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Synopsis of Jacques Lacan, ‘La Science et la vérité’

[‘Science and Truth’]

CpA 1.1:7–28

Jacques Lacan wrote this article specifically for the first volume of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse and read it out at the first session of his Seminar XIII, The Object of Psychoanalysis (1 December 1965).1 This text situates Lacan’s theory squarely within an epistemological framework. It also contains a sustained discussion of the notion of truth in psychoanalysis, an interpretation of Descartes’ cogito, and the first textual exposition of the notion of the ‘subject of science’. Lacan’s approach to the question of the subject here takes for granted a principle he had recently established as central to his teaching: the subject as conceived by psychoanalysis is ‘conveyed by a signifier in relation to another signifier’, and must therefore be ‘rigorously distinguished from the biological individual as from any psychological evolution subsumable under the subject of understanding’ (CpA 1.1:26; E, 875)

The piece begins with a reference to the seminar of the previous year, Seminar XII, The Crucial Problems of Psychoanalysis (1964-65), during the course of which Yves Duroux, Jacques-Alain Miller, Serge Leclaire, Xavier Audouard and Jean-Claude Milner had delivered papers which would later also appear in the first volumes of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse. Lacan’s opening words state: ‘Shall we say that we established the status of the subject in psychoanalysis last year?’ (CpA 1.1:7; E 855).2 (Given the collective nature of the development of the theory of the subject in Seminar XII, with Miller’s ‘Suture’ CpA 1.3 influencing Lacan’s own reflections, as well as those of Leclaire, Milner and Audouard, Lacan’s ‘we’ [nous] in his opening address could well refer to the participants of his seminar, rather than to just himself alone). Immediately following its publication in the Cahiers in January-February 1966, it re-appeared later that year as the final essay in Lacan’s Écrits.

Lacan claims to have ‘established the status of the subject’ in Seminar XII by developing ‘a structure that accounts for the state of splitting [refente] or Spaltung’ encountered in psychoanalytic practice. The subject in this sense is most clearly apprehensible in the symptom, in which a gap in speech or behaviour reveals a movement of ‘alternation’ in the relation of the subject to certain signifiers3. Lacan argues that Freud did not treat these phenomena of splitting as a mere given, but rather initiated the process of ‘reduction’ that is proper to the birth of any science. Psychoanalysis is the name of a new science, and Lacan’s point of departure here is explicitly epistemological in the sense found in Bachelard, Canguilhem and Koyré: he wants to pursue a ‘reduction’ that will articulate the proper object of psychoanalysis as a science, beyond all ideological conceptions of that object:

A certain reduction is necessary that is sometimes long in completion, but always decisive in the birth of a science; such a reduction truly constitutes its object. Epistemology takes upon itself the job of defining this in each and every case, without having proven, at least to my mind, equal to the task (CpA 1.1:7; E, 855).

By recommending an epistemological account of the object of psychoanalysis, Lacan is anticipating concerns that he will take up in Seminar XIII, on The Object of Psychoanalysis, as well as in articles in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse by Jacques-Alain Miller (CpA 1.3, 9.6), Jacques Nassif (CpA 9.10), and Alain Badiou (CpA 10.8). In this essay, however, which acts as an overture to the seminar, Lacan restricts his focus to the epistemological break of modern Galilean physics, and attempts to relate this directly to an account of the subject in the epoch of modern science. ‘I do not believe that epistemology has fully accounted in this manner for the decisive change that, with physics paving the way, founded Science in the modern sense, a sense that is posited as absolute’. Rather than conducting an epistemology of psychoanalysis, Lacan’s aim in ‘Science et la vérité’ is to identify the features of the subject that emerges with modern science, and to excavate a passage leading from Galileo and Descartes in the 17th century to Freud’s encounter with the unconscious at the turn of the 20th century. ‘It is unthinkable that psychoanalysis as a practice and the Freudian unconscious as a discovery could have taken on their roles before the birth - in the century that has been called the century of genius, that is, the seventeenth century - of science’ (CpA 1.1:8; E, 857). According to Lacan, Freudian psychoanalysis is situated very precisely in the history of science, and implicitly takes the ‘subject of science’ as its object of theoretical and practical study:

I am saying, contrary to what has been trumped up about a supposed break on Freud’s part with the scientism of his time, that it was this very scientism - which one might designate by its allegiance to the ideals of Brücke, themselves passed down from Helmholtz and Du Bois-Reymond’s pact to reduce physiology, and the mental functions considered to be included therein, to the mathematically determined terms of thermodynamics (the latter having attained virtual completion during their lifetimes) - that led Freud, as his writings show, to pave the way that shall forever bear his name (CpA 1.1:9; E, 857).

