Both Freud and Lacan use the term 'science' in the singular, thus implying that there is a specific unified, homogeneous kind of discourse that can be called 'scientific'. This discourse begins, according to Lacan, in the seventeenth century (Ec, 857), with the inauguration of modern physics (Ec, 855). Freud regarded science (Ger. Wissenschaft - a term with markedly different connotations in German) as one of civilisation's highest achievements, and opposed it to the reactionary forces of religion. Lacan's attitude to science is more ambiguous. On the one hand, he criticises modern science for ignoring the Symbolic dimension of human existence and thus encouraging modern man 'to forget his subjectivity' (E, 70). He also compares modern science to a 'fully Realised paranoia', in the sense that its totalising constructions resemble the architecture of a delusion (Ec, 874).
On the other hand, these criticisms are not levelled at science per se, but at the positivist model of science. Lacan implies that positivism is actually a deviation from 'true science', and his own model of science owes more to the rationalism of KoyrÈ, Bachelard and Canguilhem than to empiricism. In other words, for Lacan, what marks a discourse as scientific is a high degree of mathematical formalisation. This is what lies behind Lacan's attempts to formalise psychoanalytic theory in terms of various mathematical formulae (see mathematics, algebra). These formulae also encapsulate a further characteristic of scientific discourse (perhaps the most fundamental one in Lacan's view), which is that it should be transmissible (Lacan, 1973a: 60).
Lacan argues that science is characterised by a particular relationship to truth. On the one hand, it attempts (illegitimately, thinks Lacan) to monopolise truth as its exclusive property (Ec, 79); and, on the other hand (as Lacan later argues), science is in fact based on a foreclosure of the concept of truth as cause (Ec, 874).
Science is also characterised by a particular relationship to knowledge (savoir), in that science is based on the exclusion of any access to knowledge by recourse to intuition and thus forces all the search for knowledge to follow only the path of reason (Ec, 831). The modern subject is the 'subject of science' in the sense that this exclusively rational route to knowledge is now a common presupposition. In stating that psychoanalysis operates only the subject of science (Ec, 858) Lacan is arguing that psychoanalysis is not based on any appeal to an ineffable experience or flash of intuition, but on a process of reasoned dialogue, even when reason confronts its limit in madness.
Although the distinction between the human sciences and the natural sciences had become quite well-established by the end of the nineteenth century (thanks to the work of Dilthey), it does not figure in Freud's work. Lacan, on the other hand, pays great attention to this distinction. However, rather than talking of the 'human sciences' (a term which Lacan dislikes intensely - see Ec, 859) and the 'natural sciences', Lacan prefers instead to talk of the 'conjectural sciences' (or sciences of subjectivity) and the 'exact sciences'. Whereas the exact sciences concern the field of phenomena in which there is no one who uses a signifier (S3, 186), the conjectural sciences are fundamentally different because they concern beings who inhabit the Symbolic order. In 1965, however, Lacan problematises the distinction between conjectural and exact sciences:
The opposition between the exact sciences and the conjectural sciences can no longer be sustained from the moment when conjecture is susceptible to an exact calculation (probability) and when exactitude is based only on a formalism which separates axioms and laws of grouping symbols. (Ec, 863)
Whereas in the last century physics provided a paradigm of exactitude for the exact sciences which made the conjectural sciences seem sloppy by comparison, the arrival on the scene of structural linguistics redressed the imbalance by providing an equally exact paradigm for the conjectural sciences. When Freud borrowed terms from other sciences, it was always from the natural sciences (principally BIOLOGY, medicine and thermodynamics) because these were the only sciences around in Freud's day that provided a model of rigorous investigation and thought. Lacan differs from Freud by importing concepts mainly from the 'sciences of subjectivity' (principally linguistics), and by aligning psychoanalytic theory with these rather than with the natural sciences. Lacan argues that this paradigm shift is in fact implicit in Freud's own reformulations of the concepts that he borrowed from the natural sciences.
In other words, whenever Freud borrowed concepts from biology he reformulated those concepts so radically that he created a totally new paradigm which was quite alien to its biological origins. Thus, according to Lacan, Freud anticipated the findings of modern structural linguists such as Saussure, and his work can be better understood in the light of these linguistic concepts.
Is psychoanalysis a science? Freud was quite explicit in affirming the scientific status of psychoanalysis: 'While it was originally the name of a particular therapeutic method,' he wrote in 1924, 'it has now also become the name of a science - the science of unconscious mental processes' (Freud, 1925a: SE XX, 70). However, he also insisted on the unique character of psychoanalysis that sets it apart from the other sciences; 'Every science is based on observations and experiences arrived at through the medium of our psychical apparatus. But since our science has as its subject that apparatus itself, the analogy ends here' (Freud, 1940a: SE XXIII, 159).The question of the status of psychoanalysis and its relationship with other disciplines is also one to which Lacan devotes much attention. In his pre-war writings, psycho- analysis is seen unreservedly in scientific terms (e.g. Lacan, 1936). However, after 1950 Lacan's attitude to the question becomes much more complex.
In 1953, he states that in the opposition science versus art, psychoanalysis can be located on the side of art, on condition that the term 'art' is understood in the sense in which it was used in the Middle Ages, when the 'liberal arts' included arithmetic, geometry, music and grammar (Lacan: 1953b: 224).
However, in the opposition science versus religion, Lacan follows Freud in arguing that psychoanalysis has more in common with scientific discourse than religious discourse: 'psychoanalysis is not a religion. It proceeds from the same status as Science itself (Sl1, 265).
If, as Lacan argues, a science is only constituted as such by isolating and defining its particular object of enquiry (see Lacan, 1946, where he argues that psychoanalysis has actually set psychology on a scientific footing by providing it with a proper object of enquiry - the imago - Ec, 188), then, when in 1965 he isolates the objet petit a as the object of psychoanalysis, he is in effect claiming a scientific status for psychoanalysis (Ec, 863).
However, from this point on Lacan comes increasingly to question this view of psychoanalysis as a science. In the same year he states that psychoanalysis is not a science but a 'practice' (pratique) with a 'scientific vocation' (Ec, 863), though in the same year he also speaks of 'the psychoanalytic science' (Ec, 876). By 1977 he has become more categorical:
Psychoanalysis is not a science. It has no scientific status - it merely waits and hopes for it. Psychoanalysis is a delusion - a delusion which is expected to produce a science. . . . It is a scientific delusion, but this doesn't mean that analytic practice will ever produce a science. (Lacan, 1976-7; seminar of 11 January 1977; Ornicar?, 14: 4)
However, even when Lacan makes such statements, he never abandons the project of formalising psychoanalytic theory in linguistic and mathematical terms. Indeed, the tension between the scientific formalism of the MATHEME and the semantic profusion of lalangue constitutes one of the most interesting features of Lacan's later work.