‘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

Plato’s Dialogue, ‘Meno’, (written in the middle of the fourth century B.C.E.  [i]) is a wonderful example of an anti-technological and anti-systemizing stance towards psychotherapy or psychoanalysis. In the ‘Meno’, Socrates and Meno debate the nature of virtue and if one can be taught it. Socrates concludes this dialogue: 

“ ……..virtue would be neither an inborn quality nor taught, but comes to those who posses it as a gift from the Gods which is not accompanied by understanding, unless there is someone among our statesmen who can make another into a statesman. If there were one, he could be said to be among the living as Homer said Tiresias was among the dead, namely, that “he alone retained his wits while others flitted about like shadows”. In the same manner such a man would, as far as virtue is concerned, here also be the only true reality compared, as it were, with shadows.” (Plato [ii] ).

Like Lacan’s hysteric (Seminar XVII:17th December 1969 [iii]  [Availability given Seminar XVII: Psychoanalysis upside down/The reverse side of psychoanalysis: 1969-1970 : from 26th November 1969: Jacques Lacan or here ]), a man searching for virtue from a teacher or somehow believing he has the inborn quality of it (perhaps by tapping into it through computerised CBT – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy -techniques) is flitting about in the shadows, believing there is a technical way to get what he wants; one would only be shadow boxing with illusions (or in the imaginary) in such a case.

The understanding of Plato’s ( [iv] ) ‘Statesman’, the expert who leads the polis who does not really know, he only appears to know, is the false understanding that a technical endeavour can make one virtuous. Today the ‘Statesman’ is in role of the CBT therapist, psychiatrist and logical-positivist therapist, having knowledge of the cure, being in the position of the one who knows. But as Plato shows in the example above, virtue comes to those as like a gift from the Gods and thus one’s belief in having virtue is far different than being able to have knowledge of it. Therefore one has to find one’s own mind, or perhaps be content in the idea that no imposed symbolic discourse can ever give one the true answer. In other words, the art of conversation (and point of the dialogue) of Socrates in the Meno, is to teach the slave (of one could say the master/university discourse; see Lacan,: Seminar XVII: 14th January 1970 [v]  [Availability of Sem XVII given here  ]) to give his own speech its own true meaning. As Plato describes in the ‘Meno’, one cannot teach someone to find one’s own meaning/discourse, just as somebody cannot teach one good mental health, or force somebody through various techniques to be cured from mental illness, because if one did, as happens today, one would still be a slave.

On a similar note, Michel de Montaigne ( [vi] ) from his essay, ‘The Art of Conversation’ – written about 1580, describes how conversation is dialectic, an art (similar to psychoanalysis and psychotherapy) where reason, cogitation and slavishness to doctrine and dogma, to the wisdom of the Other, or as Lacan (The Subversion of the subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious :September 1960 [vii]  [Availability given The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire (Royaumont): 19th to 23rd September 1960: Jacques Lacan or here]) might say, to the one-supposed-to-know, leading to universal judgements, is a lax and dangerous path to follow. Montaigne appeals to the ordinary in living a good life; an ordinariness that is beyond truisms of the academy which dictate to the masses a dogma of how we should live, and which lead us into absurdity. Montaigne describes:

“Take an arts don; converse with him. Why is he incapable of making us feel the excellence of his “arts” and of throwing the women, and us ignoramuses, into ecstasies of admiration at the solidity of his arguments and the beauty of his ordained rhetoric! Why cannot he overmaster us and sway us at his will? Why does a man with his superior mastery of matter and style intermingle his sharp thrusts with insults, indiscriminate arguments and rage? Let him remove his academic hood, his gown and his Latin; let him stop battering our ears with raw chunks of pure Aristotle; why, you would take him for one of us –or worse. The involved linguistic convolutions with which they confound us remind me of conjuring tricks; their sleight-of-hand has compelling force over our senses but in no wise shakes our convictions. Apart from such jugglery they achieve nothing but what is base and ordinary. They may be more learned but they are no less absurd……..In my part of the country and during my own lifetime school learning has brought amendment of purse but rarely amendment of soul.” (Montaigne [viii]).

Later on, in the chapter ‘On the Art of Conversation’, Montaigne outlines why Socrates debates not for the sake of debating, but for the sake of the debater; to show the debater that ultimate truisms are ungraspable in how to go about living a good life. In essence, Montaigne espouses the Docta Ignorantia; the doctrine of learned or wise ignorance as coined by the 15th century philosopher and theologian Nicolas Cusanus (On learned ignorance :1440 see [ix] ). Likewise, the position of the analyst or therapist is to be in the position of the Docta Ignorantia, not of the one-who-knows, but of the one who can be formative for the subject; for the analyst to accept that he does not know any anything about the analysand except for what the latter’s own words or signifiers reveal.