Lacan refers to Alexandre Koyré’s account of the development of modern science. The birth of science in the 17th century has an ‘absolute’ sense, superseding what formerly went under the title of ‘science’, and altering what comes after. Galileo is the one who performs the epistemological break, reconstituting human perception of the universe by means of mathematical physics; Lacan’s daughter Judith Miller will develop this point in her own contribution to the Cahiers, in volume 9 (CpA 9.9:138). As Lacan presents it in Seminar XII, Newton’s achievement of constructing an entire system of knowledge on the basis of mathematicised physics is conditioned by his residual religious beliefs. With his conception of a divine sensorium, Lacan argues that Newton is the only one not to realise that the subject, as it must now exist in the measureless universe opened up by modern science, ‘is nothing’.

This subject is nothing, and [Newton] is the only one not to know it. And this indeed is precisely the sign that he is nothing. In other words, it is in the ambiguity of the relationship of a subject to knowledge, it is in the subject insofar as he still lacks knowledge, that there resides for us the nerve, the activity of the existence of a subject.4

Hence the importance of Freud, who in Seminar XII is said to reveal a ‘new, original relationship’ in modern subjectivity: the relation ‘of a subject to a not-knowing’. What Freudian psychoanalysis designates in the period of science is ‘the subsistence of the subject of a not-knowing’.5 Such subjectivity depends on not-knowing, or a lack, and psychoanalysis reveals that there is an area which remains outside knowledge, that of sexuality. It was on this basis, as Lacan puts it in ‘Science et la vérité’, that he was led at the end of this seminar, ‘to formulate our experienced division as subjects as a division between knowledge and truth’ (CpA 1.1:8; E, 856).

Lacan’s reflections on Descartes in ‘Science et la vérité’ take up the essential points of his lengthy discussion of the cogito in the 22nd session of Seminar XII (9 June 1965). He recalls that in the seminar he had isolated ‘a certain moment of the subject that I consider to be an essential correlate of science, a historically defined moment [ … ]: the moment Descartes inaugurates that goes by the name of cogito’ (CpA 1.1:8; E, 856). In its most profound sense, the cogito must be understood as the ‘correlate’ of the birth of modern science. ‘For science’, as he puts in the 1964 article ‘Position de l’inconscient’, ‘the cogito marks [ … ] the break with every assurance conditioned by intuition’ (E, 832). With his procedure of radical doubt, Descartes traverses the ‘defile [défile] of a rejection of all knowledge’, with the aim of ‘anchoring’ the subject in being (CpA 1.1:8; E, 856). By arriving at a minimal formal point of certainty, the cogito, Descartes pinpoints the essential nature of the subject of science. But Lacan suggests that Descartes’ accentuation of the term ego in some of his texts on the cogito nevertheless obscures the nature of the subjectivity he has opened up:

In the ego that Descartes accentuates by virtue of the superfluousness of its function in certain of his Latin texts [ ... ] one must grasp the point at which it continues to be what it presents itself as: dependent on the god of religion. A curious fallen scrap [chute] of ergo, the ego is bound up with this God. Descartes’ approach is, singularly, one of safeguarding the ego from the deceitful God, and thereby safeguarding the ego’s partner - going so far as to endow the latter with the exorbitant privilege of guaranteeing the eternal truths insofar as he is their creator (CpA 1.1:16 E, 865).

By confusing the ‘I think’ of the subject with the activity of an ego, Descartes enters into imaginary rivalry with a deceitful other. When he suggests that God can make 2 + 2 = 5 if he wishes, he is ‘handing back truth into the hands of the Other’ in a manner characteristic of obsessional neurosis.6 However, what the cogito really reveals is not the ego, but the subjectivity of which the ego is not aware, and which eludes it.

