Lacan and Cognitive Science Part 2

                               LACAN AND COGNITIVE SCIENCE: PART 2

                                        LANGUAGE AND THE MIRROR STAGE

Lacan tells a developmental story which involves a child going through what he calls the mirror stage. At six months children begin to recognise themselves in the mirror. Other primates, for example Chimpanzees go through this stage as well. However while Chimpanzees quickly get bored of their own appearance human children remain fascinated with their own reflections. According to Lacan when children enter mirror phase they are going through a key human developmental phase which involves identification. The child at this point in his development has limited motor control and is entirely dependent on his care givers for everything they receive. The mirror image that the child identifies with is a solid fixed image which holds a stark contrast to the child’s subjective fragmentary experience of himself. The child at this stage identifies with an Ideal-I, his mirror image which becomes his ego.

For Lacan this mirror stage is a beginning of the child developing his ego. The ego becomes further developed as the child begins to learn language. When Lacan talks about learning a language it is important to be clear from the outset how he understands language. His meaning of language is very different from what contemporary generative linguists understand by language. When discussing language generative linguists like Chomsky are speaking about what they call I-language. Chomsky defines I-language as internal, intensional and individual. This conception of language is an idealised conception, which abstracts from things like memory limitations, and day to day performance factors. The child begins with his UG which is his fixed system that he is born with, this UG consists of a set of fixed principles some of which are subject to parametric variation, the linguistic environment that the child is born into will determine what way the various parameters are set. When the child is brought up in a normal environment and his parametric are fixed he ends up developing his own I-language e.g. French and English. So it is the world’s I-Languages that linguists like Chomsky are studying and by comparing the worlds I-languages they aim to discover the nature of the UG which makes it possible for people to acquire their various I-languages.

Chomsky’s conception of language focuses on the competence that is acquired by the subject and on the mechanism that goes into acquiring this competence. Other conceptions of language have different starting points to Chomsky. I-language is a part of the individual’s biology. Any theory of I-language will have to eventually cashed-out neuroscientifically.  A different approach to language is to study what is called E-language. E-Language is external and extensional. So a linguist interested in E-language will be interested in the various different spoken languages and written languages of the world. They will try to catalogue how the various different languages in different communities and of different individuals will differ. So the job of an anthropologist or linguist studying E-language will be Taxonomic cataloguing the various different rule systems governing language.

These two positions do not exhaust the ways one can study language, and neither position accurately captures the ordinary language notion of what exactly a language is. It is obviously the job of an ethno-scientist to discover what folk-beliefs about the nature of language are. I-language and E-language are not necessarily entirely at odds with each other. So, for example, generative linguists typically make poverty of stimulus claims and claims about universal rules of language that can only be justified by studying linguistic behaviour and the primary linguistic data a child is exposed to. So a generative linguist will need to some degree be aware of E-language.

Since Lacan makes heavy use of language in his psychoanalytic theory it is important be clear from the outset how he conceives of language. One might think that because Lacan is giving a psychological theory that his conception of language will be closer to the I-language conception. He is after discussing how a child acquires a language. However this is not the case. Lacan’s conception of Language is an E-language conception. To see this let us consider what Lacan’s views on language are.

Lacan describes language as the discourse of the other. Language exists prior to the child being born. Prior to being born the child is assigned a name by his parents. His parents typically decide to bring their child into the world for a need that they have. The child is born with a pre-assigned place in the world. When the child begins to articulate his needs he must do so in the language of his family. Lacan argues that in learning to speak we are in effect internalising the discourse of the others. So our conscious ego is infused with the language of the other. This language (unlike Chomsky’s I-language) cannot be reduced to a brain process, as it exists outside of the individual brain and is an ever changing property of the human species.

At this point I should note a linguist who wants to treat the worlds spoken and written language as some kind of abstract entity which can vary in a variety of unpredictable ways is within his right. Such a linguist will of course have to deal with rivals who purport to show that this supposed endless variation in language is actually subject to various constraints. However for a person offering psychological hypothesis things are different. If you treat language as some kind of external object which the child somehow internalises and which determines the child’s thought, then you need to offer a testable mechanism to show how this internalisation is achieved.

So, for example, the philosopher W.V. Quine to some degree conceives of language as external system of communication which can vary widely and be systematised extensionally. However he postulates cognitive systems which are used by the subject as they acquire their unique language: Innate similarity quality space, the ability to use analogical synthesis, to use induction, and to respond differentially to positive and negative reinforcement. Whether Quine’s cognitive model is sufficient to account for language acquisition is not the remit of this blog. My point is that he has model which at-least tries to account for the facts of language acquisition and is testable. People like Sampson and Lappin and Clarke offer different accounts of how language as an evolving variable is acquired. Lacan who claims that children have their desires overridden by language as they acquire it needs to offer a testable cognitive model if we are to evaluate his views.

When Lacan speaks of child development he cites Baldwin’s studies of how children recognise themselves in the mirror when they are six months. However, Lacan’s story about The Mirror Stage goes massively beyond the data. The child may look at the mirror at six months; however this is not really sufficient evidence to support the claim that the child identifies with the fixed image in any real sense. Furthermore this single piece of data about child development alone tells us nothing substantial about how the child acquires their language. Lacan speaks about how when the child wants to articulate his desires he must do it in terms of the language of the other. However, to speak of the child’s desire we need a cognitive model of how the child conceives the world prior to acquiring their language. To understand the child’s cognitive ability we need experimental and behavioural data. Lacan provides very little behavioural data to support his conjectures.

