Jacques Lacan's Theory of 'The Mirror Stage'

Jacques-Marie-Émile Lacan[1] (April 13, 1901 - September 9, 1981) was a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist, who made prominent contributions to the psychoanalytic movement. His yearly seminars, conducted in Paris from 1953 until his death in 1981, were a major influence in the French intellectual milieu of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly among post-structuralist thinkers.

Lacan's ideas centred on Freudian concepts: e.g. the unconscious, the castration complex, the ego. He also focussed on identifications and the centrality of language to subjectivity. His work was interdisciplinary, drawing on linguistics, philosophy, and mathematics, amongst others. Although a controversial and divisive figure, Lacan is widely read in critical theory, literary studies, and twentieth-century French philosophy, as well as in the living practice of clinical psychoanalysis. Lacan's first official contribution to psychoanalysis was The Mirror Stage.

Jacques Lacan’s essay The Mirror Stage[2] describes the psychological process of the formation of the illusory ‘self’ (or ego). He constructs his theory around the conception of the infant’s most crucial developmental stage: “the mirror stage”. He attempts this by illustrating how the infant forms an illusion of a unified conscious self, that later becomes identifiable through language by the word “I”. The development of language reinforces the infant’s “function as subject”, yet separates the child from its symbiotic ideal self, or ‘other’ (ego), as seen in the mirror.

This transformation of self, according to Lacan, is traumatic (in varying degrees as dictated by the infant’s route of transference). ‘Oedipal’ complexes, neurosis, psychosis, death, and “perception-consciousness systems”(p. 75) occur in the maladjusted subject. Everyone, apparently, because of losing the pre-linguistic security of the mirror stage identification has this sense of loss and disposition toward neurosis.

The strength of Lacan’s essay is in its style: complex and full of referential allusion, making it hard to criticise and interpret. Lacan’s style is ambivalent in that it synthesises psychoanalysis, philosophy, linguistic ideology, and phenomenology, together in its justifications as a science in search of essential truths and remedies about the human condition. The weakness of Lacan’s argument is that he affords the reader no definitive proof of his assertions. For a theory, that proposes to illuminate truth and experience (”the formation of the I as we experience it in psychoanalysis”, p.71), it offers no empirical or factual support to such claims.

Lacan relates the subject to the world, through the metaphor of the (psychological/literal) mirror. The paradoxical antithesis results in the negative assumption that the subject ‘I ‘ is a fragmented self-alienated being, which is forever marked by a lack, and forever trying to attain what it saw in the mirror as a complete other. He argues that the formation of self-identity begins at the mirror stage, between the age of six to eighteen months. Prior to this period of intelligent cognition, the child is “for a time, however short, outdone by the chimpanzee in instrumental intelligence”(p. 71) [3].

According to Lacan, infants are born into this world prematurely. Consequently, they experience an insufficiency of environmental resources, to provide for their needs because of their premature senses, motor skills, and underdeveloped self-identification. Until the child experiences and interprets its reality outside the maternal womb (both literally and figuratively) as such, it will have no concept of the other or itself. The human being comes into the world without an ego - without an identity, without a sense of I that is separate from an ‘other’ (its mother). In a sense, the child has to conceptually rebirth itself, in order to distinguish itself from others as an individual being.

The infant (or “organism”), that has yet to make this separation, exists in the realm of “reality”, according to Lacan[4]. The real is a psychological place where there is unity; there is no sense of loss or lack, ‘reality’ is absolute. Because there is no loss, there is no language in the real; it is unnecessary. In other words, Lacan claims that in the infant’s pre-linguistic state of maternal dependency, there is no need for anything other than what it already has.

Biological nature apparently predetermines our sense of identity/the ‘other’, by forcing us away from the maternal protection of the mother. The onus for the ensuing state of loss thereby falls on the mother’s inability to sustain environmental resource, and on the child’s biological/’natural’ growth that prevents the mother from fulfilling such a tedious existence

Therefore, there is no language at the “infans” stage, because there is no loss; there is only absolution and satiability. Hence, the real is beyond language; it becomes irretrievable upon entry into the linguistic world. This notion of the origins of language and loss is based on theoretical assumption. In a sense it is illogical because of its reasoning and the questions, rather than answers, it generates. If the child is not born with a faculty of speech, what are its communications with its mother?