Lacan argues that the true significance of the cogito is not perceived until Freud, who identifies the true subject as the subject of the unconscious, the existence and nature of which is only detectable via the mediation of symptoms. As he says in Seminar XI, ‘Freud’s method is Cartesian - in the sense that he sets out from the basis of the subject of certainty [ ... ] [T]he dissymmetry between Freud and Descartes [ ... ] is not in the initial method of certainty grounded on the subject. It stems from the fact that the subject is “at home” in this field of the unconscious’.7 Freud’s doubts about his own unconscious in his self-analysis take Cartesian doubt to its logical conclusion, subjecting the ego itself to doubt.8 As Lacan puts it in ‘Science et la vérité’, whereas Jung attempted to ‘reinstate a subject endowed with depths […], that is, a subject constituted by a relationship - said to be archetypal - to knowledge’, Freud remains strictly Cartesian, reducing the relation between subject and knowledge ‘to that exclusively allowed by modern science, the latter being no other than the one I defined last year [Seminar XII] as punctual and vanishing: that relationship to knowledge which, since its historically inaugural moment, has retained the name “cogito”’ (CpA 1.1:9 E, 858).

Lacan insists on this point: ‘only one subject is accepted as such in psychoanalysis, the one that can make it scientific.’ Any attempt to ‘incarnate the subject’ (as for instance, ‘the subject incarnated in man’) is ‘faulty’ and erroneous; to identify the subject as a ‘man’ is to preclude any understanding of what actually happens in infancy, childhood and ‘the whole primary process’. In terms that will condition the whole of the Cahiers project, Lacan insists that ‘there is no such thing as a science of man because science’s man does not exist, only its subject does’ (CpA 1.1:10-11; E, 859).

For Freud, on the track of the subject of the unconscious, the first priority is to overcome whatever connotes some sort of putative content in the unconscious. Referring to Georges Canguilhem’s ‘sensational article’ ‘Qu’est-ce que la psychologie?’ (reprinted as CpA 2.1), Lacan says that this does not mean that the subject of science must be yielded up to treatment in the ‘technocratic’ manner criticised by Canguilhem (CpA 1.1:11E, 859). Nevertheless, some modern sciences harbour a validity for psychoanalysis, even if they themselves misrecognise their own value. At the highest level of abstraction, game theory [la théorie des jeux] ‘takes advantage of the thoroughly calculable character of a subject strictly reduced to the formula for a matrix of signifying combinations’. Linguistics is more complicated, since alongside the rules of combination in grammar and syntax it must also take into account the distinction between the level of enunciation and that of the statement (CpA 1.1:12; E, 860). Both of these sciences are essential for mapping out the primary processes of the unconscious.

However, Lacan says that it is specifically ‘in the realm of logic’ that the most acute light is shed on the subject of science, and ‘theory’s refractive indices appear in relation to the subject of science’ (ibid). In the paradoxes and limitations of modern formal logic, one finds the complex relationship between science and subjectivity expressed in its pure form as a ‘suture’:

[Modern logic] is indisputably the strictly determined consequence of an attempt to suture the subject of science, and Gödel’s last theorem shows that the attempt fails there, meaning that the subject in question remains the correlate of science, but an antinomic correlate since science turns out to be defined by the deadlocked endeavour to suture the subject (CpA 1.1:12; E, 861)

According to Lacan, structuralism is currently in the process of introducing into all the ‘human sciences’ a ‘very particular mode of the subject’, which he claims that only topology can adequately formalise: a subject that is in a state of ‘internal exclusion from its object’, in the manner of a side of a Moebius strip 12; E, 861). Although structuralism (as practiced for instance by Lévi-Strauss) shares with modern science the tendency to map out domains ‘by means of combinatorial analysis, that is, by the mathematics of the signifier’, it only does so by ‘suturing’ the subject as a form of non-knowledge.

