From No Subject - Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis
Jump to: navigation, search

Language is a central concept in Lacanian psychoanalysis.

It is usually regarded as its most distinctive feature.

Language as a Structure

Jacques Lacan is concerned with the general structure of language (the system of language in general) (langage), (rather than the differences between particular languages (langues)).

Development in Lacan's Thought

Four broad phases can be discerned in the long process of development in Lacan's thinking on the nature of language.


Lacan argues that language is constitutive of the psychoanalytic experience.[1]

Language, understood in terms derived from Hegel rather than linguistic theory, is a mediating element which permits the subject to attain recognition from the other.

Language is first and foremost an appeal to an interlocutor.

Language and Structure

Lacan's discussion of language contains references to Heideggerian phenomenology and to the anthropology of language (Mauss, Malinowski and Levi-Strauss).

Language is seen as structuring the social laws of exchange, as a symbolic pact, etc.

In his famous Rome Discourse Lacan posits a basic opposition between parole and langage. (see speech)

Lacan refers to Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson.

Following Sassure, Lacan argues that language is a structure composed of differential elements.

Language becomes for Lacan the single paradigm of all structure.

Lacan and Language

Lacan proceeds to critcize the Saussurean concept of language.

Lacan argues that the basic unit of language is not the sign but the signifier.

Lacan argues that the unconscious is, like language, a structure of signifiers.

Lacan asserts that "the unconscious is structured like a language."[2]

Lacan can formulate the category of the symbolic with greater precision.

In 1969 Lacan develops a concept of discourse as a kind of social bond.


Lacan coins the term lalangue to refer to non-communicative aspects of language which, by playing on ambiguity and homophony, give rise to a kind ofjouissance.[3]

All human communication is inscribed in a linguistic structure.

The whole aim of psychoanalytic treatment is to articulate the truth of one's desire in speech rather than in any other medium.

The fundamental rule of psychoanalysis is based on the principle that speech is the only way to this truth.

Speech is the only tool which the analyst has.

Any analyst who does not understand the way speech and language work does not understand psychoanalysis.


Properly speaking this is a redundancy because "structured" and "as a language" for me mean exactly the same thing. Structured means my speech, my lexicon, etc., which is exactly the same as a language. And that is not all. Which language? Rather than myself it was my pupils that took a great deal of trouble to give that question a different meaning, and to search for the formula of a reduced language. What are the minimum conditions, they ask themselves, necessary to constitute a language? Perhaps only four signantes, four signifying elements are enough. It is a curious exercise which is based on a complete error, as I hope to show you on the board in a moment. There were also some philosophers, not many really but some, of those present at my seminar in Paris who have found since then that it was not a question of an "under" language or of "another" language, not myth for instance or phonemes, but language. It is extraordinary the pains that all took to change the place of the question. Myths, for instance, do not take place in our consideration precisely because those are also structured as a language, and when I say "as a language" it is not as some special sort of language, for example, mathematical language, semiotical language, or cinematographical language. Language is language and there is only one sort of language: concrete language —  English or French for instance — that people talk. The first thing to start in this context is that there is no meta-language. For it is necessary that all so called meta-languages be presented to you with language. You cannot teach a course in mathematics using only [[[letter]]s on the board. It is always necessary to speak an ordinary language that is understood. [4]

See Also


  1. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p.82
  2. 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.20
  3. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre XX. Encore, 1972-73. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1975. p.126
  4. Of Structure as an Inmixing of an Otherness Prerequisite to Any Subject Whatever
  1. Language: 12, 24-5, 33, 44-5, 71, 83, 118, 119, as system, 38, 40 (35, 37)
  • Language, 2-3, 10, 14-25, 28-36, 44-46, 54, 67, 80, 101, 111, 118-19, 122, 138
desire and, 127
as Other, 131
signifier, 30
unconscious and, 15, 21, 48, 51, 55, 96, 100, 110, 135
See also Discourse; llanguage; Signifier