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La psychologie

Distinct from psychoanalysis, ‘psychology’ was, with several pertinent exceptions, a generally derided term in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, where it was read as an ideology complicit with modern forms of social subjugation.

The sense of the concept ‘psychology’ was essentially two-fold in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse. On the one hand, it was marked by the variant of the Freudian legacy that Jacques Lacan criticized throughout his writings as ‘ego psychology’. In this framework, predominant in the Anglophone context, the task of psychoanalysis was to reinforce the ego, helping the ‘subject’ (a concept that Lacan, for his part, insisted was distinct from the ego) adapt to the realities of the social and natural world. In Lacan’s view, such a project was effectively a rejection of Freud’s discovery of the unconscious as a site of symbolic determination distinct from the imaginary trappings of the ego.

The Lacanian critique of ‘ego psychology’ that informed the Cahiers partially accounts for the extensive interrogation of the ‘subject’ as a phenomenon distinct from ‘consciousness’ or the ‘ego’ throughout the journal. In addition to the theoretical deployment of this concept, this interrogation also involved an historical investigation of modern psychology and its relationship to philosophy, an investigation which occupied the bulk of Volume 2 of the Cahiers.

Related, however, to the critique of ‘ego psychology’ is the critique of ‘social psychology’, the second sense of the term one finds throughout the Cahiers. ‘Social psychology’ was taken by many contributors, Thomas Herbert [Michel Pêcheux] chief among them, as emblematic of a thoroughgoing ideology masquerading as science. The nexus of these imbricated ‘ideological’ variants of psychology is to be found in the specific contribution of Georges Canguilhem, who inspired the primacy accorded to the concept as a mode of formal thought and theoretical extension in the journal, as evidenced by the epigraph to each issue.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

The title of volume two of the Cahiers is ‘Qu’est-ce que la psychologie?’. Taken as a whole, the volume is a historical and theoretical investigation of psychology as a scientific discipline that treats the ego [moi] as an object rather than as a function, as in psychoanalysis (CpA 2.Introduction). As Jean-Claude Milner remarks in his editorial introduction, the investigations are largely inspired by Georges Canguilhem, whose text, itself titled ‘Qu’est-ce que la psychologie?’ opens the volume (CpA 2.1). Canguilhem’s text is a historico-theoretical investigation of psychology and its myriad manifestations in a variety of research programs, from serving as a ‘natural science’ of the soul in the Aristotelian framework to a ‘science of subjectivity’ following the collapse of Aristotelianism in the seventeenth century. Here Canguilhem addresses the differences between empiricist (e.g. Locke) and rationalist (e.g. Descartes) approaches to the subject. He pays particular attention to the romanticist psychology of Maine de Biran, which, in Canguilhem’s view, is in crucial anticipation of psychoanalysis in its conception of the ego cogito as an ‘I wish’. With this move, ‘the intimate is opened up to the abyssal, and psychology becomes the science of the depths of the soul’ (CpA 2.1:86).

This deepening of psychology lays the groundwork, however, for the twentieth-century conception of psychology in terms of behaviourism. In Canguilhem’s view, behaviourism was an instrumentalist framework geared toward understanding the mind as a mechanism for adaptation shorn from any further philosophical or indeed historical consideration of subjectivity as such. In effect, then, psychology becomes a technique of social control, and here we can see the influence of Canguilhem’s ideas on the work of Michel Foucault. In his conclusion, Canguilhem beckons a new task for philosophy in its interrogation of psychology, suggesting that the former can help orientate the latter in its way around Paris: ‘when you exit the Sorbonne on the rue Saint-Jacques, you can go up or down; if one goes up, you come to the Pantheon, which is the Conservatory of some great men; but if you go down, you’ll certainly wind up at the Prefecture de Police’ (CpA 2.1:91).

