Diwakar Pyakurel                                                                                                                                                                           Sub-Editor of The Himalayan Times Online Edition/ Faculty Member at GGIC

Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, all three are among few most important scholars of the modern era who delved into what constitutes beings and behaviours of human race. The essays “Preface (to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy)” by Marx, “A Note on the Unconscious in Psychoanalysis” by Freud and “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience” by Lacan also present their ideas on what actually forms human personalities and behaviours. Founding fathers of Marxism and two prominent schools of modern psychoanalysis respectively, the scholars have respectively attributed to economy, the unconscious and the Mirror Stage as formative elements of human consciousness, activities and life as a whole.

In Karl Marx’s “Preface…”, the author boldly claims that economy is the sole basis for every aspect of human existence.  For him, economic status or “material conditions” of society precedes every other activity by human beings, including how they think of themselves and the world. In the essay, he says, “the mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life” (7). With this perspective, he is inverting a set belief that consciousness precedes human activities and the conditions they live in. Vehemently rejecting that idea, an inversion is proposed, “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness” (Marx 7).

For Marx, it is material conditions that determine everything from individual to social level. Economy decides what is happening in every aspect of individual, social and national life. Consequently, a change in economic system results into changes in every walk of life. Marx claims that “the changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of whole immense superstructure” (7). And, here the meaning of the term “superstructure” is as what the Prudue University defines “the ideologies that dominate a particular era, all that men say, imagine, conceive, including such things as politics, laws, morality, religion, metaphysics, etc” (Felluga). In this regard, there is no any human activity and behaviour that can be independent of material conditions of the given society. Human relations are “independent of their will”, but those relations are “relations of production appropriate to a given stage…of their material forces” and they become “the real foundation on which arises a legal and political superstructure” (Marx 7).

For Marx, economy determines not only enduring superstructures, but also waves of changes in the course of time. Provided “the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society”, a social revolution occurs – a transformation of the both base and superstructure (7-8). Marx has set a journey of society from Asiatic through ancient, feudal and modern modes of production before it arrives to the socialist mode of production (8). In each of such transformations, change in the base structure leads to changes in the elements of superstructure.

While it is something material for Karl Marx, determiners of human beings and behaviours are more conceptual or psychological for Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. Given their non-material nature, Freud’s and Lacan’s notions of who we are and why we do what we do are more difficult than that of Marx to comprehend. Nevertheless, both the scholars have extensively written about their concepts.

In Sigmund Freud’s “A Note…”, the father of modern psychoanalysis claims each and every action and behaviour of human beings originates in the unconscious of human mind. The unconscious is defined as “latent conceptions – if we have any reason to suppose that they exist in mind” as opposed to the conscious which means “the conception which is present to our consciousness and of which we are aware” (Freud 10). The unconscious is something that we are not aware of, but we admit it exists based on various proofs of signs like dreams. It is ever existing but never manifesting portion of human mind. For Freud, despite being always latent and never manifest, the unconscious is not passive. Rather it is active, that is why it not only influences, but determines human conceptions and behaviours.

Some parts of active unconscious can be brought into the consciousness (called the “preconscious” or “foreconscious”) while the rest are not (called the “unconscious proper). Regardless of being a preconscious or the unconscious proper, the elements in the unconscious influence what and how human beings behave. Freud says, “Unconsciousness is a regular and inevitable phase in the processes constituting our psychical activity; every psychical act begins as an unconscious one” (13). Whether that can come into the consciousness is a different question but the unconscious constitutes our psychical life. Whether they can come into existence is rather differently determined by if there are some experiences that invoke the reenactment.

The connection between the unconscious and apparent conscious behaviours can be understood comparing it with the link between photography negatives and real manifest images produced out of them. Not all negative films turn into manifest images, but each manifest image is produced from the negatives. In the same way, though not each of the unconscious elements turns to become the conscious, each conscious activity originates in the unconscious. To turn into the conscious for the unconscious, some exertion is as mandatory as the negatives requite to be good in photographic examination. Freud himself has given authenticity to this analogy by calling it “a rough but not inadequate analogy” (13).

Dreams are perhaps the most apparent examples of the unconscious getting manifest. But, other conscious activities besides dream too represent the unconscious. Freud writes, “The latent thoughts of the dream differ in no respect from the products of our regular conscious activity; they deserve the name of foreconscious thoughts…” (14). The foreconscious, being synonymous to the preconscious, controls the system of memory that we have in the conscious life. Thus, every conscious activity that involves memory involves the unconscious. Every knowledge humans have and activities they do depend largely on their memory, thus the unconscious is a prime constituent of human knowledge and behaviours.