In his ‘The Lacanian Subject’ Lacanian therapist Bruce Fink makes the following claim about the mirror stage:

“Now the ego according to Lacan arises as a crystallization or sedimentation of ideal images, tantamount to a fixed, reified object with which a child learns to identify, which a child learns to identify with his or herself. These ideal images may consist of those that the child sees of him or herself in the mirror, and they are ideal in the sense that, at the age at which the mirror image begins to play an important role (six to eighteen months, the child is quiet uncoordinated and truly but a jumble of sensations, and impulses, the mirror image presenting a unified surface appearance similar to that of the child’s capable more coordinated parents. (The Lacanian Subject p. 36)”

However Fink and Lacan’s characterisation of the child pre-mirror stage as a bundle of sensations and impulses is a massive exaggeration. We do know certain facts about pre-linguistic children and what stages they go through as they develop language. A few hours after birth children are drawn to look longer at drawings of human faces than at other patterns (Fantz 1963).From 3 months children are monitoring the eye gaze of others. (Cohen 1995). From 4 months humans have some grasp of object behaviour (Baillargeon, et al., 1985). At 6 months children begin reaching for objects. So prior to going beginning the mirror stage at 6 months the child already exhibits knowledge of object behaviour and recognise their carers voices and faces. And over the next 12 months as they continue in their mirror phase they display a variety of different cognitive abilities which go far beyond what Fink and Lacan allow. So, for example, at 9 months children begin to recognise intentionality. At 9 months proto-declarative referencing begins (Cohen 1995). At 10 months children begin to crawl. Between 9-12 months children begin to engage in triadic behaviours. At 12 months children begin pointing and this brings them deeper into the world of triadic relations. From 12- 16 months children begin to learn 0.3 words per day (Bloom, 2002). From 14-16 months children begin to walk.  From18-24 months children display a deep understanding of others intentional aims.

Thus far we have seen that Lacan has provided no cognitive apparatus which shows how children acquire their language. His model of the cognitive process which children have when they enter the mirror stage massively underestimates the intellectual capacities which the child has. The preceding weakness in Lacan’s theory do not prove that his theory of how by entering into language we in effect internalise the discourse of the other. It does show that his model is empirically under motivated.

In some respects Lacan’s discussion of our ego being the discourse of the other is similar to Dennett’s idea of the self as a centre of descriptive gravity. If we think of language in terms of memetic theory, we can get some a vague idea of what Lacan means. When a person acquires a language they acquire a theory of their culture and this theory is a theory that the child primarily.  In ‘Consciousness Explained’ Dennett makes the following claim:

“Selves are not independently existing soul-pearls, but artifacts of the social processes that create us, and, like other artifacts, subject to sudden shifts in status. (Consciousness Explained p, 423)”

Dennett’s above claim sounds very similar to something Lacan would say. The only difference being that, Dennett unlike Lacan, provides cognitive architecture to support his claim.

One justification which Lacan provides for his psychological model is in terms of its success as a therapeutic theory, so in the next blog I will consider how Lacan uses his theory to help with hysteria. Hysteria known today as conversion disorder is sometimes exemplified in post-traumatic disorder, gulf war syndrome. Symptoms include feeling unwell, lipothymias, vague diffuse states of fatigue, angry outbursts. (spasms, and paralysis are normally only found in women not men), but multiple conversion pains are common in men, as well as fear of heart disease, digestive disturbances, poorly defined neurodigestive disorders (Dor p, 97). According to Lacanian psychoanalyst Jol Dor there is a basic tendency to seduction in male hysteria.  A need to make sure that he is universally loved. He is above all bent on being loved by everyone. Hence a major feature of hysteria is a feeling of being unsatisfied. He cannot take pleasure in what he has but regrets what he does not have. Once the hysteric is assured that his desire can be potentially fulfilled, he renders himself unfit to achieve it through anxiety, depression or even neuroanastesia. (Dor p, 99)Alcoholics and drug addicts are SOMETIMES hysterics. What function do these addictions play for hysterics? It helps him give the impression to the woman that he possesses what she wants ‘The Phallus’. He sees the female other as an idealised object and hence tries to avoid direct personal confrontation with the woman in the area of sex. The result is the institution of behaviours, of which the most common is the homosexual mask or game, according to Dor this is not true homosexuality. It is rather a parody of homosexuality. It provides the reassurance of secondary compensation. The male hysteric’s homosexuality often entails compulsive masturbation accompanied by a fantasy with a perverse connotation, usually lesbian fantasies. Impotence and premature ejaculation is typically a feature of the male hysteric. So impotence and premature ejaculation and homosexuality are ways of keeping men away from sexual encounters with the idealised woman. According to Dor a possible origin for male hysteria is that the mother putting the child in a position of providing for her lack.

The above description of hysteria was taken from Jol Dor’s book ‘The Clinical Lacan’. The description makes a series of empirical claims by Lacanians on the nature of hysterics; in the next blog I will discuss whether there is sufficient empirical evidence to support these claims.


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