Little science is nonsense

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1504


Excerpt selected by the authors of the recently released book

The scientificity of psychoanalysis

“My thought is the following: – the pythons of totality and meaning, the speaking alligators of theologism, speak the same language as the blind rhinos of epistemologism” (Bento Prado Jr.).

“Intimacy” is not the term that best describes the relationship between psychoanalysis and science. Several factors contribute to this. First of all, we need to be absolutely clear that, in the vast majority of attacks against the scientificity of psychoanalysis, the debate is never, or almost never, about science. The lack of empirical evidence of theoretical hypotheses is discussed; the impossibility of experimental verification of statements and concepts is alleged, with the expectation of finding, for example, neural correlates of postulated psychic instances and processes; the lack of evidence of clinical efficacy, etc., is criticized. These are the main equivocal or fallacious arguments mobilized to assert that psychoanalysis is a pseudoscience and a fraud. It doesn't take long for the discussion to descend into the moral disqualification of its founder.

Most of the time, what is at stake are not questions of a strictly epistemological nature, involving validation or justification and so on. With honorable exceptions, what is at stake are political disputes, which involve prestige, recognition and insertion in various spaces, especially in academia, health services and the multibillion-dollar mental health market. This is the first thing we must keep in mind before responding to this or that disguised provocation, or not so disguised, under the mask of noble concern for the validity or effectiveness of psychoanalysis.

In general, questions that cannot be answered are poorly formulated. We need to teach the fly to get out of the bottle, as Wittgenstein said. Lacan preferred, for example, to show that science is a condition of psychoanalysis, but that it occupies an ultimate position in relation to it, that is, at the same time of exteriority and intimacy. Although supportive of scientific rationality, psychoanalysis deals with the trash can of science. The clinic proves this to us daily: “I'm looking for you because the doctor said my problem has an emotional background” or: “The psychiatrist gave me a prescription without listening to my story” or: “I tried cognitive-behavioral therapy and the therapist recommended me sessions mindfulness and breathing.”

Let it be clear once and for all: there is no scientific theory of science. The scientist does science; Those who produce theories about scientific practice are epistemologists, anthropologists, historians, philosophers and so on. When a scientist judges the scientificity of a field that he does not know, he does not issue a scientific judgment, but rather an ideological judgment. Scientism is the name given to the ideological illusion that all knowledge, to be valid, is or must be scientific.

In what follows, we are inspired by the central question posed by Lacan: what would a science that included psychoanalysis be? Psychoanalysis is an event that requires an expansion of the concept of reason, not its denial. In fact, those who may be concerned about contemporary obscurantism and denialism should be concerned with the fact that it was not psychoanalysts or their institutions, but an important part of the medical profession that endorsed the obscurantist discourse on chloroquine, for example. Psychoanalysis never abandoned reason. On the contrary, it proposes a reason that includes the unconscious.

Defining what constitutes science and establishing criteria for scientificity is not an easy task, precisely for this reason speeches that ignore historical controversies and the multiplicity of antagonistic positions, choosing a unitary and unequivocal version to demarcate science from non-science, are often to advocate one position among others, without presenting or justifying the partiality of their own position. Philosophers of science who have undertaken this task have often achieved embarrassing results. Too strict scientific criteria often leave out branches of knowledge traditionally associated with our image of science.

Emphasis on the empirical verifiability of propositions or restriction to statements that are to some degree dependent on metaphysical assumptions could generate the dilemma of, for example, either rejecting the scientificity of certain sectors of mathematics or renouncing rigid scientificity protocols. However, criteria that are too loose end up implying the counterintuitive acceptance of certain practices that could hardly be seen as scientific, such as astrology, to take an extreme case.

Current epistemology seems to move further and further away from the problem of demarcation, that is, increasingly the problem of determining general criteria capable of epistemically demarcating the boundaries between science and non-science, or of proposing rational criteria for choosing between rival theories. , has shown its limitations. This applies not only to the human and social sciences but also to branches historically better identified with scientific activity, such as the so-called hard sciences. Not even the strategy of moving from prescriptivism towards descriptivism managed to overcome the aporias outlined above.

