- Lacan with Scholasticism: Agencies of the Letter
To consider Lacan as scholastic may seem to some as a statement of dismissal, a way of marginalizing psychoanalysis or Lacanian theory in light of the current pragmatic concerns of the post-high-theory climate. To others such a statement could be taken as a distortion of scholasticism itself, where contemporary theory once again reads the past without regard to its particularity. However, my reading of Lacan in terms of scholasticism/of scholasticism in terms of Lacan points at something quite precise in the structure of the human subject within language, a structure that is explicit within Lacanian psychoanalysis as well as in the medieval epistemology that grounds the scholastic project. For both Lacanian psychoanalysis and medieval scholasticism, language functions as the limit of the human subject, the limit within the epistemological and ontological considerations of subjectivity itself. In this essay, I will explore Lacan’s debt to medieval cosmology through an exploration of the structural similarities in both Lacanian and scholastic considerations of causality, focusing explicitly on their reliance on Augustine’s theory of language and knowledge.
Contemporary considerations of Lacanian psychoanalysis have consistently entered into Lacan’s theory of language through structural linguistics, tracing Lacan’s use of Saussure and Jakobson as a way of grounding his project in linguistic terms. Samuel Weber’s Return to Freud: Jacques Lacan’s Dislocation of Psychoanalysis, for example, has two chapters dedicated to Lacan’s dependence on structural linguistics for his consideration of language. Lacan, however, did not begin with Saussure or Jakobson. From his first seminar of 1953–4, Lacan placed his investigation of language within Augustine’s examinations of signs and teaching. By focusing on how language works particularly for each subject, Lacan developed a way of [End Page 105] placing language at the center of knowledge and being, a conclusion that the Twelfth Century scholastics similarly drew from Augustine. In considering the problem of speaking as intrinsically a problem of moving from universals to particulars back to universals, Lacan has more in common with the cosmology of the scholastics than he does with the linguistics of Saussure or Jakobson, since the very grounding of his notion of absence and language is found in Augustine’s questioning of how to teach of God.
Unlike structural linguistic models, both scholasticism and psychoanalysis are founded on an imperative to consider a knowledge that resists signification, to bare the signifiers that ground ontology within an epistemology. For scholasticism, God is the ultimate referent and agent to all signifying systems: scriptural or worldly. For Lacanian psychoanalysis, the primary agency is the unconscious—not a totalizable or coherent system that acts separate from conscious thought, but, like medieval Christian notions of God, an agent that can only be witnessed by effect, an agent that is always coming into being. In this way, both the scholastic Christian God and the Lacanian unconscious are agencies that cannot be reduced to the series of effects that are traced, and thus cannot be precisely defined as a content-based causality.
But to view the unconscious as God or God as the unconscious would not be a correct formulation for either medieval scholasticism or Lacanian theory. They are, however, structurally connected in the way in which both agencies impinge on language, where language itself offers the means of investigating subjectivity while also functioning as the grounding of that subjectivity. Such a tautological problem is acknowledged both in scholasticism as well as in Lacanian theory; both modes of investigation resist linear causality as a way towards proof, favoring instead the limit or loss within totalizing systems. For both Lacanian theory and medieval scholasticism, the limit of knowledge within language qua symbolic system is the precise problem of language, of the subject itself. Lacan and scholastic thinkers thus problematize language as the end of knowledge, ultimately placing language on an overtly Augustinian foundation. [End Page 106]
Scholasticism and psychoanalysis place the problem of language as the significant cosmological issue, ultimately grounding all considerations of epistemology and ontology as a limit that is first articulated by Augustine. Scholasticism constantly has one foot squarely planted in Augustine’s consideration of language, where language...