Lacan and Cognitive Science Part 1

                                 LACAN AND COGNITIVE SCIENCE

Psycho-analysis has undergone a quiet revolution as an attempt has been made to (1) Make its structure more explicit and formal, see for example, Matte Blanco and Wilfred Bion and more recently (2) attempts to merge psychoanalysis with neuroscience. Psychoanalysts like Mark Solms, and Joseph Dodds have led the charge in creating the new field of Neuropsychoanalysis. Some neuroscientists have joined Solms and Dodds by doing neuroscientific studies which aim to test psychoanalytic theories. So, for example, Heather Berlin, Eric Kandel, and Jaak Panksepp have done a lot of neuroscience studies which aims to test the claims of psychoanalysis. These studies confirm and disconfirm different aspects psychoanalytic theory. The Oedipus complex has received little support from neuroscience, while things like repression have received ample support in neuroscientific tests. There is still a long way to go in attempts to bring psychoanalysis into the scientific fold.

Despite my above optimistic assessment there is still a lot of work to be done. The formal models of psychoanalysis that I mentioned above are not justified with enough behavioural data. Psychoanalytic theory in general does not pay enough attention to studies of developmental psychology and behavioural theory. Part of a psychoanalysts training involves detailed observation of children and analytic interpretation of their behaviour. This aspect of their training is vital for a discipline which sometimes involves explaining adult neurosis in terms of childhood trauma. However a serious difficulty with this approach is that when one sticks to pure observation it is possible to interpret the same data by applying different theories to that data. To know whether ones theory is the correct theory of the data, as opposed to an ad-hoc story which just happens to fit the data we need experiments. Experiments serve the purpose of testing our theories to see whether they hold up to stringent tests. If psychoanalysts want their theories to be accurate they need to construct experimental tests of their own or at the very least use the experimental evidence which child psychologists like Pinker, Soja, Carey, and Spelke et al. have done.

The above difficulties in psychoanalysis are easily rectified and when this is done I believe this will greatly help psychoanalysis to become more scientific. There is however a different challenge which faces attempts to make psychoanalysis more scientific. This challenge is more difficult to overcome.  Contemporary psychoanalysis is divided into sects. We have schools where the teachings of Lacan are followed, pure Freudian Schools, followers of Anna Freud’s theories, followers of Melanie Klein’s theories etc. Neuropsychoanalytic theory typically focuses on orthodox Freudian theory which lends itself well to neuropsychoanalytic testing. However there is no reason in principle that the theories of Klein, and Anna Freud cannot be subject to similar testing.  In fact in a 2013 talk ‘Anxiety One or Two?’ Yoram Yovell provided some surprising neuroscientific evidence which supports Melanie Klein’s paranoid/schizoid theory.

Of the above theorists that I mentioned there is one whose theories are less easily integrated with modern scientific theory; Jacques Lacan. This is a serious problem. Klein, Sigmund Freud and Anna Freud all disagree with each other on various different topics because their theories are testable as we learn more we can discover which of them (if any) are correct on various different topics which they disagree on. Since Lacan’s theories are less easily studied biologically this means that it is harder to test them. Karl Popper may have been wrong about a lot of things but he was surely right that a theory which is totally untestable is unscientific. So it is important that if Lacan is to be taken seriously that we try to discover what aspects of his theories are scientific.

Lacan has had his work denounced by a variety of serious thinkers. The three quotes below represent some dismissals which have been given of Lacan’s work by Cognitive Scientists and Evolutionary Psychologists:

“Jacques Lacan I actually knew. I kind of liked him. We had meetings every once in a while but quite frankly I thought he was a total charlatan, just posturing before the television cameras the way many Paris intellectuals do. Why this is influential I haven’t the slightest idea I don’t see anything that should be influential (Chomsky: Veterans Unplugged Podcast Dec 2012)”

“… Although Lacan uses quite a few key words from the mathematical theory of compactness, he mixes them up arbitrarily and without the slightest regard for their meaning. His ‘definition’ of compactness is not just false: it is gibberish. (Sokal and Bricmont: Intellectual Impostures)”

