Thinking and Being: Lacan versus Parmenides

Summary: There are two onto-epistemological strategies:

(1) we can either assume that there is an underlying identity of thinking and being (Parmenides) or

(2) the real is different from knowledge, and this gap or "unknowability" means that our knowledge is a historically determined construction.

The following short essay discusses the consequences of these opposing approaches for the question of truth. It was originally written in the Spring of 2000, and reworked in 2022.

When Lacan describes his epistemology, he occasionally alludes to Parmenides, whose philosophy marks the beginning of the reflection on being in Western thinking.

’There’s no such thing as a metalanguage.’ When I say that, it apparently means — no language of being. But is there being? As I pointed out last time, what I say is what there isn’t. Being is, as they say, and nonbeing is not. There is or there isn’t. Being is merely pre­sumed in certain words — “individual,” for instance, and “substance.” In my view, it is but a fact of what is said (un fait de dit). The word “subject” that I use thus takes on a different import. I distinguish myself from the language of being. (Lacan, Jacques: Encore. p. 118).

Lacan invokes Parmenides for a good reason. Parmenides formulated the identity of being and thinking as a philosophical premise more strongly than anyone who has come after him. Lacan departs in equally strong terms from this identity and reminds us that the origin of these arguments can be found at the dawn of Western philosophy. It is interesting to see how these positions, which seem to occupy opposite ends of a spectrum, reach similar conclusions about the nature of language. In the following fragment Parmenides writes:

Thinking and the thought "it is" are the same. For without the being in relation to which it is uttered you cannot find thinking. For there neither is nor shall be anything outside of being, since Moira (the Goddess of Fate) bound it to be whole and immovable. For that reason, all these will be mere names which mortals have laid down, convinced that they were true: coming-to be as well as passing away, Being as well as non-Being, and also change of place and variation of shining color. (Parmenides, Fragment 8, 34-41. Translation of Diels-Kranz.)

The "Parmenidean absolutism,” which contradicts our experience of change, argues that if it is unthinkable that being is not, then there is also no contingent being, because it would contain the possibility to not be. The syllogism runs as follows:

(1) Only that which can be thought can be.

(2) Non-being cannot be thought. Therefore:

(3) Non-being cannot be.

The problem with this syllogism lies in sentence (2). If Parmenides would assume the possibility that (2) is true, then the conclusion would not be necessary and he could permit the possibility of contingent being. But if it is possible to think non-being, then the existence of thought is independent from being. The Lacanian system elaborates exactly this possibility by choosing the creative power of signifiers as an absolute starting point: “Nothing is, if not insofar as it is said that it is.” (Lacan, Encore, p. 135)

What can we say about the realm where thinking precedes being? Lacan turns towards mathematical formalization to articulate the “being” of thought. What enables the foundational power of language is the “existence” of structure, and this existence is given through the act of speaking, through enunciation.

Lacan can agree with Parmenides that “thinking and the thought ‘it is’ are the same,” but from a diametrically opposed starting point. Being is a consequence of what is said, for Lacan, it is constituted in the act of speaking. For Parmenides, thought follows from being; it is not different from it. The consequence of this extraordinary logic is the fact that Parmenides argues like a Lacanian: “being as well as non-being,” “coming-to be as well as passing away,” are “mere names” and we are convinced that they are true.

Parmenides comes to this conclusion because he eliminates the difference between thought and being. This leads him to the puzzling conclusion that being is eternally identical with itself; it cannot change.

There is left but this single path to tell thee of: namely, that being is. And on this path there are many proofs that being is without beginning and indestructible; it is universal, existing alone, immovable and without end; nor ever was it nor will it be, since it now is, all together, one, and continuous. For what generating of it wilt thou seek out? From what did it grow, and how? I will not permit thee to say or to think that it came from not-being; for it is impossible to think or to say that not-being is. What thine would then have stirred it into activity that it should arise from not-being later rather than earlier? So it is necessary that being either is absolutely or is not. Nor will the force of the argument permit that anything spring from being except being itself.“ (In: Fairbanks, Arthur, ed. and trans.: Parmenides. Fragments and Commentary. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1898), p. 93).