At this point Lacan reiterates his opening claim that ‘there is something in the status of the object of science that seems to me to have remained unelucidated since the birth of science’ (CpA 1.1:14; E, 863). He takes psychoanalysis to have the key to the peculiar relation to an object that characterises the subject of science. Insofar as it is supported by a subject, science is governed by a particular kind of object that can only be articulated and comprehended by psychoanalysis. For Lacan this ‘object’ of psychoanalysis is what he calls the objet petit a, and it would seem therefore to follow that the task of psychoanalysis in the age of science would be ‘knowledge’ of the objet petit a of science. However, the identification of the ‘knowledge of objet a’ with ‘the science of psychoanalysis’, is, according to Lacan, ‘precisely the equation that must be avoided’. Rather, the objet petit a only emerges as something ‘inserted [ ... ] into the division of the subject by which the psychoanalytic field is quite specifically structured’ (CpA 1.1:15; E, 864).

In the ensuing paragraphs, Lacan identifies a ‘causal’ function of truth that stands apart from its relation to knowledge. At the most basic level, the subject refuses knowledge because they are bound to a truth that transcends knowledge. And just as the subject ‘does not want to know’ about sexual difference, science ‘does not want to know’ about the role that truth plays as a cause. Freud’s motto, Wo es war, soll Ich werden, indicates the task of psychoanalysis: to occupy the place to which knowledge refuses to go. On this basis Lacan identifies another analogy between the Cartesian cogito and the Freudian subject. In the ‘I think, therefore I am’, the ‘I am’ leans on the ‘cause’ of the ‘I think’. In psychoanalysis, I am called to ‘assume my own causality’, which presupposes that ‘I am not yet the cause of myself’. Lacan then takes this transcendent causality all the way up to the concept of God. Spinoza’s concept of God as ‘causa sui’ rests on an exclusion: ‘the Spinozan self-cause is also some-Thing other [Chose autre] than the Whole’, so that God, ‘being other in this way’, cannot be identified with ‘the God of pantheism’ (CpA 1.1:16; E 865).

If truth has this causal component, is all truth consequently restricted by this function?9 Referring at length to his 1955 paper, ‘The Freudian Thing’, which turns on the statement ‘I, truth, speak ….’ (E, 409), Lacan argues that since ‘there is no such thing as a metalanguage’, it is impossible for any particular language or theory to say ‘the truth about truth’.

To lend my voice to support 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 (CpA 1.1:18; E, 867).

The issue of the nature and existence of metalanguage will recur through a number of essays in the Cahiers.10 Here Lacan says that it is precisely the limitation posed by the lack of a metalanguage that allows one to situate the unconscious, as the only subject capable of speaking, as it were, a ‘language’ telling ‘the truth about truth’: ‘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 the unconscious – speak’. It is moreover the ultimate ‘lack of truth about truth’ that is ‘the rightful place of Urverdrängung, that is, of “primal repression”’ (19; 868).11. There is nothing ‘noumenal’ about this ‘lack’ of truth. ‘There is no other truth about truth that can cover over this sore point than proper names, Freud’s or my own’.

Lacan asks whether this means that one must abandon the idea that in psychoanalysis there might by a body of knowledge that corresponds to truth. This ‘is the breaking point whereby we depend upon the advent of science. We no longer have anything with which to join knowledge and truth together but the subject of science’. Nevertheless, by reintroducing the notion of truth as a cause (‘not the cause as logical category, but as causing the whole effect’), psychoanalysis manages to perceive what science cannot. The causal aspects of truth are ‘veiled’ in the activity of science, which tends to ‘forget the circuitous path by which it came into being’. This forgetting is reversed in Marxism and psychoanalysis. Like psychoanalysis, Marxism distinguishes ‘the truth as cause [ ... ] from knowledge put into operation’. Revolutionary subjectivity cannot be understood as a mere effect of the formulation of objective knowledge. ‘An economic science inspired by Capital does not necessarily lead to its utilization as a revolutionary power, and history seems to require help from something other than a predicative dialectic’. Marxism, along with psychoanalysis, thus ‘seriously puts to work’ a dimension of subjective truth that science tends to forget, since science, once it has been constituted, neglects ‘the circuitous path by which it came into being’ (20; 869). Science itself ‘does-not-want-to-know-anything about the truth as cause’ (24; 874). Each time a scientific crisis opens the door to new forms of knowledge, it takes a ‘toll’ on the subject who sustains it: Lacan cites the names of Julius Robert Mayer (discoverer of the first law of thermodynamics) and Georg Cantor, who both suffered breakdowns in pursuit of their projects (20; 869). One task of psychoanalysis to gain insight into the truths that motivate crises in science, and to illuminate their status as misrecognised causes.

