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French: science
German: Wissenschaft
Scientific Discourse

Both Freud and Lacan use the term "science" in the singular, thus implying that there is a specific unified, homogeneous kind of discourse that can be called "scientific".

This discourse begins, according to Lacan, in the seventeenth century [1], with the inauguration of modern physics.[2].

Sigmund Freud
Science and Religion

Freud regarded science as one of civilization's highest achievements, and opposed it to the reactionary forces of religion.

Jacques Lacan

Lacan's attitude to science is more ambiguous.

On the one hand, he criticizes modern science for ignoring the symbolic dimension of human existence and thus encouraging modern man "to forget his subjectivity."[3].

He also compares modern science to a "fully realised paranoia," in the sense that its totalizing constructions resemble the architecture of a delusion.[4]

Positivist Model

On the other hand, these criticisms are not levelled at science per se, but at the positivist model of science.

Lacan implies that positivism is actually a deviation from "true science", and his own model of science owes more to the rationalism of Koyré, Bachelard and Canguilhem than to empiricism.


In other words, for Lacan, what marks a discourse as scientific is a high degree of mathematical formalization.

This is what lies behind Lacan's attempts to formalize psychoanalytic theory in terms of various mathematical formulae.

These formulae also encapsulate a further characteristic of scientific discourse, which is that it should be transmissible.[5].


Lacan argues that science is characterized by a particular relationship to truth.

On the one hand, it attempts to monopolize truth as its exclusive property [6]; and, on the other hand, science is in fact based on a foreclosure of the concept of truth as cause.[7].


Science is also characterised by a particular relationship to knowledge (savoir), in that science is based on the exclusion of any access to knowledge by recourse to intuition and thus forces all the search for knowledge to follow only the path of reason.[8].

"Subject of Science"

The modern subject is the "subject of science" in the sense that this exclusively rational route to knowledge is now a common presupposition.

In stating that psychoanalysis operates only the subject of science,[9] Lacan is arguing that psychoanalysis is not based on any appeal to an ineffable experience or flash of intuition, but on a process of reasoned dialogue, even when reason confronts its limit in madness.

Human And Natural Sciences

Although the distinction between the human sciences and the natural sciences had become quite well-established by the end of the nineteenth century, it does not figure in Freud's work.

Lacan, on the other hand, pays great attention to this distinction.

However, rather than talking of the "human sciences" and the "natural sciences", Lacan prefers instead to talk of the "conjectural sciences" and the "exact sciences."

Conjectural and Exact Sciences

Whereas the exact sciences concern the field of phenomena in which there is no one who uses a signifier,[10] the conjectural sciences are fundamentally different because they concern beings who inhabit the symbolic order.

In 1965, however, Lacan problematizes the distinction between conjectural and exact sciences:

The opposition between the exact sciences and the conjectural sciences can no longer be sustained from the moment when conjecture is susceptible to an exact calculation and when exactitude is based only on a formalism which separates axioms and laws of grouping symbols.[11]

Whereas in the last century physics provided a paradigm of exactitude for the exact sciences which made the conjectural sciences seem sloppy by comparison, the arrival on the scene of structural linguistics redressed the imbalance by providing an equally exact paradigm for the conjectural sciences.

Natural Sciences

When Freud borrowed terms from other sciences, it was always from the natural sciences because these were the only sciences around in Freud's day that provided a model of rigorous investigation and thought.

Lacan differs from Freud by importing concepts mainly from the "sciences of subjectivity," and by aligning psychoanalytic theory with these rather than with the natural sciences.

Lacan argues that this paradigm shift is in fact implicit in Freud's own reformulations of the concepts that he borrowed from the natural sciences.

Structural Linguistics

In other words, whenever Freud borrowed concepts from biology he reformulated those concepts so radically that he created a totally new paradigm which was quite alien to its biological origins.

Thus, according to Lacan, Freud anticipated the findings of modern structural linguists such as Saussure, and his work can be better understood in the light of these linguistic concepts.

Is Psychoanalysis a Science?