If we cannot think Otherness any more, all other distinctions disappear as well. If nothing is outside of being, there is no change: If being comes into existence, it must have come either from being, or from not-being. Nothing can come from non-being, therefore it must have come from being. But then it was already the same.

It is possible that Parmenides articulated a religious experience in his concept of “being”: “…Being is without beginning and indestructible; it is universal, existing alone, immovable and without end; nor ever was it nor will it be, since it now is, all together, one, and continuous.” The perspective that expresses itself in these words views reality as a whole; against our experience of a continuously changing world, he posits a reality that is undivided, infinite, and changeless, without beginning and end and without causation, a reality that we never leave and from which we are not separate. Against it, our experience of the world becomes mere illusion, an inconsequential play of semblances. It may be that the intuition that expresses itself in the Parmenidean concept of ultimate reality is akin to Lacan’s articulation of “there is something of One. (Lacan, Encore, p. 128.) Parmenides’ being is the Lacanian realm of the signifier, and what we cannot think is, for Lacan, not non-being, but the lost real, that which Parmenides would call “being.” It is astonishing that a philosophy so obviously caught in an impasse was nevertheless so profoundly influential for the whole tradition of Western philosophy.

Parmenides assumes that there is a complete and total disjunction between the “it is” and the “it is not.” They are absolute opposites, and there is no middle ground for Parmenides, because he is not willing to yield on a principle of logic that is called the “excluded third.” He produces his philosophy by combining this logical principle with a notion of existence that utilizes being only as a one-term predicate: it is.

Plato, Aristotle and the entire tradition of scholastic philosophy after them have been busy trying to differentiate the disjunction: between absolute being and non-being there is contingent being. They proceed by replacing non-being with otherness. For something to change, requires that it is both different from itself and identical. Any change, said Aristotle long before Hegel, requires the unity of difference and identity. Everything that exists is always subjected to a temporal tension which affects the constitution of its identity. Whatever is exists only in this fleeting moment of presence between the not-yet of the future and the no-more of the past. We therefore have to assume that everything that exists is already a composite; not in the sense of two types of material, but through a complementarity of principles: matter and form determine each other and exist only through each other (“hylemorphism”). Without this assumption, according to Aristotle and Thomas, we cannot think fundamental change in nature.

Lacan decides to take another approach. Instead of trying to find a philosophical justification for the middle ground between being and non-being, he adopts a completely different epistemological position. Starting with Parmenides, the philosophical tradition is based on the assumption that there is self-consciousness, a being that is aware of itself. This assumption, that being as transparent self-consciousness can think, creates all kinds of fictitious philosophical problems. Lacan departs from it and therefore he returns repeatedly to Parmenides. He is not the first thinker who departs from the tradition in this way; the first philosopher who fundamentally questioned the philosophical tradition in terms of its relevance for the concrete thinking subject was Nietzsche.

The Lacanian shift reintroduces the subject and the Other into a dimension of philosophy that is solely focused on the attempt to think being correctly. The overlooked fact in these attempts to think the origin is the human’s possibility to negate itself. From Hamlet’s obsessive-compulsive hesitation in “to be, or not to be” to the last words of the blind, betrayed and dying Oedipus in Sophocles’ “Oedipus in Colonnus” “rather not to be…” we encounter a dimension that is simply lacking in the philosophy of being or in science, but that is a sine qua non for any human thinking whatsoever. Why not use this condition that manifests itself first of all as a fundamental negativity, in order to interrogate Western philosophy and theology? It is, for this reason, that Lacan insists on the signifier as the starting point for his system.

He departs from Parmenides and from the whole tradition of philosophy when he says: “I distinguish myself from the language of being. That implies that there may be verbal fiction …fiction on the basis of the word. (Encore, p. 118) Philosophy is fiction for Lacan; a thinking that claims to grasp being, or the structure of being, is delusional. What was designated by the concept of being in the discourse of truth is now seen as fictional. The basis of our fiction of being, or the universe, is the existence of the word. Lacan balances the potential idealism in his position with the assumption of an un-symbolizable real that cannot be avoided. He asks polemically, “…how can being know?” (Encore, p. 139.) If we adjust the question by subtracting the fiction of being, what remains is the somewhat tautological question “What does it mean: to know? and furthermore: is all knowledge fictional?” We know something about knowledge by examining the structure of its composition, but the knowledge itself comes without any certainty. Only knowledge that has a mathematical structure, that can be “integrally transmitted,” can withstand the critique of knowledge as well as the empiricist critiques. Even the criteria for the testing of scientific knowledge are built on the requirement to transmit knowledge (repeatability of the results, etc). (Encore, p. 141 Fairbanks, Arthur, ed. and trans.) The notion of structure allows Lacan to introduce a foundation for knowledge without the recourse to being; this approach brings him into close proximity to Pythagoras, Archimedes and Plato.

