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Psychoanalysis 101: Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis


This psychoanalysis course is based on the main object of study of the theory, the unconscious, and its multiple stipulations. It is a theoretical series that aims to explore the complexity of psychoanalysis not only from a clinical view, but a social one as well. It will discuss the science behind psychoanalysis, a debate this school of thought has had since the beginnings of Freud. A century ago, neurologist Sigmund Freud developed a theory from a medical and scientific perspective, yet found himself dealing with the impossibility of positioning psychoanalysis in such disciplines. This generated a century-long discussion where the value of psychoanalysis has been constantly questioned. However, its clinical and philosophical value remains intact nowadays. There is not one exclusive way of studying psychoanalysis, to think of this theory as a general worldview science is to disregard the vision this theory has: singularity. To study the unconscious is to study that which is singular, that which is unknown. The aim is to create a paved road of the psychoanalysis theory where the reader can walk through it with a considerate timeline on one hand while grasping the fundamental concept of the unconscious and its diverse applications when studying the human mind.

Psychoanalysis Theory 101 is divided into the following sections:

  1. Psychoanalysis Theory 101: Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis

  2. Psychoanalysis Theory 101: Psychoanalysis and Art

  3. Psychoanalysis Theory 101: Psychoanalysis and Cultural Discontents

Psychoanalysis Theory 101: Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis

Every science has an object. Physics, for example, studies matter and related entities such as energy and force, linguistics studies language and speech, biology studies living organisms, and so on. But, what is psychoanalysis concerned with? Lacan poses this question in his eleventh seminar in 1964, one year after being expelled from the International Psychoanalytical Association (IPA), with the inauguration of l'École Freudienne de Paris, a professional psychoanalytical school founded by Lacan himself. His expulsion was based on the evolution of his theory and his analytical practice, which took different paths from more orthodox Freudian thinkers. Lacan believed that Freudian psychoanalysis was losing perspective and accused the IPA of making a theoretical discourse much more related to religion. Hence, he begins his eleventh seminar, called The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (1964), in which he attempts to grasp the major psychoanalytical concepts that can somehow be defined without falling into nomothetic approaches.

The debate surrounding psychoanalysis as a science has been discussed throughout its history. As it has been said, Freud's desire was to position psychoanalysis in the scientific field, and in failing to do so, the theory has been scrutinized and subjected to a great amount of criticism invalidating the theory due to its lack of objective groundwork. However, this has also led to questioning the basis of science overall, namely the limits of such an objective field when studying subjective phenomena. As a successor of Freud, Lacan found that for psychoanalysis, the only direction towards progress was backwards. He remarked the importance of a 'return to Freud', and insisted that in the attempt to pave a road towards academic science, psychoanalysis loses its perspective. Therefore, deep into his literature review of Freud's work, Lacan discovered other disciplines relevant to the theory, such as linguistics.

He believed this was the road to understanding Freud's main discoveries, since when carefully read, his tendency to evoke linguistic matters becomes evident. Lacan used linguistic theory to think of Freud's fundamental work, yet preached how problematic it was to encase psychoanalysis in a scientific field. Nevertheless, through his teachings, he found that even for those who followed him, the process of training and becoming an analyst demanded a certain formula, a certain objectivity and quantity of facts from which the theory could stand on, to be able to put psychoanalysis on its feet. From this, Lacan's traditional use of linguistic theory as a model to understand the human subject becomes secondary in this seminar. In the 1960s, Lacan delves into a topological model instead, isolating four major Freudian concepts: the unconscious, repetition, transference, and drive. He stated that these concepts are bound together by a topology that supports them in a common function (Cauwe, 2018).

Figure 1: Jacques Lacan (1967).

Topology is the science of geometry that studies properties of spaces which are invariant under any continuous deformation. For example, a square is no longer a square if it loses its shape into a circle, but it remains the same topological figure on its surface, in its space. Lacan uses the example of a Moebius strip, which is a mathematical object with a one-sided surface formed by attaching the ends of a strip with a half-twist. It is a a non-orientable surface, meaning that within it, one cannot distinguish clockwise from counterclockwise turns. In Lacan's Summary of Seminar XI (1995), Cormac Gallagher explains the following:

For example, the fact that the Moebius strip - a belt or ribbon whose ends are fastened together after the strip has been given a half-twist - does not define an inside and an outside in the way a circle does, is used to question the received psychoanalytic wisdom of distinguishing between the container and the contained. It is this sort of geometry rather than the traditional two-dimensional variety which, in Lacan's words, binds together and supports the subversive functioning of his four fundamental concepts. (p. 8)

Through this attempt to delimit fundamental concepts in psychoanalysis theory, the essence of Lacanian psychoanalysis can be seen: that which is mainly deeply problematic yet crucial about it, that which is concerned with the function of the training analysis. Lacan emphasizes that such terrain of understanding and enclosing psychoanalysis is always, in some form, incomplete. He establishes these concepts only through the conception that they are an approach, only by a leap, a passage to the limit (Gallagher, 1995).

