Introduction to Jacques Lacan

Jacques Lacan was a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist sometimes referred to as “the French Freud” and is regarded as an important figure in the history of psychoanalysis. The Imaginary, the Symbolic, the Real and the Mirror Stage are some of Lacan’s most notable ideas.

His teachings explore the significance of Freud’s discovery of the unconscious, proposing a “return to Freud”.

Lacan exerted his influence primarily through his yearly seminars in Paris, with a total of 27 seminars completed during his lifetime.

Lacan founded his own analytic organisation after being rejected by the conventional institutions. His magnum opus is the nine-hundred-page tome Écrits or “writings”, which gather many of Lacan’s most important ideas as well as condensed versions of the annual seminars. The book elevated Lacan into his fame as the French Freud.

However, the best way to start with Lacan is through his seminars. His vision recovers in Freud the intimate relationship between the unconscious and the ego. For Lacan, the ego is an object rather than a subject.

The portrait of the ego-as-object is at the heart of Lacan’s lifelong critical polemics against Anglo-American ego psychology. For Lacan, their error is that they pretend to explain human behaviour through the desire and rationality of an autonomous ego. However, the ego is nothing more than an epiphenomenon (a secondary effect), that far from managing desire, is a mere product of it.

We desire things to become a more fulfilled self, however, we can never truly be ourselves, as our desire is never quenched.

Lacan & Language


One of Lacan’s most famous statements is: “the unconscious is structured like a language”. Lacan’s notion of language is influenced by Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistic structuralism.

In semiotics (the study of signs), a sign has two aspects: signifier and signified. These two are completely psychological and do not represent material concepts.

The signifier is the symbol, sound, or image that represents an underlying concept or meaning. For example, an apple. The signified is the concept of the thing, in this case – a specific fruit.

Aspects of a Sign

It is possible to have words that have no signified (like a specific fruit) or to have concepts that have no signifiers (like the word apple).

Lacan famously said that: “the signifier represents a subject for another signifier”.

The unconscious is structured like “language” in the sense of the different relation of signifiers to each other. The distinction that Saussure made between language and speech reflects for Lacan the distinction between the unconscious and the ego.

Lacan tells us that the psyche is composed of three stages, or what he calls “registers”: the imaginary, the symbolic and the Real.

Borromean Knot of the Three Registers

These three form the skeletal framework for most of Lacan’s intellectual life. The registers do not have a linear stage of development, but rather a mutual dependence on one another.

Before starting with the imaginary stage, the very first significant stage in human development is the “mirror stage”.

The Mirror Stage

Baby seeing his mirror self

As infants, we dependent on our parents for protection and food. Our inability to physically do the necessary bodily needs to satisfy our necessities produces frustration and anxiety.

The feeling of impotence, especially between 6 and 18 months of life, makes the child experience their body as fragmented.

During this time, infants have their first experience of seeing their own reflection in a mirror, Lacan calls this the “specular image” from which the ego-as-object emerges. The child is fascinated by this “other self” because he sees there his body as integrated and projects a unified ego as something distinct from what he is. He sees in it the possibility of overcoming his fragmented condition to become a whole self.

Through the identification with an idealised image, the infant enters a lifelong quest to achieve this Ideal-I, however, this quest can never be fulfilled, as we can never be ourselves. This split is the root cause that gives way to alienation, anxiety, and neurosis.

The role of the “other” (the image in the mirror) undermines the idea of an autonomous self that develops and relates to others.

The loss of autonomy upon becoming aware that one is a visible object is linked to the “Gaze”, which is the anxious state of mind that comes with the self-awareness that one can be seen and looked at.

Other people can also be said to “mirror” back to one an “image” of oneself, a sense of how one “appears” from other perspectives.

The parent’s encouragements to the child to recognise himself in the mirror gives way to what Lacan calls méconnaissance or “misrecognition”. Which continues throughout life for all experiences of “recognising” oneself as being a particular kind of I.