In the final part of his paper, Lacan distinguishes between the subjects of magic, religion and science by assigning them different types of causality: efficient, final and formal. Psychoanalysis takes the role of attending to ‘material’ causality, thus completing the correspondence with Aristotle’s account of the four types of cause (CpA 1.1:21: E, 871).12

Appealing to Lévi-Strauss’s structural analyses of ‘magical’ thought13, Lacan suggests that the preparations of the ‘shamanising subject’ are marked by their treatment of their body as a part of nature, which must be ‘hewn’ into, or subjected to a ‘recoupement’. The shamanising subject acts within structures and signifiers: ‘it is in the form of signifiers that what must be mobilized in nature appears: thunder and rain, meteors and miracles’. But in magic the idea of the truth as cause only appears in the guise of efficient causality.

As for religion, if this is analysed from the perspective of the subject of science, its basis in obsessional mechanisms becomes clear. Religion is founded on a repression of the truth as cause:

A religious man leaves responsibility for the cause to God, but thereby bars his own access to truth. Thus he is led to place the cause of his desire in God’s hands, and that is true object of his sacrifice. His demand is subordinated to his presumed desire for a God who must then be seduced. The game of love starts in this way. Religious people thus confer upon truth the status of guilt. The upshot being a distrust of knowledge [ ... ] Truth in religion is relegated to so-called ‘eschatological’ ends, which is to say that truth appears only as final cause, in the sense that it is deferred to an end-of-the-world judgment (CpA 1.1:23; E, 872).

Science, by contrast, does not repress. It involves a negation, but rather than a repression (Verdrängung), what is involved is a foreclosure (Verwerfung). Science ‘does not want to know’, rejects or forecloses, the truth in its status as cause (CpA 1.1:24; E, 874). According to Lacan, this is because the ‘closure’ intrinsic to science corresponds to the maintenance of a successful paranoia. Insofar as psychoanalysis has a role to play here, it must relate this foreclosure back to the rejection of the ‘Name-of-the-Father’, the paternal function. However, a deadlock will then emerge, as science in turn will demand to incorporate such putative psychic structures into forms of scientific knowledge. Psychoanalysis must therefore somehow avoid becoming caught up in ‘the deadlocked endeavour to suture the subject’, mentioned earlier (CpA 1.1:12; E, 861). For ‘if one acknowledges that psychoanalysis is essentially what brings the Name-of-the-Father back into scientific examination, one comes upon the same apparent deadlock; but one has the feeling that this very deadlock spurs on progress, and that one can see the chiasmus that seemed to create an obstacle therein becoming undone’ (CpA 1.1:25; E, 875). The questions Lacan raises here will reverberate across the volumes of the Cahiers, particularly in the ideas about the foreclosive nature of science developed by Jacques-Alain Miller (CpA 9.6:102), François Regnault (CpA 9.4:69) and Alain Badiou (CpA 10.8:161-63).

The ‘originality of psychoanalysis in the field of science’ is its emphasis on the ‘material cause’, beyond the formal causality of science. The signifier makes its impact on the child in the imaginary situation by virtue of its materiality: the Name-of-the-Father, the proper name and the name in general are all ‘pure’ signifiers; so also is the phallus, the signifier par excellence:

The signifier is defined by psychoanalysis as acting first of all as if it were separate from its signification. Here we see the literal character trait that specifies the copulatory signifier, the phallus, when - arising outside of the limits of the subject’s biological maturation - it is effectively (im)printed; it is unable, however, to be the sign representing sex, the partner’s sex - that is the partner’s biological sign; recall, in this connection, my formulations differentiating the signifier from the sign (CpA 1.1:26; E 876).

