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Law of the Father


In 1897 Freud remarked, on the basis of his analysis of his first patients and his self-analysis, that "The father forbids the child from realizing its unconscious wish to sleep with his mother" (letter to Fliess, October 15, 1897). This first outline of the Oedipus complex, which now appears simplistic, grew increasingly complex throughout Freud's research. In time the Law of the Father turned out to be directed both toward the mother ("You will not reintegrate your product") as well as her offspring swept up by desire. The law is also accompanied by an injunction against cannibalism and murder, and hold up ideals, primarily sexual ones ("Later you will enjoy, like me, a woman from another family"). Once introjected, this becomes the origin of the superego and ego ideal. The repression of drives, their suppression and sublimation, are the principal outcomes of the conflict that connects them structurally to this law.

Freud quickly recognized that the actual presence of a father is not the best guarantee of the fulfillment of this law: An absent or dead father can serve as the agent, as well as or better than the living father. This led to the creation of the myth of the primitive father (a, 1912-1913a). Jacques Lacan showed that this Law of the Father, to the extent that it serves as a principle of differentiation and separation, is in fact the law of language and a sine qua non for the existence of desire. He claimed that the subject structures himself through his unconscious response to the law and to the incestuous desires it shapes to: the repression of desire (neurosis), and the denial or foreclosure of the law (perversion and psychosis, respectively). Lacan also showed that it is important to differentiate the real Father, the imaginary Father, and the symbolic Father.

Patrick De Neuter

See also: Ego ideal/ideal ego; Fatherhood; Foreclosure; Myth of origins; Name-of-the-Father; Real, Symbolic, and Imaginary father; Sexuation, formulas of.


Collectif. (1989). Le Père. Métaphore paternelle et fonction du père: L'interdit, la filiation, la transmission. Paris: Denoël.

De Neuter, Patrick. (1992). Le père réel et la sexualité du fils. Psychiatrie de l'enfant, 13, 65-80.

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Dor, Joël. (1989). Le Père et sa Fonction en psychanalyse. Paris: Point hors ligne.

Freud, Sigmund. (1912-1913a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.

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