Killing the father, Parmenides: On Lacan’s anti-philosophy

Abstract

This paper examines the historical claims about philosophy, dating back to Parmenides, that we argue underlie Jacques Lacan’s polemical provocations in the mid-1970s that his position was an “anti-philosophie”. Following an introduction surveying the existing literature on the subject, in part ii, we systematically present the account of classical philosophy Lacan has in mind when he declares psychoanalysis to be an antiphilosophy after 1975, assembling his claims about the history of ideas in Seminars XVII and XX in ways earlier contributions of this subject have not systematically done. In part iii, focusing upon Lacan’s remarkable reading of Descartes’ break with premodern philosophy—but touching on Lacan’s readings of Hegel and (in a remarkable confirmation of Lacan’s “Parmenidean” conception of philosophy) the early Wittgenstein—we examine Lacan’s positioning of psychoanalysis as a legatee of the Cartesian moment in the history of western ideas, nearly-contemporary with Galileo’s mathematization of physics and carried forwards by Kant’s critical philosophy and account of the substanceless subject of apperception. In different terms than Slavoj Žižek, we propose that it is Lacan’s famous avowal that the subject of the psychoanalysis is the subject first essayed by Descartes in The Meditations on First Philosophy as confronting an other capable of deceit (as against mere illusion or falsity) that decisively measures the distance between Lacan’s unique “antiphilosophy” and the forms of later modern linguistic and cultural relativism whose hegemony Alain Badiou has decried, at the same time as it sets Lacan’s antiphilosophy apart from the Parmenidean legacy for which thinking and being could be the same.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Regnault (1997, p. 61).

  2. 2.

    Shepherdson (2003).

  3. 3.

    cf. Milner (1995, pp. 149–150).

  4. 4.

    cf. Milner (1995, p. 153).

  5. 5.

    Bosteels (2008, p. 188).

  6. 6.

    E.g. Badiou (1999b, p. 98).

  7. 7.

    Badiou (2006).

  8. 8.

    Badiou (1992, p. 23).

  9. 9.

    Bosteels (2008, p. 167). That is, for Badiou on the Lacanian act at the end of analysis, and “cette chicane extraordinaire entre savoir et vérité» in Lacan’s thinking about the end of analysis after 1970, see Badiou (1994–1995, especially section”4) Lacan: le mi-di(t) et le mi-nuit de la vérité. Since there are no page numbers for this transcript, we will give the section headers in these notes.

  10. 10.

    Badiou (1999a, p. 129). Cf. Badiou (1994–1995, section “4) Lacan: le mi-di(t) et le mi-nuit de la vérité». As Badiou commences: «Le problème, vous le voyez tout de suite, est beaucoup plus compliqué».

  11. 11.

    Badiou (2005, p. 143).

  12. 12.

    Bosteels (2008, p. 162).

  13. 13.

    Badiou (2009, p. 244).

  14. 14.

    Bosteels (2008, p. 157), Johnston (2010a, p. 137).

  15. 15.

    See Regnault (1997, pp. 57–80), Soler (2006, pp. 121–144), Johnston (2010a, pp. 137–158).

  16. 16.

    Lacan (2001, p. 314).

  17. 17.

    Milner (1995, p. 146).

  18. 18.

    E.g. Lacan (2006e, pp. 765/98–99).

  19. 19.

    Milner (1995, pp. 147–151).

  20. 20.

    Regnault (1997, pp. 61–62, 73).

  21. 21.

    Žižek (1999, pp. 250–251).

  22. 22.

    Soler (2006, pp. 121–144, 121). See Johnston, “This Philosophy which is not One”, 138.

  23. 23.

    Milner (1995, p. 147).

  24. 24.

    Žižek (1993a, pp. 216–217), Žižek (1999, pp. 250–251), Regnault (1997, pp. 61–62, 73).

  25. 25.

    Milner (1995, pp. 148–154).

  26. 26.

