Occupy the madness-29/01/2012- The Docta Ignorantia

by Bruce Scott on January 29, 2012

[Text given as part of ‘Occupy the Madness’ at Tent City University, Occupy London, St Paul’s Cathedral, London on 29th January 2012]

Let me first start by saying I have no answers and I can give no answers-in the usual sense of giving advice or solutions (unlike the popular media psychologists, whose bombardment of answers dupe many people to the detriment of their subjectivity). But perhaps this might be a good way to proceed, for what I would like to try to communicate to you could perhaps be called a doctrine of no answers or what is called the doctrine of learned or wise ignorance, the Docta Ignorantia. This was terms coined by the 15th century theologian and philosopher Nicolas De Cusa.

Today’s format, a kind of speech, or lecture, is perhaps not the best way of “getting at” what I am trying to “get at”, but I will have a go.

I agree very much with the anger and outrage against the idea of capitalism and the banking system careering out of control, to the detriment of our countries, societies, work places, and our children. But in relation to the topic today; capitalist mental health agendas creating mental distress, yes I agree, to an extent, but I think it need not be the case; we do have a part to play.

I mean, are we so imprisoned as to not be able to look into the eyes of the capitalist mental health agenda, recognise it for what it is and refuse it?

This reminds me of something the French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan said to a group of revolutionary students just after the student uprising of ‘68 in Paris. He said:

“…..the revolutionary aspiration has only a single outcome-of ending up as the master’s discourse. This is what experience has proved. What you aspire to as revolutionaries is a master. You will get one”. (Lacan: Analyticon: 3rd December 1969: Russell Grigg’s translation [i] ).

[Availability given here Analyticon: Impromptu No. 1 : 3rd December 1969 : given at Vincennes: Jacques Lacan or here]

I am unsure of what the Occupy Movement’s “manifesto” is in relation to mental health, but if it aligns itself loosely speaking with notions of demanding better provision of mental health treatment from the “masters of mental health, i.e., the government and its related institutions, projects and agendas; i.e., NICE, CBT, IAPT, psychiatric drugs, and improved psychiatric diagnosis, then I would be alarmed.

This may not be the case of course, but anyhow, what comments I have to say on the Philadelphia Association Communities, where I have conducted some extensive research, and the government’s technological psycho-agenda, may I hope, have some import.

R.D. Laing, co-founder of the Philadelphia Association, of which I am a member, once said “can we be a human being today…and do we even know what it is to be a human being.” On the surface these might seem like obvious questions; they are quite simple to answer. One can say that a human is a biological entity and has a complex anatomical system, and that humans do x, y, and z from a physiological, anthropological, or psychological standpoint. However, such answers miss the mark in relation to mental distress, blindingly flailing in the chaos of rat-e-o-cin-ation trying to find its final end or truth where all will become clear. As Plato described there is no end, or final clarification (in logical terms) in such matters; all we can do is go about our daily life in the knowledge that we can never put a full stop to the sentence that is human life. Some people might find this unaccountability unacceptable, crazy, or even terrifying.

From interviews that I conducted with ex-residents of the Philadelphia Association Communities, I feel it is clear these communities uphold a different way of thinking, as do many like-minded analysts and therapists. This is the discourse of the Docta Ignorantia. This discourse allows the Philadelphia Association’s community residents to discover their own discourse or meanings, or meanings beyond the dominant oppressive discourses of mental health circulating in our culture. This is why one must be wary of proffering theories of what one can expect about living in a community, (or treatment for mental distress), as some people take these wholesale to be used and applied in a technological way to cure mental illness, whilst in doing this they miss the point of the importance of allowing an individual’s subjectivity to flourish without the demands of a dogmatic opposition, i.e., the government’s mental health policies.

There is an urgent need and importance of keeping open of other possible discourses or of finding one’s own meaning beyond the codifications and conceptualizations of mental health by agents of the government. Contrary to keeping open other possible discourses, the wave of cognitive behavioural therapy, IAPT, evidence or scientifically based mental health practice, and NICE guidelines of mental health care sweeping our lands, demonstrates quite clearly that such movements are intent upon destroying any type of free thinking that does not or cannot come under its umbrella. This is clearly ideological cleansing, however subtle, or caring it looks. To give an example, when a patient disagrees with a psychiatrist or psychologist about the neurochemical or cognitive basis of depression, this is his or her very right to finding meaning for him or herself-and it is a valid questioning or questing; neurochemical and cognitive theories of depression are very much questionable as being the “truth”. Unfortunately, or fortunately as I see it, the masters of mental health do not and cannot ever have a monopoly of what counts as truth of how to live and live through mental distress. If such a monopoly is constructed, as it surely is in the UK today, this amounts to no more than a political ploy to social control and control of what discourse is permitted, and all for capital gains I must add.

