Book Review Essay: “Discourse Ontology: Body and the Construction of a World, from Heidegger through Lacan” by Christos Tombras
Review of Tombras, Christos. Discourse Ontology: Body and the Construction of a World, from Heidegger through Lacan. Palgrave, 2021. Pp. 232.
Tombras’s book aims to develop something comparable to the early Heidegger’s analytic of Dasein, only this time able to cover psychoanalytic concepts, like sexuality and the unconscious, that Heidegger neglected. To this end Tombras relies on Lacan’s work instead of Freud’s because he finds that Freud’s is indeed vulnerable to Heidegger’s criticisms of science, while Lacan’s is not. So, Tombras is supplementing Heidegger’s project with psychoanalytic insights, while aiming to correct what he sees as the scientistic tendencies within Freudian psychoanalysis itself. This makes his use of Lacan rather interesting, since Lacan did not share Heidegger’s criticisms of science. Nor did he exactly share Freud’s version of scientism. He also had rather different views on science and psychoanalysis’s relationship to it compared to his phenomenological contemporaries.
An organizing principle of Tombras’s book is the idea that Lacan’s work lacks a philosophical grounding, and needs one. “William Richardson has argued that Lacan’s interpretation of the Freudian discovery ‘desperately needs a philosophical base that mathematical formalism and all the topology in the world cannot give him’” (Tombras 2021, p. 187). The insight here is correct that Lacan did not use philosophy, or phenomenology, in order to ground psychoanalysis. In fact, he expressed skepticism about any such attempt, eventually aligning psychoanalysis with antiphilosophy, and explicitly distancing himself from, for example, Merleau-Ponty’s late project, which was surely the closest any philosophical project had come to incorporating a psychoanalytic perspective. Tombras claims however that a philosophical base for psychoanalysis is needed, and is best provided by a phenomenological method: that is, by an endeavor that traces psychoanalytic concepts and categories back to their origins in everyday human experiences. Because of its focus on language as well as for other reasons, Lacan’s work strikes Tombras as closer, or at least more amenable, to doing this than Freud’s. Thus, while well aware of Lacan’s uses of formalizations and mathematizations, Tombras does not think they are adequate to the job of grounding psychoanalytic theory.
This is certainly true, however it is not clear that they were meant as efforts to base or ground psychoanalysis in the first place: this may not be the correct way to think of them. Rather, they were in part used either as teaching instruments (an idea Tombras suggests), or as checks on the erroneous tendencies of ordinary consciousness, especially when it comes to what psychoanalysis has to say about psychic life. Where a phenomenological orientation thinks that abstractions, reifications, objectifications, etc. get in the way of our ability to see how we actually experience the lifeworld — the Husserlian slogan “back to the things themselves!” means in large part suspending our scientistic and philosophical presumptions about the nature of things — Lacan seems far less confident about the truthfulness of direct experience, and about the role lived experience can play as an origin and source for valid insights. Ordinary human consciousness is generally dominated by the imaginary and its fascination with beautiful forms, symmetries, spheres, distinctions between inside/outside, internal/external, etc. We have a hard time wrapping our heads around Klein Bottles and Cross-Caps, spaces that Lacan felt offered more appropriate models for the relationships and interminglings psychoanalysis asks us to consider — precisely because of their otherness and alienness to every day experience. If every day lived experience had offered us a ground for understanding the unconscious, the drives, and sexuality, Lacan probably would have used it and referred to it far more often than he did. Instead, he keeps throwing us counter-intuitive curveballs: think also of the use he makes of anamorphic images, where only an unusual perspective, or the addition of an instrument like a curved mirror, allows for what is there before us to snap into shape.
Phenomenology, however, has much more faith in direct lived experiences as a ground for insights both philosophical and as Tombras would have it, psychoanalytic. But there are important reasons why Lacan could not and did not share this faith. Freud may well have thought that psychoanalysis did not need a Weltanschauung of its own: it had science’s, and that was enough. Lacan does not at all think that the modern natural sciences ground psychoanalysis. He is not a psychologist. And in this respect Tombras is certainly right that Lacan’s work is not vulnerable to Heidegger’s critique of science. But the aim of mathematizing and formalizing the objects of psychoanalysis is one that Lacan does share with the modern Galilean project, and is an area where he certainly breaks with any phenomenological or Heideggerian orientation. I will return to how Tombras reads Lacan’s mathematizations in a moment.
