Psychoanalysis and the Human Sciences
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Psychoanalysis and the Human Sciences

Louis Althusser, Steven Rendall

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Psychoanalysis and the Human Sciences

Louis Althusser, Steven Rendall

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What can psychoanalysis, a psychological approach developed more than a century ago, offer us in an age of rapidly evolving, hard-to-categorize ideas of sexuality and the self? Should we abandon Freud's theories completely or adapt them to new findings and the new relationships taking shape in modern liberal societies? In a remarkably prescient series of lectures delivered in the early 1960s, the French philosopher Louis Althusser anticipated the challenges that psychoanalytic theory would face as politics moved away from structuralist frameworks and toward the elastic possibilities of anthropological and sociological thought.

Psychoanalysis and the Human Sciences translates Althusser's remarkable seminars into English for the first time, making available to a wider audience the origins and potential future of radical political theory. Althusser takes the important step in these lectures of distinguishing psychoanalysis from psychology and especially psychiatry, which long resisted Freud's analytical concepts of the unconscious and overdetermination. By freeing psychoanalysis from this bind, Althusser can then apply these analytical concepts to the social and the political, integrated with Marxist theory. The result is an enlivened methodology for comprehending social organization and change that had a profound influence on the Frankfurt School and scholars who continue to work at the forefront of radical thought today: Judith Butler, Étienne Balibar, and Alain Badiou.

