In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Jacques Lacan

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • General Philosophical/Theoretical Overviews
  • Dictionaries
  • Biographies/Histories
  • Bibliographies
  • Other Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Écrits
  • Le Séminaire
  • Lacan and Art/Culture
  • Lacan and Mathematics
  • Lacan and Science
  • Lacan and Religion
  • Lacan and Clinical Psychoanalysis

Philosophy Jacques Lacan
Adrian Johnston
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0296


Jacques Marie Émile Lacan (b. 13 April 1901–d. 9 September 1981) arguably is the most creative and influential figure in the history of psychoanalysis after Sigmund Freud. Lacan portrays himself as an embattled defender of Freud’s true legacy within and beyond analytic circles, the lone champion of a “return to Freud.” His teachings emphasize the crucial differences between the Freudian unconscious and speciously similar notions such as that of the id as a dark, seething cauldron of irrational, animalistic instincts. He stresses especially the centrality of language in psychoanalysis, with the unconscious subject at stake in analysis being constituted and sustained through socio-symbolic mediations (as per Lacan’s famous thesis according to which “the unconscious is structured like a language”). Dubbed “the French Freud,” Lacan significantly broadened and deepened Freudianism through putting Freud’s discoveries into conversation with a wide range of other disciplines and orientations. In particular, Lacan’s reflections draw frequently and extensively on the resources of 19th- and 20th-century Continental philosophical currents such as German idealism, structuralism, semiotics, phenomenology, and existentialism. Indeed, not only did Lacan inspire the formation of distinctly Lacanian clinical approaches—perhaps his greatest worldwide impact has been (and continues to be) in the fields of the theoretical humanities, themselves heavily indebted to the past two centuries of European philosophy. Over the course of recent decades, Lacan’s concepts/theories of, for instance, the mirror stage, subjectivity, language, desire, drive, jouissance, fantasy, and the objet petit a all have come to serve as key components in numerous scholars’ explorations of issues and instances relating to philosophy, art, literature, cinema, culture, politics, and religion, among other areas of concern. Furthermore, like Freud, Lacan remains a source of heated controversy among various commentators and critics right up through the present day.

Introductory Works

A phrase frequently used by commentators and critics alike to describe Lacan’s texts is “notoriously difficult.” This is not without justification, given these texts’ technical vocabulary, complex style of expression, and numerous explicit and implicit references to and reliances upon a wide range of background material from the history of ideas generally (including, of course, Freud’s voluminous corpus). Furthermore, Lacan, over the course of his intellectual itinerary spanning roughly five decades, continually develops and repeatedly transforms, sometimes quite dramatically, his various concepts and theories. Hence, this body of work can appear daunting to an interested reader approaching it for the first time. Initial exposure to Lacan usually provokes a reaction of perplexed frustration. Fink 1995 provides an especially lucid, thorough, and yet compact overview of the full sweep of Lacan’s thinking. Assoun 2003, Homer 2005, Julien 1994, and Vanier 2000 likewise survey Lacanian analytic thinking as an evolving whole in ways that helpfully clarify Lacan’s terminology and theses for the uninitiated. Dor 1998 and Lemaire 1977 are especially illuminating regarding the perhaps best-known period of Lacan’s teachings, namely, the 1950s-era “return to Freud” colored by Saussurian structuralism and centered on the contention that “the unconscious is structured like a language”; Dor and Lemaire render transparent what is involved in the Lacanian fusion of Freud with Saussure during this period. Žižek 1991 places a greater emphasis on Lacan’s later focus on the register of the Real instead of the Symbolic (i.e., the 1960s and 1970s, rather than the 1950s). This book makes a range of Lacanian ideas readily comprehensible through its pedagogically productive employment of examples drawn from familiar recent literary, cinematic, and sociocultural references; Žižek, here as elsewhere, concretizes Lacan’s seemingly abstract discourse through showing how these notions are embodied in well-known quotidian phenomena. Overall, what the introductory works listed in this section share in common is a combination of accessible clarity and balanced coverage apropos Lacan’s oeuvre in its fullness.

  • Assoun, Paul-Laurent. Lacan. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2003.

    Assoun concisely covers a broad swath of content, including Lacan’s “return to Freud”; his biography; the major periods of his teachings; subjectivity, objectivity, and Otherness à la Lacan; his turn to formal models; his clinical practice; and the Lacanian legacy after Lacan.

  • Dor, Joël. Introduction to the Reading of Lacan: The Unconscious Structured like a Language. Translated by Susan Fairfield. New York: Other Press, 1998.

    Dor focuses on the middle-period Lacan (1950s), with Lacan’s stress on his register of the Symbolic. This work sheds much light on Lacan’s theory of language, his modified concept of the Saussurian signifier, the linguistic mediation of the unconscious and libidinal dynamics, and the clinical implications of the preceding.

  • Fink, Bruce. The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.

    Starting in the 1990s, Fink, along with Žižek, opened up to English-language readers a more balanced picture of Lacan’s teachings by including his hitherto under-examined preoccupation with the Real in the 1960s and 1970s. Fink’s book provides an especially accurate and complete picture of Lacan’s shifting, multifaceted thinking.

  • Homer, Sean. Jacques Lacan. New York: Routledge, 2005.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203347232

    Homer is of assistance especially in deciphering both Lacan’s register theory (i.e., the Real, the Symbolic, and the Imaginary) as well as his accounts of Oedipal and sexual topics. Additionally, Homer’s book contains appendices listing recommended readings for those eager to explore further.

  • Julien, Philippe. Jacques Lacan’s Return to Freud: The Real, the Symbolic, and the Imaginary. Translated by Devra Beck Simiu. New York: New York University Press, 1994.

    Guided in part by the tripartite distinction between the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real, Julien unpacks Lacan’s changing doctrines by relating them to their Freudian sources of inspiration. His book furnishes demonstrations of how Lacan advances psychoanalysis by creatively revisiting Freud’s texts.

  • Lemaire, Anika. Jacques Lacan. Translated by David Macey. New York: Routledge, 1977.

    Lemaire’s study was the first doctoral thesis written on Lacan, and Lacan provided a foreword to its published version. Lemaire highlights Lacan’s engagements with structural linguistics. She also discusses the tensions between Lacan and some of his dissenting students (particularly Jean Laplanche) regarding the relationship between language and the unconscious.

  • Vanier, Alain. Lacan. Translated by Susan Fairfield. New York: Other Press, 2000.

    Vanier begins with some biographical material in relation to the public emergence of Lacanianism as a distinct analytic orientation c. 1953. Vanier’s book then surveys the three major phases of Lacan’s teachings, namely, those of the primacies of the Imaginary (1930s and 1940s), the Symbolic (1950s), and the Real (1960s and 1970s).

  • Žižek, Slavoj. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1991.

    Drawing upon detective fiction, Hitchcock’s films, pornography, postmodernism, and contemporary politics, among other points of reference, Žižek introduces readers to Lacan by revealing the spontaneous Lacanian structures and dynamics operative within everyday objects and experiences. Lacan’s concepts thereby go from being mysteriously ineffable to becoming tangibly manifest.

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