Ecrits: A Selection
The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis
It is commonly said, by way of depreciating Freud, that he left us not a new science of man but a new picture of man. He opened our eyes.
This is to give Freud less than his due, but also more. For there is no complete picture of man that emerges autographically from Freud’s own hand. There are several reasons for this. The chief one is that Freud never got the two sets of concerns, theoretical and clinical, between which he divided his working life, fully to cohere. And there are several ways in which this shows, one of which is the absence of any account of cognitive development—of how functions like reasoning, perception, and memory mature in the individual. Another (and related) way is the absence of any account of symbolism, of how the individual acquires and uses the system of internal representations with which he encodes reality. What Freud has left us is a sketch toward a picture of man, but he never worked this up into the finished thing.
Awareness of the need to say something about cognitive development and about symbolism is now common in the two principal schools that can make a good claim to be within the Freudian tradition: the New York school of ego psychology, and the so-called “English school” which derives from Karl Abraham and Melanie Klein. There is also an awareness that, since the two topics are connected, something needs to be said about how they connect. Does cognitive development presuppose symbolism (as philosophers tend to think), or does symbolism emerge in response to the needs of cognition (as psychologists tend to think)? And on all these topics both schools have made contributions of insight and interest.
But the thinker who would appear to have taken the challenge of making good these deficiencies most seriously is the legendary. Jacques Lacan. For many years now Lacan’s name has been widely known as that of someone who not only is a practicing analyst whose technique has been the topic of much controversy, but who has, largely through a series of seminars, magisterially conducted and faithfully recorded, 1 brought about an extensive revival of interest in Freud’s thought among French intellectuals and littérateurs. In the Anglo-Saxon world, he has been professionally taken up by some non-psychoanalysts, and he has been professionally ignored by nearly all analysts; but his name remains the best-known thing about him. Now, with the long-awaited translation first of a selection of his Ecrits, which includes his most important lectures and addresses, and then of the transcript of a seminar conducted through the first half of 1964 and put together under the title The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, something of an opportunity has been given to the English-speaking reader to assess the phenomenon.2
“Something of an opportunity.” Two things make the qualification necessary. One is that the translated work…
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