Return to Freud

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French: retour à Freud

Psychoanalysis was founded by Sigmund Freud

Psychoanalysis originates with the work of Freud and remains rooted in his theories to this day, but every generation of analysts that came after Freud has sought to update and correct those theories, and to resolve the contradictions that he left behind. Lacan argued that through this process of continual revision psychoanalysis had lost sight of its original aims; that it had become conservative and reactionary. By playing down the more uncomfortable and disturbing aspects of the theory, especially the underlying presence of repressed, unconscious, desire in our mental lives, psychoanalysis had made itself respectable but it had lost its radical edge. In the early 1950s, therefore, Lacan famously declared the necessity of a 'return to Freud', that is to say, a return to the texts of Freud himself and to a close reading and understanding of those texts. For the next 26 years he would engage in this project of close reading, and in the process would reconstitute the theory of psychoanalysis.

Lacan presented a distinctive reading of psychoanalysis.

In 1951, Lacan made his call for a "return to Freud.

Freudian Legacy

The whole of Lacan's work can only be understood within the context of the intellectual and theoretical legacy of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the founder father of psychoanalysis.

Lacan first trained as a psychoanalyst within the International Psychoanalytical Association (IPA), the organization founded by Freud which presented itself as the sole legitimate heir to the Freudian legacy.

Betrayal of Freud

However, Lacan gradually began to develop a radical critique of the way that most analysts in the IPA had interpreted Freud.

After being expelled from the IPA in 1953, Lacan developed his polemic further, arguing that Freud's radical insights had been universally betrayed by the three major schools of psychoanalysis within the IPA: ego-psychology, Kleinian psychoanalysis, and object-relations theory.

Return to Freud

To remedy this situation, Lacan proposed to lead a "return to Freud", both in the sense of a renewed attention to the actual texts of Freud himself, and a return to the essence of Freud's work which had been betrayed by the IPA.

Reading Freud in the original German allowed Lacan to discover elements which had been obscured by poor translation and ignored by other commentators.


Thus much of Lacan's work is taken up with detailed textual commentaries on specific works by Freud, and by numerous references to the work of other analysts whose ideas Lacan refutes.

To understand Lacan's work, therefore, it is necessary both to have a detailed understanding of Freud's ideas and also a grasp of the way these ideas were developed and modified by the other analysts (the 'post-Freudians') whom Lacan criticizes.

These ideas are the background against which Lacan develops his own "return to Freud."

What such a return [to Freud] involves for me is not a return of the repressed, but rather taking the antithesis constituted by the phase in the history of the psychoanalytic movement since the death of Freud, showing what psychoanalysis is not, and seeking with you the means of revitalizing that which has continued to sustain it, even in deviation...[1]


However, Lacan's work itself puts in question the narrative of a return to orthodoxy implicit in the expression "return to Freud," for Lacan's way of reading Freud and his style of presentation are so original that they seem to belie his modest claims to be a mere commentator.

Furthermore, while it is true that Lacan returns to specific aspects of the Freudian conceptual legacy, privileging Lacan is no more "faithful" to Freud's work than the post-Freudians whom he criticizes for having betrayed Freud's message; like them, Lacan selects and develops certain themes in Freud's work and neglects or reinterprets others.

'Lacanian psychoanalysis might therefore be described as a "post-Freudian" form of psychoanalysis, along with ego-psychology, Kleinian psychoanalysis and object-relations theory.

Reading of Freud

However, this is not the way Lacan sees his work.

Lacan argues that there is a deeper logic at work in Freud's texts, a logic which endows those texts with a consistency despite the apparent contradictions.

Lacan claims that his reading of Freud, and his alone, brings out this logic, and shows us that "the different stages and changes in direction" in Freud's work "are governed by Freud's inflexibly effective concern to maintain it in its primary rigour."[2]

In other words, while Lacan's reading of Freud may be as partial as any other in the sense that it privileges particular aspects of Freud's work, that is not, in Lacan's view, justification for regarding all interpretations of Freud as equally valid.

Thus Lacan's declarations of loyalty and accusations of betrayal cannot be seen as a mere rhetorical strategy.

Certainly, they do have a rhetorico-political function, in that presenting himself as "more Freudian" than anyone else allowed Lacan to challenge the effective monopoly on the Freudian legacy that the IPA still enjoyed in the 1950s.

However, Lacan's statements are also an explicit claim to have teased out a coherent logic if Freud's writings that no one else had perceived before.

See Also


  1. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 116
  2. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 116