Critique of Cartesian dualism III: Jacques Lacan’s theory of the subject

To call René Descartes a father of Western philosophy is no exaggeration. His contributions to philosophy and mathematics dominate our thought, ranging from his famous declaration ‘I think, therefore I am’ to his construction of the Cartesian coordinate plane. But what were once considered foundational paradigms are becoming increasingly frustrated by advances in contemporary neuroscience. From Antonio Damasio’s Descartes’ Error, to Daniel Dennett’s disfigurement of the Cartesian theater in Consciousness Explained, to the common neurologist’s knowledge of the banality of the pineal gland, modern sciences have begun to push against Descartes’ philosophy. This essay series will discuss recent developments in neuroscience and psychoanalysis, and elaborate on a common thread that reveals widespread epistemological breaks with Descartes. What does this break mean for the future of Western philosophy in general, and cognitive sciences in particular?

A brief history of the ‘I’

In order to understand the Lacanian psychoanalytic concept of the subject, we must first trace the evolution of the concept ‘I’ in philosophy. This begins, as many philosophical concepts do, with René Descartes, who famously asserted ‘I think, therefore I am’. This argument, which is commonly called the cogito, postulates that the subject is a positive but non-material substance. That means that it is a thing, but not a thing with any material existence. Specifically, it is that substance imbibed with spirit which is capable of thought and rational deliberation. Descartes’ term for this substance, the res cogitans (‘thinking thing’) is contrasted with the res extensa (‘extended thing’), which comprises the material part of the body. Animals were considered by Descartes to be automata: composed completely of res extensa and operating only on the basis of automatic reflexes. Humans, on the other hand, are endowed with the res cogitans, the immaterial positivity which we commonly refer to as the ‘I’.

The notion of ‘I’ as a positive substance was later challenged by Immanuel Kant, who understood it as what he called the Transcendental Unity of Apperception. This unity is not a ‘thing’ in the world, either material or immaterial, but rather a structural or formal aspect of experience itself. Namely, it is that aspect of experience which combines a diverse range of sensory inputs into a lived moment in the present. A tourist on the beach, for example, does not experience the tropical breeze, crashing of the waves, and smell of the ocean as disjointed impressions. Rather, each of these sensory inputs are combined into one given experience which exist in the collected point of the now. For Kant, then, the ‘I’ is not a potential object of experience, but rather a presupposition of experience: a structural feature of our consciousness.

Around a century later, Fredrich Hegel would continue along the grounds that the ‘I’ was a structural feature of the mind’s operation, but with an added twist. Like Kant, Hegel maintained that the origin of subjectivity is not to be found in some positive kernel of our minds. But he took almost the opposite view: the ‘I’ emerges from the concept of pure negativity, which allows for the redoubling of a concept as its own opposition. This redoubling is a crucial part of Hegel’s famous dialectic process, which was conceived by post-Hegelian thinkers as a ‘thesis-antithesis-synthesis’ triad. First, an idea exists. Then, the idea provides the logical grounds for its precise opposite, resulting in what Kant called an ‘antinomy’. The mediation between the idea (the thesis) and its pure-negative counterpart (the antithesis) results in a synthesis, which ‘sublates’ or suspends the prior ideas. When the synthesis arrives, the inherent contradiction between the first two motions is grasped within the new concept and made non-problematic. This operation is only possible, however, when the initial contradiction is made in the first place, and this results from the determinate negativity which engenders the possibility of the antithesis.

One example to elaborate on Hegel’s connection between subject and negativity comes from Julius Caesar. Whereas some people would think it sufficient to say that someone died, Hegel would probably insist that ‘a finite determination of the infinite was further determined by its own negation‘. What this shows us is that for Hegel, negation does not have to signal the end of something: it can be a part of that something’s becoming into what it always-already was. Julius Caesar’s death, for example, was necessary for a new era of rulers to strive and seek to emulate his example: these attempts were solidified by the title ‘Caesar’, which forever afterwards became associated with the historical figure of Caesar. So it took Julius Caesar’s end in order for him to become what he would forever be known in history: the world’s first Caesar (ruler as it is indicated by that word).