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1
The Place of Psychoanalysis in the Human Sciences
THROUGH AN interpretation of Lacan, we shall seek to determine the place of psychoanalysis in the human sciences today, in 1963. There are two fundamental preconditions for this determination: 1. that we know precisely what psychoanalysis is and 2. that we know precisely what the general domain of the human sciences is. Consequently, this determination depends on: 1. an observation de facto: empirically, what place does psychoanalysis currently occupy, what is its practical role today, in the human sciences? 2. a question de jure: given the essence of psychoanalysis on the one hand and that of the human sciences on the other, what is the proper relation between the two? If today we can give an answer to this question de jure—an ambition that might obviously be considered excessive, as I would be the first to grant—in that very way we shall succeed in defining a field of research in which all theoretical, scientific, methodical, and rigorous reflection must necessarily enter insofar as it concerns either psychoanalysis itself or the domain of the human sciences.
The excessive enterprise involved in the series of presentations we are undertaking here is to precisely define the theoretical conditions of the possibility of valid research in the domains of both psychoanalysis and the human sciences in general. To that end I shall raise the problem in a somewhat unusual way by telling you right away that it can be raised in two different ways. First, in a perfectly objective way, abstracting from the speaker’s personal experience; I could deal with the question without making any reference to my personal experience. However, I am going to proceed in another way, by recounting the story of my own encounter with this problem. This is not at all about me; I think everyone has had more or less the same experience, and that we encounter this problem through its practical manifestations, through a whole series of indexes. And, up to this point, the encounter has necessarily been a personal one. I emphasize its personal nature because there is no theory of this encounter, and because the definition of psychoanalysis, on the one hand, and that of the human sciences, on the other, as they currently exist has not given rise to a theoretical reflection that makes it possible to abstract from the concrete encounter with the problem experienced by each of us. It is solely for this reason—and thus for a historically provisional reason, which I hope will soon be transcended—that it is indispensable to show how this problem can be encountered by someone, given that currently the only way of encountering it is through a personal encounter, quite simply because it is not the subject of reflection. As a result, the problem is encountered in the experience of each person. Therefore I am going to tell you the story of my own encounter with this problem. Not a personal story, in the sense of individual, but personal in the intellectual sense of the term, including its problems.
Abstracting from all historical and autobiographical elements, I shall say simply this: for me, and I think for you as well, the encounter with psychoanalysis took place through the encounter with Freud’s work. Obviously, psychoanalysis is found everywhere: in the media, on the street, etc., but in fact, from a theoretical point of view, that’s not how it happens: at a certain point, we’re going to examine Freud’s texts. Then we are immediately confronted with a very serious, very profound obstacle of which Freud was perfectly well aware, which is represented by what Freud himself called the psychological resistance that is opposed to the admission of the very enterprise of psychoanalysis into the realm of public opinion. You know that Freud’s earliest works met with an absolutely extraordinary barrage of criticism. Though psychoanalysis is now a recognized part of our cultural world, when Freud wrote his first works he was condemned by everyone. You know that the first person in France who had the courage to talk about Freud was Hesnard,1 who thereby deserves our historical gratitude. He is still alive. He has published a book for which Merleau-Ponty wrote a preface before his death, and in France it was actually he who, I should say, did not introduce but rather pointed out Freud’s existence, noting that a certain Freud from Vienna who had worked in France, and what’s more with Charcot, existed, and that he thought a certain number of things that might be of great importance. Freud was aware of this extraordinary resistance; he referred to it in his works, saying: what I say will not be well-received, and he offered an explanation for this. An explanation that, in my opinion, is historically false but was the only one he could give at that time. It’s a psychoanalytic explanation and it goes as follows: My works will not be accepted because they put in question the psychic equilibrium of each individual who reads them, that is, his system of defense against his own neuroses. In other words, the concept of neurosis that Freud used to explain the resistance with which his works necessarily met was an analytical concept, but one that could not be thought de jure (if I may say so) in terms of the analytical concept invoked. And that is why Freud, having clearly sensed the theoretical difficulty involved in his explanation, subsequently produced another concept: that of the neurotic character of our civilization. In other words, Freud moved on to a genuinely historical explanation, but in terms of his analytical theory, that is, in terms of a practice that in principle addressed individuals. By proposing this second notion—our civilization is neurotic—Freud was offering a historical explanation for the inevitable resistance with which his theory collided in its very diffusion. But in doing so he modified the historical status of the concept of neurosis. And he supposed that our culture, as such, was neurotic, that is, that a historical subject—no longer an individual, but a historical culture—could be the object, or rather the seat, of a pathological affection of the neurotic type. Thus he raised a problem that was no longer psychoanalytic in nature but rather historical. He formulated the consequent difficulty this way: the theory I propose meets with an extremely deep ideological resistance, which may have certain affinities with the structures of psychoanalytic resistance that I find in individuals, but in fact cannot be reduced to those structures because the object is not the same. This is not a matter of an individual, Freud, explaining his theory to a neurotic individual (the resistance being explained by the individual’s neurosis), but of Freud explaining to whole masses of people, including scientists, an enterprise that was scientific in spirit and collided with a resistance that he attributed to the general resistance of our civilization, that is, with a resistance that was no longer psychological, no longer psychoanalytic, but ideological and historical. Despite the current prejudice favorable to psychoanalysis, and even though our civilization’s general attitude to Freud has changed, we still encounter this difficulty when we read Freud’s texts—but for us it has taken a different form that I shall now proceed to define.
