What Is Jacques Lacan’s Mysterious Big Other?

For Jacques Lacan the “big Other” is a hypothetical observer watching our every action and conversation, whose demands we obey and for whom we perform.

Aug 11, 2023By Moses May-Hobbs, BA Art History w/ Philosophy Concentration

jacques lacan big other


Much of the contemporary interest in Jacques Lacan and his ideas can be attributed to the popularity of Slavoj Žižek, and his avowedly Lacanian approach to philosophy and cultural criticism. One of the ideas that Žižek draws out of Lacan’s work and emphasizes in his own philosophy is that of the “big Other,” or sometimes simply the “Other” with a capital “O.” The big Other is part of Lacan’s answer to a cluster of questions orbiting the psychoanalytic patient’s desire, frustration, and guilt.


Jacques Lacan’s Big and Little Others

jacques lacan
Photo of Jacques Lacan, scanned from the book “La psychanalyse”, 1975, via Wikimedia Commons.


It is worth briefly distinguishing the big Other from the “little other” (often just “other” in Lacan’s Écrits, with a lower case “o”). The little other is not really an other in the way we would conventionally understand the word. Rather, the little other is the ego conceived from the outside, a fantasy of a unified self.


In Lacan’s thought, the little other is often connected with the “specular image,” that is, the image of oneself in a mirror. The mirror image, theorized most famously in Lacan’s “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function” (1949), is a picture of the self as an object, rather than a subject, wherein the ego appears as a harmonious whole, just as other persons appear to the subjective self. The little other is thus a fiction of unity, which for Lacan operates within the Imaginary order, while the big Other operates in the Symbolic.


The big Other, meanwhile, is a kind of hypothetical other; it is neither any specific person, nor a category of person, nor even the collective other constituted by a group of actual other persons. The big Other is the hypothetical eye for which we perform, the observer requisite for conducting ourselves with socio-linguistic propriety. As such, the big Other is embedded in Lacan’s symbolic order, in language and norms.

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The big Other is, hypothetically, a kind of model citizen: the perfectly normal, non-neurotic observer. The big Other is therefore both performed to and hidden from, it is the ideal which organizes expression, insofar as we express and externalize that which we want the big Other to see, and hide what we do not.


slavoj zizek
Photo of Slavoj Žižek by Andy Miah, 2008, via Wikimedia Commons.


Though we have an intuitive feel for what is and is not permissible, the big Other’s strictures cannot be held in mind as they are acted upon, the rules we are following must recede into invisibility. As Žižek puts it:


The symbolic order is the second nature of every speaking being: it is here, directing and controlling my acts, I as it were swim in it, but it nonetheless remains ultimately impenetrable and I cannot ever put it in front of me and fully grasp it.
Žižek, How to Read Lacan, 2006


We are embedded in the big Other, and we cannot get out, even to have a look. Thus, while we might be able to entertain, and even engage in, activities that are forbidden to us by the big Other, we are never operating outside of its symbolic structures.


Transgression is itself structured by prohibitions that we receive; the language in which we signify desires and behaviours comes with a host of social and cultural associations, and for Lacan those associations, which form the contours of the big Other, are inescapably formative of our desires.


The Oedipal Father, Freud, and Language

jacques lacan smoking
Photograph of Lacan, via No Subject.


The big Other is the universal stand-in for authority in Lacan. It is the figure that takes on the surveillance-function of the archetypal Freudian father. This transformation, from Freud’s totemic father to Lacan’s big Other, is important insofar as it marks Lacan’s pivot from a centrally or primarily Oedipal account of subject-formation to an account that stresses the infant’s entry into the socio-linguistic world. Lacan’s interest in language picks at what goes unnoticed in Freud: that language structures and patterns communication between subjects, as well as the desires and behaviours of those who use it.


On the Oedipal account the father can be the father himself, or state, or law, or God, but is inevitably characterized by paternal solidity, the source of fear and punishment. The oedipal father still looms large in Lacan’s account, sometimes coalescing with the big Other and sometimes standing apart, but this father operates primarily at the level of the symbolic, rather than threatening the child with the real violence of castration. The big Other, meanwhile, differs from the father and his paternal analogues insofar as it is an intangible observer, controlling the subject’s activities and desires not with the threat of punishment but by structuring ever interpersonal interaction.


While the big Other is sometimes used by Lacan to describe something akin to the Freudian superego—the source of obligations and prohibitions, of the law, and of guilt—it is important to note that “superego” in Lacan’s usage differs from Freud’s. In “The moral goals of psychoanalysis,” Lacan discusses at length the Oedipus myth, and the problems of associating the superego with moral conscience. He argues that the demands made upon the subject by the superego, or big Other, cannot be mapped onto the contours of any given moral philosophy.


sigmund freud
Portrait of Sigmund Freud by Max Halberstadt, ca. 1921, via Christie’s.


