Lacan’s Ontology

Lacan's spheres[Editor's Note: Wayne here is currently leading one of our Not School groups on Deleuze. Being well-versed in this area and having made some helpful comments on this blog, we asked him to clarify what he took to be Lacan's ontology. Thanks, Wayne!]

Jacques-Alain Miller once asked asked Lacan, “What is your ontology?” Lacan replied saying that we should read both Badiou and Zizek to find out (guess he deferred to philosophers for ontology). While their ontologies are illuminating, I'll try here to extract Lacan’s ontology from his own system as much as possible, continuing with Fink’s groundwork in The Lacanian Subject.

Phenomenological Ontology: Subjectivity

Lacan appears to closely follow the Freudian/psychoanalytic concept that the Real represents a psychological time prior to the symbolic (linguistic) order, prior to linguistic consciousness (before language). However, Lacan says that the unconscious is “pre-ontological.” The Symbolic (language) “cuts into the smooth façade of the Real creating divisons, gaps . . . sucking it into the symbols used to describe it, and thereby annihilating it.” (Fink, p. 24) Lacan is presenting the limits of language and experience as symbolic representation in the face of the Real.

The Symbolic--language--thus creates “reality:” “things which had no existence prior to being ciphered, symbolized, or put into words.” “The Real, therefore does not exist since it precedes language . . . it ‘ex-ists.’” “The Real is . . . that which has not yet been symbolized.” It is the analyst’s ability to “put into words that which has remained unsymbolized” that enables the analysand [client] to transform those earlier unspoken never conceptualized or incompletely conceptualized experiences by talking.” “Lacan insists again and again that it is in an analysts’s job to intervene in the patient’s Real, not in the patient’s view of reality.” (Fink, p. 25)

The subject is split by the Symbolic which bars the “Real, overwriting and erasing it: Symbolic/Real . . . We can think of the real as being progressively symbolized in the course of a child’s life . . . less and less of that ‘first’ ‘original’ Real being left behind, though it can never all be... .killed [castrated]... There is thus always a remainder which persists alongside the Symbolic.” (pp. 26-27)

The therapist can help the client come to terms with the Real when "interpretations hits the cause:" it hits that around which the analysand is revolving without being able to "put it into words." The analyst may be “able to speak the signifier to which her or she as subject had been subjected.” (p. 28).

Happily, “something anomalous always shows up in language, something unaccountable, unexplainable: an aporia. These aporias point to the presence within or influence on the Symbolic or the Real. I refer to them as kinks in the symbolic order.” (P. 30)

“The subject is never more than an assumption on our part.” (p. 35)

“The ego, according to Lacan, arises as a crystallization or sedimentation of Ideal images, tantamount to a fixed, reified object with which the child learns to identify . . . with him or herself.” (p. 36) Objet a, the lost memory of a unity, becomes a structural necessity of subjectivization, the source of the structuring lack itself.

In actuality, the “non-ego or unconscious “discourse interrupts the former –almost saying “No!” in much the same way as does a slip of the tongue . . . or . . . use of ‘but’ –as signifying the speaking or enunciating subject.” (p. 39)

“‘Ne’ [not] and ‘but’ is but the signifier of the Subject” which vanishes beneath or behind the signifier ‘ne.’ (p. 41)

Formal Ontology: Structure

In Lacan’s formal ontology, the subject is born from lack, nothingness, void (at the ontological level). It is the signifier that founds the subject subsequent to alienation and thus has ontic potential as a factual entity. Alienation gives rise to the potentiality of being by marking the subject as set apart from nothingness (from set theory which is considered to deal with pure multiplicity as such and group multiplicities into sets, and grounded on the empty set). The Lacanian Cogito based on the unconscious becomes “I am thinking where I am not, therefore I am where I am not thinking” and thus grounded on the void, on what I am not, and on what is not. Structure emerges from the void emergently from a novel multiplicity in the form of an event, an experience.

Lacan seeks to found psychoanalysis on science, on his definition of structure, such as the unconscious, and firmly found it on symbolic logic (a la Badiou). Badiou seems to have drawn many into his founding of ontology on mathematics as the portal to multiplicities. Lacan thus uses the concept of the symbolic to found his theory, believing that if you bury a symbol for a thousand years, you can dig it up and it will still be true. His ontological theory is thus summarized by the Borromean knot of the three interdependent rings of the Real, Imaginary, and Symbolic (see the image at the top of this post). This is like a Gödelian structuralism which maintains the importance of structure, while pointing out the necessary incompleteness, and impossibility of defining a language (symbolism) within a language (linguistics).

