Wittgenstein and Psychoanalysis: A Critique of the Signifying Reason: Is Wittgenstein’s a Perspicuous Representation
The author analyzes the philosophical relationships between Wittgenstein and Freud, trying to explain the reasons for the apparent ambivalence of the former towards the latter. In fact, Wittgenstein seems to be at once an admirer of Freud (he considered practising psychoanalysis himself as a psychiatrist) and a bitter critic of his scientific claims. The author explains these contradictions with Wittgenstein’s complex, essentially negative, attitude towards modern science. Hence his criticism of Freud as too much of a “scientist” on the one hand, and his appreciation of Freud’s endeavor to “unbind mental knots” on the other, a strength that he considered akin to his own philosophical project as illustrated in the Philosophische Untersuchungen. In fact, both Wittgenstein’s philosophy and psychoanalysis contain something the author calls a Critique of the Signifying Reason.
A Tragic Seduction
For Wittgenstein, it is the seductive capacity—or persuasive force—of Freud’s theory which needs to be clarified before anything else.
Freud in his analysis provides explanations which many people are inclined to accept. He emphasizes that people are dis-inclined to accept them. But if the explanation is one which people are disinclined to accept, it is highly probable that it is also one which they are inclined to accept. And this is what Freud had actually brought out. Take Freud’s view that anxiety is always a repetition in some way of the anxiety we felt at birth. […] It is an idea which has a marked attraction. It has the attraction which mythological explanations have, explanations which say that this is all a repetition of something that has happened before. And when people do accept or adopt this, then certain things seem much clearer and easier for them. (Wittgenstein 1966, p. 43)
Freud thought that modern man harbored strong resistances against psychoanalysis because the latter constituted the third blow to human narcissism following those by Copernicus’ and Darwin’s. For Wittgenstein, the real problem of psychoanalysis instead lay in its seductive power—to which even he succumbed. And gathering here our papers to discuss Freud is yet again proof of the intellectual seduction Freud still exercises over us, even in the 21st century.
Wittgenstein compared Freud’s theory-practice with Georg Cantor’s theory of transfinite numbers which, according to Hilbert, represented a paradise for mathematicians from which no God would ever chase them. But for Wittgenstein this paradise does not exist, there is only the intellectual enjoyment one can draw from Cantor’s Proof. For Wittgenstein, paradises do not exist, enjoyments do.
For him, Cantor’s Diagonal Argument had appeared so convincing for reasons not entirely different from those for which Freud’s argument did: their intellectual charms exercise an extraordinary seduction on our minds. According to Wittgenstein, Cantor did not at all discover the existence of an infinite number of infinite sets, but he did introduce a new meaning to the word ‘infinite’ such that it now makes sense to talk of a hierarchy of different infinities. For Wittgenstein the question is not whether these infinities exist or not, but the more pragmatic one of whether this new significance and its consequent changes on our grammar are useful or not. Analogously, Freud did not discover a new entity called “the unconscious”, but changed the meaning we had given to the word “unconscious”, affirming that there can be “unconscious thoughts” and “unconscious fantasies”. Freud established a new concept of the unconscious according to which it functions like a sui generis consciousness—a way of thinking. But this hell which Freud thinks that he has discovered within ourselves does not exist, or exists only as the enjoyment that thinking that we have an interior hell gives us. In any case, for Wittgenstein, the difference between Freud and Cantor lies in the fact that the grammatical changes introduced by Freud are useful while those of Cantor are not. Freud succeeded where Cantor had failed–even if both owe their success to the aesthetic qualities of their proofs.
But the point is: in what sense is Freud’s grammatical innovation useful? And above all, how can utility and seduction be linked? Is something seductive ipso facto useful? And by contrast is not something useful ipso facto seductive?