The ego becomes a repository for the projected desires and fantasies of larger “others”; the child’s image being overflowed by signifiers flowing from other speaking beings.

Recognising the ego as embodying and representing an authentic and unique selfhood that is most genuinely one’s self, is tantamount to misrecognising that, at root, the ego isultimately made of alienating unconsciously adopted ideas or attitudes of others, through which one is seduced and subjected to.

Lacan calls the ego “the desire of the Other” (qua others’ conscious and unconscious wants and machinations). Thus, Lacan declares that “the self is the other”, that is, the self is what it is because of your relationship with the other.

1. The Imaginary

Imaginary as in image-based

The mirror stage is tied with the Imaginary order, which is the first encounter of the self with the world where due to the lack of language and signifiers, the infantile cognition is based on the visual field, it is image based.

In broader terms, it is concerned with who and what one “imagines” other people to be, what one “imagines” when communicating with others, and what one “imagines” oneself to be, including from the imagined perspectives of others.

The Imaginary is central to Lacan’s conception of ego-formation, as experienced in the mirror stage. It is an intrinsic, unavoidable dimension of one’s existence, and it is neither possible nor desirable to eliminate the illusions of the Imaginary.

In other words, it is a host of intra-subject and intersubjective relationships which are imagined and internalised.

The fictional abstractions of the Imaginary, far from being merely “unreal” as ineffective, inconsequential epiphenomena, are integral to and have very concrete effects upon actual, factual human realities.

2. The Symbolic

The Symbolic

Lacan emphasises the dependence of the Imaginary on the Symbolic. This dependency means that we are shaped and determined by socio-linguistic structures and dynamics.

The Symbolic is theorised on the basis of resources provided by structuralism, particularly Saussure. It refers to the laws, customs, norms, institutions, rituals, and traditions that structure the socio-cultural environment that one inhabits. Lacan calls this the “symbolic order” or “the big Other”, all of these things being entwined as networks of interlinked signifiers that depicts the analytic unconscious (qua “structured like a language”).

An individual human being is thrown at birth (along the lines of Heideggerian Thrownness), to this non-natural universe, a pre-existing order preparing places for us in advance.

We essentially are who we are, because of the socio-cultural and linguistic environment, represented by the Symbolic.

To interpret the desire of the unconscious, one must refer to a world beyond the imaginary, where nature reigns, to the symbolic world of culture with all its norms and institutions.

3. The Real

The Real

Lacan conceives of the Real as bound up with both of the other two registers. It is the core of the triad. The Imaginary and the Symbolic when taken together as mutually integrated, constitute the field of “reality”, itself contrasted with the persistence of the Real, which is radically un-representable and beyond existence.

The Real is intrinsically elusive, resisting by nature capture in the comprehensibly meaningful formulations. It is, as Lacan stresses, an “impossibility” vis-à-vis reality.

It is what we spend the whole of our lives unaware of and at the same time, is what enables us to function properly. It is also the reason that much that we do cannot be explained. In other words, it is something that we can never know that has an effect on what we do, especially our anxieties and neuroses.

The Real can be experienced when our reality is ruptured, where everything that we find meaningful in life is torn apart, and we gaze at the terrifying void of existence, as experienced in traumatic events.

Towards the end of his life, Lacan adds a fourth register – the sinthome or symptom, which is what binds everything together.

While the Real cannot be cured, the main purpose of Lacanian psychoanalysis is to dismantle the specular image, which begins in the mirror stage, loosening its narcissistic fixation on itself, to recognise our fundamental relationship with the other, which is ultimately, what we really are.

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Jacques Lacan in 10 Minutes

Jacques Lacan was a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist sometimes referred to as “the French Freud” and is regarded as an important figure in the history of psychoanalysis. The Imaginary, the Symbolic, the Real and the Mirror Stage are some of Lacan’s most notable ideas.

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