From No Subject - Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis
Jump to: navigation, search

"linguistics" (Fr. linguistique)

While Lacans interest in language can be traced back to the early 1930s, when he analyzed the writings of a psychotic woman in his doctoral dissertation, it is only in the early 1950s that he begins to articulate his views of language in terms derived from a specific linguistic theory,a dn not until 1957 that he begins to engage with linguistics in any detail.


Lacan's "linguistic turn" was inspired by the anthropological work of Claude Lévi-Strauss who, in the 1940s, had begun to apply the methods of structural linguistics to non-linguistic cultural data (myth, kinship relations, etc.), thus giving brith to "structural anthropology."

In so doing, Lévi-Strauss announced an ambitious programme, in which linguistics would provide a paradigm of scientificity for all the social sciences:

"Structural linguistics will certainly play the same renovating role with respect to the social sciences that nuclear physics, for example, has played for the physical sciences."[1]


Following the indications of Lévi-Strauss, Lacan turns to linguistics to provide psychoanalytic theory with a conceptual rigour that it previously lacked.

The reason for this lakc of ocnceptual rigour was simply due, Lacan argues, to the fact that structural lingusitics appeared too alte for Freud to make use of it.

however, Lacan argues that when Freud is reread in the light of linguistic theory, a coherent logic is revealed which is not otherwise apparent; indeed, Freud can even be seen to have anticipated certain elements of modenr linguistic theory.[2]


Lacan's engagement with linguistics revolves almost entirely aorund the work of Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson.

References to the work of other influential linguistics... are almost completely absent from Lacan's work.

There is a corresponding focus on the sign, rhetorical tropes, and phoneme analysis, at the espense of an almost complete neglect of other areas of linguistics such as syntax, semantics, pragmatics, sociolinguistics and language acquisition.

Saussure was the founder of 'structural lingusitics.'

In contrast to the study of language in the nineteenth century, which had been exclusively diachronic (i.e. focusing exclusively on the ways that languages change over time), Saussure argued that linguists should also be synchronic (i.e. focus on the state of a language at a given point in time).

This led him to deelop his famous distinction between langue and aprole, and his concept of the sign as composed of two elements: signifier and signified.

All these ideas are developed in Saussure's most famous work, the Course in General Linguistics," which was constructed by his students from notes they had taken at Saussure's lectures at the Unviersity of Geneva and published three years after his death.[3]

Jakobson further developed the line laid down by Saussure, pioneering the development of phonology, as well as making important contributions to the fields of grammatical semantics, pragmatics and poetics.


From Saussure, Lacan borrows the concepts of language as a structure, although whereas Saussure had conceived it as a sytem of signs, Lacan conceives it as a system of signifiers.

From Jakobson, Lacan borrows the cocnepts of metaphor and [[metonymy] as the two axes (synchronic and diachronic) along hwich all lingusitic phenomena are aligne,d using these terms to understand Freud's concepts of condensation and displacement.

Other concepts which Lacan takes from linguistics are those of the shifter, and the distinciton ebtwen the statement and the enunciation.

In his borrowing of linguistic concepts, Lacan has been accused of grossly distorting them.

lacan responds to such criticisms by arguing that he is not doing linguistics but psychoanalysis, and this requires a certain modification of the concepts borrowed from linguistics.

In the end, Lacan is not really interested in linguistic theory in itself, but only in the ways it can be used to develop psychoanalytic theory.[4]

It was this that led Lacan to coin the neologism linguistérie (from the words linguistique and hystérie) to refer to his psychoanalytic use of linguistic concepts.[5]


Lacan's concept of the letter is the subject of a critique by Jacques Derrida (1975) and by two of Derrida's follows (Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy, 1973).

Lacan refers to the latter work in his 1972-3 seminar.[6]


  1. Levi-Strauss. 1945. p.33
  2. {E}} p.162
  3. Saussure. 1916
  4. Lacan. 1970-1. seminar of 27 january 1971
  5. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre XX. Encore, 1972-73. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1975. p.20
  6. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre XX. Encore, 1972-73. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1975. p.62-6.


In 1890 the "science of language" had not yet become "general linguistics," the "fundamental science" of the humanities it would become following the work of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913). Philologists studied scripta (written traces) and the history of languages but not their origins or that of the original language (Ursprache), a search that was felt to be irrelevant to the science of language, according to the first article of the bylaws of the Société linguistique de Paris, composed in 1866.

From the point of view of linguistics, Hans Sperber's article on the "sexual origins of language" (1912) was more an application of Freudian theory than a form of linguistic research.Émile Benveniste's rebuttal of Carl Abel's claims about the opposite meanings of words ("Über den Gegensinn der Urworte," 1885) starts from the same point: The discursive use of the euphemism or antiphrasis does not justify this claim. Moreover, there is no primitive language as far as linguists are concerned. Language is a system of signs, articulated through a process of differentiation, that organizes the first representation of the world by and for the speaking subject. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the distinction "langage/langue"—language as spoken versus language as system—used by de Saussure in his classes and published in the Course on General Linguistics after his death (1916), was not widely known.

