The Meaning (or Signification) of the Phallus (Munich): 9th May 1958 : Jacques Lacan

by Julia Evans on May 9, 1958

The lecture ‘Die Bedeutung des Phallus’ was given in German on May 9, 1958, at the Max Planck Society in Munich, at the invitation of Professor Paul Matussek.


Details of three English translations and their availability

Related reading and references


Publication in French

Further Information

There are three English translations available:

1) The Meaning of the Phallus: P74-85 of ‘Jacques Lacan & the École Freudienne: Feminine Sexuality’

Translated by Jacqueline Rose

Available at  /lacan

Published in: Juliet Mitchell & Jacqueline Rose (Eds): Jacques Lacan & the École Freudienne: Feminine Sexuality: 1982: Macmillan:

Editor’s Preface & Bibliography etc Available here: Commentaries & Information from ‘Jacques Lacan & the École Freudienne: Feminine Sexuality’ : 1982 : Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose or here

Introduction to the Jacqueline Rose translation:

‘The Meaning of the Phallus’ is the only article of this collection previously to have appeared in English. It is included as Lacan’s most direct exposition of the status of the phallus in the psychoanalytic account of sexuality. This is the issue around which the whole controversy over femininity has turned.

It was first presented in German at the Max Planck Institute in Munich in 1958. At this stage, Lacan was concerned above all to emphasise the place of the symbolic order in the determination of human subjectivity, and to give an account of that order in terms of the laws of linguistic operation – the contemporary science of linguistics, as he argues here, having been unavailable to Freud.

Lacan, therefore, returns to the debates of the 1920s and 1930s (Abraham, Jones, Klein) and criticises what he sees as a reduction of the phallus to an object of primitive oral aggression, belonging in the realm of the instinct. Instead he places the phallus within the symbolic order, and argues that it can only be understood as a signifier in the linguistic sense of the term.

This is the first article of this collection to introduce the central concept of desire, which indicates for Lacan the fundamental division which he felt was avoided in discussion of the genital relation in certain French analytic circles at that time. Lacan, on the other hand, traces his conception through to the difficulties of the sexual relation itself, especially – we would stress – for the woman, whose relationship to the phallic term is described essentially in terms of masquerade.

This is perhaps the article which illustrates most clearly the problem of giving an explanation of the phallus which avoids reducing it to the biological difference between sexes, but which none the less tries to provide a differential account, for men and for women, of its effects.

‘The Meaning of the Phallus’ was published in Écrits (p685-695), Paris: Seuil, 1966, and translated by Alan Sheridan as ‘The signification of the Phallus’ in Écrits: a selection: Lacan, Routledge, 1977, p281-291. The following text is a new translation for this collection.

b) This translation reprinted in Sue Vice (ed): Psychoanalytic Criticism: A reader: 1998: Pollity Press, Cambridge

2) The Signification of the Phallus: 1958:

p281-291 of Alan Sheridan’s translation in Écrits: a selection: Lacan: Routledge: 1977 : See of Écrits, a selection (Jacques Lacan) : 1977 : Alan Sheridan : See here 

Available at   /lacan 

For further details see Translator’s note, Bibliography Note : 1977 : Alan Sheridan & Classified index of the major concepts, Commentary on the graphs : 1966 : Jacques-Alain Miller : from ‘Écrits: a selection’ : Information here

Introductory paragraph to the Alan Sheridan translation:

The following is the original, unaltered text of a lecture that I delivered in German on 9 May, 1958, at the Max-Planck Institute, Munich, where Professor Paul Matussek had invited me to speak.

If one has any notion of the state of mind then prevalent in even the least unaware circles, one will appreciate the effect that my use of such terms as, for example, ‘the other scene’, which I was the first to extract from Freud’s work, must have had.

If ‘deferred action’ (Nachtrag), to rescue another of these terms from the facility into which they have since fallen, renders this effort impracticable, it should be known that they were unheard of at that time.

