Non-Existence and Sexual Identity:
Some Brief Remarks on Meinong and Lacan

Adrian Johnston



"...nothingness enters the world through language. You can say that in another way: reference is the void. But this void is created by language... A void would be unthinkable in the real if not for signifiers."

(Miller, "Language: Much Ado About What?")1

Like many of his infamous one-liners, Lacan's "la femme n'existe pas" is deliberately provocative. For various strains of feminism, it further testifies to the inherent male chauvinism of psychoanalysis, the origins of which supposedly lie, for instance, in Freud's pronouncements about the masculine nature of libido. However, the provocative effects of Lacan's denial of the Woman's existence shouldn't obscure his carefully considered reasons for saying this.

In Lacanian discussions of feminine sexuality, what feminism takes to be yet another "masculine bias" continually resurfaces: an emphasis on the fundamental status of the phallus in determining the gender identities of both male and female subjects. Although much of his work on feminine sexuality is devoted to explicating Freud's position on such matters, Lacan introduces several significant contributions that are uniquely his. To begin with, Lacan distinguishes between "privation" and "castration." In the real, nobody is missing an organ. For example, speaking at the level of the real, women simply have vaginas. In other words, they aren't deprived of an organ, since their bodies are as they are. Lacan calls this privation. Only with the advent of the symbolic — when language dissects the real, designates an organ as an isolated entity, transforms this thus-designated entity into a signifier, and therefore becomes capable of marking an "absence" of a penis (i.e., a "phallus," insofar as the penis is elevated to the level of a signifier) on woman's body — can individuals be said to be "castrated."

In the real, there is nothing more than a difference in organs with no common measure (it's like apples and oranges, like A and B). With the symbolic's capacity for introducing an absence where there was none before, the difference between A and B becomes the opposition of A and not-A — "Le trou réel de la privation est justement une chose qui n'existe pas. Le réel étant plein de par sa nature, il faut, pour faire un trou réel, y introduire un objet symbolique." Without this crucial categorical distinction between the real and the symbolic, Freud often appears to consider the socio-signifying operation of designating the absence of a phallicized penis in women as equivalent to a genuine biological flaw rendering one gender inherently "inferior" to another. Feminism, with some justification, inadvertently accuses Freud of conflating the Lacanian categories of the real and the symbolic.

Moreover, the Lacanian phallus is always described as a "lack," a minus phi2). The phallus is a phantasmatic, non-existent "thing" which nonetheless is decisively constituent of effects in the realm of the subject's reality — "The phallic signifier is, so to speak, an index of its own impossibility... the phallus is not simply lost but is an object which gives body to a certain fundamental loss in its very presence."3 An understanding of the phallus as a "negative object" is crucial to deciphering what Lacan means in pronouncing that "The Woman does not exist."

Although the American academic reception of Lacan tends to situate him within either the structuralist and/or post-structuralist strains of continental philosophy (this is an error that Slavoj Zizek goes to great lengths to dispel), there are undeniable links between Lacanian theory and analytic philosophy. Especially in his later seminars, Lacan frequently invokes such figures as Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein. Biographies of Lacan attribute this "logical turn" to the influence of Jacques-Alain Miller. Furthermore, in his ongoing clarification of Lacanian theory, Miller continues to draw on analytic philosophy as a viable resource for streamlining psychoanalytic thought. Taking this as a point of inspiration, another analytic philosopher offers Lacanian analysis a significant source of support: Alexius Meinong. In developing an ontology capable of including non-existent objects, Meinong aids in further specifying why the status of the phallus as a negative object necessitates negating the existence of "the Woman."

Part I: Meinong and the Existence of the Impossible

What do unicorns, gold mountains, and square circles all have in common? Quite obviously, they are things that, strictly speaking, do not exist. And yet, while non-existent to the extent that they aren't actual in the same way that a regular horse, granite mountain, or circular circle are, one is capable of speaking about them. Although there is no such animal as a horse with a horn, a unicorn can be clearly described: it has a white coat, a single horn, four legs, etc. One might even observe that unicorns and gold mountains facilitate imaginary syntheses; as words, they call to mind certain visual representations of mythical entities.

