In “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function,” Jacques Lacan introduces a philosophical conception of the subject into psychoanalysis. He primarily responds to Freud’s conception of the developed subject as an “ego” which serves as a broad referent for the subject’s constellation of raw, biological drives. He thinks the ego as such does not account for the transformation that occurs within the subject when developing an ego, and he deduces the mirror stage as a solution that he thinks even Freud ought to accept. Lacan also responds to philosophy’s Cartesian conception of the subject as the cogito which merely thinks, and thus is. He criticizes this picture for failing to cohere with the transformative biological experience of becoming a subject, but he nonetheless adopts a similar aim as philosophy to know the meaning of ‘I am.’1 My interest in this article will be to argue that Lacan’s mirror stage is an implausible interpretation of Freud, and to suggest that the stage is artificially introduced by Lacan only to fill a lacuna in conceptual understanding, not empirically answer any biological questions, making it virtually useless for psychoanalytic treatment, while nonetheless being philosophically interesting for some readers.

I proceed in stages. In §1, I review Lacan’s mirror stage, particularly the stage’s two dimensions of meaning: its synchronic and its diachronic meaning (i.e., its conceptual and its biological meaning). Then in §2, I argue that Lacan’s mirror stage is limited by its aim to address a lacuna in conceptual understanding, that is, to account for the Freudian ego symbolically as an ideal-I. Not only because it’s unclear Freud ever even meant the ego to be explained symbolically, but also, by deducing, not conjecturing, a structure which, through language, makes the Freudian ego symbolically intelligible, Lacan’s mirror stage limits itself to having only philosophical validity, not any empirical validity, or any use in psychoanalytic treatment. In short, while there may be some truth in Lacan’s mirror stage, it’s by and large overstated, having some merit only in the space of reflection.

1. Lacan’s Mirror Stage

Lacan’s mirror stage can be easily misunderstood in one strong way either as: (1) a literal act of seeing oneself in the mirror in the psychological process of becoming a person, or (2) a heuristic, similar to the Turing Test, which conceptually demarcates person from non-person. Despite the fact that both are not entirely off track, one upshot of this section is to show neither is essentially the case for Lacan after careful inspection. To start, underlying the mirror stage is Lacan’s attempt to clarify the basic structure of Freudian theory, interpreting what Freud really means at a more fundamental level than his writings, thus not presenting any new sort of discovery or intervention. Specifically, Lacan responds to Freud’s essay “On Narcissism” in which Freud argues a conception of the subject as an “ego” that refers not only, as aforementioned, to the subject’s constellation of raw, biological drives, but also to the subject’s identification, that is, the particular desire to be like or become another. Freud calls the stage of identification “the formation of the ego ideal.”2 The ego ideal, Freud says, is the subject’s “substitute for the lost narcissism of his childhood in which he was his own ideal.”3 That is, the formation of the ego ideal is a natural substitution of narcissism by a secondary narcissism: identification. Lacan’s basic problem with Freud’s picture is it fails to consider the complexity of identification in the subject beginning to relate to the other. While the formation of the ego ideal explains the shift in libidinal use during maturation from primary narcissism to secondary narcissism, for Lacan, it simply doesn’t explain the meaning of desiring to be like or become another, i.e., become such-and-such idealized ego. Indeed, what is the relationship of the subject to the idealized other? Need the other be real and actually interacted with in the world, or can an imaginary other work? Precisely in order to fill in this lacuna in understanding, Lacan enters the conversation and posits the mirror stage.

