From very early on in his work, Lacan plays on the fact that the German term which Freud uses (Ich) can be translated into French by two words: moi (the usual term which French psychoanalysts use for Freud's Ich) and je. This had first been pointed out by the French grammarian, …douard Pichon (see Roudinesco, 1986: 301). Thus, for example, in his paper on the mirror stage, Lacan oscillates between the two terms (Lacan, 1949). While it is difficult to discern any systematic distinction between the two terms in this paper, it is clear that they are not simply used interchangeably, and in 1956 he is still groping for a way to distinguish clearly between them (S3, 261). It was the publication of Jakobson's paper on shifters in 1957 that allowed Lacan to theorise the distinction more clearly; thus, in 1960, Lacan refers to the je as a SHIFTER, which designates but does not signify the subject of the enunciation (E, 298). Most English translations make Lacan's usage clear by rendering moi as 'ego' and je as 'I'. When Lacan uses the Latin term ego (the term used to translate Freud's Ich in the Standard Edition), he uses it in the same sense as the term moi, but also means it to imply a more direct reference to Anglo-American schools of psychoanalysis, especially EGO-PSYCHOLOGY. Freud's use of the term Ich (ego) is extremely complex and went through many developments throughout the course of his work before coming to denote one of the three agencies of the so-called 'structural model' (the others being the id and the superego). Despite the complexity of Freud's formulations on the ego, Lacan discerns two main approaches to the ego in Freud's work, and points out that they are apparently contradictory. On the one hand, in the context of the theory of narcissism, 'the ego takes sides against the object', whereas on the other hand, in the context of the so-called 'structural model', 'the ego takes sides with the object' (Lacan, 1951b: 11). The former approach places the ego firmly in the libidinal economy and links it with the pleasure principle, whereas the latter approach links the ego to the perception-consciousness system and opposes it to the pleasure principle. Lacan claims too that the apparent contradiction between these two accounts 'disappears when we free ourselves from a naive conception of the reality-principle' (Lacan, 1951b: 11; see REALITY PRINCIPLE). Thus the reality that the ego mediates with, in the latter account, is in fact made out of the pleasure principle which the ego represents in the former account. However, it is arguable whether this argument really resolves the contradiction or whether it does not, in effect, simply privilege the former account at the expense of the latter (see S20, 53, where the ego is said to grow 'in the flowerpot of the pleasure principle').
Lacan argues that Freud's discovery of the unconscious removed the ego from the central position to which western philosophy, at least since Descartes, had traditionally assigned it. Lacan also argues that the proponents of ego-psychology betrayed Freud's radical discovery by relocating the ego as the centre of the subject (see AUTONOMOUS EGO). In opposition to this school of thought, Lacan maintains that the ego is not at the centre, that the ego is in fact an object. '
The ego is a construction which is formed by identification with the specular image in the MIRROR STAGE. It is thus the place where the subject becomes alienated from himself, transforming himself into the counterpart. This alienation on which the ego is based is structurally similar to paranoia, which is why Lacan writes that the ego has a paranoiac structure (E, 20). The ego is thus an imaginary formation, as opposed to the SUBJECT, which is a product of the symbolic (see E, 128). Indeed, the ego is precisely a mÈconnaissance of the symbolic order, the seat of resistance. The ego is structured like a symptom: 'The ego is structured exactly like a symptom. At the heart of the subject, it is only a privileged symptom, the human symptom par excellence, the mental illness of man' (Sl, 16). Lacan is therefore totally opposed to the idea, current in ego-psychology, that the aim of psychoanalytic treatment is to strengthen the ego. Since the ego is 'the seat of illlusions' (Sl, 62), to increase its strength would only succeed in increasing the subject's alienation. The ego is also the source of resistance to psychoanalytic treatment, and thus to strengthen it would only increase those resistances. Because of its imaginary fixity, the ego is resistant to all subjective growth and change, and to the dialectical movement of desire. By undermining the fixity of the ego, psychoanalytic treatment aims to restore the dialectic of desire and reinitiate the coming-into-being of the subject. Lacan is opposed to the ego-psychology view which takes the ego of the analysand to be the ally of the analyst in the treatment. He also rejects the view that the aim of psychoanalytic treatment is to promote the ADAPTATION of the ego to reality.
For Freud, the ego is "the representative of the outer world to the id" ("Ego and the Id" 708). In other words, the ego represents and enforces the reality-principle whereas the id is concerned only with the pleasure-principle. Whereas the ego is oriented towards perceptions in the real world, the id is oriented towards internal instincts; whereas the ego is associated with reason and sanity, the id belongs to the passions. The ego, however, is never able fully to distinguish itself from the id, of which the ego is, in fact, a part, which is why in his pictorial representation of the mind Freud does not provide a hard separation between the ego and the id. The ego could also be said to be a defense against the superego and its ability to drive the individual subject towards inaction or suicide as a result of crippling guilt. Freud sometimes represents the ego as continually struggling to defend itself from three dangers or masters: "from the external world, from the libido of the id, and from the severity of the super-ego" ("Ego and the Id" 716).