“The problem with modern science,” Tombras writes, “is that it confounds measurability and reality” (p. 60). This is a point that Heidegger shares with Husserl: science, with its objectifications and abstractions, goes on to perform some sort of inversion, in which its abstract, quantified world replaces the world of lived experience (the world in which the moon is larger when closer to the horizon, and sticks are bent when placed into water) as the really real. How is Freud’s work vulnerable to this same criticism? Tombras points out that Heidegger had little admiration for but also little knowledge of Freud’s thought, and that his Freud may have been limited to what was “relayed to him by Medard Boss,” the Swiss psychoanalyst who hosted the Zollikon seminars in 1969, during which Heidegger discussed Freud and psychoanalysis (p. 75). From what can be made out, Heidegger thought of Freud as a sort of Neo-Kantian, positing human beings as physico-psychic doublets, subjects in relation to objects, both orders operating “in the same way,” essentially in terms of causes and “quasi-deterministic laws” (p. 75). Freud’s positing of the unconscious, as an explanans for dreams, slips, and symptoms, fits into the framework or “world picture” of modern science in the sense that psychoanalysis posits the unconscious as something like a noumenal cause, not directly observed. Freud’s second topography would be doing something similar — positing the id, ego, and superego as clandestine agents and causes responsible for visible and experiential phenomena. From a Freudian perspective, then, Tombras writes that “the psychoanalyst tries to explain in terms of a set of laws, rules and models, while the phenomenologist only attempts to bring the phenomenon to light” (p. 79). Despite the ways in which Freudian psychoanalysis challenged the psychiatry of its day, and despite Freud’s own characterization of the drives as something like a mythology, Tombras concludes that “the main point stands: Freud’s metapsychology is an artificial mechanistic construction that fails to question its presuppositions” (p. 81). This was Heidegger’s view and Tombras largely shares it when it comes to Freud. Freudian psychoanalysis is not a phenomenology: it projects its world along the lines of the scientific worldview.
From this perspective, Lacan comes out looking better. In part because of his focus on language, Lacan is able to stay more true to human experience as it is lived. But also, a foundational story like the mirror stage can certainly be read as something like a phenomenology of ego development. In this respect, Tombras reads Lacan as someone who is providing us with a genesis of the subject, out of foundational experiences like the mirror stage and language acquisition.
Tombras does discuss Lacan’s views on and uses of mathematical formalizations, and even claims in a footnote that “Lacan…uses mathematics in the same way that Heidegger uses phenomenology” (p. 175n105). That is, Lacan’s belief was that “mathematics provides a robust foundation for the deeper understanding of psychic structures, subjective positions in the world and psychopathology” (p. 175). Lacan according to Tombras does not, with Galileo, use mathematics because he believes that nature — or, the psyche, the unconscious — is written in the language of mathematics. Rather, he uses mathematics because of “the access it gives to the real as the register out of which the imaginary and the symbolic emerge” (p. 173). Something like this is certainly the case. Still, Tombras writes, mathematical “entities” “are not thought of as existing independently of the humans using them” (p. 173).
Hence Tombras’s emphasis on how even mathematics relies on language: “It is only by speaking that the knots, schemas, or formulae that Lacan introduces can step outside their imaginary or symbolic register” (p. 173). Yet, precisely by speaking one continues to imagainarize and symbolize — one remains awash in meaning. What drew Lacan to mathematics, of course, was its ability to circumvent that — hence its link to the real. Yet, per Tombras: “There is no metalanguage, and yet the human being speaks. In discourse truth, and being, are revealed. As he [Lacan] says, ‘being…is but a fact of what is said’. Ditto for mathematics. It only subsists if we employ it. Mathematics too is but a fact of what is said” (p. 173). This is where Tombras certainly parts ways with Lacan. Because he takes Lacan’s reduction of being to what is said to apply also to any possible mathematization, Lacan’s mathematical project, and later his Borromean knot period, are ultimately deemed to be failures. Reducing mathematics to a way of speaking, however, is what allows Tombras to bring Lacan and Heidegger as close tougher as he does:
To put it in somewhat Heideggerian terms, Lacan was attempting to formulate a fully ontological account of what a speaking being is, what its structure is, and how the speaking being relates to other speaking beings in the world they have co-created and shared in discourse. Lacan’s project, in other words, was consonant with Heidegger’s in more than a few cursory or superficial ways. There is a clear pathway that starts from Heidegger and opens up through Lacan. (p. 177)
Lacan used mathematics the way Heidegger used phenomenology, Tombras tell us: but he would have been better off just using phenomenology.
