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Proper Name
Le nom propre

Intimately connected to the concept of the subject, and its place and function in the chain of signifiers, the ‘proper name’ was a key concept in Lacanian psychoanalysis, put to various uses in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse and later works inspired by the journal.

The status of the name as such, and the proper name more specifically, constitutes a complex trajectory in the history of philosophy. In many respects, Plato’s realism, that is, his case for the reality of abstract universals, was marshalled against a position that conceived of the world purely in terms of the names of discrete entities. An anti-Platonist would say there is no abstract form of ‘bedness’ that supports the discrete entity that goes by the name ‘bed.’ The name ‘bed’ is simply the predicate attributed to a manifold of objects that perform a similar function, namely, an object on which to lie down and go to sleep. Nominalism, the general name for this anti-Platonist position, was a dominant element in medieval critiques of scholasticism, coalescing mainly around William of Ockham (c.1288 - c.1348). Closely tied to scepticism, which was itself associated with fideism and a rejection of rationalist accounts of God, nominalism denied the existence of any abstract universals that philosophy might access and adequately understand. From this perspective, the world of science and art is a world of convention, a domain constituted of objects and concepts and, most importantly, the names we conventionally use to designate them. The history of the name thus touches many of the key themes prevalent in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, including questions of ontology and signification and their relation to one another.

The proper name became a focus for analysis in twentieth century philosophy of language, and in his seminars immediately preceding the publication of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse (notably Identification, 1961-2), Jacques Lacan had been exploring these developments at some length in the context of his own theory of language. Several explanations of the function of the proper name had been put forward. John Stuart Mill had suggested that the function of the proper name was primarily referential (having only a denotation, not a ‘connotation’ or meaning). In his seminal paper ‘Sense and Reference’ (1891), Gottlob Frege had criticised Mill’s assumption, contending that proper names could have sense as well as reference. In ‘On Denoting’ (1905), Bertrand Russell took a descriptive approach to proper names, claiming that they could be analysed into complex propositions (so that ‘Aristotle’ would mean, among other things, the teacher of Alexander). In his discussion of Russell’s analysis of the proper name, Lacan suggests (following a critique by Allan Gardiner) that Russell has overlooked the demonstrative aspect of the proper name, which always involves a ‘brute imposition.’1 In Seminar XII, Crucial Problems for Psychoanalysis, Lacan goes on to describe the proper name as a ‘point of identification’, or a ‘point of consistency’, that ‘indicates the location of the particular’. Outside of logic, the proper name ‘finds itself taken up into something which is indeed our field, the field of psychoanalytic experience’. As a signifier that is both ‘pure’ and demonstrative, the proper name ‘bears witness to a function of oscillation, of vacillation’.2. The proper name is therefore particularly open to the acquisition of unconscious significations (Lacan refers at length to Freud’s analysis of the name ‘Signorelli’ in his text on ‘The Forgetting of Proper Names’ in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life [1901]).

Lacan’s ruminations on the proper name are also intimately related to his concept of the Name-of-the-Father [le nom-du-père]. In his development of this concept, Lacan plays on the homophony of the French nom and non (‘no’) to account for the symbolic order as the domain of law and injunction. For Lacan, psychosis comes from a refusal to recognize and assume this name, which is tantamount to refusing an entry into the symbolic order of language (cf. ‘On a Question Prior to Any Possible Treatment of Psychosis’ (1959) in Écrits, and Seminar III: The Psychoses, 1955-56). The problematic of the ‘proper name’ is tied for Lacan to patrimony, and the Name-of-the-Father occupies a locus point in Lacan’s account of the relation between language, truth, and subject.

The remit of the French le nom propre is wider than the translation of ‘proper name’ suggests. First, the word nom is equally the word for ‘name’ and for ‘noun’ in French. Thus, naming as such is no mere personal matter, but fundamentally inscribed in grammar itself. (N.B. that le nom propre translates both ‘proper name’ and ‘proper noun’ from English). Second, the French propre is the same root term as propriété, that is, private property. Thus the phenomenon of the ‘proper name’ is thus semantically connected to the question of ownership, or of ‘mineness’. Read in light of the history of nominalism, the ‘proper name’ constitutes a paradox: it is a name bestowed from without, but at the same time it is a name that is essentially ‘mine’. To put it in Lacan’s terms, it comes from the other, yet it is integral to my own subjectivity. This partly explains the ethical injunction one finds in Lacan’s later writings ‘to become one’s own name,’ with James Joyce serving as Lacan’s paradigmatic example of this movement.

