Triadic structures in Hegel, Peirce, Freud, and Lacan
The triadic organisation of various aspects of the world can be found not only in most diverse spiritual, religious, and cultural traditions, from prehistoric times to the present day, but also in a variety of scientific and philosophical systems. Different authors developed different approaches to ordering triadic structures. Particularly important for our essay will be Hegel, Peirce, Freud, and Lacan, whose approaches nevertheless share important characteristics. Understanding the basics of their ideas is a prerequisite for deciphering methodological differences and similarities between them.
German philosopher Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) is renowned for the triadic construction of his concepts. The triadic form is for him about movement from inner contradiction involved in binary truth claims to higher-level integration (Loos, 2002) that is bringing deeper understanding. He applied the dialectical method (1807, Phenomenology of Spirit) as a three-step process operating between the thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. He was building on previous work of Kant (1778; thesis — antithesis) and on Fichte (1794; synthesis between contradictions), as well as on the Pythagorean triangular reasoning. The dialectical method assumes a vertical progression in which the first idea, a thesis, is positive and followed by a second idea that negates it as its opposite. The conflict produces a third idea, synthesis, that is unifying.
A thesis is an abstract thought, a concept, or an assertion about reality emerging from resolving contradictions in the concerned matter at a lower level of considerations. The incompleteness of the thesis, while it also lacks the negative of trial, error, and experience (Novak-Marcincin et al., 2014), invoke negation with the anti-thesis. This step is negatively rational and produces instability that produces a crack, which opens the thesis. Yet, anti-thesis is itself only a sort of a thesis, it is also incomplete and abstract so it must be negated. Opening of thesis and antithesis creates new space that enables synthesis between initial principal contradictions.
Hegel thought, as noted, that essential matters are resolved between dyadic structures, not in triadic ones that only give the service of intermediation. However, it is precisely this ‘indecisive’ or transiting middle position between dyadic and triadic thinking that earned his approach originality for mesoscopic framing of socially complex matters, originality that has been too many times overlooked in the mainstream methodological circles of social research (but ingeniously clarified by Peirce).
The synthesis as the third dialectical step then calls for a more elaborate presentation, by its distinctive sub-processes. The synthesis must first discover in a thesis and anti-thesis the respect in which they are alike (Fichte in Maybee, 2019), by showing which part of reality they attach to and which they do not, or by determining in what respect and to what degree they are each true (Maybee, 2019). Finding, that a thesis and anti-thesis are in a way similar, frees binary oppositions and creates a possibility for synthesis. In the second step, the synthesis must find a way to fulfill ‘the tendencies illuminated by the thesis in order to promote the goals of the antithesis’ (Wood, 2011).
The central feature of the dialectical synthesis is comprised in the logical principle of negation of the negation. Negation first limits the reach of the thesis and then transforms it by second negation that absorbs negative elements of the anti-thesis (Maybee, 2019). Friedrich Engels (in Anti-Duhring, 1877) gave an example: ’we start with algebraic quantity, for instance, a. If this is negated, we get -a (minus a). If we negate that negation, by multiplying -a by -a, we get +a2, i.e., the original positive quantity, but at a higher degree, raised to its second power’.
Another example recalls classical antagonism between economic development and environmental sustainability. Dialectical synthesis leads to adopting a green model of economic development such as in the EU (the ‘Green Deal’, COM(2019)640) that negates both sides of antagonism by showing they are both valuable but also acutely one-sided. Economic development without environmental protection is not sustainable in the long run. Environmental sustainability without economic concerns about the efficiency and productivity of European firms in global competition may be detrimental to securing the preservation of achieved level of collective standard and maintaining relative social stability. The Green Deal aims to promote economic development only when it has direct or at least strong positive side effects on prioritised areas of environmental sustainability compared to present achievements. Analogously, environmental sustainability should not only conserve natural resources but also promote the meeting needs of local communities.
What is important in both examples is that negation of the negation does neither entirely refuse the thesis, nor reinstitute it but reconstruct original two oppositions at a higher level as mediated hybrid instead of immediate principal assertion, expressed in overlap peripherally, instead of centrally imposed.
