A Theoretical Impasse? The Concept of the Symbolic in Melanie Klein and Jacques Lacan
This article provides a theoretical clarification of “the symbolic” in Kleinian and Lacanian psychoanalysis and argues for further conceptual research into its implications for psychoanalytic theory and clinical practice. What is striking about the Kleinian and Lacanian models is that they are diametrically opposed in the way they conceptualize the subject’s development of the capacity to form symbols: while for Klein the experience of concrete objects exists from the very beginning of life and the symbol is a product of “object-relating”, for Lacan, on the contrary, the experience of objects is an effect of the symbolic order. In Klein we start with the object/object-relation and work through different stages of symbolism eventually ending up with language, so that linguistic thought develops from the experience of the primal object. In Lacan, on the other hand, integration into the world of language produces lack/absence, which, in turn, is the necessary condition for conceptualizing objects: the experience of objects develops as an effect of language/symbolization. The article begins with an account of Freud’s two main theories of the symbolic – one based on images, the other on language or “word-presentations” – and traces the Klein-Lacan divergence to this theoretical duality. It then argues that a Klein-Lacan dialogue on the symbolic can open new directions for theoretical development by examining how different theories can accurately correspond to empirical observations of psychic functioning, as well as effective clinical interventions.