Jacques Lacan Quotes

Lacan (1901-1981) was a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist. He made major contributions to psychoanalysis and philosophy, and has been called “the most controversial psycho-analyst since Freud”. He gave yearly seminars in Paris, from 1953 to 1981. He had a strong influence on France’s intellectuals in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and he is sometimes grouped into the field of post-structural thinkers. His work was interdisciplinary; he tried to reconcile psychoanalysis with sciences like linguistics,  topology, and philosophy. Throughout his life, he remained loyal to Freud. At the end of his life, he said in a seminar: “It is up to you to be Lacanians if you wish. I am a Freudian.”

(All quotes from [easyazon_link identifier=”0393329259″ locale=”US” tag=”mainacademicsite-20″]Lacan’s Ecrits[/easyazon_link] refer to the French pagination.)

  • The deep dissatisfaction we find in every psychology, including the one we have founded thanks to psychoanalysis, derives from the fact that it is nothing more than a mask, and sometimes even an alibi, of the effort to focus on the problem of our own action, something that is the essence and very foundation of all ethical reflection . – Jacques Lacan: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (1992)
  • “But for us, workers, scholars, doctors, technicians, what direction does this return to the truth of Freud indicate? It is the direction of a positive study whose methods and forms are given to us in this sphere of the so-called human sciences, which concerns the order of language, linguistics. Psychoanalysis should be the science of language inhabited by the subject. From the Freudian point of view man is the subject captured and tortured by language. Psychoanalysis introduces us to a psychology, to be sure, but which one? Psychology properly so-called is effectively a science of perfectly well-defined objects. But, undoubtedly, by virtue of the significant resonances of the word, we slide into confusing it with something that refers to the soul. One thinks that everyone has his own psychology. One would be better off, in this second usage, to give it the name it could be given. Let’s make no mistake – psychoanalysis isn’t an egology. From the Freudian perspective of man’s relationship to language, this ego isn’t at all unitary, synthetic. It’s decomposed, rendered complex in various agencies – the ego, the superego, the id. It would certainly be inappropriate to make each of these terms a little subject in its own right, which is a crude myth that makes no advance, illuminates nothing” (Seminar III, p.243).
  • “As for psychology, it is striking that there is no shadow of it in things that are enlightening…. It is a little montage that gets its value from its master signifiers, which is worthwhile because it is readable. No need in the least for psychology” (Seminar XVII, 17.06.70., p192).
  • Psychoanalysis is a dialectic, what Montaigne, in book III, chapter VIII, calls an art of conversation. The art of conversation of Socrates in the Meno is to teach the slave to give his own speech its true meaning. And it is the same in Hegel. In other words, the position of the analyst must be that of an ignorantia docta [learned ignorance, scientific ignorance], which does not mean knowing [savante], but… what is capable of being formative for the subject…. If the psychoanalyst thinks he knows something, in psychology for example, then that is already the beginning of his loss, for the simple reason that in psychology nobody knows much, except that psychology is itself an error of perspective on the human being” (Seminar I, p.278).
The Signifier
  • If what Freud discovered, and rediscovers ever more abruptly, has a meaning, it is that the signifier’s displacement determines the subjects’ acts, destiny, refusals, blindnesses, success, and fate, regardless of their innate gifts and instruction, and regardless of their character or sex; and that everything pertaining to the psychological pre-given follows willy-nilly the signifier’s train, like weapons and baggage.
    – Ecrits, 30
  • Psychoanalytic experience has rediscovered in man the imperative of the Word as the law that has shaped him in its image. It exploits the poetic function of language to give his desire its symbolic mediation. May this experience finally enable you to understand that the whole reality of its effects lies in the gift of speech; for it is through this gift that all reality has come to man and through its ongoing action that he sustains reality. – Ecrits, 322
  • This passion of the signifier thus becomes a new dimension of the human condition in that it is not only man who speaks, but in man and through man that it speaks; in that his nature becomes woven by effects in which the structure of the language of which he becomes the material can be refound; and in that the relation of speech thus resonates in him, beyond anything that could have been conceived of by the psychology of ideas. – Ecrits, 689
  • The subject is nothing other than what slides in a chain of signifiers, whether he knows which signifier he is the effect of or not. That effect- the subject – is the intermediary effect between what characterizes a signifier and another signifier, namely, the fact that each of them, each of them is an element. – Seminar XX, p.50
  • Starting with Freud, the unconscious becomes a chain of signifiers that repeats and insists somewhere (on another stage or in a different scene, as he wrote), interfering in the cuts offered it by actual discourse and the cogitation it informs. – Ecrits, 799
  • The cut made by the signifying chain is the only cut that verifies the structure of the subject as a discontinuity in the real. If linguistics enables us to see the signifier as the determinant of the signified, analysis reveals the truth of this relationship by making holes in meaning the determinants of its discourse. – Ecrits, 801
  • There are in the unconscious signifying chains which subsist as such, and which from there structure, act on the organism, influence what appears from the outside as a symptom, and this is the whole basis of analytic experience. – Seminar V, The Formations of the Unconscious (unpublished). Seminar of 21.05.58.
