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La vérité

Texts in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse address the status of truth in various domains, notably in psychoanalysis and in science more generally. The relation between the ‘truths’ at issue in these fields is itself a primary concern of the journal. The editorial introduction to the first volume informs readers that the discourse of science will be analysed as a ‘process of language that truth constrains’ (CpA 1.Introduction).

‘Truth’ has always been a central category of philosophy, and the history of philosophy is itself marked by various concepts of truth. These range from the ‘correspondence theory’ of truth one finds in Aristotelian Scholasticism, wherein truth is a matter of thought’s ability to adequately correspond with a putatively external reality, to a ‘coherence theory’ of truth, common to rationalists such as Spinoza and Leibniz, wherein the truth of a theory is a matter of how well its constituent axioms and propositions accord with, and mutually support, one another. The late modern period has witnessed various forms of a ‘constructivist theory’ of truth, wherein truth results from an anterior process that generates what counts as true. Thinkers ranging from Hegel and Marx to Bachelard and Foucault can be described as constructivists for their insistence that truth is never a ‘given’ but is always in some sense produced or constructed in a historical or scientific sequence.

The dominant concept of truth in play in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse might be most broadly described as somewhere between a ‘coherence theory’ and a ‘constructivist theory’. This dual tendency is discernable in the Cercle d’Épistémologie’s investments in the domains of mathematics and logic. The primacy of analysis as a theoretical framework ensured that establishing the coherence of any given discourse was of the utmost concern for the journal’s editors. And yet, the Cercle’s explorations of the history of mathematics, and above all the works of Gottlob Frege and Georg Cantor, show that the construction of truth, or of what constitutes the truth of a mathematical sequence, was also crucially important. Taken as a whole, the Cahiers was decidedly opposed to a ‘consensus theory’ of truth on the neo-Kantian model, wherein truth effectively depends on agreement among a set of rational actors, as well as to any pragmatic model which makes of truth a mere instrument toward a practical goal.

The most important source for the concern for truth in the Cahiers was no doubt the work of Jacques Lacan, whose repeated engagement with the concept was an essential and distinctive aspect of his approach. In his ‘Presentation of Psychical Causality’, a critique of organicism delivered in 1946, Lacan endorsed the Cartesian rationalist principle formulated by Spinoza as ‘A true idea must agree with its object’, and emphasised the non-normative quality of this proposition (E, 154). Truth is here conceived as a matter of necessity, an intrinsic relation between thought and its object, regardless of whether or not this truth is recognized or avowed. Truth is intimately related to falsity via the symptom, insofar as it is often a lie that betrays the truth. Indeed, Lacan affirms that ‘man’s language, the instrument of his lies, is thoroughly ridden with the problem of truth’ (E, 166). He speaks of truth in terms evocative of Heidegger’s notion of aletheia, wherein truth is something revealed and glimpsed, but that withdraws in the act of thinking. Whether the question of truth is one of expression or intention, ‘the whole history of philosophy is inscribed in this question, from Plato’s aporias of essence to Pascal’s abysses of existence, and on to the radical ambiguity Heidegger points to in it, insofar as truth signifies revelation’ (E, 166).

Truth will remain a crucial problematic in Lacan’s thinking well into the 1960s and beyond. In his first seminar at the ENS, which was delivered in the spring of 1964 (and was the first exposure to Lacan for many of the young normaliens involved in the Cahiers), several key elements of the Lacanian concept of truth were enumerated: its ethical status, its radical distinction from certainty, and the fact that it cannot be opposed to mere appearance (S12, 33, 39, 71). In his establishment of the distinction between the (unconscious) ‘subject of the enunciation [énonciation]’ and the (conscious) ‘subject of the statement [énoncé]’, Lacan invokes the apparently paradoxical sentence ‘I am lying’. His distinction renders the expression unproblematic by making the conscious ‘I’ of the statement function as a shifter that refers in discourse to the lying ‘I’ of the enunciation, that is, to the unconscious subject who is doing the lying in the first place, thus making the statement at once possible and true (S12, 138-42). Lacan’s point is that the truth of all speech is inescapable; even a lie occupies a field of truth (e.g., it is true that you are lying). In this sense, truth for Lacan functions in a way like ‘cause’ or ‘reason’ in the rationalist tradition, as the foundation of any discursive or material process. The logical paradoxes of language and formalisation will exercise the editors of the Cahiers; the cause, or reason, for these concerns is a concern for truth indebted above all to Lacan.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