Ultimately, this progressive abandonment of universalist epistemological criteria and the recognition of the normative character of the demarcation ends up coming up against the also undesirable relativization of scientific knowledge and the adoption of non-epistemic criteria, of a psychological, sociological or ideological nature, such as adherence to beliefs, intra-paradigmatic consensus or social utility.

A second order of difficulties concerns the definition of what psychoanalysis is. The theoretical and practical contours of psychoanalysis itself are not that clear. Except for a more or less vague feeling of affiliation with Freud, there is no consensus regarding the meaning to be given to some of his fundamental concepts, just as there is no consensus even regarding the objectives of analytical treatment and the limits of its application. .

Currents as distinct as Kleinian, Winnicottian, Lacanian, not to mention the most heteroclite hybridisms, diverge not only from the point of view of theoretical assumptions and techniques, but also from what is understood by process or analytical cure. We have seen that the very definition of the field of psychodynamic psychotherapies can be inferred from the number of Freudian theses rejected by the different configurations it admits. These difficulties are even more pronounced when it comes to extending psychoanalysis to non-classical clinical devices, such as psychoanalysis applied to hospitals or institutions, or when it comes to incorporating techniques from other psychotherapeutic traditions or providing psychoanalytic conceptual support. to other therapeutic practices.

However, even if the difficulties in defining what is science and what is psychoanalysis could be overcome, there would still remain the task of establishing relevance criteria and tolerance limits for attributing the predicate “science” to the “psychoanalysis” argument. Therefore, it makes no sense to defend the scientificity of psychoanalysis, nor to repudiate it for its supposed unscientificity, even if the Lacanian notion of object was used to talk about this productive gap between psychoanalysis and science.[1]

Both positions do nothing but echo the merely endorsing character enjoyed by the word “science” in our culture, in which the status of scientificity is seen as a route to access titles of nobility of the highest value, capable of guaranteeing entry into the field of authority and gain social prestige, research funding, institutional insertion or presence in the publishing market.

As if the postulation of the scientificity of medicine, for example – or the sciences that form its theoretical basis – were free of problems and were not involved in broader cultural configurations, which encompass historical, political, ideological aspects, etc. Or does anyone still have doubts that health and illness are categories strongly dependent on social norms, moral values ​​and aesthetic prejudices? Just take a look at the historical variation in the way we represent beauty and health ideals on the body over time.

It is true that there is a more or less diffuse feeling that neurosciences or experimental psychology conform better to the epithet of standard science than other branches of psychiatry or psychology. It is necessary to emphasize that if this is – at least in part – true, it is also true that the image of science implied in this case does not correspond in any way to epistemologically neutral and universally accepted criteria. Much more of a problem of a political nature is at stake, relating to utilitarian criteria of legitimation, than epistemological criteria.

This does not mean that there are no differences between scientific and non-scientific or even pseudoscientific knowledge. It just means that we do not have epistemic criteria capable of drawing the dividing line and that, apparently, the problem, when put in generalizing terms, is poorly formulated, as we showed in the first part of this book, “Neither science nor pseudoscience” .

But the suspension of the normative character of the question by scientificity does not mean that psychoanalysis can avoid the task of explaining protocols to validate its praxis and concepts. It is necessary, however, that it can establish internal parameters, based on the very sphere of rationality that it installs. Evidently, these criteria cannot be closed in on themselves. It is necessary to confront them with the vast range of knowledge and social practices that psychoanalysis needs to deal with, without having to resort to what Mary Hesse called “cross-theory criteria"[2] or the myth of John Searle’s “default positions”.[3] It is no coincidence that psychoanalysis has never shied away from the task of also measuring itself against artistic and cultural practices, such as literature, philosophy, social theory, among others.