“With Lacan, matters were altogether different. The question of evidence was not even raised by his followers. Everything the great master wrote was taken on trust, as if it were holy writ. Everything Lacan said was right, just because he said it. Debate in Lacanian seminars was purely a matter of exegesis – what did the master mean by such-and-such a phrase? Nobody ever took the next logical step and asked – was he right? That was simply assumed. (Dylan Evans: From Lacan to Darwin, p. 6)”

The above quotes are interesting but a couple of points need to be made. Chomsky is a brilliant linguist and political theorist; however he has never shown any sign of engaging with Lacan in any serious way. So despite Chomsky being a very highly regarded thinker his views on the topic should not be accorded any more significance than say Stephen Hawkins’s uneducated views on philosophy. Sokal and Bricmont made some serious criticisms of Lacan demonstrating that his use of maths was nonsensical. However Sokal and Bricmont were primarily considering Lacan from the point of view of critical theory. So their criticisms while interesting and to the point do not necessarily refute everything Lacan said about psychoanalysis. Not everybody would agree with me on this particular point, Richard Dawkins responds to replies such as mine as follows:

 “Perhaps he is genuine when he speaks of non-scientific subjects? But a philosopher who is caught equating the erectile organ to the square root of minus one has, for my money, blown his credentials when it comes to things that I don’t know anything about. (Richard Dawkins: Review of Intellectual Impostures p. 1)”

I must admit that I am very sympathetic to Dawkins point of view here, when theorists make such stupid claims they do lose a lot of credibility. However, I think that history does teach us that clever people can be brilliant at one topic and talk nonsense on other topics: consider how Francis Collins can be brilliant at Genetics and hold silly views on God, or how Newton was a brilliant Physicist and yet held silly views on Alchemy. So I think that Dawkins claim aside we should study whether Lacan’s views on psychoanalysis hold up to critical scrutiny. Dylan Evans who I quoted above is a different case than Dawkins, Sokal or Chomsky because he is trained as a Lacanian Psychoanalyst and is a scholar on Lacanian theory. Evans began life with a degree in Cognitive Science before training as a Lacanian Psychoanalyst and enrolling in a PhD programme studying Lacan. He wrote a number of books on Lacan including his famous ‘Dictionary of Lacanian Terms’. His books are still used as references in Lacanian Studies. However while practicing as a psychoanalyst Evans noted that using Lacanian theory was not helping his patients, for this reason stopped practicing as a psychoanalyst. He returned to university to study Lacan for his PhD before leaving in disgust when he discovered that Lacan’s theories did not hold up to critical scrutiny but his colleagues did not seem to care. So Evans left Buffalo University and went to The London School of Economics where he compared Lacanian Psychoanalysis with Evolutionary Psychology and came to believe that Evolutionary Psychology is the scientific way to study the mind while Lacanian Psychoanalysis is an unfalisifiable series of dead ends.

Evans claimed that not only was Lacan treated as a cult leader by his followers, Lacan in turn tried to save Freud from having his biological hypotheses refuted by translating them into a series of metaphors[1]. However Evans correctly noted that this approach in effect robbed Freud’s theories of any claim to scientific status:

“This strategy was doomed, however. It appeared to save Freud’s work from refutation by modern biology, but at the price of removing all empirical import. The biological Freud was wrong, but at least he advanced clear, testable claims. The cultural-linguistic Freud that Lacan invented, on the other hand, was completely untestable. He was not merely impervious to contradictory evidence in biology; he was impervious to any evidence at all. Lacan rescued Freud from a fatal encounter with modern biology by removing him from the world of science altogether. (ibid p.10)”

Imagine how unscientific Darwinian Theory would have been if a similar approach was adopted. So, for example, Charles Darwin had no workable mechanism to explain heredity. This doesn’t bother evolutionary theorists, Darwin was a clever human who lived at a particular era and simply hadn’t the tools to solve the particular problem (he wasn’t aware of Mendel’s work). But the aim of evolutionary theory is not to say that Darwin is correct on everything but to construct the best theory to explain the empirical data. Neuropsychoanalysts, like evolutionary theorists, are not interested in proving every claim made by a particular individual correct; rather they are interested in constructing a correct theory of the mind. Neuropsychoanalysts simply think that a lot of contemporary theories support Freud but they are modifying Freud’s theories as new data comes in. This is the scientific method, and if Lacanians cannot adhere to it they should not be licensed as practicing psychoanalysts.

