Psicoanálisis y Ciencia

Science, psychoanalysis and post-modernism
(About the book "Impostures Intellectuelles" by A. Sokal and J. Bricmont)

Second Part
Science and Truth


After my attempt, in the first part of this article, to scrutinize the logic of the debate about Sokal’s hoax, particularly his flaws (in other words, attempting to have profited from Hegel’s teaching as far as this point is concerned), I will attempt now, in the second part, to present some of the problems arising in relation to the question of truth and the question of the real.

I cannot give a serious opinion about what is really stated by several authors criticized in Sokal and Bricmont’s book; I have not studied them thoroughly enough.

I cannot therefore reply to Sokal’s criticism except in the terms stated in the first part.

But this is not the case with regard to Lacan. Without pretending to be an expert on him, it is Lacan’s texts and teachings that have guided my practice as a psychoanalyst.

Needless to say, it would not be wise to approach separately the discussion about some fragment or other in which Lacan has used a concept taken from science (Topology, Logic, etc.) without previously presenting the general position of psychoanalysis with regard to science.

This is what I shall do in this part.

To complete it I add some lectures from a seminar on "Ciencia y Psicoanálisis" that I have been conducting on Internet in a neighboring site (

These lectures approach the question through a comment on an excellent book on this topic: "La obra clara" by Jean Claude Milner, with a version in Spanish in Ed. Manatial (it is the best reading I would recommend on this topic, particularly to Sokal himself).

Having done this we will be in a position to approach, in the third part, an analysis of each one of the fragments selected and criticized by Sokal and Bricmont. I will allow myself to make a translation to Spanish of the respective chapter of the book so that other Spanish-speaking psychoanalysts can add their own analysis to this work.


"The subject of science"

The first thing that needs to be clear is that psychoanalysis is not defined as a science. However, it would neither exist without being related to it.

The point, then, will not be to demonstrate that psychoanalysis "is" scientific but rather to analyze the relations it bears to science. Only this will let us apply correctly the Lacanian references to scientific concepts or terms.

One of the most precise remarks given by Lacan on this point is in "La ciencia y la verdad", the last article of the Ecrits (which was also the first lecture in the seminar "The object of psychoanalysis"). There he states:

"Dire que le sujet sur quois nous opérons en psychanalyse ne peut etre que le sujet de la science, peut passer pour paradoxe. C’est pourtant là que doit être prise une démarcation, faute de quoi tout ce mele et commence une malhonneteté qu’ on apelle ailleurs objective: mais c’est manque d’audace et manque d’avoir repéré l’objet qui foire. De notre position de sujet, nous sommes toujours responsables." (J. Lacan, Ecrits, Ed. Seuil, page 858).

"Saying that the subject over whom we operate in psychoanalysis cannot be but the subject of science may seem paradoxical. However, it is at this point that a demarcation must be made, without which everything gets mixed and dishonesty begins, which other sites call objective: but it is lack of audacity and inability to have detected the object that is crumbled". (Ecrits 2, E. Siglo XXI, page 837).

What is this subject-of-science question about? What does this paragraph mean?

Science is concerned with the real: it finds knowledge in the real and operates with it.

We can talk about knowledge "in" the real in the sense that science verifies that such real responds to certain formulas, be them known or unknown.

It is the same logic of this "discovery"1 that fostered the idea of a complete symbolization of the real as the final object of science, the famous ideal of Laplace2.

However, what has undermined this hope (which constitutes one of the basis of the cognitive relativism criticized by Sokal) is the verification of the fact that between knowledge and the real there is always an insurmountable frontier.

Needless to say, this frontier is not the same now that it was yesterday, and this fact has brought about an awareness of the historic nature of it, and the projection of an asymptotic closeness which I guess we could call "absolute knowledge" (with all the Hegelian associations in mind that these terms may imply).

I do not believe science can be science without being faithful, in one way or another, to this ideal.

The passage of time may have made scientists more cautious, suspicious, relativist and so on, but this is still their aim.

Sokal and Bricmont, for example, have learnt their lesson, and because of this, in a chapter especially devoted to cognitive relativism ( I wonder why inserted as "Intermezzo" between the chapters on Kristeva and Irigaray), take a critical position regarding the possibility of a "complete codification of scientific rationality" and are doubtful that such codification could exist (page 59). For this reason, they eventually agree with Feyerabend’s argument that science cannot be organized according to permanent, universal rules. (page 78) ..

