Richard Boothby – Absolute (Un) Knowing: Lacan with Hegel

Issue 65 (Summer 2017) Pages 33-42

For the memory of William Richardson,

with deep admiration and heartful gratitude.

This essay attempts to show how Lacan’s theory of psychoanalysis is illuminated by Slavoj Žižek’s reversal of the standard reading of Hegel: ‘Absolute knowing’ is to be read paradoxically (dialectically!) as a recognition of the limits of knowing, precisely a form of unknowing. For Lacan, the true outcome of psychoanalysis, the thing that makes it most profoundly transformative of the subject’s existence, lies less in an increase in the subject’s knowledge, a matter of what the subject comes to know about its history and constitution, than in a new engagement with what it doesn’t know. A good psychoanalysis reconfronts the subject with its own fundamental question.

Keywords: Lacan; Hegel; Žižek: psychoanalysis; knowledge


‘Of all the undertakings that have been proposed in this century, the psychoanalyst’s is perhaps the loftiest, because it mediates in our time between the care-ridden man and the subject of absolute knowledge.’

Jacques Lacan

Lacan’s well-known remark about psychoanalysis as mediating between Hei-degger’s man of care and Hegel’s subject of absolute knowing surely sounds a lofty note, but one might be forgiven for hearing it as something of a throw-away line. The reference to Hegel would seem to be more concerned with Hegel’s dialectic of recognition between master and slave than with his doctrine of absolute knowing. Indeed, most of what Lacan says about Hegel over the course of his teaching leads us to believe a) that he fully accepts the received notion of Hegel’s project as affirming a comprehensive metaphysical closure, and b) that he categorically rejects any such notion. Lacan’s assessment seems everywhere in line with the interpretation of Alexandre Kojève, from whom Lacan imbibed his primary contact with Hegel. For Kojève, absolute knowing…


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