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The Sceptical Feminist’; A Lacanian Psychoanalyst’s Comment on John Bird

‘The Sceptical Feminist’

Dear Radical Philosophy,



I should like to comment on Janet Radcliffe
Richards’ reply to my review of her book, The
Sceptical Feminist, which appeared in RP30.

Richards says that I have seriously misrepresented
her position, and that most of the quotations I use
to support my view of her book were taken seriously
out of context. I should like to discuss a little
further one of these misrepresentations she thinks
I have made.

In my review, I quoted the following statement
from her book:

Of course, if feminism really did depend on
beliefs about matters of fact, and these turned
out to be mistaken, we would simply have to
accept that feminism should be abandoned (p.42).

The context of this statement is a discussion of the
idea of male and female natures, in which Richards
argues that feminism does not depend on the truth or
falsity of, for example, ideas about male superiority.

I interpreted her as meaning that feminism does not
depend on beliefs about matters of fact.

In her reply, however, she says that the view that
feminism does not depend on matters of fact ‘would be
a priori absurd for anyone to think’. So where did I
make my mistake? Richards says: ‘The proposition
that women are oppressed is not analytic – true in
all possible worlds – and so must depend on facts
about the world as it is.’ Well, yes. It’s true
she believes this. It’s also true that she defines
feminism in Chapter I as follows:

There are excellent reasons for thinking that
women suffer from systematic social injustice
because of their sex; and that is the proposition
which will be regarded throughout the book as
constituting the essence of feminism, with
anyone who accepts it counting as a feminist.

But it now appears that feminism depends on some
matters of fact, but not others. So it might be
important to ask which. Here is what Richards says
in her reply:

What I do say is that the fundamental feminist
case can be demonstrated without entering into
any debate about controversial questions of fact.

But this is surely problematic? What do we mean by
‘controversial’? Controversial to whom and why?

lfuere and among whom is the consensus that seems to
be implied here about which things are or are not
controversial? I would have thought that the belief
that women are oppressed or suffer systematic social
injustice because of their sex is itself controversial
– if by that is simply meant that there are plenty of
people who would not agree with it. Richards does
not however explain. What I think is interesting,
however, is this idea of a ‘fundamental feminist
case’ (an essence of feminism) which can be demonstrated without entering into ‘controversy’ about
matters of fact. It is this what I particularly
criticised in my review, and I would like to explain
again why, by discussing something that Richards says
about my discussion of her chapter on sex and
sensual i ty .

Again, she says that I have mistaken her intention,
and missed the point of the chapter.

It is concerned not with current or any other

ideals of sensuality (determinates) but with
logical questions about sensuality and such
things in general (determinables).

Now what sorts of questions about sensuality would
be logical ones? Presumably there are questions
about what the concept of ‘sensuality’ does and does
not entail, what its relationships are with other
concepts, etc. (Similarly, logical questions about
justice would be questions about what the concept of
justice does or does not entail.) Implied however in
what Richards says, and in the distinction between
determinates and determinables, is the idea that
one can identify logical questions about sensuality
(or justice) and settle them, agree about conceptual
relationships, and then discuss particul~r or determinate ideals of sensuality (or justice), well
equipped to sort them out and perhaps clear them of
confusion. This implies that the ‘logical space’,
if you like, that is occupied by concepts such as
sensuality is somehow given, and can be settled by
conceptual discussion which will tell us what
‘sensuality’ or ‘justice’ really mean; what the
relationships between these and other concepts
really are.

It is this idea that I think underlies Richards’

programme of identifying a ‘fundamental’ feminist
case, without entering into controversy about
matters of fact. And it is this that I am chiefly
taking issue with. The reason is that I do not think
there can be such a programme of identifying the real
or essential logical relationships of a concept such
as sensuality which can be isolated or abstracted
from looking at particular ideals of sensuality.

Of course there are logical relationships between
concepts as currently used (and sometimes contradictions and confusions in the way they are used).

Richards talks in her reply of an opposition between
my view that justice cannot be discuss~d in the
abstract, and hers that in the first instance it
must be. I think she takes me to mean that one
should not ask questions such as ‘What does “justice”
mean?’ or ‘What are the criteria for counting something as just?’. But here she is misrepresenting me.

Of course it is important to map out the logical or
conceptual relationships between ‘sensuality’ and
other concepts. But it is equally important to
understand what such an investigation can achieve.