‘La Science et la vérité’, the inaugural article of the journal culled from the opening session of Lacan’s seminar in the fall of 1965, addresses the fundamental relation between truth and speech. The notion of a completely unmediated ‘truth’ directly expressed is described as ‘horror’ (CpA 1.1:17 E, 867).1 Truth speaks, but it must be spoken in language. Thus there is no direct access to this truth. The inability to articulate this truth directly accounts for the many aporias of modern logic.

To lend my voice to these intolerable words, ‘I, truth, speak …,’ goes beyond allegory. Which quite simply means everything that can be said of truth, of the only truth—namely, that there is no such thing as a metalanguage (an assertion made so as to situate all of logical positivism), no language being able to say the truth about truth, since truth is grounded in the fact that truth speaks, and that it has no other means by which to become grounded. This is precisely why the unconscious, which tells the truth about truth, is structured like a language, and why I, in so teaching, tell the truth about Freud who knew how to let the truth—going by the name of unconscious—speak (CpA 1.1:18 E, 868).

The conscious subject cannot speak the truth about truth; only the unconscious can. ‘The lack of truth about truth’ is what mars modern attempts to fully articulate truth in a logic or metalanguage, and it is also an item of primal repression that constitutes the subject and its discourse in each discrete instance. This lack of truth about truth is what is revealed in the clinical setting in the gaps and symptom-formations of the subject’s discourse.

The discourse of the unconscious ‘tells the truth about truth’ insofar as it both bears witness to the recursion of signification and reveals this recursion as uncontrollable by the conscious subject. Lacan tends to radically separate truth and knowledge in this article. We cannot know anything about this primary relation of our discourse to truth. We cannot have knowledge of it the way we have knowledge of a science or a set of facts, or indeed of how we know another person.

With truth decoupled from knowledge, the stress comes to fall on the ‘causal’ dimension of truth, or its power to motivate. Politically, one fights for a cause, while in the symptom, the truth appears as what one does not wish to acknowledge but which never stops returning in displaced form. Lacan argues that science ‘does not want to know the truth as cause’, but that psychoanalysis can attend to this ‘material’ dimension of truth. Ultimately, science is emblematic of the modern age for Lacan in that it is a discourse that does not want to know the truth – the truth that is most basically the lack of truth – at its origin. As such, ‘the subject of science’ is a privileged site in which to assess the problem of subjectivity as such.

In ‘La Suture: Éléments d’une logique du signifiant’ (CpA 1.3), Jacques-Alain Miller pursues the consequences of Lacan’s concept of truth and its relation to the subject through a close reading of Gottlob Frege’s Foundations of Arithmetic. Frege’s neo-Leibnizian conception of the ‘unit’, argues Miller, is directly connected with the concept of ‘identity’. It is identity that guarantees the articulation of truth: truth can only be said of self-identical things, and confirmation of self-identity thus ‘preserves’ or ‘saves’ the truth. Conversely, if a thing is not identical with itself, then the field of truth is ‘ruined’ and ‘abolished’. Truth is thus founded on the exclusion of the non-identical (CpA 1.3). Frege then generates the concept of 1 (one) out of 0 (zero) in the following fashion: insofar as the 0 is the concept that names the category of things that are not-identical with themselves, or self-contradictory, then 0 refers to a category with no members. But as this category is itself one category, it effectively gives us the concept of one. In this movement, the mark of the ‘non-identical to itself’ forms the foundation of the signifying chain of numbers.

