Paul Verhaeghe – From Impossibility to Inability – Lacan’s Theory on the Four Discourses

THE LETTER 03 (Spring 1995) pages 76-99

During the late sixties and the early seventies, the intellectual talk of the town was about structuralism and the structuralists, with Foucault, Lacan and Barthes being the most prominent figures. The fact that each of these three denied being a structuralist was considered irrelevant, and added a bit of parisian spice and frivolity to the discussion.

As far as Lacan is concerned, I find it rather difficult to answer the question of whether he was a structuralist or not. In a discussion of that sort, everything depends on the definition one adheres to. Nevertheless, one thing is very clear to me: Freud was not a structuralist and, if Lacan is the only postfreudian who lifted psychoanalytic theory to another and higher level, then this Aufhebung, elevation in Hegel’s sense, has everything to do with Lacanian structuralism and formalism. The rest of the postfreudians stayed behind Freud, even returning very often to the level of the prefreudians.

It is obvious that Freud was fundamentally innovative. He operated on his own a shift towards a new paradigm in the study of mankind. He was so fundamentally innovative that it would seem almost impossible to go any further. So, if we state that Lacan operates an Aufhebung, we have to explain what we mean by that. What is there to gain with Lacanian theory?

In order to appreciate the gain, we have to return to the fundamental difficulty in the psychological study of man. Within a classical scientific approach one has to start with observation and description in order to take the step towards categorisation and generalisation. This is the approach of prefreudian and postfreudian…

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