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The Symbolic Register


Disciplines > Psychoanalysis > Concepts > The Symbolic Register

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The Symbolic Register (or 'Symbolic Order') is Lacan's third and final stage of early development that occurs in the post-mirror phase, from 18 months up to about the age of around four.

The 'Name of the Father'

Lacan describes insertion into the ‘symbolic order’ through an Oedipal crisis, facilitated by the father, with the symbolic rules being represented as the 'Name of the Father' (or ‘Law of the Father’). In this pattern, ‘the signifier 'father' has no relation whatever to the physical fact of any individual father.’ (Silverman, 1983). Lacan thus navigates the controversy over Freud’s more literal descriptions. The father may well be involved, but the principle is that the child gets introduced, through language, to cultural codes.

This phase breaks the early relationship with the mother as language and social codes take over as the major source of meaning for the child.

Acquisition of language

In this period, the child gradually acquires language. This entraps the child in the symbolism of linguistic codes, further separating it from the real and pre-mirror stage.

Words and linguistic structures are defined by cultural and social norms, which the child must adopt to enable interaction with others. As the child learns to communicate and think in linguistic terms, it gains the benefits of shared and encapsulated meaning but simultaneously is separated from anything outside these definitions.

As a religion denies consideration of things outside its belief system (Rockeach, 1960), so language excludes thoughts about that which is not named. Lacan considered that language even structures the unconscious – a break from the Freudian view of the unconscious as a virtually autonomous entity.

Language also has benefits, bringing social meaning to the child and the comfort of acknowledgement and acceptance by others as the child joins the wholeness of society. Thus it gains social identity as it accepts subject positions interpellated by the father and significant others through language.

Whilst language brings social comfort it also separates the child further from the ‘real’ of the neo-natal period as linguistic codes create a new reality. As in the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, we ‘language reality into existence’.


Lacan describes the unconscious as 'structured like a language', operating with relations of difference, metaphor and metanymy.

He considers the unconscious as arriving in the symbolic order, and that the unconscious is 'outside' the subject, in contrast with the Freudian view of the unconscious as 'inside', being deep-seated and present at birth.


Lacan conceives of the linguistic unconscious by adopting Saussure's signs, although subverting this by rejecting the stability of the signified and framing the unconscious as a interconnected and sliding sea of signifiers. This instability prevents stability of any identity-ego created by the unconscious, condemning the child to a life of uncertainty, compounding experiences of lack and desire.

Lacan engages the Freudian Oedipal stage in a characteristically symbolic way, as a transition to the symbolic order where obedience of cultural laws includes the very strict incest taboo, which requires that the boy gives up sexual desires for his mother and the girl for her father. As the girl does not have to give up her relationship with her mother, she can sustain a closer relationship and hence also sustain greater jouissance.

In language and the symbolic order, societal sexual differentiation asserts itself, wherein different gender roles are subtly inculcated. These are still symbolic and Lacan argued that rather than producing complementary ‘male’ and ‘female’ entities, the fantasy on which these are founded should be exposed (Rose 1986). Rose describes the difference that ‘Men and women are signifiers, bound to the common usage of language’

This leads to a life-long sense of lack and seeking after the wholeness and feeling of connection of the early stage. We thus oscillate between seeking identity and seeking to lose it for example in crowds, meditation, stories and hobbies.

See also

Lacan, Lacanian psychoanalysis, Ideology, Mirror phase, Feminism

Rockeach, M. (1960). The Open and Closed Mind, New York: Basic Books

Silverman, K. (1983) The Subject of Semiotics. Oxford: Oxford University Press


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