  • Freud describes a dream as a certain knot, an associative network of analyzed verbal forms that intersect as such, not because of what they signify, but thanks to a sort of homonymy. It is when you come across a single word at the intersection of three of the ideas that come to the subject that you notice that the important thing is that word and not something else. It is when you have found the word that concentrates around it the greatest number of threads in the mycelium that you know it is the hidden center of gravity of the desire in question. That, in a word, is the point I was talking about just now, the nodal point where discourse forms a hole.  – Lacan, My Teaching, p.28 (translated by David Macey, London: Verso, 2008)
  • The transparency of the classical subject divides, undergoing, as it does, the effects of fading that specify the Freudian subject due to its occultation [eclipse] by an ever purer signifier  – Ecrits, 800-801
  • The subject is manufactured by a certain number of articulations that have taken place and falls from the signifying chain in the way that ripe fruit falls. As soon as he comes into the world he falls from a signifying chain, which may well be complicated or at least elaborate, and what we call the desire of his parents is subjacent to that very chain.     – Lacan, My Teaching, p.44 (translated by David Macey, London: Verso, 2008)
The Unconscious
  • The unconscious is that part of concrete discourse qua trans-individual, which is not at the subject’s disposal in reestablishing the continuity of his conscious discourse. – Ecrits, 258
  • On his famous maxim, ‘The unconscious is structured like a language’: You see that by still preserving this ‘like’ [comme], I am staying within the bounds of what I put forward when I say that the unconscious is structured like a language. I say like so as not to say – and I come back to this all the time – that the unconscious is structured by a language. The unconscious is structured like the assemblages in question in set theory, which are like letters.  – Seminar XX, p.48 (Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, W.W. Norton, 1999)
  • The domain of the Freudian experience is established within a very different register of relations. Desire is a relation of being to lack. This lack is the lack of being properly speaking. It isn’t the lack of this or that, but lack of being whereby the being exists.
    This lack is beyond anything which can represent it. It is only ever represented as a reflection on a veil. The libido, but now no longer as used theoretically as a quantitative quantity, is the name of what animates the deep-seated conflict at the heart of human action….
    …. Desire, a function central to all human experience, is the desire for nothing nameable. And at the same time, this desire lies at the origin of every variety of animation. If being were only what it is, there wouldn’t even be room to talk about it. Being comes into existence as an exact function of this lack. Being attains a sense of self in relation to being as a function of this lack, in the experience of desire.
    – Lacan, Seminar II, p.223 – 224 (Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, WW Norton:1991).
  • Desire is always what is inscribed as a repercussion of the articulation of language at the level of the Other. – Lacan, My Teaching, p.38 (translated by David Macey, London: Verso, 2008)
  • If you have taken the time to construct desire properly, that is, on a language basis, relating it to what is its fundamental linguistic basis, which is what we call metonymy, you’ll progress much more rigorously into the field to be explored: namely, the field of psychoanalysis. You may well even notice the true sinew of something in psychoanalytic theory that is still so opaque, so obtuse and so obstructed. – Lacan, My Teaching, p.40 (translated by David Macey, London: Verso, 2008)
  • Castration means that jouissance has to be refused in order to be attained on the inverse scale of the Law of desire.   – Ecrits, 827
  • There is no support for love… as I have told you: to give one’s love, is very precisely and essentially to give as such nothing of what one has, because it is precisely in so far as one does not have it that there is a question of love.  – Seminar V, The Formations of the Unconscious, Seminar of 07.05.1958 (unpublished)
The Ego
  • The notion of the ego today draws its self-evidential character from a certain prestige given to consciousness in so far as it is a unique, individual, irreducible experience. The intuition of the ego retains, in so far as it is centered on the experience of consciousness, a captivating character, which one must rid oneself of in order to accede to our conception of the subject. I try to lead you away from its attraction with the aim of allowing you to grasp at last where, according to Freud, the reality of the subject is. In the unconscious, excluded from the system of the ego, the subject speaks.
    – Seminar II, p.58 (Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, WW Norton:1991).
  • “The formations of the unconscious… Have nothing in common if one grounds onself in psychological objectivity, even if the latter is derived by extension from the schemas of psychopathology,… this chaos merely reflects psychology’s central error. This error consists in taking the very phenomenon of consciousness to be unitary, speaking of the same consciousness – believed to be a synthetic faculty – in the illuminated area of a sensory field, in the attention that transforms it, in the dialectic of judgment, and in ordinary day-dreaming. This error is based on the undue transfer to these phenomena of the value of a thought experiment that uses them as examples. The Cartesian cogito is the major, and perhaps terminal, feat of this experiment in that it attains knowledge certainty [sic]. But it merely indicates all the more clearly just how privileged the moment upon which it is based is, and how fraudulent it is to extend its privilege to phenomena endowed with consciousness, in order to grant them a status. For science, the cogito marks, on the contrary, the break with every assurance conditioned by intuition” (Ecrits, 831).
