Lacan, Jacques (1901–1981)

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Jacques Lacan is undoubtedly the most philosophical of psychoanalytic authors. He developed his psychoanalytic theory of subjectivityas a ferocious critique of the modern metaphysical traditionin direct dialogue with a number of major philosophical figures: Descartes, Kant, Heidegger, and many others.

Lacan never had any formal philosophical training. After studying medicine and psychiatry, he got involved in the surrealist movement in the early 1930s. Along with Sartre and Bataille, he participated in Alexandre Kojève's famous seminars on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. Lacan joined the Société Psychanalytique de Paris in 1936. Both his theoriesspecifically his critique of ego psychology, which he carried out under the label of a "return to Freud"and his practice of short psychoanalytic sessions caused discord within the French and the international psychoanalytic movement in the fifties. As a result of this rift, Lacan and his followers founded the Société française de psychanalyse in 1956 and later the Ecole freudienne in 1963. In the beginning of the fifties, Lacan also started to give seminars in Paris that not only attracted psychoanalysts but also a great number of philosophers such as Jean Hyppolite and Paul Ricoeur. In this way, psychoanalysis became a central force within French philosophical thinking of the second half of the twentieth century.

Lacan's theory of the mirror stage is his first original contribution to psychoanalytic thinking. This theory was first formulated at a conference in Marienbad in 1936. Although it is a reformulation of Freud's theory of narcissism, it has important consequences for the philosophical reflection on the status of the subject. Indeed, according to Lacan, the ego is an effect of an identification with an image (paradigmatically the mirror image) that represents an ideal of unity and completeness and that is not the ego itself: "Je est un autre." The ego is thus characterised by an alienation that cannot be undone. It gains access to itself only through the image of the other. In the mirror stageand in all "imaginary" relations that function according to the same logicthe ego misrecognizes its difference from the image/ideal with which it identifies itself and of which it believes that it expresses its very essence.

Lacan's work of the 1930s and 1940s mainly consists of a detailed exploration of the characteristics and the dynamics of the mirror stage and the realm of the imaginary that is characterized by it. In this context, he specifically focuses on typical forms of human aggression. Human aggression is not primarily an effect of the frustration of vital needs. Indeed, since the ego structurally misrecognizes its difference from the image/ideal of the other with which it identifies itself, the latter also inevitably appears as an usurper that provokes aggressiveness. S/he indeed appears in the process at a place that seems to be rightfully mine. I desire what s/he desires because, on the basis of the identification, I am what s/he is. As a consequence, this desire is intrinsically conflictual. Lacan often refers in this context to Saint Augustine, who describes a scene in which a well-fed infant expresses uncontrollable anger at the sight of his baby brother being breastfed. This is a clear illustration of one of the meanings of Lacan's famous dictum that "desire is the desire of the other."

This intrinsic link between the mirror stage and human aggression explains why Lacan thinks of the former as an impasse that has to be overcome. The emergence of structuralism in the early fifties, and more particularly the publication of Levi-Strauss's The Elementary Structures of Kinship in 1949, allowed Lacan to explain once and for all how overcoming this impasse is possible. He now claimed that the symbolic orderthe order of language and of the lawprecedes and dominates the imaginary that is structured by it. Hence, the identification with the mirror image is only possible on the basis of a symbolic point of reference: "Look, that image in the mirror, that is little Jimmy."

Whereas in the thirties and forties Lacan mainly studied the dynamics of imaginary relations, during the fifties he focused on the relation between human beings and the symbolic order that he calls "the Other." Lacan turns to Hegel's idea that "the word is the murder of the thing." Entry into the symbolic order implies a loss of immediacy that desire tries to undo. This desire is essentially dependent on the symbolic order through which it takes shape. Humans desire in accordance with the symbolic systems in which they are born. Lacan shows, for instance, how the inability to write of one of his patients was linked to his youth in a Muslim country. When he was small, his father was accused of theft and, according to Islamic law, the hands of a thief should be cut off. This illustrates the second meaning of Lacan's dictum, "Desire is the desire of the Other." Here "the Other" indeed refers to the symbolic systemin the case of Lacan's patient: Islamic lawin which the subject participates without realizing its impact.

In the early 1960s, Lacan shifted his attention from the imaginary and the symbolic to the Real and the object a. Language consists, according to Lacan, of differentially determined signifiers whose meaning is completely dependent on the context in which they are used. Because there is no ultimate context that would end the production of meaning once and for all, the loss of immediacy can never be overcome or "sublated" in an ultimate synthesis. Something is irremediably lost and cannot be recuperated into the order of meaning (the imaginary and the symbolic). This is what Lacan calls the Real. This notion is intrinsically linked to Lacan's theory of the object a that is the cause (and not the telos) of desire. Examples of objects a include Freudian part-objects such as breast and feces as well as the voice and the gaze, which are paradigmatic examples of the object a, according to Lacan. The object a is a (dis)incarnation of the lack that causes desire: it gives the lack a bodily determination, on the one hand; at the same time, however, these objects cannot be grasped in the phenomenal world (when we reach for the gaze, we touch the eye). In this way, they refer to the infinite character of human desire.

From the early 1960s onward, Lacan became more and more interested in topological figures like Borommean knots or rings. He believed that they could be used to articulate the fundamental structures of human subjectivity. Lacan died in 1981 in Paris.

See also Psychoanalysis.


works by jacques lacan

Ecrits: A Selection. Translated by Bruce Fink. New York and London: Norton, 2004.

The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. Translated by Dennis Porter. New York and London: Norton, 1997.

The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book 11). Translated by A. Sheridan. New York and London: Norton, 1998.

On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX, Encore. Translated by Bruce Fink. New York and London: Norton, 1999.

works on jacques lacan

Borch-Jacobsen, M. Lacan: The Absolute Master. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1991.

Fink, Bruce. Lacan to the Letter: Reading Ecrits Closely. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

Rabaté, J. M. The Cambridge Companion to Lacan. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Van Haute, Philippe. Against Adaptation: Jacques Lacan's "Subversion" of the Subject. A Comment. New York: Other Press, 2002.

Philippe van Haute (2005)