To make the connection between negativity and subjectivity we must attempt to understand another well-known Hegelian concept: the master-slave dialectic. The best way to approach the master-slave dichotomy is to suspend any political connotations it might invoke. ‘Master’ and ‘slave’ was the preferred terminology of philosophers like Alexandre Kojève, who wished to apply it to the macro-mechanics of history’s unfolding: wars, revolutions, and political movements. While this is an interesting project in its own right, for our present purposes, we should instead focus on the master-slave dialectic as it exists on the level of a one-on-one interaction: free of any titles or social status. The master-slave dialectic is an automatic intersubjective mediation which occurs when one conscious being encounters another. The immediate result of this dynamic is that ultimately, one consciousness will be living for itself, while the other will be living for the other. In the middle of these two stands the Thing, which represents the material substrate of nature. The conscious being has a fundamentally different relationship with the Thing depending on his status. The being which is living for the other is in a state of continuous labor, transforming the Thing for the other. Thus, he engages with the independent aspects of the Thing, insofar as he deals with the dimension of nature which is harsh, difficult, and unyielding to humans. On the other hand, the being which is living for itself is, in Hegel’s own words, “the sheer-negative power for whom the Thing is nothing”. The master has a purely negative relationship with the Thing insofar as he only enjoys it; he says, ‘fetch me dinner’ and it is served, he says ‘timber is needed’ and it is brought to his feet. He deals with the dependent aspects of the Thing, which the slave has tailored for human consumption. In this way, the subjectivity of the master is defined by an inherent negativity towards the Thing.

Lacan: desire and lack-of-being

It’s here that we can introduce the contributions of Jacques Lacan. Lacan’s most enduring interpretation of Hegel was a reformulation of his master-slave dialectic in terms of psychoanalytic desire, which (it should be noted) was highly influenced by the lectures of Kojève. It is the desire of the master, he argues, which mobilizes the activity of the slave, whose work on the Thing becomes devoid of all enjoyment.

Negativity then appears in Lacan’s theory by way of a lack, and it is lack which Lacan believes is fundamentally constitutive of desire. Specifically, desire results from a lack of being which is perpetually deferred by our use of language. The young child’s development proceeds until at a certain point his diadic, proto-symbolic relationship with the mother is severed. Shortly thereafter, the child becomes aware of himself as a distinct, separate totality, but this comes at a time when his sensorimotor functions are still rather disjointed. This paradoxical era, called the mirror stage, instigates a life-long quest for an ideal whole which can never be. What is crucial here is that the child perpetually anticipates a functional unity — even after the unity is accomplished — by associating signifiers with himself in an attempt to be an object of the m(Other)’s desire. This is how Lacan links psychosocial development to Kojève’s reading of the master-slave dialectic: that “man’s desire is the desire of the Other”. The signifiers which the child has associated with himself become constitutive of the the Ideal-I, and the human psyche is forever in a state its anticipation, a fact which is best reflected by the idea that no signifying chain is complete; there is always a possibility for one more signifier. This means that the subject, who is born in this state of perpetual anticipation, can never be grasped by us; it is not an object, but a function which takes as its object an inextinguishable field of language.

To illustrate this point, consider the difference between the subject and the ego. The ego, Lacan contends, is a purely fictional construction precisely because it can be grasped by language. You can describe yourself as a female, a brunette, and a waitress, and these words exist immediately with no apparent connection to the Other. Conversely, the subject only exists insofar as it is an anticipation of the Other’s interpretation of it: our very use of language to describe ourselves is guided by a desire for the Other’s desire. Therefore, being in language, we can never grasp the subject in its immediate essence. We can say 1,000 things about ourselves, but this will never convey the subject, because the subject — guided as he is by a desire for the Other’s recognition — will still insist on 1 signifier more.

This is why Lacanian theory is fundamentally at odds with the cogito. To conclude ‘I am’ from ‘I think’ is to confuse the subject, which is that anticipatory structure that projects the ideal-I into a future signifier, with the ego. We are fundamentally subjects of language, and insofar as language exerts its influence on us precisely where we do not think, we are are not reducible to our conscious conception of ourselves. The conscious mind of the ego is in fact the farthest thing from what we are, a point which is adequately illustrated by the phenomenon of self-defeating behaviors and symptoms which seem to emanate from a place wholly outside of us: the unconscious. To summarize, the cogito is incompatible with the Lacanian subject because the latter involves a dialectic with the Other, a dialectic which situates the subject in a negative ontology.

Cognitive science and logical positivism

Having traced the philosophical lineage of the negative ontology of the subject, we can start to appreciate the potential difficulties that psychoanalytic theory imposes on cognitive science, whose boldest endeavor has always been the empirical description of human consciousness. If consciousness involves some kind of inherent negativity, in the sense that subjectivity is not reducible into some positive, demonstrable phenomenon in the world, then it seems that science isn’t up to the task of explaining it. This is because the ontology of science is positivism, a philosophical orientation which maintains that truths about the world can be demonstrated by sensory data, logic, and reason. It appears that our prevailing philosophy on the nature of truth might be unequipped to tackle the problem of consciousness.

Of course, Lacanian theory is no definite conclusion that consciousness operates negatively, Prominent neuroscientists like Daniel Dennett are quite certain that someday, our understanding of the brain will advance to a point where consciousness can be explained in a scientific materialist framework. This represents a general consensus among cognitive scientists that the workings of the brain are, in theory, within the realm of empirical demonstration. But I think it’s worth exploring the alternate possibility that the inherent assumptions of the scientific method will need to be reconsidered — in this respect, the dizzying concept of the Lacanian subject is a great place to start.

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