Figure 2: Moebius Strip (Benbennick, 2005).

The Unconscious

As mentioned before, Lacan insists that the Freudian unconscious is to be understood as an effect of language. This means that we must not understand the unconscious as something of primary natural existence. On the contrary, it is a product of the interaction between the living being (natural) and the symbolic order (social). Freud never made such a discovery, but the protagonist role of language in unconscious manifestations was implicit in his works. However, beyond Lacan's thesis, The Unconscious Structured Like a Language, he emphasizes the notion of the unconscious in regard to discontinuity, a temporal pulsation which seems more primary than its linguistic structuring. "Impediment, failure, split. In a spoken or written sentence something stumbles. Freud is attracted by these phenomena, and it is there that he seeks the unconscious" (Lacan, 1964, p. 25).

It is in such phenomena, known as lapses or failed acts of consciousness, where something else (the unconscious) demands to be realized, and as soon as such failure in one's discourse is presented, it is always ready to close up again, establishing a dimension of loss. A classic example of a verbal lapse is calling your teacher your mom's name. This "mistake" is a glitch, the unconscious manifesting in the subject's discourse, but it is immediately corrected and forgotten. Discontinuity is the essential form in which the unconscious appears to us, as a vacillation of consciousness, and it functions as a temporal pulsation, meaning that once it appears and is detected, it closes up again. This means that we cannot understand the unconscious from an ontological perspective, which focuses on what is, since the unconscious is what is not; instead, it is "pre-ontological" (Gallagher, 1995).

What does this mean in psychoanalysis practice? As an analyst, to observe the unconscious is to analyze that which discloses when it is "open", when it appears, or its propensity to close up in the presence of an observer. Repression is one of the main aspects of the unconscious, which indicates that the process of studying it is a process of rediscovery, not only as clinicians, but as theorists as well. Its tendency is to repress, as a form of protection for the the conscious mind, but as soon as this veil of protection is lifted, it is the analysts' job to reveal this interruption of the unconscious in the analysand's speech. For the analyst, punctuality is everything. As said before, a matter of strange temporality is being discussed here: a moment in which the analyst must catch the split, the opening, right when it is closing up again, when consciousness is there to signify again. "The unconscious, as Lacan says, is never going to be a tourist attraction because it is always just closing when you get there" (Gallagher, 1995, p. 10).

On the other hand, if the tendency of the unconscious is to repress, repetition is a second fundamental concept in psychoanalysis, which is directly related. That aspect of the unconscious which is deeply repressed is subject to repetition in the analysand's life. It appears to analysts as a symptom of such repression and it is only possible to overcome such forgotten trauma by remembering it, by symbolizing it.

Figure 3: Exquisite Corpse (Breton, Lamba, & Tanguy, 1938).


Repetition is commonly misunderstood as an automatism of habit, a conditioned behavior or reflex which is constantly repeated. In analysis, repetition is supposed to govern transference reactions, which is how Freud first introduced the concept of transference and repetition itself (Van de Vijver, Bazan, & Detandt, 2017) The analysand tends to repeat their form of relation with the other, their patterns, in an analytic situation with their analyst. For example, if a patient tends to seek older people in romantic relationships in search of an unconscious approval, this tendency can also occur if the patient's analyst matches such criteria. This is a form of transference according to Freud. On this eleventh Seminar, Lacan sets himself the task to disentangle these two concepts and redefine each of them in a way that does not make repetition dependent on transference.