For us, this resistance took a very precise form: that of the inadequation between the concepts that Freud uses in his texts and the content that these concepts are intended to grasp. This inadequation can be expressed this way: the concepts Freud proposes are imported concepts, in the Kantian sense. You know that Kant contrasts the concepts a science has produced by itself in the course of its own development, which belong to it organically, to concepts he terms “imported,” namely concepts that a science uses, that it needs, that it necessarily needs to use, but that it has not itself produced in its organic development, that it has borrowed from scientific disciplines existing outside it. This is exactly Freud’s case. Freud set forth this analytical theory using imported concepts that were borrowed from biology, from the theory of energy in physics, and from political economy. That is, from three domains, three disciplines, that were then giving rise to a historically dated scientific elaboration: the then dominant biological theory, more or less inspired by Darwin; the theory of energy in physics, which was also dominant; and, finally, economic theory (an allusion to the possibility of a knowledge of the economic world and economic laws), all of which it was possible to think and could be used in their conceptual forms within another domain.
There we have the true difficulty that we encounter, even today, when we read Freud’s texts: we wonder what relation there can be between what Freud designates by his concepts and the theoretical status of concepts that are obviously borrowed, and which, in any event, needed, in order to become domestic concepts, to be profoundly transformed, that is, needed to undergo a theoretical transformation following a theoretical reflection. Now we have to note that until Lacan appeared this theoretical transformation following a theoretical reflection did not take place. Until Lacan appeared—that is, until an attempt to transform imported concepts into domestic concepts—every reader of Freud encountered a contradiction between Freud’s concepts and the concrete content of what he calls psychoanalysis.
The question I am now asking is the following: what does psychoanalysis designate by these concepts, which have, up to now, not been examined theoretically and have not been transformed from imported concepts into domestic concepts? Everyone agrees to the reality these imported concepts of Freud’s designate: it is the practice of analysis itself. That is why, when we encounter psychoanalysis, we all agree that something is going on in it. Not that it’s only a technique of readaptation, liberation, etc.: it’s a technique that is situated within a practice. I don’t want to use the term praxis, which would introduce us to a general theory—which I would gladly use; let us say that psychoanalysis is a praxis situated in the domain of praxis in general, etc.2 Let’s leave that aside, because it’s a philosophical theorization that assumes the theoretical question of the precise status of the object concerned is already settled and perhaps reflected. This is not the case. But everyone will recognize that what Freud’s psychoanalytic concepts designate, not in their domestic but in their imported form, is a real practice, that is, the fact that Freud is dealing with patients whom he treats in a practice that is called therapy.
So at this point we are referred to therapy itself. When we encounter psychoanalysis, after having struggled with the theoretical difficulties I’ve mentioned, and after having noted, consequently, that the theoretical concept can’t provide us with access to the thing itself, we’re obliged to say that the thing itself is located in the actual practice of psychoanalytic technique, that is, in therapy. And this is where we find ourselves at a real dead end. Why? Because everyone—including especially psychoanalysts themselves, and first of all everyone who has been through analysis, will tell you that psychoanalytic treatment gives rise to an experience of therapy, to a specific and irreducible experience. Psychoanalysts and their patients can be, to some extent, compared to soldiers who explain that a civilian can’t understand anything about the army without having performed his military service. You have to have been through that. In the language of the psychoanalysts and their patients, this takes the following form: you have to do it live. That is, you have to go through the concrete experience of therapy and the institutional reality of the necessity of this direct, irreducible experience of therapy; that is didactic analysis. In other words, psychoanalysis has created an institution, without which no one can gain access to his own truth, and calls it didactic psychoanalysis: it requires every psychoanalyst to personally undergo the concrete experience of the analytic situation and posits as an absolute principle an effect that is not made an object of reflection de jure, but is affirmed de facto, gives rise to an institution, and in fact selects the psychoanalysts themselves. De facto, it went beyond this principle in the form of an institution that was called didactic psychoanalysis, which is itself subject to a whole body, that is, no one can become a psychoanalyst without being certified by the existing psychoanalytic societies, but no one can be certified without having undergone a didactic psychoanalysis, and no one can undergo a didactic psychoanalysis without having received authorization to undergo the didactic psychoanalysis in question with psychoanalysts who have been designated by the existing psychoanalytic society as suitable for undergoing a didactic psychoanalysis. Notice to what extent, in the facts themselves, in the practice itself and in the institutions—not of the world outside psychoanalysis but of psychoanalysis itself—what each of us can experience in his encounters or conversations with either an analyst or with an analysand is sanctioned in the following way: you have to have gone through that, you have to have done it live, because it’s an absolutely irreducible concrete experience. You can’t understand from outside what you have to have lived through in order to know what it’s about.
But here we find ourselves confronted by another difficulty: the analysts and the analysands, for their part, have met this requirement. They have actually gone through it, they’ve done it live, they’ve lived through the specifics of this situation and they’re trying to express it. You will find quite a few things in books and in texts with theoretical pretensions written by psychoanalysts in which they try to conceive what is specific to this situation. We will see later how they manage it—how they think they manage it. But the fact is that both anecdotal expression (we’re telling the psychoanalysts’ story) and attempts at theoretical expression of the necessity of passing through the concrete experience of this irreducible practice known as psychoanalytic therapy lead to the absolutely stupefying paradox that all that has never convinced anyone. This is because all the descriptions of therapy, all the reflections on therapy that currently exist, are absolutely incapable of taking the place of theoretical concepts that would actually make it possible to have access not only to what analytic practice is—which is only part of what is involved—but to that of which it is the concrete substance, namely its own theory. In other words, there is no satisfactory psychoanalytic theory that reflects on the reality of psychoanalysis, the status of the psychoanalyst, the scientific status of psychoanalytic practice; there is no satisfactory scientific theory that could be reduced to a theory of therapy. Nothing we’re told about therapy ever succeeds in reaching the point where a theory of therapy could be transformed into a theory of psychoanalysis itself. That means that everything we’re told about therapy never manages to transform a theorization of analytic practice into a theory of psychoanalysis itself.
