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French: linguistique
Jacques Lacan
Early Work

While Lacans interest in language can be traced back to the early 1930s, when he analyzed the writings of a psychotic woman in his doctoral dissertation, it is only in the early 1950s that he begins to articulate his views of language in terms derived from a specific linguistic theory, and not until 1957 that he begins to engage with linguistics in any detail.

Structural Linguistics
Claude Lévi-Strauss

Lacan's "linguistic turn" was inspired by the anthropological work of Claude Lévi-Strauss who, in the 1940s, had begun to apply the methods of structural linguistics to non-linguistic cultural data (myth, kinship relations, etc.), thus giving brith to "structural anthropology."

In so doing, Lévi-Strauss announced an ambitious programme, in which linguistics would provide a paradigm of scientificity for all the social sciences:

"Structural linguistics will certainly play the same renovating role with respect to the social sciences that nuclear physics, for example, has played for the physical sciences."[1]

Jacques Lacan
Psychoanalytic Theory

Following the indications of Lévi-Strauss, Lacan turns to linguistics to provide psychoanalytic theory with a conceptual rigour that it previously lacked.

The reason for this lack of conceptual rigour was simply due, Lacan argues, to the fact that structural linguistics appeared too late for Freud to make use of it.

Sigmund Freud

However, Lacan argues that when Freud is reread in the light of linguistic theory, a coherent logic is revealed which is not otherwise apparent; indeed, Freud can even be seen to have anticipated certain elements of modern linguistic theory.[2]

Structural Linguistics

Lacan's engagement with linguistics revolves almost entirely aorund the work of Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson.

Ferdinand de Saussure

Saussure was the founder of "structural linguistics."

Diachronic and Synchronic

In contrast to the study of language in the nineteenth century, which had been exclusively "diachronic" (i.e. focusing exclusively on the ways that languages change over time), Saussure argued that linguists should also be "synchronic" (i.e. focus on the state of a language at a given point in time).

Langue and Parole
Concept of the Sign

This led him to develop his famous distinction between langue and parole, and his concept of the sign as composed of two elements: signifier and signified.

"Course in General Linguistics"

All these ideas are developed in Saussure's most famous work, the "Course in General Linguistics," which was constructed by his students from notes they had taken at Saussure's lectures at the Unviersity of Geneva and published three years after his death.[3]

Roman Jakobson

Jakobson further developed the line laid down by Saussure, pioneering the development of phonology, as well as making important contributions to the fields of grammatical semantics, pragmatics and poetics.

Jacques Lacan
Language as Structure, System of Signifiers

From Saussure, Lacan borrows the concepts of language as a structure, although whereas Saussure had conceived it as a system of signs, Lacan conceives it as a system of signifiers.

Metaphor and Metonymy

From Jakobson, Lacan borrows the concepts of metaphor and metonymy as the two axes (synchronic and diachronic) along which all linguistic phenomena are aligned, using these terms to understand Freud's concepts of condensation and displacement.

Other Linguistics Concepts

Other concepts which Lacan takes from linguistics are those of the shifter, and the distinction betwen the statement and the enunciation.

Linguistics and Psychoanalytic Theory
Psychoanalytic Use of Linguistic Concepts

In his borrowing of linguistic concepts, Lacan has been accused of grossly distorting them.

Lacan responds to such criticisms by arguing that he is not doing linguistics but psychoanalysis, and this requires a certain modification of the concepts borrowed from linguistics.

In the end, Lacan is not really interested in linguistic theory in itself, but only in the ways it can be used to develop psychoanalytic theory.[4]

It was this that led Lacan to coin the neologism linguistérie (from the words linguistique and hystérie) to refer to his psychoanalytic use of linguistic concepts.[5]

In seminar XX Lacan formulated this distinction between his own use of the term 'language' and linguistics through the neologism la linguisterie.

Linguistics is concerned with the formalization of language and knowledge.

La linguisterie on the other hand is the side of language that linguistics ignores.

It refers to those points in language when meaning fails and breaks down; it is the science of the word that fails.

Fink rather nicely translates la linguisterie as 'linguistricks', which serves to emphasize the playfulness of the unconscious and the way it is always trying to trip the subject up, playing tricks on conscious thought.

It is in this sense and not in the sense of formal linguistics that the unconscious is structured like a language.

See Also


  1. Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1945. "Structural analysis in linguistics and in anthropology," in Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf, New York: Basic Books, 1963. p.33
  2. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p.162
  3. Saussure, Ferdinand de. (1916) Course in General Linguistics, ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, trans. Wade Baskin, Glasgow: Collins Fontana. p.114
  4. Lacan, Jacques. Le Seminaire. Livre XVIII. D'un discours qui ne serait pas du semblant, 1970-71, unpublished. Seminar of 27 January 1971.
  5. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre XX. Encore, 1972-73. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1975. p. 20