It can tell us a great deal about current notions
and the implications that they have. What it cannot
do is tell us what, in some timeless or universal
sense, concepts like sensuality or justice really
mean, what relationships they really have, what
‘logical space’ they really occupy. And the reason
is that there is no such thing as the ‘real’

meaning of sensuality or justice.

In fact what I think Richards’ chapter on sex and
sensuality does is to map out rather well aspects of
current views about sensuality etc, including some
of the incoherences in them. But I think she wrongly
presents it as if it were an analysis of logical
relationships between concepts which have some sort
of timeless validity.

I believe that concepts such as sensuality or
justice are essentially changing and historical, and
have no identifiable or universally valid core of
meaning which can be abstracted out of their historical manifestations and presented as their real meaning. My view entails that concepts such as sensuality and justice are radically contestable; and that
differing conceptions of them may well be to a considerable extent incommensurable. Richards suspects
that my view will lead to a quagmire of contradiction
and confusion. To show, however, that there are
contradictions and confusions is not to be contradictory and confused. Richards herself locates a


number of contradictions and confusions in her book.

I have simply suggested that the contradictions and
confusions go deeper than she suggests and that they
cannot be resolved by trying to sort out what it
really means to be just, sensual, or whatever. To
suppose that there are such real meanings, and to
present an analysis of current notions as if it were
able to tell us such real meanings is almost inevitably to suggest that the ways in which we think now,
the concepts we use, have some sort of universal

As to the quagmire – maybe what underlies
Richards’ worry is this. If there is no real
meaning of sensuality or justice, no logical
implications between concepts that hold for ever,
how can we talk sense at all? To borrow from Yeats,
if the centre does not hold, will not mere anarchy
be loosed upon the philosophical world? But I think
that to worry about this is to misunderstand the
nature of language (and it is interesting that nowhere in her book does Richards specifically discuss
language). All concepts shift and change in meaning
and this is often because human beings make proposals
about meaning; they propose shifts of meaning,
propose that words be used in certain ways and not
others~ and so on.

Plato proposed things about what
we should take as the meaning of justice; Freud and
others proposed things about the meaning of the term
‘sexuality’. Meanings are not just given; they are
produced, in response to many things such as
scientific discoveries, social and political purposes
etc. When feminists criticise the use of ‘man’ as a
generic term to mean ‘human beings’, they are not to
be understood primarily as making claims about what
the word ‘man’ really means (though they may well
point to ambiguities and confusions about its current
use). They are proposing to reject certain usages,
to use words differently; and the reasons underlying
this proposal involve both things like historical
understanding of the emergence of the generic use of
‘man’, political beliefs about it being damaging to
women, as well as beliefs about the confusions it

So we can look at current conceptions of sensuality or justice, see how they are used and what they
imply, and where they are themselves confused and
contradictory. But we can also trace their historical
emergence, and we can ask whether they are oppressive,
and if so, of whom. And we can then make proposals
as to ways in which we perhaps want to change
meanings, use words differently. Do we, for example,
want to go on talking about beauty, standards of
beauty, attractiveness in women, in exactly the same
sorts of ways that Richards does in her chapter?

To ask this, and to ask why we might w~nt to change
meanings, does not turn us into Humpty Dumpties who
naively suppose that words can mean what we want
them to in any individual sense. Of course we start
from where we are. And we are in as much danger of
confusion, contradiction and unclarity as those who
see nothing wrong with any current concepts, since
current concepts are themselves often confused and
contradictory. But if we do not ask whether and
where we want to propose changes or shifts in meaning
we are in danger of simply reproducing current concepts; if we do ask this we cannot avoid the
‘controversial’ questions of fact that Richards
would like us to see as inessential to the fundamental feminist case.

Jean Grimshaw


A Lacanian Psychoanalyst’s
Comment on John Bird

Dear Radical Philosophy,
John Bird’s article on Lacan (RP30) stands in need
of criticism and – indeed – correction. Bird”s ideas
concerning Lacan himself, his role as a theoretician
of psychoanalysis, and the movement in modern psychoanalysis created by him, in all its originality, its
new reading of Freud and its consequences in the
theory and practice of psychoanalysis, all this calls
for comment.