On the other hand, this sheds light on another very important phenomenon, which is our third way of encountering psychoanalysis concretely. I remind you of the first two: Freud’s own texts, with the difficulties they contain, namely the inadequation between the concepts and their content and the psychoanalytic practice itself and its inability to produce a theory of psychoanalysis. We encounter psychoanalysis in a third way in contemporary philosophy. We have to talk about France, because this cultural universe is very deeply marked, not only so far as philosophy is concerned but also in all the cultural disciplines, by this absolutely extraordinary characteristic that is commonly found in Italy: provincialism. By that I mean that since the end of the eighteenth century one of the fundamental traits of French culture in all its domains has been an incredible ignorance of what is going on elsewhere, what is going on in other countries. When Italians call themselves provincialists, they mean: we are a country that has not succeeded in establishing its national unity, all our cities are only provincial capitals; our national unity is recent—Rome is our capital, but it is an arbitrary administrative capital; everything happens outside us, everything happens in Europe. And the great aspiration of Italian culture is to rise to the European level. But before Italian economic production reaches the European level, we can say that Italians truly experienced the nostalgia of not being at the European cultural level. And they experienced it in a concrete manner, as we can see: the country in the world that publishes the most translations of works written in foreign languages is Italy. And today the country in the world in which the fewest works are translated from foreign languages is France…. I simply want to say that I’m forced to speak about the French ideological situation, about the French cultural situation, so far as philosophy is concerned, and that’s why I’ve taken this personal example, because it has a historical meaning. Concretely, we encounter psychoanalysis in philosophy; we encounter it in a number of extremely precise, extremely concrete philosophies. I am going to say a word about them.
I’m not talking about Dalbiez. He’s interesting, of course, historically interesting. His enormous two-volume work on psychoanalysis has just been reprinted.3 I think it never taught anyone anything, that it was a behaviorist attempt to present psychoanalysis; it is a phenomenon that is theoretically obsolete. I’m not talking about Hesnard, who played the historical role of presenting psychoanalysis in France, and whose book had a preface written by Merleau-Ponty. But the fact that the man who presented psychoanalysis in France, the historical initiator of psychoanalysis in France, published a work for which Merleau-Ponty wrote a preface is extremely interesting because, so far as I’m concerned, philosophy’s encounter with psychoanalysis passed, in France, through Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. And this encounter that we make in Sartre and Merleau-Ponty—if we’re lucky enough to get our hands on this work, which has never been reprinted and practically disappeared from libraries—has its origin in Politzer.4 It was through Politzer that it began; it was through Politzer that psychoanalysis became an object of philosophical reflection. And it was through Politzer that psychoanalysis entered into French philosophical reflection, expressly and without any doubt, in the work of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty.
In a little while I’ll tell you how things looked in that respect—I’m still talking about my personal experience. I want to say that I also encountered psychoanalysis in the work of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty and I was lucky enough to get my hands on Politzer, and I read him. Obviously, there was somebody named Lacan, absolutely unintelligible…. But from now on I’m going to tell you what form my little personal synthesis took and what form it retained until, let’s say, about two or three years ago. The form taken by my little personal synthesis, that is, my personal attempt to respond to this problem, which is not solely a theoretical problem but a real problem (it is encountered in life, it raises concrete problems, etc., including even practical problems: when a guy is sick, can he work?).
There are currently two psychoanalytic societies in France. The society that Lacan founded in a schism that dates from 1953 and the old one, presided over by Nacht.5 There are violent conflicts that can have repercussions on the technique, that is, on the healing one can expect from one psychoanalyst or another. Apart from individual abilities, the two societies pursue very different general lines of argument. It might thus be thought (at least by those of us who believe that a theory never remains without consequences, always has practical effects) that it could also produce differences in the technique of therapy (that is also what Lacan says all the time) and even in the results that can be expected from it. Now I’m going to explain to you the little personal synthesis I arrived at. And in so doing we will encounter another reality—not only psychoanalysis but also the human sciences.
I’d arrived at the following little synthesis whose ultimate principles were Politzer’s theoretical bases, which were also found in Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. I was a little prejudiced, for different reasons, against Sartre’s and Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical syntheses, so I had a tendency to return to Politzer, telling myself: let’s go back to the sources; at least the water will be pure.
What was the result? Politzer was the man who had said psychology doesn’t exist, psychology is the theory of the soul. Why doesn’t psychology exist? Because, on the one hand, it’s a science that claims to have as its object the soul, that is, an object that doesn’t exist and, on the other hand, because it’s a discipline that uses concepts that are only abstractions. Neither its object nor its concepts exist. The abstractions of classical psychology are concepts of the faculties of the soul: they don’t exist, and that’s completely to be expected, since the object that classical psychology studies is the soul, and the soul doesn’t exist. So we’re going to create [a psychology without a soul], and that’s how Politzer heralded the advent of a new epoch. His text is a genuine manifesto: now it is beginning. That ...

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