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Freud's work abounds in references to the penis.

Freud argues that children of both sexes set great value on the penis, and that their discovery that some human beings do not possess a penis leads to important psychical consequences (see Castration Complex).

However, the term 'phallus' rarely appears in Freud's work, and when it does it is used as a synonym of 'penis'.

Freud does use the adjective 'phallic' more frequently, such as in the expression 'the phallic phase', but again this implies no rigorous distinction between the terms 'phallus' and 'penis', since the phallic phase denotes a stage in development in which the child (boy or girl) knows only one genital organ - the penis.

Lacan generally prefers to use the term 'phallus' rather than 'penis' in order to emphasise the fact that what concerns psychoanalytic theory is not the male genital organ in its biological reality but the role that this organ plays in fantasy.

Hence Lacan usually reserves the term 'penis' for the biological organ, and the term 'phallus' for the Imaginary and Symbolic functions of this organ.


While this terminological distinction is not found in Freud's work, it responds to the logic implicit in Freud's formulations on the penis.

For example, when Freud speaks of a symbolic equation between the penis and the baby which allows the girl to appease her penis envy by having a child, it is clear that he is not talking about the real organ.[1]

It can be argued, then, that Lacan's terminological innovation simply clarifies certain distinctions that were already implicit in Freud's work.

Although not prominent in Lacan's work before the mid-1950s, the term 'phallus' occupies an ever more important place in his discourse thereafter.

The phallus plays a central role in both the Oedipus Complex and in the theory of sexual difference.

The phallus and the Oedipus complex

The phallus is one of the three elements in the Imaginary triangle that constitutes the preoedipal phase.

It is an Imaginary object which circulates between the other two elements, the mother and the child.[2]

The mother desires this object and the child seeks to satisfy her desire by identifying with the phallus or with the phallic mother.

In the Oedipus complex the father intervenes as a fourth term in this Imaginary triangle by castrating the child; that is, he makes it impossible for the child to identify with the Imaginary phallus.

The child is then faced with the choice of accepting his castration (accepting that he cannot be the mother's phallus) or rejecting it.

The phallus and sexual difference

Lacan argues that both boys and girls must assume their castration, in the sense that every child must renounce the possibility of being the phallus for the mother; this 'relationship to the phallus . . . is established without regard to the anatomical difference of the sexes'.[3]

The renunciation by both sexes of identification with the imaginary phallus paves the way for a relationship with the symbolic phallus which is different for the sexes; the man has the symbolic phallus (or, more precisely, 'he is not without having it' [il n'est pas sans l'avoir]), but the Woman does not.

This is complicated by the fact that the man can only lay claim to the symbolic phallus on condition that he has assumed his own castration (has given up being the imaginary phallus), and by the fact that the woman's lack of the Symbolic phallus is also a kind of possession.[4]


The status of the phallus: Real, Imaginary or Symbolic?

Lacan speaks of the real phallus, the imaginary phallus and the symbolic phallus:

The real phallus

As has already been observed, Lacan usually uses the term 'penis' to denote the real biological organ and reserves the term 'phallus' to denote the imaginary and symbolic functions of this organ.

However, he does not always maintain this usage, occasionally using the term 'real phallus' to denote the biological organ, or using the terms 'symbolic phallus' and 'symbolic penis' as if they were synonymous.[5]

This apparent confusion and semantic slippage has led some commentators to argue that the supposed distinction between the phallus and the penis is in fact highly unstable and that 'the phallus concept is the site of a regression towards the biological organ'.[6]


While the imaginary phallus and the symbolic phallus are discussed more extensively by Lacan than the real phallus, he does not entirely ignore the latter.

On the contrary, the real penis has an important role to play in the Oedipus complex of the little boy, for it is precisely via this organ that his sexuality makes itself felt in infantile masturbation; this intrusion of the Real in the Imaginary preoedipal triangle is what transforms the triangle from something pleasurable to something which provokes anxiety.[7]

The question posed in the Oedipus complex is that of where the real phallus is located; the answer required for the resolution of this complex is that it is located in the real father.[8]

The real phallus is written H in Lacanian algebra.

The Imaginary phallus

When Lacan first introduces the distinction between penis and phallus, the phallus refers to an Imaginary object.[9]

This is the 'image of the penis',[10] the penis imagined as a part-object which may be detached from the body by castration,[11] the 'phallic image'.[12]

The Imaginary phallus is perceived by the child in the preoedipal phase as the object of the mother's desire, as that which she desires beyond the child; the child thus seeks to identify with this object.

The Oedipus complex and the Castration Complex involve the renunciation of this attempt to be the Imaginary phallus.

