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The Philosopher of Consciousness Meets the Antiphilosopher of the Unconscious: Sartre and Lacan

Lecturer: Robert Boncardo

Originally Taught: Summer School 2016

This course will stage a series of conceptual encounters between the great French philosopher of consciousness, Jean-Paul Sartre, and the psychoanalyst and anti-philosopher, Jacques Lacan. Taking as our four fundamental concepts ego, anxiety, gaze and temporality, we will study the way in which these two thinkers conceived of the human subject and its relation to itself, to others and to the world. At the same time, we will explore the more general philosophical distinctions that are in play when Sartrean phenomenology is short-circuited by Lacanian psychoanalysis. These include the distinction between a philosophy that departs from the cogito and a psychoanalytic practice that posits the existence of an unconscious; the distinction between existentialism and structuralism; and, lastly, the distinction between humanism and anti-humanism. While the history of recent French thought has pitted one thinker against the other, in this course we will discover many surprising points of contact between Sartre and Lacan, all the while attempting to clarify – beyond the facile journalistic distinctions that all too often pass for thought today – what is truly at stake in the difference between the philosophical paths chosen by these two most decisive thinkers of the 20th century.

Beginning with the concept of the ego, we will examine the way Lacan, in his early polemic against ego psychology, drew on and displaced arguments made by Sartre in his groundbreaking article of 1936, The Transcendence of the Ego. As we will see, both Sartre and Lacan establish a decisive distinction between the subject and the ego, and both demonstrate that the latter is secondary with respect to the former, even if it presents itself as primary. The key Lacanian text here is The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis. Both phenomenologist and psychoanalyst divest us in a philosophically and ethically salutary way of our fundamental narcissism, opening our thinking onto a far more impersonal and intriguing domain – a domain from which the ego had, in fact, exiled us.

Next, we turn to the concept of anxiety, a canonical concept of existentialism that Sartre associates in Being and Nothingness with the vertiginous freedom of consciousness. In his tenth seminar, entitled Anxiety, Lacan reprises this key philosophical affect in a structuralist and psychoanalytic register. By comparing Sartre and Lacan on the question of anxiety, we will explore and evaluate the way their philosophical commitments – to the methodological primacy of consciousness qua nothingness on the one hand, and to the primacy of structure and its immanent excess on the other – give rise to irreconcilable accounts of this most radical yet unavoidable of human experiences.

Building on our understanding of the distinction between phenomenology and a structuralist psychoanalysis, we will then turn our attention to the problematic of the gaze. In his eleventh seminar, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Lacan, under cover of an extensive reading of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, engages with the notion of intersubjectivity qua an aporetic duel between gazes that Sartre had so powerfully – albeit one-sidedly – presented in Being and Nothingness. Again, our focus will be on the points of intersection and methodological divergence between Sartre and Lacan, in particular on what kind of account of intersubjectivity emerges from a philosophy that departs from the cogito in contrast to a psychoanalytic theory that sees the subject as secondary to the symbolic.

Finally, we turn to the problem of temporality. If human subjectivity is fundamentally temporalized for both Sartre and Lacan, how, then, do each of them understand the nature, structure and ultimate significance of the human subject's relation to time? To answer this question, we will compare the tri-dimensional temporality of the Sartrean for-itself with the account of time implicit in Lacan's 1945 écrit 'Logical Time and the Assertion of Anticipated Certainty' – a piece that is itself an indirect commentary on the infernal temporality at work in one of Sartre's best-known plays, No Exit. As we will discover, Lacan is able to go one step further than his existentialist counterpart by subordinating the temporal rhythms of individual consciousness to structural determinants.

Difficulty of the course

This course will presuppose no knowledge of either Sartre or Lacan, nor of phenomenology or psychoanalysis more generally; only a desire to engage with this exhilarating and at times counterintuitive material will be necessary.

Recommended readings

  • Jacques Lacan, The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book II
  • Jacques Lacan, 'Logical Time and the Assertion of Anticipated Certainty', in Écrits
  • Jacques Lacan, Anxiety: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book X
  • Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI
  • Jean-Paul Sartre, The Transcendence of the Ego: A Sketch for a Phenomenological Description, in particular the section 'The Constitution of the Ego'
  • Jean-Paul Sartre, 'A Fundamental Idea of Husserl's Phenomenology: Intentionality'
  • Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, in particular the chapters 'The Immediate Structures of the For-Itself' and 'Being-for Others'