Freud was quite explicit in affirming the scientific status of psychoanalysis:

"While it was originally the name of a particular therapeutic method [...] it has now also become the name of a science - the science of unconscious mental processes."[12]

However, he also insisted on the unique character of psychoanalysis that sets it apart from the other sciences:

"Every science is based on observations and experiences arrived at through the medium of our psychical apparatus. But since our science has as its subject that apparatus itself, the analogy ends here."[13]

Jacques Lacan

The question of the status of psychoanalysis and its relationship with other disciplines is also one to which Lacan devotes much attention.

In his pre-war writings, psychoanalysis is seen unreservedly in scientific terms.[14]

However, after 1950 Lacan's attitude to the question becomes much more complex.


In 1953, he states that in the opposition science versus art, psychoanalysis can be located on the side of art, on condition that the term "art" is understood in the sense in which it was used in the Middle Ages, when the "liberal arts" included arithmetic, geometry, music and grammar.[15]


However, in the opposition science versus religion, Lacan follows Freud in arguing that psychoanalysis has more in common with scientific discourse than religious discourse:

"Psychoanalysis is not a religion. It proceeds from the same status as science itself."[16]

Scientific Status

If, as Lacan argues, a science is only constituted as such by isolating and defining its particular object of enquiry, Lacan argues that psychoanalysis has actually set psychology on a scientific footing by providing it with a proper object of enquiry -- the imago; [17][18] then, when in 1965 he isolates the objet petit a as the object of psychoanalysis, he is in effect claiming a scientific status for psychoanalysis.[19].

However, from this point on Lacan comes increasingly to question this view of psychoanalysis as a science.

In the same year he states that psychoanalysis is not a science but a "practice" (pratique) with a "scientific vocation",[20] though in the same year he also speaks of 'the psychoanalytic science."[21].

By 1977 he has become more categorical:

Psychoanalysis is not a science. It has no scientific status - it merely waits and hopes for it. Psychoanalysis is a delusion - a delusion which is expected to produce a science. . . . It is a scientific delusion, but this doesn't mean that analytic practice will ever produce a science. [22]

Linguistics and Mathematics

However, even when Lacan makes such statements, he never abandons the project of formalizing psychoanalytic theory in linguistic and mathematical terms.

Indeed, the tension between the scientific formalism of the matheme and the semantic profusion of lalangue constitutes one of the most interesting features of Lacan's later work.

See Also


  1. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p. 857
  2. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p. 855
  3. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 70
  4. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p.874
  5. Lacan, Jacques. Télévision, Paris: Seuil, 1973. Television: A Challenge to the Psychoanalytic Establishment, ed. Joan Copjec, trans. Denis Hollier, Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson, New York: Norton, 1990]. p. 60
  6. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p. 79
  7. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p. 874
  8. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p. 831
  9. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p. 858
  10. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-56. Trans. Russell Grigg. London: Routledge, 1993. p. 186
  11. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p. 863
  12. Freud, Sigmund. An Autobiographical Study, 1925a: SE XX, 70
  13. Freud, Sigmund. An Outline of Psycho-Analysis, 1940a [1938]: SE XXIII, 159
  14. Lacan, Jacques. "Au-delà du 'principe de realité'", 1936. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. pp. 73-92
  15. Lacan, Jacques. "The Neurotic's Individual Myth," trans. Martha Evans, in L. Spurling (ed.), Sigmund Freud: Critical Assessments, vol. II, The Theory and Practice of Psychoanalysis, London and New York: Routledge, 1989, p. 224. [Originally published in Psychoanalytic Quaterly, 48 (1979)].
  16. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1977. p. 265
  17. Lacan, Jacques. "Propos sur la causalité psychique", in Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. [1946]. pp. 151-93
  18. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p. 188
  19. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p. 863
  20. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p. 863
  21. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p. 876
  22. Lacan, Jacques. [[Seminar XXIV| Le Séminaire. Livre XXIV. L'insu que sait de l'une bévue s'aile à mourre, 1976-77, published in Ornicar?, nos 12-18, 1977-9; Seminar of 11 January 1977; Ornicar?, 14: 4