Skip to main content

Want of Being/Lack of Being


For Jacques Lacan, human being is a "lack of being." That was how he designated the subject's fundamental emptiness as it was caused by the first symbolization and by the fact that desire originates in castration.

From the beginning of his teaching, Lacan noted that for Freud the object is fundamentally lost, and the subject spends his life looking for it. The object of psychoanalysis is the lack of an object, and this lacking object is at the heart of being. Lacan started elaborating on this notion of a lack of being in 1957, when he set about describing the oedipal crisis in terms of the dialectic of desire and the question of the phallus.

During the mirror stage, the infant identifies with a certain point within the maternal space. In fact, what the subject takes for its own being is an other, both an image in the mirror and an alter ego. This fundamental alienation establishes misapprehension whereby one's being is confused with one's ego. From the beginning the subject is torn. He is divided between the place from which he sees himself, and the image, the other with which he identifies. From this perspective, a human being can never experience a wholeness that would amount to being.

Because language allows the child to symbolize the mother's alternating presence and absence, it makes it impossible for the child to become one with the mother. From this point on, a gap is introduced between the mother and child and any illusion of totality is broken. The subject experiences his lack of being, and when father later appears to put the phallus into play, he proves the lack of being of the maternal phallus. "[T]he child's desire manages to identify with the mother's want-to-be" (Lacan, 2002, p. 197). This desire begins as a quest for an object that might fill this lack.

Paradoxically the subject, as an effect of the symbolic (trapped within language), can only use language to search for the lost object. As Lacan wrote, "The being of language is the nonbeing of objects" (p. 253). Being is only a "lack of being," and the thing that could fill this lack is forbidden. This prohibition maintains desire. Thus desire appears as the metonymy of a lack of being whose signifier is the phallus that marks what the mother lacks. The subject's being is lack, and the cut that produced the symbolic is the object a, which is the real insofar as it is articulated in the symbolic and which is also a gap that the ego as image occupies. The image of the body, the principal mirage, indicates the place of desire insofar as it is desire for nothing. This is the relation of human beings with their own lack of being. But at the same time, the image is what prevents the human being from seeing it.

Alain Vanier

See also: Subject's castration; Symbolic, the (Lacan).


Lacan, Jacques. (1958-1959). Le Séminaire-Livre VI, Le désir et son interpretation (unpublished seminar).

. (1997). The seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VII, The ethics of psychoanalysis, (1959-1960) (Dennis Porter, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.

. (2002).Écrits: A selection. (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Want of Being/Lack of Being." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . 22 Mar. 2018 <>.

"Want of Being/Lack of Being." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . (March 22, 2018).

"Want of Being/Lack of Being." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . Retrieved March 22, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.