To systematically start from the signifier alone constitutes a fundamental turning-away from the philosophical tradition since Parmenides. How would such an approach respond to traditional philosophy? In the case of Parmenides, one could say that the statement “it is not” is already a self-contradiction (“…it is impossible to think or to say that non-being is" (Fairbanks, Arthur, ed. and trans.: Parmenides. Fragments and Commentary. London: Paul, Trubner, 1898), p. 93), but only if “being” is understood as a one-term predicate. The contradiction does not occur if it is used as a two-term predicate, in the way we normally use it, like “being is not infinite.” Parmenides’ philosophy is the result of a certain usage of language, and, therefore, Lacan can say: “It is precisely because he was a poet that Parmenides says what he says to us in the least stupid of manners. Otherwise, the idea that being is and nonbeing is not, I don’t know what that means to you, but personally I find that stupid.” (Encore, p. 22)

We use one-term predicates for the description of certain sensual qualities, like colors or tastes (“this is red,” etc.) One could argue that Parmenides uses the notion of “being” in analogy to a sensual quality. (See for instance Ricken, Friedo: Philosophie der Antike, Stuttgart 1993, p. 38.) that his philosophy represents an impasse because he fails to distinguish clearly enough between thinking and perception.[ref]See Aristotle, who argues that for the “old philosophers” thinking and perception were identical and mind was literally understood in analogy to the ability to see. (De anima III,3, 472a 21f).[/ref] The act of perception requires an object; without it there is no perception. When one sees nothing, one doesn’t see, and similarly, when one doesn’t think being, one doesn’t think.

There is another linguistic reason that explains the form of Parmenidean philosophy: In Greek, the verb “to think” (νοєîν) requires an accusative object and not an independent clause. (See: Ricken, Friedo: Philosophie der Antike, Stuttgart 1993, p. 39.) The sentence “I think being” has the same syntax like “I see the tree,” but in English, French or German we say “I think that…” and not “I think the tree.” In Greek, to think being primarily means to think an unstructured content, and not a proposition. To the statement: “One cannot think of what is not” one would have to respond: What do you mean with “is,” and what sort of beingness are you referring to? If we can think (and say) that something is not the case, did we not think non-being?

In Encore, Lacan uses a variation of this argument that demonstrates that he is familiar with arguments from Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language as well as Austin’s speech act theory: “I think of you. That does not mean that I think you.”[ref]Encore, p. 104. Bruce Fink translates the sentence less literally: “I think of you. That does not mean that I conceptualize you.”[/ref] And similarly, we don’t say: I love of you. And Lacan adds: “’I think of you’ already constitutes a clear objection to everything that could be called ‘human sciences’…”[ref]Encore, p.104[/ref]

“I think of you” implies a recognition of the other person as subject, and thus of the irreducibility of Otherness. Any science whose object is the human being (like psychology) will necessarily miss this dimension of inter-subjectivity in which everything gets defined as a function of speech in relation to the Other. Lacan articulates this dimension of language through his insistence on the Other as the locus of truth, as a space rather than an entity. It is the space that results from the unfolding of the rules of discourse, a topological space emerging from the relations between signifiers who represent subjects. To apply a spatial metaphor to this dimension of structural inter- and intra-subjectivity has some advantages, for instance the fact that we are accustomed to think of space as empty, but nevertheless “there”. It is not completely nothing, but pure extension, and as such an age-old metaphor for the mind as well as for the nonbeing to which we must give some existence in order to explain contingent being as well as fundamental change. Space is that transcendent quality of extension which allows the emergence of Otherness. Space also allows the manifestation of difference: here and there. Time is a function of space if we attempt to measure movement: A year is the time it takes for the earth to completely circle the sun.