Although the Lacanian conception of science has nothing trivial and is absolutely central to the formalization of a theory of the subject and the object, it does not respond to the initial demand about the scientificity or otherwise of psychoanalysis. Paradoxically, this is where its strength and interest lie. Everything happens as if Lacan immediately refused to place the problem of the scientificity of psychoanalysis under the umbrella of the epistemological problem of demarcation, which is increasingly showing itself to be obsolete. However, even if the Lacanian conception of science does not take into account the complexity of current scientific production (proving to be insufficient, for example, to think about recent developments in certain sectors of biology, in which mathematics does not play such a preponderant role and the singularity contingent gains unsuspected strength), it is still relevant, as it affects the very constitution of psychoanalytic rationality.

What we would like to do here is simply to outline a model for posing the problem of the relationship between psychoanalysis and science in other terms, based on an operator internal to psychoanalysis itself that can prove to be heuristically fruitful.

Our strategy consists of evaluating whether the Lacanian notion of extimacy can be used to think about the place of psychoanalysis in relation to science. Extimacy originally designates the operation of “external inclusion”,[4] proposal in order to formalize the modality of the subject's relationship with the signifier. Is it possible to say that psychoanalysis is externally included in science and, therefore, constitutes itself as an ultimate science?[5]

Lacan's thesis is that science – due to methodological or epistemological requirements – excludes the radical singularity of the subject, while psychoanalysis – due to an imperative that is both ethical and aesthetic – welcomes it. A thesis that would be banal, were it not for the fact that the subject is an empty place where truth and contingency intersect.

Lacan's programmatic formula admits the paradox established by the equation of subjects: “To say that the subject on whom we operate in psychoanalysis can only be the subject of science perhaps involves a paradox”.[6] Thus, by operating on the subject without qualities and without self-awareness, the antinomic correlate of modern science, psychoanalysis would be, at the same time, proof and effect of the cut that science imposes. It is the modern scientific revolution that gives rise to the infinite, linguistic and contingent universe that conditions the advent of psychoanalysis.

Writing “Science” in the singular and with capital letters is justified not to unify methodologically or epistemologically the different types of science, but because science as a historical and social event is characterized: “[…] by a radical change of style over time [pace] of its progress, by the galloping form of its immission [interference, intrusion] in our world, by the chain reactions that characterize what we can call expansions of its energetics. In all of this, a change in our subject position seems radical, in a double sense: that it is inaugural in this and that science increasingly reinforces it”.[7]

Lacan does not intend to subject psychoanalysis to any pre-existing scientific method, nor does he intend to subject the scientificity of psychoanalysis to its subordination to any other pilot discipline. The properly Lacanian question is not what conditions psychoanalysis must satisfy to become a science, but, on the contrary, “what is a science that includes psychoanalysis?”.[8]

The situation can then be summarized as follows. On the one hand, psychoanalysis was born in the universe already constituted by modern science and does not dream of some idyllic state of things prior to the cut that the mathematization and infinitization of the universe impose. In this sense, psychoanalysis operates exactly on the subject produced in this universe of science. It does not aim to return to the subject something like a “lost plenitude”, a “reconciliation with the meaning of being”, or even a “state prior to the separation between subject and object”. But, if psychoanalysis operates on the subject of science, on the other hand it is not subordinated to the modern conception that identifies reason and scientificity and that makes truth an inert category from an ethical point of view, much less does it share any obsessive faith regarding exclusivity or superiority of science as a cognitive strategy. For psychoanalysis, even though nature is written in mathematical characters, that is, the symbolic can represent the real, there remains something that inexorably escapes this reduction.

A critic of analogical thinking and an enthusiast of formalization, Lacan soon encountered inevitable impasses in scientific formalization. The history of his thoughts is intertwined with the history of successive attempts to overcome the internal impasses of each formalization model adopted. The use of structure, mathematics, topology and knot theory is only part of this strategy. Right or wrong, his strategy allows us to intuit an alternative to the hegemony of the inductive or statistical method of traditional sciences, in contrast to a strategy based on formalization models. It is true that both his conception of science and his knowledge of the history of science demonstrate Lacan's intimacy with the historical epistemology of his time. If, despite this intimacy, he preferred to think of psychoanalysis as an ultimate science, it is no coincidence.