Understood as the signifier of the process of signification itself (the process which arises to cover over the ‘abyss’ of castration prompted by discovery the ‘lack of the mother’s penis’), ‘the phallus itself is nothing but the site of lack it indicates in the subject’ (28; 877).

Psychoanalysis’s recognition of this incursion of the signifier into human life separates it out from other ‘developmental’ models. Psychoanalysis deals with history rather than development. Lacan notes that ‘history as a science’ needs to learn that ‘history unfolds only in going against the rhythm of development’. He suggests that his conception of the importance of pure signifiers in the structuring of symbolic space is compatible with the theory of historical materialism. The latter might also benefit from his own theory of the objet petit a, given the importance of this object for determining how the truth plays the role of cause (CpA 1.1:26; E 876).

Lacan ends by stressing, with respect to magic, religion, and science, that his ‘primary concern is to remind you that, as subjects of psychoanalytic science, you must resist the temptation of each of these relations to truth as cause’. Magic ‘explains nothing’, religion preserves a false and hierarchical relation to revealed truth as mythical cause, and science communicates knowledge in a form that ‘sutures the subject it implies’ (CpA 1.1:27; E 876-77). At the end of his subsequent ‘Réponse aux étudiants en philosophie sur l’objet de la psychanalyse’ where Lacan argues that ‘psychoanalysis as a science will be structuralist, to the point of recognising in science a refusal of the subject’ (CpA 3.1:13; cf. CpA 1.1:12; E 861, mentioned above). Here, in an untranslatable final sequence, he calls on psychoanalysis to begin to confront ‘the first ostacle to its scientific value’. This epistemological break is its failure to elaborate its ‘relation to truth as cause, in its material guises’, as situated in that ‘site of lack’ which is indicated in the subject by the phallus (28; 744-45).

References to this text in other articles in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse:

English translation:

  • Jacques Lacan, Écrits (1966), trans. Bruce Fink, in collaboration with Héloïse Fink and Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.

Selected secondary sources

  • Althusser, Louis. Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists ed. Gregory Elliott. London: Verso, 1990.
  • ---. ‘Three Notes on the Theory of Discourses’. In The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings, ed. François Matheron, trans. G.M. Goshgarian. London: Verso, 2003.
  • Aristotle. Physics, trans. Robin Waterfield. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Badiou, Alain. L’Être et l’événement, Paris: Seuil, 1988. Being and Event, trans. Oliver Feltham. London: Continuum, 2005. Meditation 37, ‘Descartes and Lacan’.
  • Evans, Dylan. ‘Science and Truth: An Introduction (I)’, Newsletter of the London Circle of the European School of Psychoanalysis, 1.1, 1995. Republished online in The Symptom 10 (Spring 2009):
  • Forbes, Jorge. ‘Lacan et la science, selon Jean-Claude Milner’, in Lacan avec les philosophes. Paris: Albin Michel, 1991.
  • Henry, Paul. ‘ Response to Jean-Claude Milner’. In Lacan avec les philosophes. Paris: Albin Michel, 1991.
  • 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 Psycho-Analysis (1963-1964), ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Penguin, 1977.
  • ---. Seminar XII: Crucial Problems for Psychoanalysis (1964-1965), trans. Cormac Gallagher, unpublished manuscript.
  • ---. Seminar XII: The Object of Psychoanalysis (1965-1966), trans. Cormac Gallagher, unpublished manuscript.
  • Laplanche, Jean and Serge Leclaire. ‘L’Inconscient: Une étude psychanalytique’. Les temps modernes, 183 (1961). ‘The Unconscious: A Psychoanalytic Study’, trans. Patrick Coleman. Yale French Studies, 48 (1972): The French Freud, ed. Jeffrey Mehlman.
  • Serge Leclaire. ‘Compter avec la Psychanalyse. Séminaire de l’Ecole Normale Supérieure 1965-1966’, I, CpA 1.5.
  • ---. ‘Note sur l’objet de la psychanalyse’, CpA 2.5.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude.. ‘The Sorcerer and his Magic’, Structural Anthropology, vol. 1, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf. London: Penguin, 1968.
  • Marini, Marcelle.Jacques Lacan. Paris: Pierre Belfond, 1986. Jacques Lacan: The French Context, trans. Anne Tomiche. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992.
  • Milner, Jean-Claude. ‘Lacan et la science moderne’. In Lacan avec les philosophes. Paris: Albin Michel, 1991.
  • Nobus, Dany. ‘A Matter of Cause: Reflections on Lacan’s “Science and Truth”’. In Lacan & Science, ed. Jason Glynos and Yannis Stavrakakis. London: Karnac Books, 2002
  • Roudinesco, Elisabeth. Jacques Lacan & Co: A History of Psychoanalysis in France, 1925-1985, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman. London: Free Association, 1990.
  • ---. Jacques Lacan: A Biography, trans. Barbara Bray. London: Polity, 1997.


