Second Entry on Psychoanalysis

10 March 2006 |

Even if it may sound predictable to Mr Evans, the best words for describing how I feel after reading his paper From Lacan to Darwin are saddened and shocked.

You may remember from my First entry on Psychoanalysis that I thought his reference book, ‘Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis’, apart from being incredibly well written, was essential to the understanding of Lacanian theory. Every time I mentally uttered ‘what?’ when reading any Lacan or Lacanians, my doubts were dissipated by Mr Evans, who led me to understand what the concepts and ideas meant.

On the back of the book, on a short biographical note about the author, it was mentioned that he was pursuing a PhD. Thinking so highly about the dictionary, I thought his PhD output must be of interest to my research and set about finding the information. I stumbled upon his webpage and went straight for the biography pages, where, to my surprise, I read:

Eventually, my doubts about the efficacy and validity of psychoanalysis became so great that I realised I could not go on working as a therapist any longer with a clear conscience.

I quit all my clinical work and decided to do a PhD to grapple with the questions that had been forming in my mind during my clinical work. Was there anything about psychoanalysis that was worth saving? What alternative theories of mental disorder should we look to instead?

He further explained his journey from Psychoanalysis to evolutionary psychology in the paper From Lacan to Darwin, mentioned above. It is one of the harshest critiques of Lacanian theory I have ever read, coming from a man who was certainly knowledgeable about them, as proved by his reference work. However, there were a couple of points that just didn’t add up to me. This, and not the issue of the critique (of course Lacan is criticable; even his followers are ready to admit his writing is full of bulls**t!) is what saddened me.

Those points can be summarized as follows:

1) His main criticism of psychoanalysis is the lack of evidence (read here scientific evidence) for its claims and the fact that, when treating patients, his training didn’t help. Dylan seems to adopt a purely positivist view, concerned with truth, instead of knowledge. I know this view was already permeating in his dictionary but, closer readings of Lacan’s texts made me realise that he is not about truth, but about knowledge. In his journey, he describes how the discovery of scientific thinking was a turning point, as he understood that this was a better explanation of how the mind worked.

I would place Lacan, however, more on the philosophy side than on the science side. When I met Dany Nobus, one of the first questions he asked was ‘what is psychoanalysis?, is it an art or a science?’ and he concluded that it was something that encompassed all of them, essentially, a practice. Applying purely scientific and positivist principles to Lacanian theory is, in my opinion, floored because, although it may share some elements, it does not belong to the category of ‘science’.

In my own research, I don’t claim to be a psychoanalyst, nor that my original contribution to knowledge will be in the area of psychoanalysis. I do, however, want to avoid applied psychoanalysis as much as possible and that’s why am considering undergoing therapy, to avoid situations like the one Evans encountered in Buffalo, which I also despise:

Yet most of the Lacanians in Buffalo had no understanding, nor any personal experience, of that method. They read Lacan entirely within the context of literary criticism, and rarely, if ever, thought about its clinical foundation. No wonder they were so unconcerned about the consistency or accuracy of Lacan’s ideas. They had completely misunderstood the whole of Lacan’s project.

2) In From Lacan to Darwin, Evans writes:

The qualities admired in writing here were clarity and concision, not empty rhetorical flourishes and baroque digressions. And above all, people demanded evidence. No matter how obvious (or how weird) your opinions seemed to be, they were worth nothing unless you could back them up.

The paper, however, is written in a truly introspective and journey-like way. The claims made are enormous and no textual evidence is provided to back them up, apart from his own experience. The whole of Lacanian theory, apart from a brief spell when he first presented his mirror stage paper in Marienbad, is rejected in one go, instead of carefully considering each term as objectively as possible. He talks about a fundamental flaw in psychoanalysis, being the lack of scientific, quantitative evidence (Philosophers of science had been debating the evidential status of case-histories versus statistical analysis in general, and the value of Freud’s vignettes in particular, for decades.). This argument strikes me to be guilty of positivism and science-centrism (if there is such a word!)

He talks about Lacan’s obfuscated and obstructive text, which he rejected in favour of a more clear Popper-like style. This claim is not new, as it has been already voiced by Sokal, Roustang etc… I admit that Lacan’s text is not easy to penetrate but neither is Kant’s or Plato’s or Merleau Ponty’s if one approaches it without a generic understanding of the main concepts, principles and aims. One must remember that the Seminars are not Lacan’s writings but Lacan’s speech, which is a different thing. Ecrits is far more articulate, as it is a written composition. In the Seminars, Lacan changes the goalposts continually, concepts shift meaning and one has to be aware of that when reading. That is why Evans’s dictionary was so useful to me; it helped chart the movement of his ideas. Roustang’s advice in The Quadrille of Gender is a useful one: it is through re-reading, Lacan’s text gets disentangled.

All in all, I am very happy I came across Evans’s paper as I need to be aware of problems and criticisms in Lacanian theory, mainly as a preparation for writing the thesis and answering questions at the viva. He didn’t deter me, though, because in the same way he thinks the whole of Lacanian theory is flawed, I think his criticism of it is. He is a true positivist that just took a long and complicated road (with a few blind alleys) to get where he needed to be.

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