Discourse, language and reason between science and psychoanalysis

Hole that psychoanalysis introduces into science

*Christian Ingo Lenz Dunker He is a psychoanalyst and professor at the USP Psychology Institute. Author, among other books, of Finite and infinite mourning (Paidos). []

*Gilson by Paulo Moreira Iannini is a psychoanalyst, editor and professor at the Department of Psychology at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG). Author, among other books, of Style and truth in Jacques Lacan(authentic) []


Christian Ingo Lenz Dunker & Gilson by Paulo Moreira Iannini. Little science is nonsense. Why psychoanalysis is not pseudoscience. São Paulo, Ubu, 2023, 292 pages. []


[1] Cf. Joel Dor, The unscientificity of psychoanalysis. Porto Alegre: Artes Médicas, 1988.

[2] Mary Hesse, Revolutions and Reconstructions in the Philosophy of Science. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980, p. xiv.

[3] John R. Searle, Mind, language and society, trans. F. Rangel. Rio de Janeiro: Rocco, 2000, pp. 18–19.

[4] Jean-Claude Miller, The clear work: Lacan, science, philosophy [1995], trans. Procopio Abreu. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 1996, p. 85.

[5] I borrow the expression from François Regnault, Lacanian aesthetic conferences. Paris: Agalma-Seuil, 1997, p. 75.

[6] J. Lacan, “Science and truth” [1965], in Writings, trans. Vera Ribeiro. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar, 1998, p. 873.

[7] Ibid., pp. 869–70. 8 Id., “The four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis: summary of the 1964 seminar”, in Other writings, trans. Vera Ribeiro. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 2003, p. 195.

the earth is round exists thanks to our readers and supporters.
Help us keep this idea going.

See this link for all articles


  • João Cândido and the Revolt of the Whipwhip revolt 23/06/2024 By PETRÔNIO DOMINGUES: In the current context, in which there is so much discussion about State reparations for the black population, the name of João Cândido cannot be forgotten
  • Fear and HopeJoao_Carlos_Salles 24/06/2024 By JOÃO CARLOS SALLES: Against the destruction of the public university
  • The collapse of Zionismfree palestine 80 23/06/2024 By ILAN PAPPÉ: Whether people welcome the idea or fear it, Israel's collapse has become predictable. This possibility should inform the long-term conversation about the future of the region
  • Franz Kafka, libertarian spiritFranz Kafka, libertarian spirit 13/06/2024 By MICHAEL LÖWY: Notes on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the Czech writer
  • A look at the 2024 federal strikelula haddad 20/06/2024 By IAEL DE SOUZA: A few months into government, Lula's electoral fraud was proven, accompanied by his “faithful henchman”, the Minister of Finance, Fernando Haddad
  • Return to the path of hopelate afternoon 21/06/2024 By JUAREZ GUIMARÃES & MARILANE TEIXEIRA: Five initiatives that can allow the Brazilian left and center-left to resume dialogue with the majority hope of Brazilians
  • The society of dead historyclassroom similar to the one in usp history 16/06/2024 By ANTONIO SIMPLICIO DE ALMEIDA NETO: The subject of history was inserted into a generic area called Applied Human and Social Sciences and, finally, disappeared into the curricular drain
  • About artificial ignoranceEugenio Bucci 15/06/2024 By EUGÊNIO BUCCI: Today, ignorance is not an uninhabited house, devoid of ideas, but a building full of disjointed nonsense, a goo of heavy density that occupies every space
  • Theological manual of neoliberal neo-PentecostalismJesus saves 22/06/2024 By LEONARDO SACRAMENTO: Theology has become coaching or encouraging disputes between workers in the world of work
  • Chico Buarque, 80 years oldchico 19/06/2024 By ROGÉRIO RUFINO DE OLIVEIRA: The class struggle, universal, is particularized in the refinement of constructive intention, in the tone of proletarian proparoxytones