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The Latin word imago simply means "image", but it has acquired a number of powerful connotations over time. Christian theology refers to the "imago Dei", the image of God in which human beings were created and with which they should strive to conform. Carl Gustav Jung introduced the term into psychology; for Jung, the individual forms a personality by identifying with imagos that emerge from the collective unconscious, a shared reservoir of mythical figures and scenarios. Lacan takes up the term to refer to the image the infant sees in the mirror (or the image of the caregiver) and with which the infant identifies. In the ah-ha experience that characterizes the mirror stage, the infant grasps the connection between the image and its own existence. The infant experiences the imago as a Gestalt, a meaningful form.

It is important to note that the imago is external to the infant. The "I" comes into being not as an emanation of the individual, but as the result of an encounter with an other.


An unconscious prototype of personae, the imago determines the way in which the subject apprehends others. It is elaborated based on the earliest real and fantasmatic intersubjective relations with family members.

The term imago first appeared in work of Carl Gustav Jung in 1912, and the same Latin word was adopted in various languages. The concept was borrowed from a novel of the same name by Carl Spitteler (1845-1924), published in 1906. In Jungian psychology, the term imago eventually replaced the term complex.

The imago is linked to repression, which in neurosis, through regression, provokes the return of an old relationship or form of relationship, the reanimation of a parental imago. This regression is linked to particular quality of the unconscious, that of being constructed through historical stratification. "I have intentionally given primacy to the expression imago over the expression complex, for I wish to endow the psychical fact that I mean to designate by imago, by choosing the technical term, with living independence in the psychic hierarchy, that is, the autonomy that multiple experiences have shown us to be the essential particularity of the complex imbued with affect, and which is cast into relief by the concept of the imago," Jung wrote.

Jung later replaced the term imago with archetype in order to express the idea that it involves impersonal, collective motifs, but in fact this idea was already present in his earliest descriptions of imagos. In 1933 he again explained his choice of this term: "This intrapsychical image comes from two sources: the influence of the parents, on the one hand, and the child's specific relations, on the other. It is thus an image that only reproduces its model in an extremely conventional way." Finally, he situated the imago "between the unconscious and consciousness, in a sense, as if in chiaroscuro." It is a partially autonomous complex that is not completely integrated into consciousness.

Sigmund Freud, "forgetting" that Spitteler's novel had inspired Jung, used the same title, Imago, for the review he created with Hanns Sachs and Otto Rank in Vienna in March 1912.

The concept of the imago, very seldom used by Freud, appeared in his writings for the first time that same year, in "The Dynamics of Transference" (1912b), where he wrote: "If the 'father-imago,' to use the apt term introduced by Jung . . . is the decisive factor in bringing this about, the outcome will tally with the real relations of the subject to his doctor" (p. 100). In those rare texts where he used this term, the imago refers only to an erotic fixation related to real traits of primary objects. But elsewhere, Freud had already shown the importance of the child's links with its parents and had explained that the most important thing is the way in which the child subjectively perceives its parents; these ideas are contained in the notion of the imago. He had also distinguished certain representations that had the status of the imago (the mnemic image of the mother, or the image of the phallic mother in the work of Leonardo da Vinci). However, in "The Economic Problem of Masochism" (1924) he used the term imago in the Jungian sense, in relation to moral masochism and the superego. Indeed, he wrote that behind the power exerted by the first objects of the libidinal instincts (the parents) was hidden the influence of the past and traditions. In his view, the figure of Destiny, the last figure in a series that begins with the parents, can come to be integrated with the agency of the superego if it is conceived of "in an impersonal way," but quite often, in fact, it remains directly linked to the parental imagos.

At that time the term imago was commonly used in the psychoanalytic community, but it was particularly developed in the work of Melanie Klein. Besides the classic imagos, she described "combined parental imagos" that provoke the most terrible states of anxiety. She linked these to the "stage of the apogee of sadism," which in 1946 became the "schizoid-paranoid position." The analyst's work is to bring forth the anxiety linked to these terrifying imagos, thus facilitating the passage to "genital love" (which in 1934 became the "depressive position") by transforming these terrifying imagos into helpful or benevolent imagos. In her view, the young child develops cruel, aggressive fantasies about the parents. The child then projects these fantasies onto the parents, and thus has a distorted, unreal, and dangerous image of people around it. The child then introjects this image, which becomes the early superego. Klein thus described the early superego more as an imago than as an agency.

Klein left it to Susan Isaacs to define what she meant by imago: an image, or imago, is what is introjected during the process of introjection. It involves a complex phenomenon that begins with the concrete external object in order to become that which has been "taken into the self" (p. 89), that is, an internal object, Isaacs explained in "The Nature and Function of Phantasy" (1948), adding: "In psycho-analytic thought, we have heard more of 'imago' than of image. The distinctions between an 'imago' and 'image' might be summarized as: (a) 'imago' refers to an unconscious image; (b) 'imago' usually refers to a person or part of a person, the earliest objects, whilst 'image' may be of any object or situation, human or otherwise; and (c) 'imago' includes all the somatic and emotional elements in the subject's relation to the imaged person, the bodily links in unconscious phantasy with the id, the phantasy of incorporation which underlies the process of introjection; whereas in the 'image' the somatic and much of the emotional elements are largely repressed" (p. 93).

In his 1938 article entitled Les Complexes familiaux dans la formation de l'individu (The family complexes in the formation of the individual), Jacques Lacan drew the connection between imago and complex. It was at this time that he advanced his first theory of the Imaginary. The imago is the constitutive element of the complex; the complex makes it possible to understand the structure of a family institution, caught between the cultural dimension that determines it and the imaginary links that organize it. Lacan described three stages in it: the weaning complex, the intrusion complex (in which the mirror stage is described), and the Oedipus complex. This complex-imago structure prefigured what would become his topology of the Real, the Imaginary, and the Symbolic.

See Also


  • Freud, Sigmund. (1912b). The dynamics of transference. SE, 12: 97-108.
  • ——. (1924). The economic problem of masochism. SE, 19: 155-170.
  • Jung, Carl Gustav. (1911-12, 1925 [1952a]), Psychology of the unconscious. A study of the transformation and symbolism of the libido. A contribution to the history of the evolution of the thought. Coll. works, Vol. 5, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Lacan, Jacques. (1984). Les Complexes familiaux dans la formation de l'individu. Paris: Navarin. (Original work published 1938)