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Pragmatism and the unconscious: Language and subject in psychoanalytic theory, pragmatist philosophy, and American narrative

Christopher Hanlon, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation examines a series of conceptions shared by the psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan and two key, first-generation members of the American pragmatist school of philosophy, Charles Sanders Peirce and George Herbert Mead. In one sense, this undertaking responds to the recent international interest in uncovering affinities between pragmatism and continental postmodern thought, but in a more polemical vein, the dissertation inveighs against the work of neopragmatists who configure “pragmatism” as a nominalist-oriented, anti-theoretical system of thought. By emphasizing pragmatist formulations of two often-overlooked members of the pragmatist school, Pragmatism and the Unconscious attempts to restore a stridently abstract, unapologetically theoretical, and indeed pragmatist cast of mind to its proper place. Lacan's writings and seminars have gained notoriety as a form of obscurantism, but in linking Lacanian theory to pragmatism, the dissertation does not merely attempt an improbable synthesis of opposites. Rather, the premise here is that Lacanian theory is the natural partner of pragmatist philosophy, and for very concrete reasons. One of these is that Lacan's central thesis, that “the unconscious is structured like a language,” emerged in part out of Lacan's engagement with the founding texts of pragmatism, the semiotic theories of C. S. Peirce; another is that the social psychology of George Herbert Mead provides perhaps the closest analogue to Lacan's treatment of intersubjectivity we may find in the twentieth century. Pragmatism and the Lacanian unconscious are thus already linked both in terms of textual transmission and conceptual affinity; Pragmatism and the Unconscious merely attempts to reveal these linkages in their philosophical richness. American narrative plays an explicative role in the dissertation. Whereas Chapter One stages a meeting between Peirce and Lacan, Chapter Two locates the shared concerns of these thinkers within the status of women in Nathaniel Hawthorne's fiction. While Chapter Three focuses on George Herbert Mead's ideas concerning identity as an effect and process of social collaboration as well as Lacan's approximations of such notions, Chapter Four locates these problems as a fundamental issue for Nella Larsen's treatment of African-American subjectivity in her novels Passing and Quicksand .* *Originally published in DAI Vol. 62, No. 4. Republished here with corrected abstract.

Subject Area

American literature|Philosophy|American studies

Recommended Citation

Hanlon, Christopher, "Pragmatism and the unconscious: Language and subject in psychoanalytic theory, pragmatist philosophy, and American narrative" (2001). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3012135.