In the next article, Robert Pagès offers some comments on Canguilhem’s article and defends social psychology from Canguilhem’s reduction of it to a ‘psycho-technicist’ behaviourism (CpA 2.2:94). Pagès notes that some of Canguilhem’s concerns about the ideological use of psychology as a technique of subordination could possibly be alleviated by making these ideologies ‘the object of a psycho-sociological study’ (CpA 2.2:96). What is required is a change in values, not in method. He claims that ‘if philosophical anthropology is the attempt to put the sciences of man into philosophical perspective’, then ‘contemporary psychology could also contribute to the project of a liberatory anthropology’ (CpA 2.2:97).

The next two articles in this volume are an excerpt from Alain Grosrichard’s masters thesis on the history of experimental psychology (CpA 2.3) and the document it introduces, the Chevalier de Mérian’s concluding lesson on the history of the ‘Molyneux problem’, delivered at the Berlin Academy in the late eighteenth century (CpA 2.4). The Molyneux problem was a thought experiment that asked if a person born blind but miraculously made to see would be able to recognize by sight alone objects previously known only through touch. By tracing the history of the Molyneux problem, from its formulation with Locke, via Leibniz, Condillac, Diderot, on up to Mérian, Grosrichard provides a history of knowledge seeking to know or visualize its own genetic production. The moral of Grosrichard’s story is consistent with Canguilhem’s argument, namely that, in its incapacity to produce a consistent and coherent concept of mind, philosophy relinquishes its most cherished object to an experimental psychology that is complicit with social control. Mérian’s ‘proposal’ for the problem’s resolution - that the state sponsor an experiment in which children are kept in the dark from birth and then observed when granted the chance to see - is emblematic of multiple aspects of this trajectory, from the philosopher’s ingratiation to the state to the nature of his desire to see the mystery of his own capacity for knowledge resolved.

In his ‘Note sur l’objet de la psychanalyse’ (CpA 2.5), Serge Leclaire aims to pinpoint what is specific about ‘the object’ of psychoanalysis, by isolating the specific psychosexual mechanisms that Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis take as their objects. It turns out that the true ‘object’ of psychoanalysis in this sense is the drive, a concept which helps to clarify the difference of the object of psychoanalysis from the object of psychology.

In the final article of this volume, Thomas Herbert [Michel Pêcheux] effectively applies an Althusserian method of ‘theoretical practice’ to the problem of social psychology sketched by Canguilhem in the volume’s opening article (CpA 2.6). Herbert’s remarkably dense analysis is geared toward answering the question: What are the necessary ideological conditions for the emergence of the social sciences as they are currently constituted? Herbert claims that psychology and social psychology, especially when they have resort to ‘models’ and practical instruments, remain caught in the ideological schema of the ‘realisation of the real’ (CpA 2.6:155). They remain governed by economic conditions, reflecting the social relations characteristic of capitalism and the ideology of adaptation (CpA 2.6:157). This ideology, nevertheless, is different in kind to the inessential ideologies of alchemy or ancient astronomy. Developing Althusser’s account of the three ‘generalities’ involved in the process of theoretical practice in his article ‘On the Materialist Dialectic’ (1963), Herbert suggests that the ideology of the social sciences can be taken precisely as the first set of ‘generalities’ upon which theoretical practice sets to work. Theoretical practice does not aim to ‘realise the real’, but rather to trace the breaks that constitute new sciences, and show how, once constituted, the objects of these sciences are capable of methodical reproduction (CpA 2.6:160). By inhabiting the emerging sciences of linguistics, psychoanalysis and historical materialism, political practice can arrive at a theory of ideology that allows it to understand and intervene in its object (CpA 2.6:164). Herbert will develop this schematic much further in his efforts to articulate a general schematic theory of ideology in Volume 9 (CpA 9.5).