Popularly called the “French Freud”, Jacques Lacan brought a different version of psychological explanation on what constitutes human beings. Being largely symbolic (than literal) on interpretations of his psychological concepts, he argues that a particular early phase of human life, called the “Mirror Stage”, is formative of the function of any human personality. His essay (actually a seminar paper delivered at the International Congress of Psychoanalysts), “The Mirror Stage…” posits that the Mirror Stage, and particularly an impression of self-image seen that time, seems “to be the threshold of the visible world” (Lacan 58). Hence, for Lacan, the Mirror Stage determines who we are and what we do throughout the life. Lacan clearly mentions that his theory is in polar opposition to the Cartesian belief in “Cogito” that thinking is what constitutes human beings (57).

Lacan defines the Mirror Stage as a period between the ages of six months to eighteen months (in approximation). According to Lacan, every child in this age sees a picture of self in a mirror (should be understood symbolically than literally) which is complete and perfect, but which the child actually is not! The complete and perfect image of the self seen for the first time in life (called ‘méconnaissance’) is so fascinating and illuminating that s/he cannot do away with that impression throughout the life. For Lacan, what one does after the Mirror Stage (in the Symbolic Order) is only attempt to get that perfection back from the Mirror Stage. Every human endeavour, thus, originates in and is pushed from the Mirror Stage.

That image, though fictional, is the sole basis for identification of self and other. This “specular” and “ideal” ‘I’ is also the source of ego. It is what determines everything about perceptions of the self and surroundings. Lacan says, “…it prefigures its alienating destination; it is still pregnant with the correspondences that unite the I with the statue in which man projects himself, with the phantoms that dominate him, or with the automaton in which, in an ambiguous relation, the world of his own making tends to find completion” (58). The mirror thus becomes the mirror on which a man projects himself and the world around throughout his life and develops knowledge accordingly.

Lacan further supports his theory with testimonies from biological experimentations in two non-human species: pigeon and locust. Visually exposing with an image of self is essential for both of the species for their development into maturity. Thus, it is no wonder that the mirror image holds profound value and capability of formative effects in development into maturity of human beings, according to Lacan’s argument.

Having said that human knowledge depends on the image as seen in the Mirror Stage which it actually is not, everything they know is false and fictional. Also, as one has perceived self out of that image as complete and perfect and he cannot see that perfection in the world later, the knowledge is paranoiac. Human knowledge is limited because it is “determined in that little reality” (Lacan 59) of the false image of the Ideal I. Lacan further problematises the entire human existence and knowledge claiming “the fact of a real specific prematurity of birth in man” (59).

Being paranoid with the limited false knowledge, human beings nevertheless try to protect and comfort themselves in their perception of perfection. In course of this protection, they depend more on what others see of them, not what they actually are. The Symbolic Order is the “moment that decisively tips the human knowledge into mediatisation through the desire of the other, constitutes its objects in an abstract equivalence by the co-operation of others…” (Lacan 60). Thus, for Lacan, human existence is such an existential trap that knowledge is false from its foundation which no one can escape, but bases all their beliefs and activities throughout life upon that.

Despite being logical and convincing on their own, each of the theorists discussed here differs to each other to a considerable extent. This difference allows them to exist for ever in the academia. After their times, all three of the theorists discussed have significant impacts on the way human societies have conceived the matters so far. And, they are likely to impact in the future too on human perceptions and knowledge of who we are and why we do what we do; for they are some of the most significant explanations that the academia ever has got.


Works Cited

Felluga, Dino. “Terms Used by Marxism.” Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. 31 Jan. 2011. Prudue University. 30 Oct. 2013. <http://www.cla.prudue.edu/english/theory/


Freud, Sigmund. “A Note on the Unconscious in Psychoanalysis.” The Routledge Critical and Cultural Theory Reader. Ed. Neil Badmington and Julia Thomas. New York: Routledge. 2008. 10-15.

Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” The Routledge Critical and Cultural Theory Reader. Ed. Neil Badmington and Julia Thomas. New York: Routledge. 2008. 57-62.

Marx, Karl. “Preface (to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy).” The Routledge Critical and Cultural Theory Reader. Ed. Neil Badmington and Julia





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