It is this very elision that is the object of Miller’s analysis. A mark of self-identity – the 1 – has as its origin a mark of non-identity – the 0. Thus, in order to generate ‘self-identity’, a constitutive ‘non-identity’ must not simply be elided, but effectively repressed. This act of repression takes the form of a covering over of the site of non-identity, a suture that establishes full presence and self-identity. The ‘truth’ of mathematics is thus predicated on a constitutive truth that is simultaneously ‘truth as lack’ and ‘lack of truth’, i.e., the discourse is maintained only insofar as the constitutive non-identity (‘truth as lack’) is repressed (‘lack of truth’). For Miller, lack is thus a primary and effectively univocal concept. In his ‘Action de la structure’, Miller concludes that ‘the lack of a lack is also a lack’ (CpA 9.6:102).

Miller’s position is subjected to critique in the Cahiers by several psychoanalysts working in Lacan’s orbit. In ‘L’Analyste à sa place’ (CpA 1.4), Serge Leclaire takes Miller to task on several issues. First, he insists that the discourse of the analyst, as opposed to the logician, is in no way sutured. In point of fact, the analyst’s discourse is only efficacious insofar as it is not sutured, never stopping at a fixed place: ‘I imagine that this position or this non-position of the analyst might give vertigo to the logician, the one whose passion is for the truth. For it is in fact what testifies in his action to this radical difference between a sutured desire and one that refuses to be sutured, a non-suturing, a desire-not-to-suture [… T]he day when the analyst arrives at his place, there will no longer be any analysis’ (CpA 1.4:52). Ultimately, Leclaire finds Miller’s concern for truth troubling, and contrary to the means and ends of psychoanalysis. Leclaire develops a more substantive critique of the abstract and logical concept of ‘non-identity’ in play in Miller’s presentation, pointing to other examples of non-identity in the Freudian framework – e.g., the non-identity experienced as sexual difference or the non-identity of various separated (or separable) objects of the infant’s experiences, such as faeces, the penis, or the baby itself (cf. Unary trait). In Miller’s reply to Leclaire (not published in the Cahiers, but reprinted in the manuscript of Lacan’s seminar for that year), Miller says that Leclaire has misunderstood his project, mistaking Frege’s position regarding truth for his own, and failing to see that his own goal was precisely to articulate the ‘logic of the signifier’ which grounds the ‘passion’ for truth Leclaire accuses him of indulging.

In a later instance (CpA 3.6), Leclaire will concede that the order of signification is indeed ‘a sequence that truth constrains’. But he adds that ‘for the psychoanalyst, this constraint is also that of the body, the order he considers being an incarnated order’. For Andre Green, the body as a site of affect is also important. Green too stresses the role of truth, but brings Miller’s discourse back to a more embodied domain and one that correlates with the personal experience of analysands: ‘Knowledge is that which comes forth in the place of truth, after the loss of the object’ (CpA 3.2:21; trans. 171). If this is right, he says, ‘shouldn’t they be linked to one another by the marks (traces) of this loss and the attempt to efface them’? Green says it is ‘to keep truth unthreatened’ that self-identity is assumed; understanding this assumption requires attending to the role of affect.

A different take on the notion of truth can be found in François Regnault’s reading of Machiavelli’s The Prince, which broaches the question of a science of politics and its advent. ‘In order to assign such a break to Machiavelli,’ Regnault writes, ‘one could also take up the formula M. Canguilhem applies to Galileo: he was in the true, he did not say the true’ (CpA 6.2:37).2 This notion of being ‘in the true’ resonates with a more general aspect of the Althusserian re-reading of Marx, namely, that the production of the science of historical materialism in Marx’s thinking, while retrospectively discernable as the result of an epistemological break, in practice took the form of Marx’s effectively being ‘in the true’ without yet knowing it.3

