Psychosexual development
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Conscious • Preconscious
Id, ego, and super-ego
Libido • Drive
Transference • Resistance
Defense mechanism

Important Figures
Sigmund Freud • Carl Jung
Alfred Adler • Otto Rank
Anna Freud • Margaret Mahler
Karen Horney • Jacques Lacan
Ronald Fairbairn • Melanie Klein
Harry Stack Sullivan
Erik Erikson • Nancy Chodorow

Schools of Thought
Self psychology • Lacanian
Analytical psychology
Object relations
Interpersonal • Relational
Attachment • Ego psychology

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Jacques-Marie-Émile Lacan (French IPA: ʒak la'kɑ̃) (April 13, 1901 - September 9, 1981) was a French psychoanalyst, psychiatrist, and doctor. Lacan's 'return to the meaning of Freud' profoundly changed the institutional face of the psychoanalytic movement internationally. The Seminars of Jacques Lacan, which started in 1953 and lasted until his death in 1980, were one of the formative environments of the currency of philosophical ideas that dominated French letters in the 1960s and 1970s, and which has come to be known in the Anglophone world as post-structuralism, though it would be a mischaracterization to label Lacan as only a post-structuralist. This entailed a renewed concentration upon the Freudian concepts of the unconscious, the castration complex, the ego conceptualized as a mosaic of identifications, and the centrality of language to any psychoanalytic work. His work has a strong interdisciplinary focus, drawing particularly on linguistics, philosophy, and mathematics, and he has become an important figure in many fields beyond psychoanalysis, particularly within critical theory, and can be regarded as an important figure of twentieth-century French philosophy.

Lacan's work has had a profound impact on the development of psychoanalysis worldwide. Within the Lacanian community itself a number of different schools have emerged, particularly in France, Spain and England, though the vast majority of practitioners are under the auspices of the World Association of Psychoanalysis (WAP), headed by Jacques-Alain Miller, Lacan's son-in-law. Outside Europe, Lacanian psychoanalysis has gained particular prominence in the United States, Brazil and Argentina.


Jacques Lacan was born in Paris, the eldest child of Emilie and Alfred Lacan, a salesman of soap and oils. The family was prosperous and middle-class. Jacques attended the Collège Stanislas, a well-known Jesuit high school. Too thin to be accepted into military service, he went straight to medical school in 1920, specializing in psychiatry starting in 1926. He took his clinical training at Sainte-Anne, the major psychiatric hospital in central Paris.

In 1931 he received his license as a forensic psychiatrist, and in 1932 was awarded the Doctorat d'état for his thesis, De la Psychose paranoiaque dans les rapports avec la personnalité, about a young woman's paranoid identification with a famous stage actress. While this thesis drew considerable acclaim outside psychoanalytic circles, particularly among the surrealist artists, it seems to have been ignored by psychoanalysts. But in 1934 he became a candidate for the Société Psychanalytique de Paris. During this period he is said to have befriended the surrealists André Breton and Georges Bataille.

Because Lacan, like Sigmund Freud, apparently destroyed most of the records of his past, and unlike Freud did not reveal much of it later on, it is difficult to distinguish between the many myths, anecdotes, and rumors that have surrounded him. There are, for instance, many contradictory tales about his romantic life with Sylvia Bataille in southern France during World War II and of his attachment to her daughter, Laurance. He married Sylvia in 1953 and had another daughter, Judith.

In any case it is clear that Lacan was very active in the world of Parisian writers, artists and intellectuals during the prewar period. In addition to Breton and Bataille, he was also associated with Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, and Philippe Sollers. He attended the mouvement Psyché founded by Maryse Choisy. Several of his articles were published in the Surrealist journal Minotaure and he was present at the first public reading of James Joyce's Ulysses. In his studies he had a particular interest in the philosophic work of Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger and, alongside many other Parisian intellectuals of the time, he also attended the famous seminars on Hegel given by the Russian emigre philosopher, Alexandre Kojève. Kojève's seminars would have a profound effect on a whole generation of French artists and thinkers.