    Koyré (1958, pp. 99, 278), Lacan (2006f, pp. 235–239), Jacques Lacan, “Variations on the Standard Treatment,” Écrits, pp. 299–300; Jacques Lacan, “Science and Truth,” Écrits, pp. 726–727, etc. See on this Johnston (2010b, pp. 143–144).

  27. 27.

    “What is sure is that it [philosophy] is something finite and done with. Even if I expect some rejects to grow out of it. Such regrowths are common enough with finite things.” (Lacan 1980, p. 17).

  28. 28.

    Johnston (2010b, p. 144), Soler (2006, pp. 142–143), Lacan (2006d).

  29. 29.

    The term comes here from Leo Strauss and his students, without wider commitment to their project (cf. e.g. Gourevitch 1987).

  30. 30.

    See e.g. Sharpe (2008b).

  31. 31.

    See Johnston’s claim at “This Philosophy which is not One”, 145: “Combining this with Milner’s and Soler’s previously mentioned observations, a stark opposition between two chains of equivalences becomes apparent in the final stretch of Lacan’s teachings: religion-philosophy-meaning (grounded and totalized in the ancient finite cosmos) versus psychoanalysis-antiphilosophy-meaninglessness ([un-]grounded and detotalized in the modern infinite universe)…”

  32. 32.

    See Badiou, at Bosteels (2008, pp. 171–172), “Lacan, the only true rationalist of the group—but also the one who completes the cycle of modern antiphilosophy—nonetheless holds Christianity to be decisive for the constitution of the subject of science, and that it is in vain that we hope to untie ourselves from the religious theme, which is structural.” On this basis, as we will see, Lacan at some points will go so far as to rail against the famous medieval synthesis of Athens and Jerusalem which took place under the heading of Christian scholasticism: “Saint Thomas succeeded in introducing [the idea that Being is that by which beings with less being participate in the highest of beings] … But do people realise that everything in the Jewish tradition goes against that? The dividing line there does not run from the most perfect to the least perfect [being]. The least perfect there is quite simply what is, namely, radically imperfect, and one must but obey with the finger and the eye, if I dare express myself thus, he who bears the name YHWH, and several other names to boot. The latter chose his people and one cannot go against that.” (Lacan 1998a, p. 98/91).

  33. 33.

    Cf. Johnston (2010b).

  34. 34.

    In doing so, complementing the existing studies on Lacan’s antiphilosophy, we will set out to answer the manifold questions our initial statement of this hypothesis will have raised in the minds of readers, and which can trouble the exegete concerned to try to discern Lacan’s larger perspective on the status of psychoanalysis, relative to those of philosophy or monotheism. These questions include: in what sense, if at all, could it make sense to speak of “philosophy” as one thing, so Lacan could take a stand against it, seemingly as one whole? Differently, does not philosophy continue today, despite Lacan’s protests and claims: albeit in ways markedly different, and markedly advanced, beyond those essayed in the Athenian agora or in Thomas’ Paris? Even if we can concede the alleged premodernity of philosophy as a fundamental human alternative, what about this imputed “premodernity” of philosophy would psychoanalysis oppose itself to? Surely psychoanalysis’ interest in the nature of the psyche, indeed in the transformation of the psyche by recourse to what once Freud called “our god, Logos” (Freud 1927, pp. 53, 54) should on the contrary be considered highly “philosophical,” however distinct the terms of its theoretical understandings of subjectivity?

  35. 35.

    Especially in Žižek (1993a, 1999).

  36. 36.

    Lacan (2006f, p. 173).

  37. 37.

    Lacan (2006f, p. 21).

  38. 38.

    We recall Alcibiades’ comic complaint about Socrates’ discourse in the Symposium: “For, although I forgot to mention this to you before, [Socrates’] words are like the images of Silenus which open out. They are ridiculous when you first hear them; he clothes himself in language that is like the skin of the wanton satyr—for his talk is of pack-asses and smiths and cobblers and curriers, and he is always repeating the same things in the same words, so that any ignorant or inexperienced person might feel disposed to laugh at him …” (Sym. 221e).

