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.