Sheridan’s Footnote:

  1. Aphanisis, the disappearance of sexual desire. This Greek term was introduced into psychoanalysis by Jones in ‘Early Development of Female Sexuality’ (1927), in Papers on Psycho-analysis, 5th edn., London 1950. For Jones, the fear of aphanisis exists, in both boys and girls, at a deeper level than the castration complex. [See See The early development of female sexuality : 1st September 1927 (Innsbruck) : Ernest Jones or here ]

3) The Signification of the Phallus – Die Bedeutung des Phallus : 9th May 1958 : pp575 – 584 of Bruce Fink’s translation in Jacque Lacan’s Écrits, The FIRST Complete Edition in English : 2002 : W. W. Norton & Co

Bilingual, see,  at here 

Introductory paragraph: The following is the unaltered text of a lecture I gave in German on May 9, 1958, at the Max Planck Society in Munich, having been invited to speak there by Professor Paul Matussek.

If one has any notion of the mentality then prevalent in not otherwise uninformed circles, one can imagine how my use of terms that I was the first to extract from Freud’s work, such as “the other scene” (to cite one mentioned here), must have resounded.

If deferred action (Nachtrag), to take back another of these terms from the domain of the highbrow literati where they now circulate, makes this effort impracticable, it should be realized that they were unheard of at that time.

Related Reading:

The following were published together in La Psychanalyse : Vol 7 : 1964

a) Guiding Remarks for a Congress on Feminine Sexuality : 1958 [Presented in Amsterdam, 5th September 1960] : Jacques Lacan or here

b) The Psychology of Women in Relation to the Functions of Reproduction : April 1924 [1925] (Salzburg) : Helene Deutsch  or  here   

c) The early development of female sexuality : 1st September 1927 (Innsbruck) : Ernest Jones : See here : The term ‘Aphanisis’ which Jacques Lacan uses in ‘The Meaning (Signification) of the Phllus’ comes from here.

d) The Phallic Phase : given in Wiesbaden on 4th September 1932 [1933] : Ernest Jones : Information & availability here

e)  Womanliness as a masquerade : 1929 : Joan Rivière : Information here

Probably both or either of

The Flight from Womanhood: The Masculinity-Complex in Women, as Viewed by Men and by Women : 1926 : Karen Horney or here 

On the Genesis of the Castration Complex in Women : September 1922 (Berlin) : Karen Horney  : See  here


See A Reader’s Guide to Écrits: 1982: John P. Muller and William J. Richardson : Information here

Chapter 8: The Signification of the Phallus …. p332 : Available at  /lacan

Introduction – I to ‘Jacques Lacan & the École Freudienne: Feminine Sexuality’: 1982 : Juliet Mitchell or here

Introduction – II to ‘Jacques Lacan & the École Freudienne: Feminine Sexuality’: 1982: Jacqueline Rose or here 

Feminine Positions of Being : 1993 : Éric Laurent or here    

Recommended background reading : Introduction to Female Sexuality – The early psychoanalytic controversies : 1999 : Russell Grigg, Dominique Hecq & Craig Smith  or here   

Originally published in French

in Écrits : 1966 : Jacques Lacan : Information here

Notes & references

p824 of Bruce Fink’s translation : From Translator’s Endnotes :  The title of this article, La signification du phallus, could also be translated as “The Phallus’ Signification”, “What the Phallus Signifies,” “The Phallus as Signification,” or “The signification That the Phallus Is.” See Lacan’s discussion of the title as involving a subjective genitive or an objective genitive in Seminar XIX (19th January 1972) : See Seminar XIX: 1971-72: …Ou pire …Or worse : from 8th December 1971 : Jacques Lacan or here  :  Quote from pIII 13 Cormac Gallagher’s translation : Seminar XIX : 12th January 1972 : As regards saying that in everything that Freud wrote on the unconscious, logic does not exist, you would have to have never read the use that he makes of one or other term, I love her, I do not love him, all the way that there are to deny the I love him, for example, namely, along grammatical paths, to say that the unconscious cannot be explored along the path of a logic.  Seminar XIX : 19th January 1972 : pIV 1 of Cormac Gallagher’s translation : Jacques Lacan writes two logical statements on the blackboard and underneath :

