Signifiers first, meaning second

Cogito ergo sum!” once proclaimed René Descartes, who, had he not been born a French philosopher in the 17th century but an English man living today, would have said this in these terms: I think, therefore I am!

Securing the absolute foundation for all knowledge, Descartes' declaration would eventually amount to saying that our mind is a separate entity from our body. It took the best part of the following two and a half centuries for the next generations of philosophers to prove him wrong. Yet this notion is still very much part of our western thinking today. After all, does this concept not make the universe and the mind in particular easier to work with? This certainly seems to be of the opinion of the 'evidence based' treatments on offer at present, such as CBT. Indeed, just like a machine built by Descartes, if you apply enough control to your behaviour then your life should correct itself accordingly. If only.

Starting with linguistics, a 'sign' is a signifier (written small 's') connected to a signified (written capital or big 'S') and noted s/S. Plainly stated, a word, or even a part of it, an idea, a train of thought or an ideology relates to a specific set of meaning(s) attached to it. For instance a 'tree' – the series of letters that constitutes the word 'tree' – is a signifier that then brings to mind a plant which has got a trunk, branches and leaves. Notice here that I am effectively assuming the reader knows the English language.

If we look at Descartes' 'I think, therefore I am' in terms of signifiers and signifieds or meanings, we see that, for him, the former precedes the latter. The following signifiers, or series or words,“I am intelligent”, “I am a good father” or even “I am a woman” come before our actually being intelligent, a good father, or a woman. In the same vein we may also hear things like “if I do this (smile more, be happier, work harder etc), then this should happen (will have more friends, a more successful life, etc..)”. Looked at from this perspective and using 'reason' why then are there not less but each year more patients waiting of our services?

For Sigmund Freud and his follower the French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan there exists a split between who we think we are (or rather who we would like to think we are) and who we actually are. A tennis player who is about to pass his opponent at the net can't afford to think long about his shot; as Federer once remarked “I just let the racket do the talking”.

On the court Federer just is, and it is the core nature in the personality of a champion that is so appealing to sport lovers – the display of authenticity in his skills as they are stripped bare of false appearances. Who we come to think he is - say a great tennis champion - comes second after what he is effectively doing on the court. This is certainly not to say that we should not think before we act. Still, for some people there is so much thinking interfering in their doing that they sometimes can't be absolutely certain that they themselves actually exist. Was it the case for Descartes? So, if thinking is slower than being then we can safely assume that I am before I think who I am.

Does this mean that Descartes is wrong? With Jacques Lacan, psychoanalysis has observed a return to Descartes, but not in the way science understands it. There indeed is a type of thinking behind being/doing, Freud claimed, but it is outside of our consciousness or unconscious. For how else can we explain slips of the tongues, bodily pains that have no apparent physiological causes, alien thoughts intruding into the mind obsessively, or painful and ultimately destructive repetitions?

Most forms of therapy today offer to tackle the problem by the wrong end of the stick. Following the idea that the ego is what commands our actions they concentrate on meanings rather that on the actual signifiers. Giving priority to meanings in this way is ultimately tantamount to trying to seduce ourselves and everybody else into thinking that we are, or do things, in accordance with a more or less clear representation of ourselves. And this is not wrong. As human beings who can use language we naturally build ideal images of the world, and of ourselves, which have this positive effect that they present us with a reassuringly coherent whole with which we can interact. In rationalising our actions in meanings we construct a narrative that allows us to be understood and accepted.

In contrast to those popular practices that are based on this idea, psychoanalysis reminds us that by only looking at meanings (the signified) therapists tend to overlook a crucial element: the choice of words or forms of expression (the signifiers) that the patient uses while recounting his or her experience.

In the same way that babies are most often born as part of a plan designed by their parents, the language we learn to use, the family culture and society in which we are raised regroups a multitude of chains of signifiers that bear witness to very precise hidden laws that have always already been there. Those laws, unless uncovered within the analytical experience for the patient to finally make use of in his or her history, will keep living an independent and secret life of their own while at the same time continuing to dictate the patient's every decisions.

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Written by Stephane Preteux - English/French MBACP Accr. Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist

After graduating in Applied Mathematics from the university of Paris (X) in France, followed by a brief incursion in film 3D special effects in Soho (UK) I certified in Transactional Analysis from the Metanoia Institute and received a diploma in Psychodynamic Psychotherapy from WPF in London. I then graduated with a Master of Science (MSc) in Counselling and Psychotherapy from Roehampton universit… Read more

Written by Stephane Preteux - English/French MBACP Accr. Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist

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