  • “This ‘I think therefore I am’, encounters this objection – and I believe that it has never been made – which is that ‘I think’ is not a thought…. I would go even further: this characteristic, it is a thinking of a thinker, is not required for us to talk about thought. A thought, in a word, in no way requires that one thinks about the thought” (Seminar IX, 15.11.61., p.9. For more on this point see Seminar XI, 22.04.64., p.139).
  • “For us in particular [psychoanalysts] thinking begins with the unconscious. One cannot but be astonished at the timidity which makes us have recourse to the formula of psychologists when we are trying to say something about thinking…. The formula we are dealing with: ‘I think therefore I am’, we could say that, as regards the use that is made of it, it cannot but pose us a problem: because we have to question this word ‘I think’, however large may be the field that we have reserved for thinking, to see the characteristics of thinking being satisfied, to see being satisfied the characteristics of what we can call a thinking. It could be that this word proved itself quite insufficient to sustain in any way, anything whatsoever that we may at the end discover of this presence: ‘I am’…. To clarify my account, I would point out the fact that ‘I think’ taken simply in this form, is logically no more sustainable, no more supportable than the ‘I am lying’, which has already created problems for a certain number of logicians” (Seminar IX, 15.11.61., p.9).
  • Even if it communicates nothing, discourse represents the existence of communication; even if it denies the obvious, it affirms that speech constitutes truth; even if it is destined to deceive, it relies on faith in testimony. Thus the psychoanalyst knows better than anyone else that the point is to figure out to which ‘part’ of this discourse the significant term is relegated, and this is how he proceeds in the best of cases: he takes the description of an everyday event as a fable addressed as a word to the wise, a long prosopopeia as a direction interjection, and, contrariwise, a simple slip of the tongue as a highly complex statement, and even the rest of a silence as the whole lyrical development it stands for.  – Ecrits, 251-252
  • I will explain to you how incomplete any instruction in psychoanalysis must necessarily be and what difficulties stand in the way of your forming a judgment of your own upon it. I will show you how the whole trend of your previous education and all your habits of thought are inevitably bound to make you opponents of psychoanalysis, and how much you would have to overcome in yourselves in order to get the better of this instinctive opposition…
  • In psychoanalysis, alas, everything is different” – Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, 1915
  • Psychoanalysis is neither a Weltanschauung, nor a philosophy that claims to provide the key to the universe. It is governed by a particular aim, which is historically defined by the elaboration of the notion of the subject. It poses this notion in a new way, by leading the subject back to his signifying dependence”   – Jacques Lacan, Seminar XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis
    What does analysis uncover – if it isn’t the fundamental, radical discordance of forms of conduct essential to man in relation to everything which he experiences? The dimension discovered by analysis is the opposite of anything which progresses through adaptation, through approximation, through being perfected. It is something which proceeds by leaps, in jumps. It is always the strictly inadequate application of certain complete symbolic relations, and that implies several tonalities, immixtures, for instance of the imaginary in the symbolic…. – Seminar II, p.86 (Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, WW Norton:1991)
  • Analysis can have as its goal only the advent of true speech and the subject’s realization of his history in its relation to a future. Maintaining this dialectic is directly opposed to any objectifying orientation of analysis, and highlighting this necessity is of capital importance if we are to see through the aberrations of the new trends in psychoanalysis.  – Ecrits, 302
  • Psychoanalysis is neither a Weltanschauung, nor a philosophy that claims to provide the key to the universe. It is governed by a particular aim, which is historically defined by the elaboration of the notion of the subject. It poses this notion in a new way, by leading the subject back to his signifying dependence. – Seminar XI, p.77 (Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, Karnac: 2004)
  • The analyst’s desire is not a pure desire. It is a desire to obtain absolute difference, a desire which intervenes when, confronted with the primary signifier, the subject is, for the first time, in a position to subject himself to it. There only may the signification of a limitless love emerge, because it is outside the limits of the law. – Seminar XI, p.276 (Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, Karnac: 2004)
  • What is realized in my history is neither the past definite as what was, since it is no more, nor even the perfect as what has been in what I am, but the future anterior as what I will have been, given what I am in the process of becoming. – Ecrits, 300
Psychoanalytic Practice
  • You will observe in the training we give to our students that this is always a good place to stop them. It’s always at the point where they have understood, where they have rushed in to fill the case in with understanding, that they have missed the interpretation that it’s appropriate to make or not to make. This is generally naively expressed in the expression – This is what the subject meant. How do you know? What is certain is that he didn’t say it. And in most cases, on hearing what he did say, it appears that at the very least a question mark could have been raised which alone would have been sufficient for the valid interpretation, or at least for the beginnings of it. – Seminar III, p.22 (Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, Routledge, 1993)
  • “… Analysts’ practice makes them fascinated by highly seductive imaginary forms, by the imaginary meaning of the subjective world, whereas what one needs to know – this is what interested Freud – is what organizes this world and enables it to be displaced”.  – Seminar III, p.173 (Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, Routledge, 1993)
  • “Est-ce que vous pourriez supporter la vie que vous avez?” – “Can you bear the life that you have?” (Lecture in Louvain)