StudySmarter: Study help & AI tools
4.5 • +22k Ratings
More than 22 Million Downloads
Jacques Lacan

The word 'ego' is so common nowadays that if you were to use it, no one would stop you mid-sentence to ask for an explanation. It might surprise you to know that 'ego' entered the English vocabulary from a translation of Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). Freud, known for his psychoanalytic theories, became a household name thanks to popular culture. While Freud continues to be an icon in popular culture, if not in the academic arena, those who succeeded Freud in the psychoanalytic school do not enjoy the same kind of fame. That does not mean their contributions are less significant.

Mockup Schule Mockup Schule

Explore our app and discover over 50 million learning materials for free.


Lerne mit deinen Freunden und bleibe auf dem richtigen Kurs mit deinen persönlichen Lernstatistiken

Jetzt kostenlos anmelden

Nie wieder prokastinieren mit unseren Lernerinnerungen.

Jetzt kostenlos anmelden

The word 'ego' is so common nowadays that if you were to use it, no one would stop you mid-sentence to ask for an explanation. It might surprise you to know that 'ego' entered the English vocabulary from a translation of Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). Freud, known for his psychoanalytic theories, became a household name thanks to popular culture. While Freud continues to be an icon in popular culture, if not in the academic arena, those who succeeded Freud in the psychoanalytic school do not enjoy the same kind of fame. That does not mean their contributions are less significant.

The French psychiatrist Jacques Lacan (1901–1981) was one of them. While ideas like desire and ego dominated Freud's theory, Lacan discussed how the development of subjectivity in an individual was similar to language. Aren't you curious to know how Lacan differed from Freud? Let's talk about Lacan's biography, his connection to postmodernism and some interesting quotes.

Jacques Lacan: Biography

Lacan was born in Paris in 1901. Lacan's family was wealthy and devoutly Catholic. After finishing his education at the Collège Stanislas, Lacan received medical education at the University of Paris and later specialised in psychiatry at the Sainte-Anne Hospital in Paris. His engagement with philosophy, especially that of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), caused him to renounce his religious beliefs and become an atheist.

Lacan was acutely interested in the intellectual and philosophical debates in Paris in the early twentieth century. He was a literary enthusiast and made acquaintance with writers like James Joyce (1882–1941). In the 1930s and 1940s, he worked as a psychiatrist, one of his patients being Pablo Picasso (1881–1973). Lacan was associated with surrealists and philosophers like Georges Bataille (1897-1962) and Salvador Dalí (1904–1989) due to his interest in surrealist experimentation.

Surrealism was a 20th-century experimental movement that presented bizarre combinations and juxtapositions of images and objects in art, film, and literature.

In the 1950s, Lacan began to develop his version of psychoanalysis inspired by ideas of structural linguistics and anthropology. Lacan stressed the effect an individual's personal history has on the formation of their ‘personality’. However, he ignored his own background by claiming that he was a self-made and free man by temperament. Scholars point out the paradox in Lacan’s view on his own autonomy and his denial of any influence of his family or background on the shaping of his personality and views.

From 1963 to 1980, Lacan presented a weekly seminar at the École Freudienne de Paris. Lacan's published works largely consist of transcripts of his seminars and of published papers. Among his major works in English are Écrits: A Selection (1977), The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book I (1988), Book II (1998), Book III (2000), and The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (1994).

Jacques Lacan: Theory

Lacan pioneered ideas that shifted the axis of psychoanalysis from the humanist concept of ego to a non-ego-based theory. Lacan discussed the ego as an illusion created by the unconscious to protect us from the knowledge of the fragmented body and self.

Psychoanalysis is a set of therapeutic methods and ideas based on the work of Sigmund Freud. It is based on the distinction between the conscious self and the unconscious, which contains repressed desires, thoughts, and emotions. Psychoanalysis was later developed by other practitioners like Lacan.

Humanism is a school of thought that believes that the individual is a rational and autonomous self with agency and free will.