The objective genitive : a desire -> for a child

The subjective genitive : a desire  <- of a child


p75 of Jacqueline Rose’s translation :  Quote : As we know, in ‘Civilisation and its Discontents’ (1929), Freud went so far as to suggest not a contingent, but an essential disturbance of human sexuality, … :  Available at Richard G. Klein’s site : See here : See SE XXI, p105-107 : p105 of James Strachey’s translation : Present-day civilization makes it plain that it will only permit sexual relationships on the basis of a solitary, indissoluble bond between one man and one woman, and that it does not like sexuality as a source of pleasure in its own right and is only prepared to tolerate it because there is so far no substitute for it as a means of propagating the human race.

P75 of Jacqueline Rose’s translation, continues : and one of his last articles turns on the irreducibility for any finite (endliche) analysis of the effects following from the castration complex in the masculine unconscious and from penisneid [penis envy] in the unconscious of the woman. : See Analysis Terminable & Interminable: 1937c : Sigmund Freud : SE XXIII, p209-54, Published at, download  here

From p824 of Bruce Fink’s Translator’s Endnotes : In Variations on the Standard Treatment : Easter 1955 : Jacques Lacan translates the title of this text as “L’analyse finie et l’analyse sans fin,” “Finite (or Finished) Analysis and Endless Analysis”.


p76 of Jacqueline Rose’s translation :  Quote : Only on the basis of the clinical facts can there be any fruitful discussion. These facts go to show that the relation of the subject to the phallus is set up regardless of the anatomical difference between the sexes, which is what makes its interpretation particularly intractable in the case of the woman and in relationship to her, …. This ignorance smacks of mis-recognition [méconnaisance] in the technical sense of the term, especially as it is on occasions disproved. All it agrees with, surely, is Longus’s fable in which he depicts the initiation of Daphnis and Chloë as dependent on the revelations of an old woman.

See p92 of Jacqueline Rose’s translation of Guiding Remarks for a Congress on Feminine Sexuality : 1958 [Presented in Amsterdam, 5th September 1960] : Jacques Lacan or here  for Lacan making a similar point in Section VII : Mistakes & prejudices : Quote :

  1. Either way, the claim that fantasies of breaking bodily frontiers can be deduced from an organic constant, for which the rupture of the ovular membrane would be the prototype, can be denounced as irresponsible idiocy. Such a crude analogy reveals only too well the distance from Freud’s way of thinking in this area when he elucidated the taboo of virginity.

Footnote: See The Taboo of Virginity (Contributions to the Psychology of Love III) : 1917 (1918a) : Sigmund Freud : SE XI : p193-208. Also p261 – 284 of Penguin Freud Library : Vol 7 – On Sexuality


P77 of Jacqueline Rose’s translation : probably A Short Study of the Development of the Libido, Viewed in the Light of Mental Disorders : 1924 : Karl Abraham or here : Quote : There would be no point in asking these authors to formulate this difference from the perspective of object relations which is currently in favour. This being for lack of any reference on the matter other than the loose notion of the part object, uncriticised since Karl Abraham first introduced it, which is more the pity in view of the easy option which it provides today.


p77 of Jacqueline Rose’s translation : probably The Flight from Womanhood: The Masculinity-Complex in Women, as Viewed by Men and by Women : 1926 : Karen Horney or here 

The fact remains that, if one goes back to the surviving texts of the years 1928-32, the now abandoned debate on the phallic phase is a refreshing example of a passion for doctrine, which has been given an additional note of nostalgia by the degradation of psychoanalysis consequent on its American transplantation.


p77 of Jacqueline Rose’s translation : A mere summary of the debate could only distort the genuine diversity of the positions taken by figures such as Helene Deutsch, Karen Horney and Ernest Jones, to mention only the most eminent.