  39. 39.

    Plato, Men., 82b–85b.

  40. 40.

    Lacan (2006f, p. 174).

  41. 41.

    Lacan (2006f, p. 21).

  42. 42.

    cf. Milner (1995, p. 149). Lacan’s claim here then would seem to recall also the ancient philosophical claim, first pitched near the center of the Republic (Rep. V 473c–d), that philosophers should be kings or advisors to princes, if injustice is to end.

  43. 43.

    Lacan (2007, pp. 29–38, 42–43, 51–53).

  44. 44.

    cf. Lacan (1998a, p. 113/103).

  45. 45.

    Lacan (1998b, p. 22/25).

  46. 46.

    As Badiou notes, Lacan had already commented on these figures in Seminar VIII: On Transference: “Beyond Plato, in the background, we have this attempt, grandiose in its innocence—this hope residing in the first philosophers, called physicists—of finding an ultimate grasp on the real under the guarantee of discourse, which is in the end their instrument for gauging experience.” (Lacan, Seminar VIII, cited at Badiou 2006). The focus of the first half of that seminar however remained Plato’s Symposium.

  47. 47.

    Fragment 8, 34–41, following the ordering of fragments of the poem by Dielz-Krantz. A complete translation of the poem by M.R. Wright appears at the www-site http://www.philosophy.gr/presocratics/parmenides.htm, accessed August 2010. The full Greek text, with line divisions, and with alternative translation can be found at http://philoctetes.free.fr/parmenides.pdf accessed August 2010.

  48. 48.

    Premises (1) and (2) seem to turn, falsely, upon treating “being” as a one-term predicate, by failing to distinguish between thinking and sensual perception, as in judgments like “this is red”—this at least is, in later language, one of Aristotle’s charges (cf. Aristotle Psy. III,3, 472a 21f; also Met. I.5; Phy. 1.2–3). The act of perception requires an object, so that when one sees no thing (say when one is in complete darkness or with eyes closed), one doesn’t see. Equally then, per Parmenides, when one doesn’t think “being”, one doesn’t think: hence, “thinking and the thought ‘it is’ are the same”. [cf. Braungardt (2002), paras 17–18].

  49. 49.

    Lacan (1998a, p. 22).

  50. 50.

    Lacan (1998a, p. 127/115).

  51. 51.

    Lacan (1998a, p. 105/96).

  52. 52.

    That said, it remains that in Stoic philosophy, and before it in Heraclitus, the ordering principle of being is, directly, described as the Logos. There is also, of course, the opening lines of the gospel of John to which Lacan at times recurred.

  53. 53.

    Braungardt (2002), paragraphs 11, 21, 25–29 (page numbers not given in text).

  54. 54.

    cf. Milner (1995, ch. 2).

  55. 55.

    Hadot (1996, pp. 158–165).

  56. 56.

    Plato, Sym., 211e.

  57. 57.

    Parmenides fragment 9; 8, 55.

  58. 58.

    This reduction of evil to error, I venture, may be the esoteric butt of Lacan’s cryptic passing criticism of the Stoics and the bearing of their thought concerning evil and Jouissance in “Kant with Sade”: “Imagine a revival of Epictetus in Sadean experience: ‘see you broke it’, he says, pointing to his leg. Lowering Jouissance to the misery of an effect in which one’s pursuit stumbles—isn’t this to transform it into disgust?” (Lacan 2006b, p. 651/771).

  59. 59.

