Structuralism and psychoanalysis

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Structuralism, a major current of thought in the second half of the twentieth century, developed in France from the 1960s onward in reaction to existentialism and humanism. From a methodological point of view, in the analysis and understanding of "objects" (especially those in the social sciences), it tended to see "structures" as pre-eminent and to see the given and its directly observable features as mere "effects." [Ed: Quotes indicate jargon terms in structuralism.]

Arising from the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and in particular from the Prague and Moscow schools, structuralism counts many representatives in various fields. There are the linguist Roman Jakobson, the socioethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, the philosopher and archeologist of knowledge Michel Foucault, the reinterpreter of Marxism Louis Althusser, the writers for the periodical Tel Quel, the literary critic Roland Barthes, and the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.

Gilles Deleuze, in his article "Á quoi reconnaît-on le structuralisme?" (How to recognize structuralism; 1973), tried to enumerate "formal criteria" for recognizing what is structuralist, in particular, as they apply to the field of psychoanalysis. The criteria are the following:

  1. The symbolic, which proceeds from a rejection of the mere interplay of opposition and complementarity between the real and the imaginary (Lacan, 1974-1975). In Deleuze's view, Freud can be interpreted on the basis of two principles: "the reality principle, with its force of disappointment, and the pleasure principle, with its power of hallucinatory satisfaction," he writes. Carl Gustav Jung and Gaston Bachelard take the perspective of the "transcendent unity and borderline tension" of the two principles. The symbolic, a structure that has nothing to do with perceptible forms (gestalts and figures of the imagination) or with any intelligible essence, must be understood in Louis Althusser's fashion, "as the production of an original and specific theoretical object."
  2. Localization and positioning. Any element of a structure has neither extrinsic designation nor intrinsic meaning, and thus has only one sort of meaning, positional meaning (with no real extent nor imaginary extension). Thus, in genetic biology, "genes are part of a structure insofar as they are inseparable from 'loci, ' places capable of changing their relations within the chromosome." The real subjects or objects are thus not what "occupy the places," since they are determined in a topological and relational way. In hisÉcrits (1966), Jacques Lacan defines inter-subjectivity as a symbolic structural space, that of the signifier.
  3. The differential and the singular, which bring into play the positional units that are the symbolic elements of a structure. The phoneme shows this in an exemplary fashion, since it is a relationship that is neither a thing nor an imaginary, but a component of an elementary differentiation of two words with different meanings ("robbing" and "bobbing" differ by the phonemic relation of "r" and "b"). Singularities are assigned by the differential and produce structural particularities (as do names and attitudes for Lévi-Strauss). Lévi-Strauss uncovered "parentemes," positional units that do not exist outside differential relations (brother/sister, husband/wife, father/mother, maternal uncle/sister's son). Serge Leclaire showed in "Counting with Psychoanalysis" that the "libidinal movements" of the body are linked to symbolic elements of the unconscious, "incarnating the singularities of structure in this place or that."
  4. The differentiating element, the act of differentiation. "The structure is not actualized unless it differentiates itself in time and space," and it does so by its actualization. "The two notions of multiple internal temporality and static ordinal genesis are, in this sense, inseparable from the interplay of structures," Deleuze wrote.
  5. The serial, in other words, the necessary organization of symbolic elements in their differential relations by means of which a structure arranges itself into different developments that play on and through one another. For instance, a social structure is organized into series: economic, political, juridical, etc. An operative structure has at least two series; for instance, phonemes require the second series of morphemes. In Lacan (1966), the unconscious "implies a development in two [variable] series," as his commentaries on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Purloined Letter" or Freud's case of the Rat Man (1955a [1907-1908]) show.
  6. Finally, the empty square, which is the paradoxical element of structure. It can never be filled without being disabled. This singular object x "is the point of convergence of the divergent series as such." It is the "handkerchief" referred to by André Green (an associate of Lacan) in his essay "Othello" (1969), which runs through all the series in the play. The empty square is the guarantor and representative of the third party, "which intervenes essentially in the symbolic system." The object is always displaced in relation to itself, "missing from its own place" according to Lacan, without being distinguished from that place, adds Deleuze.

From Deleuze's article, it is thus clear that structuralism claims that the determinants of reality and those of the imaginary are essentially unconscious structures, because they are in every place and at every time "covered over by their products and their effects." From this viewpoint, one can regard the second Freudian topography of the psychic apparatus as already a structuralist representation of the psyche, since even consciousness, on the plane of the ego, is an effect of the interplay of different agencies: the id, the ego itself in its different characters, and the superego. By way of contrast, Jean Piaget, in his article "La psychologie" (Psychology; 1972), characterizes psychoanalysis as a "complete reductionism" insofar as it seeks, in his view, to reach mental processes by means of "the direct study of the contents of representations and affects" and does not recognize any autonomy of the ego (Heinz Hartmann) "free of sexual conflicts."

It was Jacques Lacan who radically located psychoanalysis within the domain of structuralism. At the beginning of the twenty-first century we are witnessing a return of the subject, which existentialism, for one, refused to abandon. But because it is difficult to see how an autonomous subject, independent of structure, can again be affirmed without returning to ego psychology or existential psychoanalysis (the most traditional rationalism), there does not seem as yet to be any alternative to structuralism.

See Also


  1. Deleuze, Gilles. (1973).Á quoi reconnaît-on le structuralisme? In François Châtelet (Ed.), Histoire de la philosophie, idées, doctrines, le XXe siècle. (pp. 299-335) Paris: Hachette.
  2. Foucault, Michel. (1973). The order of things: An archaeology of the human sciences. New York: Vintage Books. (Original work published 1966)
  3. Green, André. (1969). Othello, une tragédie de la conversion: Magie noire et magie blanche. In his Un oeil en trop: le complexe d'Oedipe dans la tragédie. (pp. 109-164) Paris: Éditions de Minuit.
  4. Jakobson, Roman. (1963). Essais de linguistique générale. Paris: Minuit.
  5. Lacan, Jacques. (1966).Écrits. Paris: Seuil.
  6. ——. (1974-1975). Le séminaire: Livre XXII, R.S.I. Ornicar?, 2-5.
  7. Lévi-Strauss, Claude. (1963). Structural anthropology (Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf, Trans.). New York: Basic Books. (Original work published 1949)
  8. Piaget, Jean. (1972). La psychologie. In hisÉpistémologie des sciences de l'homme (pp. 133-250). Paris: Gallimard.