At the core, the mirror stage is an interpretive move by Lacan that explains two elements of the ego ideal not systematically accounted for by Freud: its synchronic meaning and its diachronic meaning. From a synchronic perspective, Lacan calls the mirror stage—the act of a human child recognizing his own image in the mirror at an age of primordial intelligence—an “essential moment in the act of intelligence.”4 The moment is essential as such in virtue of being the inaugural identification which “assumes an image” and transforms the subject within.5 No longer a subject defined by incoherent and inchoate emotions, Lacan says the subject assumes (since Lacan has quite a bit to say about this and puts it all in one passage, I’ll quote the passage in full):

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, that is, in an exteriority in which, to be sure, this form is more constitutive than constituted, but 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.6

Lacan clarifies that the newly acquired “total form” of the image is a “gestalt”7 which is an “exteriority” that is “more constitutive than constituted” in the sense that, as the adage goes, ‘the whole is more than the sum of its parts.’ In other words, the mirror stage occurs all at once as a switch from subject qua inchoate emotions to subject qua static, integrated image. Not merely the sum of inchoate emotions, the gestalt is something greater: it’s an entirely new and mature mode of being qua subject, which Lacan calls the “I.” Though more precisely, in virtue of being “in opposition” to the primordial subject of inchoate emotions, Lacan specifies that the I establishes “a relationship between an organism and its reality.”8This newly acquired formative relationship with reality (whereby the subject can now intelligibly be in it) is essentially the synchronic meaning of the ego ideal according to Lacan, or what he calls more exactly the “ideal-I.”9 He simply thought Freud’s account of identification doesn’t systematically account for such transformation in the subject, but only alludes to it, and he provides his own account he thinks even Freud ought to accept.

One important synchronic feature of the mirror stage which accounts for the acquired symbolic intelligibility of the ego is the “dialectic of identification with the other.”10 In the dialectic, the ideal-I, or the image, subsumes the primordial “libidinal normalization functions” which is inchoate and autoerotic into new libidinal normalization functions which account for the other.11 Simply put, as Lacan says, “man’s desire is the desire of the other.”12 Furthermore, the significance of the other is reality. No longer abstractly desiring itself, the subject concretely desires others, whether in loving a wife or a parent, or even in loving oneself. From a primordial community of inchoate, selfish wants, the subject is inaugurated into a social community of others as another also with wants. Whereas in the primordial form, the subject is a constellation of drives, i.e. a varying heap of particular desires,13 in the social form, the subject is an ideal-I faced with the reality of others, obligated to take the space to deliberate and arrive at a judgment of who he is and what he needs in the context of others. We can make some helpful sense of the difference by the two following formulas:

$\text{Primordial subject} = \text{Desires}$

$\text{Gestalt subject}$ (i.e., ideal-I, socially determined subject) $= \frac{\text{Reality}}{\text{Desires}}$

Reality is divided by desires rather than any other operation because desires are instructed to be parsed, and made to fit, in reality. Lacan otherwise calls the ideal-I the “statue onto which man projects himself, the phantoms that dominate him, and the automaton with which the world of his own making tends to achieve fruition in an ambiguous relation.”14 This is to say that the ideal-I makes drives symbolically intelligible in such a way that the subject can work with them in the reality he lives in, and makes sense of, in the uncertain context of others—uncertain in the sense that the context is always changing. Driven by desires, Lacan says the subject must work “as I” to control his horses, so to speak, and aim to “resolve…his discordance with his own reality.”15 Indeed, the ideal-I is forever becoming in life, constantly being tested to make sense of discordant reality in accordance with his drives. It is through this infinite process of becoming Lacan also explains the ideal-I is in a sense “irreducible” since it only signifies the subject’s becoming “asymptotically,” never completely.16

It may seem the asymptotic nature of the ideal-I contradicts its gestalt quality; however, this is not so straightforward. From a synchronic perspective, Lacan views the subject’s ideal-I as accounting for the transformation within the subject which acquires a “symbolic matrix.”17 That is, the ideal-I is the symbol, however asymptotic from a diachronic perspective, which the subject from a synchronic perspective works with and, at least for now, fixes in his mind.18 Again, the ideal-I is the result of a dialectic with the other, which he says is “precipitated in a primordial form, prior to being objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other.”19 Time may tell the ideal-I changes, but its mode of cognition is the same as it was at its precipitation: reality is divided and tested by desires.