The themes of Volume 2 of the Cahiers resurface in Volume 6 in Bernard Pautrat’s investigation of David Hume’s theory of authority (CpA 6.5). Pautrat suggests that Hume’s early essays on power inaugurate an enterprise that echoes that of Machiavelli presented by François Regnault in ‘La Pensée du Prince’ (CpA 6.2): ‘a philosophy of political fact, unconcerned with questions of legitimacy, and a psychology of power, of its genesis and its exercise’ (CpA 6.5:70). Hume enters a ‘new theoretical space’, setting out from the idea of an ‘evident power’. The problem shifts from the issue of the legitimacy of authority to the need for an account of the genesis of ‘subjection’. The novelty of Hume’s approach is that ‘the genesis of authority must depart from a genesis of subjection’ (CpA 6.5:70). A psychology of ‘obedience’ is necessary, which analyses what is involved in ‘obeying and making obey’. He saw that the task was to construct a ‘double psychology’ of the governor and governed, of authority and obedience. ‘If a reading of Hume is imposed upon us today this is because, beyond the questions [he] poses to classical political theory, beyond the simple and surprising refutation of the social contract which is such a manifest exception in the 18th century, Hume really talks about something else. That is: psychology’ (CpA 6.5:69).

In his ‘Réponse au Cercle d’Épistémologie’ in Volume 9, Michel Foucault applies his genealogical conception of the history of science to psychology. Foucault argues that, although one can always establish the semantics and syntax of a scientific discourse, it is necessary to protect oneself from the formalising illusion [illusion formatrice]: that is, from imagining that these laws of construction are at the same time and with full title the conditions of existence […]. The formalist illusion elides knowledge (the theoretical network and enunciative repartition) as the site and law of formation of concepts and propositions (CpA 9.2:37-38, trans. 330; trans. modified). With regard to the problem of ‘genetic extrapolation’, Foucault takes psychology as an example. ‘If there has only been one psychology since Gustav Fechner, if there has only been one sociology since Auguste Comte […] it is not insofar as it possible to assign a single epistemological structure […] to so many diverse discourses; it is insofar as sociology and psychology have at each moment located their discourse in a historical field they themselves had traversed in the critical mode of confirmation or invalidation’ (CpA 9.2:36/328). The misrecognition involved in the ‘genetic extrapolation’ is that it never reaches the level of formalisation. For these reasons the ‘intermediate sciences’ - such as biology, physiology, political economy, linguistics and philology - ought rather to provide the models for the integration of science and knowledge [savoir].

In ‘Action de la structure’ in this same volume, one of the programmatic texts of the Cahiers, Jacques-Alain Miller presents a concept of the subject that, calling upon the concept of overdetermination, is in contradistinction to that proffered by psychology. The concept of overdetermination leads us to the point where we can recognise as ‘spontaneous’ the subject’s orientation towards the lure of the imaginary. ‘Fundamentally, the subject is deceived: its misunderstanding or mistake [méprise] is constitutive’ (CpA 9.6:98). 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 misrecognition 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 (CpA 9.6:99).

Jacques Nassif builds on Miller’s theses in his ‘Freud et la science’ in this same volume (CpA 9.10). He begins by remarking that psychoanalysis lacks an epistemology that allows it to designate itself as ‘science’ (CpA 9.10:147). Coherent ideas about the precise nature of a ‘science’ of the unconscious are still lacking. Meanwhile practitioners of psychoanalysis are left in a sort of limbo, and in need of protection from the ideological views of the mind proposed by modern psychology, with its watchwords of ‘frustration’, ‘comprehension’, ‘adaptation’ and ‘aptitude’. In line with Miller, Nassif remarks that ‘sciences’ such as psychoanalysis and Marxism share the common feature of ‘only passing into the real once they have been rejected in the symbolic’ (CpA 9.10:149). In other words, they belong to those sciences that are first rejected by the savants of the time, under the aegis of norms of ‘objectivity’ and ‘universality’ which themselves, according to Nassif, conceal ‘that ideology of ideologies which is the project of the constitution of a “universe of discourse”’ (CpA 9.10:147).

Select bibliography

  • Althusser, Louis. Pour Marx. Paris: Maspero, 1965. For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster. London: New Left Books, 1969.
  • Canguilhem, Georges. A Vital Rationalist, ed. François Delaporte, trans. Arthur Goldhammer. New York: Zone Books, 2000.
  • Foucault, Michel. Les Mots et les choses. Paris: Gallimard, 1966. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Random House, 1970.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink, in collaboration with Héloïse Fink and Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.