Philosophy emerges in this space created by language, and Lacanian theory allows us to examine the illusion that philosophy speaks adequately about the real. At the same time, can we abandon this attempt? Can we be content with a theoretical self-restraint that follows from the realization that the real cannot by symbolized as such?

We can now better understand how Lacan’s epistemological shift leads to a discourse on philosophy; and why his discourse has to produce a fundamental cut with the philosophical tradition – why Lacan refuses to classify his own discourse as philosophical to the point that he even refuses the label “system” for his theory. It is not “…an ontology, or, what amounts to the same thing, a system.”[ref]Encore, p.70[/ref] If Parmenides affirms the identity of being and thought, and if this identity becomes the basis for the concept of truth in one form or another, then he (and everybody after him) does so only because he desires this identity. What we are really faced with is the rift, the non-identity, the gap, or the difference between the thinking subject and the real. We are faced with the non-identity not just in the relation between subject and world, but even in the relation of the subject to itself. Our identity, our sense of who we are, is a defense against a very profound experience of loss which awaits us whenever we undertake the serious attempt to find out more about ourselves. The history of philosophy unfolds as a pursuit of the desire to overcome the sense of anguish, the final “helplessness” in relation to our lives. The history of Western philosophy culminates in the triumphant thinking of Hegel, where the thinking subject understands itself to be identical with world-spirit. One further turn of dialectical thinking – dialectic against itself – produces the negative dialectic of Adorno, the abolition of any philosophical system whatsoever, or the systematic anti-system of Lacan.

An argument that could be raised at this point against Lacan can be put into this question: Isn’t Lacan’s epistemology a disguised form of platonic idealism? Ideas (signifiers) are alone real; things exist to the degree to which they participate in the ideas, and knowledge stems from a primordial kinship between the soul and the idea (the ego is an effect of the signifier). True knowledge is a form of remembering or recollection (anamnesis).[ref]The parallelism between the Platonic way of gaining knowledge and the process of psychoanalysis is worth mentioning: the analysand also carries all the knowledge about her life, but she presupposes that the analyst knows more (this surplus is equivalent to the transference). In the process of psychoanalysis the analysand will work through this transference and therefore gain the knowledge (in moments and phases of remembering and re-evaluating one’s own childhood) that she at the beginning located in the analyst, the “subject supposed to know”. The process of psychoanalysis is therefore structurally similar to the platonic anamnesis.[/ref]

These similarities, however, cannot hide a fundamental difference: The starting point for Lacan’s approach to philosophy is not the coincidence of idea and thing, or knowledge and being; it is this coincidence as a problem. “The discordance between knowledge and being is my subject.”[ref]Encore, p. 120[/ref] The whole Lacanian system evolves from this small difference. Plato, and with him most of the history of philosophy, attempt to produce true knowledge, or certainty. The Lacanian system distinguishes itself from the tradition by asking: Why is there this insufficiency in knowledge?

The fact that we do seem to know a lot about the world leads us to assume that there is knowledge of being, but for Lacan this is an unwarranted conclusion. Being is for him the correlate to knowledge, it is the effect that the signifier has in the real. “The discourse of being presumes that being is, and that is what holds it.”[ref]Encore, p. 119[/ref] Plato’s forms represent a knowledge of being,[ref]“Form is the knowledge of being”. Encore, p. 119[/ref] but for Lacan this knowledge does not represent being, it has the opposite effect – it forecloses the real. The assumption of a knowability of the real through the mediation of the idea is based on a theory of truth that merely claims the adequation as the only possibility to conceive of an epistemology that is free of contradictions.

If Lacan claims the discordance between knowledge and being as his subject, he takes an epistemological position that is diametrically opposed to the most common theory of truth, the correspondence theory. This theory, which is customarily attributed to Aristotle and which can be traced back to Plato’s “Theaetetus” and the “Sophist,” claims in short that a proposition is true if it corresponds to the facts. Correspondence theory has survived in various formulations until today, not so much because of the strength of its supportive arguments, but because of the weakness of the alternatives. It is intuitively the most acceptable theory. Nobody would deny that the real somehow affects us in perception. We are part of the real ourselves, but the question is how this exposure or inclusion can become knowledge. Lacan argues that the birth of the subject amounts to the experience of trauma and loss, and therefore knowledge can be considered as a defense against the traumatic impact of the real.