Beginning in the 1920s, Lacan undertook his own analysis with psychoanalyst Rudolph Loewenstein, which continued until 1938. He presented his first analytic paper on the "Mirror Phase" at the 1936 Congress of the International Psychoanalytical Association in Marienbad. He was called up to serve in the French army after the German occupation of France and was posted to the Val-de-Grâce military hospital in Paris. After the war, Lacan visited England for a five-week study trip, meeting English analysts Wilfred Bion and John Rickman. He was much influenced by Bion's analytic work with groups and this contributed to his own later emphasis on study groups (in France, cartels) as a structure with which to advance theoretical work in psychoanalysis.

In 1951 Lacan started to hold a weekly seminar at the St-Anne Hospital, in Paris, urging what he described as 'a return to Freud' and, in particular, to Freud's concentration upon the linguistic nature of psychological symptomatology. Very influential in Parisian cultural life as well as in psychoanalytic theory and clinical practice, the seminars drew large crowds and continued for nearly 30 years.

Lacan was a member of the Société Parisienne de Psychanalyse (SPP), which was a member body of the International Psychoanalytical Association (IPA). In 1953, after a disagreement about analytic practice methods, Lacan and many of his colleagues left the SPP to form a new group the Société Française de Psychanalyse (SFP).

The positive reception of the expression "the return to Freud" and of his report and discourse in Rome-"The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis"1-gave Lacan the will to elaborate again on all the analytical concepts. His critique of analytic literature and practice spares almost no one. Lacan's return to Freud is a re-reading in relation with contemporary philosophy, linguistics, ethnology, biology and topology. At Sainte-Anne Hospital he held his seminars2 every Wednesday and presented cases of patients on Fridays.

Ethical foundations

During this period Lacan wrote, on the basis of his seminars, conferences and addresses in colloquia, the major texts that are found in Écrits in 1966. In his third Seminar 'The Ethics of Psychoanalysis', Lacan defines the ethical foundations of psychoanalysis and constructs an ethics for our time, an ethics that would prove to be equal to the tragedy of modern man and to the 'discontent of civilization' (Freud). At the roots of the ethics is desire: analysis' only promise is austere, it is the entrance-into-the-I (in French a play of words between 'l'entrée en je' and 'l'entrée en jeu'). 'I must come to the place where the id was', where the analysand discovers, in its absolute nakedness, the truth of his desire. The end of psychoanalysis entails 'the purification of desire'. This text functions throughout the years as the background of Lacan's work. He defends three assertions: psychoanalysis, insofar as it elaborates its theory from its praxis, must have a scientific status; the Freudian discoveries have radically changed the concepts of subject, of knowledge, and of desire; the analytic field is the only one from which it is possible to efficiently interrogate the insufficiencies of science and philosophy.

One of the consequences of the 1953 move was to deprive the new group of membership within the IPA. Starting in 1962 a complex process of negotiation was to take place to determine the status of the SFP within the IPA. Lacan's practice, with his controversial innovation of variable-length sessions, and the critical stance he took towards much of the accepted orthodoxy of psychoanalytic theory and practice led, in 1963, to a condition being set by the IPA that the registration of the SFP was dependent upon Lacan being removed from the list of training analysts with the organization. Lacan refused such a condition and left the SFP to form his own school which became known as the École Freudienne de Paris (EFP)

Leaving the Sainte-Anne Hospital where he had delivered his seminar up to this point Lacan, with Claude Lévi-Strauss' and Louis Althusser's support, was appointed lecturer at the École Pratique des Hautes Etudes. He started with the seminar on The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis in January 1964 in the Dussane room at the École Normale Supérieure (in his first session he thanks the generosity of Fernand Braudel and Lévi-Strauss). Lacan began to set forth his own teaching on psychoanalysis to an audience of colleagues who had joined him from the SFP. His lectures also attracted many of the École Normale's students. He divided the school3 into three sections: the section of pure psychoanalysis (training and elaboration of the theory, where members who have been analyzed but haven't become analysts can participate); the section for applied psychoanalysis (therapeutic and clinical, physicians who have neither completed nor started analysis are welcome); the section for taking inventory of the Freudian field (focusing on the critique of psychoanalytic literature and the analysis of the theoretical relations with related or affiliated sciences (Proposition du 9 octobre 1967 sur le psychanalyste à l'Ecole).