The mother largely provides resources for the infant’s needs such as food, security, safety, diapers changed, etc. The infant does not differentiate between itself and the object/s that meets its needs at this stage of maternal dependency. In order for the mirror stage to occur, the infant must sense an insufficiency in its ‘self’ and separate (wean) itself from the body of its mother. The separation, anticipation, and recognition of the ‘other’ generate the subjectivity and difference of the infant’s self to the other. The mirror stage is developmentally crucial in this sense, because it holds consequences for personality and mental development, affecting normative to abnormal states of being.

Lacan states:

The mirror stage is a drama whose internal thrust is precipitated from insufficiency to anticipation – and which manufactures for the subject, caught up in the lure of spatial identification, the succession of phantasies that extends from a fragmented body image to a form of its totality [‘orthopaedic’] . . . to the assumption of the armour of an alienating identity, which will mark with its rigid structure the subject’s entire mental development. (pp. 73-74)

Faced with an identifiable image of itself in a mirror, the child recognises its ideal ‘self’ and the ego is born. The infant makes an anticipatory judgement, perceiving the image to be stronger, more maturely coherent, than his or her own unrealised function as subject. Subsequently, the pre-linguistic infant perceives this ‘other’ image as an attainable reality. Lacan claims that the infant recognises the image and makes this judgement before it can ‘objectify’ it with “the dialectic of identification with the other, and before language restores to it, in the universal, its function as subject” (p. 72). Lacan speaks of this pivotal point of identification of the other, as being “primordial” and highly “symbolic”, whilst the infant is still dependent and maternally connected to the (m) other.

Lacan suggests the primary identification is illusory and idealistic (fictional), the reflection being mimetic, a copy of the real, or a misrecognition (“meconnaissance”). There is a void between the reflection and the self; this void creates apprehension and a sense of alienation, between the self and the image. At this pre-linguistic stage, this sense of ‘lack’ is non-apparent.

When the child eventually experiences and comprehends the concept of absence through language, it identifies lack with its environment (world) and its (m) other. The infant is no longer in a state of fulfilled contentment, protected by and unified with the mother. This first acknowledgement of this absence directs the child towards its own image, in order to transform itself as an entity of identity without lack. The child’s recognition of ‘lack’ is the pivotal moment around which the mirror stage is set. The child will attempt to fill this void throughout the rest of its life, looking for its imaginary and significant other. This element of Lacan’s theory is tragically paradoxical: to become a socialised ‘adult’, sacrifice of coherence/unity is necessary, resulting in a perpetual sense of loss and desire.

A weakness of Lacan’s argument is that it relies on conjectural summation as proof of his concept. He cites a few inconclusive examples of “comparative psychology” as factual evidence of his concept. Neglecting the need for empirical evidence of epistemological claims, he attempts to compare and contrast selectively, animal behaviour (chimpanzees, pigeons, and even locusts) to child development. His reasons for failing to provide necessary and sufficient evidence to back up his claims, is probably due to the fact that the unconscious mind at the “infans stage” is essentially unfathomable. In order to prove his claims of infant identification with the self and the other, as something other than biological necessity or response, this failure to provide factual proof negates his argument.

Without evidence for Lacan’s claims and concepts of a mirror stage, we cannot definitely say that the infant behaviour and development described is common to all children six to eighteen months old, as Lacan claims. Some leeway could be made in hindsight because of the historical context of Lacan’s theory (1949) and technological/interpretative advancements made in developmental research[5] since then (e.g. genetics, computers, medicine, equipment etc). Yet even so, this lack of physical evidence does not necessarily prove Lacan’s theory right or wrong, this is what makes it problematic. Like so many other theories of the unknown, how can we objectively prove as fact, that which is unknown or subjective?

I may have misread Lacan’s meaning at this stage, but I feel it necessary to point out that what a child may see as a significant ‘other’, may indeed be an object not necessarily found in the mirror. A gestalt does not necessarily have to be “constituted” with ‘constituents’ of human form (for a child, the ‘real’ or significant other could be a toy or goldfish!). In my opinion, he underestimates the power of the pre-linguistic imagination of the infant and, consequently, the relationship between the child and what he calls a “fictional direction” (which I presume indicates the imaginary).