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud discusses the children's game fort-da to clarify that the compulsion of repetition is not to be understood as the repetition of painful events. He mentions that both the repetitive game and the compulsion to repeat are related to the dynamics of pleasure, to excitations and their discharge. Homeostasis is the default mode of mental functioning: we seek a state of minor tension, which means that the mind is always looking to get rid of anything that disturbs this state. He acknowledges that the psyche also needs to be able to retain tension in an organized manner in order to act effectively in peoples' surroundings, human minds are not able to maintain a homeostatic state alone, and this is what he names as the principle of reality. The pleasure principle, on the other hand, is not precisely minds seeking forms of pleasure but, instead, minds seeking the release of tension to reduce displeasure (Van de Vijver, Bazan, & Detandt, 2017).

In the game of fort-da, Freud emphasizes that the child, by playing with the presence and the absence of their toys, compensates the anxiety and the pain they feel when their mother is not around. This matter is at the core of the Freudian distinction between the pleasure principle and the compulsion to repeat. The difference is that the child stages it, they act out that which makes them anxious, making them less passively subjected to the real experience. In other words, they master that which is provoking the tension, and distance from the painful event is created satisfactorily. Lacan further analyzes that the use of "o-a" in the game, "o" when the toy is gone and "a" when the toy reappears, serves as signs, as marks, of the memory of this event. In the article The Mark, the Thing, and the Object: On What Commands Repetition in Freud and Lacan (2017), researchers Gertrudis Van de Vijer, Ariane Bazan, and Sandrine Detandt mention the following:

To Lacan, however, this clinically observed distinction risks to miss the essential point, namely that in the signifying procedures whereby the child, or any speaking being for that matter, deals with absence and presence, there is a structural loss, a structural impossibility that inescapably emerges with the use of signifiers, with the use of “o-a.” This structural loss is not disconnected from the issue of discharge, and thus of pleasure, but does initiate another domain, obeying a different logics, a logics ruled by repetition. (p. 4)

Figure 4: The Pleasure Principle (Magritte, 1937).

Repetition, states Lacan, is not determined by habit but by chance. This means that what a subject tends to repeat is not something learned from experience, something regarding consciousness, but instead, it is what has escaped them, the missed encounter, that which they did not grasp. Trauma, in Lacanian psychoanalysis, is that which could not be mastered or symbolized, that which was not assimilated by the subject and was therefore repressed. In other words, a subject's history revolves around that which has failed to achieve a representation, belonging to the Lacanian real and not the symbolic order (Gallagher, 1995).


"In the beginning of psychoanalysis is transference" (Lacan, 1967, p. 247) points out Lacan to emphasize the significance of this concept in psychoanalysis practice. There is no analysis without transference; it is fundamental for both the analyst and the analysand. Freud first observed this phenomenon when treating hysterical patients from a medical perspective, long before psychoanalysis was a fully developed theory (Breuer and Freud, 1895). He discovered that patients tended to embrace experiences revolving around their doctor, which was somewhat embarrassing to Freud, since his colleague Joseph Breuer described it as a form of infatuation in the case of Anna O., one of Freud and Breuer's most famous cases in which Anna O. (the patient) developed feelings towards Breuer (the doctor). Freud carefully observed this phenomenon, he believed it was a relevant reflection of the process between a physician and a patient (Cauwe, 2018).

In Studies on Hysteria (Breuer & Freud, 1895), transference is firstly understood as "a false connection" (p. 302). In a description of one of his cases, Freud mentions that at the end of a session, the patient wished for Freud to give her a kiss. He discusses the idea that such a wish was related to a past wish 'relegated to the unconscious", in relation to a man she had spoken to once. "I have been able, whenever I have been similarly involved personally, to presume that a transference and a false connection have once more taken place. Strangely enough, the patient is deceived afresh every time this is repeated" (Freud, 1895, p. 303). We must understand that back then, the psychoanalysis method of free-association had not been invented yet; instead, practitioners worked with the so-called cathartic method, which depends on the abreaction of affect through verbalizing a chain of memories. Later, in the Interpretation of Dreams (1900), he considers transference as a displacement of a representation, defining it as

...a special class of mental structures, for the most part unconscious, to which the name of ‘transferences’ may be given. What are transferences? They are new editions or facsimiles of the impulses and phantasies which are aroused and made conscious during the progress of the analysis; but they have this peculiarity, which is characteristic for their species, that they replace some earlier person by the person of the physician. To put it another way: a whole series of psychological experiences are revived, not as belonging to the past, but as applying to the person of the physician at the present moment. (p. 116)

Figure 5: Anger Transference (Sargent, 1954).

