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Synopsis of Jacques Nassif, ‘Freud et la science’

[‘Freud and Science’]

CpA 9.10:145–167

This text was published in volume 9 of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, ‘On the Genealogy of the Sciences’ (1968), appearing as the final article in the section ‘Ideal of Science’ [Idéal de la Science]. It is Jacques Nassif’s second article in the Cahiers, following his article on Freud’s theory of fantasy in CpA 7.4.

Nassif’s goal here is to assess the compatibility of the psychoanalytic theory of repetition with the concept of the epistemological break. If epistemological breaks are ruptures with the past, then how does that apply in the case of psychoanalysis, for which the concept of repetition is fundamental, as a category of behaviour, a therapeutic instrument, and as an operation basic to discourse in general? Nassif’s answer is that psychoanalysis breaks with the past by virtue of a repetition of a previous series of breaks (occurring in the work of Charcot, Jackson, Bernheim and Breuer). On the model Nassif suggests here, epistemological breaks imply a subsequent ‘repetition of the break’ [répétition de coupure] (CpA 9.10:157). But if Freud makes his own inaugural break through the repetition of a previous set of breaks, this sequence in the formation of psychoanalysis remains to be elucidated. Nassif’s article thus attempts to ‘repeat’ the origins of psychoanalysis, and to shed light on the applicability of the notion of the epistemological break in contested ‘sciences’ such as Marxism and psychoanalysis. The article ends with a note that a sequel is to follow. Nassif later incorporated the material from this article into his major 1977 book Freud: L’Inconscient.

Nassif begins by remarking that psychoanalysis lacks an epistemology that allows it to designate itself as ‘science’ (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’. Following on from Jacques-Alain Miller’s comparison of psychoanalysis and Marxism in ‘Action of the Structure’, 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).

The problem is that psychoanalysis, by virtue of its clinical framework, is obliged to take a nuanced approach to the question of scientific knowledge [savoir]. The method of the transference requires the analyst to ‘institute a “subject-supposed-to-know”’, and to ‘lead the patient to the recognition that the latter does not exist’ (CpA 9.10:148). The ‘theoretical space’ of psychoanalysis, rather than implying an ‘accumulation of knowledge’, presumes cuts or breaks [coupures]; there is a specific kind of ‘psychoanalytic act’,1 corresponding to processes of ‘repetition’ (CpA 9.10:148). Nassif’s article accordingly attempts to ‘repeat’ the coupures that constituted psychoanalysis as a new field in science at the end of the nineteenth century. The central problem he faces is the compatibility of the concepts of epistemological break and repetition.

If one believes, according to the well-established theses of the history of the sciences, that an ‘epistemological break’ is defined by points of no return [points de non-retour], starting from which the science commences: in other words, by the fact that it excludes repetition, that it has not been repeated, and that it has taken place only once (CpA 9.10:148).

Nassif comments that in the first place it is necessary to see that ‘this non-repetition, in the domain of the physical sciences themselves, is purely descriptive, not at all normative, and that we must therefore efface from the term “cut” [coupure] every connotation implying a founding subject, even in cases where proper names are left to one side’ (148). Nevertheless, there is a necessary repetition of the cut or break itself in the process by which a science ascends out of ideology. Psychoanalysis repeats a sequence of breaks. What is therefore required is the repetition of the cuts or breaks that inaugurated psychoanalysis itself. ‘Psychoanalysis [...] proposes the term “act” {acte] to designate the paradox of a cut [coupure] that repeats itself’, and Nassif proposes a re-reading of Freud’s texts in keeping with the ‘mise en acte’ that their concepts demand (CpA 9.10:149).

Nassif explains that Freud filtered the science of his time, from medicine, neurology and thermodynamics, to Herbartian psychology and classical psychiatry, through a ‘sieve’ that allowed him to collect what he needed for his interests and practice. Even if he misrecognised the significance of his own approach and himself avowed his belief in the ‘cumulative character of Science’ (CpA 9.10:149), the lineaments of a ‘theory of the break [théorie de la coupure]’ (CpA 9.10:150) are visible in the opening pages of Freud’s first major work, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900):

It is difficult to write a history of the scientific study of the problems of dreams because, however valuable that study may have been at a few points, no line of advance in any particular direction can be traced. No foundation has been laid of secure findings upon which a later investigator might build, but each new writer examines the same problems afresh and begins again, as it were, from the beginning (SE 4: 5).

