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Psychoanalysis 101: The Language of the Unconscious


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 will be divided into the following sections:

  1. Psychoanalysis Theory 101: Epistemology of Psychoanalysis

  2. Psychoanalysis Theory 101: The Interpretation of Dreams

  3. Psychoanalysis Theory 101: The Language of the Unconscious

  4. Psychoanalysis Theory 101: Literature of the Unconscious

  5. Psychoanalysis Theory 101: Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis

  6. Psychoanalysis Theory 101: Psychoanalysis and Art

  7. Psychoanalysis Theory 101: Psychoanalysis and Cultural Discontents

Psychoanalysis Theory 101: The Language of the Unconscious

French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan was born in Paris in 1901. In 1932, after becoming a psychiatrist, he completed his PhD thesis on paranoid psychosis, which was well received by his Surrealist acquaintances, such as Salvador Dalí and many other artists of this movement who were concerned with dreams as a superior aspect of human reality and who influenced Lacan greatly in further studies of the human mind. Furthermore, early in his career, Lacan had been strongly influenced by intellectuals who studied the philosophical aspects of existence and the human condition as well, one of them being Sigmund Freud. Lacan considered himself a Freudian; he deeply studied Freudian psychoanalysis and dedicated the rest of his career to elucidate the foundations of psychoanalysis, teach his keen interpretations, and develop his clinical practice, becoming one of the most influential psychoanalysts of his time. Lacan’s accomplishment was to subject psychoanalysis theory to a radical rewriting based on other deep philosophical stances which Freud had envisioned back then. Freudian psychoanalysis was steeped in Anglo-American empirical philosophy, which Lacan, from his influential study of phenomenology and existentialism, redirected to other pathways. He believed psychoanalysis had been encased and limited due to its English translation, standardizing Freud's work in American philosophy and losing a fundamental aspect of his postulations (Skelton, 1994).

Figure 1: Jacques Lacan in his Seminars (1901–1981)

Nevertheless, despite the influence of English philosophy on Freud, the presence of Hegel is also duly noted. German philosopher Georg W. Friedrich Hegel was one of the most relevant philosophers for Lacan when he began studying psychoanalysis and the phenomenology of being. Lacan's reading of Freud's work was mainly through the lens of Hegel's philosophical insights, which allowed him to give a deeper and extended interpretation of his texts. For him, it became clear that the key to study Freud was through the German language, the essence of his theory, and clinical practice. He recognized Freud's strong sensitivity for and deep analysis of his patients’ discourse. Throughout his numerous studies, he greatly emphasized the ambiguities of speech and word play; he constantly alluded to puns and the double meanings in dreams. Evidently, such subtleties of Freud's works had been lost in translation. Lacan believed psychoanalysis had to return to this, to the spoken 'word'. Lacan's 'back to Freud' movement was based precisely on this; he aimed to go back to Freud's initial works, where he was deeply concerned with spoken language, and carefully reread his theory through a different perspective, a perspective which allowed him to further develop what Freud had primarily seen. Throughout his seminars, Lacan insisted that Freud would have strongly appreciated Ferdinand de Saussure's language theory, a theory that emerged in French philosophy conveniently during his studies and which allowed him to establish what linguistics could offer psychoanalysis theory (Skelton, 1994).

Hence, Lacanian psychoanalysis developed as another school of thought different from post-Freudian orthodox theories. He embedded structural linguistics in his theory and further developed a new concept of the constitution of the subject and the structure of the unconscious. The subject is precisely a subject due to our subjection of the unknown, of the Other, and for Lacan, the Other is, in short, deeply related to language. To attempt an understanding of this thought, we must delve into language theory and its composition. To read the language of the unconscious is to grasp the structure of language and speech itself. To approach Lacan's idea of the subject through clinical and philosophical stances is to familiarize ourselves with semantics. Therefore, as Lacan understood early on, we must go back to the 'word' itself.

The Field of Linguistics

In the beginning of the 20th century, structuralism emerged with French philosopher Ferdinand de Saussure, who introduced the field of linguistics as a discipline to study language in all its aspects: the act of speech, as well as its evolution, formation, and decomposition. Before him, language was understood as a totality, independent of the distinctive logic between language and speech. The difference between the signifier, signified, and chosen (thing) had not been previously stated. Saussure (1974) presented language as a science, stating that such a social phenomenon remains subject to change, and that when language comes in the form of speech, speakers are able to use and transform it within a common code made of signs. He introduced the concept of sign as a form of representation and said the word is part of a system and is coated not only with a meaning but also, and above all, with a value (Medina, 2015).