Apart from the ripostes from the psychoanalysts Green and Leclaire, the most extensive critique of Miller’s project, and its attempt to link scientific and psychoanalytic concepts of truth, is produced by Alain Badiou. His ‘Marque et manque: À propos du zero’ begins with the following claim: ‘Epistemology breaks away from the ideological recapture, wherein every science comes to represent its own reflection, by excluding the institutional operator of this recapture – the notion of Truth; proceeding instead according to the concept of a mechanism of production, the theory of whose structure is supposed to account for its effect through difference’ (CpA 10.8:150). In his ‘Three Notes on the Theory of Discourses’, an unpublished circular Althusser shared with Badiou and others, Althusser claims that the Lacanian notion of ‘truth as cause’ is an ideological formulation, due to its necessary invocation of a ‘subject’, which is presented as a thoroughly ideological concept in this note. Through a reading of mathematical logic that emphasises its stratification, Badiou effectively develops Althusser’s point. Any notion of ‘truth as cause’ related to the subjectivity of the scientist is effectively excluded from science by science itself. He situates his remarks in relation to Lacan and Miller’s reading of Frege. When Frege ‘abruptly declares that he likens a proposition to a proper name whose reference, or denotation, is either the True or the False’, he merely posits the truth, rather than ‘the construction of an object’ (CpA 10.8:150).

From this it becomes possible to demonstrate – this is the enterprise undertaken by Jacques Lacan and Jacques-Alain Miller – that as something which can be severally named, the True falls beneath these various nominations, while nonetheless remaining present in its civil state because of the iteration that has us continually registering, at each of its perpetual births, its new anonymous names. The nominal movement or repetitive compulsion wherein is deployed the incapacity ever to grasp the common patronymic of the True, constitutes the very mark, in the linked chain of propositions, of that which is nothing but a lack over which this compulsion glides with neither resistance nor success (CpA 10.8:150).

On the basis of a critique of Miller’s ‘Suture’ from the standpoint of an epistemology of logic, Badiou says that he will ‘oppose the stratification of the scientific signifier’ to this ‘twofold process (preservation of the True; convocation and marking of lack)’.4

The concept of truth remains the central category of Badiou’s subsequent philosophy, which preserves a sharp distinction between truth and knowledge.5 As Badiou came to conceive them, truths are not to be confused with matters of knowledge or opinion, and they are not subject to established criteria of adequation or verification. Truths are militant subjective processes which, beginning from a specific time and place within a situation, pursue the step-by-step transformation of that situation in line with new forms of generic or egalitarian principles. Only the pure commitment of a subject, one detached from any psychological, social or ‘objective’ mediation, can qualify as the adequate vehicle for a truth, but reciprocally, only a properly universal and ‘anonymous’ truth qualifies as worthy of such a commitment. This notion of truth is thus subjective for the same reason that it is universal: truth is a matter of actively holding true to a principle or cause that can, from within the constraints of a given situation, consistently solicit the adherence of every member of that situation.

Select bibliography

  • Badiou, Alain. L’Etre et l’événement. Paris: Seuil, 1988. Being and Event, trans. Oliver Feltham. London: Continuum Press, 2005.
  • Althusser, Louis. ‘Three Notes on the Theory Discourses’ in The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings, ed. François Matheron, trans. G.M. Goshgarian. London: Verso, 2003.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Écrits (1966), trans. Bruce Fink, in collaboration with Héloïse Fink and Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.
  • ---. ‘Seminar XI’: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Penguin, 1977.
  • ---. ‘Seminar XII’: ‘Crucial Problems for Psychoanalysis’ (1964-1965), trans. Cormac Gallagher, unpublished manuscript.
  • Leclaire, Serge. Psychanalyser. Paris: Seuil, 1968.


1. ‘I always speak the truth. Not the whole truth, because there’s no way to say it all. Saying it all is literally impossible: words fail. Yet it’s through this very impossibility that the truth holds onto the real’ (Jacques Lacan, Television [New York: Norton, 1990], 7).

2. Georges Canguilhem, ‘La Signification de l’œuvre de Galilée et la leçon de l’homme’ (1946), in his Études d’histoire et de la philosophie de la science (Paris: Vrin, 1968), 46.

3. Cf. Etienne Balibar, ‘From Bachelard to Althusser: The Concept of the Epistemological Break’, Economy and Society 7:3 (1978): 207-237.

4. Badiou’s mature ontology, as presented in Being and Event (1988), is first sketched in ‘Six propriétés de la vérité’, in Ornicar? 32 (January 1985), 39-67 and Ornicar? 33 (April 1985), 120-149.

5. See in particular Badiou, L’Etre et l’événement, 1988.