May 22, 2014, by criticalmoment

What is Psychology? Badiou Interviews Foucault in 1965

For all the interviews of Michel Foucault that are available in English there are still some that are not available while others are only partially available. An abbreviated and edited version of Alain Badiou’s interview with Foucault on the origins and status of psychology (“Philosophy and Psychology.”) is available in The Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984, Volume 2, Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, J. D. Faubion (ed), New Press, 1998, pp. 256-7. However thanks to the Argentinian channel Encuentro, we now have access to the full version.

The interview took place one year before the publication of Les Mots et les choses and Foucault’s archaeological analysis is, of course, all over this interview. For those seeking help with The Order of Things and in particular with Foucault’s elusive idea of “the Death of Man” this interview provides a useful and succinct elucidation. However Foucault, as ever, never disappoints with his ability to surprise. If the rise in Foucault’s popularity in the 1980s and 1990s coincided with the relative decline in popularity of Marxism and psychoanalysis, here is Foucault in the 1960s heralding psychoanalysis’s ‘discovery’ of the unconscious and describing psychology, neutered of the unconscious, as a vulgar reflection of the ‘relations of production’.

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Samuel Grove 2014

Badiou: What is ‘psychology’?

Foucault: Generally, when that question is formulated, moreover to a psychologist, we are in fact, asking two very different questions. First we are asking: “What is psychology about?”—but I do not think that is the most important question, and that concerns one the most. I have the impression that in formulating the question, “What is psychology?” we are automatically asking a more fundamental one: “Is psychology a science?” I have just said a banality, but anyway, I think that it is very important. It is important because it is public and notorious that the scientific status of psychology is not well established, nor is it very clear. And I fear that, in asking this question of if psychology is a science, we are omitting a more fundamental question; one that would allow us to resolve, if not all, at least the most essential one. I would like that we not only interrogate psychology about the type of objectivity that it can reach, the form of science that it is capable of, but that we interrogate psychology like any other form of culture.

What do you understand by “form of culture”?

By “form of culture” I understand the form in which, within a determined culture, there forms a knowing, there is institutionalised, there is liberated a language that is proper to and, eventually, reaches a certain form of “science” or “para-science”. I would like that we interrogate psychology in that sense; in what sense psychology in western culture is a type of knowing and if said knowing could be considered a science, or eventually not.

From that point of view, what would be your answer?

I think that psychology belongs to a certain form of culture that was constructed in the Western world, perhaps in the 19th century, and this form of culture having emerged at that moment, does not date completely back to the 19th century. It is evident that the form of culture founded by psychology is inscribed in the history of the other forms of culture. I think of, for example, in what could have been confessional during the Christian centuries. I think similarly in what could have been literature or the theatre in the functioning of those institutions during the course of the Middle Ages, even in the 16th century; the call to love, the saloon etc. It’s about this interrogation that man always formulated to himself about man himself, the question that in a given moment took on this form of culture, we call today ‘psychology’.

You didn’t refer to philosophy. Philosophy, then, is not a form of culture or there does not exist a link between psychology as a form of culture and philosophy?

You are asking me different questions. You are asking me if philosophy is or is not a form of culture. And you are asking me if philosophy and psychology, understood both as forms of culture, have a relation between them, and finally, you are asking what is the relationship that could exist between these two forms of culture.

To the first question, I think we could reply by saying that philosophy probably is the most characteristic and general form of culture of the Western world. Since Greek thought until Heidegger, and even up to the present, philosophy was the mirror where western culture was always reflected. In that sense, philosophy is not a form of culture, but the most general form of culture of our culture. And now, to the question of if there exists a relationship between the type of culture that philosophy is and the form of culture that psychology is—what could we reply to this question? We can reply in two ways. We can say that psychology did nothing more than retake, in a positive and scientific style, a series of questions that had been hounding philosophy during the previous centuries, and that psychology, in treating conduct and behaviour, did nothing more than demystify on one side and make positive on the other; notions such as those of the soul or of thought. In that sense, psychology would be purely and simply the scientific version of what, up to that moment, had been hidden under the form of philosophy. And like this, psychology seems to be the form of culture in which Western man questions himself and psychology would be the fundamental relationship between man and himself in a culture like ours.

