It was his contacts with Alexandre Koyre, Henry Corbin, Alexandre Kojeve, and George Bataille that introduced Lacan to modern philosophy and set him reading Husserl, Nietzsche, Hegel, and Heidegger. Without this widening of his frontiers, as well as his encounter with the surrealists, Lacan might have been imprisoned forever within the confines of psychiatry and an academic understanding of Freud.
[Koyre’s ideas on the history of science were splendidly exemplified in his studies of Galileo, begun around 1935 . . .The science of Galileo rejected all finalist explanations of the universe and brought the idea of a hierarchically ordered cosmos a step closer to destruction. The notion of a infinite and autonomous universe undermined traditional proofs of the existence of God, banished man from his place at the center of creation, and forced him to seek for God within himself. Medieval man had lived in a space where the truth was ‘given’ in the form of revealed religion. But the man of the new Galilean order, who Descartes bade “philosophize as if no one had ever philosophized before,” found himself in a space where thought reigned supreme and thought was lodged in him. The closed, finite, hierarchical world of the Middle Ages was being replaced by a limitless universe in which man stood alone, save for his reason, his uncertainty, and his dismay. The philosophical parallel to this scientific isolation is to be found in Descartes’s cogito, subjected to the opposing poles of truth and freedom. The individual is free, he has nothing to lean on outside himself; and he has to confront a truth to which no existing authority has set any bounds.
Such meditations on the birth of modern science and the status of the cogito had originated in the great philosophical shake-up brought about by Husserl, Koyre’s former teacher. Knowledge of Husserl’s theories had been gaining ground in France since the 1920s. Husserl’s phenomenology asserted that nothing could be known for certain except my existence as a thinking being. At the cogito stage, being must be reduced to the I who is thinking, i.e., to the being of the ego. Hence the notion of phenomenological reduction, which posits the primacy of the ego and of thought and goes beyond ordinary experience to see existence as consciousness of the world. If the existence of the world presupposes that of the ego, phenomenological reduction makes my existence consciousness of the world. The ego then becomes transcendental, and consciousness becomes intentional, since it is directed at something. As for ontology, that is an egology in which, if my idea of an object is real, then the object itself is real. Thus the ego acquires a sense of the other or of the alter ego, through a series of experiences that define transcendental inter-subjectivity as the reality out of which each individual ego emerges.
In ‘The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology’ , Husserl showed how the quest for inter-subjectivity could save the human sciences from inhumanity. In other words, by saving the ego from scientific formalism, transcendental phenomenology was preserving the possibility of a science of man in which the ego could be seen as life itself. So, in the face of the rising tide of barbarism and dictatorship that was threatening the peace of the West, Husserl’s phenomenology appealed to the philosophical consciousness that Europe had inherited from antiquity and that found an echo in men and women who wanted to be free to govern their own lives:
“There are only two escapes from the crisis of European existence: the downfall of Europe in its estrangement from its own rational sense of life, its fall into hostility towards the spirit and into barbarity, or the rebirth of Europe from the spirit of philosophy through the heroism of reason that overcomes naturalism once and for all. Europe’s greatest danger is weariness.”
Husserl’s writings made it possible to situate the tragic side of existence and the flaws in being within the individual, thus striking a decisive blow at the popularity of Bergsonian optimism about the possibilities of ego. The resulting critiques of the idea of progress led sometimes to the rejection of democratic values in favor of a return to the original roots of being and sometimes to a notion of nothingness, or void, a tragic symbol of the finiteness and mortal end of a human existence devoid of all transcendency. But Husserl’s philosophy did offer modern reason two escape routes. One lay in refocusing Western spirituality on a philosophy of experience and the individual; in France this path was followed by Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The other solution was to construct a philosophy based on knowledge and rationality, as did Alexandre Koyre, Jean Cavailees, and George Canguilhem. Lacan would follow a middle course between the two which involved both a new exploration of the subject – i.e., of individual experience – and an attempt to define a form of rationality based on a deeper knowledge of the Freudian Unconscious.]
Be all that as it may . . .
