From No Subject - Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis
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subject (sujet)

The term 'subject' is present from the very earliest of Lacan's psychoanalytic writings (see Lacan, 1932), and from 1945 on it occupies a central part in Lacan's work. This is a distinctive feature of Lacan's work, since the term does not constitute part of Freud's theoretical vocabulary, but is more associated with philosophical, legal and linguistic discourses.

In Lacan's pre-war papers, the term 'subject' seems to mean no more than 'human being' (see Ec, 75); the term is also used to refer to the analysand (Ec, 83).

In 1945, Lacan distinguishes between three kinds of subject. Firstly, there is the impersonal subject, independent of the other, the pure grammatical subject, the noetic subject, the 'it' of 'it is known that.' Secondly, there is the anonymous reciprocal subject who is completely equal to and substitutable for any other, and who recognises himself in equivalence with the other.

Thirdly, there is the personal subject, whose uniqueness is constituted by an act of self-affirmation (Ec, 207-8). It is always this third sense of the subject, the subject in his uniqueness, that constitutes the focus of Lacan's work.

In 1953, Lacan establishes a distinction between the subject and the EGO which will remain one of the most fundamental distinctions throughout the rest of his work. Whereas the ego is part of the imaginary order, the subject is part of the symbolic. Thus the subject is not simply equivalent to a conscious sense of agency, which is a mere illusion produced by the ego, but to the unconscious; Lacan's 'subject' is the subject of the unconscious. Lacan argues that this distinction can be traced back to Freud: '[Freud] wrote Das Ich und das Es in order to maintain this fundamental distinction between the true subject of the unconscious and the ego as constituted in its nucleus by a series of alienating identifications' (E, 128). Although psychoanalytic treatment has powerful effects on the ego, it is the subject, and not the ego, on which psychoanalysis primarily operates.

Lacan plays on the various meanings of the term 'subject'. In linguistics and logic, the subject of a proposition is that about which something is predicated (see Lacan, 1967: 19), and is also opposed to the 'object'. Lacan plays on the philosophical nuances of the latter term to emphasise that his concept of the subject concerns those aspects of the human being that cannot (or must not) be objectified (reified, reduced to a thing), nor be studied in an 'objective' way.

'What do we call a subject'? Quite precisely, what in the development of objectivation, is outside of the object' (Sl, 194).

References to language come to dominate Lacan's concept of the subject from the mid-1950s on. He distinguishes the subject of the statement from the subject of the ENUNCIATION to show that because the subject is essentially a speaking being (parlÍtre), he is inescapably divided, castrated, SPLIT. In the early 1960s Lacan defines the subject as that which is represented by a signifier for another signifier; in other words, the subject is an effect of language (Ec, 835).

Besides its place in linguistics and logic, the term 'subject' also has philosophical and legal connotations. In philosophical discourse, it denotes an individual self-consciousness, whereas in legal discourse, it denotes a person who is under the power of another (e.g. a person who is subject to the sovereign). The fact that the term possesses both these meanings means that it perfectly illustrates Lacan's thesis about the determination of consciousness by the symbolic order; 'the subject is a subject only by virtue of his subjection to the field of the Other' (S2, 188, translation modified). The term also functions in legal discourse to designate the support of action; the subject is one who can be held responsible for his AcTs.

The philosophical connotations of the term are particularly emphasised by Lacan, who links it with Descartes's philosophy of the COGITO: in the term subject . . . I am not designating the living substratum needed by this phenomenon of the subject, nor any sort of substance, nor any being possessing knowledge in his pathos . . . nor even some incarnated logos, but the Cartesian subject, who appears at the moment when doubt is recognised as certainty. (S11, 126)

The fact that the symbol of the subject, S, is a homophone of the Freud's term Es (see ID) illustrates that for Lacan, the true subject is the subject of the unconscious. In 1957 Lacan strikes through this symbol to produce the symbol S, the 'barred subject', thus illustrating the fact that the subject is essentially divided.


The term ‘subject’ is present from the very earliest of Lacan’s psychoanalytic writings, and from 1945 on it occupies a central part in Lacan’s work. This is a distinctive feature of Lacan’s work, since the term does not constitue part of Freud’s thoeretical vocabulary, but is more associated with philosopical, legal and linguistic discourses.