The dynamics of transference relate to how the analytic situation develops. This phenomenon emerges when a certain moment in analysis is approached. Freud emphasizes in a footnote that the transferred element is not necessarily of pathogenic importance; rather, it conceals an underlying current that tries to avoid coming into consciousness. However, he had yet to discover the use of transference in therapeutic work, mainly viewing it as a possible variable of patient treatment. "We soon perceive that the transference is itself only a piece of repetition, and that the repetition is a transference of the forgotten past not only on to the doctor but also on to all the other aspects of the current situation" (Freud, 1914, pp. 150-151).

In his entire work, Lacan argues that subjectivity cannot happen in isolation, it always presupposes otherness. Alterity, then, is a condition of our existence, and for Lacan, subjectivity is hinged on three orders that come from the "outside"; the imaginary (images), the symbolic (language), and the real (drive). He intertwines these three orders so that one is never independent from the other, and he states that such is the constitution of the subject. For example, a child who looks in the mirror sees his own image for the first time, and Lacan states such episode is foundational for a sense of self (imaginary order). However, it is in the presence of others (symbolic order) where one loses the alienation of this self-experience but enhances it as well. Hence, the Imaginary is in relation to the symbolic, and it can even be reduced to it. In analysis, transference can appear in imagery, but this is analyzable in terms of the symbolic value of the moment this imagery appears. "The registers of the Symbolic, the Imaginary and the Real make up the conceptual prism that enables him to interpret different clinical moments that occur over the course of the analytic process" (Cauwe, 2018, p. 12).

In this Seminar, Lacan describes transference as something that begins once there is a subject who is "supposed" to know. He dismisses the idea that transference comes from a repetition of the past ("shadows of past loves"). In its symbolic aspect, transference is approached as the subject being "supposed to know", in this case the analyst, indicating how belief enables the analysand to produce the signifiers that mark their subjectivity. This does not occur only in an analysis situation, a child bestows on their parents, usually on their mother, the position of "supposed to know". Nevertheless, this process always fails, since something in between signifiers cannot be represented. In the realm of the symbolic order, an ungraspable element always appears time and time again. On the one hand, the subject is alienated through the signifiers (of the Other). On the other hand, there is a gap where desire comes into play (Cauwe, 2018).

Figure 6: Lacan's Three Registers (Hook, 2012).


The last concept Lacan tackles with is drive, firstly introduced by Freud and developed in his essay Drives and Vicissitudes (1915). In this eleventh seminar, Lacan re-reads Freud's essay and gives an exegesis of the first propositions of Freud on drive, as well as introducing new ideas which take the concept beyond. Mainly, he emphasizes that the four components of drive (impulse, object, aim, and source) are not of natural phenomena, separating drive from vital needs such as hunger or thirst. What is drive, then?

The sexual behavior of animals is more or less determined by instincts, but Freud argues that human sexuality is organized not by instinct but by drive. He discusses the idea that humans lose instinct from a very early stage and drive (German: "trieb") is what moves us, defining it as the physical representation of excitation from within the body. Unlike vital biological needs, drives are not satiated by consuming or having a particular object. Lacan argues that the aim of drive is not to gain a particular object, but to circle endlessly around it; satisfaction comes from the persistence of this circling (Fink, 1997).

In his early research, Freud focused on the dynamics of sexual drive, or libido, as different from instinct. The human sexual impulse does not come from an unalterable compulsion of reproduction, but is determined over time in relation to different erogenous zones (oral, anal, and genital) and the singular development of a subject's psyche and sociocultural surroundings. The way the sexual drive is sublimated or repressed plays a big role in the constitution of the subject. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud states the following:

the repressed drive never ceases to strive for complete satisfaction, which would consist in the repetition of a primary experience of satisfaction. No substitutive or reactive formations and no sublimations will suffice to remove the repressed drive’s persisting tension; and it is the difference in amount between the pleasure of satisfaction which is demanded and that which is actually achieved that provides the driving factor that will permit of no halting at any position attained […]. The backward path that leads to complete satisfaction is as a rule obstructed by the resistances which maintain the repressions. (p. 42)

He argues that a primal repression occurs early in an the infant stage, a first phase of repression that consists in the physical representative of the drive is being denied into consciousness, establishing a fixation from which the drive remains attached to it. In 1915, Freud recognizes an aggressive role in the drive, an urge to master the object which has been invested by the libido. He links this urge with the drive to master, through repetition, traumatic experiences, suggesting a rooted relationship between the concept of drive and repetition. "It seems, then, that a drive is an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier stage of things which the living entity has been obliged to abandon under the pressure of external disturbing forces" (p. 36).