Lacan also argued that identity and subjectivity are dependent on our interactions with an Other. The ego is merely a mask that hides our fragmented subjectivity.

The literary scholar Mary Klages describes Lacan as 'Freud plus Saussure, with a dash of Levi-Strauss and even some seasoning of Derrida.'1 Jacques Derrida (1930– 2004) was a poststructural thinker who challenged several assumptions in modern thought. We'll talk more about Claude Levi-Strauss (1908– 2009) shortly.

Lacan's primary influence, however, was undoubtedly Freud.

Lacan called for a return to Freud. Lacan reevaluated Freud's ideas in the context of the structuralist view of language. He was inspired by structuralists such as Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), Roman Jakobson (1896–1982), and Levi-Strauss. Lacan's theory is, hence, described as structural psychoanalysis.

Structuralism is a set of theories that focuses on contrasting elements in the structures of language, culture, and arts.

Lacan's most influential contribution is the suggestion that the unconscious is structured like a language. He arrived at this idea by combining the structural anthropologist Levi-Strauss’s idea that myth is like language with Freud’s concept of the Oedipus Complex.

Levi Strauss on Myth

Levi Stress wrote in 'The Structural Study of Myth' (1955) that myth is articulated through language and also functions like language. He discussed similarities in the myths that exist in cultures across the world by arguing that they have a universal structure. While the content of the myth varies, their structure remains the same in different times and cultures.

Freud and Oedipus Complex

Oedipus complex is named after the legend of Oedipus from Greek mythology, a king who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother. In Freudian psychoanalysis, the Oedipus complex refers to the idea that during the early stages of development, a boy develops an infatuation towards his mother and competes with his father (who is seen as a rival) for the mother's affection.

Jacques Lacan: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis

The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1950–1960: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, published in English in 1992, contains the transcript of Lacan's seminar on ethics. In the seminar, Lacan called for a re-examination of Freud's work and ethics with regard to psychoanalysis.

Lacan elaborated on several of his key concepts and delved into how psychoanalysis in practice is inevitably linked to ethics and how psychoanalysts are bound to consider ethical questions. Other topics discussed in 'The Ethics of Psychonalaysis' include the essence of tragedy, the tragic dimension of analytical experience, and Lacan's idea of jouissance.

Jacques Lacan Mirror Stage Summary StudySmarterFig. 1 Jacques Lacan is well known for introducing the concept of the mirror stage


The literal translations of the French word jouissance in English include enjoyment, satisfaction, and pleasure. However, these English words do not quite capture the essence of the Lacanian term. It is, therefore, often left untranslated in works related to Lacan. It implies both sensual pleasures as well as non-sexual matters.

The concept of jouissance is described as 'extreme pleasure', almost reaching the limit of excitement. The term is rich in paradox - it refers to a desire for something that is impossible to attain and is prohibited, nonetheless.

Paradox: Something that may seem to be contradictory.

Jacques Lacan: Mirror Stage Summary

While many of us cannot remember seeing our own reflection in a mirror for the first time, for Lacan, this incident is pivotal in our development. Similar to Freud, Lacan suggested that there are three stages or orders of development: the real, the imaginary, and the symbolic.

The Real: This phase lasts from birth till around 6-18 months, when the baby starts to be able to distinguish between its body and the rest of the world. In this phase, the baby also starts having demands instead of needs.

The Imaginary: This is the phase where the concept of the self and a connection to one's own image is established. The Imaginary is a prelinguistic and pre-oedipal realm of images.

The Symbolic: This phase is marked by ideas of desire. For Lacan, the symbolic realm is structured like language, which one has to enter to become a speaking subject.

Lacan presented the concept of the mirror stage in one of his famous seminars. What Lacan calls the mirror stage happens during the imaginary order. For Lacan, this is a moment in which the infant begins to identify its own reflection in a mirror. While until then, the baby had experienced itself as a shapeless mass, in the mirror stage, it achieves a sense of completeness.