As Clotilde Leguil-Badal (2006 [x]) describes, 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 in a psychometric questionnaire. Leguil-Badal describes how from a political standpoint how subjectivity is being wiped out, paradoxically because we supposedly live in an age where freedom, democracy, and the rights of the individual are held up as values. On the one hand we have ‘freedom’ and the ‘human rights to freedom and be what we want when we want’ or in other words subjectivity, yet on the other hand we have the neurosciences, computer-like/information processing discourse of CBT [xi] and the IAPT [xii] discourse (cognitive re-programming for the unemployed), and psycho-scientific ideology of mental health and illness from the likes of NICE [xiii]. These discourses of power banish subjectivity as the brain and the science of mental health rules and guides subjectivity. This creates a landscape or symbolic with no landmarks; science is the big authority of how we feel, think, experience; subjectivity is written out of the picture as we are pre-determined, yet we are supposed to be free. If people get unhappy they blame it on their neurones or cognitions. In turn they demand happiness assuming it is a human right and that such a thing from an imaginary ideal of mental healthiness is possible; this is a big double-bind, a vicious circle. The human spirit is never seen in an MRI scan [xiv] or in the results of a cognitive psychology laboratory experiment measuring reactions time to depressive or negative stimuli (i.e., negative words paired with self-referent words). What gets missed in these discourses in that the subject exists by his speech, his silence, and his actions, not by scientific knowledge or discourse. The subject existing in the here and now is being forgotten about; science comes first and we are increasingly defining ourselves by an abstract fictitious scientistic Weltanschauung to become free, but by defining ourselves by science we paradoxically give up our liberty and subjectivity.

The rise of brain science and cognitive science is in many ways actively denouncing the creativity of the subject. The subject (or psyche) is being drawn into the working of the brain and cognitive theories of inner schematic representations with the result that activities such as psychoanalysis and psychotherapy which adopt the approach of the Docta Ignorantia, are being made out to be redundant and useless. 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., that the self is an illusory construction). In other words, one is invited to conceive of oneself as a machine, as a processor of information and receiver of stimuli and a network of neuronal interactions.

The government’s cognitive neuroscientific agenda is spreading like an empire. As is the case with empires, borders are blurred; one does not know where one culture starts and other begins. Aspects of subjective experience are being cultured out 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. We become as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1977 [xv] ) put it, a cancerous body without organs (i.e., our embodiment with a stultifying, crippling, fixed discourse). Yes we are a brain, and we do have neurochemicals and we think, but we are primarily subjects. In continuing to hold to this, a hold on to suffering, which is, however difficult it may be to accept, is as much a part of what it is to be a subject as it is it is to live, be happy and to die. The Borromean knot (Lacan 1960  [xvi] ) that is being tied by the cognitive-neuroscientific empire results in such suffering or free subjectivity not being allowed to flourish.

I do not feel this is necessarily a morbid idea, to live by the Docta Ignorantia; it is a path of liberation. But one cannot explain to somebody who cannot get it, how to get it. Sigmund Freud (On Beginning the Treatment: 1913  [xvii] See endnote for electronic availability) described when asked by a patient how long it would take for the cure to take place, he replied by inviting the patient to walk (metaphorically speaking). It was only then he would get a sense of how he would progress on the way to what one could call living a good life. We can only ask people to walk, and let them walk freely. If we protest and tell them they have to walk down a certain road and that we are the master of this road, then they will never learn to walk by themselves.


Cusanus, N. (2007). On learned ignorance. Trans. G. Heron. Eugene, Oregon, Wipf & Stock Publishers. p.7.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (2004). Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. London, Continuum. p. 165-184.

Freud, S. (2001/1913). The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud. Volume XII: Case history of Schreber, Papers on technique and other works. London, Vintage UK Random House. p.128. Availability electronically given in endnote (xvii)

Lacan, (2006). Ecrits. Trans. B. Fink. London, W.W. Norton & Company. p. 671-702 (Availability given Écrits : 1966 : Jacques Lacan or here  )

Leguil-Badal, C (2006). Être ou ne plus être and Sur le cognitivisme, chapters from L’anti livre noir de la psychoanalyse. Edited by J.A. Miller. Paris, Éditions du Seuil. p. 241-276.

Montaigne, M. de (1991). The complete essays. London, Penguin Books Ltd. p. 1044-1069.


[i] Plato: The Complete works. (1997) Edited by J.M. Cooper. Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing Company Inc. p.294-358 and p.870-897 available here.

[ii] P897 of Plato 1997, op.cit. in endnote i

[iii] page 29-38, known as ‘Chapter II: The master and the hysteric’  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.

Or p31-42 of Le Séminaire de Jacques Lacan, Livre XVII, L’Envers de la Psychanalyse, 1969-1970, by Éditions du Seuil, Paris, 1991

Or translated by Cormac Gallagher from tape-recordings and unedited, as Chapter III: p1-13: 17.12.69 of ‘The seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book XVII: Psychoanalysis upside down/The reverse side of psychoanalysis’: 1969-1970’ published at www.lacaninireland.com and available here.