1. This was the first session of ‘Seminar XIII, The Object of Psychoanalysis’, which remains unpublished. Lacan’s text was published as the final chapter of his Ecrits (E, 855-877); Bruce Fink’s translation was first published in the Newsletter of the Freudian Field 3:1-2 (Spring/Fall 1989). For interpretations of ‘Science and Truth’, see the works by Alain Badiou, Dylan Evans, Paul Henry, Jean-Claude Milner and Dany Nobus in the bibliography to this synopsis. Elisabeth Roudinesco summarises the text as follows: ‘In this text Lacan carried out what I have called a logical revision of his structural theory of the subject and the signifier, based in part on the work of his old friend Alexandre Koyré. He took from him the idea that modern science – which had produced the cogito – had brought about a dramatic devaluation of being. And from Kurt Gödel he had borrowed the second incompleteness theorem: the notion that truth cannot be fully formulated. Lacan observed that this was part of the general failure of science, which was always in search of something to make its incompleteness whole.’ Jacques Lacan: A Biography, 326.

2. ‘E’ followed by a page number indicates Jacques Lacan, Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink, in collaboration with Héloïse Fink and Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.

3. On ‘alternation’ and ‘vacillation’ in subjectivity, see Lacan, Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (1964), 2nd session, 22 January 1964 (‘Discontinuity, then, is the essential form in which the unconscious first appears to us as a phenomenon – discontinuity, in which something is manifested as a vacillation’, 25); Seminar XII: Crucial Problems for Psychoanalysis (1964-65),18th session, 12 May 1965 (‘It is necessary to have this element of oddity, of exception, of paradox, of appearance and disappearance founded as such, which would show us clearly that something is alternating, which is precisely the relationship of one of these signifiers with a subject’, 5).

4. Lacan, Seminar XII: Crucial Problems for Psychoanalysis, 18th session, 12 May 1965. In this session Lacan suggests that if Galileo is the one who performs the epistemological break, it is Newton who goes beyond the break and produces an entire system of knowledge. The problem that emerges, Lacan says, is ‘the status of the subject with respect to a knowledge’. What is the relation of a subject in the true sense to a constituted body of knowledge? ‘When a knowledge, like Newtonian knowledge, is completed, let us observe what happens with regard to the status of the subject. … Newtonian knowledge realised, in the history of science, a sort of exemplary acme, that was at once paradoxical and really exemplary, paradigmatic’. Newton had created ‘a formula which suddenly rooted the enigmatic phenomena in the heavens which had captivated the attention of calculators throughout the centuries’, but which appealed to a conception of action at a distance that was entirely removed from experience. Newton’s theory naturally provoked the question, ‘how can such a body, as it were, such a mass isolated at some point in space, know the distance it is from another body, so that it is linked to it by this relationship?’:

For Newton, there is no doubt … that this presupposes a subject who maintains the action of the law. Everything which is of the order of physics or appears here to relate to the action and the reaction of bodies following the properties of movement and of rest … does not appear to him to be able to be supported except by this pure and supreme subject, this sort of acme of the ideal subject that the Newtonian God represents.

This is indeed the reason why our contemporaries have quite correctly made Newton equal to this God, for it is the same thing to create this law and to see it articulated in all its rigour. But it is no less true that a too perfect subject, like the subject of knowledge (which is the first true model of this absolute knowledge that haunted Hegel) … leaves us completely indifferent and that belief in God gained no renewal from it.

