Jacques Lacan

eff51e_8b8ecb9fe1f3a91f6ec91c5a6938596b_gif_srz_719_360_85_22_0_50_1_20_0Jacques Lacan (13 April 1901 – 9 September 1981)

Considered the most important psychoanalyst since Sigmund Freud, the controversial and charismatic psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan is often referred to as the French Freud and was a self proclaimed Freudian, famously informing his followers – “It’s up to you to be Lacanians if you wish. I am Freudian.” However Lacan was more than just a discipline, his contribution transformed psychoanalysis both as a theory and as a clinical practice and according to Routledge Critical Thinkers, over fifty percent of the world’s analysts now employ Lacanian methods.

Lacan is arguably one of the most influential critical thinkers of the 20th century with his ideas extending the field of psychoanalysis into philosophy, linguistics, literature and mathematics.  His theories have significantly impacted on continental philosophy, critical theory, literary theory, sociology, feminist theory, art history and theory, film theory and clinical psychoanalysis. It is principally through his contributions to cultural theory – theories of film, television and literature that his reputation has been established in the United States.

His interdisciplinary work featured the mirror phase; the symbolic orders of the imaginary, symbolic and the real; the paternal metaphor and the role of the father in the unconscious; the identification of the Other; the object of desire; masculine and feminine jouissance, the four discourses or four forms of relationship.  He is perhaps best known for his assertion that the unconscious is structured like a language.

Lacan’s life and times

Lacan was born on the 13 April 1901, into a middle-class Catholic family, in Montparnasse, Paris. Educated at a Jesuit School, he was an admirable student and excelled in religious studies and Latin. Whilst still at school he developed a lifelong passion for philosophy, later on in life becoming absorbed with the philosophies of Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger.

Graduating from school in 1920, Lacan began studying medicine at the Faculte de Medicine de Paris. During his student years, Lacan became a well known figure in the cafes and bookshops of Paris’s Left Bank, actively participating in the world of Parisian writers, artists and intellectuals of the time and attending the first public reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses. His circle of friends included Andre Breton, George Bataille, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso – the later becoming one of Lacan’s patients.

Going on to specialize in psychiatry, Lacan completed his psychiatric training at the Sainte-Anne Hospital in Paris where he worked with patients suffering from automatism (a condition in which the patient believes his actions, writing or speech is controlled by an outside or omnipotent force) and studied with famous psychiatrists Clerambault and Claude.

In 1932 Lacan was awarded his doctorate for his thesis on Paranoid Psychosis and its Relations to the Personality. In his thesis Lacan claimed to have personally evaluated forty cases and argued that pathological manifestations in psychosis were meaningful. His case studies included that of Marguerite Pantaine-Anzieu, a thirty-eight year old woman, named Aimee by Lacan to conceal her identity, who had tried to stab the celebrated actress Huguette Duflos.  As a result of this attempted magnicide, she was imprisoned and referred one month later to Lacan, who recorded his observations and findings:

“…almost the full gamut of paranoid themes: persecution, jealousy and prejudice for the most part, themes of grandeur centered chiefly on dreams of escape and reformatory idealism along with traces of erotomania.  Her cognitive functions were unaffected.”(Jacque Lacan, 1932, p.158)

The richness of his thesis impressed and appealed to a wide range of circles, including the Surrealists and the themes explored in this, his doctoral work would continue to preoccupy Lacan throughout his life. Aimee was to become one of Lacan’s most famous case histories and years later Aimee would turn out to be the mother of one of Lacan’s patients, the psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu.

In 1934 Lacan became a member of La Societe Pscyhoanalytique de Paris (SPP) and started working as an analyst.

 “Lacan’s first important innovation in the field of psychoanalysis’s took place in 1936, when he was 35 years of age, practicing as a psychiatrist and still in psychoanalytic training. At the fourteenth congress of the International Psycho-Analytical Association held at Marienbad, Lacan presented a paper entitled ‘Le stade du miroir’, later translated into English as ‘The Mirror Stage’.”(Sean Homer, Routledge Critical Thinkers, p.18)

In this his first major theoretical paper, Lacan was absorbed with the question of consciousness and self-consciousness and in particular what it is that enables individuals to become aware of themselves as autonomous thinking, feeling beings?  He proposed that when an infant recognizes itself in the mirror, between the ages of six and eighteen months, this indicated a stage of psychological development marking the recognition of one’s self as an “I”.

The mirror stage is how the infant literally comes to see itself as a separate individual. For Lacan, the ego emerges at this moment and is a crucial stage in the development of the individual’s sense of self. This recognition of self begins the process of developing an identity distinct from others and yet at the same time dependent on the images of the other.

