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French: hystérie


The nosographical category of hysteria dates back to ancient Greek medicine, which conceived of it as a female disease caused by the womb wandering throughout the body (in Greek hysteron means womb).

The term acquired an important place in psychiatry in the nineteenth century, especially in the work of Jean-Martin Charcot, under whom Freud studied in 1885-6.

Sigmund Freud

It was in the course of treating hysterical patients in the 1890s that Freud developed the psychoanalytical method of treatment (free association, etc.) and began to form the major concepts of psychoanalytic theory.

Freud's first properly psychoanalytic case history concerns the treatment of a hysterical woman known as "Dora."[1]


The classic symptomatology of hysteria involves physical symptoms such as local paralyses, pains and anaesthesias, for which no organic cause can be found, and which are articulated around an "imaginary autonomy" which bears no relation to the real structure of the nervous system[2].

However, although Lacan does discuss the symptomatology of hysteria, linking it to the imago of the fragmented body,[3] he comes to define hysteria not as a set of symptoms but as a structure.

This means that a subject may well exhibit none of the typical bodily symptoms of hysteria and yet still be diagnosed as a hysteric by a Lacanian analyst.


Like Freud, Lacan regards hysteria as one of the two main forms of neurosis, the other being obsessional neurosis.

In the seminar of 1955-6 Lacan develops the idea that the structure of neurosis is that of a question, and that what differentiates hysteria from obsessional neurosis is the nature of this question.

Whereas obsessional neurosis concerns the question of the subject's existence, hysteria concerns the question of the subject's sexual position.

This question may be phrased "Am I a man or a woman?" or, more precisely, "What is a woman?"[4]

This is true for both male and female hysterics.[5]


Lacan thus reaffirms the ancient view that there is an intimate connection between hysteria and femininity.

Indeed, most hysterics are women, just as most obsessional neurotics are men.


The structure of desire, as desire of the Other, is shown more clearly in hysteria than in any other clinical structure; the hysteric is precisely someone who appropriates another's desire by identifying with them.

Dora Case

For example, Dora identifies with Herr K, taking as her own the desire which she perceives him to have for Frau K.[6]

However, as the case of Dora also shows, the hysteric only sustains the desire of the Other on condition that she is not the object of that desire.[7]

She cannot bear to be taken as the object of desire because that would revive the wound of privation.[8]


It is this privileged relation between the structure of desire and the structure of hysteria which explains why Lacan devotes so much attention to this clinical structure, and why he develops the idea in the 1970s that it is necessary, in psychoanalytic treatment, to "hystericize" the analysand.

Discourse of the Hysteric

Hysteria, as a clinical structure, must be distinguished from Lacans concept of the discourse of the hysteric, which designates a particular form of social bond.

See Also


  1. Freud, Sigmund. "Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria", 1905e. [1901]. SE VII, 3.
  2. Lacan, Jacques. 1951b. "Some Reflections on the Ego," Int. J. Psycho-Anal., vol. 34, 1953. p. 13
  3. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 5
  4. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-56. Trans. Russell Grigg. London: Routledge, 1993. p.170-5
  5. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-56. Trans. Russell Grigg. London: Routledge, 1993. p.178
  6. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 138
  7. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p.222
  8. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre XVII. L'envers de la psychanalyse, 19669-70. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 84