    Plato, Pro., 352b ff.; Epictetus, Discourses 3, 8, 4; Manual, 5; cf. Hadot (1996, pp. 223–225). The reader can consider, as further weight, the famous difficulties Aristotle has explaining akrasia in Nicomachean Ethics VII.1–3, despite his clear and typical intention to qualify the Platonic paradigm for which knowing, voluntary wrongdoing is impossible. See also Žižek’s comments on Spinoza in Tarrying with the Negative, in his terms, concerning the reductions of deontology to ontology, and injunction to constative, as exemplified in God’s injunction to Adam and Eve in Eden. (at Žižek 1993b, pp. 216–219).

  60. 60.

    Examples include: Lucretius, On the Nature of Things 2, 1044; Aurelius, Med. V.24, VII.47–48, IX.32; VI, 36; XI.1–3; xii, 24; Seneca, Natural Questions “Preface”, sections 7–11; Seneca Letters, 49, 3; 99. I am drawing here from Pierre Hadot, “The View from Above”, in Hadot (1996, pp. 238–250). See in the same volume Pierre Hadot, “Spiritual Exercises”, pp. 81–125, esp. p. 84, pp. 88–89, pp. 97–101.

  61. 61.

    Spinoza, Ethics II prop. 44 s, V, prop. 39 s; cf. IV Appendix.

  62. 62.

    Plato, Soph. 241b–d.

  63. 63.

    Lacan (1998a, p. 88/81).

  64. 64.

    Lacan (1998a, p. 111/101); cf. 68/64–65. Cf. Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics X. 7, and these famous statements, which in Lacan’s psychoanalytic language almost evoke the language of drive: “And we think happiness has pleasure mingled with it, but the activity of philosophic wisdom is admittedly the pleasantest of virtuous activities; at all events the pursuit of it is thought to offer pleasures marvellous for their purity and their enduringness, and it is to be expected that those who know will pass their time more pleasantly than those who inquire. And the self-sufficiency that is spoken of must belong most to the contemplative activity. … And this activity alone would seem to be loved for its own sake; for nothing arises from it apart from the contemplating.” Aristotle, EN X.7 (Jowett trans.).

  65. 65.

    Cicero, de nat. deo. II.XVIII.

  66. 66.

    Parmenides, fragment 8, 43.

  67. 67.

    Lacan (1960, 21/12/1960, pp. 11–17).

  68. 68.

    Or consider Empedocles fragments 27–28 (Diels-Krantz). Cf. Hadot (1996, pp. 119–120): “In the philosophical tradition, Empedocles’ Sphairos had become the symbol of the sage …”

  69. 69.

    For example, Cicero de Natura Deorum, II.XVIII (the Stoic Balbus is speaking, with whom Cicero declares his closer sympathy at the close): “what is more beautiful than the figure which alone contains all other figures within itself, and which it is impossible should have any unevenness of outline, any point against which to impinge, any indentation in the form of angles or curves, any projection, or any depression? And since the globe, for so I propose to render σϕαɩ̂ρα, among solid figures, and the circle or orb, which is called in Greek κύκλος, among plane figures, are the two forms of greatest excellence, it is characteristic of these two forms alone that all their parts are precisely similar, and the circumference at every point equidistant from the center, which provides the closest possible kind of interconnection… [moreover] uniform motion and unchanging array of the stars could not have been maintained in connection with a different shape …”

  70. 70.

    Cf. Plato Sym. 189c–193e.

  71. 71.

    Lacan (1998a, p. 82/76).

  72. 72.

    Lacan (1998a, p. 119/109).

  73. 73.

    Lacan (1998a, p. 120/109). The word “subject” we note is typically being used by Lacan here in the double sense it has in French and English (the linguistic subject of the sentence; and also as the name for the human subject of psychoanalytic treatment).

  74. 74.

    Lacan (1998a, p. 118/107).

  75. 75.

    Lacan (1998a, p. 127/115).

  76. 76.

    Lacan (1998a, p. 88/81).

  77. 77.

    And we should then very much recall here that the old Greek root here, elleipsis, means a “deficiency,” including in the ethical realm. (e.g. Aristotle, Nic. Eth. 1107a33–1108b7, Eud. Eth. 1220b38 ff).