It should be noted that the idea of a pure Lacanian Analyst does not capture what goes on in typical psychoanalytic sessions. Psychoanalysts are typically pragmatic in nature they use whatever tools they can to help their patient. An analyst will usually understand psychology; biology and psychoanalysis quiet well and will adapt and change their approach as they learn more and more about human nature through their daily analytic practice as they interact with their patient. Only an extremely bad analyst would stick rigidly to say Lacanian Theory in their practice. However since psychoanalysts are engaged in helping people in need we need to guard against worst case scenarios and think of analysts who damage their patients well-being by rigidly applying a false theory when interacting with their patients.

Lacan wrote an incredible amount of stuff on psychoanalysis, discussing a large variety of different things from Psychosis, to Neurosis, and Hysteria. He used examples from literature, and philosophy in his writing and his dense prose is nearly impenetrable so discussing his work in detail would take a multi-book series. It is a difficult task to analyse a theorists views in a blog. However this is the task I will undertake here. In this my first Blog I have set up the problem and shown how I aim to evaluate it. In the next blog I will outline Lacan’s theory and discuss what if any aspects of it can be made sense of empirically. I will discuss his use psychologist Henri Wallon (1931) work which showed that at 6 months humans and chimpanzees recognise themselves in the mirror, the infant becomes fascinated by his image while the chimpanzee quickly loses interest in his own image. I will show how Lacan used Wallon’s Data to construct his own concept of the Mirror Stage in the child’s development.  I will argue that Lacan use of the Mirror Stage is much too simplistic and needs to be modified in light of the mountains of empirical evidence discovered in developmental psychology over the last 80 years.

I will then discuss Lacan’s claim that the child’s self is constituted by being grafted onto the language of the other. I again show that developmental psychology strongly indicates that Lacan is incorrect in the way he conceives of this issue.

In my final Blog I will discuss how Lacan uses his three concepts of The Real, The Symbolic and The Imaginary to deal with neurosis, psychosis, and hysteria. I will discuss how his theories on these topics need to be modified in light of recent developmental and neuroscientific data. I will conclude my third blog by arguing that if Lacanian Psychoanalysis is to become a scientific treatment it needs to subject itself to falsification by the standard methods of science in the same way that Freudian Ideas are by its merger with Neuroscience.

[1] This tactic has been used by theologians. In the past the bible was treated as the literal word of God. However whenever science refutes an aspect of the bible it is then claimed that the bible should not be treated as literal. A similar approach has been used to interpreting Wittgenstein see Cray and Read eds ‘The New Wittgenstein’ where the early Wittgenstein is attempted to be rescued from refutation by similar verbal moves (Peter Hacker correctly pores cold water on this tactic in his chapter in the book.)


7 thoughts on “Lacan and Cognitive Science Part 1

  1. Ashok

    “In my final Blog I will discuss how Lacan uses his three concepts of The Real, The Symbolic and The Imaginary to deal with neurosis, psychosis, and hysteria. I will discuss how his theories on these topics need to be modified in light of recent developmental and neuroscientific data. I will conclude my third blog by arguing that if Lacanian Psychoanalysis is to become a scientific treatment it needs to subject itself to falsification by the standard methods of science in the same way that Freudian Ideas are by its merger with Neuroscience” ..looking forward.. with keen earnestness….