Probably On the Genesis of the Castration Complex in Women : September 1922 (Berlin) : Karen Horney  : See  here

The Psychology of Women in Relation to the Functions of Reproduction : April 1924 [1925] (Salzburg) : Helene Deutsch or  here 

The Flight from Womanhood: The Masculinity-Complex in Women, as Viewed by Men and by Women : 1926 : Karen Horney or here 

The early development of female sexuality : 1st September 1927 (Innsbruck) : Ernest Jones or here

The Phallic Phase : given in Wiesbaden on 4th September 1932 [1933] : Ernest Jones or here 

Early Female Sexuality : 24th April 1935 : Ernest Jones or here


p77 of Jacqueline Rose’s translation :  The series of three articles which Jones devoted to the subject is especially suggestive:  See above 


p77 of Jacqueline Rose’s translation : ‘if only for the starting premise on which he constructs his argument, signalled by the term aphanisis, which he himself coined. For by correctly posing the problem of the relationship between castration and desire, ….. : Jones used the Greek term “aphanisis” to refer to the “total, and of course permanent, extinction of the capacity (including opportunity) for sexual enjoyment; see p461 of The early development of female sexuality : 1st September 1927 (Innsbruck) : Ernest Jones or here  : For the main blow of total extinction we might do well to use a separate term, such as the Greek word ‘aphanisis’.’

‘If we pursue to its roots the fundamental fear which lies at the basis of all neuroses we are driven, in my opinion, to the conclusion that what it really signifies is this aphanisis, the total, and of course permanent, extinction of the capacity (including opportunity) for sexual enjoyment. After all, this is the consciously avowed intention of most adults towards children. Their attitude is quite uncompromising: children are not to be permitted any sexual gratification. And we know that to the child the idea of indefinite postponement is much the same as that of permanent refusal. We cannot, of course, expect that the unconscious, with its highly concrete nature, will express itself for us in these abstract terms, which admittedly represent a generalization. The nearest approach to the idea of aphanisis that we meet with clinically is that of castration and of death thoughts (conscious dread of death and unconscious death wishes). I may cite here an obsessional case in a young man which illustrates the same point. He had substituted as his summum bonum the idea of æsthetic enjoyment for that of sexual gratification, and his castration fears took the form of apprehension lest he should lose his capacity for this enjoyment, – behind them being of course the concrete idea of the loss of the penis.’

So maybe, for Jones, the fear of aphanisis is more fundamental than that of castration in both sexes, castration being only a “special case” of aphanisis in boys.


p77 of Jacqueline Rose’s translation : The amusing thing is the way he manages …. : Note, Lacan plays at the very beginning of the paragraph, on the expression ‘noyer le poisson’ (to throw someone off track, create confusion, or mix things up, in order to dodge a question), saying ‘le poisson ne se laisse pas noyer” The phallus is often associated by Lacan with a fish; see The Direction of the Treatment and the Principles of its Power : 10th-13th July 1958 : Jacques Lacan or here  p49 of Cormac Gallagher’s translation : But sometimes desire is not so easily conjured away, because it is only too visible, planted at the centre of the stage like here at the love feast, a pretty fish, which it is enough to present as is done in restaurants under a fine gauze, for the raising of this veil to equal what happened was done at the end of the ancient mysteries.

To be the phallus, even if only a somewhat thin phallus. Do we not have here the final identification to the signifier of desire?

& The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire (Royaumont): 19th to 23rd September 1960: Jacques Lacan or here

p303 of Alan Sheridan’s translation : (Under Graph I – the graph of desire) This is what might be said to be its elementary cell. In it is articulated what I have called the ‘anchoring point’ (point de capiton), by which the signifier stops the otherwise endless movement (glissement) of the signification. The signifying chain is regarded as being supported by the vector   ->S.S1 .-> even without entering into the subtleties of the retrograde direction in which its double intersection with the vector   ->Δ.$ ->  occurs. Only in this vector does one see the fish it hooks, a fish less suitable in its free movement to represent what it withholds from our grasp than the intention that tries to bury it in the mass of the pre-text, namely, the reality that is imagined in the ethological scheme of the return of need.


p77 of Jacqueline Rose’s translation : The amusing thing is the way he manages, on the authority of the very letter of Freud’s text, to formulate a position which is directly opposed to it : a true model in a difficult genre.