Koyre’s views on the evolution of science were in tune with the work of historians who in 1929, led by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, had started the review ‘Annales histoire economique et sociale. As early as 1903, in the Revue de synthese founded by Henri Berr and Charles Simiand had challenged the positivist methods of Earnest Lavisse and Charles Seignobos and advocated the destruction of the three graven images of orthodox history: the idol of politics, which required events affecting society as a whole to be reduced to the conscious decisions and deeds of the princes of this world; next, the idol of individuality, which limited the story of all mankind to just the lives of the famous; and last, the idol of chronology, which favored a linear narrative made up of strings of facts supported by sacrosanct “documents.”
It is no coincidence that Annales, which would give birth to a new school of history , was founded not only in the same year as the Wall Street crash but also at the time that the Husserl revolution was preparing a philosophical rethinking of the question of human existence. At the heart of both the historical and the philosophical movements lay deep doubt about the idea of progress as inherited from eighteenth-century philosophy. Not only had any descriptive history based merely on stirring battles and idealized heroes been rendered obsolete by the recent horrors of Verdun, but these new perceptions of the complexity of “real” and living history ruled out restricted or simplified theories purporting to explain past phenomena,. So instead of Manichean representation of events, Bloch and Febvre and their friends aimed at creating a vast multiple history that would include the study of lifestyles, habitats, attitudes, feelings, collective subjectivities, and social groups. All these would combine in an epic narrative that could bring a whole era back to life in the reader’s imagination. The pioneers of this new history were encouraged in their task by researches in three other fields: the teachings of Vidal de la Blache, who had freed geography from its obsession with administrative divisions and changed it into a largely visual science studied in the field; the work of Emile Durkheim, who had transformed sociology from mere fact collecting into a study of structural patterns; and developments in economic history.
The Annales revolution tended in the direction of a temporal and spatial deconstruction of the subject not without analogy in Husserl’s philosophy and Einstein’s theory of relativity. In this new type of history, man, immersed in the infinite duration of the “long term”, was master of his fate no more. Torn between a social and a geographical time dimension no longer limited to his own personal experience, he was nonetheless denied any place in a universal nature, since nature was now ‘relative,’ varying from one culture and one period to another.
The cultural relativism of the “Annalists,” together with their condemnation of narrative history with a patriotic or nationalist stance, challenged the high-handed assumptions that made Western civilization see its history in terms of progress: a progress based on the colonization of “minority” cultures. The new historians didn’t reject the heritage of the Enlightenment philosophy, but they did apply it to different ends. Their object was not so much to reassess “reactionary,” “primitive,” “barbaric,” or prejudice-ridden forms of social organization as to find a new way of thinking about difference and identity, sameness and otherness, reason and unreason, science and religion, error and truth, the occult and the rational. And the demand for relativism, and for an end to the idea that one civilization is superior to another, made possible a new universalism, able to create a living encyclopedia of human societies by incorporating into history the work of other sciences –psychology, sociology, and ethnology – now also expanding rapidly.
Febvre’s attitude to the possibility of a history of philosophy can be best seen in a review he wrote in 1937 of a book by Georges Freidman on the current crisis concerning the idea of progress:
It struck me that it would be useful to compare the history of philosophy as written by philosophers with the way we historians proper deal with ideas when the occasion arises. And having done so I was dismayed at how often ‘historians proper” are content just to describe new concepts as though they were generated spontaneously, without any reference to their different economic, political, and social backgrounds; as if they were produced by disembodied minds living unreal lives in the sphere of pure ideas.
Instead of showing lone eccentrics spinning atemporal systems of thought out of their own entrails, Febvre’s history of ideas would deal in real people inventing new thoughts, whether consciously or unconsciously, by means of the outillage mental (intellectual apparatus) of their age.
The idea of mentality, or mental outlook, revived in the work of Lucien Levy-Bruhl, had first been used to compare the pre-logical thought systems of children and “primitive” peoples with the more abstract functioning of the modern, “Western” mind. But in the 1930s the notion acquired a structural tinge through the use of the phrase outillage mental. Whether in Marc Bloch’s ‘symbolic representations,” Lucien Febvre’s “psychic universe,” or Alexandre Koyre’s ‘conceptual structure,” the aim was always to definer a model of what was thinkable at any given period, using the categories of perception, conceptualization, and expression then available for the organization of individual and collective thought.
All this reflected a French approach to the structural analysis of human societies that could be seen in Jacques Lacan as early as 1938 and that a new intellectual generation would take up again twenty years later in the light of Saussurian linguistics