Understanding Lacan’s ‘The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis’

Jacques Lacan introduces revisions to Freudian theories of psychoanalysis, transference, and the nature of our drives. These revisions are articulated in his seminar of 1964.

Jun 26, 2024By Moses May-Hobbs, BA Art History w/ Philosophy Concentration

lacan four fundamental concepts psychoanalysis


In 1963, the International Psychoanalytical Association (IPA) banned Jacques Lacan from teaching due to his therapeutic methods. The association stipulated that to return to training psychoanalysts while preserving his affiliation with the IPA, Lacan would have to alter his teachings, bringing them in line with orthodox approaches. What were these unorthodox approaches, and why did they create such backlash?


Lacan’s Concerns for Psychoanalysis

Photograph of Lacan. Source: No Subject


Lacanian psychoanalysis is today primarily associated with its academic manifestations, its branches into literary criticism, philosophy, and perhaps above all, film theory. The image of the analyst at work remains more or less ubiquitously the image of Freud, calmly and briefly questioning the reclining analysand. However, Lacan was deeply engaged with psychoanalysis’s practical, therapeutic work, its aims, and methods.


In the shifting complexities of his work, it is easily forgotten that Lacan is attempting to expound a set of concepts and categories to describe and direct the course of analysis, to provide a general framework for therapy and the mental objects it concerns itself with.


Delivered in 1964, Lacan’s Seminar XI precisely addresses these therapeutic concerns. Lacan describes the seminar as a base for his thought and therapeutic praxis, beginning with an account of his excommunication from official psychoanalytic circles. The titular Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis is addressed directly to the task of analysis itself; their purpose is, above all, “the training of psychoanalysts.”

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The Aim of Analysis

Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan photographed in 1975. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The four titular concepts of Lacan’s Seminar XI are the unconscious, repetition, transference, and drive. In particular, Lacan’s ideas about transference and drive mark important revisions of Freudian thought and are foundational to much of his later work.


These concepts, while familiar from prior psychoanalytic theory (above all Freud’s), are articulated by Lacan in new terms. Though Lacan insists on Freud’s singular importance to psychoanalytic theory and on the failures of later theorists to convincingly elaborate upon his work, Seminar XI incorporates much of Lacan’s theoretical vocabulary, reframing several concepts in terms of his triad of Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real.


Also significant in Lacan’s re-articulation of Freud is his persistent interest in identifying the aim of psychoanalysis. In the seminar, Lacan describes the function of analysis as placing “the subject in a position of dealing with the real through the symbolic” (Lacan, Seminar XI). It’s a framing that clearly emphasizes Lacan’s theoretical innovations over Freud, but the two have in common a marked ambivalence about the specific criteria for successful analytic treatment. What does “dealing with the real” entail? What does it look like?


Jacques Lacan delivering one of his seminars. Source: The Freud Museum


Lacan answers cautiously and with much concern for the theoretical and individual contextualization of the goals of the analysis. As Bruce Fink describes in his preface to Reading Seminar XI (1995):


“To most analysts, psychoanalysis seeks to alleviate the patient’s symptoms and readapt him or her to social reality. Yet neither Freud nor Lacan ever adopts or endorses any such aims. Psychoanalysis’ aims have, to Lacan’s mind, more to do with psychoanalytic theory itself and the patient’s predicament.”


Seminar XI represents a renewed attentiveness to the aims of psychoanalytic praxis in Lacan’s work, no doubt spurred by the IPA’s demand that he change his own practical approach to analysis. However, rather than take on the IPA’s methods, Lacan wants to pursue, with his own theoretical framework, a more sophisticated formalization of desire, of the knots of desire and its linguistic expression. The aim for Lacan, is, above all, the analysand’s reckoning with their desire, with the real that underpins the urges and impasses of desire rather than the pragmatic elimination of neuroses.


Max Halberstadt, Portrait of Sigmund Freud, c. 1921 Source: Wikimedia Commons


In light of this ambivalence, several criticisms of Freud and psychoanalysis seem somewhat unfair. Politically oriented, broadly Marxist, psychoanalytic theorists like Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse have criticized Freud for seeking to reconcile the analysis with their social and material surroundings rather than entertaining the possibility that the surroundings themselves would have to change for the analysis to meaningfully recover.


As such, the psychoanalytic tradition has frequently been treated as complicit with a kind of capitalist realism, with a reification of the status quo. However, Fink continues to doubt this narrow analysis framing and its aims, especially concerning Lacan. He writes:


“In Lacan’s work, theory informs analysis’ aims and practice and vice-versa. Analysis is not pragmatic in its aims, if pragmatism means compliance with social, economic, and political norms and realities. It is a praxis of jouissance, and jouissance is anything but practical. It ignores the needs of capital, health insurance companies, socialized health care, public order, and ‘mature adult relationships.’ The techniques psychoanalysts must use to deal with it wreak havoc on the principle that time is money and on accepted notions of ‘professional conduct.’ While therapists in our society are expected to interact with their patients in ways which are clearly for their own good (always understood in terms of what is socially acceptable at a particular historical moment), analysts act instead for their analysands’ Eros.”