Figure 2: The Palace of Curtains, III by René Magritte (1928–29)

However, theory representations go back to Aristotle, who considered the word as a representation of psychic processes and thought. Aristotle introduced the complexity of language formation by highlighting basic elements that compose the different modalities of language: both oral and written. He revealed a fundamental link between language and thought by attributing to linguistic signs the characteristic of being conventional, subtracting it from naturalness and making a distinction in speech between voice, articulated sound, and the content of thought. In his work On Interpretation, he gives us an overview of his ideas on language:

Spoken words are the symbols of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words. Just as all men have not the same writing, so all men have not the same speech sounds, but the mental experiences, which these directly symbolize, are the same for all, as also are those things of which our experiences are the images. (p. 1)

Later on, S. Augustine, a Christian philosopher and writer, would make a synthesis following Aristotelian thought and, consequently, the Stoics on the issues related to sign and language. He speaks of signs and signifiers, pointing out that a representation is in direct relation with signs, writing "the given signs are those that the living mutually give each other to manifest (...) the movements of their soul. Signs have meaning and 'the meaning of words cannot be shown by man except with words'." (Beuchot, 1986 (quoting Augustine)). This idea served as a semantic model during the Middle Ages, which was later taken up again in the works of both Saussure and other theorists who studied semiology and the definitions of sign. Saussure observes that there is not a single object to which a single word applies exclusively: a concept is not the same as the essential reality of the object. This means that things or objects are not the same as ideas; there is a fundamental difference between thoughts and words (Medina, 2015).

It was the French neurologist Paul Broca who first linked word production to a cortical region in the brain, and with his research on the physiological aspects of the faculty of speech, Saussure accounts for a more normative faculty regarding signs. This is the fundamental moment that inaugurates linguistic theory, when Saussure separates language from speech. Language is both multiform and heteroclite; it belongs to the physical world and to the psyche, to both the individual and society; it is everything, and at the same time, the only thing within the impossibility of disentangling its unity. Language is a social product of the faculty of speech, a system of signs expressing ideas. It is the primary unit in the study of linguistics as a social phenomenon, and this social aspect is where the union between sense and acoustic image becomes essential. The interpretation that Saussure carries out on the linguistic sign rejects a closed and unidirectional vision of language. In fact, Saussure specifies that it implies the opposite. A closed and unidirectional vision of language would suggest that ideas are formed before words and that the process of joining a name to a thing is simple and plain. This would reduce language to a list of terms that correspond directly to its objects. But, the linguistic sign corresponds to psychic processes that form links through association, and that which is linked is not a name to a thing but a concept to an acoustic image. Therefore, he says that words are not understood in relation to the world but in relation to a chain of signifiers (Saussure, 1974). Therefore, the sign is a two-sided psychic entity, where the acoustic image is indeed a psychic trace, a representation of the word through a thought process, and a concept would be the representative form of it. Hegel had already introduced this line of thought in the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences (1830), where he writes, "The concept is a content that intuition expresses as a symbol; on the contrary, in the sign nothing has to do with the content proper to intuition and the content of which it is a sign" (§ 458).

Figure 3: BrainChain by Willem den Broeder (2001)

Fundamentally, speech is the main object of study in linguistics, and its essence is plural and complex. It is the function of language to establish a circuit where a representation, an acoustic image, is associated with a concept through psychological processes and, therefore, its complexity lies in the double character of this process. In spite of the existence of a common social code external to the subject, the expression and interpretation of this code belong to the interiority of the subject. To this end, when a subject creates a message, there is a distinction between the form and the substance or, in technical words, the enunciation and the utterance (in French, l'énoncé). Linguist Émile Benveniste (1971) distinguishes between two elements, the conditions of the use of forms and those of the use of language, and he insists that reviewing them is useful to understand what such a difference implies: multiple ways of describing and interpreting things. "Enunciation is to put language to work by an individual act of utilization" (p. 83); it is an act of the subject's appropriation of language. The time of the subject is that of language, and a sentence comes as a discourse when it is uttered. Discourse is the manifestation of enunciation, and enunciation is what is sustained in discourse, a form of reflection (Benveniste, 1971).