Let me propose one response. Psychoanalysis appears so convincing to us—that is, seductive and useful—because it is an ethical practice completely consonant to man and woman in an age dominated by science and technology. We are deeply seduced by psychoanalysis because our world, dominated by science and technology, is in essence a world without sense (since causal mechanisms exclude meaning). Psychoanalysis bets on sense by situating itself in this scientific ocean of non-sense. Thus it claims to reveal a regional sense in various aspects of human existence; aspects that seem to be abandoned to chance and contingency, and in particular to meaningless physiological processes. Dreams, symptoms, anguishes, slips of tongue, depressions….all of them veil a sense which is possible to unveil. According to Wittgenstein, psychoanalysis is seductive because it provides a metaphorical, or actually tragic, significance to our otherwise bland and blind destinies.
But I would add that, unlike religions which propose to give a sense to our lives, psychoanalysis never renounces the background non-sense. Like every science, it starts from a metaphysical assumption, from the presumption that the human being is an animal which lives for desire and enjoyment (and like scientific theories, even the psychoanalytic theory is based on a metaphysical assumption). Instead, the background metaphysics underlying Freud’s interpretive system is based on the concept of die Lust (at once, desire and pleasure) as the essence of humans, on the idea that the human being is a thinking erotic beast (and not a thinking beast of prey as Nietzsche, in an analogous but diverse way, thought). Or, otherwise, caro cogitans, thinking flesh. Psychoanalysis is an historically perspicuous game which highlights localized connections in the nonsensical continent of the world.
Science, the Big Sleep
In 1930 Wittgenstein made a Spenglerian-like confession to his friend Drury:
I was walking about in Cambridge and passed a bookshop, and in the window were portraits of Russell, Freud and Einstein. A little further on, in a music shop, I saw portraits of Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin. Comparing these portraits I felt intensely the terrible degeneration that had come over the human spirit in the course of only a hundred years.
In 1930, Russell, Freud and Einstein—all “men of science”—were still alive, and yet Wittgenstein showed preference to three 19-century musicians. Music from the past held first place in Wittgenstein’s spiritual hierarchy, and he had always nurtured a certain antipathy towards the science of his time. Among his many aphorisms against science and technology, the following suffices: “To experience wonder, man—and perhaps populations—must be awakened. Science provides a means to fall asleep again” (Wittgenstein 1977). In his later years, his hostility towards technoscience was far more radical than that held by Heidegger in the same period. From this we might grasp, even if obliquely, that Wittgenstein acknowledged the scientific quality of Freud’s theory, but he felt that Freud’s limit lay precisely in his “scientific achievement”. Does this mean that even Freud had contributed to man’s falling again into a state of slumber? His idea seems to be that basically, while Freud had reawakened human beings, he had also furnished them with an instrument to fall asleep again.
I mention all of the above to address a series of studies on Freud inspired by Wittgenstein, according to which Wittgenstein denied Freud any scientific credibility, that in short, Freud’s theory is nothing more than a simple mythology. Many specialists on Wittgenstein have ended up following the epistemological philosophies of Popper and Grünbaum, which delve into psychoanalysis for the sole purpose of denying its scientific credibility. Wittgenstein’s interest in Freud—certainly not a casual one—is thus reduced to the usual question of demarcation, that is, whether psychoanalysis is scientific (Popper, Bouveresse), meaningful, and proved (Grünbaum).
(I think that the over trodden issue of psychoanalysis’ scientific reliability is completely misplaced. Psychoanalysis should be compared not with today’s scientific medicine, but, as Freud himself suggested, with two other “impossible” activities: governing the nations and bringing-up of children [Freud 1937, p. 248]. Does it make any sense to say that Obama was elected over Romney in 2012 because he was more scientific than his opponent? Or does it make sense to say that the violinist Leopold Mozart gave a great musical education to his son Wolfgang Amadeus because as an educator he was scientific?)
