The Symbolic (or Symbolic Order) is a part of the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan, part of his attempt "to distinguish between those elementary registers whose grounding I later put forward in these terms: the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real — a distinction never previously made in psychoanalysis".
The rise of the Symbolic
Lacan's early work was centred on an exploration of the Imaginary, of those "specific images, which we refer to by the ancient term of imago. ... it set out from their formative function in the subject". Thereafter "[t]he notion of the "symbolic came to the forefront in the Rome Report  ... henceforth it is the symbolic, not the imaginary, that is seen to be the determining order of the subject".
Lacan's concept of the symbolic "owes much to a key event in the rise of structuralism ... the publication of Claude Lévi-Strauss's Elementary Structures of Kinship in 1949. ... In many ways, the symbolic is for Lacan an equivalent to Lévi-Strauss's order of culture": a language-mediated order of culture. "Man speaks, then, but it is because the symbol has made him man ... superimposes the kingdom of culture on that of a nature". Accepting then that "language is the basic social institution in the sense that all others presuppose language", Lacan found in Ferdinand de Saussure's linguistic division of the verbal sign between signifier and signified a new key to the Freudian understanding that "his therapeutic method was 'a talking cure'".
The triumph of the Symbolic
For a decade or so after the Rome Report, Lacan found in the concept of the symbolic an answer to the neurotic problematic of the imaginary: "It is the task of symbolism to forbid imaginary capture ... supremacy of the symbolic over the imaginary ... supremacy of the symbolic over the real". Accepting through Lévi-Strauss the anthropological premise that "man is indeed an 'animal symbolicum'", and that "the self-illumination of society through symbols is an essential part of social reality", Lacan made the leap to seeing "the Oedipus complex - in so far as we continue to recognise it as covering the whole field of our experience with its signification" - as the point whereby the weight of social reality was mediated to the developing child by the (symbolic) father: "It is in the name of the Father that we must recognize the support of the symbolic function which, from the dawn of history, has identified his person with the figure of the law".
The imaginary now came to be seen increasingly as belonging to the earlier, closed realm of the dual relationship of mother and child — "Melanie Klein describes the relation to the mother as a mirrored relationship ... [neglecting] the third term, the father" — to be broken up and opened to the wider symbolic order.
Lacan's shorthand for that wider world was the Other — "the big other, that is, the other of language, the Names-of-the-Father, signifiers or words [which] ... are public, communal property". But though it is an essentially linguistic dimension, Lacan does not simply equate the symbolic with language, since the latter is involved also in the Imaginary and the Real. The symbolic dimension of language is that of the signifier, in which elements have no positive existence but are constituted by virtue of their mutual differences.
The unconscious is the discourse of the Other and thus belongs to the symbolic order. It is also the realm of the Law that regulates desire in the Oedipus complex, and is determinant of subjectivity. "The unconscious is the sum of the effects of speech on a subject, at the level at which the subject constitutes himself out of the effects of the signifier ... we depend on the field of the Other, which was there long before we came into the world, and whose circulating structures determine us as subjects" on the symbolic order.
The eclipse of the Symbolic
With the Sixties, the early rush of expectations associated with the concept of the symbolic order had begun to fade, and the symbolic was increasingly seen as part of the human condition, rather than as a therapeutic cure-all. Lacan's critical attention began to shift instead to the concept of the Real, seen as "that over which the symbolic stumbles ... that which is lacking in the symbolic order, the ineliminable residue of all articulation ... the umbilical cord of the symbolic".
By the turn of the decade, "(1968–71) Lacan gradually came to dismiss the Oedipus ... as 'Freud's dream'" — despite his own earlier warning of the dangers if "one wishes to ignore the symbolic articulation that Freud discovered at the same time as the unconscious ... his methodical reference to the Oedipus complex".
Whether his development of the concept of jouissance, or 'the "identification with the sinthome" (as the naming of one's Real) advocated in Lacan's last works as the aim of psychoanalysis', will in time prove as fruitful as that of the symbolic order perhaps remains to be seen. Part of Lacan's enduring legacy will surely however remain bound up with the triumphal exploration of the symbolic order that was the Rome Report: "Symbols in fact envelop the life of man in a network so total that they join together ... the shape of his destiny".
- Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection (London 1997) p. 95
- Lacan, Écrits, p. 11
- Alan Sheridan,"Translator' Note", Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (London 1994) p. 279
- David Macey, "Introduction", Lacan, Four, p. xxii and p. xxv
- Lacan, Écrits, p. 65–6
- John R. Searle, The Construction of Social Reality (London 1995) p. 60
- Sigmund Freud and Joseph Breuer, quoted in Macey, Four, p. xxvii
- Jacques-Alain Miller, "Commentary" in Lacan, Écrits, p. 332 and p. 327
- Alfred Schutz, The Problem of Social Reality (The Hague 1973) p. 356 and p. 330
- Lacan, Écrits, p. 66
- Lacan, Écrits, p. 67
- Lacan, Seminar III, in J. Mitchell and J. Rose, Feminine Sexuality (New York 1982) p. 57–8
- Philip Hill, Lacan for Beginners (London 1997) p. 160 and p. 73
- Lacan, Four, p. 126 and p. 246
- Sheridan, Four, p. 280
- J. Clemens and R. Grigg eds., Jacques Lacan and the Other Side of Psychoanalysis: Reflections on Seminar XVII (London 2006) p. 51
- Lacan, Écrits, p. 191
- Lorenzo Chiesa, Subjectivity and Otherness (London 2007) p. 188
- Lacan, Écrits, p. 68