The law we take on with the entry into the socio-linguistic community has at its core, not the imperatives of some particular ethical theory, or even necessarily obligations that have an obviously ethical character, but demands that have to do with desire and its frustration.


As with so much of Lacan’s thought, he conceives this clarification not as a correction to Freud, in whose writings he finds the very kernel of the idea he expresses, but as a correction to those who come after Freud, for whom the superego had become a predominantly moral force. Lacan writes:


We have never stopped repeating that the interiorization of the Law has nothing to do with the Law. […] everyone knows that it has nothing to do with the moral conscience as far as its most obligatory demands are concerned. What the superego demands has nothing to do with that which we would be right in making the universal rule of our actions
Lacan, “The moral goals of psychoanalysis,” 1960


Recognition and Alterity

false mirror magritte
The False Mirror by René Magritte, 1929, via MoMA.


The big Other also, however, serves to provide the subject with recognition. Surveillance comes with a corresponding kind of reassurance in Lacan: the big Other is always watching in order to enforce its prohibitions, but this hypothetical Other is also essential to the experience of satisfaction. In this capacity, the big Other operates both as the law that prevents the satisfaction of desire (or which we at least feel is responsible for this obstruction) and as the audience necessary for satisfaction proper.


Slavoj Žižek speaks of the big Other in this audience-capacity as an ideal interlocutor: the hypothetical person, to whom we perform, who understands our every act absolutely, without any barrier of otherness. In its universal power of surveillance, the big Other also possesses the power to understand the linguistic subject fully; it fulfills the fantasy of the Other who is necessarily, rather than contingently, bound to the self. The big Other appears as both fantasy and nightmare, inextricably attached to the subject from the moment they begin to use language.


Though the big Other may understand the subject fully, it remains inscrutable in itself. This is a partly separate use of “big Other” in Lacan, whereby he designates the unknowable Other, the mother—the one whose desires are a mystery to the subject.


This usage, as Žižek highlights, seems to run against the grain of Lacan’s usual distinction between the big Other in its social, hypothetical sense and “other” in its everyday capacity as denoting another person. The passage Žižek highlights is from The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, in which Lacan attributes his use of Other, with a capital “O,” to the unknowability of the linguistic other, the irreducible gap between the speaking subject and their interlocutor, a distance that is only unilaterally collapsed by the big Other in its social sense.


Jacques Lacan on the Psychoanalyst and What the Big Other Wants 

rembrandt moses commandments
Moses Smashing the Tablets of the Law by Rembrandt, 1659, via Google Arts and Culture.


What the big Other praises and prohibits is, on one level, simply a question of what the hypothetical “one” would, or should do. In psychoanalytic treatment, however, the big Other makes itself felt not merely as a picture of social normality, but as the analyst themselves—in Lacan’s parlance, the “subject supposed to know.” For Lacan, this presumption on the part of the analysand is a kind of transference, in which the analysand ascribes to their analyst a therapeutic omniscience that mirrors the socio-linguistic omniscience of the big Other. Just as the hypothetical big Other knows what one should do in a given situation, the fantasized subject supposed to know possesses the information that the analysand presumes will cure them of their symptom.


For Lacan, analysis reaches its end at the point at which the analysand comes to realize that their analyst does not possess the knowledge they have been supposed to possess. The analysand, in other words, no longer expects the analyst to bestow upon them secret knowledge that will dissipate their dissatisfaction or neuroses, or lead them to absolute satisfaction. The analyst is no longer, at the end of analysis, supposed to know what the big Other (in the inscrutable, maternal capacity described above) desires of the subject.


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Photograph of Freud’s Couch, via Freud Museum London.


In Lacan, the question the psychoanalytic subject is always asking of the Other is: what do you want? The question is essentially isomorphic with the self-interrogation: “what do I really want?” insofar as both originate in the desire for unity with the mother, the original “real Other” of desire.


With the big Other, however, whose demands are omnipresent, there arises the question Lacan does not ask: why does the big Other demand what it demands? Lacan himself rules out the idea that the big Other’s demands are shaped so as to inhibit pre-social desires since it is within the big Other’s embrace that our desires form. So, we are left wondering not just what the enigmatic real Other’s desires are, but also where the laws baked into the symbolic Other come from.

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By Moses May-HobbsBA Art History w/ Philosophy ConcentrationMoses May-Hobbs is a recent graduate of Cambridge University. His writing focuses on aesthetics, the philosophy of art, and film criticism. He is currently working as a contributing writer and editor, while writing in his spare time on the philosophy of language, perception, and affect.