But there exists another possible reply, and this is the one I prefer. It would consist in saying that philosophy, in being the most universal type of culture of the west, was produced in a given moment, within the said type of culture and within the interrogators that authorized there came about a highly fundamental event that probably dates back to the 19th century, maybe the 18th century. This event was the apparition of what we can call a type of anthropologic reflection. That is for the first time there appeared in that moment the question that Kant formulated in his logic, “What is man?”.

But before Kant there are other works titles “On human nature”, there exists a reflection about man.

Yes but I think that the reflection about man in the 17th and 18th centuries, those treatise on human nature about man, in reality served nothing more than to produce a second order reflection with respect to the philosophic reflection. That is to say the problem of philosophy was, at least since the Christian era, a reflection about infinity. Man only put forth questions with respect to this philosophy of infinity. We were asking ourselves in what conditions and how it was possible that finite beings could, on the one side have real knowledge; that is to say have knowledge of infinity and, despite it, eternally reside in the finitude because of things like error, dreams or the imagination. In that sense the question “what is man?” was not the fundamental question of philosophy.

And after Kant there is a change of perspective.

With Kant comes a change in perspective. For the first time philosophy asked itself primitively about the finite. It is from the finite that philosophical questioning breaks away. Moreover it is characteristic that, from past times, thought over the finite had emerged over mathematics.

However Critique of Pure Reason is not an anthropology?

Yes, but I would reply with Kant’s text in Logic. When Kant formulates three questions: “What can I know?”, “what should I do?”, and “what can I expect?”­­, these are related to another fourth question—”was ist de Mensch?” meaning “what is Man?” and this is the question of anthropology and the most general question of philosophy. And in that sense, I think that Kant, if not the founder, he is at least the discoverer of this new philosophical field that is anthropology, which came in the 19th century and through the dialectic of Hegel and Marx, rediscovered the area which traditionally had belonged to philosophy.

Would you allow me to summarise in a few phrases that, without doubt, will betray your thought?

Not at all!

You distinguished two perspectives. In the first, philosophy opens the domain of psychology, but the human sciences guarantee its effective and positive elucidation. In the second perspective, which you said you prefer, anthropology becomes a defining moment in philosophy as a form of culture, through which the West succeeds in formulating a thought about being or attempts to achieve such a thought. If it’s alright with you, I would like to pick up my question again about the essence of psychology in each of these levels. Firstly If we admit that philosophy implicitly fixes its domain over the human sciences in general, considering that the human sciences took the baton from the positivist view of the old philosophical question inside this viewpoint, assuming you could imitate it provisionally, what does the specificity of psychology guarantee within the other ventures which we commonly designate with the name the “human sciences”?

I think that what characterises psychology, and what gives it a reason for being and again for which it will remain the most important human science, a disciplining human science in some ways, was Freud`s discovery of the unconscious. That is to say that psychology itself, in its interior, produced towards the end of the 19th century a surprising restructuring and that, in my opinion, opened the most problematic and the most fundamental dimension of psychology. We can also say that psychology, from the end of the 18th century to the end of the 19th century essentially proposed itself in an explicit way, an analysis of the conscious; an analysis of the ideas under the form of ideology; an analysis of thought, of feelings etc. Then, at the end of the 19th century, abruptly, circling around its object, psychology did not plant itself as a science of the conscious psyche, but as a science of what had just been discovered, the science of the unconscious. From the moment in which psychology disclosed itself as the science of the unconscious, it not only annexed a new domain, one that had been ignored until that present, but in effect completely restructured the domain of all the social sciences. Thus, in discovering the unconscious, psychology discovered that the body itself forms part of our unconscious, that the collective to which we belong, the social group, the culture in which we have lived form part of our unconscious. It discovered that our parents, mother and father are nothing more than figures inside our unconscious, in such a way that the science close to psychology, like physiology, like sociology, saw themselves remodeled and recreated from psychology itself from then on, through this discovery of the unconscious. And it was like this that psychology, at the level of its most secret foundations, probably began carrying in itself the entire fate of the human sciences.

Now let’s look at it from the other perspective. What place can we assign to this Freudian discovery of the unconscious within anthropology, seen this time as a philosophical moment in Western thought?

