Influential as perhaps no other analyst since Freud himself, Jacques Lacan was born in Paris in 1901, took up the study of medicine in 1920 and specialised in psychiatry from 1926. In 1932 he completed his doctoral thesis: “Paranoid Psychosis and its Relations to the Personality”. He began his analysis around this time with Rudolph Loewenstein and this continued until 1938. A friend of Andrè Breton, Salvador Dali and Picasso, Lacan was very active in the world of Parisian writers, artists and intellectuals of the time; he made contributions to several Surrealist publications and was present at the first public reading of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. Instead of confining himself in his studies to the standard texts in psychiatry and psychoanalysis, Lacan read widely and with a particular interest in the philosophic work of Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger; alongside many other Parisian intellectuals of the time, he also attended the famous seminars on Hegel given by Alexandre Kojève.
Lacan presented his first paper on ‘The Mirror Phase’ at the 1936 Congress of the International Psychoanalytical Association in Marienbad. He was called up to serve in the French army after the German occupation of France and was posted to the Val-de-Grâce military hospital in Paris. After the end of the war Lacan visited England for a five week study trip, meeting English analysts Wilfred Bion and John Rickman. He was much influenced by Bion’s analytic work with groups and this contributed to Lacan’s own later emphasis on study groups (in France, Cartels) as a structure with which to advance theoretical work in psychoanalysis. Lacan’s conclusions from this time are collected in the 1947 paper ‘English Psychiatry and the War’.
In 1951 Lacan started to hold a weekly seminar in Paris urging what he described as ‘a return to Freud’ and, in particular, to Freud’s concentration upon the linguistic nature of psychological symptomatology. Massively influential in Parisian cultural life as well as in psychoanalytic theory and clinical practice, the seminars drew great crowds and continued for nearly thirty years.
In 1953, Lacan and many of his colleagues – disagreeing with the standardisation of practice methods they saw in the organisation – left the Société Parisienne de Psychanalyse (SPP) to form the new group Société Française de Psychanalyse (SFP). One of the consequences of this move was to deprive the group of membership within the International Psychoanalytical Association (IPA). In the following years a complex process of negotiation was to take place to determine the status of the new group. Lacan’s innovative practice and the critical stance he took towards the standardisation of psychoanalysis led, in 1963, to a condition being set by the IPA that registration of the SFP was dependant upon Lacan being removed from the list of training analysts with the organisation. Lacan refused such a condition and left to form his own school which became know as the École Freudienne de Paris (EFP). Leaving the St-Anne Hospital where he had delivered his seminar up to this point Lacan began to give it instead at the elite higher education establishment the École Normale Supérieur. To an audience of colleagues who had joined him from the SFP and attracting the brightest of the École Normale’s students Lacan was now free to give voice to the radical and original of nature of psychoanalytic insight in an undiluted form. This, Lacan’s groundbreaking 1964 seminar, was later published in English as ‘The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis’. Lacan continued to deliver his public revitalisation of analytic theory and practice for the next twenty-seven years, and his regular seminars are now becoming available in English translation.
Lacanian work is an established feature of the psychoanalytic tradition in France, Belgium, Argentina, Spain and many other European and non-European countries. It has been estimated that about half the world’s analytic population (of approximately 20,000 practitioners) are trained in Lacanian frameworks, although in many countries they represent either more or less than this average. In Britain, although Lacanian psychoanalysis was initially appropriated by film and literary theory, its importance for clinical work has been progressively recognised. Many of those involved in CFAR have done a first training in other forms of psychotherapy or psychoanalysis, and have come to appreciate the clinical significance of Lacanian ideas for their practice. Indeed, nearly all the Lacanian groups operating today have close links with clinical institutions.