How would you answer the question ‘What is psychoanalysis?’ For anyone interested in psychoanalysis, having to explain concisely what psychoanalysis is and what it involves can elicit more than a little uncertainty and perhaps even some dread. If someone who knew something about psychoanalysis was asked this question in polite company how should they respond?

First comes the problem that psychoanalysis means different things to different people. To some it is primarily a theory and to others a practice. Moreover there are a huge number of rival psychoanalytic schools, each claiming loyalty to their own prominent thinkers who in turn claim loyalty to Freud’s work. Indeed, the history of the psychoanalytic movement itself can be summed up as little more than the history of splits, schisms, disagreements and partisan rivalries.

To paraphrase the famous quip attributed to Martin Mull, speaking about psychoanalysis is like dancing about architecture. Is it too much to ask to give a pithy response; is psychoanalysis a subject that cannot be done justice with a quick answer? But how then would you go about answering the question ‘what is psychoanalysis?’

In the New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis in 1932 Freud himself gives a surprising answer: don’t. By this time in his career Freud had grown weary of the scorn so often visited upon him when discussing psychoanalysis with those who knew little of it. A response to the question of ‘what is psychoanalysis’ will most often, for Freud then and for anyone called upon to answer today, have to take the form of a defence of psychoanalysis as much as an explanation of it. So Freud’s advice to people who are asked by their friends and colleagues to give an account of psychoanalysis is therefore to avoid the question. He writes,


“If you are so imprudent as to betray the fact that you know something about the subject, they fall upon you with one accord, ask for information and explanations…. You may perhaps expect an introduction to psycho-analysis to give you instructions, too, on what arguments you should use to correct these obvious errors about analysis, what books you should recommend to give more accurate information, or even what examples you should bring up in the discussion from your reading or experience in order to alter the company’s attitude. I must beg you to do none of this. It would be useless. The best plan would be for you to conceal your superior knowledge altogether. If that is no longer possible, limit yourself to saying that, so far as you can make out, psycho-analysis is a special branch of knowledge, very hard to understand and to form an opinion on, which is concerned with very serious things, so that a few jokes will not bring one to close quarters with it – and that it would be better to find some other plaything for social entertainment” (SE XXII, 136-137).


When Jacques-Alain Miller, the prominent Lacanian analyst (general editor of Lacan’s work and the latter’s son-in-law), was asked this same question in an interview given to the French magazine Le Point in 2005, he chose to answer from the perspective of what goes on in a psychoanalysis:


“A psychoanalysis consists in speaking freely, in not hushing the ideas that go through your head, like we’re doing right now. Little by little, from within your own words, another meaning forms and surprises you, then falls apart, taking the pain with it. Usually, you discover just how conditioned you have been by apparently minute elements encountered in hazardous circumstances: things from childhood, meetings, certain words said to you, and we keep coming back to them until the malevolent charge of these elements softens. Each case is different”. - Jacques-Alain Miller, Response to the Anti-Freudians, Le Point, 22.09.05.


This strikes me as an excellent response. Rather than trying to define psychoanalysis as a whole, as a massive theoretical edifice, Miller talks about what happens when an individual goes into a psychoanalysis. His response is jargon-free but the focus is still on the one aspect that is sacred to any psychoanalysis: the speech of the analysand. As Freud says in opening the Introductory Lectures, the patient’s words are the only tools of the psychoanalyst: “Nothing takes place in a psycho-analytic treatment but an interchange of words between the patient and the analyst” (SE XV, 17).


What the analyst wants to communicate to the person on the couch is that what he or she has to say has a special and peculiar value, even if that value is not immediately apparent. Lacan refers to this as the ‘desire of the analyst’, a phrase that we can understand its most simple terms as the desire for the analysand to speak; the desire, communicated from analyst to analysand, simply for more material.

In privileging the act of speech the key part of Miller’s statement to be emphasised here is “… from within your own words, another meaning forms and surprises you”. Everyone that has undergone a psychoanalysis will recognise in this description the element of surprise that seizes you when you realise that you have used the same words, the same signifiers, to describe two things you believed were completely unconnected. In short, the experience is that of being spoken rather than speaking. What speaks is Other to you; Other to what you tell yourself about yourself. Whilst this might sound melodramatic, in most cases (at least in my own experience) the result is spontaneous laughter. Cormac Gallagher has summed up this experience quite nicely:

“…The psychoanalyst is in the first instance someone who invites the person who comes to him, or to her, to speak and by the openness of that invitation provides a setting in which the subject who takes it up may be surprised at what he finds himself saying and even more surprised at the fact that the saying, when it is addressed to someone who listens from a certain apparently artificial position, can, in the happiest outcome, replace a repetitive and highly predictable symptom” (Cormac Gallagher, ‘The Psychologist as Psychoanalyst’, available here).


But what some other therapies – and therapists – find so difficult to accept about psychoanalysis is that these words, signifiers, can organise an entire psychology and produce bodily effects. This is the basis for Lacan’s most well-known maxim: the unconscious is structured like a language.


Both Lacan and Miller privilege this recognition of the signifier made material in psychoanalysis. I want to end this post with two quotations, one from Lacan and one from Miller, that quite elegantly attest to this idea of the primacy of the signifier. First, Lacan:


“Psychoanalytic experience has rediscovered in man the imperative of the Word as the law that has shaped him in its image. It exploits the poetic function of language to give his desire its symbolic mediation. May this experience finally enable you to understand that the whole reality of its effects lies in the gift of speech; for it is through this gift that all reality has come to man and through its ongoing action that he sustains reality” (Ecrits, 322).

“It is not the individual, not the ego, but the pure function of the signifier, and this is perhaps, at the outset, the most difficult thing to get at. I would call it the discipline of the signifier in analytic practice. There you know nothing of the answer to the question: what is the subject? You don’t know. On the level of pure analytic experience, we only have access to S1, S2 [a string of words, one signifier following another]. That is to say, to what is said by the patient” (Jacques-Alain Miller, ‘A and a in Clinical Structures’ available in The Symptom, no. 6, Spring 2005).


Perhaps what Freud found so difficult about explaining psychoanalysis was doing justice to the immense theoretical edifice that he had labouriously and painstakingly built up over the course of his working life. When psychoanalysis is considered a relation of speech and language, a “discipline of the signifier” as Miller calls it, Freud’s problem is not exactly solved, but the foundation of psychoanalysis in the function of speech and language is crystallised, both theoretically and in analytic practice.


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