Even in the case of a square circle — unlike the other fantastical creations mentioned, a square circle, by its paradoxical coupling of mutually exclusive properties, precludes the possibility of exact imaginary representation — language permits the designation of this contradictory "non-entity." Perhaps, however ephemeral, this geometrical paradox has an existential status insofar as it can be predicated as a being that is in the form of the impossible itself. Meinong contends that a mere bias in favor of "actuality," conceived in terms of a simplistic materiality, is all that prevents conferring an ontological status on phantasmatic and/or impossible objects (this can be found in his essay "The Theory of Objects"4).

Meinong's rather unique ontology consists of several tiers of "being," each of whose theoretical validity is derived from two assumptions: one, consciousness is always consciousness of something, and, two, linguistic productions such as sentential propositions always have some reference to a subject matter, even if this subject matter does not exist in the sense of being materially actual. According to Meinong, anything of which one can speak has an absolute minimum of subsistence. Even if one states that a certain object cannot exist as actual (for example, the square circle), this object has a certain quota of quasi-existence, an existence necessary for it insofar as it's an object of discourse. Meinong calls this general ontological condition Aussersein. Although everything in his work points towards the role of language in generating this strange state of quasi-existence, Meinong persists in considering it an extra-linguistic attribute of the objects to which language, as a mere means of representation, simply refers (Lacan's explanation of symbolic castration permits an understanding of how a negative object [i.e., the phallus] enters the world exclusively through the advent of a signifying system).

Aussersein is divided into two general sub-categories: Sein (being) and Nichtsein (non-being). Objects having either an actual, material existence (Existenz) or a potential, ideational existence (Bestand) all fall under the heading of Sein. Things with a concrete spatio-temporal status (for example, this chair, that table, etc.) have Existenz, while ideal things (for instance, the geometrical form of a triangle, a unicorn in a hypothetical universe, etc.) subsist as Bestand. On the other hand, impossible objects participate solely in Nichtsein (it would be all too easy at this juncture to map Lacan's R.S.I. schema onto Meinong's three sub-categories of being: Existenz as real, Nichtsein as symbolic, and Bestand as imaginary). Thus, Meinong enables one to distinguish between two classes of non-existent objects: there are those which one can imagine (i.e., a gold mountain), and those with characteristics that prevent imaginary reconstruction (i.e., a square circle). Although Meinong fails to directly attribute to language the power to generate Nichtsein almost ex nihilo, Lacanian theories of the symbolic both clarify the Meinongian project as well as develop the consequences of the theory of ontological types through the tangible praxis of psychoanalysis.

Part II: The Nichtsein of the Feminine Phallus

Within the real, the girl is, strictly speaking, missing nothing. Instead of not having a penis, she possesses a vagina. Prior to their subjugation to signs, anatomies cannot be compared along the lines of presence or absence. As soon as the symbolic order enters the real, a lack immediately appears marked on the body of the female child. The vaginal organ is erased under the now-designated absence of a signifier, a signifier for a dangling little piece of flesh. This miniscule fragment of the real (i.e., the penis), once divorced from the specificity of the male body to serve as a "transcendental signifier" distinguishing between both sexes, becomes the condition of possibility for castration per se:

In Freudian discourse, the phallus is not a phantasy, if by that we mean an imaginary effect. Nor is it as such an object (part-, internal, good, bad, etc.) in the sense that this term tends to accentuate the reality pertaining in a relation. It is even less the organ, penis or clitoris, that it symbolizes. And it is not without reason that Freud used the reference to the simulacrum that it represented for the Ancients.
For the phallus is a signifier, a signifier whose function, in the intra-subjective economy of the analysis, lifts the veil perhaps from the function it performed in the mysteries.5

It's inconceivable of how women in particular can be viewed as "castrated" outside of the mediation of a symbolic system. Without the support of the signifier, the phallus would be unable to (dis)appear on the female body.

Meinong's terminological distinctions help clarify the shift from privation to castration. Once language transforms the penis into the phallus — that is, once the symbolic order makes the penis a general standard of measurement for dividing subjects into the either/or of gender categories (either having or not having this "thing") — the phallus is endowed with Aussersein. It thereby becomes omnipresent in the field of sexual identity, with "Man" aligned alongside the Sein of the phallus and "Woman" being relegated to the heading of Nichtsein vis-à-vis the "missing penis" as her defining absence with respect to a non-object.