Well in this case a series of events happened. (Take into account that I always speak of events, that I am a fierce partisan of factual history, at least in philosophy, since after all, up to the present, we have never placed the history of thought in any other way than in abstract terms, in terms of general, ideal, and atemporal structures.) One would have to risk a purely factual history of philosophy and not of philosophers. If we created a purely factual history of philosophy I think we would have to verify a series of facts, of events of philosophy itself, which occurred in the 19th century. This unconscious—that psychology discovered as a new object, and at the same time, as a universal method for all the human sciences—in effect had already been analysed by philosophy starting from Schopenhauer. Now this unconscious, which was a philosophical object since Schopenhauer and continued to be one until Nietzsche, was at the same time for philosophy, what allowed the anthropological question to take form, the question that Kant had assigned to philosophy at its most general domain. Thanks to the observations on the unconscious, we finally realized, to put it in a vulgar way, that man does not exist. And that is exactly what Nietzsche discovered when, in affirming God`s death, he demonstrated that this death was not simply the end of the Christian religion, nor the end of all religions, but the end of man within his reality and his humanist value which he had recognised since the Renaissance, since Protestantism, and probably since much earlier, since Socrates. And it is in this way that we arrive at this curious chasm within the fundamental events of Western knowledge in the 19th century. The appearance of anthropology as the destiny of Western philosophy from the beginning of the 19th century, discovered by the philosophy of the unconscious as the foundation and at the same time as the disappearance of this anthropology, and moreover the human sciences and psychology retake, near the end of the 19th century, this unconscious. They mix the sciences of man in a way that interprets itself, that believes in itself, and that can be positive, but when the human sciences dissolved in their positivity, philosophically speaking, man disappeared. And precisely if this does now exist, this link/nonlink between philosophy and psychology, it is exactly because of this phenomenon. Philosophy imposed the subject of anthropology on all Western culture and when psychology retook this subject and gave it (thanks to the unconscious) an absolutely new and positive word, philosophy discovered that man himself does not exist and it is due to the positivity of psychology that it did not have anything more of a foundation than an aberration, a void, a gap than would be man`s existence.

You said that the great reconsideration of psychology, and of the human sciences in general, came at the end of the nineteenth century around the discovery of the unconscious. The word “discovery” is generally taken within a scientific or positivist context. What exactly do you mean by the discovery of the unconscious?

I think we have to consider that word in a strict sense. Freud literally discovered the unconscious as a thing. Twenty years ago, there was a prevailing way of thinking where, despite the interest of psychoanalysis, it was said that there was in Freud an eternal thingness postulate. From Politzer and up to and including Merleau-Ponty, the thingness, the positivism of Freud, was criticized as a sequel to the nineteenth century and they attempted to reintroduce this bothersome thing in a network of meanings more subtle, more fine; within a network of meaning such that the unconscious was fixed in a subjectivity (maybe transcendental, empirical or historical it doesn’t matter), but the unconscious had ceased to be that disagreeable and obstinate thing that Freud discovered in the depths of the human psyche. We cannot forget that Freud effectively discovered the unconscious as one discovers a thing, or if you like, as one discovers a text. We know well and the interpretations that Dr Lacan makes of Freud are unquestionable, that the Freudian unconscious has the structure of a language. But this does not mean to say that the unconscious is an empty or virtual language. The unconscious is a word, not a language. It isn’t a system that allows us to speak, it is what is effectively written, words that were deposited in the existence of man, in the psyche of man that were literally discovered when the mysterious operation that is psychoanalysis was practiced. We discover a written text. That is to say, we discover in the first place that there are signs deposited. Secondly that these signs want to say something, they are not absurd signs. And thirdly we discover what they want to say.

The recognition of the unconscious as a text and the operation that deciphers the meaning of this text—are they two methodological moments of psychology?

My impression is that, in the practice of psychoanalysis, the discovery that there is a text and what the text wants to say, form part of the same thing.

That is, to use the language of linguistics, the psyche is both the message and the code of the message?

We have a group of symbols, if you will, of which we don’t even know if the letters or words are represented; and, furthermore, when we do know or admit to address the words deposited we don’t know their meaning and we don’t know what is the relation of their meaning. Analysis must realise this triple operation that consists of the identification of the signifier. Then it must establish the law that regulates the relation between the signifier and the signification and finally discover what this wants to say and discover the final text that can be interpreted.