The mirror stage also lends the ego ideal diachronic meaning. Where Freud thinks ego-identification is a stage of maturation from autoeroticism to a social being that desires others, Lacan thinks Freud doesn’t account for the entire biological picture. Specifically, he thinks without accounting for the mirror stage, Freud misses accounting for the experience of identification with the other. That is, how does the subject go from autoeroticism to desiring others? Does it happen overnight? And can an autoerotic neurotic have the same experience as an infant? As Lacan explains, passing the mirror stage is “the jubilant assumption of his specular image by the kind of being.”20 Furthermore, he thinks the jubilant activity, or jouissance, has a specific meaning up to the age of eighteen months when both (a) a “libidinal dynamism” of inchoate drives has until the stage been the mode of being, and (b) the structure of the infant’s world has only been unto themselves.21 In other words, jouissance is a one-and-done activity whereby the infant is met with reality for the first time in their lives. It’s their baptism into reality: the world of others. Jouissance represents, as it were, the spreading of their seed: the spreading of their libido from inward “dynamism” to outward concrete objects. In this sense, the mirror stage is not only the subject’s introduction to reality qua ideal-I, but is also the subject’s introduction to reality as a sexual actor, no longer merely autoerotic.

Lacan also means jouissance in a hard sense as signifying the development of sexual organs, not just sexual psyche. As he writes, “[the gestalt’s] power should be considered linked to the species.”22 He makes his case by citing a study of pigeons wherein the female pigeon’s gonad only matures when “the pigeon sees another member of its species, regardless of its sex.” He also finds a similar case with locusts. While these cases concern other animals, the point is to show that the essence of the mirror stage has a biological expression even in other social animals, which he thinks we can learn from. Ultimately rejoining (1), these cases show the literal mirror isn’t the point, but the recognition of the other’s image is. Perhaps pigeons don’t have the same intelligence as humans to identify themselves in a mirror; what matters is that the baseline recognition of the other is a necessary and sufficient condition for sexual development among social creatures. Lacan thinks, with or without an actual mirror, humans must pass the mirror stage and assume an image in identification with the other in order to develop sexually, both in a psychological and biological sense; just as the sperm must against odds fertilize the egg to become a fetus, the infant must pass the mirror stage. He explains the Darwinian element of the stage when clarifying that the infant is primarily responsible for passing the stage, as “it is not our sole power as practitioners to bring him to the point where the true journey begins.”23 So, finally rejoining (2), not exactly a Turing Test, the mirror stage is biologically tied to sexual development. The ideal-I may begin with the stage synchronically, but the stage clearly also has a thicker diachronic meaning.

2. The Limits of Lacan’s Mirror Stage

In an early essay of his titled “On My Antecedents,” as a tell-all, Lacan describes his entry into psychoanalysis: the problems and intuitions that guide him. Most notably, he explains that his idea of the mirror stage and the ideal-I is guided by a lacuna in his understanding of Freud, that is, the fact that the ego is symbolically unintelligible. As he writes: “the function of ideals presented itself to me here in a series of reduplications that led me to the notion of a structure, which was more instructive than the account the clinicians in Toulouse would have provided, for they would have lowered its price by situating it in the register of passion.”24 Indeed, Lacan resists the standard practice of referring to drives allusively as “passions,” or desires, disliking that, as such, the ego (which is constituted by drives) remains symbolically unintelligible. Addressing this lacuna, Lacan finds solace in identifying a “structure” to understand in order to make better sense of drives. “Structure” means a cluster of symbolic concepts in the structuralist sense, such as culture and morality, while essentially meaning the station where nature and culture/morality are “intersected.”25 For Lacan, use of language does the intersecting by rendering the ego symbolically intelligible according to the structure, specifically by representing the object which is consciously or unconsciously desired by the ego in a symbolic matrix. Influenced by the structuralist linguist de Saussure, Lacan topographically interprets language to signify the signified (i.e., representations of sexual object) by the signifier (i.e., drives). Put another way, language represents the ego in a way that Lacan famously says: “The unconscious is structured like a language.”26