"No assertion about the real world can ever be literally proved but, recovering a very pertinent notion from Anglo-Saxon law, it can be so beyond reasonable doubt. Unreasonable doubt subsists" (page 60).

And this is why they criticize Popper’s intention of reducing "the vast complexity of scientific work to a well-defined, universal "logic"(page 67) since they base the origin of irrationalist reactions on the failure of these kinds of epistemological projects.

But the main point in the debate is that according to Sokal and Bricmont, having reached "truth" there can be no relativism: there can only be one truth, which can be learnt.

Their concept of truth corresponds to this correlation between knowledge and the real: "After all, the main reason we have to believe in the veracity of scientific findings (at least the most established ones) is due to the fact that they explain the coherence of our experience" (Sokal and Bricmont, "Impostures Intelletuelles", Ed. Odile Jacob, page 58).

Therefore they follow Einstein’s argument that God ca be "subtle but not bad" (he does not throw dice). In other words, truth results from adjusting knowledge to the real. Scientific knowledge consists in knowing the laws and formulas to which it responds.

This is not a shortcoming. This is how science works. It could not work in any other way. And because it is so I will be getting on a plane to go on holidays in a few days.

What we have to see now is that it is also because science works this way that psychoanalysis exists.

Let us go back now to our previous question. How must we regard the frontier existing between knowledge and the real?

That is the point.

Psychoanalysis approaches the question the other way about.

We shall try to see the real not starting from the symbolized, the "known", or, more precisely, starting from what does correspond to our knowledge, but rather from the not known, that which does not respond to our previous knowledge. That is, a negative definition of the real: that which is beyond the frontier reached by science.

This frontier between the real and knowledge is what Lacan calls the subject of science. That is why Lacan defines science as "le sujet en question reste le corrélat de la science, mais un corrélât antinomique puisque la science s’avere définie par la non-issue de l’effort pour le suturer" (Ecrits, page 861); "the subject in question continues to be the correlate of science, but an antinomic correlate, since science is defined by the lack of success in the efforts to suture it" (Ecrits 2, page 840)

Lacan places the appearance of this "subject of science" in the operation of Descartes.

At the exact point in which doubt has reduced the cogito to zero knowledge (the sum as the empty set of the cogito), at the point when the guarantee of truth belongs to God only, and on the subject’s side only knowledge remains, knowledge void of all metaphysical truth, knowledge of formulas and of their formal truths, which will act as a synthesis of the real.

The famous "hypotheses non fingo" of Newton is "the key of the structure" (J. Lacan, "Radiofonía") since it states clearly that his posture is to leave aside the question about this unknown potential that would be the "true" cause and not only the formal expression (the law) of gravity.

Of course, with things presented in this way, those who do not know about psychoanalysis could wonder about the relevance of so vast and conceptual relations with regard to the clinic with their patients.

On the eve of the one-hundred anniversary of the birth of psychoanalysis, it will be useful to remember that its fundamentals are an example of what has been exposed above.


Truth and the Real

For some time now, a debate about the truthfulness or falseness of memories having to do with sexual events during our childhood has been taking place in USA.

Beth Rutherford’s case is well-known. This girl , impelled to recollection by her confessor in 1992 , "remembered" she had been raped by her father -- a parish priest -- when she was between 7 and 14 years old , and that she had been pregnant twice, having been forced to abort by her father. Once the report became of public knowledge , her father had to quit his job. However , later medical examinations , carried out as part of the legal proceedings , showed that Beth Rutherford was still a virgin. Then in 1996 , this woman sued his confessor who was sentenced.

There have also been some other similar cases , but involving psychotherapists who have also ended up in court. Different professional associations have felt obliged to comment about this issue, among them , the "American Psychiatric Association" (at the end of 1993) , the "Australian Psychological Society" (in October, 1994) , the "American Psychological Association" (in November, 1994) , the ‘American Medical Association" , the "Association des Psychiatres du Canada" (in March ,1996) , and some others of similar level during 1997. In all cases , the posture consists in ordering the memories in a true or false sphere defined according to the adjustment to the events.