This notion of a Nichtsein that participates in the ephemeral being of Aussersein is especially useful in explicating Lacan's denial of woman's existence. In order for the grand Autre to declare that women "are" women insofar as they lack penises, the potential presence or non-presence of an "absent object" is necessary as a tacit point of reference — this "phallic Aussersein" is, in fact, the pre-condition for judging individuals to be castrated. However, like the square circle, the feminine phallus is an impossible non-object; as Lacan sometimes says, it is a being which does not exist. Such a linguistically generated thing is an inconceivable oxymoron, for a penis is, by definition, an exclusively male organ. If part of the very parameters of woman's identity is predicated on the invariable fact her not having a penis, and if this penis is masculine in nature, then the Aussersein of the lacking feminine phallus can only ever subsist in terms of Meinongian Nichtsein.

This recourse to Meinong's ontology lends a new interpretive perspective on Lacan's investigations into feminine sexuality. Towards the end of his teaching, Lacan comes to the often-misunderstood conclusion that " la femme n'existe pas ."6 Why is this the case? As seen above, the "essence" of woman as a castrated creature relies on the intervention of the symbolic — more precisely, a symbolic order that privileges the signifier of the penis (i.e., the phallus) is requisite for distinguishing the sexual identities of individuals along the lines of having or not-having a particular "organ." The problem is that woman as woman could never have had such an organ in the first place, and thus she doesn't lack an organ so much as the signifier for this organ (this signifier retroactively telescopes the criteria of the symbolic phallus into the real, consequently erasing privation through the introduction of castration). As quoted in the introduction, Miller notes that, "nothingness enters the world through language." Specifically in the framework of the Lacanian conception of castration, the empty non-existence of the feminine phallus (as the standard against which the nascent subjectivity of the little girl is compared) is a void that appears simultaneously with language itself. Hence, "The Woman does not exist" to the extent that her identity, her demarcated subjectivity-position, leans against a certain Nichtsein.


"Woman cannot be said
(se dire). Nothing can be said of woman. Woman... is not-whole, since she can also have a relation with N..
I designate N as the phallus insofar as I indicate that it is the signifier that has no signified
(Lacan, Seminar XX)7

Meinong arrives at his speculations about various types of being (Aussersein, Sein, Existenz, Bestand, and Nichtsein) through an examination of the function of language in generating propositions (i.e., utterances that have an "aboutness" to them, insofar as they are concerned with things which, at the broadest level, either ar e or are-not). Meinong's major innovation lies in his willingness to attribute a specific mode of existence to aporetic, impossible "objects." Philosophers both before and after him usually insist upon the non-being of entities that rely exclusively upon language for their presentification. Since a square circle can be neither imagined nor discovered in material reality, how else can it subsist except in a symbolic system that is capable of juxtaposing the signifiers for "squareness" and "circularity?"

Interestingly enough, although Meinong publishes "The Theory of Objects" in 1904, Lacan never cites him (Meinong influences Russell, who Lacan does mention with a fair degree of frequency). Nonetheless, the Lacanian theory of castration gives body to Meinong's insights. In fact, Lacan contends that not only are the non-existence of the objects of Nichtsein epistemologically demonstrable, but that they have some of the most tangibly "real" effects. For instance, despite what other philosophies might justifiably call its absence of ontological actuality, the feminine phallus becomes, through the defiles of the symbolic order, the decisive anchor of woman's impossible identity. Part of the philosophical importance of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory is that Lacan challenges any naive ontological schema in which non-existent fictions would be rigidly partitioned from existent realities, in which the former would be denied any causal efficacy at the level of the latter. Lacan shows that conceptual/linguistic illusions and fantasmatic non-entities are, while being materially and factually non-existent, absolutely crucial in the constitution of concrete reality experienced by flesh-and-blood human beings as part of the "psychopathology of everyday life."


1. Jacques-Alain Miller, Lacan and the Subject of Language (New York: Routledge, 1991), pg. 32.

2. Jacques Lacan, Le Séminaire IV (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1994), pg. 250.

3. Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989), pg. 157.

4. Alexius Meinong, "The Theory of Objects," Realism and the Background of Phenomenology (Glencoe: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1960).

5. Lacan, "The signification of the phallus," Écrits: A Selection (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1977), pg. 285.

6. Lacan, Seminar XX (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1998).

7. ibid., pg. 81.