Jacques Lacan: Explaining the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real

Lacan described three “orders” or “registers” of psychoanalytic experience. One of Lacan’s major revisions to Freud’s thought is his emphasis on the “symbolic” order and language.

Sep 20, 2023By Moses May-Hobbs, BA Art History w/ Philosophy Concentration

jacques lacan imaginary symbolic real


Jacques Lacan is known for his controversial approach to psychoanalysis. The three orders—Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real—are used in Jacques Lacan’s thought to subdivide features of psychoanalytic experience. But what are these orders, and what do they tell us about how Lacan theorized about psychoanalysis as a whole?


An Introduction to Jacques Lacan’s “Three Orders”

jacques lacan
Photo of Jacques Lacan smoking, via Nosubject.com.


The three orders posited by Lacan—the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real—are always present in the psychoanalytic subject, and there is no sense in Lacan’s thought that one order could or should become psychologically dominant through treatment.


Indeed, the three orders, or “registers,” are strictly interdependent. Lacan presents the structure of this interdependence with reference to the topology of the Borromean knot, a figure in which three rings are interlinked such that removing any one of them also separates the remaining two. The three registers do not necessarily refer to those things we might most intuitively associate them with, and Lacan’s usage frequently distinguishes and contrasts apparently similar or synonymous terms (“reality,” for instance, is explicitly opposed to the Real).


What, precisely, Lacan is getting at in the use of “register” is somewhat ambiguous. Most obviously, the term seems to invite an understanding of the three registers as different modes of speaking. This is a reading that Lacan seems to encourage in his references to certain confusions, conflations, or substitutions occurring in a particular register, as if each were a language with patterns that structure the meaning of what is expressed in it.

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However, since language itself is specifically attached to the symbolic register, this interpretation seems to be at best asymmetrical and at worst misleading. Even if the three registers are instead registers of thought or experience, we are left with fundamental questions about how and what is structured by the registers. Saliently, unlike registers of speech, the same articles of experience do not appear transformed in different registers, but rather parts of thought or experience appear solely under one of Lacan’s registers.


The Imaginary 

borromeo knot lacan
Borromean knot symbolizing the interdependence between the three orders, via Wikimedia Commons.


The Imaginary, somewhat counter-intuitively, is the psychic register which for Lacan captures most of what is experienced as normal, conscious reality. The Imaginary is not primarily comprised of what would ordinarily be considered fanciful or fictional, nor is it anything less than essential to our ordinary mental lives and function. The Imaginary rests upon the ground of the Symbolic, which structures it, and provides its norms and socio-linguistic boundaries.


It is precisely the quotidian, essential nature of the Imaginary that is fictive and illusory. Lacan presents the imaginary as a necessary fiction that allows the psychoanalytic subject to live in and engage with their surroundings. In the absence of this set of fictions, the subject encounters the Real as terrifying or unbearable, without structure or harmony. The Imaginary is, above all, composed of illusions that structure the world, composing unities, harmonies, or relationships of similarity and identity between persons and things.


The idea in Lacan that most exemplarily characterizes the Imaginary order is the “Mirror Stage,” in which the infant fixates upon the image of themselves in the mirror as an enclosed whole. The satisfaction that attends the specular image is the satisfaction of experiencing the self as a unified whole, at the same remove with which one encounters the Other, and in this similarity experiences a crucial, but nonetheless fictive, sense of similarity between self and Other, where the Other would otherwise remain terrifying in its alterity and unknowability.


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Girl before a Mirror (Mädchen vor dem Spiegel) by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, 1914, via MoMA.org.


In the mirror stage, the subject perceives a kind of idealized self (in Lacan’s phrase: “ideal ego”): an ego that is not split by subjectivity into an “I” and a “me,” but who composes a unified whole. In the mirror, the infant sees a unified ego who can sustain the subject’s fantasy of social normalcy and satisfaction. Lacan writes:


“For the total form of his body, by which the subject anticipates the maturation of his power in a mirage, is given to him only as a gestalt […] in which, above all, it appears to him as the contour of his stature that freezes it and in a symmetry that reverses it, in opposition to the turbulent movements with which the subject feels he animates it.”
Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function,” 1949


It is on this level of fictive unity that the imaginary order functions. The Imaginary is the level on which the self-perceived ego appears as it does in the mirror, rather than as the Real.


Language and the Symbolic 

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Illustration of the Borromean Knot by Mathieu Lauweriks, scan from the book “The Spirit of The Times,” 1895, via Rijksmuseum.