It's not hard to imagine the mirror stage. Have you seen a baby looking transfixed at their reflection in the mirror until a parent coaxes them, ever so gently, to identify the person in the mirror by saying, 'Who is that? It's you!'

However, this identification is a misrecognition, or as Lacan calls it, méconnaissance. The child sees an image in the mirror and recognises it as themselves, whereas it is merely an image. The adult, usually a parent, reinforces the misrecognition by attributing the pronoun ‘you’.

Jacques Lacan: Postmodernism

Although it is difficult to trace a direct link between Lacan and postmodernism, Lacan's theory has influenced many postmodern theorists like Derrida, Michel Foucault (1926–1984), Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995), and Felix Guattari (1930-1992).

Lacan himself was influenced by structuralism and, in turn, influenced many poststructural theorists and cultural critics, including Hélène Cixous (b. 1937), Slavoj Źiźek (b. 1949), and Luce Irigaray (b. 1930). Lacan is now an important name in psychoanalytic theory and criticism.

Postmodernism was an intellectual and philosophical movement that followed the modernist period in Europe. Postmodernism embraced chaos and randomness and often included metafictional and fragmented narratives.

Jacques Lacan: Quotes

Although Lacan is not as widely referenced as Freud, Lacan has contributed a fair share of ideas to the field of psychoanalysis.

Our view is that the essential function of the ego is very nearly that systematic refusal of reality which French analysts refer to in talking about the psychoses.

Lacan 'Some Reflections on the Ego', 1953

Lacan called for a return to Freud but digressed from ego-based psychoanalysis.

What I have called the mirror stage is interesting in that it manifests the effective dynamism by which the subject originally identifies himself with the visual Gestalt of his own body: in relation to the still very profound lack of co-ordination of his own motility, it represents an ideal unity.

Lacan, Ecrits. A Selection, 1997

Lacan's concept of the mirror stage is borrowed from Freud's work on narcissism found in the 1914 essay 'On Narcissism'.

Let us say, then, that the dream is like the parlour-game in which one is supposed to get the spectators to guess some well known saying or variant of it solely by dumb-show.

Lacan, Ecrits. A Selection, 1977

Freud's influence is evident in Lacan's work, yet Lacan succeeded in making original contributions to the field of psychoanalysis.

Jacques Lacan - Key takeaways

  • Jacques Lacan was a French psychoanalyst.
  • Lacan was initially trained as a psychiatrist and later developed his version of psychoanalysis.
  • He was inspired by Sigmund Freud's theories and ideas of structuralism.
  • The core idea in Lacan's psychoanalytic theory is that the unconscious resembles the structures of language.
  • He is well-known for concepts like jouissance, the mirror stage, and his three-part framework of psychological development, including the phases of the real, the imaginary and the symbolic.


  1. Mary Klages, Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed, 2006
  2. Jacques Lacan 'Some Reflections on the Ego', International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 1953
  3. Jacques Lacan, Ecrits. A Selection, 1997

Frequently Asked Questions about Jacques Lacan

Jacques Lacan was a French psychoanalyst who attracted fame and controversy in the field of psychoanalysis after Freud.

Lacanian psychoanalysis is a version of psychoanalysis that discusses the mind from a structuralist point of view. 

Lacan is known for his idea of the three stages of development known as the symbolic order, the imaginary order, and the real order.

Lacan reexamined Freud's ideas in light of structuralism. He also believed that psychoanalysts ought to consider ethics in their practice.

Lacan believed that the unconscious is structured like a language.

More about Jacques Lacan

Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

  • Flashcards & Quizzes
  • AI Study Assistant
  • Study Planner
  • Mock-Exams
  • Smart Note-Taking
Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

Start learning with StudySmarter, the only learning app you need.

Sign up now for free

Entdecke Lernmaterial in der StudySmarter-App