“The mirror stage is a phenomenon to which I assign a twofold value in the first place, it has historical value and it marks a decisive turning-point in the mental development of the child.  In the second place, it typifies an essential libidinal relationship with the body image.” (Lacan, Some reflections on the Ego, 1953)

This recognition of “I”, Lacan refers to as the “Ideal-I”, since infants see themselves as being whole and independent identities, separate from the other. At the same time the mirror image of themselves is a fictional correspondence, as what the infants sees does not and never will match what they feel and experiences.  This gap between seeing in the mirror and the actual internal feelings and experiences splits the ego, resulting in individuals spending the rest of their lives attempting to close or cover up the gap between the ideal image and the experienced self.  By situating the “I” of the subject in a fictional context, the individual aspires to achieve an impossible ideal.

Psychological the mirror stage is also significant in the formation of our social identity.

In 1940, the Second World War interrupted Lacan’s writings as he was called up to serve in the French army at Val-de-Grâce military hospital in Paris, where he spent the duration of the war. It was during this period of time that Lacan became aware of Sigmund Freud’s work and become fascinated by Freud’s discovery of unconscious desires revealed through free association and dreams. After the war Lacan introduced Freudian theory into France and began his lifelong work which would result in the transformation of the field of psychoanalysis.

Since making his call for ‘a return to Freud’, in 1951, both in the sense of a renewed attention to the actual texts of Freud himself and a return to the essence of Freud’s work, Lacan began holding private weekly classes in Paris to discuss Freudian theory. Lacan would devote each seminar to the study of a text or concept from Freud and present Freud’s ideas together with case histories of patients. In these seminars Lacan drew on a range of theoretical ideas placing psychoanalysis into conversation with the history of philosophy, phenomenology, existentialism, structuralism and feminism. Two years later these seminars turned into public lectures that would run for 27 years and attract analysts, philosophers, linguists, surrealists and other great thinkers of the time.  It was in this forum that Lacan developed and continually revised the ideas with which his name has become associated.

These lectures were published in 1966, in the 900 page collection entitled Ecrits. The Ecrits lectures were included on the list of 100 most influential books of the 20th century complied and polled by the broadsheet Le Monde and it is these lectures that developed Lacan into an influential voice in the cultural life of Paris, psychoanalysis and clinical psychology.

In 1953, at the Rome Congress of Romance Language Psychoanalysts, Lacan delivered a paper entitledThe Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis, now known as The Rome Discourse. In this paper Lacan formulated his most important thesis proposing that the unconscious is structured like a language, a system of signs, which gives language a key role in constructing the individual’s picture of the world but also allows the unconscious to enter into the understanding and dissolve essential distinctions between fantasy and reality. Lacan saw in language not merely a vehicle of human expression but rather the medium that made human expression and consciousness possible.

“From the very birth of psychoanalysis, the spoken word has had a special importance, being the gateway to the patient’s psyche; Freud had already pointed out that emotions (affects) attach themselves not to meanings but to signifiers…As a clinician, Lacan was struck by the extent and frequency of disjunction between words and their intended meanings – how the words uttered by the analysand upon the couch often escaped the intentions of the speaker, and expressed something not consciously intended.” (Lionel Bailly, Lacan, p.45)

For Freud, the unconscious was the part of the psyche that escapes us and over which we have no control but nevertheless governs our thoughts and wishes. Lacan emphasized the primacy of language as the mirror of the unconscious mind and saw the unconscious as consisting of signifying material.  Lacan was concerned with elaborating a system according to which everything in the human world is structured in accordance with the symbols which have emerged. He argued that the symbolic order, the order of signs, representation, significations and images, is the place where the individual is formed as a subject.

“I identify myself in language, but only by losing myself in it like an object. What is realized in my history is not the past definite of what was, since it is no more, or even the present perfect of what has been in what I am, but the future anterior of what I shall have been for what I am in the process of becoming.” (From Écrits)

Lacan remapped Freud’s theories of superego, ego and id, hypothesizing that the psyche can be divided into three major structures that control our lives and our desires – the imaginary order, the symbolic order and the real.

The Imaginary is the realm of images and imagination, the order of appearances and of the senses, this is where we interact with the inner and outer world in a kind of fantasy state – what we imagine is going on with us and around us, what we visualize, hear and think. The imaginary order is involved in self-representation, repression and the assimilation of a constructed, imaginary reality.

The Symbolic is the realm of language, differentiation, communication and the regulations of desire. It holds customs, laws, norms, practices, rituals, rules, traditions of cultures and societies, governing the order of signs, representations, significations and images.  It is the place where the individual is formed as subject.

The Real is the realm prior to language and the imposition of symbolic order and law, it is everything that has as yet to be symbolized.

The Rome Discourse coincided with Lacan’s exodus from the SPP. Between lecturing and writing, Lacan working as an analyst, identified the patient as the analysand, stating that it is the patient who is doing the investigative work in his own mind and not the analyst.  He also began varying the length of psychoanalytic sessions, stating that the unconscious is timeless and so it makes no sense to insist upon the classical Freudian fifty minute hour.  In his view sessions should end when the analysand reached a major revelation, arguing that his technique accelerated analysis. Lacan’s variable length sessions lasting anywhere from a few minutes to several hours, scandalized the psychoanalytic community causing major disagreement with the SPP and Lacan and many of his colleagues left the society to form a new group, the Societe Francaise de Psychanalyses (SFP) – a consequence of this was to deprive the new group of membership with the International Psychoanalytical Association (IPA).