My take-away of Lacan’s approach to reality, is that:

1) We get into delusional and destructive modes of processing the world when in the Imaginary.
2) While we are in the linguistic and symbolic mode of processing reality most of the time, it is nevertheless foundational to maturity and well-being not to mistake the Symbolic for the Real.
3) We need to keep an open mind to knowing that we can never know completely, and through conscious awareness of all three aspects of reality, we can live life more richly with jouissance.

For further reading: The Question of Lacanian Ontology: Badiou and Žižek as Responses to Seminar XI.

-Wayne Schroeder


  1. Profile photo of Rian Mitch says

    Thanks for a great post, Wayne. I appreciate your illustration of violence within the ontological order, between the Real and Other. An easily identified and understandable overview of this difficult subject.

  2. Noah says

    So, to put things in my own crude words: we are born without words and grammar; this is a way of saying that we can’t conceptualize our experiences: we experience the world as a type of amorphous wash of sensations and emotions. But then we begin to pick up words and grammatical structures, which allow us to conceptualize our experiences: we see things as belonging to categories (girl, boy, car, money, candy, toy) / we understand the process behind certain things (if we call for for mom in the night, she comes because she cares for us (I don’t know how good of an example this is)). We get older and older and begin to understand things more and more abstractly and factually, but we still have encounters with events that are inaccessible to words.

    For that last point (encountering the Real as, say, a twenty-eight year old), I’m a little confused. This might seem a little out there, but let me try to conceptualize it by using an cinematic example. I saw Jurassic Park 3D a few nights ago. When the T-Rex roared at the camera, I got this weird primal feeling that I can’t quite describe. Is this an example of me as an adult coming across the Real (now, of course it’s not real in the normal way we use that word); i.e., it was an experience that resists symbolization. I can’t explain to anyone why that imagery and sound should affect me the way it did, or, at least, I can’t right now. Maybe I could try to describe it over and over again and eventually symbolize it. I don’t know.

    I kind of feel like I know a bit of what people are talking about when they refer to the Real and the Symbolic, but I’m still confused about this Imaginary. What is this? Is this just what it sounds like: some delusion (like I’m gonna make a billion dollars next year by trading stocks) you act on?

  3. Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says


    This is a good summary by Wikipedia which helps to address what you are saying:

    The Imaginary is the field of images and imagination, and deception [it is a personal illusion]. Lacan thought that the relationship created within the mirror stage between the Ego and the reflected image means that the Ego and the Imaginary order itself are places of radical alienation: “alienation is constitutive of the Imaginary order, ” (i.e. my mOther didn’t really love me (she had her own priorities), so I Imaginarily believed she loved me.

    [When the child gazes at his mirror image (Imago) the child acquires a horrifying experience of paranoid proportions, of staring into the abyss, the alienation (lack) of his Ego. (i.e. your Jurrasic Park experience=the abyss,)]

    The Real, for Lacan, is not synonymous with reality [but the domain of the unconscious, the ” weird primal feeling”]. Not only opposed to the Imaginary, the Real is also exterior to the Symbolic. The Real is that which is outside language and that which resists symbolization [consciousness] absolutely. It is this resistance to symbolization that lends the Real its traumatic quality. Finally, the Real is the object of anxiety, insofar as it lacks any possible mediation and is “the essential object which is not an object any longer, but this something faced with which all words cease and all categories fail, the object of anxiety par excellence.”

    Well done Noah, in bringing the abyss to consciousness (being aware of the experience while watching Jurrasic Park 3D) which you have therefore Symoblized.

  4. Profile photo of Philip C. says

    I found a good summary of the the orders here:

    My notes on the Lacanian terms:
    *Imaginary—Representation of images distinct from the unmediated sensations of the present. Internalized image of the ideal, whole self. Situated around the notion of coherence rather than fragmentation. The formation of the ego initially arises from the imagination, and mediates the internal and external world. The represented image signified by the symbol.

    *Symbolic—signifiers and language (Greek: nomos (νόμος)—law, custom, convention; logos (λόγος)—logic, reason, language). Signifies the imaginary. The “determining order” of the subject, the way in which a subject is organized. “Symbols in fact envelop the life of man in a network so total that they join together, before he comes into the world, those who are going to engender him…” (Lacan, “Symbol and Language.” The Language of the Self, p. 42).