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

[iv] p.294-358 of Plato 1997, op. cit. see endnote i

[v] op.cit see endnote iii: p39-53: ‘Chapter III:Knowledge, a means of jouissance’ of Russell Grigg’s 2007 translation.

p43-59 of Paris Seuil, 1991.

Or Cormac Gallagher’s translation: Chapter IV: Wednesday 14th January 1970: p1-18

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

[vi] p.1044-1069 of Montaigne, Michel de. The Complete Essays. Translated by M.A. Screech.  New York: Penguin, 1991

Julia Evans notes that a much older translation (1877) is available on-line: the Project Gutenberg’s The Essays of Montaigne, Complete, by Michel de Montaigne. Chapter VIII ‘Of the art of conference’, Translated by Charles Cotton

, Edited by William Carew Hazlitt, Release Date: September 17, 2006 [EBook #3600] is available here.

[vii] ‘The Subversion of the subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious: 19th to 23rd September 1960’ p671-702 of Jacques Lacan: Écrits:The first complete edition in English, translated by Bruce Fink, published by W. W, Norton & Company, 2006.

Or p293- 325, Chapter NINE of Jacques Lacan : Écrits: A Selection, translated by Alan Sheridan, published by Routledge, 1977.

Or p793-827, ‘Subversion du sujet et dialectique du désir dans l’inconscient freudien’, Écrits, Paris: du Seuil, 1966

Availability given The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire (Royaumont): 19th to 23rd September 1960: Jacques Lacan or here

[viii] p.1050 of Montaigne – op.cit. see endnote vi

[ix] p7 of Cusanus, N. : On learned ignorance. Trans. G. Heron. Eugene, Oregon, Wipf & Stock Publishers (2007).

[x] Leguil-Badal, C (2006). ‘Être où ne plus être’ and ‘Sur le cognitivisme’, chapters from L’anti livre noir de la psychoanalyse. Edited by J.A. Miller. Paris, Éditions du Seuil. 2006, p. 241-276.

[xi] CBT = Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

[xii] IAPT = Increased Access to Psychological Therapy. Further information is available here.

[xiii] NICE = National Institute for Clinical Excellence. Further information is available from their web-site here.

[xiv] MRS = Magnetic resonance imaging scan

[xv] p. 165-184 of the 2004 edition: Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. ‘Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and schizophrenia’. London, Continuum. 2004.  Originally published as Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1977) Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. R. Hurley. Viking, New York.

[xvi] Op. cit. see endnote vii

[xvii] Freud S. (1913), ‘On Beginning the Treatment’, p128 of Volume XII: Case history of Schreber, Papers on technique and other works: The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud: London, Vintage UK Random House: 2001. This paper is not published in the Penguin Freud Library. See below for electronic availability.

The following is quoted from Freud, S. (1913). On Beginning the Treatment (Further Recommendations on the Technique of Psycho-Analysis I). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XII (1911-1913): The Case of Schreber, Papers on Technique and Other Works, p121-144 

“An unwelcome question which the patient asks the doctor at the outset is: ‘How long will the treatment take? How much time will you need to relieve me of my trouble?’ If one has proposed a trial treatment of a few weeks one can avoid giving a direct answer to this question by promising to make a more reliable pronouncement at the end of the trial period. Our answer is like the answer given by the Philosopher to the Wayfarer in Aesop’s fable. When the Wayfarer asked how long a journey lay ahead, the Philosopher merely answered ‘Walk!’ and afterwards explained his apparently unhelpful reply on the ground that he must know the length of the Wayfarer’s stride before he could tell how long his journey would take. This expedient helps one over the first difficulties; but the comparison is not a good one, for the neurotic can easily alter his pace and may at times make only very slow progress. In point of fact, the question as to the probable duration of a treatment is almost unanswerable.”

Note – electronic availability:

Papers on Technique : 1911-1915 : ‘Wild’ Psycho-Analysis (1910) : Papers on Technique (1911-1915) :  The Handling of Dream Interpretation in Psycho-Analysis (1911) :  The Dynamics of Transference (1912) : Recommendations to Physicians Practising Psycho-Analysis (1912) : On Beginning the Treatment (Further Recommendations on the Technique of Psychoanalysis I) (1913) : Remembering, repeating and Working Through (Further Recommendations on the Technique of Psychoanalysis II) (1914) : Observations on Transference-Love (Further Recommendations on the Technique of Psychoanalysis III) (1914) : Appendix : List of Writings by Freud dealing mainly with technique and theory : Fausse Reconnaissance (‘Déjà Raconté) in Psycho-Analytic Treatment (1914) : Remarks on the Theory and Practice of Dream-Interpretation (1923) : you will find Freud’s paper in English with the original German text laid out in the right hand column : published by www.Freud2Lacan.com : available here

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

See also:

Occupy the madness-29/01/2012- The Docta Ignorantiaby Bruce Scott on January 29, 2012 or here

Further information:

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 http://www.lacanianworks.net/?cat=11

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