He also over-estimates the importance of the “lure of spatial identification”(p. 74), as a fundamental type of anti-existential (“I think therefore I am”) lack of free will, which drives and consumes an infant’s ego toward “a form of its totality”. The pre-adolescent child does not seem to make judgements about their mirror image, other than those of fancy, amusement, curiosity, or utility (e.g. combing hair). This “lure” of the mirror does not seem to be as magnetised or compelling as Lacan suggests.

By the time most children recognise themselves in the mirror (or even that the mirror is a ‘mirror’) they have already begun to converse. An element of fear or mistrust of the unknown is present in most children, in regards to the mirror image. I suspect that this apprehension is directed toward the fact that they do not understand, how it works[6], rather than their sense of alienation in seeing an image of their self.

The fact that mistrust or apprehension is an emotive response in infants toward mirrors, disproves Lacan’s suggestion that the child experiences jubilance and gains an “instantaneous aspect of the image”(p.1). The evidence and common knowledge available today of infant behaviour suggests that the concept of the ‘mirror stage’ is inconclusive and representative of a naïve type of subjective truism.

Another weakness in his essay is the lack of differentiation between the developmental stages of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood; neither does he distinguish between genders apart from his brief reference to the ‘Oedipus complex’. Lacan does not clearly state, or address, physiological differences between the sexes or psychological differences that result from these differences, e.g. maternal, hormonal, perceptual, social etc. He seems to be looking for the fundamental link that unites/defines humanity. He apparently discovers this common factor in the ‘mirror stage’, it being that all human subjects lack a completeness that can be traced directly to the “fact of a real specific prematurity of birth in [hu]man[s]” (p. 73).

Essentially, for Lacan, the human being splits, between something that it is and has and something it will never be or have. His theory proposes that the foundation of human development is fundamentally a handicap of negative irrationality and lack. Lacan’s analysis is inconclusive, as the subject of experiment (the pre-adolescent infant) remains voiceless and therefore inadmissible as evidence of Lacan’s theory of psychological/conceptual development. The interior world of the infant’s mind is apparently laid open (“dehiscence”, p. 73) by Lacan. Yet, he does not actually offer any empirical evidence for what is largely an empirical theory of “the formation of the I as we experience it in psychology”(p. 71).

Lacan’s interpretation of Freud is strategic in its repetition and avoidance of Freudian concepts to promote his own. In reading Lacan, we also re-read Freud (both Anna and Sigmund) and the many other philosophers/theorists he makes recourse to (e.g. Descartes, Hegel, Levi-Strauss, Caillois, Buhler, etc). By appropriating these other theorists, Lacan uses their authority as his own. His psychological (and philosophical) theory of reality and the subject resembles the philosophy of Hegel[7] (whom, incidentally, he utilises in his anti-existential tirade on p.75) with its dialectic and metaphysical aspects.

He assumes a philosophical position regarding the limits of psychoanalysis and subjective truth:

The sufferings of neurosis and psychosis are for us a schooling in the passions of the soul, just as the beam of the psychoanalytical scales, when we calculate the tilt of its threat to entire communities, provides us with an indication of the deadening of the passions in society . . . In the recourse of subject to subject that we preserve, psychoanalysis may accompany the patient to the ecstatic limit of “Thou art that”, in which is revealed to him the cipher of his mortal destiny, but it is not in our mere power as practitioners to bring him to that point where the real journey begins. (p.76)

Lacan’s seemingly logical, albeit difficult, reasoning belies a search for truth (of the unconsciousness) that cannot be objectively justified, due to its largely conjectural and subjective status as evidence. How can interpretations and ‘knowledge’ of the unconscious mind be free from subjective irrationality and self-truth? How can we prove that such ‘evidence’ is universal in nature, culture, and the individual subject’s imagination/psyche, without definitive and evidential proof of the mind’s processes and memories from the mirror stage or the unconscious?