John Bird’s effort to give an account of Lacan’s
theory(ies), based only upon some of his writings
(although fundamental ones) suffers, in spite of its
value, from a very partial reading. [1], and from the
preconception that Freudian is only what Freud himself said. I shall return to this point later.

Another of Bird’s charges against Lacan is his
‘unclarity’. Lacan is difficult to read, especially
in another language. But one has to remember that
concepts and theoretical elaborations in psychoanalysis can hardly be understood separated from the
practice and the general experience of them. This is
equally true of Freud’s rather clearer style. Lacan
adds to this the difficulty of his own style – which,
it has to be made clear, is not the same in a written
work like the Ecrits as in the orally developed
seminars, which are far more ‘easy’ to understand.

In both cases, of course, one has to become familiar
with the style and the ideas and to refer to many
other texts (exegetic texts such as Anika Lemaire’s
thesis, or philosophical, linguistic, psychoanalytica;
texts, etc.), and this makes for a lot of work.

Moreover, concepts obtain materiality and·evidence
through personal experience, so that sometimes they
appear under a new light some years after one first
meets them.

Equally, Bird seems not to consider the fact that
Lacan’s work was in a state of continuous development
and that it appears, in spite of its intellectual
rigour, more as a carefully embroidered piece of
handcraft than as a system of thought [2].

But I should like to return to the conception of
what is Freudian and what is not, i.e. the question
of the orthodoxy which is still very ‘hot’ today in
psychoanalytical circles. If ‘Freud had already said
all that is important in Lacan in a far more accessible form and, by implication, what is new in Lacan
is radically non-Freudian’ (Bird, p.7 – emphasis
added), then every subsequent thinker becomes either
a repetitious epigone or a heretic I This is not the
way in which science or thought progresses.

Lacan makes new formulations of Freudian concepts,
or pushes Freud’s ideas towards new critiques and
concepts. For example, Freud did not have the concept of the ‘signifier’ which according to Lacan’s
formula ‘represents the subject for another signifier’. In Freud’s scheme of the psychic system,
conceived on the basis of a neuro-biological model
(this ¬∑was Freud’s scientific point of reference), he
uses the term ‘perception-signs’, which are ‘unconsious inscriptions arranged according to simultaneous
associations’ and – what follows – ‘the unconscious,
a second recording arranged according to the other
associations – possibly following a causality relationship'[3]. Those unconscious inscriptions are
considered as the equivalent of the Lacanian ‘signifier’ which is certainly a loan from linguistics but
which is not by any means simply a different word for
Freud’s idea.

That the unconscious in Freud has more reference









to neuro-biological or physical schemes and that in
Lacan the model, the reference, has been mainly
Zinguistia (or more recently topo~ogiaa~) does not
affect the radical particularity and separate existence of the fundamental psychoanalytical concepts
which refer to a specific experience and are created
in order to designate this experience. That this
experience is articulated and articulable – that it
is structured and can be expressed through language ‘in those figures which have a fixity of symptoms and
can be resolved if correctly deciphered’ as Lacan
says, is at the heart of the Freudian inauguration of
psychoanalysis as the ‘talking cure’.

But at this point there is a complete misunderstanding in Bird’s reading of Lacan [4]. So much so
that the accusation of a ‘linguistic reading of Freud’

in Lacan’s work (Bird, p.ll) applies rather to the
way Bird himself is understanding Lacan. Consider,
for example, the symbolic as ‘formed of the set of
conventional symbols of social systems which is
assimilated to a linguistic model, etc.’ (Bird, p.IO).

This does not correspond to the psychoanalytical
dimension of the symbolic which we find in Lacan’s
elaboration. The symbolic is no more nor less than
the order of the signifier(s) – which is not just
words or any words – and therefore it must not be
confused either with the system of the language it~
self or merely with social symbols. Lacan says that
the determination of the symbolic order over the
imaginary exists in Freud and is recalled by him
every time the mechanism of forgetting or in the
structure of the fetishism is at issue (Lacan,
Eari ts, p. 464) .

The idea of Lacan ignoring ‘the natural and
physical aspects of man – his drives and instincts’

or reducing them to symbols which will never reach
‘the real hard concrete aspects of life’ (Bird, p.12)
has nothing to do with the Lacanian conception of the
symbolic which has enough materiality to mark real
existence. As to the drives ‘they have always been
expressing their effects into language’ (Earits,
p.466) .