The problem, however, refuses to go away, seeming to subvert Jones’s own case for a re-establishment of the equality of natural rights (which surely gets the better of him in the Biblical ‘Man and woman God created them’ with which he concludes).  : See

– P484 of  The Phallic Phase : given in Wiesbaden on 4th September 1932 [1933] : Ernest Jones or here   

‘I will allow myself now to single out the conclusions which seem to me to be the most significant.

Lastly I think we should do well to remind ourselves of a piece of wisdom whose source is more ancient than Plato: ‘ In the beginning . . . male and female created He them.’’

– See notes to The Theory of Symbolism : 29th January 1916 (London) : Ernest Jones  &

Notes on Seminar VII : 11th May 1960 : p227 : the fable of Adam and Eve by Julia Evans on 10th April 2014  or here 


p79 of Jacqueline Rose’s translation : Let me make clear that to argue for man’s relation to the signifier as such has nothing to do with a “culturalist” position in the ordinary sense of the term, such as that which Karen Horney found herself anticipating in the dispute over the phallus … : Probably On the Genesis of the Castration Complex in Women : September 1922 (Berlin) : Karen Horney  : See  here which is quoted in the last sentence of Sigmund Freud’s Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes: 1925j,  SE XIX p241-258, or The Flight from Womanhood: The Masculinity-Complex in Women, as Viewed by Men and by Women : 1926 : Karen Horney or here which is referred to in Female Sexuality : 1931b : Sigmund Freud, SE XXI p221-243 : Published at download here   


p79 of Jacqueline Rose’s translation : … and which Freud himself characterised as feminist. : Note, Sigmund Freud refers to feminist in Female Sexuality : 1931b : Sigmund Freud, SE XXI p221-243 : Published at, download here     

 p377 of pfl : For this reason, too, the cultural consequences of its break-up are smaller and of less importance in her. We should probably not be wrong in saying that it is this difference in the reciprocal relation between the Oedipus and the castration complex which gives its special stamp to the character of females as social beings. Footnote 1 : It is to be anticipated that men analysts with feminist views, as well as our women analysts, will disagree with what I have said here. They will hardly fail to object that such notions spring from the ‘masculinity complex’ of the male and are designated to justify on theoretical grounds his innate inclination to disparage and suppress women. But this sort of psychoanalytic argumentation reminds us here, as it so often does, of Dostoevsky’s famous ‘knife that cuts both ways’. The opponents of those who argue in this way will on their side think it quite natural that the female sex should refuse to accept a view which appears to contradict their eagerly coveted equality with men. The use of analysis as a weapon of controversy can clearly lead to no decision.


p78 of Jacqueline Rose’s translation :  What does he actually gain by normalising the function of the phallus as part object if he has to invoke its presence in the mother’s body as internal object, a term which is a function of the fantasies uncovered by Melanie Klein. : p38 of  Early Stages of the Œdipus conflict : 3rd September 1927 Innsbruck [1928] : Melanie Klein or here.  It does not seem clear why a child of, say, four years old should set up in his mind an unreal, phantastic image of parents who devour, cut and bite.


p79n of Jaqueline Rose’s translation : It is a question of rediscovering in the laws governing that other scene (eine andere Schauplatz) which Freud designate, in relation to dreams, as that of the unconscious, the effects discovered at the level of the materially unstable elements which constitute the chain of language: effects determined by the double play of combination and substitution in the signifier, along the two axes of metaphor and metonymy which generate the signified; effects which are determinant in the institution of the subject. : See The Interpretation of Dreams: 1st November 1899 (published as 1900): Sigmund Freud  or here  : SE IV p48 : Part I The Scientific Literature on Dreams, Section (E) The Distinguishing Psychological Characteristics of Dreams : No one has emphasized more sharply the essential difference between dreaming and waking life or drawn more far-reaching conclusions from it than G. T. Fechner in a passage in his ‘Elemente der Psychophysik’ (1889, 2, 520-1). In his opinion, ‘neither the mere lowering of conscious mental life below the main threshold’, nor the withdrawal of attention from the influences of the external world, are enough to explain the characteristics of dream-life as contrasted with waking life. He suspects, rather, that the scene of action of dreams is different from that of waking ideational life. ‘If the scene of action of psycho-physical activity were the same in sleeping and waking, dreams could, in my view, only be a prolongation at a lower degree of intensity of waking ideational life and, moreover, would necessarily be of the same material and form. But the facts are quite otherwise.’