In my opinion, Lacan does not convincingly substantiate his concept with answers to these questions, and that is what makes his writing difficult, impassable, and illogical as an ontological definition of psychoanalytical epistemology[8]. His unscientific argument is more philosophy than psychoanalysis, the abstract and anecdotal reasoning seems far removed from clinical/theoretical psychoanalytical accounts (see Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams). Lacan uses idealistic philosophy and linguistic theory to psychoanalyse the non-existent patient, present nowhere (conclusively) in the text. His use of these devices fails in my opinion to convey an empirical working model of the mind. Instead, this has the effect of juxtaposing discourse, theory, and consequently, logical/illogical claims, so that it is hard to determine fact from fiction.

Lacan uses the metaphor of the mirror as a reflection on humanity and psychoanalytical theory and practice. In the process, he moves from a psychoanalytical perspective of the mind, to a philosophical stance on the nature of the human subject. The mirror stage functions somewhat theatrically, the psychoanalytical light of Lacan’s concept illuminates the action, while the ‘subject’ and the ‘other’ play out their tentative drama of human creation, identity, development, and fallibility.

This concept of human nature and the human psyche contradicts the basic psychoanalytical precept, that unconscious desire determines conscious decision and will. In denying this, Lacan seems to adapt and contort conventional psychoanalytical concepts of identity and development, social-adaptation, and constructionism, to support and build his theory on. There is an element of the subversive in Lacan’s attitude toward psychoanalysis and human concepts of will and identity. For the anti-existentialist Lacan, his project is impossible. The ego can never take the place of the unconscious, or empty it out, or control it, because, for Lacan, the ego or “I” self is only an illusion, a product of the unconscious itself.

In some respects, Lacan’s theoretical discourse, and the concept of the mirror stage, borders on the “threshold of the visible world”, as an ideological phenomenology that seeks to establish a foundation for all sciences of humanity. Apart from providing us with this social indicator and definition of neurosis and its origins, the reader is left bemused and somewhat dismayed at the feeling of malaise and incongruity that the essay concludes with.


[1] Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_Lacan [1st two paragraphs].

[2] See, Jacques Lacan, ‘The Mirror Stage’, in A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader, eds, Anthony Easthope and Kate McGowan, pp. 71-76.

[3] While there is response from the infant to its mirror image, Lacan places no relevance (other than mere unconscious mimicry) on this fact, until the child appears to consciously, “hold it [the image] in his gaze”.

[4] “ . . . the organism and its reality – or, as they [?] say . . . the Innenwelt and the Umwelt” (p.2).

[5] See J. C. Dixon’s empirical observations “of developmental change in relation to the mirror” and his advancements and use of Lacan’s mirror stage in ‘Development of Self Recognition’, in The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 91, (Florida: Florida University Press, 1957) pp. 251-256. See also M. Lewis, J. Brooks-Gunn, and J. Jaskir’s ‘Individual differences in Visual Self-Recognition as a Function of the Mother-Infant attachment Relationship’, in The Journal of Developmental Psychobiology (New Jersey: 1985) pp. 1181-87. This is an interesting a/c in relation to Lacan’s because it provides extensive empirical evidence of its claims about attachment relationships compared to visual self-recognition development at infancy-early childhood. The results suggest that: “individual differences were related to later self-recognition. In particular, insecurely attached infants showed a trend toward earlier self-recognition than did securely attached infants” (p.1181).

[6] Primitive cultures, religious superstition (Voodoo), conventional societies, relate different responses to the mirror. Frightened responses toward mirrors, cameras, and foreign objects are common in diaries of travellers to different (non-western) cultures where the image/ identity is not to be found in the narcissistic/exterior reflection of the self, but in the stature of the physical being, etc.

[7] George Hegel saw reality as a dynamic process, rather than as a reflection of static ideals. The dialectical law governs the process of reality: every thesis implies its own contradiction, or antithesis, and their conflict ends in a synthesis, which again brings forth its antithesis.

[8] The ambivalent effect of his text on the reader, almost emulates the responses of the mirror stage subject toward the ‘other’, which in this case is Lacan’s text. There is an uneasy sense of ‘meconnaissance’ (mis-interpretation) and ‘lack’ of full understanding of his text, which requires the reader to reread in order to understand. This rhetorical technique appears to me deliberate and stylistic, whilst being clever and making ‘the sound echo the sense’, I wonder whether it serves to distract from that which is not present in the text, namely evidence, for Lacan’s claims?

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