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Synopsis of Jacques Lacan, ‘Réponses à des étudiants en philosophie sur l’objet de la psychanalyse’

[‘Responses to Students of Philosophy Concerning the Object of Psychoanalysis’]

CpA 3.1:5–13

Jacques Lacan’s contribution to the third volume of the Cahiers takes the form of a response to a series of questions posed to Lacan students at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in February 1966. Lacan’s seminar had moved to the Ecole in January 1964 and had quickly aroused the interest of a number of young philosophy students, several of whom became founding editors of the Cahiers. One of their main concerns was to find a way to connect the insights of Althusserian structural Marxism with Lacan’s structural revision of the subject of Freudian psychoanalysis, a concern which guides many of the questions posed here. Lacan’s ironic if not sceptical responses are evocative of his distant, sometimes exasperated response to the philosophical attempt to divert psychoanalysis from its clinical orientation. The text is arranged in four sections, corresponding to the general themes posed by the students.

The first section concerns the relationship between philosophical - principally phenomenological - accounts of consciousness and those given by Freud and Lacan. The students enquire as to the supposed ‘mirage of consciousness’ as analysed by Lacan, and the psychoanalytic critique of the philosophical identification of consciousness with the subject. Lacan insists on the cleavage between the ego of consciousness and the subject, a subject he describes as the ‘being of a fall’. Assuming one of the questions to have been derived from a text he wrote on Merleau-Ponty, Lacan accuses phenomenology of ‘suturing’ the internal division of the subject, split between the ‘I think’ of the ego and the ‘I am’ of the unconscious structured like a language.

Lacan goes on to question the assumption of one of his interlocutors that he has criticised the philosophical subject as being ‘wrong’ to identify with his consciousness; rather, he insists, his battle is with the strain of ego psychology then partially dominant within psychoanalysis, a school ignorant, according to Lacan, of the radically decentering implications of Freudian theory for any account of subjectivity. It is only through a reconstruction of the relations of subjectivity to structure on the basis of an appeal to structural linguistics, Lacan insists, that the Real of the subject, its ‘cathexes’, can be accessed. In a series of caustic remarks, Lacan identifies the ‘managerialism’ of modern psychology, its use in ‘job interviews’, and ego psychology generally as being guided by a society defined according to the imperatives of ‘income tax’ -a dig at the adopted American homeland of Heinz Hartmann and other psychoanalysts associated with ego psychology. Finally, in response to a question as to whether one can ever ‘step out’ of consciousness and whether the subject is condemned to its consciousness, Lacan emphasises that it is the body, not consciousness, that the subject is ‘condemned’ to. This brief reference to the body suggests a divergence in Lacanian theory from the rationalism of Jacques-Alain Miller and the other Cahiers authors.

The second section concerns the relationship of psychoanalysis and society, and it is here where the students’ questioning turns directly to the potential of a psychoanalytic Marxism, and the role psychoanalysis might play in both reproducing capitalist society, and contributing to its revolutionary overthrow. To a question concerning the possible relationship between the subject of alienated labour and the subject of alienated desire, Lacan insists that there is, for him, no subject of desire, only that of fantasy. (Lacan’s thinking on the question of fantasy would be most fully articulated a year or so after the text in question in his seminar The Logic of Fantasy). The subject of fantasy, Lacan claims, is ‘stopped up’ by the objec t-cause of desire (objet petit a), the theme of Lacan’s then ongoing seminar on The Object of Psychoanalysis. Contrasting the subject of dialectical materialism with the subject of psychoanalysis, Lacan emphasises the externality and objectality of the cause of the subject’s desire, an external, partially autonomous object that ‘scores a goal on its own’. Reiterated here is Lacan’s critique of philosophy’s reliance on a dualistic account of the distinction between consciousness and its object. Lacan instead proposes a complex topological relation between subject, ego, fantasy, and the object-cause of desire.

In response to a question concerning Marxism’s theory of language, Lacan insists on the importance of his own theory of language for Marxism, even if his insights might introduce a ‘defect’ into Marxist theory. In a comment with particular relevance to the wider radicalisation of structuralism in the Cahiers, Lacan insists that, while posing a challenge to dialectical materialism, his theory of language is nonetheless materialist; the signifier, he claims, is ‘matter transcending itself in language’. To the extent that the philosophers of the Cahiers frequently sought to identify the materiality of the signifier subtracted from meaning, these brief comments by Lacan are of critical interest. Finally in this section, in comments that anticipate Lacan’s 17th seminar on The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, Lacan responds to a question concerning the social function of mental illness by identifying the primacy of irony in exposing the reality of social relations, an irony he associates both with the pathology of neurosis and the psychoanalytic function itself.

The penultimate section of the text concerns the specific relation of psychoanalysis to philosophy, more specifically Freud’s unpublished comments as to the paranoiac status of philosophical discourse, and the relationship between illusion, sublimation and ideology. Lacan’s response here becomes a little exasperated and brief: he notes that Freud’s comments were deliberately left unpublished and that they were probably ironical in intent. Responding to a question linking sublimation with illusion, Lacan asserts without elaborating his response that ‘the very opposite’ is the case. Finally, in response to a question concerning whether psychoanalysis can ‘account’ for philosophy, and whether psychoanalytic theory should be taught as philosophy, Lacan expresses scepticism, implicitly criticising the kind of approach taken by Paul Ricoeur in his 1965 De l’interprétation: Essai sur Freud [Freud and Philosophy], where psychoanalysis is linked with hermeneutics.

The final section of the text concerns the potential relationship of psychoanalysis to anthropology. More specifically, the students ask whether there might exist a discipline capable of uniting the human sciences, and whether psychoanalysis might be able to provide a theoretical basis for anthropology. Lacan responds by identifying the different concepts of the subject assumed by anthropology and psychoanalysis. Anthropology, he contends, interests itself only with the ‘making of man the speaking being’. Psychoanalysis, by contrast, fundamentally rejects the concept of man presupposed by anthropologists; the object of psychoanalysis is not man, Lacan argues, but what man lacks. Crucially, Lacan insists here that this lack is not ‘absolute’, but rather the lack of an object, namely the object-cause of desire (objet petit a).

Overall, Lacan’s comments on the materiality of the signifier and the topological structure of the subject resonate directly with other texts in the Cahiers corpus, and prefigure important later developments in Lacan’s seminar; at the same time, Lacan’s answers suggest a degree of divergence between the uncompromising rationalism embraced by some of the Cahiers authors and Lacan’s own clinical priorities, which remain as concerned with the Real of the body as much as with the logical configuration of symbolic systems.

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


English translation:

  • Lacan, Jacques.. ‘Responses to Students of Philosophy concerning the Object of Psychoanalysis’, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman. October 40 (Spring, 1987): 106-113.

Primary bibliography:

  • Lacan, Jacques. ‘Maurice Merleau-Ponty’, Les Temps modernes 184-185 (1961): 245-254.
  • ---. Le Séminaire XIII: L’objet de la psychanalyse (1965-1966). Unpublished transcript.
  • ---. Le Séminaire XIV: La logique du fantasme (1966-1967). Unpublished transcript.
  • ---. Le Séminaire XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis (1969-1970), trans. Russell Grigg. New York: Norton, 2006.

Selected secondary sources:

  • Ricoeur, Paul. Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation [1965], trans. Denis Savage. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970.