The mirror stage, then, functions as the baptismal event which introduces the ego into the structure, or language. As Lacan explains, after the subject passes the mirror stage and develops use of language, “language restores to it, in the universal, its function as subject.”27 This means language becomes a new mode of identification by which the subject functions qua ideal-I to desire others as an intelligible subject, using self-avowing propositions. Qua ideal-I, the subject is able to hypothetically explain his unconscious or conscious desire of the other with a proposition, consisting in a subject and predicate. In another sense, language introduces the subject to culture and morality, whereby once the subject realizes, as Lacan writes, “Thou art that,” then “the cipher of his moral destiny is revealed to him.”28 The subject is able to self-create and navigate the world according to ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in a coherent “destiny,” or a narrative meaningful to, and possessed by, them.

Logically speaking, one can observe the mirror stage to function also as the deduction of what must be presupposed by the ego in order to be symbolically intelligible, thus begging the question whether the ego even needs to be symbolically intelligible. Clearly driven by intellectual ambition, Lacan fills his lacuna in understanding by deducing a philosophical conception of the subject into psychoanalysis as an ideal-I with particular desires in accordance with drives, which are ultimately able to be explained via the ordinary language used in the structure.

Though upon scrutiny, Lacan’s mirror stage is implausible as an interpretation of Freud. For starters, in his actual writings, Freud describes psychic life as more complex than Lacan. Namely, where Lacan topographically seems to interpret an essential link between signifier and signified, drives and representations, Freud indicates this is not so straightforward. The link between signifier and signified just is not always the case, and assuming it is can exclude a lot of psychic life. As Freud writes, empirical research teaches us that in psychic life, “the sexual drive and the sexual object are merely soldered together,” meaning that the sexual drive is initially “independent” of its sexual object before lived experience, and is only later soldered to a concrete object.29 Contrary to Lacan, because of the basic fact that not alldrives are “soldered” or linked to an object by a subject, drives cannot be so easily represented as Lacan presumes. Indeed, not all drives are able to be linguistically expressed in a meaningful proposition: sometimes the signifier is without a signified.

Of course, it’s difficult to believe Lacan missed this basic interpretation of Freud. The mirror stage does seem to account for the initial ‘soldering’ between the sexual drive and the object through the infant’s jouissance; however, even so, jouissance is insufficiently a form of soldering for two related reasons. The first reason is not all infants acquire a Lacanian ideal-I, particularly those who have certain intellectual disabilities that lead them to lack the capability of developing a sense of a gestalt self. Indeed, Lacan excludes an entire category of people with sexual drives from ever having the possibility of becoming developed, full-blooded adults. As I explained in the last section, because of the mirror stage’s diachronic dimension, failure to pass the mirror stage means one lacks jouissance, which also means one lacks the ability to become a sexual actor with developed sexual organs, thus capable having a sexual life. So clearly, the fact that certain intellectually disabled people who lack an ideal-I do, in many cases, (independently of possessing an ideal-I) develop sexually and are capable of sexual lives, healthy or unhealthy, is a counterexample to the diachronic dimension of Lacan’s mirror stage. As to the second reason, the idea jouissance accounts for the complete expression of one’s sexual drive in the world is an implausible interpretation of Freud. The fact is, once developed, drives are expressed by one desiring in all sorts of ways, not only in ‘desiring the other,’ i.e., other objects. As Freud explains,30 there are three sources of stimuli which “set in motion” development of one’s physical sexual genitals:

…from the external world by means of the excitation of the erogenous zones, with which we are already familiar; from within the organism, along paths which we have still to explore; and from psychic life, which is itself a storehouse for external impressions and a reception area for internal excitations.

