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Monday, January 25, 2016

Excursus on Negation

Excursus on Negation

Negation is a way of taking cognizance of what is repressed; indeed it is already a lifting of the repression, thought not, of course, an acceptance of what is repressed.
    —Freud, “Negation”[1]

Freud’s notion Verneinung in German, was rendered as (dé)négation in French, i.e.,  négation/dénégation in a construction with Derridean overtones, and translated as “negation” in English. In ordinary German usage, Verneinung denotes negation and denial, and verneinen comes close to verleugen, “to disown, deny, disavow, refute.”[2] In his 1925 essay on negation, Freud effectively separates the notion of denial as repression (keeping things out of conscious awareness) from negation as a resistance to what surfaces when the repression is acknowledged. In later work, Freud further differentiated negation with the term Verleugnung or disavowal, “the refusal to perceive a fact which is imposed by the external world.”[3] Freud used the interpretation of dreams to illustrate the differences. What is repressed in waking life is a form of denial that may come out in a symbolic way in a dream; when the dream is interpreted, the reaction denying the interpretation is a negation, whereas disavowal is negation in the face of external reality.

Negation is a key concept for both psychoanalysis and philosophy. The link here is through Lacan’s use of Freud’s Verneinung in French as dénégation (rendered more simply as “negation” in English). Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek brings the two together in readings of two major European thinkers – French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and German philosopher G.F. Hegel – thinking through the psychoanalytic negation in philosophy and the philosophical negation in psychoanalytic theory.[4]

Negation has been a topic in logic since antiquity but what Hegel brought to it is the notion that the double negative (negation of a negation) is not a simple undoing leading to an affirmation but a process that leaves traces of negation in its wake. The double negative is not a “zero sum game” but a dialectical struggle that permeates thought.

[1] Sigmund Freud, "Negation," in: The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 19, trans. James Strachey (1953-1974), pp. 235-239.
[2] Jean Laplanche and J.B. Pontilis, "Negation," in: The Language of Psycho-Analysis (trans. by Donald Nicholson-Smith (1973), pp. 235-237; p. 236.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Wilfried Ver Eecke, Denial, Negation, and the Forces of the Negative: Freud, Hegel, Lacan, Spitz, and Sophocle (2006). 

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