Correspondence theory is somewhat independent from particular ontological theories about nature or about the structure of reality. Its major flaw is that it is essentially tautological because it does not differentiate between truth and its justification (the test or the criterion for truth-statements.) The argument is circular, because the only criterion for the truth of a statement is the recourse to reality, but it is this relationship that is in question when we ask for the truth of a proposition.

Its strength is the fact that it avoids making truth dependent on the psyche (as in pragmatic or relativistic theories of truth, or in the coherence theory). For the correspondence theory truth does not depend on the structure of the mind. The basic idea behind the correspondence theory is a mirror model of the mind: it reflects the real. The model implies that the mind is essentially passive: it receives sensory data like images and then represents those images linguistically. Obviously the mind does more than that: In order to recognize similarity, identity, or difference, there must be an active principle in the mind that sorts, categorizes and compares the stream of sensory data. Where do those criteria come from? Are they inherent in the mind, or do they have a basis in perception? The classical answer, devised by Aristotle and adopted by Thomas, is twofold. According to their moderate metaphysical realism, concepts have a foundation in reality (“fundamentum in re”): Intelligibility means that things have general traits that allow their categorization in relation to a firm ontological structure (for instance Aristotle’s theory of categories). In addition to the intelligibility hypothesis, the act of recognition requires an “active intellect” (“intellectus agens.”)[ref]Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae: “According to the opinion of Plato, there is no need for an active intellect in order to make things actually intelligible; but perhaps in order to provide intellectual light to the intellect, as will be explained further on. For Plato supposed that the forms of natural things subsisted apart from matter, and consequently that they are intelligible: since a thing is actually intelligible from the very fact that it is immaterial. And he called such forms "species or ideas"; from a participation of which, he said that even corporeal matter was formed, in order that individuals might be naturally established in their proper genera and species: and that our intellect was formed by such participation in order to have knowledge of the genera and species of things. But since Aristotle did not allow that forms of natural things exist apart from matter, and as forms existing in matter are not actually intelligible; it follows that the natures of forms of the sensible things which we understand are not actually intelligible. Now nothing is reduced from potentiality to act except by something in act; as the senses are made actual by what is actually sensible. We must therefore assign on the part of the intellect some power to make things actually intelligible, by abstraction of the species from material conditions. And such is the necessity for an active intellect.” ST I, q.79, a. 3c.[/ref] Knowledge is shaped by the real as well as by an active power inherent in the mind. The mind acts as the principle that actualizes the form within the sensory image that we receive from the thing and thus reveals its suchness, or what in the tradition is called its “essence” (“Quidditas”). Thomas says:

(Aristotle)…contends that the knowledge of our mind comes partly from within and partly from without…And according to this, it is true that the mind gets its knowledge of sensible objects from sensible things; even though it is the soul itself that forms the likenesses of things in itself. For, it does so insofar as the forms abstracted from sensible things are made intelligible actually by the light of the agent intellect, so that they can be received in the possible intellect. (Thomas Aquinas, Disputed Questions on Truth, in: Popkin, Richard (ed): The Columbia History of Western Philosophy, New York, 1999, p. 253.)

For Thomas, the epistemic process from perception to recognition has two phases: the agent intellect (intellectus agens) determines what something is according to its inherent form. This turn towards the sensory image (“conversio ad phantasma”) produces the thing in the form in which we recognize it passively (“intellectus possibilis.”) It follows that we find some truly astonishing formal similarities between the Thomistic “intellectus agens” and Lacan’s unconscious that is structured like a language!

Yet, Lacan’s sweeping critique of philosophy is largely based on his rejection of the adequation theory of truth. There are two major reasons for this rejection. First, it rests on the unwarranted assumption of an intelligible world. This hypothesis was not shared by Heraklit; and after a long period of acceptance (because it served as the support for the Christian notion of God) it became a fundamental question again for Kant, whose “Critique of Pure Reason” is an attempt to explain why the world appears intelligible to us. Kant therefore re-introduces the possibility of thinking that the world is not intelligible: we cannot know anything about the “thing in itself.” On the same trajectory, Lacan declares that “…there was noth­ing but fantasy regarding knowledge until the advent of the most modern science.”[ref]Encore, p. 126f[/ref]

The correspondence theory utilizes a mirror model between subject and world; the removal of the mirror leaves us in the dark concerning the real.