E. Loftus, president of the "American Psychological Association", has been devoted to the investigation of these cases, and believes that the key of the problem is the lack of information which "can modify a person’s memories in a foreseeable and, some times, striking way" ( "Pour la Science", issue from December 1997).

Just by searching with "False Memory Syndrome" in Altavista or any other browsers you will find dozens and dozens of links. Particularly , you can consult the bibliographical references and investigations made by Ph.D. Jim Hopper, in:

I am dealing with this part of the debate in such a way because the essence of Sokal’s critique is the question about the empirical reference of the explanations and developments made by the authors quoted by them.

And the attitude of those involved in the legal proceedings as well as of the professional associations which have stated their position as regards that topic is based in the idea of a knowledge of a scientific kind. That is why they have been "driven crazy" by the respective hysterics of each of these cases; in the same way, more than a century ago, medical doctors from so many other countries and thanks to so many other hysterics used to "go crazy". The hysterics have always shown themselves as suffering from a series of disturbances which always escape such scientific knowledge.

Psychoanalysis has come into being just by this problem.

Let us remember the way in which Freud starts his "listening" [escucha] of hysteria. It is one of his first works on the subject (even before the creation of psychoanalysis as such), in which, through a comparative study between the organic and hysterical motor paralyses, he established that the hysterical ones do not represent the anatomy and many times they are presented "in direct conflict with the rules of the organic cerebral palsy". The loss caused by the hysterical paralysis on the body does not follow the rules of the anatomy but the loss of the ordinary language : "the trivial and popular conception of the organs, and of the body in general, is the one that is at stake in the hysterical paralyses , the same as in the anesthetics , etc." (Freud, Obras Completas, Ed. Amorrortu, Tomo 1, page 207).

Freud’s conclusion is then that there could be "a functional injury without an organic concomitant injury (...) the injury from a hysterical paralysis will be, therefore, an alternation of the conception (representation); of the idea of arm, for example" (page 207/8).

In other words, how can one fall ill due to a language problem? What is important to understand about this is that the hysterical symptom is presented in a way in which the real does not behave according to the knowledge there is about it. And this is not because of a wrong or false knowledge. It is worthless to deduce a new biological anatomy from a hysterical symptom. What is worth deducing from it is what experience dictated Freud: "The injury would then be the abolition of the associative accessibility of the conception of the arm. This limb behaves as if it did not exist as regards the play of association [juego de las asociaciones] (...) the paralyzed organ or the lost function is involved in a subconscious association filled with great sentimental value, and it can be shown that the arm gets free as soon as that sentimental value disappears" (page 208/9).

In other words, the hysterical symptom is a phenomenon which does not correspond to a universal knowledge about the anatomy, about the real; it corresponds, however, to the peculiarity of each individual’s history expressed at the word use level. It could not be cured neither with medicine nor with actual operations on the body; yet, it could be cured by letting the patient speak, in order to , from that talk , deduce the logical scheme that keeps some words away from the global functioning of the rest.

In that sense, the hysterical symptoms are the best representatives of what Lacan suggests as the subject of science.

So as to bear in mind the links between the apparently abstract or theoretical arguments of Lacan and, for example, these first Freudian references, one should remember that the relation of psychoanalysis and science has always been through Medicine, since psychoanalysis has always been classified as an practice in relation to what we can broadly defined as the domain of mental health. Medicine , particularly psychiatry, is the one presented in such domain as the representative of science (see, on this point, lesson 2.2b from my seminar on "Ciencia y Psicoanalisis", which is part of the added texts to this article). And hysteria is what, in such domain, presents itself as a real which does not allow to be reduced to scientific knowledge.

Whenever Lacan sets out different aspects having to do with science, he does not consider Psychiatry. When he refers to the "subject of science" , he is not obviously speaking about black holes from Spatial Physics or the like, but about this essentially clinical aspect.

What is really important to understand about this discovery made by psychoanalysis and its own constitution is but the outcome, in a negative way, of the development of modern science and of the extension of the latter as a way of taking the real to the whole sphere of human life. Previous to modern science, the mental issues, as many other things, were considered differently. And the way hysteria was dealt with was obviously different (exorcisms, etc.). This is why it makes sense to say that psychoanalysis is not a science but , at the same time, it is impossible, as such, unless it is closely associated with science. It will be easily understood, therefore, that the meaning of the real for psychoanalysis is not the same as for science. In both cases we can say that an arm, for example, is paralyzed. Yet, that paralysis has a different meaning for science (i.e., in this case, for medicine) and for psychoanalysis. For the former, it would be something incomprehensible, something beyond its formulas and its anatomic atlas. For the latter, it would be part of some impossible aspects in the structure of the language (we would be satisfied now by saying some impossible aspects of the talk).