One of the major paradoxes of our times concerns the status of the subject. A result of the progress of science and how it currently stands today is that a new definition of the subject and subjectivity has been imposed; this is a subject that is composed of a material, organic substrate, or cognitive machine which is observable; i.e., the brain’s neurochemicals or the results of cognitions expressed on a psychometric questionnaire. Thus anything that goes wrong with the human being in our contemporary age is attributed to our brain or cognitions and it is argued that these need to be corrected with mechanical means; psychiatric drugs or cognitive re-programming. But there is a paradox. On the one hand we have “freedom” and “human rights to freedom and to be what we want when we want”, on the other hand we have the discourses of power, or mastery; the neurosciences, the discourse of the human brain as a computer or as a chemical reaction. In these discourses of power and mastery, subjectivity is banished, as the brain and the science of mental health rules and guides our subjectivity. This creates a landscape with no landmarks; science is the big authority now, of how we feel, think and experience; subjectivity is written out of the picture as we are pre-determined. Yet, and here is the crazy paradox, we are supposed to be free. If people get unhappy they blame it on their neurons or cognitions. In turn they demand happiness assuming it is a human right and that such a thing from an imaginary ideal of mental health is possible. This is a big double-bind, a vicious circle. What gets missed in this discourse is that, the subject exists by his speech, his silence, and his actions, not by a scientific knowledge or discourse. The subject existing in the here and now is being forgotten about; science comes first and we define ourselves by an abstract fictitious scientistic posturing to become free, but by defining ourselves by science we paradoxically give up our liberty and subjectivity. But there are other ways to live a life as encouraged in the Philadelphia Association community houses.

The modern subject (or psyche) is being drawn into the working of the brain and cognitive theories of mental illness with the result that activities such as psychoanalysis and psychotherapy which adopt the approach of the Docta Ignorantia (or doctrine of learned ignorance), are being made out to be redundant and accused of being useless as they do not come under the banner of evidence based practice. Cognitivism and the neurosciences have taken away the unity of the individual or the possibility to know oneself as an impossible unity; in other words to know that we cannot know everything about how to live a human life; i.e., the idea that the self is an illusory construction). The government’s cognitive neuroscientific agenda is spreading like an empire. As is the case with empires, borders become blurred. As a result it is difficult to know where one culture starts and another begins. Important aspects disappear under the homogeny of the empire. The “treats” of the empire; unlimited freedom, democracy, health, and happiness come with a price tag; one’s subjectivity. Yes we are a brain, we do have neurochemicals and we think, but we are primarily subjects. In continuing to hold on to this, to hold on to our suffering, which is, however difficult this may be to accept, it is as much a part of being a subject as it is it is to live, to die, and be happy. The creative subjectivity of the Philadelphia Association communities’ residents, guided via the Docta Ignorantia (or doctrine of learned ignorance), is unhindered by ideological borders (or protected from oppressive ideologies to some extent by the asylum given by the houses). The residents are given the increasingly outlawed freedom to be confronted by their distress and to try to make sense of their world and life. This is a gift of asylum and a privilege to be able to this in this day and age. There are far too many people ready to shore up, correct and cure so-called mental illness. As Nietzsche prophesised, we live by the religion of comfortableness.

Montaigne described, one has to find one’s own balance trough trial and error and that we have to be allowed to err. Our subjectivity is not some kind of machine that needs fixing like a broken computer. It is much more complex than that. But I will leave you with an example which shows how therapists are being oppressed by the capitalist agenda. This is an example how psychologists, psychotherapists, and psychoanalysts are being forced away from adopting a practice of learned ignorance, so valued by the likes of R.D. Laing and those who have ran and run the Philadelphia Association communities.

This is the person specification of an NHS Trainee Child Psychotherapist job that was advertised in 2011.

“To take an evidence-based approach and show preparedness to collaborate with outcome measurement and generally comply with clinical and social care governance requirements. To present reports and research to a high clinical and academic standard.”

My question to this is: how can one take an evidence or scientific based approach and at the same time, work to a high clinical and academic standard? One cannot. The clue is the sentence “comply with clinical and social care governance requirements”. This is non-sense, a fiction, a prison, and violence towards all our subjectivities.

Thank you.


[i] Jacques Lacan gave this session at Vincennes, an experimental university, on 3rd December 1969. It was announced as the first of four under the title “Analyticon, four impromptus”.

