The term 'symbolic' appears in adjectival form in Lacan's earliest psychoanalytic writings. In these early works the term implies references to symbolic logic and to the equations used in mathematical physics.Cite error: Closing
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<ref> tag By 1950, the term has acquired anthropological overtones, as when Lacan praises Marcel Mauss for having shown that 'the structures of society are symbolic'.
These different nuances are combined into a single category in 1953 when Lacan begins to use the term 'symbolic' as a noun. It now becomes one of the three orders that remain central throughout the rest of Lacan's work. Of these three orders, the symbolic is the most crucial one for psychoanalysis; psychoanalysts are essentially 'practitioners of the symbolic function'. In speaking of 'the symbolic function', Lacan makes it clear that his concept of the symbolic order owes much to the anthropological work of Claude LÈvi-Strauss (from whom the phrase 'symbolic function' is taken). In particular, Lacan takes from LÈvi-Strauss the idea that the social world is structured by certain laws which regulate kinship relations and the exchange of gifts. The concept of the gift, and that of a circuit of exchange, are thus fundamental to Lacan's concept of the symbolic. 
Since the most basic form of exchange is communication itself (the exchange of words, the gift of speech); and since the concepts of law and of structure are unthinkable without language, the symbolic is essentially a linguistic dimension. Any aspect of the psychoanalytic experience which has a linguistic structure thus pertains to the symbolic order.
However, Lacan does not simply equate the symbolic order with language. On the contrary, language involves imaginary and real dimensions in addition to its symbolic dimension. The symbolic dimension of language is that of the signifier; a dimension in which elements have no positive existence but which are constituted purely by virtue of their mutual differences.
The symbolic is also the realm of radical alterity which Lacan refers to as the Other. The unconscious is the discourse of this Other, and thus belongs wholly to the symbolic order. The symbolic is the realm of the Law which regulates desire in the Oedipus complex. It is the realm of culture as opposed to the imaginary order of nature. Whereas the imaginary is characterised by dual relations, the symbolic is characterised by triadic structures, because the intersubjective relationship is always 'mediated' by a third term, the big Other.
The symbolic order is also the realm of death, of absence and of lack. The symbolic is both the pleasure principle which regulates the distance from the Thing, and the death drive which goes 'beyond the pleasure principle' by means of repetition; in fact, 'the death drive is only the mask of the symbolic order'.
The symbolic order is completely autonomous: it is not a superstructure determined by biology or genetics. It is completely contingent with respect to the real: 'There is no biological reason, and in particular no genetic one, to account for exogamy. In the human order we are dealing with the complete emergence of a new function, encompassing the whole order in its entirety'. Thus while the symbolic may seem to 'spring from the real' as pre-given, this is an illusion, and 'one shouldn't think that symbols actually have come from the real'.
The totalising, all-encompassing effect of the symbolic order leads Lacan to speak of the symbolic as a universe: 'In the symbolic order the totality is called a universe. The symbolic order from the first takes on its universal character. It isn't constituted bit by bit. As soon as the symbol arrives, there is a universe of symbols.' There is therefore no question of a gradual continuous transition from the imaginary to the symbolic; they are completely heterogeneous domains. Once the symbolic order has arisen, it creates the sense that it has always been there, since 'we find it absolutely impossible to speculate on what preceded it other than by symbols'. For this reason it is strictly speaking impossible to conceive the origin of language, let alone what came before, which is why questions of development lie outside the field of psychoanalysis.
Lacan criticises the psychoanalysis of his day for forgetting the symbolic order and reducing everything to the imaginary. This is, for Lacan, nothing less than a betrayal of Freud's most basic insights; 'Freud's discovery is that of the field of the effects, in the nature of man, produced by his relation to the symbolic order. To ignore this symbolic order is condemn the discovery to oblivion.'
Lacan argues that it is only by working in the symbolic order that the analyst can produce changes in the subjective position of the analysand; these changes will also produce imaginary effects, since the imaginary is structured by the symbolic.
- Castration of the subject
- Child analysis
- Death instinct
- Demand Ethics
- Formula of Fantasy
- Female sexuality
- Feminism and psychoanalysis
- Ego ideal
- Ideal ego
- Imaginary identification
- Symbolic identification
- L and R schemas
- Mirror stage
- Object a
- Optical schema
- Psychoses, chronic and delusional Real
- Real, Imaginary, and Symbolic father
- Formulas of Sexuation
- Structuralism and psychoanalysis
- Subject's desire
- Thalassa: A Theory of Genitality
- Unary trait
- Want of being/lack of being
- Freud, Sigmund. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE, 18: 1-64.
- Lacan, Jacques. (2002). The function and field of speech and language in psychoanalysis. In his Écrits: A selection (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton (Original work published 1953)
- (e.g. Lacan, 1936)
- (Ec, 132)
- (E, 72)
- see LÈvi-Strauss, 1949a: 203
- (see also Mauss, 1923)
- (S4, 153-4, 182)
- S4, 189
- S2, 210
- S2, 326
- (S2, 29
- (S2, 238
- (S2, 29)
- (S2, 5)
- (E, 64)