere of self-consciousness, must also be superseded, since the subject only appears ‘in the real’ through miscognizing itself. Theory can transcend miscognition, but all action or agency in the real implies a necessary moment of miscognition (98, 100).

In his ‘Réponse’ to the Cercle (CpA 9.2), Foucault criticises ‘epistemological’ and ‘genetic’ approaches to the history of discourse for involving kinds of miscognition (CpA 9.2:35; 327, trans. modified). Whereas the ‘epistemologizing’ tendency in historiography errs too far in formalising the conditions of knowledge, thus missing the social conditions of discourses, the miscognition involved in the ‘genetic extrapolation’ is that it never reaches the level of formalisation in the first place.

In his ‘Freud et la science’ (CpA 9.10), Jacques Nassif argues that Freud miscognised the significance of his own methodology when he avowed his belief in the ‘cumulative character of Science’ (CpA 9.10:149). For Nassif, the lineaments of a ‘theory of the break [théorie de la coupure]’ (150) are nevertheless visible in the opening pages of Freud’s first major work, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), and work against this tendency towards miscognition. Nassif shows the series of breaks Freud had to make with the psychology and science of his time in order to arrive at a formulation of the principles of psychoanalysis.

Primary bibliography

  • Althusser, Louis.‘Marxisme et humanisme’. Cahiers de l’ISEA, June 1964. Reprinted in Pour Marx. Paris: Maspero, 1965. ‘Marxism and Humanism’. For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster. London: New Left Books, 1969.
  • ---. ‘Freud et Lacan’, La Nouvelle Critique, 161-2, (December 1964-January 1965); revised 1969). ‘Freud and Lacan’, in Lenin and Philosophy, London: New Left Books, 1971.
  • ---. ‘Trois Notes sur la théorie des discours’, Écrits sur la psychanalyse. Paris: IMEC, 1995. ‘Three Notes on the Theory of Discourses’, in The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings (1966-1967), ed. François Matheron, trans. G.M. Goshigarian. London: Verso, 2003.
  • Lacan, Jacques. ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function’ [1936/1949], in Écrits [1966], trans. Bruce Fink, in collaboration with Héloïse Fink and Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.
  • ---. ‘Presentation on Psychical Causality’ [1946], Écrits.
  • ---. ‘Aggressivity in Psychoanalysis’ [1948], Écrits.
  • ---. Seminar I: Freud’s Papers on Technique, 1953-54, ed. J-A. Miller, trans. J. Forrester. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
  • ---. Seminar III: The Psychoses [1955-56], trans. D. Porter. London: Routledge, 1993.
  • ---. Seminar XII: Crucial Problems for Psychoanalysis (1964-65), trans. Cormac Gallagher, unpublished manuscript.
  • Spinoza, Benedict. Ethics [1677], trans. E. Curley. London: Penguin, 1996.

Secondary bibliography

  • Evans, Dylan. ‘Méconnaissance’, in An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 1996.
  • Fink, Bruce. The Lacanian Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.
  • Hawkes, David. Ideology. London: Routledge, 1996.


1. Lacan, Seminar III: The Psychoses, 11th session, 15 February 1956, 146.

2. Lacan, Seminar III, 3rd session, 30 November 1955, 39.

3. Lacan, Seminar I: Freud’s Papers on Technique, 13th session, 5 May 1954, 167.

4. Lacan, ‘Presentation on Psychical Causality’, 166.

5. Dylan Evans, ‘Méconnaissance’, 109.

6. Lacan, Seminar XII: Crucial Problems for Psychoanalysis, 18th-19th sessions, 12 May & 19 May 1965.

7. Lacan, Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 16th session, 27 May 1964, 215; cf. E, 840. As Bruce Fink puts it, ‘while the subject comes into being in language through alienation, he or she comes into being as a mere placeholder or lack (manque-a-etre)’, and it is in the process of ‘separation’ that it assumes more concrete characteristics. Fink, The Lacanian Subject, 271.

8. David Hawkes, Ideology, 126.

9. Spinoza, Ethics, Part II, Proposition 35, scholium.

10. Althusser, ‘Three Notes on the Theory of Discourses’, 51.

11. Althusser, ‘Three Notes’, 78.