By way of an introduction

In philosophy the concept the Real (sometimes written with a small ‘r’) is often equated with reality and also with the idea of things-in-themselves  (Kant’s noumena).  Furthermore, it is often closely linked to the philosophical position known as realism, which states that there is an objective reality beyond the mind and/or language. This is in contrast to the position of idealism or anti-realism, which argues that ‘reality’ is a construction of the mind and/or language.

Although such arguments may seem to have little to do with psychoanalysis and psychotherapy in particular, and people’s mental (ill) health in general, in my view they are fundamental, especially when it comes to exploring different experiences of ‘reality’, and the whole question of ‘normality’ versus ‘abnormality’. Furthermore, I would argue that a great deal of psychotherapy, and other ‘talking therapies’ are (albeit unknowingly perhaps) applying the principles of philosophical idealism in their everyday practice, much to the detriment (in my view) of their clients.

At the same time I think it’s important to recognise that idealism (in both its philosophical and therapeutic incarnations) is a reaction to a naive realism (often linked to an equally naive empiricism) which essentially equates appearances with things-in-themselves, that is, ‘reality’. Ironically though, this naive realism/ empiricism has managed to smuggle itself back into psychotherapy in the form of ‘evidence-based practice’.

The key point that I want to stress here is that the Real does not equate with appearances, but neither should it be equated with ‘reality’; at least not in the way this latter term is used in everyday conversation and in therapeutic discourse. A great deal of psychotherapy is geared towards helping people ‘adjust’ to ‘reality’, which is either the ‘reality’ of the therapist, or the ‘reality’ of the wider society. The problem here, however, is that unless there is some conception of a Real which is beyond ‘reality’, beyond mind and/or language, ‘reality’ collapses into an intersubjective fantasy.

As Dylan Evans points out, Lacan’s conception of the Real evolved over time.1 Initially (in the 1930s) Lacan subscribed to the view that was popular at the time that the Real was ‘an ontological absolute’, a being-in-itself. Here, Lacan was particularly following the ideas of the philosopher of science Emile Meyerson.2 However, Lacan was also heavily influenced by the ideas of Hegel, and more especially, by the interpretation of Hegel’s work by Alexandre Kojève, whose lectures Lacan attended during that period3

Over the course of time, however, Lacan developed a far more nuanced concept of the Real, which was eventually to become one of his three registers or orders, the other two being the Symbolic and the Imaginary. In particular, Lacan wanted to stress that the Real did not equate with ‘reality, which was in the order of the Imaginary. Although in the 1950s and into the 1960s Lacan’s work tended to privilege the Symbolic, by the 1970s the focus was on the Real.

The Real in Lacan is often taken to mean that which is outside of language, that which is impossible to say (or represent in any other form). Of course, this immediately gives rise to a whole host of philosophical problems, not least being the question of how you can conceptualise something which is beyond conceptualisation, how you can speak about something which is impossible to say. However, perhaps a more fruitful way to look at the Real is to think in terms of the limits of language, the limits of representation. And this brings us back into the heart of psychoanalysis itself and especially the notion of trauma.

The origin of the word trauma is from the Greek τραῦμα (‘wound’), and refers to both physical and psychical/psychological woundings. In Lacanian terms a trauma can be seen as a ‘wound’ or rupture in the Symbolic order itself. The point about (psychical) trauma is that it refers to an experience which makes no sense; one which cannot be ‘processed’ by the individual; an experience which cannot be assimilated into their world view. And this failure to ‘process’, to assimilate, explains many of the disturbing phenomena that accompany, for example, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which include nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks, and, in some cases, dissociation.

There does, therefore, appear to be a close affiliation between the idea of the Real and that of trauma, insofar as neither make sense, both are ‘beyond’ language and representation. Could we therefore argue, perhaps, that someone who is traumatised is encountering or ‘touching’ the Real itself?  In a word, yes – although this needs to be qualified in the sense that as psychotic individuals could also be said to be encountering the Real, this might imply that trauma is a form of psychosis (or vice versa).

The problem here is that although someone who is deeply traumatised, for example after being sexually assaulted or being badly beaten up, may exhibit all the signs of psychosis, this does not mean they have a psychotic structure. For Lacanian analysts this is the crucial factor when making a clinical diagnosis, rather than any particular ‘symptoms’ or behaviours.

Of course, it could be that someone who is traumatised does have psychotic structure, but not necessarily. There is also a more fundamental question regarding the origins of psychosis itself, which Lacan would define in terms of a form of negation called foreclosure (as opposed to another form of negation, repression, which is characteristic of neurosis). All human beings are born in a state of trauma, in the sense that they have yet to develop either the neurobiological or the psychological resources to successfully ‘process’ their environment and to develop a subjectivity. Whether they do eventually succeed is largely down to the intervention of the Other, which in many cases is the child’s mother. The mother’s role is to act as a symbolic mediator to help the young infant to start making sense of the world.

The role of the father is also crucial here, or to be  more precise, someone serving the function of the father.  If the chid is to separate, psychically, from its mother, the father must intervene, in the sense of providing a limit or boundary to the mother-child relationship.  Freud defined this intervention of the father in terms of the Oedipus complex, and although this has been contested in more recent times, the fact is that without some kind of (symbolic) intervention from the father (or someone serving the function of the father) the child remains trapped in a fatal embrace with an overpowering mother.

The key point in all this is that there is an intimate connection between the Real and trauma. And both are at the root of the human condition; and form the basis of human subjectivity and its disturbances.

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  1. Evans, D. 1996. An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, pp.159-61 []
  2. For a summary of Meyerson’s ideas in English see Bryson, K.A. Meyerson, Emile. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. [Online]. [Accessed 1 February 2016]. Available from: []
  3. Kojève, A. 1969. Introduction to the reading of Hegel. Lecutures on the Phenomenology of Spirit. New York: Cornell University Press. []