Heidegger’s analytic of Dasein was getting at transcendental structures of human experience. These are true but also relative to us. So, they are structures of the subjective (not applying to all rational beings, human or not, as Kant’s categories were supposed to). This is obviously a contrast to science, which rules out the subjective as the “merely relative,” too variable and ephemeral, if not merely epiphenomenal, to qualify as a genuine object of study. As Tombras describes it, however, what his psychoanalytically informed project reveals is a “recursive set of entities, concepts, relations, properties and frames of reference,” — recursive because circular — providing an ontology that “as I call it, is a semblance, an ontology of make-believe, an ontology from discourse” (p. 8). And in a later discussion discourse ontology is described as “an ontology that emerges from discourse” (p. 189). “Ontology is impossible unless there is a discourse” and, since there is no metalanguage, “there can be no ontology either if not as ‘a fact of what is said’” (p. 189-90). There are several quotes from Lacan that Tombras draws from when making these points. Tombras seems to take Lacan’s claim that there is no meta-language to mean that we cannot escape the prison-house of language. But this does not condemn us to skepticism and relativism. Fortunately, we have plenty of time to learn and study the architecture and interior design of our prison-house, and so “to broach discourse ontology…represents but an attempt to outline the basic structure that makes the human world” (p. 190). The limits of my language are the limits of my world, as Wittgenstein said.
Of course, Lacan did claim that there is no such thing as a metalanguage, and Tombras makes much of this. Rightly so, since Tombras’s interpretation of this view is the key to his effort to bring phenomenology to bear on psychoanalysis, and to why he calls his project a “discourse ontology” in the first place. As Tombras explains it, Lacan “claims that in human language there is no vantage point from which one can assert the truth value of a statement or a proposition. You can never escape the level of the language in which you speak” (p. 145). Consequently, “if there is no such thing as a metalanguage, and if no statement has any other guarantee than its enunciation, then truth as such is rendered unstable, impossible or irrelevant. Can there be a guarantee for truth? Or does it all mean that truth is impossible, and everything goes? Lacan offers no specific solution to this. We will need to turn for help elsewhere” (p. 146).
But Lacan’s solution was the use of mathemes, the manipulation of symbols, or letters, according to certain syntactical rules for their exchanges, transformations and arrangements. Of course, none of Lacan’s mathemes and formulas go without abundant commentary and discussion. Nevertheless, it is important that there be extra-discursive “props” to accompany and steer a discourse that would otherwise lead us astray. “What I prefer…is a discourse without speech,” Lacan said more than once (Lacan, 1991/2007, p. 12). And in his Joyce seminar: “I think that it was through little bits of writing that, historically speaking, we entered the real, that is, that we stopped imagining. The real is upheld by writing little mathematical letters” (Lacan, 2005/2016, p. 54). Tombras’s project, for all its clarity and ambition, threatens to place Lacan’s work in the domain of the kind of idealinguisterie that Lacan was keen to avoid himself: hence Lacan’s recourse to and promotion of non-meaningful, extra-discursive anchors. The price of this move on Lacan’s part may well be a lack of philosophical grounding for psychoanalysis. Whether there is any harm in that or not is an open question. It may be tant pis for philosophy.
Lacan, J. (2007). The seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book XVII. The other side of psychoanalysis (J.-A. Miller, Ed.; R. Grigg, Trans.). Norton. (Original work published 1991)
Lacan, J. (2016). The seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book XXIII. The sinthome (J.-A. Miller, Ed.; A. R. Price, Trans.). Polity. (Original work published 2005)
Tombras, C. (2021). Discourse ontology: Body and the construction of a world, from Heidegger through Lacan. Palgrave.
Ed Pluth is a professor of philosophy at California State University, Chico. He is the author of Signifiers and Acts (SUNY 2007), Alain Badiou (Polity 2010), co-editor, with Jan De Vos, of Neuroscience and Critique (Routledge 2016), and co-author, with Cindy Zeiher, of Silence: Holding the Voice Hostage (Palgrave 2019). His translation of Jean-Claude Milner’s A Search for Clarity was published in 2020 by Northwestern University Press. He has written numerous essays and book chapters on psychoanalysis, focusing on its relevance for thinking about language, politics, and the sciences.
November 30, 2021