Later, in his book Fundamentals of Language (1967), Russian theorist Roman Jakobson proposes that each linguistic sign is constituted in two ways; therefore, speaking implies two simultaneous operations. On the one hand, the selection of certain words or linguistic entities and, in turn, the combination of these entities into units of a higher level of complexity. This means that the speaker selects words from the code which they speak and combines them to form utterances according to the syntactic system they are using. However, the speaker is not completely free in the election and constitution of their utterance, since they must select according to the lexicon that they and their addressee have in common. That is to say, the subject, in the act of speech, admits that both the speaker and the listener have a series of concepts (representations) already prefabricated and preconceived, a code that belongs to communality and from which they must select, discarding the condition of singularity and individuality of one's speech (Jakobson, 1967).

Even so, this does not contradict the psychoanalytic conception of the singularity of a subject's discourse. It happens that the constitution of an utterance may lack certain freedom, but enunciation is the subject's own, and Jakobson explains that the process of combination follows a scale of increasing freedom. It is true that there is no freedom whatsoever to constitute phonemes —a smaller unit of sounds that distinguishes a word from another— since they are pre-established in the code of the language in question, and combining phonemes into words freely is only feasible in the case of neologisms or word creation. However, the speaker is less limited in the formation of phrases with words, and the freedom to combine phrases into utterances is considerably high, opening the speaker to the possibility of creating and expressing new contexts. This is relevant since, in spite of the social and collective character of language, there is the possibility of individual expression in the freedom to form utterances, stories, discourses, and context. This implies an interpretative issue that becomes relevant when studying utterances. Its numerous possibilities can generate ambiguity in the understanding of a subject's message. "For example, the sentence 'he caresses her back' is not understood in the same way if it is about a horse breeder, a librarian, a butcher or a shy lover." (translation of Rabinovich, 2018, p. 2). For this, it is necessary to have a series of contextual elements that support the lexical value of the concept. Even so, the semantic value of an utterance remains indeterminate, ambiguous, and approximate. Jakobson explains that code and context are the two interpretative references of a message, stating that "a given meaningful unit can be replaced by other more explicit signs of the same code, thus revealing its general meaning, while its contextual meaning is defined by its relation to other signs within the same series" (Jakobson, 1967, p. 79). That is, language is handled within laws of substitution or combination, understanding that the meaning of a sign can be elucidated by the substitution of another less specific or complex sign, and the contextual meaning is defined in terms of contiguity by relating other signs of the same kind. This was a foreshadowing of the first seminars of the Lacanian theory that are underpinned by the concepts of metaphor and metonymy as a basis for understanding the laws of language and the symbolic structure of the subject (Jakobson, 1967).

The Unconscious: from Freud to Lacan

There is a well-known aphorism in the guild of psychoanalysis that says "the unconscious is structured like a language". This aphorism belongs to Lacan, who introduced the idea in his fifth seminar, The Formations of the Unconscious (1958). It is important to understand that the unconscious has no language; language belongs to the faculty of consciousness, to the symbolic order. Therefore, the language of the unconscious is, indeed, an absence of language; this is the essence of what the unconscious is. However, paradoxically, Lacan finds that the unconscious is structured as a language itself. In his Écrits (1966), he states:

By this I do not mean a structure that can be situated in some sort of supposedly generalized semiology which can be drawn from its limbo regions, but rather the structure of language as it manifests itself in what I will call "natural languages," those that are effectively spoken by human groups. (p. 371)

Figure 4: Gala Éluard by Max Ernst (1924)

In the 1950s, he made his first contributions in reference to structural linguistics, based on Jakobson's work dealing with language and its disintegration (aphasic disorders). In the understanding of these disorders, Jakobson (1967) emphasizes that their modalities or variations are presented in the oscillation between two poles: metaphor and metonymy. When one pole is damaged, it provides a division of parts that are unified in everyday speech. For this, he states the following:

The development of a discourse may take place along two different semantic lines: one topic may lead to another either through their similarity or through their contiguity. The metaphoric way would be the most appropriate term for the first case and the metonymic way for the second, since they find their most condensed expression in metaphor and metonymy respectively. (p. 90)

