Tuesday 27 May 2014

The Dark Side of the Loon (1)

Maarten Boudry
This post has been published on behalf of Maarten Boudry (Ghent University).

In some circles, the writings of Jacques Lacan are revered as a source of deep insight into the human psyche and the nature or language and reality. In saner quarters, however, the French psychiatrist is denounced as an intellectual impostor, a purveyor of obscure and impenetrable nonsense. Many people who read Lacan, or see him at work in some of the available YouTube clips, find it hard to believe that anyone can take him seriously. In a new paper with philosopher of language Filip Buekens, published in the journal Theoria, we explored Lacanian psychoanalysis as a case study in the psychological and epistemic mechanisms of obscurantism. On the one hand, we develop cognitive explanations for the allure of obscure prose. On the other hand, we explain how the particular structure and content of Lacan's theory facilitates the overextension of the cognitive heuristics that make us vulnerable to obscurantism.

How is it possible for the reader to be taken in by the impenetrable pronouncements of - as we shall call him - the Master? The first thing to note is that, in everyday life, it sometimes makes perfect sense to accept a statement that one fails to grasp. For example, children accept what adults tell them even before they understand precisely what they are supposed to believe. People endorse the equation of general relativity (E=mc²) or the reality of economic recession without having an inkling of what such claims really amount to. This willingness to accept an obscure utterance for the nonce, without knowing what exactly was on the speaker's mind, may actually facilitate the learning process. If you insist on understanding every single word of what you are told, before proceeding to the next step, you may not get very far. Better to bracket those obscure parts and trust that you will figure out their exact meaning later on.

In line with the principle of charity in cooperative communication, people will try to reconstruct the meaning of unknown terms on the presumption that what the speaker utters is true and relevant -- particularly when they defer to the speaker as an authority. If what the speaker tells seem bizarre or false on its face, it is prudent to suspect that the problem lies with your interpretation. As all mental heuristics, this charitable attitude towards speakers, particularly ones regarded as experts, is liable to exploitation. Not everything that is obscure or apparently bizarre will eventually resolve into something true and relevant.

Well, but then people will find out at some point, won’t they? Not necessarily. Another well-known psychological mechanism may kick in and prevent the listener from stopping the hermeneutic search for meaning after diminishing returns have set in. Psychologists have long known that people are averse to losses. Interpreting obscure prose is a form of cognitive investment, an expenditure of time and energy. If there is no hidden meaning to be found after all, your cognitive efforts will have been wasted. People are reluctant to face their losses, and tend to hold on to assets that have long since failed to deliver any returns.

In a similar vein, someone who has spent years wading through the writings of the Master will have a hard time facing up to reality and admitting that (s)he has been duped. This is especially true when the quest for meaning is an open-ended one. For all you know, treasure may still be lurking deeper down, if only you are prepared to dig a little further -- if only you spend a little more time and effort interpreting the Master's writings. The interpreter of obscure writings is faced with something akin to the Turing's halting problem. Some fine day perhaps the truth will dawn on you, or perhaps it will never -- there is no way to know except by trying.

To make matters worse, people may pursue a futile hermeneutic quest because – taking up the investment analogy again -- they conjure up imaginary returns. In financial investments, at least the losses and gains can be objectively measured -- they appear as hard figures on a balance sheet. In the quest for meaning, however, identifying the long-sought treasure is less than straightforward. In the hope of rationalizing his investment, the interpreter may be tempted to project all sorts of less-than-exciting "insights" onto the Master's writings, such as common-sense knowledge or psychological lore. Alternatively, she can read her own musings into the master's pronouncements, thus using the latter as a mouthpiece. Naturally, obscure writings are perfect vehicles for such ventriloquism. Psychologists have long been familiar with the Forer effect. Interpreters tend to read specific claims into obscure statements, mistaking their own creative interpretations for the author's intended meaning. Followers all claim to understand the Master -- but they all disagree about what is being said.

These psychological mechanisms are fairly well-known, but they only tell part of the story. What is striking about Lacanian psychoanalysis is that it facilitates the slippery slope I just described, by accommodating for those psychological effects within its very theoretical framework. Indeed, it seems almost designed to seduce the reader into an endless hermeneutic quest, and to shut down any critical questions that may arise in the process.

In the next post, I will show how Lacan's claims are an example of psychological and epistemic obscurantism.


  1. " people may pursue a futile hermeneutic quest because – taking up the investment analogy again -- they conjure up imaginary returns."

    Could that statement, and the entire post, not be applied more broadly to philosophy (or any purely theoretical discipline)? After all, how can we show that we've 'understood' a philosophical text, other than by offering an 'analysis' that begs the question? After all, don't readers of Lacan also agree (and disagree) on various 'analyses' of his texts? There is no more consensus in philosophy than there is in Lacanian studies. For more on this, you may refer to my book at whyphilosophyfails.com

  2. Thanks for your comment! The point could definitely be applied to some parts of philosophy at least. Think about what Schopenhauer wrote on Hegel, or Carnap on Heidegger. But I wouldn't throw out the baby with the bath water. Some philosophy is reasonably clear, and does not lead to endless exegesis and interpretation. You ask how we can be sure that we comprehended some text. One indication is that different readers converge on a similar reading. I think that philosophy is capable of doing that. That doesn't mean that there is consensus on the content of the arguments. Ambiguity or obscurity is not the sole source of disagreement. By contrast, a discipline such as Lacanian psychoanalysis has a centrifugal dynamic: it spins off ever more incompatible interpretations. Because the text is so vague, you can read almost anything in it (like a Rorschach blot). I will check out your book!

  3. Thank you for your reply. You stated "You ask how we can be sure that we comprehended some text. One indication is that different readers converge on a similar reading."

    But what exactly are philosophers converging upon? I would suggest that it's not meanings per se, but definitions. We cannot fix the meaning of an expression by merely defining it, then defining the terms in the definition, ad infinitum. I discussed this in pgs 58-63 of my book. The meanings of most expressions cannot be fully analyzed into definitions, because meanings are usually context-dependent, and a 'definition' of a context is not the same as the context itself. In other words, the method of verifying that a particular use of an expression fits a definition is itself indefinable. For example, if we define 'game' as a 'competitive recreational activity', then am I playing a game when I floss my teeth in the morning? After all, I am competing against time, and (for many of us) there is a recreational aspect to flossing. We could further 'explicate' the definition to clarify the role of flossing, but what criteria would guide us in doing so? Presumably our tacit knowledge of whether flossing is a game or not. What is the point of the definition if we already know what a game is, or whether flossing is a game? So we can make the tacit knowledge explicit? But how would we know when the tacit knowledge has been made explicit? By relying on yet more tacit knowledge? But if it has all been made explicit, why are we still relying on tacit knowledge? How would we know when we are no longer relying on tacit knowledge, but the definition is 'doing all the work'? What does the 'doing all the work' mean in this context? The point I'm making is, any purely discursive extended discourse has a tendency to leave context behind, and with it, the determinacy of meaning. No doubt, many philosophical texts (especially the shorter ones) have fairly determinate meanings, but unfortunately we can't know which texts, because they are embedded in a semantically indeterminate discourse. A discourse is semantically indeterminate if there is irremediable uncertainty as to what (if anything) it means or which parts are meaningful, and 'certainty' does not refer to subjective intuitions but to objective criteria that someone know what the text means.

  4. "many philosophical texts (especially the shorter ones) have fairly determinate meanings"

    Apologies, I should have said 'are meaningful' rather than 'have fairly determinate meanings', since the meanings of texts within a semantically indeterminate discourse are themselves indeterminate.


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