Lacan’s logical and linguistic analyses of the proper name are pursued at greatest length in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse by Luce Irigaray and Serge Leclaire. Beyond specific inquiries into the proper name in the Cahiers, debates ensue over the function of names or concepts in scientific discourse, with Alain Badiou ultimately heralding the ‘psychotic’ nature of science, which might be glossed as science’s refusal of (ideological) names bestowed from without (cf. CpA 10.8:161-2). Theories of the proper name inform two of the most ambitious projects developed in the wake of the journal: Jean-Claude Milner’s Lacanian interrogation of linguistics (cf. Les Noms indistincts, 1983) and Badiou’s ontology, where the void – the ‘mark of lack’ in his contribution to the Cahiers – is deemed the ‘proper name of Being’ (cf. Being and Event, 1988).

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

In the inaugural article of the journal, ‘La Science et la vérité’, Lacan invokes the proper name and its unique function following upon his discussion of the ‘lack of truth about truth’ at the heart of scientific discourse, which is to say, science’s repression of the fact that the truth of its own discourse is constituted by a lack. Lacan affirms there is nothing ‘noumenal’ about this lack; it is simply psychoanalysis’s task to identify it. As such, ‘there is no other truth about truth that can cover over this sore point than proper names, Freud’s or my own’ (CpA 1.1/19; E, 868).

In Jacques-Alain Miller’s ‘La Suture: Éléments pour une logique du signifiant’ (CpA 1.3), one of the seminal articles of the journal, the ‘proper name’ plays a crucial role in Miller’s presentation of how Gottlob Frege generates the 1 out of the 0 in his discourse. As Miller puts it, ‘if of the number zero we construct the concept, it subsumes as its sole object the number zero. The number which assigns it is therefore 1’ (CpA 1.3:44, trans. 30). The 1 thus becomes the ‘proper name’ (CpA 1.3:46/32) of zero, in that there is only one zero. But this moment of naming, which establishes the uniqueness or singularity of the zero, is what makes the sequence of whole numbers possible via the successor operation (n + 1). In this regard, the ‘proper name’ is intimately related to the operation of suture which is the main concept of Miller’s article; the bestowal of the ‘proper name’ sutures over an originary lack subtending the concept of ‘zero’ itself.

The problematic of the ‘proper name’ recurs several times in Serge Leclaire’s seminar, ‘Compter avec la psychanalyse’, the first part of which is included in Volume 1 (CpA 1.5). In the first session, Leclaire engages Freud’s text on ‘The Forgetting of Proper Names’ from The Psychopathology of Everyday Life to make an argument about how the unconscious is appears through gaps which manifest themselves in the analysand’s speech (CpA 1:5:56-58). In the next session, he notes how ‘proper names’ or ‘pet names’ the mother uses during the analysand’s childhood can become detached from their ordinary meaning, thus forming new unconscious chains of signification CpA 1.5:61). Finally, during the discussion following the third session published in this volume of the Cahiers, Catherine Backès inquires into the relation between the proper name and the body (CpA 1.5:69). Leclaire responds that ‘the proper name constitutes a privileged form of that which, in the letter, marks and supports the body’ (CpA 1.5:70).

The ‘proper name’ is a key concept in Luce Irigaray’s contribution to the third volume, ‘Communication linguistique et spéculaire’ (CpA 3.3). Here Irigaray reformulates Miller’s account of the suture of the subject in linguistic terms, specifically in terms of the proper name: ‘The proper name best represents the paradox of the engendering of the “1” out of “zero”’ (CpA 3.3:42, trans. 12). She refers to Knud Togeby’s discussion of the proper name in his Structure immanente de la langue française (1965), which gathered together theories of the proper name from John Stuart Mill, Viggo Brondal and Louis Hjelmslev. Irigaray says that, as ‘the pure signifier of the “zero” of the subject, the proper name constitutes it as “1” by inserting it into the open set of “1” + “1” + “1”, etc, that constitute proper names.’ The subjects classed under first names and surnames are by definition never a ‘closed set’: ‘There is always another subject that can be inserted into it’.

The engendering of ‘1’ out of ‘zero’ is repeated for all possible subjects. But this engendering is also the necessary condition for the ordering of the objects of communication, just as ‘zero’ is the necessary condition for the ordering of the sequence of numbers. He0/he1 is not the possibility of the inclusion of the world as object of exchange, but is also supported by being structured in organized sub-sets, always defined by reference to the ‘zero’ of the subject (CpA 3.3:42/12).