Hence the incomplete nature of The Interpretation of Dreams.The basic thesis of the book was that ‘the dream is the accomplishment of a wish [désir]’, but from the beginning Freud classed dreams among a whole class of ‘anomalous psychic states’ (CpA 9.10:150). Freud’s ‘correlation between dream and symptom’ (CpA 9.10:151) points to an absence at the heart of The Interpretation of Dreams: as Freud himself indicates in the theoretical chapter of the book, ‘it is only by a reference to [...] sexual forces that we can close the gaps that are still patent in the theory of repression’ (SE 4: 606). But Freud’s account of these forces (and of the nature of repression) is not yet given in the book itself. Nassif proposes to show the series of breaks Freud had to make with the psychology and science of his time in order to arrive at a formulation of the principles of psychoanalysis. His account is complex and multi-tiered:

With regard to the ‘break’ [coupure], if this word can be employed in psychoanalysis, this will designate nothing other than the end of Freud’s relationship of dependency with Fliess, once the work starts to go well. This is to say that far from relating this act of rupture to the decision of a savant, we are obliged in this domain to derive the demand from the patients themselves. Anna O. obliges Breuer to listen to her speaking, Emmy von N. obliges Freud to abandon hypnosis and to interest himself in dreams, while Elisabeth von R. obliges Freud to listen to her without interrupting, etc. (CpA 9.10:151).

Freud’s task during the first phase of psychoanalysis was to incorporate these encounters and insights at the theoretical level. In the ten years that followed his first publications with Breuer (1893), Freud set up an institutional framework for psychoanalysis, which ‘was punctuated by the form of the repetition, by Freud, of “breaks” operated in other fields’ (CpA 9.10:151-2). It was through the ‘repetition of different breaks’ in the ‘theory of medical ideology’ that Freud was able to pursue his theorisation of the principles of psychoanalysis.

Nassif designates four ‘breaks’ in medical ideology that are then taken up by Freud. (1) Jean-Martin Charcot’s break with contemporary theories of neurosis. (2) John Hughlings Jackson’s development of a neurological concept of the unconscious, (3) Hippolyte Bernheim’s renewal of the concept of ‘mental treatment’ [traitement psychique], and (4) Josef Breuer’s invention (with Anna O.) of the ‘talking cure’. In the present article, Nassif restricts himself to the history of the first break, and his next section, on ‘Charcot and the Concept of Neurosis’, takes up the remainder of the article. But Nassif emphasises that each of these breaks is taken up in turn by Freud. His overarching argument is that Freud had to ‘repeat’ these four breaks in order to constitute psychoanalysis as a potential science. An account of the complex relation of ideology and science in each of these four cases, on the one hand, and of the sequence of the breaks repeated by Freud on the other, would stand to illuminate what remains to be done to make psychoanalysis a science. Nassif here provides a sketch for the account of the relations of psychoanalysis and science that will later be elaborated in more detail in his Freud: L’Inconscient (1977).

Before commencing his account of Charcot, Nassif explains that he is not interested in ‘real historical connections’, so much as ‘population[s] of “discursive events” [that] form a whole’ (CpA 9.10:152; cf. Foucault’s theory of discursive events, CpA 9.2:13). Herbartian psychology, for instance, was a general framework to which many researchers into the anatomy and physiology of the nervous system at the time made appeal, not just Freud. Nassif’s cites Ola Andersson’s 1962 Studies in the Prehistory of Psychoanalysis, which investigates the Herbartian framework of ‘Vorstellungsmechanik [mechanics of representation]’ prevalent in the textbooks of the time. A ‘physics of representations’ (CpA 9.10:153) already existed, which mapped out the set of ‘inhibitions’, ‘modifications’, ‘complications’, etc. possible for representations [Vorstellungen]. Central to this framework, moreover, was the idea that representations could ‘fall beneath’ or ‘rise above’ the ‘threshold of consciousness’. Herbartian psychology and thermodynamics both fed into Freud’s early ideas about the nervous system. Nassif observes that ‘the concepts of thermodynamics played the equivalent role in Freud’s epoch that linguistics played for the “human sciences”’ in our own (CpA 9.10:153). What is required, however, is the isolation of those postulates in Freud’s work that were not ‘reinscribable within this field of discursive events’. They must be related back to ‘events’ in Freud’s theoretical formation that put this whole pre-existing ‘form of knowledge’ [savoir] into question.

