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  • Kristeva, Stoicism, and the “True Life of Interpretations”
  • Kurt Lampe (bio)

The repertory of theories, practices, and stories associated with Greek and Roman Stoicism fills a significant compartment in the Western philosophical archive, the meaning and value of which are ceaselessly reconfigured by each generation’s archivists. In the recent decades, it is not only specialists who have browsed, rearranged, and relabeled these shelves; following Foucault’s Hermeneutics of the Subject as well as a powerful synergy between Anglophone scholars and cognitive-behavioral therapists, there is now a wave of enthusiasm, inquiry, and experimentation.1 Into these vigorous currents I propose that we release yet another stream, namely the numerous commentaries on Stoicism in the psychoanalytic, literary, and broadly cultural criticism of Julia Kristeva.

My first objective in this article is to explain the scattered, elliptical, but insightful and coherent remarks Kristeva threads throughout her oeuvre.2 These remarks are difficult to understand, both because they require familiarity with the audacious scholarship of Émile Bréhier and Victor Goldschmidt, and because Kristeva eschews dispassionate clarity in favor of affective involvement with the topics and situations on which she writes.3 In other words, she performs her ethics of interpretation. “Interpretation” for Kristeva designates an ethico-epistemic attitude, and the “true life of interpretations” designates a personally and politically healthy form of this attitude. Working through these scholarly and methodological challenges is a good way to appreciate how the theme of “interpretation” can tie together her reflections on language, ethics, politics, theology, and metaphysics, all of which emerge in response to the Stoics’ renowned systematicity.

My second objective is to sketch a critical response to Kristeva’s presentation. The point is certainly not to praise or condemn her accuracy, but rather to develop a new perspective on the “existential option” that the Stoic life is, or—following Kristeva’s intervention—could be today.4 This perspective is an important complement to those on offer from Foucault and the mainstream Anglophone tradition. [End Page 22]

1. Kristeva on the Stoic “Life of Interpretations”

In “Psychoanalysis and the Polis,” Kristeva writes,

I would say that interpretation as an epistemological and ethical attitude began with the Stoics. . . . Man, says Epictetus, is “born to contemplate God and his works, and not only to contemplate them but also to interpret them . . . .” “To interpret” in this context, and I think always, means “to make a connection.” Thus the birth of interpretation is considered the birth of semiology, since the semiological sciences relate a sign (an event-sign) to a signified in order to act accordingly, consistently, consequently.


This quotation makes clear the importance Kristeva attributes to Stoicism as the originary and preeminent example of a certain interpretive model. I will not address her assertion about the Stoics’ chronological priority. What interests me instead is her claim that the Stoics’ “epistemological and ethical attitude,” which is revealed in their interpretive activity, can be encapsulated by the term “semiology,” i.e., “making a connection” among three elements: an “event-sign,” a “signified,” and an action. What does that mean?

Before attempting to clarify this, it is best to complete the list of elements connected, according to Kristeva, in Stoic semiology. In “From One Identity to Another” she argues that “every language theory is predicated upon a conception of the subject that it explicitly posits, implies, or tries to deny” (Desire 124). There she mentions Stoic language theory only in passing, saying that she will not “refer back to the stoic sage, who guaranteed both the sign’s triad and the inductive conditional clause” (125). In this compressed reference, the phrase “inductive conditional clause” refers to the connections we have just seen among event-sign, signified, and action. We might think of this as the secondary level in Stoic semiology. I will explain it more thoroughly in a moment. But the term “sign’s triad” introduces a prior semiotic level, which is internal to the event-sign: namely, the connections among a signifying phrase, a conceptual signification, and an external state of affairs. We might call this the primary level of Stoic semiology. Kristeva believes that Stoic semiology is an “epistemological and ethical attitude” of the accomplished philosopher who...


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