This is fundamental for Lacan when he thinks of, for analytical purposes, the subject's desire and their interpretation, which he admits is not a simple task and recognizes that studying language is the way to study the subject. He recognizes that humans are taken in language whether they want it or not and that the subject is constituted in language itself. As Heidegger (1971, p. 2) first pointed out: "language speaks", it is not the subject who speaks, but instead is spoken because language precedes it, marking him before birth. Therefore, for Lacan, the unconscious is neither primordial nor does it belong to naturalness. The unconscious is constituted from "the aggregate of structural laws by which individual experiences are transformed into living myth" (Skelton, 1994, p. 6 (quoting Lacan)) this means that the unconscious transforms personal and individual history into 'living myths', which in clinical practice are called symptoms, such as, for example, Freud's case of the 'ratman', which Lacan thoroughly elucidates in his essay Ratman: The Neurotic’s Individual Myth. A perspective Lacan takes from the anthropological studies of Claude Levi-Strauss, who stated that a myth is constituted from une combinatoire significante (a signified combination) that transcends the individual. A myth has no author, even when it concerns an individual; it is the product of stories lived by others. Lacan states that the obsessive rituals of Freud's patient, involving imaginary scenarios of rats, was a 'living myth' from a family history created even before the patient was born (Skelton, 1994).

Evidently, stories hold a central position in human experience. As mentioned before, we find a great number of references in Freud's texts to figures of speech. Hence, Lacan proposes the symbolic order as one of the three orders in the constitution of the subject. This is where the two operations mentioned by Jakobson (1967), metaphor and metonymy, take place. For Lacan (1953), the Freudian concepts elaborated in The Interpretation of Dreams, condensation and displacement, are directly related to metaphor and metonymy. As for metonymy, he says that it is the function of the signifier of language, the axis where the connection of one word with another is supported, thus forming a chain of contiguity linked by association. It is here where meaning takes its place, a matter that is discussed later on. The other axis corresponds to metaphor and explains that it is the "function that proceeds by using the chain of signifiers, not in its connective dimension in which all metonymic use is installed, but in its dimension of substitution" (Lacan, 1994). That is to say, metaphor is the process of substitution of one signifier for another in the chain of signifiers. It is not a comparison, as Lacan mentions in his Seminar III, but rather a process of identification, where one signifier is identified with another (Dominguez, 1990).

Formerly, on his writings of the unconscious, Freud introduced two key concepts that form the unconscious processes: Thing-Presentation and Word-Presentation. Thing-Presentations are perceptual entities, images or memory traces, while Word-Presentations are auditory. "The essence of a word is after all the memory­-trace of a word that has been heard" (Freud, 1961, p. 21). He postulates that a conscious process is when the presentation of the thing is linked to the presentation of the word that belongs to it from a signifying chain, while in the unconscious, there is only the presentation of the thing alone. This could allude to the Saussurean concept, in which the formula is concept over the acoustic image (concept or acoustic image or signified or signifier). However, Freud was not entirely satisfied with a two-tiered formula; he was aware that the unconscious had a signifying chain as well, foreshadowing what Lacan would later on understand (Thom, 1975).

Figure 5: The Treachery of Images by René Magritte (1929)

Lacan gives an interesting turn by inverting this Saussurean formula into signifier/signified. He states that the signifier has priority over the signified and that meaning comes from the relation between signifiers. He argued that language is made up of a system of signs in opposition. In this view, a signifier within a chain makes sense only in relation to all the others. Therefore, a signifier by itself serves as a mark, as a relative and negative unit that gives the possibility of a direction, of a temporal account, a meaning, through the link. We can see that "every linguistic entity carries in itself the mark of the others." (Fasolino, 2019, p.61). This means that every sign emerges in opposition to another, as long as it completes or incompletes another sign. There cannot be an univocal meaning of a term in opposition to others. Otherness is necessary as a condition of the possibility of being; it is a both signifier and a subject (Fasolino, 2019).

Lacan justifies the importance of the signifier, explaining the arbitrary quality of the linguistic sign. In his studies, Saussure (1974) mentions that there is an incessant sliding of the signified beneath the signifier. This is what he meant when he rejected the perspective of language being merely a list of words directly naming corresponding things. Lacan (1974) stresses the unimportance of the signified in psychoanalysis; because of this, meaning eludes us, and it slips away. And this function, this metonymic movement of language that works through combination, is strongly related to the progressive–regressive movement of desire that is invested in it. According to Lacanian psychoanalysis, what a person truly desires is recognition, the desire of the Other. When communicating ourselves, we delve into the art of persuasion, which is a brief explanation of why our everyday experience is saturated in the figures of rhetoric (figures of speech). Insofar as language is a form of persuasion, it is dominated by these two crucial figures, metaphor and metonymy. Hence, this progressive–regressive movement of invested desire allows a moment of suspension in the chain of signifiers, in which the signifier which is suspended from it abruptly intrudes. "Language is radically powerless to defend itself against the forces which from one moment to the next are shifting the relationship between the signified and the signifier" (Saussure, 1974, p. 75). In language, there is no stable correspondence between the signifier and the signified. Hence, psychoanalytic practice is based on promoting an articulation of the analysand's desire.