Some philologists, however, became interested in spoken language, in everyday words, in the nature of the "system" or internal structure of language (langue). By collecting slips of the tongue, Rudolf Meringer (1895) attempted to determine the laws of evolution and the internal operation of Sprachorganismus (the organism of language), comparing it to Freud's "language apparatus" (1891b). Freud borrowed eight examples from Meringer's corpus, including the opening and closing remarks of the president of parliament (1901b). Meringer failed to be amused (1907) by Freud's admiration for the quoted text. Freud in return wrote an ironic comment (1910e), distancing himself from Meringer on the basis of their divergent understanding of slips of the tongue. The two men held different points of view: Meringer prefigured the Saussurian break entailing the internal synchronic description of the structure of languages (that is, at the time of spoken use). His insistence on speech (parole)—which revealed the underlying structure—implied an emphasis on orality, the primary characteristic of languages.

De Saussure thus gave the world approximately five thousand languages and rejected the notion of "primitive" languages, which were languages with no written tradition. According to de Saussure, a language should be considered a highly organized structure, a "system of internal relations," whose elements were arbitrary and differential and could be analyzed along two different axes: the paradigmatic (or associative) axis, the axis of elements that were "absent"; and the syntagmatic axis, the axis of elements that were "present." These elements were defined in negative terms: "In language there is only difference." On the plane of sound as well as on the plane of meaning, each element is what the others are not (this was de Saussure's concept of "value"). The axis of the spoken chain can be used to postulate the temporal linearity of the sound (or acoustic) aspect of signs, that is, the "linearity of the signifier." A language is, thus, a set of articulatory, acoustic, and representative (or symbolic) conventions that are socially imposed on the speaker, a Weltanschauung, a treasure deposited in the individual by the mass of speakers.

The same position is found in the work ofÉdouard Pichon (linguist and psychoanalyst, founding member of the Paris Psychoanalytic Society, then its president in 1938), from whom Jacques Lacan borrowed the idea of "foreclosure" (Verwerfung). From de Saussure's work, Lacan derived the concepts of the "treasure of signifiers," the unconscious structured as a language, and the condition of the unconscious. From Roman Jakobson (1963) he derived the concepts of metaphor (paradigmatic) and metonymy (syntagmatic), and reworked the concepts of condensation and displacement. Lacan also borrowed from de Saussure the idea of the arbitrariness of the sign and its duality: signified and signifier. The signified is the mental image, the concept; the signifier the acoustic image (or phonetic form). This relationship is reversed and hierarchized in Lacan (S/s) with an extreme (non-linguistic) expansion of the signifier.

Saussurian arbitrariness—which is what makes his work so original—does not refer to the lack of motivation between object and sign (word) (Sache/Zeichen) discussed in Plato's Cratylus, but to the absence of a one-to-one relation between elements of the system of signifieds and signifiers. The concept of "double articulation" (Martinet, 1960/1964) demonstrates this: for linguists no meaning can be attributed to a phoneme or letter, something a linguist shaped by psychoanalysis like Ivan Fonagy (1970) rejects. For Fonagy, for example, language and unconscious, language and drive, are contiguous.

The same was true for Pichon, the author, with Jacques Damourette, of a voluminous grammar text and a large number of articles. It was Pichon who created the concepts of pensée-langage, which reflects the separation of form and content, and sexuisemblance, which reflects the connection between gender and sex. His work on negation (1928) and the grammatical person (1938), criticized by Benveniste as too "psychological," serves as the premise for the concept of the "shifter" in Jakobson's work, and research on "enunciation" for Benveniste. Among linguists, including contemporary linguists who speak of the (re)introduction of the subject into their field (through pragmatics, the analysis of meaning or discourse), the subject is always (or almost always) a controlling intentional subject. The failure to identify intentionality, moreover, is what ended the Saussurian analysis of anagrams (the search for a proper name buried—disseminated—in the poetic chain), although they can be understood as a search for an unconscious subject.

This conscious and controlling subject marks the difference between linguistics and psychoanalysis. Here, their epistemological terrain is distinct. Linguists and psychoanalysts apprehend the same words in different ways. Linguists first try to describe languages and construct a scientific theory of their workings. Their concern is one of generalized objectivity, which could be described as an Aristotelian approach. Consequently, they attempt to eliminate any subjectivity, while psychoanalysts acknowledge it as part of the process of association. The analysts' goal is not to put forth a theory of language but of the unconscious. This is why there are so many differences between the two fields in spite of the many borrowings by psychoanalysts from linguists (philologists for Freud) in the first half of the twentieth century.

Today, however, the situation is reversing itself, and some psychoanalysts consider the near "assimilation" of the mental apparatus to the language apparatus to be a failure (Green, 1984, 1989). Moreover, the number of linguists and semiologists who acknowledge the influence of psychoanalytic theory in the humanities is growing. For example, research on the contiguity between these two fields (Michel Arrivé, Jean-Claude Milner) has been conducted by linguists who have undergone analysis or who are analysts themselves; they have introduced psychoanalytic ideas into research on sign systems, writing, enunciation, modes of text analysis, meaning, and so forth. Links between the fields exist despite the fact that their founders never met. Freud may have seen de Saussure's name quoted by Meringer; de Saussure may have seen Freud's in a report on The Interpretation of Dreams written by one of his colleagues at the University of Geneva (Théodore Flournoy). And although Freud never read de Saussure, it is certain that he heard him referred to as the "father" and author of the Course of General Linguistics. For one of Freud's patients was Raymond de Saussure, the son of Ferdinand, and Freud wrote a preface to Raymond's The Psychoanalytic Method (1922), where his father's book is mentioned.