Leaving aside this apparently more "obvious" field of paralyses, and coming back to the problems having to do with sexual trauma, we can also verify this same question.

Psychoanalysis originates as such, in a sense, from the abandonment of the so-called "theory of seduction", at least in the sense of abandonment of the idea of trauma of seduction stemming from a factual event.

Such theory of seduction would have allowed Freud to arrange a series of clinical pictures (structures) according to the temporal location and the nature of the traumatic sexual event in the patient’s life.

However, more cleverly that Beth Rutherford’s confessor, than the therapists involved in trials as a result of recollection, and than the professional associations which have commented on subject, Freud -- already in the habit of listening before stating -- knew how to draw a conclusion in a different way. In his famous letter 69 to Fliess, Freud told him, "I no longer believe in my neurotic". Among the reasons, he points out : "the surprise that in all cases the father should be accused of being perverse, without excluding my own father, the understanding of the unexpected frequency of hysteria, which in all cases an identical condition should be observed, when there is little probability of perversion against children being spread to such extreme" (page 301) and "the understanding that in the unconscious there is no sign of reality , thus being impossible to tell the truth from the fiction granted with affection" (page 301/2).

Freud, however, did not deduce from this that the hysterics were, ultimately, liars, as they were considered by Medicine in those days; he did neither say that the task would be to show them the falseness of their words.

Again, as with the cases of paralyses, Freud chose to listen to his patients.

Freud held the idea that sexual encounter is traumatic, but he had to give up the idea about the "reality" of such encounter, and thus of the trauma being in relation to the factual dimension of an event.

In manuscript M (added to letter 63 to Fliess, dated May 25, 1897) Freud -- after stating, in a Lacanian way, that "the genuinely repressed element is always the feminine one" -- dealt with the subject of fantasies. He said that these "are generated as an unconscious combination between experiences and heard things, according to certain tendencies. These tendencies are those of turning inaccessible the memory from which they have generated or from which some symptoms may appear. Fantasies are formed by combination and disfigurement, similarly to the decomposition of a chemical body which combines with another. And in fact, the first kind of disfigurement is the falsifying of the memory by fragmentation, in which time relations are neglected. Therefore, a fragment of the seen scene is matched in the fantasy with the heard one, while the freed fragment goes somewhere else. Consequently, it is impossible to find an original link" (page 293) (underlined by me).

The term systematically used by Freud is fantasy. But what he is dealing with is the last and most repressed aspects possibly reached in an analysis. He is not speaking of either dreams or conscious fantasy. He is speaking about the unattainable limit, in the analysis, in the way to find the cause of the symptom.

In a former letter ( 61, dated May 2, from the same year), Freud said that the fantasies are "protected buildings". And in manuscript L, which accompanies that letter, he said that the fantasies "stem from what has been heard and takes value afterwards, in that way combining what has been lived with what has been heard, the past (parents and forefathers’ history) with what we have seen. Fantasies are to what we have heard , what the dreams are to what we have seen" (page 288/9).

In short, Freud must admit that the last scene is not a factual event and what we find at the end of an analysis is the construction of these fantasies. And that these fantasies are as valid and efficient as we would agree , according to the traditionalist scientific conceptions, the actual cause is. These "protected buildings" show themselves as the final limit. What there is, if there is anything at all, beyond that limit, if we can refer to that "beyond", is inaccessible, impossible (in the strongest sense of the word) to reach.

All the developments having to do with psychoanalysis, Freud’s teachings as well as Lacan’s , are devoted to regularizing and allowing the transmission of certain knowledge about that kind of problems, about this activity which always has to do with the particular, about all that which presents itself beyond any scientific knowledge.

This is the sense of the quotation from "La Ciencia y la Verdad" , mentioned at the beginning of this second part of the article.

And in that sense there are two more questions which are worth adding.

On the one hand, what the psychoanalysis discovers is that language is not a communicative or any other kind of "tool"; it is a "habitat" that makes us distinguishable.