The second reason for Lacan’s rejection of the adequation theory is the elimination of the subjective dimension of truth. It assumes that the knowing subject is self-transparent. What is the difference between a proposition “p” and “p is true”? Against deflationary theories of truth, which claim that there is no difference, one can argue that the second proposition, “p is true” is a proposition about a proposition: it adds not more content, but another dimension. This dimension is no longer independent from the subject. Whereas traditional theories of truth only consider the polar opposites true/false, Lacan considers the opposition truth/lie. The reason for his emphasis on the “I am lying” example is exactly this: If one only thinks of the relationship between concept and reality for the question of truth, as the adequation theory does, then one has already foreclosed the dimension where the question of truth gains its relevance for us: the human dimension. Subsequently, on the level of concept/reality alone, the “I am lying” becomes a paradox, because “I” can only be understood as an entity that thinks: being has ontological priority. (This is the shadow of Parmenides.) The contradiction dissolves if one separates “I” from being; the separation shifts the dimension of truth from concept/reality to subject/Other (understood as the locus of the signifier) or to the relationship subject/language. In order to gain such a two-dimensional view of the concept of “truth” one has to accept the priority of the signifier in relation to the signified as a well as in relation to the subject.

Representatives of the adequatio theory realized that although truth is always truth for somebody, it cannot be subjective. They argue that the subject has to be excluded from the definition of truth because we live in a common reality (the facts of the world are the same for all of us). The exclusion of the subject is done with the assumption that the mind – as mirror – is self-transparent and that the subject in its particularity can be separated from the epistemic process. Because human consciousness can be self-referential it is easy to assume that the “I” is identical with itself; the next step is the subtraction of the subject from the equation of truth, even if it is the subject that enunciates the truth-statement. For Lacan, then, the correspondence theory hides the deeper split between the subject and the real as well as the split within the subject itself. What remains is the construction of a common reality.

For every speaking being, the cause of its desire is, in terms of structure, strictly equivalent, so to speak, to its bending, that is, to what I have called its division as subject. That is what explains why the subject could believe for so long that the world knew as much about things as he did. The world is symmetrical to the subject — the world of what I last time called thought is the equivalent, the mirror image, of thought. That is why there was noth­ing but fantasy regarding knowledge until the advent of the most modern science."[ref]Encore, p. 126f[/ref]

We found this statement in connection with Lacan’s demonstration of a universal solution for the Borromean knot in the rings of string that form a closed chain. The assumption of a correspondence between subject and world is a result of the unity of structure, its “oneness,” and builds the basis of the notion of God. The fantasy behind the correspondence theory is naturally supplemented with the belief that the reason for the intelligibility of reality and the order which we find in nature (“ordo naturae”), can only be a subject on the other side - God. The structures we seem to find in nature, causality, directed evolution, ordered units, etc., allow Thomas to construct his proofs for the existence of God based on the argument that those structures cannot be the causes for themselves. The adequatio assumption is an integral part of Thomistic philosophy and theology as well as a foundation for the claim that a rational defense of the Christian belief is possible. Theology also begins with epistemology, and if Lacan follows Freud in treating religion as a symptom, he has no other choice but to revise the epistemological foundation of a philosophy that has served for almost two-thousand years as a complement to the Judeo-Christian faith.

The Christian conception of God as the creator of the universe (ex nihilo), transcendent and yet immanent to the world, results from a major development in the history of Western philosophy and theology - the merger between Christian theology and Greek philosophy. The philosophers who created the synthesis based on a theism that has lasted for the last 1500 years were primarily Augustine and Thomas Aquinas[ref]You know the crazy story which, as far as I am concerned, causes the delirium of my admiration? I am lying in (the shape of) an eight on the floor when I read St. Thomas. Because this is extraordinarily well done.” Jacques Lacan, Encore, French edition, p.103, my translation.[/ref] Lacan’s epistemological shift is one more indication that we have reached a point in history in which this synthesis dissolves.

