- The Thinkable and the Unthinkable in Psychoanalysis and PhilosophyFrom Sophocles to Freud to Derrida
The unthinkable, in its customary (essentially, metaphorical) sense of something terrible or horrible, is the bread and butter of, and even the ultimate raison d’être for, psychoanalysis, beginning with Sigmund Freud, or indeed Sophocles, who put this unthinkable in play (in either sense) in his tragedies, Oedipus Tyrannus most psychoanalytically famous among them. This, however, is not the “unthinkable” with which I will be concerned is this essay, although the psychoanalytic connections between these two senses of the unthinkable are intriguing, and I will indicate some of them as I proceed. My concern is the unthinkable in the literal sense of the term, the unthinkable, as that which is beyond the reach of thought altogether, closer to the ancient Greek sense of chaos as areton or alogon, which is at stake in the ancient Greek tragedy as well. This conception of the unthinkable implies that it cannot have a direct or literal sense either, any more than any other sense. Ultimately, it is unthinkable even as unthinkable.
This unthinkable makes itself felt at the deeper, even the deepest, level of thought, what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari call, giving thought its irreducibly unconscious and irreducibly materialist efficacy, the “molecular” level, although “atomic” may be a better term (Deleuze and Guattari 1978, 283–96). The parallel (not merely an analogy) with atomic or, by now, quantum physics thus suggested is not casual. It is important for my argument, and it was used by Freud in defining the unconscious, whose German name, [End Page 53] das Unbewusste, means the unknown, even if not the unthinkable. While my subtitle alludes to that of Derrida’s The Postcard: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond (1987), my title paraphrases that of John Bell’s (of the Bell theorem fame) Speakable and Unspeakable of Quantum Mechanics (1987), although Bell himself, against the grain of his famous theorem, follows Einstein in his discontent with quantum mechanics and the philosophical position to be advocated here.1 This position follows Niels Bohr, as does my emphasis on the difference between “parallel” and “analogy.” In reflecting on this type of relationship between quantum physics and other fields, psychology and philosophy in particular, Bohr stressed that we are not dealing with “vague analogies but with an investigation of the conditions for the proper use of the conceptual means of expression” in different fields (1987, 2:2). I would add that we are also dealing with an investigation of the conditions of and means of conveying that which is impossible to express or even to conceive—the unthinkable—and it was this type of investigation that led Bohr to his epistemology of quantum physics. In accordance with Bohr’s view here expressed, in their inquiry into the nature of thought, Freud and then Derrida were confronting the set of problems essentially parallel to and epistemologically nearly the same as those encountered by quantum theory in its attempt to understand nature, matter, although quantum theory must also confront, physically and philosophically, the problem of thought, unavoidably involved in any such attempt. But then, Freud and Derrida in turn had to confront the question of matter in confronting the question of thought.
In all of these cases we deal with a conception of ontology that involves and relates to the uncircumventably unthinkable. I will call this ontology nonclassical ontology. This ontology is defined by the skepticism concerning the possibility of capturing the ultimate workings of matter or thought (or their relationships) by thought, and, at the limit, by the assumption that this possibility is in principle excluded, an assumption that gives nonclassical ontology the corresponding epistemology, nonclassical epistemology. By contrast, classical ontological thinking, which has [End Page 54] been dominant from the pre-Socratics on, always allows that the ultimate nature of things may, at least in principle, be available to thought, even if not to knowledge, arguably the limit of classical thinking, as defined, for example and in particular, by Immanuel Kant (1997, 115). In countering Einstein’s discontent with quantum mechanics because it lacked a classical ontology, Bohr argued that nature may...