From No Subject - Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis
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French: psychose

The term psychosis is used in many ways, but in general refers to people suffering from so-called schizophrenia, with hallucinations and delusions; manic depression; various paranoid states; and severe hypochondrial, obsessional, or narcissistic states. The term "psychosis" is used in psychoanalysis to describe a severe mental disorder, more serious than neurosis, characterized by disorganized thought processes, disorientation in time and space, hallucinations, and delusions. Types of psychosis include paranoia, manic depression, megalomania, and schizophrenia. Psychosis has many different forms: paranoia, schizophrenia, and manic-depression. Common features are difficult to define exactly, but psychoanalytically speaking one can see three broad features in psychotic patients:

  1. A particular relation to reality
  2. A special relation of the subject to his speech;
  3. A particular structure of the subject

Jacques Lacan


Lacan discussed psychosis throughout his work. His interest in psychosis predates his interest in psychoanalysis. Jacques Lacan studied psychosis for his doctoral research about a woman he calls "Aimee."[1] Indeed it was his doctoral research, which concerned a psychotic woman whom Lacan calls Aimée that first led Lacan to psychoanalytic theory.[2] It is common to comapre Lacan's totured and at times almost incomprehensible style of writing and speaking to the discourse of psychotic patients. Lacan's discussions of psychosis are among the most signiifncant and original aspects of his work. Lacan's most detailed discussion of psychosis appears in his seminar of 1955-6, entitled simply The Psychoses. It is here that he exponds what come to be the main tenets of the Lacanian approach to madness.

Clinical Structure

Psychosis is defined as one of the three clinical structures, one of which is defined by the operation of foreclosure. In this operation, the Name-of-the-Father is not integrated in the symbolic universe of the psychotic (it is "foreclosed"), with the result that a hole is left in the symbolic order. To speak of a hole in the symbolic order is not to say that the psychotic does not have an unconscious; on the contrary, in psychosis "the unconscious is present but not functioning."[3] The psychotic structure thus results from a certain malfunction of the Oedipus complex, a lack in the paternal function; more specifically, in psychosis the paternal function is reduced to the image of the father (the symbolic is reduced to the imaginary).

The Psychotic Relation to Reality

In his articles on psychosis Freud noted the psychotic's altered relation to reality. The 'imaginary external world' of a psychosis attempts to put itself in place of the 'external world'. (In Lacanian terms, there are altered relations between the Imaginary and Real Orders, in parallel with an alteration in the Symbolic Order).

In studying psychosis Lacan stated, following Freud, that "the problem lies not in the reality that is lost, but in that which takes its place."[4] Lacan emphasized the 'rent' or gap that appears in the relation of the psychotic subject to the world, and the nature of the 'patch' which the psychotic subject applies over this gap.


In his seminar on psychosis (1955-6) Lacan tackled Freud's case history of Judge Schrber, a paranoid schizophrenic who wrote a fascinating account of his illnesss entitled Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (1903). Lacan's essay "On a question preliminary to any possible treatment of psychosis (1957-8)' enlarged on the ideas of this seminar.


Freud was skeptical about the possibility of practising psychoanalysis with psychotic patients.

Lacan follows Freud in arguing that while psychosis is of great interest for psychoanalytic theory, it is outside the field of the classical method of psychoanalytic treatment, which is only appropriate for neurosis; "to use the technique that Freud established outside the experience to which it was applied (i.e. neurosis) is as stupid as to toil at the oars when the ship is on the sand."[5]

This does not mean that Lacanian analysts do not work with psychotic patients. On the contrary, much work has been done by Lacanian analysts in the treatment of psychosis. However, the method of treatment differs substantially from that used with neurotic and perverse patients. Lacan himself works with psychotic patients but left very few comments on the technique he employed; rather than setting out a technical procedure for working with psychosis, he limited himself to discussing the questions preliminary to any such work.[6]

The Relation of the Subject to his Speech

Lacan asserted that the failure to take account of the relation of the subject to his speech ahd resulted in a failure to understand psychotic phenomena.


  1. Lacan, Jacques. De la psychose paranoiaque dans ses rapports avec la personalité, Paris: Navarin, 1975. [1932].
  2. Lacan, Jacques. De la psychose paranoiaque dans ses rapports avec la personalité, Paris: Navarin, 1975. [1932].
  3. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-56. Trans. Russell Grigg. London: Routledge, 1993. p. 208
  4. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 188-9
  5. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 221
  6. Lacan, Jacques. p. 1957-8b