is a part of the psychoanalytic
Psychoanalysis is a psychological theory developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud. Psychoanalysis has expanded, been criticized and developed in different directions, mostly by some of Freud's former students, such as Alfred Adler and Carl Gustav...
theory of Jacques Lacan
Jacques Marie Émile Lacan was a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who made prominent contributions to psychoanalysis and philosophy, and has been called "the most controversial psycho-analyst since Freud". Giving yearly seminars in Paris from 1953 to 1981, Lacan influenced France's...
, part of his attempt 'to distinguish between those elementary registers whose grounding I later put forward in these terms: the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real - a distinction never previously made in psychoanalysis'.
The rise of the Symbolic
Lacan's early work was centred around an exploration of the Imaginary - of those 'specific images, which we refer to by the ancient term of imago
....it set out from their formative function in the subject'. Thereafter 'The notion of the "symbolic came to the forefront in the Rome Report...henceforth it is the symbolic, not the imaginary, that is seen to be the determining order of the subject'.
Lacan's concept of the symbolic 'owes much to a key event in the rise of structuralism...the publication of Claude Levi-Strauss's Elementary Structures of Kinship
in 1949....In many ways, the symbolic is for Lacan an equivalent to Levi-Strauss's order of culture': a language-mediated order of culture. 'Man speaks, then, but it is because the symbol has made him man...superimposes the kingdom of culture on that of a nature'. Accepting then that 'language is the basic social institution in the sense that all others presuppose language', Lacan found in Ferdinand de Saussure
Ferdinand de Saussure was a Swiss linguist whose ideas laid a foundation for many significant developments in linguistics in the 20th century. He is widely considered one of the fathers of 20th-century linguistics...
's linguistic division of the verbal sign between signifier and signified a new key to the Freudian understanding that 'his therapeutic method was "a talking cure"'.
The triumph of the Symbolic
For a decade or so after the Rome Report - the decade of his work immortalised in Ecrits
- Lacan found in the concept of the symbolic an answer to the neurotic problematic of the imaginary: 'It is the task of symbolism to forbid imaginary capture...supremacy of the symbolic over the imaginary...supremacy of the symbolic over the real'. Accepting through Levi-Strauss the anthropological premise that 'man is indeed an "animal symbolicum"', and that 'the self-illumination of society through symbols is an essential part of social reality', Lacan made the leap to seeing 'the Oedipus complex - in so far as we continue to recognise it as covering the whole field of our experience with its signification' - as the point whereby the weight of social reality was mediated to the developing child by the (symbolic) father: 'It is in the name of the Father
The Name-of-the-Father is a concept that Jacques Lacan developed over time, beginning in his Seminar The Psychoses...
that we must recognize the support of the symbolic function which, from the dawn of history, has identified his person with the figure of the law'.
The imaginary now came to be seen increasingly as belonging to the earlier, closed realm of the dual relationship of mother and child - 'Melanie Klein describes the relation to the mother as a mirrored relationship...[neglecting] the third term, the father' - to be broken up and opened to the wider symbolic order.
Lacan's shorthand for that wider world was the Other
The Other or Constitutive Other is a key concept in continental philosophy; it opposes the Same. The Other refers, or attempts to refer, to that which is Other than the initial concept being considered...
- 'the big other, that is, the other of language, the Names-of-the-Father, signifiers or words [which]...are public, communal property'. But though it is an essentially linguistic dimension, Lacan does not simply equate the symbolic with language, since the latter is involved also in the Imaginary and the Real
The Real refers to that which is authentic, the unchangeable truth in reference both to being/the Self and the external dimension of experience, also referred to as the infinite and absolute - as opposed to a reality based on sense perception and the material order.-In psychoanalysis:The Real is a...
. The symbolic dimension of language is that of the signifier
There are many models of the linguistic sign . A classic model is the one by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. According to him, language is made up of signs and every sign has two sides : the signifier , the "shape" of a word, its phonic component, i.e...
, in which elements have no positive existence but are constituted by virtue of their mutual differences.
The unconscious mind is a term coined by the 18th century German romantic philosopher Friedrich Schelling and later introduced into English by the poet and essayist Samuel Taylor Coleridge...
is the discourse of the Other and thus belongs to the symbolic order. It is also the realm of the Law that regulates desire in the Oedipus complex
In psychoanalytic theory, the term Oedipus complex denotes the emotions and ideas that the mind keeps in the unconscious, via dynamic repression, that concentrate upon a boy’s desire to sexually possess his mother, and kill his father...
, and is determinant of subjectivity
Subjectivity refers to the subject and his or her perspective, feelings, beliefs, and desires. In philosophy, the term is usually contrasted with objectivity.-Qualia:...
. 'The unconscious is the sum of the effects of speech on a subject, at the level at which the subject constitutes himself out of the effects of the signifier...we depend on the field of the Other, which was there long before we came into the world, and whose circulating structures determine us as subjects' - on the symbolic order.
The eclipse of the Symbolic
With the Sixties, the early rush of expectations associated with the concept of the symbolic order had begun to fade, and the symbolic was increasingly seen as part
of the human condition, rather than as a therapeutic cure-all. Lacan's critical attention began to shift instead to the concept of the Real, seen as 'that over which the symbolic stumbles...that which is lacking in the symbolic order, the ineliminable residue of all articulation...the umbilical cord of the symbolic'.
By the turn of the decade, '(1968–71) Lacan gradually came to dismiss the Oedipus...as "Freud's dream"' - despite his own earlier warning of the dangers if 'one wishes to ignore the symbolic articulation that Freud discovered at the same time as the unconscious...his methodical reference to the Oedipus complex'.
Whether his development of the concept of jouissance
The term jouissance, in French, denotes "pleasure" or "enjoyment." The term has a sexual connotation lacking in the English word "enjoyment", and is therefore left untranslated in English editions of the works of Jacques Lacan. In his Seminar "The Ethics of Psychoanalysis" Lacan develops his...
, or 'the "identification with the sinthome
The sinthome is a concept introduced by Jacques Lacan in his seminar Le sinthome . According to Lacan, sinthome is an archaic way of spelling the French word symptôme, meaning symptom. The seminar is a continuing elaboration of his topology, extending the previous seminar's focus on the Borromean...
" (as the naming of one's Real) advocated in Lacan's last works as the aim of psychoanalysis', will in time prove as fruitful as that of the symbolic order perhaps remains to be seen. Part of Lacan's enduring legacy will surely however remain bound up with the triumphal exploration of the symbolic order that was the Rome Report: 'Symbols in fact envelop the life of man in a network so total that they join together...the shape of his destiny'.