In the section on ‘Charcot and the Concept of Neurosis’ (CpA 9.10:153-67), Nassif gives a detailed historical account of Freud’s relations with Charcot, identifying the breaks made by Charcot and the ‘repetition’ of these breaks effected by Freud. Nassif warns that caution is necessary when relating psychoanalysis back to its sources, above all because Freud’s early writings show his ‘passion for the new’ (CpA 9.10:154); for instance, what Freud says he most appreciates about Charcot is his ‘visionary’ approach to the problem of mental illness.2

Charcot’s specific break was with established thinking about the nature of neurosis. In his ‘Paris Report’ of his year with Charcot (1886-87), Freud recalls that ‘Charcot used to say that, broadly speaking, the work of anatomy was finished and that the theory of the organic diseases of the nervous system might be said to be complete: what had next to be dealt with was the neuroses’ (SE 1: 10; cited CpA 9.10:156). The term ‘neurosis’ had been coined by the Scottish physician William Cullen (1713-1790), who used it to describe variations in the ‘irritability’ and ‘sensibility’ of organisms. Nineteenth-century medicine retained the idea that neuroses were disorders in the global functioning of organisms, and not connected with specific parts of the nervous system. This separation of the phenomenon of neurosis from a localised basis in lesions provided the ‘epistemological’ condition for Charcot’s innovation (CpA 9.10:156). Freud noted that Charcot is somebody who could ‘find no rest till he has correctly described and classified some phenomenon with which he is concerned, but that he can sleep quite soundly without having arrived at the physiological explanation of that phenomenon’ (SE 1: 10; cited CpA 9.10:157). This epistemological bracketing of the physiological allowed Charcot to account for the fact that hysterical symptoms obeyed a completely different model to that of real human anatomy and physiology, without falling back into the prejudicial position that hysterics were ‘simulators’, bent on making fools of doctors. (Freud says that by throwing ‘the whole weight of his authority on the side of the genuineness and objectivity of hysterical phenomena [...] Charcot had repeated on a small scale the act of liberation in memory of which Pinel’s portrait hung in the lecture hall of the Salpêtrière’ hospital [SE 3: 19]). By holding fast to the independence of hysterical pathology from actual anatomical structures, Charcot opened the way for a radically new approach to the neuroses, allowing Freud to make the following inference:

[H]ysterical paralysis [...] behaves as though there were no such thing as cerebral anatomy. Hysteria knows nothing of the anatomy of the brain. The alteration which underlies hysterical paralysis can have no resemblance to organic lesions but must be looked for in the conditions governing the accessibility of some particular circle of ideas [Vorstellungen] (SE 3: 248).

However, Charcot himself was held back by his assumption that the aetiology of hysteria was rooted in constitution and heredity. No sooner than he had made the break, he ‘regressed’ into ‘ideological’ modes of explanation (159). He took up a ‘pre-Mendelian ideology of “psychic heredity”’, based on the inheritance of acquired characteristics, and the inheritance of ‘degeneration’ in the case of neurotics (CpA 9.10:162).

Freud effectively reversed Charcot’s procedure: where ‘Charcot made hysteria a “theme” for neuropathology, Freud put neuropathology in question by starting from hysteria’ (CpA 9.10:161). Charcot had suggested that constitutional tendencies towards hysteria could be set off by particular events, which played the role of ‘agents provocateurs’, accidentally triggering hysterical episodes. Freud turned the situation around: it was these very events, and memories of such events, that were at the root of the hysterical episodes. As Freud and Breuer famously put it in the ‘Preliminary Communication’ to 1893 Studies on Hysteria, ‘hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences’ (SE 2: 7).

Charcot had already turned to hypnosis as a means of ‘reproducing hysterical paralyses’; Freud effectively saw that Charcot was at ‘the outer edge of a break’ here, and, with Breuer, went on to make the extra step of redeploying hypnosis to bring back repressed memories of hysterical episodes. Focussed on the replaying of initial traumas through hypnosis, Breuer and Freud’s early approach to hysteria, according to Nassif, already points towards psychoanalysis as a future ‘science of the event’. Freud alone could see the true significance of Charcot’s experience, the fact that

it involves leading the patient under hypnosis really to reproduce a ‘first time’, that of the coincidence between the traumatic event and that element of mental life which is a ‘representation’. Now it seems that in the institution of the rapport between the hypnotist and their patient, and which psychoanalysis will inherit [...], one can, in some manner, recommence the first time at will. Thus henceforth, the event of recognition by a subject of the ‘first time’ and the event of reprising it through a discourse of this ‘first time’ will be indissociable, and psychoanalysis will therefore be able to present itself without contradiction and in all rigour as a ‘science of the event’ [science de l’événement] (CpA 9.10:164).

Freud and Breuer establish a connection between the symptom and the traumatic event that gives rise to a new theory of the specific causality of mental events. They replace Charcot’s ‘realist conception of trauma as physical accident’ (CpA 9.10:163) with a new conception of the causality proper to traumatic events. ‘We must presume rather that the psychical trauma – or more precisely the memory of the trauma – acts like a foreign body which long after its entry must continue to be regarded as an agent that is still at work’ (SE 2: 6). Thus for Charcot’s notion of trauma understood as a mere ‘agent provocateur’ a notion ‘which implies a linear and punctual causality, should be substituted that of an “agent at work” [agent au travail], for which another kind of causality is to be produced, one that might explain precisely how the effect of the revival of the trauma is to make the symptom disappear, at the same time that the patient remembers the event and “abreacts” [“abréagit”] its affect’ (CpA 9.10:166).

