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French: chance

Sigmund Freud

Freud has often been accused of a crude determinism, since no slip or blunder, no matter how apparently insignificant, is ever ascribed to chance. Indeed, Freud wrote, "I believe in external (real) chance, it is true, but not in internal (psychical) accidental events."[1]

Jacques Lacan

Lacan expresses the same belief in his own terms: chance, in the sense of pure contingency, only exists in the real. In the symbolic order, there is no such thing as pure chance.

Automaton and Tyche

In the seminar of 1964, Lacan uses Aristotle's distinction between two kinds of chance to illustrate this distinction between the real and the symbolic. In the second book of the Physics, where the concept of causality is discussed, Aristotle explores the role of chance and fortune in causality.

He distinguishes between two types of chance:

  • automaton, which refers to chance events in the world at large, and
  • tyche, which designates chance insofar as it affects agents who are capable of moral action.


Lacan redefines automaton as "the network of signifiers", thus locating it in the symbolic order. The term thus comes to designate those phenomena which seem to be chance but which are in truth the insistence of the signifier in determining the subject. Automaton is not truly arbitrary: only the real is truly arbitrary, since "the real is beyond the automaton."[2]


The real is aligned with tyche, which Lacan redefines as "the encounter with the real". Tyche thus refers to the incursion of the real into the symbolic order: unlike the automaton, which is the structure of the symbolic order which determines the subject, tyche is purely arbitrary, beyond the determinations of the symbolic order.


It is a knock on the door that interrupts a dream, and on a more painful level it is trauma. The traumatic event is the encounter with the real, extrinsic to signification.


The most general meaning of "determinism," one applicable in most contexts, is the condition of being determined. If we understand determinateness to be a qualification of an object, determinism sees this determinateness initially as identification of the object (by several processes) and then as a causal response to a request for an explanation of why. All scientific or theoretical research thus necessarily presupposes determinism, but not in the sense of merely naming or the other operations of contemporary language, since the conditions for the initial application of language are not determinant. The meaning customarily given to determinism is determination, through the principle of causality, of the objective conditions for a phenomenon to occur.

Initially, the concept of determinism (Determinismus) arose within German theological and moral thinking, where it served narrow requirements related to predestination and was used to provide dogmatic answers; it did not have an objective theoretical meaning as such. Then in nineteenth-century scientific positivism, the "condition of determination" became associated with an empirical or descriptive principle of causality based on the primacy of observation, and not on explanation in the strict sense. Subsequently, for experimental science, determinism came to be considered a condition for the conduct of science itself, that is, as the epistemological principle of scientific knowledge. In this way determinism became normative. For example, physiological determinism claims to decide between the normal and the pathological in medicine, as shown by Georges Canguilhem.

Determinism, without being explicitly referred to, has been the ideal of mechanics since the seventeenth century. Projected onto objects made to satisfy the demand for causality, determinism ended up requiring that all phenomena satisfy the principle of ontological objectivity assumed in nature. Quantum physics, however, led to a retrenchment of this principle of establishing the conditions of determination, at least on the microphysical scale. Chaos theory has accentuated this point of view. In the sphere of the psyche, when Sigmund Freud attempted to explain dreams by psychoanalysis, he assumed a notion of psychic determinism in his theory of intentionality. He thus shifted the doctrine of causality in the direction of a theory of intentionality that assumed the existence of a subjective causality beyond or alongside objective causality, as shown by Pierre-Henri Castel in his introduction to Freud's Interpretation of Dreams.

Determinism essentially informs all theoretical or scientific research. So how can we explain the fact that modern philosophical thought, at least since Kant and Fichte, is so strongly opposed to it? Natural determinism, after serving as the principle of Spinoza's immanent metaphysics, has come to dominate science. This domination reveals that the term has undergone both a confinement and an unwarranted extension in twentieth-century thinking. The confinement of the term to natural science constrains philosophers of freedom from examining the conditions that determine what they say. In the nonclassical sciences, confinement of the term to well-behaved natural sciences subjects intellectuals to indeterminacy complexes that seriously inhibit their theoretical inventiveness and subjects them to denigration. Freudian psychoanalysis, for example, is denigrated by positivist psychology and the various forms of psychological, organicist, and physicalist reductionism. As a result, Freudian psychoanalysis continues to search for an epistemological legitimacy based on theoretical models of the natural sciences, as was shown by Paul-Laurent Assoun. In physics, Max Planck and Werner Heisenberg created a quantum physics that was indeterminate from the point of view of classical determinism (as formulated by Pierre Simon Laplace). Because they were under the ideological spell of the old determinism, they could not completely accept their own discoveries as good science. There were two reasons for this situation: first, the concept of determinism arose not in the minimalist causal sense given above but in a theological sense, and second, ever since classical mechanics, the degree of determination that scientific objectivism has achieved has delimited the meaning and norm of determinism. Because they exclude identity and assume the differential nature of the symbolic, the status of the psyche and, even more so, the structuralist approach to the subject as taken by Jacques Lacan show that objective legality and causality could not serve as paradigms for everything we talk about. This is especially so for the unconscious, which, although "structured like a language," is not structured as a determining cause.

A robust determinism must renounce naturalist metaphysics, which has continued to control its principles. A new philosophy of "determined" freedom can be developed without indeterminism. Freud's determined freedom led Jean-Paul Sartre, probably wrongly, to reject the Freudian unconscious and to confront a "natural determinism". All of Freud's efforts, contrary to Jung's, clearly attempted to establish a paradoxical materialism that went beyond philosophical idealism and the old materialisms, dialectic or otherwise.


See Also

See also: Instinct; Neurosis, choice of the; Psychic causality; Psychogenesis/organogenesis; Psychopathology of Everyday Life, The; Complementary series.


  • Kojève, Alexandre. (1990). L'idée du déterminisme dans la physique classique et dans la physique moderne. Paris: Hachette. (Original work published 1932.)
  • Koyré, Alexandre. (1957). From the closed world to the infinite universe. New York: Harper.
  • Lacan, Jacques. (1966).Écrits. Paris: Seuil.