Evidently, Lacan only accounts for the first source of stimuli with jouissance, which only concerns desire for the other,and I seek to voice the third source in my concern for expressions of the sexual drive that are not in the external world (the second source is not relevant for us). Though Lacan lacks the latter source, his idea of jouissance shares the same effect underlying the three sources, which Freud calls “sexual excitement.”31 Importantly, sexual excitement, also known as sexual libido and sexual energy (also known by the term “affect”), captures the psychical and somatic processes of expressing one’s sexual drive. Because sexual objects are inessential to the expression of sexual drives in sexual excitement, Lacan’s interpretation that sexual drives need a sexual object to be expressed is simply false as an interpretation of Freud. For Freud, drives are just not as inchoate as Lacan thinks when one is without an ideal-I. Drives can be expressed by other means, refuting Lacan’s premise that drives must be expressed qua ideal-I in order to be expressed at all in psychic life.

Under this picture, Lacan’s mirror stage, which has been declared as a ‘return to Freud,’ now starts to seem, in fact, more like a Freudian cover for Lacan. Rather than Lacan discovering Freud’s work, Freud’s work, stripped of much of its substance, provides Lacan with his passport to pursue his more ambitious goal of deducing the mirror stage, which powerfully explains the starting point of all conscious psychical life involved in culture, morality, and selfhood. Without the premise of the mirror stage, there lacks an essential link between sexual drive and sexual object, leaving Lacan without the theoretical basis to render a symbolically unintelligible ego symbolically intelligible. Indeed, Lacan’s mirror stage is limited by his structuralist aims, which narrow-mindedly only considers the sexual drives that are meaningfully expressed by the procrustean bed of linguistic propositions. His aim of making the ego symbolic by simply introspecting experience, and providing an intelligible self-report of the ideal-I’s beginning can only be said to be a work of theoretical philosophy in the vein of Descartes’ Meditations, bearing no practical implications for psychoanalytic treatment.

Joseph F. Diller


  • Freud, Sigmund. “On narcissism: An Introduction.” Standard Ed. Vol. 14, 1957.
  • —. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality: The 1905 edition. Trans. U. Kistner, ed. P. V. Haute & H. Westerink. Verso, 2016.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Trans. Bruce Fink in collaboration with Héloïse Fink and Russell Grigg. First complete ed. in English. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2006.
  • —. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book III: The Psychoses 1955-1956. Trans. R. Grigg, Trans. W. W. Norton & Company, 1993.
  • —. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan (Book XI). Trans. Alan Sheridan, ed. Jacques Alain Miller. W.W Norton & Company, 1998.


  1. Lacan, Écrits, 94. [return]
  2. Freud, “On Narcissism,” 94. [return]
  3. Ibid. [return]
  4. Lacan, Écrits, 75. [return]
  5. Ibid., 76. [return]
  6. Ibid. (my emphasis) [return]
  7. Ibid. [return]
  8. Ibid., 78. [return]
  9. Ibid., 76. [return]
  10. Ibid. [return]
  11. Ibid. [return]
  12. Lacan, Seminar XI, 235. [return]
  13. Importantly, drives are not exactly desires. Rather, desires are a species of drives. Put another way, desires are particular manifestations of drives with specific propositional content. [return]
  14. Lacan, Écrits, 77. [return]
  15. Ibid., 76. [return]
  16. Ibid. [return]
  17. Ibid. [return]
  18. Ibid. [return]
  19. Ibid. [return]
  20. Ibid (my emphasis). [return]
  21. Ibid. [return]
  22. Ibid. [return]
  23. Ibid., 81. [return]
  24. Ibid., 52 (my emphasis). [return]
  25. Ibid., 80. [return]
  26. Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book III: The Psychoses 1955-1956, 119. [return]
  27. Lacan, Écrits, 76. [return]
  28. Ibid., 81. [return]
  29. Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, 11. [return]
  30. Ibid., 62. [return]
  31. Ibid. [return]