For Aristotle’s philosophy to have been reinjected by Saint Thomas into what one might call the Christian conscience, if that had any meaning, is something that can only be explained by the fact that Christians – well, it’s the same with psychoanalysts – abhor what was revealed to them. And they are right. [ref]Jacques Lacan, Encore, p. 114[/ref] Christian theologians had no difficulties interpreting Plato’s and Aristotle’s philosophy in the light of the Christian belief. If the adequation between being and thinking requires the subject’s participation in being (“Methexis,” “Seinsteilhabe,”) then it is easy to utilize the same thought for the relation between living creatures and God. God becomes the ultimate being, and everything that is created strives for its own self-perfection. Thomas adapted this Platonic concept for Christian philosophy,[ref]Thomas, Summa, I, 44, 1: “I answer that, It must be said that every being in any way existing is from God. For whatever is found in anything by participation, must be caused in it by that to which it belongs essentially, as iron becomes ignited by fire. Now it has been shown above (3, 4) when treating of the divine simplicity that God is the essentially self-subsisting Being; and also it was shown (11, 3,4) that subsisting being must be one; as, if whiteness were self-subsisting, it would be one, since whiteness is multiplied by its recipients. Therefore all beings apart from God are not their own being, but are beings by participation. Therefore it must be that all things which are diversified by the diverse participation of being, so as to be more or less perfect, are caused by one First Being, Who possesses being most perfectly. Hence Plato said (Parmen. xxvi) that unity must come before multitude; and Aristotle said (Metaph. ii, text 4) that whatever is greatest in being and greatest in truth, is the cause of every being and of every truth; just as whatever is the greatest in heat is the cause of all heat.”[/ref] but in Lacan’s eyes it runs counter to the Jewish tradition, which does not conceptualize that which is imperfect in relation to the highest Being (“esse ipsum”) but rather leaves it isolated, in a state of radical imperfection. The Jewish response to the contingency of the human being is theological and not philosophical: God chose his people, as is testified according to the Jewish belief in the covenants between God, Abraham and Moses.

If we go back to the mirror device that Lacan introduces in his essay “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience”[ref]Ecrits, p.1 to 7.[/ref], we have seen that the subject constitutes its unity only in relation to an Other. The doctrine of the concept’s participation in being can be understood as a variation of this model of the constitution of the subject’s identity.[ref]See Plato, Phaidon 73 e 9-10. Plato uses here metaphors like the “original”, and the “copy”, or “image” to describe the participation.[/ref] The Lacanian analysis relegates the correspondence theory, the core of two-thousand years of Western philosophy, to the realm of the imaginary: “being” is a dream of the subject, but many generations of intellectuals have believed in it, and it still works well.

Lacan reveals the underside of the dream when he says that there is a “hatred towards being” and therefore implicitly towards God as well: “We are, concerning the issue of hatred, so short-breathed, that nobody realizes that a hatred, a solid hatred, is addressed towards being, to the very being of someone who is not necessarily God.”[ref]Jacques Lacan, Encore, French Edition, p. 91. (American Edition, p. 99)[/ref] The mirror model implies that aggression is structurally built into the very notion of identity, because our image is always in the Other, at whose place we find another human being, normally those who are very close to us. The struggle to be (or to become) oneself is at the same time always a struggle against somebody else: Here lies the root of "Hegel" ’s Master-slave dialectic, and we have seen that, for Lacan, the escape is not the acceptance of slavery and the gradual liberation from it through work, but the activation of the symbolic dimension.

This analysis also sheds some light on the fact that Lacan is one of the few clinicians who attaches a great importance to Freud’s hypothesis of the death drive. The clinical observations, which Freud interpreted with his concept of the death drive, demonstrate a “hatred towards being” within the individual –a revolt against the signifier via the signifier. The death drive represents the subject’s possibility to negate itself. Parmenides’ insistence on “One cannot think of what is not” (and with him the tradition that glorifies being as God’s creation) attempts not only to exclude the possibility of radical non-being but to declare it as an impossibility. And if exclusion does not work, there is also the possibility to declare that the power of negation is an evil force, the devil’s entrance door.


[1] Lacan, Jacques: Encore. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX. On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge. Translated by Bruce Fink. New York: Norton, 1998.