Figure 7: Convergence (Pollock, 1952).

Lacan enforces the idea of separating the constancy of the drive's pressure or impulse from vital needs. Hunger is not the same as oral drive, satisfaction does not consist in the fulfillment of a need, but in completing a circuit around the object cause of desire. The "mouth that is involved in the drive," Lacan stated, "is not satisfied by food" (p. 167). Drive is constant, there is always an impulse within us, and Lacan pointed out that only a topology can explain this paradox - that human drive is never satisfied, never stops, but instead exercises as a constant force. He even expands in the idea that topology, which gives importance to the edge of a surface, explains why Freud pinned down precisely the oral, anal, visual and auditory orifices as sources of the drive (Fink, 1997).

Rigorously, Lacan (1963) examines the four elements of drive introduced by Freud: pressure, aim, object, and source. The pressure is described as the constant force mentioned above. "The constancy of the thrust forbids an assimilation of the drive to a biological function, which always has a rhythm. The first thing Freud says about drive is, if I may put it this way, that it has no day or night, no spring or autumn, no rise and fall. It is a constant force" (p. 165). The aim of the drive is to attain satisfaction through the circulation of a certain path towards the object of desire, which Lacan insists their is no object that can satisfy drive. Lastly, the source of drive are the erogenous zones, as mentioned, but Lacan asks "Why are the so-called erogenous zones recognized only in those points that are differentiated for us by their rim-like structure? Why does one speak of the mouth and no the esophagus, or the stomach?" (p. 169). Here, he opens the argument of a hole, from which drive circuits around never fully attaining satisfaction, but ending up in the point of departure. Thus, Lacan concludes that the real aim of the drive is not full satisfaction, but to return to its circular path, and the real source of enjoyment is the repetitive movement of this closed circuit. For Lacan (1963), the concept of the drive is the pivot between the body, enjoyment, and language and is directly related to the order of the real.


Certainly, psychoanalysis constitutes both a discourse, which Lacan discusses in later seminars, and a praxis, which is involved in therapeutic work. Praxis must involve concepts from which to stand on. Lacan offers four fundamental concepts for the training of analysts, all four find their roots in Freud's initial work, and he presents them as incomplete concepts on their own. To grasp a concept, one needs the other, thus intertwining them in a topological structure allowing them to complement each other.

The unconscious, as an effect of the signifier on the subject, temporarily pulses from repression to demand realization, and such discontinuity, such gap, closes right before realization comes through. Repetition, then, comes from this missed yet desired encounter, as a symptom of our early traumatic experiences. He discusses both transference and drive as key elements of the subject's relation to the other, and gives a structural argument on these elements regarding the analysts' work in psychoanalysis practice. The four concepts come as basis for analytical work, and furthermore develops psychoanalytical discourse.

Bibliographical References

Bazan, A., & Detandt, S. (2015). Trauma and jouissance, a neuropsychoanalytic perpective. J. Cent. Freud. Anal. Res. 26, 99–127

Breuer, J., & Freud, S. (1957). Studies on hysteria. Basic Books.

Cauwe, J. (2018). Structural dimensions of transference in Lacanian treatment. A clinical qualitative study. Ghent University

Detandt, S. (2016). De la « Jouissance » au « Wanting » Dans Une Population de Fumeurs: Etude Empirique sur les Tenants des Assuétudes à L’interface des Approches Clinique et Expérimentales. Doctoral dissertation, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Bruxelles.

Freud, S (1900). The interpretation of dreams, in Strachey, J (ed) (2001) The Standard Edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud. (Volumes 4 & 5). London: Hogarth Press

Freud, S. (1920/1955). “Beyond the pleasure principle,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 18, trans. J. Strachey (London: The Hogarth Press), 1–64.

Fink, Bruce. (1997). A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Theory and Technique. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Gallagher, C. (1995). Lacan's Summary of Seminar XI School of Psychoteraphy. Dublin, Ireland.

Lacan, J. (1963–1964/1981). The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Book XI, trans. A. Sheridan. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

Van de Vijver G., Bazan A., & Detandt S. (2017). The Mark, the Thing, and the Object: On What Commands Repetition in Freud and Lacan. Front. Psychol. 8:2244. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02244

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