Valéry, Goldstein, and Lacan as Epistemologists

Three Undiscovered Epistemologists: Paul Valéry, Kurt Goldstein, Jacques Lacan

Mai Wegener

The well-known poet Paul Valéry (1871–1945), the neuroscientist Kurt Goldstein (1878–1965), and the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901–81) are less known as thinkers who also elaborated on epistemological questions. They each established their poetic, neurological, or psychoanalytic practice at a certain distance from their traditional disciplines (if poetry can also be called a discipline), thus feeling encouraged to explore the conditions of these disciplines and highlight their place in the field of modernity between the modern sciences. Their epistemological reflections thereby exceeded self-reflection and examined the constitution of modern science generally. Here, they tended to focus on the life sciences, which had undergone radical changes in the nineteenth century that were still extremely relevant.

Paul Valéry was interested in the rules and structures common to both science and art, specifically the emergence of new objects prior to their definition as epistemic or artistic objects. He gave his attention to the field of “construction” (Leonardo, 1894; Cahiers) and the sphere of the “objet ambigu” (Eupalinos, 1921). This was the basis for his poetic theory as well as his notion of the characteristics of modern science.

Kurt Goldstein developed his experimental examinations (with the gestalt psychologist A. Gelb, 1918) by renouncing isolation as the basis of the scientific approach. Based on this practice, he formulated a critique of fundamental neurological concepts such as reflex theory, the notion of the symptom, concepts of experiment, illness and health. In opposition to the traditional neurosciences, he posited a holistic understanding of the organism (Der Aufbau des Organismus, 1934), which he used in his study of aphasia and other neurological diseases. His aim was to combine the scientific approach with an ethical attitude towards the suffering human being.

Jacques Lacan’s epistemic interests were closely linked with his reformulation of psychoanalysis. Here, psychoanalysis takes a position between neurology and literature: with neurology, it shares the supposition of thinking as a bodily process; with literature, the uncompromising commitment to language. Therefore, its epistemic position was problematic from its first formulation. Like Freud, Lacan defended psychoanalysis as the science of the unconscious, but going further than Freud, he also used psychoanalytical instruments to examine the structure of science, its modern conditions, and its object (La science et la vérité 1965, Seminar XIII).

Common to these three disparate approaches is the interest in language and the psyche’s relation to its bodily support. In their epistemic reflections, however, they took different positions. This project focused specifically on the interaction between practice and epistemic considerations in these three works.


  • “Paul Valérys objet ambigu,” in: Norbert Haas, Rainer Nägele, Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (eds.): Virtuosität, Liechtensteiner Exkurse, vol. VI, Eggingen: Edition Isele 2007.