    *Real—present that resists re-presentation (only the imaginary is represented by symbols). Aspect of experience where words and language fail. Related to Hegel’s initial immediate sense-certainty.

    *Imago—1.) “An idealized image of a person, usually a parent, formed in childhood and persisting unconsciously into adulthood.” (American Heritage Dictionary.); 2.) Visual image of the body taken as a visual symbol that signifies (substitutes for) the non-representable “real” person; 3.) Establishes the (fictive) boundaries between a subject and its environment (6, ¶1).

    *I-function (function of (mis)recognition/méconnaissance): “going I,” desire to become I—an identity that is internally unified, whole, and distinct from its external environment (compare to Freud, “Beyond the Pleasure Principal,” p. 613, desire for autonomy, freedom from “external disturbing and diverting influences” on the individual’s development.)

    *Dehiscence (opening up, gaping, faille, fault, gap): the absence or lack of a fully present I, or the realization of this absence. Also likened to the dividing of the subject: a split between the Real (present) and the Imaginary (re-presented).

  5. Profile photo of Philip C. says

    Outside sources:
    -Identity as sameness: “A person is said to be the same from childhood till he turns into an old man—even then he never consists of the same things, though he is called the same, but he always being renewed and other aspects passing away, in his hair and flesh and bones and blood and his entire body.” (Diotima to Socrates, Symposium, 207D)

    -Alienation: “The feeling of strangeness that overcomes the actor before the camera, as [Luigi] Pirandello describes it, is basically the same kind as the estrangement felt before one’s own image in the mirror. (Walter Benjamin, “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”)

    -Absence of identity: “It is the very absence of a closed identity that compels individual subjects to seek ways of ‘filling the gap’ by acts of identification. The secret of identity, therefore, lies in an ongoing struggle to conceal an intrinsic absence by entry into the symbolic order or the world of fantasy.” (James Martin, “Identity,” Cultural Geography, p. 99)

    -Relationship between the Imaginary and the Real:
    *Difference between actually feeling pain [“impressions”] and remembering or imagining pain [“thoughts or ideas”]. (David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, “Of The Origin of Ideas,” Sec. II)

    *“The image is separated from the object, that is, the presence of the eidos [eidos = Platonic forms, ideas or essences, the “x-ness of x.” Similar to Hegel’s “universals.”] is made independent of the presence of the thing. Having vision already involves a stepping back from the urgent pressures of the environment and created the freedom of an overview from a distance. A stepping back of the second order occurs when appearance is grasped as appearance, is distinguished from reality [Descartes], and—with its presence in our control—is interpolated between the self and reality, whose presence is beyond our control. This control is first attained in the internal exercise of the imagination, which, as far as we know, distinguishes human memory from animal recall. Memory transcends mere recall by means of imagination’s capacity for free reproduction, which has the images of things at its disposal. That human beings can alter images at will follows almost necessarily from the fact that we possess them detached from actual sensation and thereby from stubborn factuality of the objects’ own being. Imagination separates the remembered eidos from the event of the individual encounter with it, thus freeing it from the accidents of space and time.” (Hans Jonas, trans. Lawrence Vogel, Mortality and Morality, “Tool, Image, and Grave: What is Beyond the Animal in Man.” p. 81)

  6. says

    Wayne, in your sixth paragraph which begins ‘Happily’, should you mean have typed “the presence within or influence on the Symbolic *of* the Real”, rather than your “on the Real”?

    Thanks for your notes Philip C., they prompted me to think about this some more.

    How is the symbolic is necessarily interdependent with the Real (as per the knot picture) when it is only the imaginary, not the Real, that can be symbolised?

  7. Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says

    Thanks for catching that Peter.

    Your question about the interconnection of the Symbolic and the Real is profound and points out the inherent paradox in how he initially established the three orders. Initially he had simply said that both the symbolic and the real are structured by language (in that way similar), but was left with the Real being structure alone, without signs. His later approach admitted that there are sign-like breakthroughs from the Real into the Symbolic, not unlike Deleuze’s transcendental breakthroughs from the Virtual into the Actual, but having more in common with occasional lightening bolts in the night sky which transform the Symbolic but then recede.

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