Looking for Tracks in Lacan’s “Kant avec Sade”

In 2010 I was invited to take part in a cartel with Filip Geerardyn, Wim Matthys and Elisabeth Van Dam for a close reading of Lacan’s text “Kant with Sade”. In the aftermath of this I wrote this text, which is neither a record of the cartel, nor an attempt to interpret or to summarize Lacan’s text. It is the result of following the tracks that Lacan sets out, more a Deleuzian Rhizome than a logical or critical argument. Following these tracks leads to a dramatic discovery. Lacan’s act of writing is an invitation to work through some crucial questions on ethics (Kant and Freud) rather than to consume Sade’s literature or to consider the case of the French libertine.

Kant with Sade, Sade with Kant

During the 60s, at a time when many leading philosophers were showing an interest in Sade, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan also wrote an essay on the literary works of the libertine aristocrat D.A.F. de Sade, often called “The Divine Marquis”. That essay, entitled “Kant avec Sade”, is regularly cited but rarely discussed in any depth by philosophers and psychoanalysts, partly as a result of Lacan’s baroque style of writing, his sloppy formulations, and his suggestive language. However, in spite of this, Lacan’s text is worthwhile reading. The central idea is that Sade’s oeuvre reveals the truth of Kant’s moral philosophy. In his article, the author shows that this remarkable thesis can be understood in at least two ways. Moreover, it is also argued that Lacan’s thesis can be read in a reverse direction, although Lacan himself never says that explicitly. It will be shown in the third section that according to Lacan, Kant is the truth of Sade.

Kant’s Essay “Beantwortung der Frage: was ist Aufklärung?” in Light of Lacan’s Big Other

Where the Enlightenment has claimed the space to answer its own questions, something new appears. In the German Republic of Letters between 1780-1790 a strident movement of thought advanced towards the borders of a true critique of Enlightenment. Mendelssohn, Reinhold, Wieland, Herder, Lessing and Schiller were central figures in German philosophy, questioning the nature and practice of the Enlightenment through resolute reflection on its limits. Kant’s essay, Beantwortung der Frage: was ist Aufklärung?, follows in their footsteps but also breaks away from this path. He leads us away from the obligatory content towards the courageous form of enlightened thinking: sapere aude! Those who can find the strength to think for themselves can be free from a self-imposed state of immaturity. However, a Self-Thinker never thinks alone according to Kant. His Aufklärungessay as well as his Kritik der Urteilskraft make it clear that thinking and judging for yourself are dynamic activities that always take the place of the other into account. They are exercises in freedom and effort is required to measure the universality of one’s own language to that of the other. Making public use of Reason is Kant’s ideal. Reason’s activity is only possible through speech and language, in a praxis and culture, through difference and debate. From a Lacanian point of view this is the place of the big Other, a universal field of signifiers circulating within our lacks, illuminating something of the desire of a subject. In this article the author addresses Kant’s idea of Enlightenment by relating it to Lacan’s notions of the big Other and the coming into being of the subject, in relation to this Other.