The basic reference here could be the chapter "Introducción del gran Otro" from Lacan’s Seminario II. That chapter begins by posing , "Why is it that the planets do not speak?" And it follows :

"Stars are real, entirely real, in principle, there is absolutely nothing in them against their own essence, they are pure and they are simply what they are. The fact that we always find them in the same place is one of the reasons why they do not speak (...) Being always in the same place was first shown by the stars, not by the planets. The absolutely regular movement of the sidereal day is, for sure, what allowed men for the first time to experience the stability of the changing world around them, and to begin to settle the dialectics between the symbolic and the real, where the symbolic stems from the real (...) This reality is the first reason for the planets not to speak. Yet, it would be wrong to believe that the planets are that silent (...) For centuries, they were left with a remaining part of a kind of subjective existence (...) Ultimately, Newton arrived (...) Newton succeeded in silencing them. The eternal silence of the infinite space, that horrified Pascal, was acquired after Newton (...) Why is it that the planets do not speak? It is a question indeed. We could never know what may happen to a reality until the moment it has been definitely reduced inscribing it in a language. It is not until the moment we have "shut their mouths" that we know the planets do not actually speak, that is to say, not until the moment when Newton’s theory devised the theory of a unified field later completed, when it was absolutely accepted by all human minds. The theory of the unified field is summarized in the law of gravitation, which basically consists in that there is a formula that holds everything together, in an extremely simple language made up of three letters (...) Everything that enters the unified field will never again speak, because they are realities absolutely reduced to language (...) Please, do not take us wrong, and believe that our position as regards all realities has reached a definite point of reduction thoroughly satisfactory" (J. Lacan, El Seminario, Libro II, Ed. Paidós, page 357/60).

I have expounded the quotation at length because I believe it is particularly clear as regards our present discussion.

When Lacan refers to the stars "speaking", he refers to that subjetivism implying a real which does not respond to a symbolic knowledge, one of which the religious phenomena and the like are a good example.

Now, Sokal would ask about the relevance of this.

Well, the problem concerning Lacan is the following: "Permanently we tend to reason out about men as if they were moons, calculating their mass, their gravitation" (page 353).

What could be a better metaphor of how psychiatric and therapeutic knowledge builds up; knowledge which, precisely, claims to be scientific?

"Is our aim to reach the unified field and make moons of our men? Do we perhaps make them speak only so that they keep silent?" (page 362).

The subject is not a closed being, but an opening. The notion of truth that matters is not defined by a relation between the symbolic adjusting to the real, but rather by that difference which provokes the return of what remained hidden (forcluído) in that intended adjustment.

It is from this perspective that all the Lacanian references to scientific concepts must be read. By no means will Lacan appeal to them for what they imply in terms of coherence in their field of origin, but rather for what they can testify about this flawed point that is the subject. For instance, in Topology, the famous torus referred to by Lacan once and again will not be with its habitual senses in Topology, but in relation to something else: the hole in its center, which implies, one extra turn with respect to the turns in the torus surface. To put it in a nutshell, what we always have to look for when reading any of these Lacanian references is this "extra" (or missing) element; that which will illustrate the function of the subject. For this reason, this always implies a special treatment of that concept or term. We will come back to this point further on in this article.

Before leaving this question at this point, one last comment.

This article, unlike others by me in this magazine and unlike what you will find in the appendix consisting of some lectures from my seminar "Ciencia y Psicoanálisis", has tried to deal with the topics, when possible, at a basic and elementary level.

The reason for this is that this article is not intended for a readership specialized in Lacanian psychoanalysis (although I would be glad if they have liked it and found it useful), but to a wider readership, as it aims at participating in the general debate about Sokal's hoax on Internet.

In a few days I will go on holidays. When I come back I will add two or three more parts to this work. Specially:


1 Galileo, one of the major characters in the birth of modern science, used to say that the book of nature was written in a mathematical language.

2 Laplace, in the preface to his "Théorie analytique des probabilités": "An intelligence knowing all the forces acting upon nature at a certain moment, and the conditions of the beings which compose it, and being vast enough to subject that information to mathematical analysis, could express the movements of the largest stars and the smallest atoms in a single formula. Nothing would be uncertain to it and both the future and the past would be present before its eyes".