During the events of May 1968 Lacan voiced his sympathy for the student protests and as a corollary a Department of Psychology was set up by his followers at the University of Vincennes (Paris VIII). In 1969 Lacan moved his public seminars to the Faculté de Droit (Panthéon) where he continued to deliver his expositions of analytic theory and practice till the dissolution of his School in 1980.

Many students of Lacan became important psychoanalysts and/or wrote influential contributions to philosophy and other fields. Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Louis Althusser, Julia Kristeva, Jacques-Alain Miller, Luce Irigaray, Jean Laplanche, and Claude Levi-Strauss, for example, nearly all attended Lacan's seminars at some point.

The 'Return to Freud'

The whole of Lacan's work can be understood within the context of the intellectual and theoretical legacy of Freud. Lacan himself trained as a psychoanalyst within the International Psychoanalytical Association (IPA). However, he gradually grew disenchanted and developed a radical critique of the way most analysts in the IPA interpreted Freud. He argued that Freud's insights were betrayed by the three major schools of psychoanalysis within the IPA: Ego psychology, Melanie Klein and Object relations theory. See "The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis" also known as the "Report of Rome" 4. His "return to Freud" emphasizes a renewed attention to the actual texts of Freud himself and a grasp of the way these texts were developed and modified by the analysts Lacan criticizes, the post-Freudians.

"What such a return to Freud involves for me is not a return of the repressed, but rather taking the antithesis constituted by the phase in the history of the psychoanalytic movement since the death of Freud, showing what psychoanalysis is not, and seeking with you the means of revitalizing that which has continued to sustain it, even in deviation… ."5.

Lacan's "return to Freud" represented a turn away from the focus on the ego of the late Freud and post-Freudians and a return to the focus on the unconscious, as expressed in Freud's ideas of "slips of the tongue," jokes and the like. Lacan's work was not an interpretation but a translation of Freud into structural-linguistic terms. Lacan argued that these unconscious elements in Freud all emphasized the agency of language in subjective constitution. He reasoned that Freud lived contemporaneously with Lévi-Strauss, Barthes and, principally, had Freud been aware of the work of Saussure, he would have done the same as Saussure did. In this light, Lacan's "return to Freud" could therefore be read as the realization that the pervading agency of the unconscious is to be understood as intimately tied to the functions and dynamics of language, where the signifier is irremediably divorced from the signified in a chronic but generative tension of lack. It is here that Lacan began his work on "correcting" Freud from within.

In "The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious, or Reason Since Freud"6, Lacan's principal challenge to Freudian theory is the privilege that it accords to the ego in self-determination. To Lacan "the unconscious is structured like a language." The unconscious, he argued, was not a more primitive or archetypal part of the mind separate from the conscious, linguistic ego, but, rather, a formation every bit as complex and structurally sophisticated as consciousness itself. If the unconscious is structured like a language, then the self is denied any point of reference to which to be 'restored' following trauma or 'identity crisis'. In this way, Lacan's thesis of the structurally dynamic unconscious is also a challenge to the ego psychology that Freud himself had originally opposed.

Major concepts

The mirror stage (le stade du miroir)

The "mirror stage" was the subject of Lacan's first official contribution to psychoanalytic theory (Fourteenth International Psychoanalytical Congress at Marienbad in 1936). The mirror stage describes the formation of the Ego via the process of identification, the Ego developing as a result of infant's identifying with its own specular image. At six months the baby still lacks coordination, however, he can recognize himself in the mirror before attaining control over his bodily movements. He sees his image as a whole, and the synthesis of this image produces a sense of contrast with the uncoordination of the body, which is perceived as a fragmented body. This contrast is first felt by the infant as a rivalry with his own image, because the wholeness of the image threatens him with fragmentation, and thus the mirror stage gives rise to an aggressive tension between the subject and the image. To resolve this aggressive tension, the subject identifies with the image: this primary identification with the counterpart is what forms the Ego.7 The moment of identification is to Lacan a moment of jubilation since it leads to an imaginary sense of mastery.8 Yet, the jubilation may also be accompanied by a depressive reaction, when the infant compares his own precarious sense of mastery with the omnipotence of the mother. (La relation d'objet) This identification also involves the ideal ego which functions as a promise of future wholeness sustaining the Ego in anticipation.