The Imaginary phallus is written 9 (lower-case phi) in Lacanian algebra, which also represents phallic signification.

Castration is written -e (minus lower-case phi).

The Symbolic phallus

The Imaginary phallus which circulates between mother and child serves to institute the first dialectic in the child's life, which, although it is an Imaginary dialectic, already paves the way towards the Symbolic, since an Imaginary element is circulated in much the same way a signifier (the phallus becomes an 'Imaginary signifier').

Thus Lacan's formulations on the Imaginary phallus in the seminar of 1956-7 are accompanied by statements that the phallus is also a Symbolic object[13] and that the phallus is a signifier.[14]

The idea that the phallus is a signifier is taken up again and further developed in the 1957-8 seminar and becomes the principle element of Lacan's theory of the phallus thereafter; the phallus is described as 'the signifier of the desire of the Other',[15] and the signifier of jouissance.[16]


These arguments are stated in their most definitive form in Lacan's paper on 'The signification of the phallus'.[17]

The phallus is not a fantasy, if by that we mean an Imaginary effect. Nor is it as such an object (part-, internal, good, bad, etc.). It is even less the organ, penis or clitoris, that it symbolises. . . . The phallus is a signifier. . . . It is the signifier intended to designate as a whole the effects of the signified.[18]

Whereas the Castration Complex and the Oedipus complex revolve around the Imaginary phallus, the question of sexual difference revolves around symbolic phallus.

The phallus has no corresponding female signifier; 'the phallus is a symbol to which there is no correspondent, no equivalent. It's a matter of a dissymmetry in the signifier.'[19]

Both male and female subjects assume their sex via the Symbolic phallus.


Unlike the Imaginary phallus, the Symbolic phallus cannot be negated, for on the Symbolic plane an absence is just as much a positive entity as a presence.[20]

Thus even the Woman, who lacks the Symbolic phallus in one way, can also be said to possess it, since not having it the Symbolic is itself a form of having.[21]

Conversely, the assumption of the Symbolic phallus by the man is only possible on the basis of the prior assumption of his own castration.

Lacan goes on in 1961 to state that the Symbolic phallus is that which appears in the place of the lack of the signifier in the Other.[22]

It is no ordinary signifier but the Real presence of desire itself.[23]

In 1973 he states that the Symbolic phallus is 'the signifier which does not have a signified'.[24]


The Symbolic phallus is written <fi in Lacanian algebra.

However, Lacan warns his students that the complexity of this symbol might be missed if they simply identify it with the Symbolic phallus.[25]

The symbol is more correctly understood as designating 'the phallic function'.[26]

In the early 1970s Lacan incorporates this symbol of the phallic function in his formulae of sexuation.

Using predicate logic to articulate the problems of sexual difference, Lacan devises two formulae for the masculine position and two formulae for the feminine position.

All four formulae revolve around the phallic function, which is here equivalent with the function of castration.

Criticisms of Lacan

Of all Lacan's ideas, his concept of the phallus is perhaps the one which has given rise to most controversy.

Objections to Lacan's concept fall into two main groups.

Firstly, some feminist writers have argued that the privileged position Lacan accords to the phallus means that he merely repeats the patriarchal gestures of Freud (e.g. Grosz, 1990).

Other feminists have defended Lacan, arguing that his distinction between the phallus and the penis provides a way of accounting for sexual difference which is irreducible to biology (e.g. Mitchell and Rose, 1982).


The second main objection to Lacan's concept of the phallus is that put forward by Jacques Derrida (Derrida, 1975) and echoed by others.

Derrida argues that, despite Lacan's protestations of anti-transcendentalism, the phallus operates as a transcendental element which acts as an ideal guarantee of meaning.

How can there be such a thing as a 'privileged signifier', asks Derrida, given that every signifier is defined only by its differences from other signifiers?

The phallus, in other words, reintroduces the metaphysics of presence which Derrida denominates as logocentrism, and thus Derrida concludes that, by articulating this with phallocentrism, Lacan has created a phallogocentric system of thought.

  1. Freud, 1917c
  2. S3, 319
  3. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. 282
  4. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. 153
  5. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p.153
  6. Macey, 1988: p.191
  7. S4, 225-6; S4, 341
  8. S4, 281
  9. S4, 31
  10. E, 319
  11. E, 315
  12. E, 320
  13. S4, 152
  14. S4, 191
  15. E, 290
  16. E, 320
  17. Lacan, 1958c
  18. E, 285
  19. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-56. Trans. Russell Grigg. London: Routledge, 1993. p.176
  20. see E, 320
  21. S4, 153
  22. S8, 278-8 1
  23. S8, 290
  24. S20, 75
  25. S8, 296
  26. S8, 298