Again, the distinction in Bird between inner (unconscious, drives) and outer (society, rules) world
with the language as inte~ediary and the opposition
between the individual needs and the social rules
constitute a scheme very different from Lacan’s
categories of the Real, the Symbolic and the
Imaginary. For Lacan, these three fundamental
dimensions of the human experience can be tied in
the way of a borromean knot [5].

The question of the ‘metaphor of the Name of the
Father’, a signifier central for the understanding
of the problem of psychosis in Lacan’s theory, has
also been investigated in this later period through
the borromean knot.

A last misunderstanding in Bird’s article concerns
the training of the psychoanalyst in the Lacanian
theoretical perspective. Personal analysis is the
centre of this training. It should go as far as
possible, ideally to the point where the individual
signifiers are analysed and they resist any further
signification; where the analysand can ideally say
that he realises Freud’s wish concerning the aim of
psychoanalysis: ‘Wo es war solI Ich werden’, knowledge of the unconscious desire.

At the end of this analysis, or even before, in
the course of the process, some of t~le analysands
may experience the desire to continue the analytical
experience from the point of view of the object they
are leaving, i.e. the analyst. The possibility of
giving an account of this moment has constituted the
Lacanian proposition of ‘la passe’ which could provide new formulations of the question ‘how one
becomes an analyst’.

As to the ‘absence’ of analysis in training, here
is a passage from what Lacan said in a conference
‘On the experience of ‘1la passe” and its transmission’

(Lacan, 3 November 1973, Oriniaar, No.12/l3).

So here it is, what I obtain after having
proposed this experience. I obtain something
which is absolutely not of the order of the
discourse of the magister. You ought to know
how to notice the things I am not talking about
– I have never talked about analytical training
[‘formation analytique’], I have talked about
training of the unconscious [‘formations de
l’inconscient’]. There is no analytical training.

From the analysis an experience is drawn, which
is quite wrongly qualified as didactic. Experi-‘

ence is not didactic. Why do you believe that
I have tried to efface completely this term
‘didactic’ and talked of pure psychoanalysis?

Hara Pepeli




Limited to the Earits (1966), and the only English-translated seminar (196465) on ‘The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis’, it ignores the
rest, and especially the later work of Lacan where new elaborations appear.

The Earits is a rather particular case by comparison with Lacan’ s other works,
because it is his first and only book and constitutes a concise account of
his ideas where the preoccupation with style is pre-eminent.

Lacan, being a psychoanalyst, developed his work as a series of questions
emerging from his own experience, which he tried to answer through his
reading of Freud, his own ideas and the critical reading of the work of
other psychoanalysts.

S. Freud, Letter 52 to Fliess, dated 6 December 1896.

He is not the only one. There is always the danger in a work of isolating
certain views and making them the key explanation of the whole. This is also
the danger of a very limited reading. Lacan himsel f had another idea of his
own progression: ‘I began with the imaginary, I consequently chewed the
story of the symbolic with this linguistic reference in which I did not find
all that could help me and I reached my goal by extracting for you this
famous real under the very form of the knot.’ (Lacan, Seminar 14 January
1975, RSI Or>niaar No.3).

The topological model of the borromean knot
and the possibilities which it offers to the
exploration of these three dimensions has
become. after 1975, Lacan’ s main theoretical
preoccupation. The elementary borromean
knot is constituted by three rings of string
which are tied in such a ‘way that if you
cut anyone of them the remaining two are
free (see diagram). The three rings correspond to the three dimensions, the Real, the
Symbolic and the Imaginary. Lacan says that
Freud had some idea of them but not the
concept. With time and patience, he affirms,
he extracted them from Freud’s discourse (L
(Lacan Seminar 14 January 1975, RSI Ornicar, No.3).

‘Women’s Studies at the Open University
In 1976, some members of the women’s group on campus
suggested that the Open University should put on a
women’s studies course for undergraduates. In
February this year, the first students taking The
Changing Experienae of Women came to an introductory
meeting. In between came two lengthy processes;
first, persuading the university that this would be
a coherent (that’s to say, an academically respectable) subject to study, even though we acknowledged
that women’s studies courses got their political
impetus from the women’s movement. Secondly, trying
to write the course so that, while we acknowledged
that the course is an ‘academic’ one, it remains
relevant to women’s lives, experiences, and to the
debates through which feminism has articulated
politicai discontent about these, especially over the
past decade.


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