Research What's Critical about Psychoanalysis?

What’s Critical about Psychoanalysis?

By Amanda Holmes

This post is the third in a series on the work of the Critical Theory Workshop/Atelier de Théorie Critique. The Critical Theory Workshop is a dual-language intensive research program, founded by Gabriel Rockhill and sponsored by Villanova University’s Graduate Program in Philosophy. It takes place every summer at the Sorbonne in central Paris. Open to graduate and undergraduate students, as well as to faculty or independent researchers and writers, it provides an international platform for trans-disciplinary, comparative and engaged work in critical social theory (in the broadest sense of the term). For more information, as well as videos and links to social media accounts, visit the website:

The inception of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory marked what was arguably the original interdisciplinary endeavor.  It brought together the philosophy of history, ethics, psychoanalysis, and the social sciences and laid the groundwork for materialist social thought.  Critical Theory today is purposed more broadly beyond the tradition of the Frankfurt School and refers to a larger body of political and social critique including feminism, anti-colonial studies, and queer theory. The Critical Theory Workshop/Atelier de Théorie Critique (CTW) at the Sorbonne wields its name in this larger context, referring to the wider tradition of social and political critiques leveraged on the basis of work across disciplines.  It provides a platform in which the same interdisciplinary commitment that characterized the early Frankfurt School can be revived and rethought for the 21st Century.

An important and controversial aspect of earlier stages of Critical Theory rested in its engagement of psychoanalysis.  One way of posing the project of earlier Critical Theory is that it sought to make sense of the relation between two of the most important thinkers at the turn of the Century: Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud; it attempted to understand the new science of society (Marxism) through the new science of man (psychoanalysis).  As Herbert Marcuse later put it in Eros and Civilization, “The traditional borderlines between psychology on the one side and political and social philosophy on the other have been made obsolete by the condition of man in the present era: formerly autonomous and identifiable psychical processes are being absorbed by the function of the individual in the state.” According to Marcuse the task of Critical Theory was to develop the political and sociological substance of the key notions of psychoanalysis.  As the tradition of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory transformed into its later iterations, however, key thinkers in the tradition developed a more ambivalent relationship to psychoanalysis and in more recent times have disavowed it completely.

Through the interventions of Amy Allen and Patricia Gherovici, this year’s CTW raised the question of psychoanalysis in Critical Theory anew.  Drawing from their presentations at the workshop, I want to pose the question: ‘What is Critical about Psychoanalysis?’

Sigmund Freud

What’s Critical about Psychoanalysis? What is its place in Critical Theory today? As Allen’s presentation at the CTW highlighted, Critical Theory today needs a realistic conception of the person. While much of mainstream political theory operates on the notion of ‘rational and free persons concerned with their own interests,’ as John Rawls might have put it, critical social thought has to deal with the reality of irrational, suppressed, and repressed persons often acting against their own interests. Psychoanalysis has historically offered the best accounts of irrationality and of self-defeat.  One of Freud’s key discoveries for example was that in many cases a patient will come to know the cause of her symptom and yet in spite of this knowledge, the symptom persists. In other words, explanation in itself is not a cure; knowledge is not always power.  To illustrate, I’ll borrow an old joke: A man believes that he is a grain of seed. He is taken to a mental institution, where the doctors do their best finally to convince him that he is not a grain, but a man. No sooner has he left the hospital than he comes back, very scared, claiming that there is a chicken outside the door, and he is afraid that it will eat him. “Dear fellow,” says his doctor, “you know very well that you are not a grain of seed, but a man.” “Of course I know that,” replies the patient, “but does the chicken?” This admittedly silly joke exposes something quite serious about the nature of critical social thought and political theory: knowledge of a particular truth is dependent upon a world that reflects that same truth and responds to it adequately. Alenka Zupančič uses this joke in her book The Odd One In to illustrate the paradigm she calls the “I know very well, but nevertheless…” This paradigm exposes the impotence of reason in the face of a world, of a social and political order, that reflects and reinforces hosts of unreason.  The failure of most ‘click-n-share’ politics is a good example of how this paradigm operates at the political level in our current context.  No matter how many shares or retweets a video exposing some atrocious reality of the current social and political conjuncture—another video of police brutality enacted on a black body in America or of the violence and horror affecting the children of Syria, for example—the situations persist.  Knowledge alone is not a cure; or rather,  we all know very well, but nevertheless…

What’s critical about Psychoanalysis? Is there a critical potential or a political critique within the field itself? Gherovici, a practicing psychoanalyst, focused her presentation at the CTW on the social and political aspects of clinical psychoanalysis. Citing her own work with disenfranchised communities, Gherovici argued that psychoanalysis is a necessary tool for helping oppressed and marginalized communities.  Indeed, the widespread use of psychotropic drugs to treat such a manifold of psychical suffering renders access to treatment a genuine problem throughout poor communities. Psychoanalysis, once known as the “talking cure,” might provide some important alternatives to this situation. Gherovici challenged the notion that psychoanalysis is divorced from its social context.  Psychoanalysis, she reminded us, began with studies of hysteria in working class women. Freud’s time studying with Charcot at the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris provided the early material for his theories of the unconscious. Gherovici’s interventions suggested that psychoanalysis has always been engaged with its social context both in the formation of its theories and in the deployment of its practice. Perhaps one of the critical aspects of psychoanalysis lies in the fact that it has always existed on a contentious border between theory and practice.

Jacques Lacan

What’s critical about Psychoanalysis? Why is it important to read psychoanalysis in philosophy today? One of Jacques Lacan’s most important interventions in the field of psychoanalysis was the idea that the analyst plays the part of a “subject supposed to know,” a sujet supposé savoir and that the process of analysis consists in the undoing of this position. For Lacan, “The end term of the analysis consists in the fall of the subject supposed to know.” The knowledge sought in psychoanalysis is thus not in the analyst and somehow shared with the analysand, rather the analyst must play the part of the ‘subject supposed to know’ precisely in order for that part to be undone by the analysand, reducing the analyst to a mere remnant. In the course of analysis the analyst, “comes to bear the fact of being nothing more than this leftover, this remnant of the known thing.” Lacan’s use of ‘the subject supposed to know’ radicalizes the position of Socrates—the subject who knows only that he does not know—because it provides a structure for thinking about the stakes of philosophical unknowing on the basis of a relation to the Other. That is, the psychoanalytic reformulation of Socratic ignorance in ‘the subject supposed to know’ exposes that the content of Socrates’ ‘knowledge that he did not know’ was not just self-knowledge but knowledge of the Other. To put it rather awkwardly: the psychoanalytic position changes the epistemological status of Socratic ignorance because it renders the Socratic position that of knowing that the Other too does not know.

If the Socratic philosopher becomes a gadfly to thought and the analyst ‘a mere remnant of the known thing’ as Lacan said, then the critical theorist, we might say, is something like the grain of seed that knows quite well that he is a man.  That is, just as the man from the chicken joke discovered that knowledge of a truth depends upon a world that reflects that same truth and responds in kind, the critical theorist has to tarry with truths that the world often refuses to reflect. Psychoanalysis posits the crucial challenge to critical theory and to philosophy more broadly to adopt this singularly excremental function, as leftover of knowledge; to take up the truth by identifying itself with what is extraneous to it.

Amanda Holmes is a PhD student in Philosophy at Villanova University. She is writing a dissertation on the relationship between phenomenology and psychoanalysis and is currently researching at the Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany.


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