It is not clear what Fechner had in mind in speaking of this change of location of mental activity; nor, so far as I know, has anyone else pursued the path indicated by his words.

& SE V p536 : Part VII The Psychology of the Dream-Process, Section B. Regression  [ The Interpretation of Dreams: 1st November 1899 (published as 1900): Sigmund Freud  or here ] : … the great Fechner puts forward the idea that the scene of action of dreams is different from that of waking ideational life.  This is the only hypothesis that makes the special peculiarities of dream-life intelligible. [James Strachey notes : In a letter to Fliess of 9th February 1898,  Letter 83 Freud writes that this passage in Fechner is the only sensible remark he has found in the literature on dreams.]

What is presented to us in these words is the idea of psychical locality. I shall entirely disregard the fact that the mental apparatus with which we are here concerned is also known to us in the form of an anatomical preparation, and I shall carefully avoid the temptation to determine psychical locality in any anatomical fashion. I shall remain upon psychological ground, and I propose simply to follow the suggestion that we should picture the instrument which carries out our mental functions as resembling a compound microscope or a photographic apparatus, or something of the kind. On that basis, psychical locality will correspond to a point inside the apparatus at which one of the preliminary stages of an image comes into being. In the microscope and telescope, as we know, these occur in part at ideal points, regions in which no tangible component of the apparatus is situated. I see no necessity to apologize for the imperfections of this or of any similar imagery. Analogies of this kind are only intended to assist us in our attempt to make the complications of mental functioning intelligible by dissecting the function and assigning its different constituent parts different component parts of the apparatus. So far as I know, the experiment has not hitherto been made of using this method of dissection in order to investigate the way in which the mental instrument is put together, and I can see no harm in it. We are justified, in my view, in giving free rein to our speculations so long as we retain the coolness of our judgement and do not mistake the scaffolding for the building.


p80 of Jacqueline Rose : Hence the necessity for us to articulate that status here, starting with demand whose proper characteristics are eluded in the notion of frustration (which was never employed by Freud). : Note, this might seen to be contradicted in Freud’s discussion of the Schreber case (SE XII, 57 & 62) See Case history of Schreber: 1910: Sigmund Freud or here 

SE XII, p57 : Perhaps I may be allowed to add a few words with a view to establishing the causes of this conflict that broke out in relation to the feminine wishful phantasy. As we know, when a wishful phantasy makes its appearance, our business is to bring it into connection with some frustration, some privation in real life. Now Schreber admits having suffered a privation of this kind.

SE XII, p62 : This result may be produced by anything that causes the libido to flow backwards (i.e. that causes a ‘regression’): whether, on the one hand, the libido becomes collaterally reinforced owing to some disappointment over a woman, or is directly dammed up owing to a mishap in social relations with other men-both of these being instances of ‘frustration’; or whether, on the other hand, there is a general intensification of the libido, so that it becomes too powerful to find an outlet along the channels which are already open to it, and consequently bursts through its banks at the weakest spot. [James Strachey’s footnote 2 : … Freud’s slightly later paper on ‘Types of Onset of Neurosis’ (1912c), p. 231 below. Freud’s use of the term ‘frustration’, which has appeared already on p. 57, is considered in the Editor’s Note to that paper.


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Julia Evans

Practicing Lacanian Psychoanalyst, London & Sandwich, Kent


Further texts

Autres Écrits: 2001 : Jacques Lacan or here 

Écrits : 1966 : Jacques Lacan or here 

Some Lacanian history here

Lacanian Transmission here 

Of the clinic here 

Contemporary Case Studies here 

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Use of power here 

By Jacqueline Rose here 

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By Alan Sheridan here   

By Sigmund Freud here 

Notes on texts by Sigmund Freud here

By Jacques Lacan here    

Notes on texts by Jacques Lacan here 

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