The dialectical synthesis is indispensable because it draws positive outcomes from the negative relation between the thesis and anti-thesis due to ‘sublation’, the ability for simultaneously overcoming and preserving opposites between which it intermediates. The dialectical synthesis must not only negate opposition but also absorb negation by sublation. It can achieve this by acting as a deconstructive (negating, fracturing) as well as constructive (progressive, synthesising) mechanism. With its positive character, the dialectical synthesis offers itself as an especially useful approach to reasoning in complex, transformative social conditions that themselves intertwine forces of deconstruction and synthesis as drivers of emerging radical novelty.
The next author who extensively worked with triadic structures was American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914). He is praised, among other things, for his contributions to semiotics, the study of sign in communications. A sign is anything that communicates meaning to the interpreter of the sign. Words, numbers, and images are examples. As we think and speak in signs, semiotics is, according to Peirce, appropriately understood as the study of meaning-making.
A Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) initially formulated two-part ‘dyadic’ model of the sign, consisting of a ‘signifier’, or the form that a sign takes, and the ‘signified,’ or content, or meaning it represents. Since the signifier is alienated from signified, we can never access reality integrally.
In contrast to Saussure’s model, Peirce formulated a triadic model of the sign consisting of ‘an object’ (the signified), ‘sign’ (the signifier), and ‘an interpretant’ that intermediates between them (Peirce, 1966). The interpretant identifies the meaning by a translation of the sign and developing a more complex concept of the object (Atkin, 2010; — further presentation of Peirce’s logic is due to its special importance continued below). Meaning is then not directly attached to the sign. It is mediated through an act of ‘semiosis’ that signifies triadic co-arising with the emergence of meaning from the interaction between the sign, interpretant, and object. For instance, semiosis would require thorough evaluation (by the interpretant) of social study’s analytical findings (the signs) before making a judgment about their relevance for explaining social reality (an object).
Austrian Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the founder of psychoanalysis also built his theory on the triadic organization of integral oppositions. He developed original insights into the human irrational and the unconscious, as the place hiding the person’s inner truth. Human personality is, according to Freud (1923, The ego and the id), complex, which he explains with a theory of the psyche consisting of three parts: the Id, Ego, and Superego. The Id (Latin for ‘It’) contains everything that is laid down already in a person’s constitution. It is the primitive part of the personality containing the set of uncoordinated instinctual desires. It is selfish, impulsive, and infantile. The Id engages in primary process thinking that has no comprehension of objective reality (McLeod, 2019), it is primitive, illogical, irrational, chaotic, and fantasy-oriented.
The opposite part of human personality is the Superego. It is incorporating the values and morals of society. The super-ego reflects the father figure with internalised socio-cultural regulations. It operates as a moral conscience that controls the Id’s instinctive impulses. It also has the task of persuading the Ego to turn to moralistic goals rather than simply realistic ones (McLeod, 2019).
In his model, the Ego mediates between the desires of the Id and imperatives of the Super-ego, between the unrealistic and the imposed real (McLeod, 2019), with the aim to find a balance between them. The Ego wants to satisfy from the middle ground the needs of the Id, while progressively endorsing the moral standards of the Superego. The Ego is realistic and applies secondary process thinking that applies relational logic and rationality. This is the organized part that includes cross-sectional, intermediary, and executive functions.
Each component of psyche adds its own unique contribution to personality by outweighing each other’s positive or negative excesses. When the Id dominates, a person will act impulsively and discount the rules of society, confronting imperatives of the Superego and constraints of the Ego. If the Superego dominates, the person can become too moralistic and judgmental about those who breach socio-cultural standards. If the Ego becomes too emphasised, it can lead to an inflated sense of self-worth. Moderate ego strength (in Bálint, 1942) is required when staying in the middle and balancing contradictory parts of the personality.
Freud’s follower, French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Jacques Lacan (1901–1981) also enthusiastically worked with triadic concepts. His work became important in many other fields, especially those associated with post-structuralism and linguistics. Slavoj Žižek, as his intellectual descendant and founder of the Ljubljana school of Lacanian psychoanalysis, extended importance of his work for political theory and for the analysis of institutional reproduction, which situates Lacan closer to the horizon of this essay.
Lacan is an infamous writer for using enigmatic language and developing very elusive terminology that is many times hard to understand even for philosophers. This is partly a result of his distinctive surrealist personal style that celebrates irrationality (Dylan, 2005) and circularity. Yet, Lacan’s style is in a way consistent with the object of his primary concerns — irrationality and the unconscious. He was well aware that enforcing rational language on irrational matters fatally distorts them. Lacan instead writes between lines in the ambiguous middle where he gains an opportunity to evaporate the standard boundaries between the rational and irrational.