  78. 78.

    Lacan (1998a, p. 43/43).

  79. 79.

    Strauss (1958, p. 13).

  80. 80.

    Plato, Pro., 352b ff.

  81. 81.

    Lacan (2006e, pp. 675/797–8; cf. 679/802). We note, given 2b above, how this understanding of the Hegelian Selbstbewusstein or “subject fulfilled in his identity to himself” clearly situates Hegel’s absolute knowledge as an—albeit modern, historicised—avatar of the ancient philosophical episteme, in Lacan’s perspective.

  82. 82.

    Lacan (2006c, p. 679/802).

  83. 83.

    Badiou (1994–95, section “4) Lacan: le mi-di(t) et le mi-nuit de la vérité ». We encountered this key distinction in passing in 2a above, in the context of examining Lacan’s view of philosophy in Seminar XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis.

  84. 84.

    A paradigmatic, clinical exemplification of this philosophic venture is the obsessional, whose constant, often-very-knowledgeable chattering in an analytic session operates to prevent his or her confronting the truth of his own desire and position of enunciation.

  85. 85.

    Lacan (2007, p. 59/66).

  86. 86.

    Cf. e.g. Green (2002, pp. 1–3).

  87. 87.

    Lacan (2007, p. 60/67).

  88. 88.

    Lacan (2007, pp. 69/66–67).

  89. 89.

    Lacan (2007, pp. 60–61/68).

  90. 90.

    Lacan (2007, p. 63/71). A similar point could be demonstrated from Lacan’s frequent engagements in the later seminars with modal logic, in an attempt to delineate a modal sense for the subject as contingent, or as “that which does not cease not being written”. On this, cf. Soulez (2007). Compare also Shepherdson (2003, pp. 144–147).

  91. 91.

    Cf. Lacan (2006c).

  92. 92.

    Lacan, at Fink (1996, p. 75).

  93. 93.

    Lacan (2006a, p. 30/51).

  94. 94.

    Lacan (2006d, pp. 734/865–866).

  95. 95.

    E.g. Žižek (1998); cf. Žižek (1993b, pp. 9–44, 1999, pp. 1–6).

  96. 96.

    Lacan, at Fink (1996, p. 56).

  97. 97.

    Lacan (1998b, pp. 139–141).

  98. 98.

    Cf. e.g. Lacan (1988, pp. 179–83, 216–217).

  99. 99.

    Another more recent exception, which has been noted by some Lacanians, is the charity principle of Donald Davidson.

  100. 100.

    Lacan (1998b, p. 36).

  101. 101.

    It is in these lights telling that among the first reforms Socrates proposes in the untrue stories to be taught the young to heal the fevered city in Plato’s Republic involves denying that the gods could change forms to deceive each other, and mortals: “’So there’s nothing of the lying poet in God.’ ‘That’s a ridiculous suggestion’, he said … ‘So god has no reason to lie.’ ‘No’. ‘So it is not in the nature of deities or gods to deceive?’ ‘Absolutely not’, he said.” (Rep. 382d–e) Cf. Aristotle Metaphysics I.2 883a: “But it is impossible for the Deity to be jealous” (all’oute to theon phthoneron endechetai einai).

  102. 102.

    Lacan (1998b, pp. 225–226).

  103. 103.

    Lacan (2001, p. 314).

  104. 104.

    Lacan (1997, p. 64).

  105. 105.

    Lacan (2006b), Žižek (1993a), Sharpe (2008a).

  106. 106.

    Lacan (2007, p. 146/70).

  107. 107.

    Lacan (1998a, pp. 91–92/85).

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Sharpe, M. Killing the father, Parmenides: On Lacan’s anti-philosophy. Cont Philos Rev 52, 51–74 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11007-015-9330-8

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Keywords

  • Lacan
  • Parmenides
  • Psychoanalysis
  • Antiphilosophy
  • Descartes