Lacan treats the symbolic as both essential to psychoanalysis, and as overlooked in preceding thought and practice. Even Freud, who Lacan often stresses he is returning to—in contradistinction to other post-Freudian psychoanalysts—misses the centrality of the symbolic order in treatment and theory alike.


The Symbolic is the register, first and foremost, of language, and for Lacan, it is language that Freud has failed to reckon with. The Symbolic order, however, encompasses not just language but also all the other social and representational structures that conscious daily life rests upon.


In Slavoj Žižek’s analysis, the crux of Lacan’s revision of Freudianism is his belief that Freud has failed to interrogate the speech that goes on at the center of psychoanalysis (“the talking cure”). For Lacan, language is not merely an instrument for conveying meaning between subjects, but rather something that, by offering its instrumental value, captures those who communicate through it in the symbolic world of its culture, nation, and duty.


The analysand is has always already entered into language, and the analyst must conduct themselves in a medium that is symbolically saturated. The analyst must, in some sense, swim against the current of the imaginary (perhaps it is unsurprising for this reason that Lacan’s work is so full of neologisms) if they are to uncover the ground of the analysands desires, neuroses, and pathologies.


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


Language, for Lacan, is not merely a means by which thoughts are expressed, or meanings are conveyed; it brings with it baggage of its own. Indeed, it is the entrance into the world of language that, for Lacan, is developmentally definitive; with the infant’s initiation into language comes the first encounter with otherness—with the presence of what he calls the “big Other.” In this capacity—i.e., language’s role as social law, witness, and enforcer—language takes its place as Lacan’s great structuring force of the socio-symbolic, as that which tells us the confines within which we can act and express, which generates prohibitions, and judges perversions and obscenities.


For this reason, the Symbolic also encompasses the unconscious, which in Lacan’s now famous phrase is “structured like a language,” and the various codes and inhibitions that sediment in it. The unconscious, for Lacan, is therefore highly structured and rule-bound, in contrast with Freud’s id.


Where Freud identifies the unconscious as the domain of real, underlying desires, which in daily life are constantly restrained by conscious judgment and explicit laws, Lacan inverts this relationship. In Lacan, what is always under the surface of consciousness is not so much the thing we secretly want to do but know we cannot, as the very structures that mold our desires, even those desires whose realization would transgress social normalcy.


The Real and Jacques Lacan’s Later Thought

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


Together, the Imaginary and the Symbolic compose “reality,” to which Lacan opposes the Real. The Imaginary and the Symbolic are more readily expressible as clusters of functions and experiences insofar as they respectively contain signified and signifier, and between them expression and understanding take place.


The Real, then, slides between apparently different meanings in Lacan’s thought, usually denoting either materiality or else some kind of properly unstructured expanse that underlies the structures and patterns imposed by the Symbolic. The Real sits necessarily outside of ordinary, communicable reality. Although, insofar as Lacan speaks of it and its psychoanalytic implications, it falls some way short of absolute ineffability.


In Lacan scholar Adrian Johnston’s terms, the Lacanian Real is something like the Kantian “thing-in-itself:” something material and existing, prior to all experience of it. This understanding of the Real is associated with Lacan’s earlier thought, in which Lacan’s broadly phenomenological approach places the material Real irreducibly beyond the realm of experience and action.


dughet imaginary landscape
Imaginary Landscape by Gaspard Dughet, ca. 1635-1675, via the Met Museum.


As Lacan’s later thought comes to focus increasingly upon the “Other,” and the originary trauma that is the cause of desire, the Real becomes tethered to the idea of the mother. In particular, the Real and the mother become identified as the site of total satisfaction in infancy: the mother is experienced as necessarily bound to the self, which is structurally homologous with possessing the Real Thing. The lifetime of striving that follows is thus recast as a futile attempt to re-obtain the Real, from which the infant is separated by their initiation into the socio-linguistic world—that is, into the Symbolic order, which displaces the Real.


More generally, however, and with increasing frequency from the 1960s onwards, the Real appears as a force of amorphous perturbation—as that which horrifies and disturbs. Resistant to symbolization, and lurking at the edges of ordinary reality, Lacan describes the Real as something brutal and overwhelming; its mention coincides with Lacan’s discussion of the terror and frustration of desire, and with the painful, compulsive enjoyment of jouissance.


Bodily, overflowing, and disturbing, the Real is the unstructured opposite which reality is constructed to withstand and encode. Despite its elusiveness, Lacan frequently speaks of the Real in his later work; it is the near-ineffable presence that propels anxiety and compulsion. The Real remains something beyond direct experience, and yet is constantly contained in and expressed by perception and behavior. So present is the Real that one starts to doubt Lacan’s protestations of its ineffability.

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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.