What this tells us, primarily, is that in the chain of signifiers, in the discourse of the subject, there are moments where the metonymic axis is interrupted by a signifier, which is, in essence, empty of significance, for it would be chained to the other signifiers as well. This signifier alludes to the first imprint of the subject in the symbolic order, to what Freud called a sign of perception as a first writing in the psychic apparatus. It refers to the Freudian notion of the lost object, of which Lacan makes an important reading when he delimits the process of the symbolic order and its relation to the lack thereof. He theorizes this with respect to a child's frustration and proposes that it is what introduces them to symbolization. Frustration is an imaginary function, since it is prior to the real lack of a symbolic object, and the bond with the mother becomes the agent of frustration. Freud explains this through the game of fort-da in his essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), where the child represents the 'abandonment' of his mother through an object, usually a toy, which they hide and then make reappear (fort-da). It is assumed that there is language through the demand of the object; hence, symbolization is established. Following Lacan's dialectic, this demanded object comes from the Other; it is a gift of the Other, a sign of their love. It is an object whose value is composed without substance; it is composed of nothingness, since it is a sign of what the Other gives, representative of what the subject lacks (Thom, 1975).

Figure 6: Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) and Jacques Lacan (1901–1981)


Therefore, the lack discussed here structures the relation of the subject with the object. This is the metonymic status mentioned above, the status of the symbolic object, which admits that the object is nothing more than a substitute, always a neighbour of the lack. In very basic terms, this is where desire comes from, from the demand for the lost object. The paradox of desire is that the object that is demanded, the Other does not have, and yet it is in a condition for the subject to retain it. Lacan relates this to the term das Ding, a concept shared by both Heidegger and Freud, defining it as that which is outside the meaning, that which is not there, and that which is absent. In other words, there is a dimension of impossibility in language, an abyss between the word and the das Ding, between being and representation. From Freud onwards, the unconscious is perceived as a chain of signifiers that, in moments, insists on the signifier to interrupt in an almost inapprehensible way as holes in the discourse of the subject, which allows the unconscious to manifest itself. The structure of language contains a lack, and the subject, captured in this structure, manages with the possibility of transgressing its logic. When the speaker is overwhelmed by the word, this is what Freud locates as the manifestations of the unconscious: the dream, the failed act, the symptom, the joke. For psychoanalysis, this place of emptiness, a place of nothingness, is also the place of truth.

Bibliographical References

Aristotle. On Interpretation: Section 1 (E. M. Edghill, Translator). (Original work published ca. 350 BCE)

Benveniste, Émile. (1971). Problems in general linguistics. University of Miami Press.

Dominguez, H. (1990). Psicoanálisis y Lenguaje: La aportación original de Jacques Lacan. Universitat de Barcelona, España.

Freud, S. (1920). Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Dover Publications, Incorporated, 2015.

Fasolino, R.C. (2019). Aclaraciones hermenéuticas a la noción de «significante» en

Lacan en Logos. Anales del Seminario de Metafísica 52, 51–67.

Hegel, G. (2010). Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Basic Outline (Cambridge Hegel Translations) (K. Brinkmann & D. Dahlstrom, Eds.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9780511780226

Heidegger, M. (1971) On the way to language. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Jakobson, R. & Halle, M. (2020). Fundamentals of language (2nd rev. ed. 3rd printing. reprint 2019). De Gruyter Mouton.

Thom, M. (1975). The Unconscious Structured like a Language (p. 79–103) University of Oxford

Lacan, J. (1958). Book V : The formations of the unconscious :1957–1958.

Lacan, J. (2006). Ecrits: The first complete edition in English / Jacques Lacan; translated by Bruce Fink in collaboration with Heloise Fink and Russell Grigg. New York.

Medina, P. (2015). Saussure: El signo lingüístico y la teoría del valor. Barcelona.

Saussure, F. (1974). Course in General Linguistics.

Skelton, R. (1994). Lacan for the Faint Hearted. British Journal of Psychotherapy, 10(3), 419–429.

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Gabriella Yanes

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