The mirror stage shows that the Ego is the product of misunderstanding-Lacan's term "méconnaissance" implies a false recognition-and the place where the subject becomes alienated from himself, since the ego is formed outside the self, or Lacanian terms, the process by which the ego is formed in the Mirror Stage is at the same time the institution of alienation from the symbolic determination of being. In this sense méconnaissance is an imaginary misrecognition of a symbolic knowledge that the subject possesses somewhere. It must be emphasized again that the Mirror Stage introduces the subject into the Imaginary order.

He described "The Mirror Stage as formative of the function of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic experience," the first of his Écrits. In the early fifties, he no longer considers it as a moment in the life of the infant, but as representing a permanent structure of subjectivity; the paradigm of The Imaginary order: It is a phase in which the subject is permanently caught and captivated by his own image.

"the mirror stage is a phenomenon to which I assign a twofold value. In the first place, it has historical value as 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." ("Some reflections on the Ego").

As he further develops the concept, the stress falls less on its historical value and ever more on its structural value.9 In his fourth Seminar, La relation d'objet, Lacan states that "the mirror stage is far from a mere phenomenon which occurs in the development of the child. It illustrates the conflictual nature of the dual relationship."

The mirror stage describes the formation of the Ego via the process of identification, the Ego being the result of identifying with one own's specular image. At six months the baby still lacks coordination, however, he can recognize himself in the mirror before attaining control over his bodily movements. He sees his image as a whole, and the synthesis of this image produces a sense of contrast with the uncoordination of the body, which is perceived as a fragmented body. This contrast is first felt by the infant as a rivalry with his own image, because the wholeness of the image threatens him with fragmentation, and thus the mirror stage gives rise to an aggressive tension between the subject and the image. To resolve this aggressive tension, the subject identifies with the image: this primary identification with the counterpart is what forms the Ego.10 The moment of identification is to Lacan a moment of jubilation since it leads to an imaginary sense of mastery.11 yet, the jubilation may also be accompanied by a depressive reaction, when the infant compares his own precarious sense of mastery with the omnipotence of the mother. (La relation d'objet) This identification also involves the ideal ego which functions as a promise of future wholeness sustaining the Ego in anticipation.

The mirror stage shows that the Ego is the product of misunderstanding ("méconnaissance") and the lieu where the subject becomes alienated from himself. It introduces the subject to into the Imaginary order. It must be said that the mirror stage has also a significant symbolic dimension. The Symbolic order is present in the figure of the adult who is carrying the infant: the moment after the subject has jubilantly assumed his image as his own, he turns his head towards this adult who represents the big Other, as if to call on him to ratify this image. (Tenth Seminar, "L'angoisse," 1962-1963)


Although Freud uses the term "other," referring to der Andere (the other person) and "das Andere" (otherness), Lacan's use of the term borrows from Kojève's reading of Hegel.

In 1955 Lacan draws a distinction between 'the little other' (the other) and 'the big Other' (the Other) (The Ego in Freud's Theory). In Lacanian algebra, the big Other is designated A (for French Autre) and the little other is designated a (italicized French 'autre'). He asserts that an awareness of this distinction is fundamental to analytic practice: 'the analyst must be imbued with the difference between A and a 12, so he can situate himself in the place of Other, and not the other'13. These are technical terms in Lacan's vocabulary.

1. The little other is the other who is not really other, but a reflection and projection of the Ego. He is both the counterpart or the other people in whom the subject perceives a visual likeness (semblable), and the specular image or the reflection of one's body in the mirror. In this way the little other is entirely inscribed in The Imaginary order. See Objet Petit a.

2. The big Other designates a radical alterity, an otherness transcending the illusory otherness of the Imaginary because it cannot be assimilated through identification. Lacan equates this radical alterity with language and the law: the big Other is inscribed in The Symbolic order, operating as the Symbolic insofar as it is particularized for each subject. The Other is then another subject and also the Symbolic order which mediates the relationship with that other subject.