That this subject is nothing, that he is the only one not to know it. And this indeed is precisely the sign that he is nothing. In other words, it is in the ambiguity of the relationship of a subject to knowledge, it is in the subject insofar as he still lacks knowledge, that there resides for us the nerve, the activity of the existence of a subject. This is indeed why it is not as a supposed support of a harmonious group of signifiers in this system that the subject is grounded, but insofar as somewhere there is a lack (12 May 1965; 4).

5. Freud’s German for the ‘unconscious’ is das Unbewusste, which can also be translated as ‘the unknown’, or ‘non-known’.

6. Lacan, Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 3rd session, 29 January 1964, 36.

7. Lacan, Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 3rd session, 29 January 1964, 35

8. The analogy here is between the sensible, untrustworthy data of the senses and the fleeting, enigmatic data of the dream. Lacan goes out of his way to suggest that it is Freud’s self-analysis that is first of all comparable with Descartes’ method. ‘In a precisely similar way [to Cartesian doubt], Freud, when he doubts – for they are his dreams, and it is he who, at the outset, doubts – is assured that a thought is there, which is unconscious, which means that it reveals itself as absent’ (Seminar XI, 29 January 1964, 36). Freud is examining his own hesitations about the meaning of dreams, his own resistances, and assuming, on the basis of these resistances, that there is not just something behind his resistance, but someone. ‘Doubt is the support of [the subject’s] certainties’ (Seminar XI, 35), not only because by the very fact that I am doubting, I know that I am thinking (and that I am thinking), but also, says Lacan, because doubt is a ‘sign’ that ‘there is something to preserve. Doubt, then, is a sign of resistance’ (Seminar XI, 35). That is, my hesitation and doubt bears witness to my own investments, in such a way that I cannot help but ascribe an intention to the suppression that issues from the resistance. There is subjectivity there, in doubts, impasses, hesitations, but it is not a subjectivity with which I as ego can identify myself.

9. In the second of his ‘Three Notes on the Theory of Discourses’, Althusser criticises ‘Lacan’s way of using the ideological concept of truth in expressions invoking “the truth as cause”’ (‘Three Notes on the Theory of Discourses’, 78).

10. Jacques-Alain Miller refers to this passage in a footnote to ‘Suture’. He says that ‘the central paradox’ to be grasped in the operation of suture is that ‘the trait of the identical represents the non-identical, whence is deduced the impossibility of its redoubling’ (CpA 1.3:46; trans. 32). Referring to the passage on metalanguage, Miller suggests that this impossibility is the reason for the lack of metalanguage. The issue of metalanguage is also important for Antoine Culioli in ‘Formalisation en linguistique’ (CpA 9.6) and Alain Badiou in ‘Marque et manque’ (CpA 10.8).

11. Further on, Lacan relates his distinction between truth and knowledge to Jean Laplanche and Serge Leclaire’s account of the ‘double inscription’ involved in the process of primary repression in their 1961 essay ‘L’Inconscient: une étude psychanalytique’ (CpA 1.1:15; E 864). Laplanche’s suggestions about ‘key signifiers’ in the unconscious threaten to flatten the distinction between truth and knowledge. In his portion of the 1961 essay, Leclaire opts to follow Lacan in retaining a radical difference between ‘the biological and the signifier’ (‘The Unconscious: A Psychoanalytic Study’, 162). He revisits the problem in his ‘Note sur l’objet de la psychanalyse’ (CpA 2.5:128), and in the material on primary repression in ‘Compter avec la psychanalyse’, III (CpA 8.6:92). Leclaire’s very concrete account of the imprinting of the body by the signifier (cf. CpA 1.5:68), however, differs from Lacan’s view of primal repression as expressed here, with its severing of truth from knowledge.

12. Aristotle, Physics, Book II, 3, ‘The Four Types of Cause’, 38-42.

13. Claude Lévi-Strauss, ‘The Sorcerer and his Magic’, Structural Anthropology, vol. 1, 167-85.