[Availability given here Analyticon: Impromptu No. 1 : 3rd December 1969 : given at Vincennes: Jacques Lacan or here]

Published as page 207 of ‘The Other side of psychoanalysis: The seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book XVII: Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller: Translated by Russell Grigg: W.W. Norton & Co: 2007 in the Appendices: A Analyticon: p197-208

p126 or 127 of Television: A challenge to the Psychoanalytic Establishment, Jacques Lacan: Translated by Jeffrey Mehlman, Edited by Joan Copjec, W. W. Norton & Co: 1988 and published as: Impromptu at Vincennes: p117-128.

Originally published as ‘Impromptu at Vincennes’ translated by Jeffrey Mehlman, in October no 40, 1987 p117-127.

Details of availability here

As in Julia Evans’ opinion there are significant differences between these two translations the Mehlman one is given here, with some of the preamble:

Intervention:  There is talk of a new society. Will psychoanalysis play a role in that society, and what will it be?

Jacques Lacan: A society is not something that can be defined just like that. What I am attempting to articulate, because analysis gives me the evidence, is what dominates it – to wit: the practice of language. Aphasia means that there is something that has broken down in that area. Imagine that there are guys to whom stuff happens in their brain and who can no longer in any way manage to make do with language. It leaves them rather infirm.

Intervention: One could say that Lenin almost became an aphasic.

Jacques Lacan: If you had a little patience, and if you were willing for our impromptus to continue, I would tell you that the aspiration to revolution has but one conceivable issue, always, the discourse of the master. That is what experience has proved. What you, as revolutionaries, aspire to is a Master. You will have one.

In French:

‘L’impromptu de Vincennes’, in Magazine littéraire, 1977, no 121, p21-25 (the Mehlman translation)

Or p239 of Le Seminaire de Jacques Lacan, Livre XVII, L’Envers de la Psychanalyse, 1969-1970, by Éditions du Seuil, Paris, 1991 (the Grigg translation)

Or Page 16 of ‘Vincennes – Impromptu no 1: 3rd December 1969’, translated by Cormac Gallagher, published at www.lacaninireland.com and available here. Julia Evans adds this third translation, from tape-recordings, for sake of completeness:

X: People talk about a new society. Will psychoanalysis have a function in that new society and what will it be?

JL: Society is not something that can be defined like that in general. What I am trying to spell out, because psychoanalysis gives me the evidence for it, is what dominates it is the way language is used (la pratique du langage). The proof is perhaps that you envisage changing it; I mean what dominates it. Aphasia means that there is something that has broken down in this respect. Just imagine: there are people who happen to have something wrong with their brain and who have no longer any idea how to manage language. That makes them somewhat crippled.

X: One could say that Lenin almost became aphasic.

JL:  If you had a bit of patience and if you really wanted our ‘Impromptus’ to continue I would tell you that the revolutionary aspect has only one possible way of ending, only one: always with the discourse of the Master, as experience has already shown. What you aspire to as revolutionaries is a Master. You shall have one!

Related posts:

Analyticon: Impromptu No. 1 : 3rd December 1969 : given at Vincennes: Jacques Lacan or here

Seminar XVII: Psychoanalysis upside down/The reverse side of psychoanalysis: 1969-1970 : from 26th November 1969: Jacques Lacan or here

Radiophonie: 9th April & 5th June 1970: Jacques Lacan or here

Interview on the steps of the Pantheon : Wednesday 13th May 1970 : Jacques Lacan or here

Analyticon 2 : Impromptu Number 2 : given at Vincennes : Wednesday 4th June 1970 : Jacques Lacan or here

Further information:

‘Meno’, Montaigne and the ‘Docta Ignorantia’: Some thoughts and comments on the weak symbolic in the 21st century by Bruce Scott on January 21, 2012 or here

Posts for the “B. Seminar VI : towards NLS in Ghent, 2014” category : Available here

A number of the references commented on by Jacques Lacan are available at Seminar VI: Desire and its interpretation: 1958-1959 : from 12th November 1958 : Jacques Lacan or here

‘Posts for the “A. Reading Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis”’ category : here

Posts for the “D. Reading Seminar X Group” category: available here

A number of the references commented on by Jacques Lacan are available at Seminar VII: The ethics of psychoanalysis: 1959-1960: Jacques Lacan or here

A number of the references commented on by Jacques Lacan are available Seminar X: The Anxiety (or Dread): 1962-1963: begins 14th November 1962: Jacques Lacan: Text in English & References or here

Écrits : 1966 : Jacques Lacan or here

Autres Écrits: 2001 : Jacques Lacan or here

Posts for the “Lacan Jacques” category : Available here

Posts for the “Freud Sigmund”category : Available here

Posts for the “Dreams” category : Available here

Posts for the “Topology and the Lacanian clinic” category : Available here