I note a difficulty in this. If the message that represents the unconscious is its own code then the psychology in the form of psychoanalysis is unable to constitute a science in terms of general structures. In any case we would have to relate texts to the bearers of its own message and this would force us to start from scratch in every case.

For this reason there doesn’t exist a general psychoanalysis, a collective psychoanalysis. There doesn’t exist a psychoanalysis of a culture or a society except metaphorically. We are in the area of the sciences only through error or through an abuse of language, there is only psychoanalysis of the individual and the founding of analytic meaning is in the analytic relation between the doctor, the psychoanalyst and the patient. Only these rigorously individual discoveries—that there is a text and what the text wants to say, allows us to establish genuine isomorphisms, or genuine general structures of language that we will find in other individuals. But the fact that the message itself contains its own code is a fundamental law of psychoanalysis and what makes psychoanalysis the singular result of an individual operation, which is itself also the cure of psychoanalysis.

I would like to return, with a certain obstinacy, to the question—’What is psychology?’ and maybe get you to talk about what I suspect you don’t want to talk about. You define psychology as a science or as knowledge of the unconscious. But what status can we accord the practice of say animal psychology, psychological tests, psycho-physiology, factorial psychology?

All of this we call, in opposition to psychoanalysis, theoretical psychology or laboratory psychology. I think precisely that this psychology is the least theoretical we could imagine. There doesn’t exist between Freudian theory and practice the distinction that was wanted for many years. Freudian practice and the Freudian theory are no more than the same thing. In contrast the psychology titled ‘theoretical’, it occurs to me, is terribly practical. I want to say this; that the relations of production changed between the 19th and 20th centuries. Man was no longer considered only a producer, but now a consumer and this appearance of consumption as an economic fact and within the play of the relations of production, opened a space in which a certain number of practices became possible. It appears to me that the psychology of aptitudes and the psychology of necessities would find themselves very comfortable within these new economic practices. And I believe that all psychology, from the moment it isn’t psychology of the unconscious, that is to say when it isn’t psychoanalysis, is necessarily a branch of economics.

At one time there was an effort to distinguish experimental or positivist psychology and anthropological psychology in the distinction between explanation and comprehension. Do you think this makes any sense?

I believe it makes really profound sense, but I’m not sure of the notion of comprehension… the word ‘understanding’ is more adequate. My impression of what happened was the following. From the 17th to the end of the 19th century, all the interpretative disciplines were left in the shade, in favour of a method of knowing that was to a greater or lesser degree positivist, of laws or principles of explanation. And through Nietzsche, through the reappearance of exegeses of religious texts in the 19th century, through psychoanalysis that discovered the interpretation of the sign, there re-appeared in Western culture techniques of interpretation, of exegesis that originated in Alexandria and before Christianity and had not stopped hanging over western culture until the end of the 16th Century, until the renaissance and maybe including up to Cartesianism. The appearance of these interpretative techniques is what Dilthey referred reluctantly to with the word ‘understanding’. I would prefer for us to say “explain and interpret”. I believe that this characterises much better this oscillating movement by which the ancient exegesis of Alexandria reappeared through Freud up to contemporary psychoanalysts.

I would like to conclude with a pedagogical question. With how you would teach one of our classes we call “Psychology—How can we confront it?”

I would have to admit that I would have problems because I believe my paper would be at least two papers. On one side I would have to teach psychology and, on the other, philosophy. I think the only way to resolve this problem is not to negate the relation, but, on the contrary, to maintain and underline it. And what I would like to do is a psychology course, masked in the philosophy of Descartes. But I would mask it behind my role as a psychologist. I would try to change my face as much as I could, change my voice, my gestures, my attire and, later, during the hour of psychology, teach laboratory psychology, the tests, the labyrinth, the rat. I would also have to talk about psychoanalysis. This would be the second variant of the first personality. I would try to speak with the most prudence, with the most precision about what psychoanalysis is, what is very close to what is fundamental to the human sciences and at the same time furthest away from psychology of the laboratory—maybe because it isn’t well connected to the same structure of praxis.

And then, during the following hour, it would be philosophy; that is to say it would be me taking off my mask, trying to recover my voice and, in this moment, the closest to my own, trying to speak about what philosophy is.


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