Lacan, Jacques (1901–81)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DE013-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 23, 2018, from

Article Summary

Jacques Lacan was a French psychoanalyst and philosopher whose contribution to philosophy derives from his consistent and thoroughgoing reinterpretation of Freud’s writings in the light of Heidegger and Hegel as well as structuralist linguistics and anthropology. Whereas Freud himself had disparaged philosophical speculation, claiming for himself the mantle of the natural scientist, Lacan demonstrates psychoanalysis to be a rigorous philosophical position. Specifically, Lacan suggests that the Freudian unconscious is best understood as the effect of language (what he calls, ‘the symbolic’) upon human behaviour.

Lacan gives the name, ‘unconscious’ to what necessarily disrupts conscious life. In order to remain true to this disruptive effect, Lacan rejects the falsely reassuring clichés with which the idea of the unconscious has been popularized. He develops an understanding of the unconscious (doubtless strongly influenced by Hegel) that is based upon the difference implied in every identity – a difference conceivable as the ‘gap’ between the subject and any object that provides an identity to it. Since, according to Lacan, any such space or gap in some sense belongs to the object, identification is always imperfect. The effects that Freud associates with the unconscious derive from this imperfection.

Lacan developed his theory of the unconscious in three historical stages and corresponding to three ‘fields’ that define subjectivity – ‘imaginary’, ‘symbolic’ and ‘real’. Lacan’s major exposition of the idea of the imaginary came (while he was still in training as a psychoanalyst) in the 1936 paper later published as ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I’ (in Lacan 1966). In that paper, Lacan posited an imaginary field dramatized by events of mirror identification (with ‘images’) in pre-verbal infants. The prematurity of human infants – their incapacity, compared with the young of other species, to control their own actions – creates the need for an external model for intentional unity; such is Lacan’s explanation of the ‘jubilation’ of pre-verbal children from 6 months old onwards upon discovering their image either in a mirror or, more typically, in the mimicking gestures of another person.

But the same image that provides the site for jubilation also becomes the object of what Lacan calls ‘aggressivity’ – a proto-agression directed at the object of identification. For Lacan, such aggressivity results from the ‘alienation’ of that locus – the ego – where imaginary identification forms intentional unity. That is, in Lacanian theory the ego is first of all an object, the object in which the subject finds a ‘self.’ Because the ego can only appear as an object – as an other – its emergence also, according to Lacan, occasions the formation of a primordial violence directed against it.

Lacan’s work in the 1950s, starting with the so-called, ‘Rome Discourse’ – the essay later published under the title of ‘Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis’ (in Lacan 1966) – elaborates a new dimension in his thought, the symbolic. Lacan’s immersion in the structuralist linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss helps him to reveal the alternative to the imaginary. Whereas the imaginary offers the exclusive either/or of obsessive identity through representation or aggressive destruction of the object of identity, the symbolic partially satisfies both impulses.

The symbolic is able to have such success based upon the structure of the sign. If, for Saussure, the sign combines a material element (the signifier) and the ‘idea’ which it indicates (the signified), then Lacan sees this structure as representing precisely the split condition of all human representation. That is, because the sign can only make present a signified through the mediation of a signifier, there is an absence in every presence; the idea can only be present through what represents it but is not it. Moreover, to speak a language is implicitly to accept this limitation. It is to partially master absence – the absent signified is always to some extent present – but at the price of the implicit admission that there can be no transparent presence. Language is a representation, then, that always represents the necessity of alienation (in the ‘bar’ dividing signifier and signified) along with a specific object or state of affairs. Lacan’s reinterpretation of the Freudian Oedipal and castration dramas as the acceptance of this prohibition implicit in language (for example, the ‘Name-of-the-Father’ for the father) allows him to divide off the Freudian developmental schema from any culturally specific view of the family.

To address the symbolic more concretely demands one more observation. If the bar between signifier and signified represents to the subject its own ‘gap’ or ‘want-to-be’ (‘manque-à-être)’, then it does so in a movement, the process that Lacan identifies with ‘desire’. Within desire, language concretely demonstrates the impossibility of complete, unmediated presence. It does so by producing an ongoing process of ‘identifications’ mediated by language and always presenting themselves, therefore, as inadequate. Desire involves an ongoing movement which destroys identity (the ego) in favour of a metonymic ‘sliding’ from one signifier to another – but always by producing a new identity in the place of the old one.

It is this sliding that Lacan valorizes over and against the obsessive identification or aggressive demolition allowed by the imaginary. Lacan thus finds the efficacy of psychoanalysis in its ability to release desire from the limitations of the imaginary. It is possible to see how far a Freudianism based upon such an ‘ethics’ of pure desire, departs from almost all psychoanalytic orthodoxy. For most Freudians the purpose of analysis is at least partly to strengthen the ego. For Lacan the purpose of analysis is to allow the subject’s desire to overcome the imaginary grip of the ego – to make identity fluid (see Alterity and identity, postmodern theories of §2; Subject, postmodern critique of the).

In the 1960s and 1970s, Lacan’s work concentrates on Freud’s least accepted thesis. As Boothby (1991) shows, Lacan takes the Freudian hypothesis of a ‘death drive’, strips it of its biological trappings and then places it at the centre of psychoanalysis: what the dynamism of symbolic desire sustains within the subject’s world is precisely the release of those energies which, within the imaginary, could only gain expression through aggression – energies that necessarily evade the stasis of imaginary representation. The symbolic sublimates these energies, the energies of the death drive, by putting them to work in the process by which language erodes identity. With these ideas, Lacan devotes his latest work to what he calls the ‘impossible real’, to that which is forbidden entry into representation.

Citing this article:
Brockelman, Thomas. Lacan, Jacques (1901–81), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DE013-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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