Plato’s theory of names is directly engaged in Jean-Claude Milner’s ‘Le Point du signifiant’ (CpA 3.5), which takes the form of a close reading of The Sophist in terms of Miller’s arguments from ‘La Suture’ (CpA 1.3). Milner notes that the task of this dialogue is to find and thus ‘name’ the Sophist so that he may be excluded from philosophy. But due to Plato’s ‘ignorance of the zero’ his discourse proceeds in an inaugural misrecognition of the recurrent warping effect of non-being or lack whenever it is reintroduced in discourse. The climax of this sequence, in Milner’s reading, is when the Sophist receives a ‘proper name’. Milner writes:

If it is the ability to pronounce a false discourse, of being able to say what is not, that is at issue, this is in any case only possible through statements about what is, since discourse always bears upon being: ‘if the discourse is not about anyone…it will not be discourse at all. We have in fact showed that it is impossible for there to be discourse that is not discourse on some subject’ (the Stranger at 263c).

And here perhaps the true implication of Plato’s apparently arbitrary choice is revealed: is it by chance that the example used to show the possibility of a false discourse is a statement bearing on a proper name, ‘Theaetetus flies’? It seems that the name tied here to the verb designating an action which is not, arriving in this place where being gives non-being a support of predication, must be set as a proper name. (CpA 3.5:80-81).

The ‘proper name’ is what gives non-being the support of predication, it is what brings lack into symbolic discourse itself as a key structuring element that recurs throughout the chain of signification.

In ‘Nature, Culture, Écriture’ (CpA 4.1) in Volume 4, which takes the form of a critique of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s account of the ‘writing lesson’ with the Nambikwara Indians, Jacques Derrida suggests that the more general form of writing as arche-writing that he aims to elaborate in the article could be observed amongst the Nambikwara before this writing lesson. The prohibition on proper names that Lévi-Strauss himself noted already manifests the relevant structural characteristics that Derrida analyses in arche-writing. The prohibition demands the effacing of the ‘proper’ connection between a name and its reference, just as writing resists immediate referentiality: ‘there is writing as soon as the proper name is effaced in a system’ (CpA 4.1:14). Derrida goes on to argue that the very use of proper names can itself be seen as a type of writing (CpA 4.1:15), and he corroborates this suggestion empirically: the Nambikwara already drew ‘zig-zags’ and ‘dotted lines’ on calabasses (CpA 4.1:17), and after the lesson they had the lexical resources to grasp what they were doing (CpA 4.1:32).

In his account of Descartes and Machiavelli in ‘La Pensée du Prince’ in Volume 6 (CpA 6.2), François Regnault privileges the recourse to the proper name in Machiavelli’s historical discourse, and associates materialism with an insistence on reference to proper names and the historical reality to which they refer, understood as a ‘refusal of subsumptions’ (CpA 6.2:49).

In his ‘Réponse au Cercle d’Épistémologie’ in Volume 9 (CpA 9.2), Michel Foucault links the ‘proper name’ to the problematic of the author as such. In his discussion of ‘The Field of Discursive Events’ Foucault observes that this field goes well beyond the assemblage of works that could be ascribed a proper name, that is, the name of the author (CpA 9.2:14). The task of his analysis is to develop a ‘project of the pure description of the facts of discourse’ (CpA 9.2:16/306) unbridled by restrictions of the proper name.

Select bibliography

  • Arsleff, Hans. From Locke to Saussure: Essays on the Study of Language and Intellectual History. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982.
  • Badiou, Alain. L’Être et l’événement. Paris: Seuil, 1988. Being and Event, trans. Oliver Feltham. London: Continuum, 2005.
  • 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 III: Les Psychoses, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1981. Seminar III: The Psychoses, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993.
  • ---. Le Séminaire, livre XXIII: Le Sinthome, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 2005.
  • Milner, Jean-Claude. Les Noms indistincts. Paris: Seuil, 1983.
  • Plato. Sophist, trans. Harold North Fowler. Cambridge, MA: Harvard, Loeb Classical Library, 1921.


1. Lacan, Seminar IX: Identification, 20 December, 1961.

2. Lacan, Seminar XII: Crucial Problems for Psychoanalysis, 13 January, 1965.