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From No Subject - Encyclopedia of Lacanian Psychoanalysis
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French: biologie

Sigmund Freud

Freud's work is full of references to biology. Freud regarded biology as a model of scientific rigor on which to base the new science of psychoanalysis.

Jacques Lacan

Lacan, however, is strongly opposed to any attempt to construct psychoanalysis upon a biological model, arguing that the direct application of biological (or ethological/psychological) concepts (such as adaptation) to psychoanalysis will inevitably be misleading and will obliterate the essential distinction between nature and culture.

Such biologizing explanations of human behavior ignore, according to Lacan, the primacy of the symbolic order in human existence. Lacan sees this "biologism" in the work of those psychoanalysts who have confused desire with need, and drives with instincts, concepts which he insists on distinguishing.


These arguments are evident from the very earliest of Lacan's psychoanalytic writings. In his 1938 work on the family, for example, he rejects any attempt to explain family structures on the basis of purely biological data, and argues that human psychology is regulated by complexes rather than by instincts.[1]


Lacan argues that his refusal of biological reductionism is not a contradiction of Freud but a return to the essence of Freud's work.When Freud used biological models, he did so because biology was at that time a model of scientific rigor in general, and because the conjectural sciences had not then achieved the same degree of rigor.

Freud certainly did not confuse psychoanalysis with biology or any other exact science, and when he borrowed concepts from biology (such as the concept of the drive) he reworked them in such a radical way that they become totally new concepts. For example, the concept of the death instinct "is not a question of biology."[2] Lacan expresses this point with a paradox:

"Freudian biology has nothing to do with biology."[3]

Lacan, like Freud, uses concepts borrowed from biology (i.e. imago, dehiscence), and then reworks them in an entirely symbolic framework. Perhaps the most significant example of this is Lacan's concept of the phallus, which he conceives as a signifier and not as a bodily organ. Thus while Freud conceives of the castration complex and sexual difference in terms of the presence and absence of the penis, Lacan theorizes them in non-biological, non-anatomical terms -- the presence and absence of the phallus. This has been one of the main attractions of Lacanian theory for certain feminist writers who have seen it as a way of constructing a non-essentialist account of gendered subjectivity.


However, while Lacan consistently rejects all forms of biological reductionism, he also rejects the culturalist position which completely ignores the relevance of biology. If "biologizing" is understood correctly (that is, not as the reduction of psychic phenomena to crude biological determination, but as discerning the precise way in which biological data impact on the psychical field), then Lacan is all in favor of biologizing thought.[4] The clearest examples of this are Lacan's appeals to examples from animal ethology to demonstrate the power of images to act as releasing mechanisms; hence Lacan's references to pigeons and locusts in his account of the mirror stage,[5] and to crustaceans in his account of mimicry.[6] Thus in his account of sexual difference, Lacan follows Freud's rejection of the false dichotomy between "anatomy or convention".[7]

See Also


  1. Lacan, Jacques. Les complexes familiaux dans la formation de l'individu. Essai d'analyse d'une fonction en psychologie, Paris: Navarin, 1984 [1938]. pp. 23-4
  2. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 102
  3. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book II. The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954-55. Trans. Sylvana Tomaselli. New York: Nortion; Cambridge: Cambridge Unviersity Press, 1988. p. 75
  4. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p. 723
  5. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 3
  6. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1977. p. 99
  7. Freud, Sigmund. New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, SE XXII, 1933a. p. 114