The Language of Psychoanalysis

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Vocabulaire de la psychanalyse (The Language of Psycho-Analysis) is neither a dictionary nor an encyclopedia, but an inventory of the major concepts of psychoanalysis. Cursory readers might confine themselves to the brief definitions that precede the historical discussions of concepts. However, the most important work presented in this book is its analysis of the tools of psychoanalytic thinking: a methodical and thoroughgoing investigation ever ready to track down contradictions. Basing this book almost exclusively on the work of Freud, Laplanche and Pontalis set out to bring the concepts of psychoanalysis to life, showing their complexity and tracing their development through Freud's writings. By hewing close to Freud's texts, often retranslated into French by the authors, the Vocabulaire makes it possible to put these concepts to work, as it were, while steering clear of dogmatism.

The fortunate encounters and circumstances that gave birth to the Vocabulaire are worth recalling. The two authors became friends as soon as they arrived in Paris in 1941 to take preparatory classes in the humanities at the Lycée Henri IV. They both were candidates for the advanced teacher-qualifying examinations (concours d'agrégation) in philosophy, and both were successful. Thereafter Pontalis proceeded into university teaching, while Laplanche turned to medicine. Ten years later, when Pontalis was a research assistant at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (National Center for Scientific Research) and Laplanche was an assistant professor at the Sorbonne, both found themselves under the authority of Daniel Lagache, university professor and series editor at the Presses universitaires de France. At that time Lagache, at the request of UNESCO, was organizing a large group of researchers to produce a dictionary of terms used in the human sciences. This project came to naught, but Lagache, aware of Laplanche and Pontalis's interest in psychoanalysis, proposed that they write what became the Vocabulaire de la psychanalyse.

The two worked on the book from 1960 to 1967. They met several times a week to review their reading on one or more concepts. After discussion, they wrote in such close collaboration that the thinking of the two men was inextricably linked. From time to time they would show their work to Lagache, who granted them complete authorial independence. The work was published under his editorship, and he contributed a preface giving the background and history of the project.

While the book was being written, Jacques Lacan was urging a "return to Freud." Laplanche and Pontalis accepted this proposal and, instead of simply elaborating a set of concepts, treated their task as a full-scale research project. During this period the Association psychanalytique de France (French Psychoanalytic Association) came into being (1963). Lagache, Laplanche, and Pontalis all became members, marking their distance from Lacan.

The first edition of the Vocabulaire appeared in 1967. Thirteen more were to follow. The book was first translated into English, under the title The Language of Psycho-Analysis, thanks to the collaboration and friendship between Masud Khan and Pontalis. That English-language readers should thus obtain access to a French work of this kind was considered extraordinary at the time. Subsequently the book was translated into Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Hungarian, Russian, Rumanian, Croat, German, Japanese, Polish, Greek, Arabic, Korean, Slovakian, Swedish, and Turkish—seventeen languages in all. In 1997, thirty years after its first appearence, the Vocabulaire was issued in a student's edition, which gave it a much wider circulation. It is undoubtedly the most frequently cited work in the entire French psychoanalytic literature.

The authors' choice of concepts for inclusion focused on those notions that help explain Freud's theory of the mental apparatus. Almost all of the three hundred terms dealt with were taken from Freud's work. The exceptions included a few Kleinian notions (good/bad object, depressive position, paranoid position), a few Lacanian concepts (foreclosure, the symbolic, mirror phase), a Jungian one (Electra complex), an Adlerian one (inferiority complex), Spitz's hospitalism, and Winnicott's transitional object. A three-tier system of cross-references among entries and to the bibliography encouraged readers to view topics from a succession of different angles.

Some of Laplanche and Pontalis's lengthier entries, such as "Ego" and "Death instinct" set forth their own theoretical positions. As to theoretical orientation, apart from adhering as closely as possible to Freud's work itself, they rejected ego psychology, for example, and expressed reservations about the theoretical approaches of Jacques Lacan and Melanie Klein. The Vocabulaire initiated the development of a number of notions not thoroughly conceptualized by Freud, among them deferred action and anaclisis, which would later constitute important milestones in the thinking of Jean Laplanche.


See also: Association psychanalytique de France; France; Great Britain; Lagache, Daniel. Source Citation

   * Laplanche, Jean, and Pontalis, Jean-Bertrand. (1974). The language of psychoanalysis (Donald Nicholson-Smith, Trans.). New York: Norton; (1967). Vocabulaire de la psychanalyse. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.