Furthermore, Lacan is not concerned with a search of truth, but with psychical conceptions of the idea of truth. He explains the way phenomena and events in the world are imagined and represented for us only via signs and so with an ingrained tension of lack (void) between the representation of the real and the (concept of) real, which splits human’s consciousness.
He shapes a model of the mental life of humans as a matrix of three integral ’registers’ (Lacan, 1977): the Imaginary, Symbolic and Real. The Imaginary is the realm of images and imagination that form a person’s view about itself and others in a kind of a dream state, similar to the Id in Freud. This is the undifferentiated early state of the child, characteristic for unity with a parent. The imaginary exists only in the mind. It is not objectively real, but it is real as an image (Stanizai, 2018). Lacan despised Imaginary order claiming that narcissistic modern time represents its the highest point (Mafakher et al, 2012).
The Symbolic is the domain of culture as the intersubjective realm that holds customs, laws, norms, practices that mediate a person’s reference to reality. The Symbolic is the world of signs that creates comprehension of the world of things (Lacan, 2002). The symbolic order is repressive for excesses of the Imaginary order even though the Symbolic order itself can exist only as devoid of its object’s incomprehensibility.
The Real as the third Lacanian register refers to the world before it is broken into pieces by symbols. It is that what loses its ‘reality’ and ‘innocence’ once it is made conscious through symbols (Loos, 2002). The Real is beyond, behind, or beneath phenomenal appearances accessible to the direct experiences of first-person awareness (Johnston, 2018). It can be encountered as the void of gaps in the Symbolic (McSweeney, 2008). Yet, the Real, comprehended on its own is pure nonsense, the site of a radical indeterminacy (Evans, 1996). Meaning exists only when observed through symbolic order (Mafakher et al, 2012). The Real in Lacan may be relevant for studying previously introduced concept of disorder.
Lacan studied relations between three registers with the Borromean knot (originally pictured on the coat of arms of the Borromeo family from a 14th-century Italy; a simple planar projection of the knot to two dimensions gives the familiar Venn diagram of three overlapping circles; see Figure x.x, below). The defining property of the Borromean structure is that if you untangle one of the circles, the other two will also fall apart, implying that all three are integral domains of the whole. Lacan was fascinated by the analytical possibilities of the knot. He wrote: ‘It is a historical fact that you don’t come across a Borromean knot every day… When I got wind of this thing, this Borromean knots… [they] fitted me like a glove’ (in Murray, 2014). Borromean knot is a valuable tool also for studying complex phenomena at the meso level consisting of (at least) three incommensurable domains of the phenomena that are nevertheless integrally related and dependent.
Eventhough the inner logic of the knot is both deconstructive and synthesising in character, Lacan applied only its negative aspect. Three registers in mental life are in traumatic relations because they always remain unfulfilled. Understanding of complex reality can arise only in the most unsatisfying overlap between the impossibility of the Real and illusions that accompany the Imaginary and Symbolic. In Lacan’s hands, the knot cannot produce synthesis; it enables merely ‘plotting disorderly motions of the human mind’ (Bowie, 1991). A triadic schema that leaves out the transformative element of synthesis between opposites freezes reasoning in the eternal void.
Hegel, Peirce, Freud, and Lacan organized their triadic structures in different ways. These can be either a vertical or horizontal set-ups, constructive or deconstructive, applied between micro and macro level (Freud, Lacan), at macro level alone (Hegel), or at meso level (Peirce). Nonetheless, they all outlined one element of a triad that is intermediating between the other two elements at the middle level: ego, sign, synthesis, or interpretant. They share their primary interest in the irrational, inconsistent, transient, and cyclical in every effort for more comprehensive understanding of the complex phenomena. The third element is in all cases standing between dyadic oppositions. The middle category established matrical, cross-sectional, overlapping relations to intermediate between polar opposites. Their triadic thinking was not set in antagonism to dyadic thinking but only incorporated it into a broader and explanatory richer schema.
From my book (with Mojca Golobič), “Social Complexity: In the Middle of a Middle World”, https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/social-complexity-complex-society-middle-world-bojan-bojan-radej/?published=t
You are invited to join LinkedIn group “Complex Public Governance”, https://www.linkedin.com/groups/8522366/