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Fr. existence
Jacques Lacan

The term "existence" is employed by Lacan in various ways:

Existence in the Symbolic

No Prediscursive Reality

This sense of existence is to be understood in the context of Freud's discussion of the "judgement of existence," by which the existence of an entity is affirmed prior to attributing any quality to it.

Only what is integrated in the symbolic order fully "exists", since "there is no such thing as a prediscursive reality."[1]

"Woman Does Not Exist"

It is in this sense that Lacan argues that "woman does not exist;"[2] the symbolic order contains no signifier for femininity, and hence the feminine position cannot be fully symbolized.

Absence and Presence in the Symbolic
Differential Relations in the Symbolic

It is important to note that, in the symbolic order, "nothing exists except on an assumed foundation of absence. Nothing exists except insofar as it does not exist."[3]

In other words, everything that exists in the symbolic order only exists by virtue of its difference to everything else.

It was Saussure who first pointed this out when he argued that in language there are no positive terms, only differences.[4]

Existence in the Real

In this sense, it is only that which is impossible to symbolize that exists: the impossible Thing at the heart of the subject.

"There is in effect something radically unassimilable to the signifier. It's quite simply the subject's singular existence."[5]

Subject of the Unconscious

This is the existence of the subject of the unconscious, S, which Lacan describes as an "ineffable, stupid existence."[6]

Relation to the First Definition

This second sense of the term existence is exactly the opposite of existence in the first sense.

Existence and Being

Whereas existence in the first sense is synonymous with Lacan's use of the term being, existence in the second sense is opposed to being.


Lacan coins the neologism ex-sistence to express the idea that the heart of our being (Kern unseres Wesen) is also radically Other, strange, outside;[7] the subject is decentered, his center is outside of himself, he is ex-centric.

Lacan also speaks of the "ex-sistence (Entstellung) of desire in the dream,"[8] since the dream cannot represent desire except by distorting it.

See Also


  1. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre XX. Encore, 1972-73. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1975. p.33
  2. Lacan, Jacques. 1973a: 60
  3. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p.392
  4. Saussure, Ferdinand de. (1916) Course in General Linguistics, ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, trans. Wade Baskin, Glasgow: Collins Fontana.
  5. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-56. Trans. Russell Grigg. London: Routledge, 1993. p.179
  6. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p.194
  7. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p.11
  8. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p.264