The meaning of "the Other as another subject" is secondary to the meaning of "the Other as Symbolic order." 'The Other must first of all be considered a locus, the locus in which speech is constituted'14. We can speak of the Other as a subject in a secondary sense, only when a subject may occupy this position and thereby embody the Other for another subject (Seminar VIII: Le transfert)

When he argues that speech originates not in the Ego nor in the subject, but in the Other, Lacan stresses that speech and language are beyond one's conscious control; they come from another place, outside consciousness, and then 'the unconscious is the discourse of the Other'.15 when conceiving the Other as a place, Lacan refers to Freud's concept of physical locality, in which the unconscious is described as "the other scene."

"It is the mother who first occupies the position of the big Other for the child, it is she who receives the child's primitive cries and retroactively sanctions them as a particular message." (Dylan Evans) The castration complex is formed when the child discovers that this Other is not complete, that there is a Lack (manque) in the Other. This means that there is always a signifier missing from the trove of signifiers constituted by the Other. Lacan illustrates this incomplete Other graphically by striking a bar through the symbol A; hence another name for the castrated, incomplete Other is the 'barred Other'.16.

The Three Orders

1. The Imaginary

The basis of the Imaginary order is the formation of the Ego in the Mirror Stage: the Ego is constructed by identification with the specular image. The relationship between the Ego and the specular image means that the Ego and the Imaginary order itself are places of radical alienation: "alienation is constitutive of the Imaginary order" 17. We may add that this relationship is also narcissistic. Thus the Imaginary is the field of images and imagination, and deception: the main illusions of this order are synthesis, autonomy, duality, similarity.

The Imaginary is structured by the Symbolic order: in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis Lacan argues how the visual field is structured by symbolic laws. Thus the Imaginary involves a linguistic dimension. If the signifier is the foundation of the Symbolic, the signified and signification are part of the Imaginary order. Language has symbolic and imaginary connotations, in its imaginary aspect, language is the "wall of language" which inverts and distorts the discourse of the Other. On the other hand, the Imaginary is rooted in the subject's relationship with its own body (the image of the body). In Fetishism: the Symbolic, the Imaginary and the Real Lacan argues that in the sexual plane the Imaginary appears as sexual display and courtship love.

Lacan accused major psychoanalytic schools of reducing the practice of psychoanalysis to the Imaginary order by making identification with the analyst the objective of analysis 18. He proposes the use of the Symbolic as the way to dislodge the disabling fixations of the Imaginary: the analyst transforms the images into words. "The use of the Symbolic is the only way for the analytic process to cross the plane of identification'19.

2. The Symbolic

In his Seminar IV "La relation d'objet" Lacan asserts that the concepts of Law and Structure are unthinkable without language: thus the Symbolic is a linguistic dimension. Yet, he does not simply equate this order with language since language involves the Imaginary and the Real as well. The dimension proper of language in the Symbolic is that of the signifier, that is a dimension in which elements have no positive existence but which are constituted by virtue of their mutual differences.

The Symbolic is also the field of radical alterity, that is the Other: the unconscious is the discourse of this Other. Besides it is the realm of the Law which regulates desire in the Oedipus complex. We may add that the Symbolic is the domain of culture as opposed to the Imaginary order of nature. As important elements in the Symbolic, the concepts of death and lack (manque) connive to make of the pleasure principle the regulator of the distance from the Thing (das ding an sich and the death drive which goes "beyond the pleasure principle by means of repetition" - "the death drive is only a mask of the Symbolic order."20

It is by working in the Symbolic order that the analyst can produce changes in the subjective position of the analysand; these changes will produce imaginary effects since the Imaginary is structured by the Symbolic.21 Thus, it is the Symbolic which is determinant of subjectivity, and the Imaginary, made of images and appearances, is the effect of the Symbolic.

3. The Real

Not only opposed to the Imaginary, the Real is also located outside the Symbolic. Unlike the latter which is constituted in terms of oppositions, i.e presence/absence, "there is no absence in the Real"22 Whereas the Symbolic opposition presence/absence implies the possibility that something may be missing from the Symbolic, "the Real is always in its place" 23 If the Symbolic is a set of differentiated elements, signifiers, the Real in itself is undifferentiated, it bears no fissure. The Symbolic introduces "a cut in the real," in the process of signification: "it is the world of words that creates the world of things - things originally confused in the "here and now" of the all in the process of coming into being.24.