In 1959, Lacan delivered his famous seventh seminar on The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, pursuing the philosophical question of how a human life is best lived and fulfilled. In this lecture Lacan states that desire is the driving force behind all human behavior.  What interested Lacan was the question – a desire for what? Lacan saw the aim of psychoanalysis as being to uncover the truth about the analysand’s desire. Through the examination of the patterns that play out again and again through our lives, tracing the furrow of a signifier in symptoms, dreams, slips of the tongue or a life, we can decipher the secret cipher, the meaning, the sense, animating our lives and imbuing it with meaning and so untangle our desires from compromise, defense and transference. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis examines “the problem of sublimation, the paradox of jouissance, the essence of tragedy (a reading of Sophocles Antigon), and the tragic dimension of analytical experience.” (The Seminar of Jacque Lacan, edited by Jacques–Alain Miller)

The IPA now offered the SFP an ultimatum: it could be admitted back into the fold only if Lacan was struck from its list of training analysts. Lacan’s non-standard “variable-length sessions,” deviating from the fixed-length session rules of IPA orthodoxy, was the main reason for the IPA’s withholding of its recognition from him. The SFP accepted this condition, stripping Lacan of his standing within it.  Although Lacan felt deeply wounded by this betrayal, it prompted him to embrace even more his own ideas and terms and he founded his own analytical organization the L`Ecole Freudienne de Paris (EFP).

The new institutional framework and freedom provided Lacan with a setting in which to experiment with new approaches to analytical teaching and training and inThe Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Lacan set forth his own approach to psychoanalysis, addressing a larger and less specialized audience than ever before, many of who were not familiar with his work. In this seminar he set out to “introduce a certain coherence into the major concepts on which psychoanalysis is based” namely the unconscious, repetition, transference and the drive. Along the way he argued for a structural affinity between psychoanalysis and language, discussed the relationship between psychoanalysis and religion and revealed his understanding on topics ranging from sexuality and death to alienation and repression.

Next Lacan turned his focus to the creation of a model that could gather data, define and assess the effectiveness of analysis and spent a good deal of the sixties working on this model, culminating with the development of the Pass. The proposition of the Pass was voted in by the members of the EFP in 1969.

Throughout the final decade of his life, Lacan continued holding his widely followed seminars and developed his concepts of masculine and feminine jouissance, theorizing about sexual differences and developing his concept of masculine and feminine jouissance.  Lacan’s work now placed increased emphasis on the concept of the Real as a point of impossible contraction in the symbolic order. Lacan used the term jouissance, whose meaning combines aspects of desire, pleasure and enjoyment.

Most of his psychoanalytic writings from the forties through to the early sixties were compiled with an index of concepts by his son-in-law Jacques –Alain Miller in the 1966 collection, Ecrits.  His writings from the late sixties and seventies were collected posthumously and published in Autres ecrits (2001) and are notoriously difficult to read. Other works in English translation include Feminine Sexuality and The Seminars of Jacque Lacan Books I – XX.

The most controversial psychoanalyst since Freud, the writing and teaching career of this formidable thinker lasted over fifty years and brought us the concepts of:

  • The Mirror Stage, the Ego and the Subject
  • The Theory of the Three Registers – The Imaginary, Symbolic and Real
  • Otherness. The concept of ‘otherness’ is central to Lacanian thinking where the Other is manifest in language, societal rules, taboos, expectations and all our lives we will learn to use its manifestations. In psychoanalysis, “it is the Other as Language that is the most important, because of the structuring effect that language has upon the development of the Subject, and because the truth of the Subject can only be apprehended by means of it.” (Bailly, p. 73).
  • The Paternal Metaphor – the role of the father in the unconscious which includes the Lacanian Phallus, Name-of-the-father and castration.
  • Need-Demand-Desire, with desire being at the heart of whatever problem the analysand is experiencing.
  • The Four Discourse of Master, University, Analyst and Hysteric which illustrate forms of social interaction.


Lacan remained one of the most influential figures in Parisian academic circles for most part of the twentieth century and in his lifetime extended the field of psychoanalysis into philosophy, linguistics, literature and mathematics. “Lacan’s work is like Freud’s, a work in progress: he went as far as he could during his lifetime and many issues he raised can and should be developed further.” (Bailly, p.207)



Lacan, Jacques. (1932). De la psychose paranoïaque dans ses rapports avec la personnalité. Paris: Librairie le François.

——. (1966).Écrits. Paris: Seuil.

The Seminar of Jacque Lacan, 1959-1960, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller

Lionel Bailly, Lacan, Beginners Guides, published by Oneworld Publications, 2009.

Sean Homer, Routledge Critical Thinkers, download available free from the web www.8pic.ir/images