In articles following his work with Breuer, Freud coins the term Nachträglichkeit, or ‘deferred action’, to describe how traumatic events are not fully apprehended at the beginning, their charge of affect only being released at a later stage by a symbolically associated triggering event. In his ‘seduction theory’ of 1896, Freud will contend that infantile sexual traumas are at the root of hysteria. By 1905, he will have abandoned this conception, arguing that the ‘traumas’ are not real, but originate in infantile sexual fantasy. Nassif concludes by suggesting that the emergence of the term Trieb [Fr: pulsion; Eng: drive], which is absent in Freud’s writings before 1905, serves as a ‘kind of resurgence of the “traumatic theory”, the drive itself being considered again as a “foreign body” with a “destiny” that is just as opaque and fatal as heredity’ (CpA 9.10:167).

Nassif ends with a compressed evocation of the way ‘each “break” that enables the “theory of an ideology” entails a “splitting” [“refente”] of the updated theoretical field; but this “splitting” in the case of Freudian theory only involves, in a sense, an inversion or turning-upside-down, since the whole fully developed theoretical discourse depends only on the act of repeating this break, with the patient instructed to redo, with respect to Charcot or whoever represents him, the work of Freud himself’ (CpA 9.10:167).

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


English Translation:


Primary Bibliography

  • Andersson, Ola. Studies in the Prehistory of Psychoanalysis. Norstedts: Scandinavian University Press, 1962.
  • Freud, Sigmund. ‘Report on my Studies in Paris and Berlin’ [1886]. In Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey et al. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-1974, vol. 1. [Hereafter ‘SE’ followed by volume number].
  • Freud, Sigmund. ‘Hysteria’ [1888]. In Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey et al. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-1974, vol. 1.
  • Freud, Sigmund (With Josef Breuer) Studies on Hysteria [1893]. In Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey et al. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-1974, vol. 2.
  • Freud, Sigmund. ‘Charcot’ [1893]. In Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey et al. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-1974, vol. 3.
  • ---. ‘Heredity and the Aetiology of the Neuroses’ [1896], In Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey et al. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-1974, vol. 3.
  • ---. ‘Further Remarks on the Neuro-Psychoses of Defence’ [1896]. In Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey et al. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-1974, vol. 3.
  • ---. ‘The Aetiology of Hysteria’ [1896]. In Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey et al. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-1974, vol. 3.
  • ---. The Interpretation of Dreams [1900]. In Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey et al. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-1974, vol. 4-5.
  • ---. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality [1905]. In Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey et al. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-1974, vol. 7.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Seminar XV: The Psychoanalytic Act (1967-68), unpublished translation by Cormac Gallagher.
  • Tort, Michel. ‘Freud et la philosophie’. L’Arc 34 (1968).

Selected secondary literature

  • Miller, Gérard. ‘Note sur Freud et l’hypnotisme’. Ornicar? 4 (1975).
  • ---. Review of Nassif, Freud: L’Inconscient. In Ornicar?, 12/13 (1977).
  • Nassif, Jacques. Review of Ola Andersson, Studies in the Prehistory of Psychoanalysis. In Critique 249 (1968).
  • ---. Freud: L’inconscient: Sur les commencements de la psychanalyse. Paris: Galilée, 1977. Republished by Flammarion, ‘Champs’, 1992.
  • ---. ‘Réponse’ [to Gérard Miller’s review]. Ornicar?, 12/13 (1977).


1. Nassif notes that this is the title of Lacan’s seminar at the time of writing (Seminar XV: The Psychoanalytic Act, 1967-68).

2. Nassif cites Freud’s remark, in his 1893 essay on Charcot, that the latter ‘had the nature of an artist, he was, as he himself said, a “visuel”, a man who sees. Here is what he himself told us about his method of working. He used to look again and again at the things he did not understand, to deepen his impression of them day by day, till suddenly an understanding of them dawned on him. In his mind’s eye the apparent chaos presented by the continual repetition of the same symptoms then gave way to order: the new nosological pictures emerged, characterized by the constant combination of certain groups of symptoms’ (SE 3:12, cited CpA 9.10:154-55 ). Nassif suggests that Freud continued to use something like Charcot’s method in his approach to the symptom. ‘One could define every psychoanalysis as the systematic repetition of the “old”, induced by surprise before the “new” that is the symptom’ ((155).