The Importance of Transference

Photograph of Freud’s Couch Source: Freud Museum London


The extent to which Lacan revises the Freudian conception of transference in Seminar XI is difficult to assess. Freud’s framing of transference, its importance in the course of analysis, and the analyst’s proper response to it vary throughout his work. In general psychoanalytic usage, transference refers to the specific displacement of emotions (Freud often uses ‘affects’) that arise during analysis of the analyst him or herself.


Freud describes this relationship between analysand and analyst as distorted; transference is an attempt to deceive both the analyst and the self: when the analysand says they are in love with their therapist, it is–however unconsciously–a lie.


In Freud’s earlier thought, this deception is treated as an obstacle in effective treatment, which must be destroyed if the analyst is going to guide the analysand to a resolution of their symptom, but this is a position that undergoes a marked change. By 1900, Freud described transference as “the true object of psychoanalysis;” irrespective of the truth of the transferential relationship, Freud suggests, it is a re-enactment of memories and patterns and thus provides opportunities for analysis and self-confrontation.


If the analysand displaces effects from a relationship with one of their parents onto the analyst, the later Freud sees an opportunity in that deception and in the relational efforts that accompany it (the analysand, for instance, tries desperately to impress and please their analyst), to reckon with that relationship, rather than a delusion which the analysand must be unburdened of.


Lacan is similarly disinterested in insisting upon the untruth of the analysand’s transference, though he does stress the importance of the analyst’s response to it. In Seminar XI, Lacan concretizes the notion of the “subject supposed to know” concerning transference. In analysis, he says, what is crucial is not the analysand takes emotions meant for one person and place and attributes them to their relationship to the analyst, but that the analysand imagines the analyst to–as an embodiment of the Other–to possess knowledge, of the reality of their desire, their condition, their best course of action.


That the analyst is supposed to know is the backbone of the pop-cultural image of the psychoanalyst: the figure possessed of a secret understanding, of direct access to the patient’s unconscious, the expert who can locate the real meaning that underlies one’s speech.


For Lacan, as for Freud, transference is useful both insofar as it has the potential to drive the analysand’s commitment to analysis and insofar as it gives the analyst opportunities to point the analysand (even if just by staying silent) to the emotional states re-enacted in transference. However, it remains therapeutically important that the analyst does not take advantage of this position by confirming that he or she really does know in the manner that the analysand supposes them to. It is not by exploiting or intensifying transference that the analyst makes transference useful for the analysand’s treatment.


An Explication of ‘Drive’

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, A Girl Defending Herself Against Eros, c. 1880 Source: Wikimedia Commons


Lacan makes one of his most important revisions of Freud in his theorization of “drive.” Lacan drives a wedge between the “goal” and “aim” of drive in a distinction that seeks to explain–and formalize–the paradoxes of desire encountered in analysis.


If the goal of a desire is what it is ostensibly seeking, the aim of desire is its actual tendency. If the former strives to reach the thing itself, the latter is actually a kind of orbit: a steady circumambulation of the obet petit a, the kernel of desire. Lacan makes a major departure from Freud’s description of society, its structures, and its origins in discussing drive and its paradoxical avoidance of its expressed goal.


Fundamentally, Freud thinks that the urges that drive us do so toward things that would satisfy us–this, in its purest form, is the “id,” or the pleasure principle. When a person feels that they wish they could spend every day lounging in bed, doing nothing but indulging in rich food, easy entertainment, and sex, Freud’s understanding of drive has it that the person not only really does want to spend their time like that and that they really would be satisfied if only they got to, if only the demands of work and self-sustenance (the reality principle) could be suspended.


For Lacan, nothing could be further from the truth of desire, and psychoanalysis’s function is to gradually prompt the analysand to articulate that truth. For Lacan, those apparent drives–food, sex, leisure–are the goals, but not the aims, of desire proper.


Furthermore, the attainment of them comes with no blissful relief. In fact, Lacan says, the contingent obstacles that for Freud compose the reality principle are vital psychic crutches: means of sheltering ourselves from the real desire and from the traumatic recognition that the satisfaction we abstractly assign to attaining our goals is always elusive.


In short, if we didn’t have work, studies, or any of the other quotidian barriers to total gratification that we encounter, we would be worse and not better off because we would also have been robbed of the fantasy of that gratification.

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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.