Thus the Real is that which is outside language, resisting symbolization absolutely. In Seminar XI Lacan define the Real as "the impossible' because it is impossible to imagine and impossible to integrate into the Symbolic, being impossibly attainable. It is this resistance to symbolization that lends the Real its traumatic quality. In his Seminar "La relation d'objet," Lacan reads Freud's case on "Little Hans"." He distinguishes two real elements which intrude and disrupt the child's imaginary pre-oedipical harmony: the real penis which is felt in infantile masturbation and the newly born sister.

Finally, the Real is the object of anxiety in that it lacks any possible mediation, and is "the essential object which is not an object any longer, but this something faced with which all words cease and all categories fail, the object of anxiety par excellence." 25


Lacan's désir follows Freud's "wunsch" and its concept is central to his thought. For the aim of the talking cure-psychoanalysis-is precisely to lead the analysand to recognize the truth about his/her desire, yet this is only possible when it is articulated in discourse. Thus, "It is only once it is formulated, named in the presence of the other, that desire appears in the full sense of the term"26; "… what is important is to teach the subject to name, to articulate, to bring desire into existence," and "That the subject should come to recognize and to name his/her desire, that is the efficacious action of analysis. But it is not a question of recognizing something which would be entirely given. In naming it, the subject creates, brings forth, a new presence in the world."27. Now, although the truth about desire is somehow present in discourse, discourse can never articulate the whole truth about desire: whenever discourse attempts to articulate desire, there is always a leftover, a surplus.

In The Signification of the Phallus Lacan distinguishes desire from need and demand. Need is a biological instinct that is articulated in demand, yet demand has a double function, on one hand it articulates need and on the other acts as a demand for love. So, even after the need articulated in demand is satisfied, the demand for love remains unsatisfied and this leftover is desire. For Lacan "desire is neither the appetite for satisfaction nor the demand for love, but the difference that results from the subtraction of the first from the second" (article cited). Desire then is the surplus produced by the articulation of need in demand28. Lacan adds that "desire begins to take shape in the margin in which demand becomes separated from need" (article cited). Hence desire can never be satisfied, or as Slavoj Zizek puts it "desire's raison d'etre is not to realize its goal, to find full satisfaction, but to reproduce itself as desire."

It is also important to distinguish between desire and the drives. If they belong to the field of the Other (as opposed to love), desire is one, whereas the drives are many. The drives are the partial manifestations of a single force called desire (see "The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis"). If one can surmise that objet petit a is the object of desire, it is not the object towards which desire tends, but the cause of desire. For desire is not a relation to an object but a relation to a lack (manque). Then desire appears as a social construct since it is always constituted in a dialectical relationship.


Lacan maintains Freud's distinction between Trieb (drive) and Instinkt (instinct) in that drives differ from biological needs because they can never be satisfied and do not aim at an object but rather circle perpetually round it. He argues that their aim is not to reach a goal but to follow their aim, which is to circle round the object 29; then the real source of jouissance is to repeat the movement of this closed circuit. In the same Seminar Lacan posits the drives as both cultural and symbolic (discourse) constructs, to him "the drive is not a given, something archaic, primordial." Yet he incorporates the four elements of the drives as defined by Freud (the pressure, the end, the object and the source) to his theory of the drive's circuit: the drive originates in the erogenous zone, circles round the object, and then returns to the erogenous zone. The circuit is structured by the three grammatical voices: 1. the active voice (to see) 2. the reflexive voice (to see oneself) 3. the passive voice (to be seen) The active and reflexive are autoerotic, they lack a subject. It is only the passive one, when the drive completes its circuit, that a new subject appears. So although it is the "passive" voice the drive is essentially active, and Lacan is able to write "to make oneself be seen" instead of "to be seen." The circuit of the drive is the only way for the subject to transgress the "pleasure principle."

Lacan identifies four partial drives: the oral drive (the erogenous zone are the lips, the partial object the breast), the anal drive the anus and the feces), the scopic drive (the eyes and the gaze) and the invocatory drive (the ears and the voice). The first two relate to demand and the last two to desire. If the drives are closely related to desi