When Jacques-Alain Miller was a philosophy student at L’Ecole Normale Superieure, Althusser told him to read “all of Lacan,” so he did. Then, one day when Lacan was visiting the school, Miller asked him a now-‘famous’ question that supposedly revealed the key to Lacan’s psychoanalysis, and the two from then on entered into an understanding which was to last all their lives. Miller’s question was: “Does your notion of the subject imply an ontology?” (via)
Another account of the exchange (which includes Lacan’s answer), located here, is:
The ontological concerns of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse themselves are prefigured in a key moment in Jacques Lacan’s seminar in the spring of 1964, when Jacques-Alain Miller asked Lacan if his theory of the subject, grounded in an account of lack and its structuring function of the unconscious, presupposed an ontology. In the seminar, Lacan answered this question with the suggestion that the constitutive gap of the unconscious was essentially ‘pre-ontological’. The Cahiers pursue Miller’s original question along multiple lines, identifying points of contact between Lacan’s theory of subjectivity and the ontological concerns to be found in recent and contemporary developments in logic and the sciences.
As far as I can tell, there are two possible interpretations of the word ‘ontology’ in Miller’s question. Ontology can mean ‘study of being’, or more rarely can mean ‘diegesis’ (fictional ‘world’), though I’m not sure if the latter is still true in the French. In the former case, it would seem that Miller is asking “Does your notion of the subject imply that your work is a study of being?” In the latter case, he would be asking if the ego (which is an imaginary construction) subsists in a distinct diegesis (i.e. a plane of reality separate from everyday existence).
Even after hearing Cahiers pour l’Analyse‘s account, I still do not understand the question (nor how Lacan’s answer can be correct). My question to Lacanians, then, is: what does Miller mean, what does Lacan’s answer mean in relation to Miller’s question, and what are the broad implications of this question?
(Note: the above exchange can be found in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis.)