  2. ros forlenza

    is this not a problem with all psy theories? We cannot (although we try), to reduce the human condition to circuits firing in an experiment. There are a number of points the first one being that Lacan never wanted his theories reduced to developmental psychology (hence the style in which he writes requires reflection and thinking..and people who work in the clinic, work with what makes sense to them). There are a number of areas that can be usefully discussed (the relationship to reality in terms of the symbolic, the imaginary and the real), the relationship to language and representation (in both Freud and Lacan) and yes, the Oedipus Complex, particularly in terms of Lacan’s reading of it, which is at a more metaphorical level (drawing from structural anthropology) as well as from Freud…ask any of the above thinkers to send out a qualitative questionnaire to psychotherapists and ask them about the frequency of client histories in terms of family enmeshment, family permissions and prohibitions (the unsaid ones), that leave the person either with the fear of complete abandonment should they step out of this framework or to shut up and put up, and the distress (often manifest in symptoms) that his creates, ask about co-dependency, cognitive dissonance and you will find the Oedipus complex operating in the former, and Klein’s split, deny and project in the latter. I think a number of these thinkers you mention have never bothered exploring either theorist properly, they are also being less than honest with themselves when they rubbish a construct like (the Oedipus Complex) for example, yet quite happily talk about co-dependency and enmeshment and the terrors of attachment etc.,, or psychoanalytic theory such as splitting and projection , yet talk about cognitive dissonance as if it is something new (when in fact they are re-inventing the wheel and probably making a tidy profit on imparting this ‘new ‘ knowledge)! The questions raised are epistemological ones, putting words and constructs on phenomena that we see time and time again, so maybe we should go back to some critical thinking in terms of how we talk about this and the intentionality behind some of these points, more importantly the role of language, representation, emotions, meaning making in terms of our relationships with self, others world is what is really at stake, no more and no less to Freud and Lacan as it is to Beck et al., Dawkins is not a psychologist noris he a psychotherapist, he is someone who dogmatically imposes his (atheistic) view on everyone, irrespective of their need to ‘believe’ or not as the case maybe and insists he is correct with such a high degree of certainty that one wonders what might happen should he ever encounter ‘doubt’! Hawkins on the other hand is more the scientist as he is still curious, he is still humbled, and doesn’t insist on know everything about everything so you are correct in highlighting the absurdity of him commenting outside his domain. Psychoanalysis is not the only approach we can take, but it is a very useful meaning making construct system for both client and therapist, but not the only useful one, so should we not be very ‘scientific’ and leave our clients or patients open to choosing a modality that they can work within, rather than this territorial and very disingenous, battle ground of knowledge construction,, in the psys which actually marginalize whole and entire philosophies and ways of thinking? After all, the best evidence we have is that the patient or client can talk and can make sense and in someway in that journey – which is a very qualitative and personal affair – and that our approaches reflect somewhat, some of the richness of human beings?

    1. surtymind Post author

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I agree with your views on the importance of clinical experience. And I agree that the most important thing is whether people find the right therapy which helps them understand their experiences. Perhaps I as a philosopher I am focusing too much on theoretical issues and not on the lived experiences of those in therapy

      1. ros forlenza

        Thanks Surty, the clinic allows us to ‘test’ the theory (ies) however the contribution of the philosopher is the crucial point of departure

  3. Andreus

    I think that you totally missed the point regarding psychoanalysis and natural sciences.
    First of all, natural science relies on its basic presupposition of metaphysical realism (reality “out there”) from neopositivism, empiricism and so on (which is why there is strict methodology, falsification and subject-object division…) In contrast, psychoanalysis does not succumb to realism, but much more on dialectical materialism (as Lacan positioned himself and especially because Hegel was his theoretical big Other).
    Even more, whereas natural sciences deal with language as a second-order horizont, psychoanalysis deals with language as a simbolic universe out of which human being cannot step out (there is no META-position). And precisely because of this, the main axioms of psychoanalysis is (conceptual, linguistic) mediation of immediacy, but also immediacy of this mediation itself (in the form of phantasy, ideology, or autonomy of symbolic universe as such).Which is why, the main references of psychoanalysis are not scientific theories, but theories from areas such as structural anthropology (Levi-Strauss, Jacobson, Seassure), marxism etc.
    Those are just few examples i do not see, even with new neuroscientific breakthroughs, scientificity of psychoanalysis (in a traditional form of falsificability, testing theories etc).
    The other, even more important thing is formulation of SUBJECT. Here, I see complete opposition between sciences (even with phenomenology) and psychoanalysis… to name just a few psychoanalytic formulation: split subject, void, gap and so on…

    1. surtymind Post author

      Thanks for your detailed reply Andreas. Sorry for not replying sooner. I don’t really use this blog post much now. I will have a think about what you said and get back to you within a couple of days.


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