A Goethian Science
In 1931 Wittgenstein listed the authors who had most influenced him: Boltzmann, Hertz, Schopenhauer, Frege, Russell, Kraus, Loos, Weininger, Spengler, and Sraffa (Wittgenstein 1977). As can be seen, at least four out of ten are more or less scientists, which signals how profoundly Wittgenstein’s attitude towards science was as complex and ambivalent as it was towards psychoanalysis. He added that, in fact, he had really done nothing more than to take up and reproduce what these men had already written or accomplished. And, in the same note, he questions if even Breuer and Freud had also borrowed something from others. In short, Breuer and Freud are on this list rather haphazardly, a sign of Wittgenstein’s ambiguous attitude towards psychoanalysis. So that it is not quite clear if, for Wittgenstein, Breuer and Freud are among the few who had influenced him, or if instead they had done precisely what he himself had done: rather than to have forged a new path of thought, to have grabbed a way of elaborating a work of… what? In the case of Wittgenstein, a work of clarification; of Klarheit. But in the case of Freud, what? Was psychoanalysis an activity of clarification for Wittgenstein? (Klarheit is not at all for him an Erklärung, explanation, even if both deal with klar.) It seems that psychoanalysis is for him a special work of clarification. In short, he seems to reserve for Freud a doubly contradictory criticism which is also a contradictory praise. He recognizes Freud’s “scientific achievement”, but psychoanalysis thus induces the sleep of reason; on the other hand, he denies that Freud’s hypotheses are scientific, precisely because Freud clarifies something more essential than any explanatory theory can do.
In fact, what Freud was doing was very similar to what Wittgenstein himself was attempting to do in philosophy, which was to untie knots: in psychoanalysis, to untie the knots which constitute neurosis or psychosis, and in philosophy, to loosen those philosophical “cramps” that a good deconstruction—we would say today—of its linguistic assumptions ought to dissolve. Psychoanalysis and Wittgenstein’s philosophy were both linguistic therapies, so to speak. And it was not by chance that Wittgenstein considered becoming a psychiatrist and to specifically practice the psychoanalytic technique (Monk 1990, p. 356).
Later, when Wittgenstein would develop his second philosophy, he would state clearly that Goethe had been his guiding author. He said that his own thought could be summed up in Faust’s“Im Anfang war die Tat” (“In the beginning was the deed”). Hence his conception of meaning as use, of linguistic games as intimately connected to determined forms of life, etc. Usually, this primacy given to doing and action is interpreted by many as a form of pragmatism. Wittgenstein was impressed above all by Goethe’s “scientific” works, by his study of colors, and by the Metamorphose der Pflanze (Metamorphosis of Plants). Goethe, going against Newtonian scientific tradition, attempted to construct what we would call a romantic science, that is, a science that does not isolate determinable causes but rather aims to describe, in a perspicuous way, its object. Yet Wittgenstein feels that the only possible science is that of Newton and Einstein, that a romantic science is impossible. He would probably have objected to Dilthey that there is no Geisteswissenschaften, but only Naturwissenschaften. In fact, Wittgenstein never believed in the Objective Spirit in Dilthey’s sense (and is Freud’s Unconscious in fact a form of Objective Spirit?). And yet he thought it possible in social sciences to aim for an übersichtliche Darstellung, a perspicuous representation of processes linked to human activities. Thus we should aim not to a science of the human being but to an insightful representation (übersichtliche Darstellung) of the human being.
Wittgenstein was always fascinated by Freud in that Freud seemed to aim at something similar: not a science of man but an insightful representation of man. Psychoanalysis functions as Darstellung, insight, and not as Vorstellung, of its object. Wittgenstein wondered if Freud in the end had succeeded in attributing to dreams, parapraxis, slips of tongue, delusions and neurotic symptoms a description similar to that which Goethe had attempted for plants: not to establish relations of cause and effect between psychic elements nor relations of genetic succession, but to describe formal connections among them. So, “for the rest of his life—Rush Rhees writes—Freud was one of the few authors he thought worth reading. He would speak of himself… as ‘a disciple of Freud’ and ‘a follower of Freud’” (Wittgenstein 1966, p. 123; p. 41).
Despite this, Wittgenstein’s reflections on Freud constitute also a criticism of the illusion that psychoanalysis is a science, that is, a determination of causes. Wittgenstein admonished Freud for what Habermas (1973) would call his “scientific self-misunderstanding”, yet at the same time thought Freud to be “someone who has something to say”, because Freud, precisely because he was not a scientist, had instituted a new art of interpreting-persuading; a new social practice; an original linguistic game (Sprachspiele). Certainly this game implied a kind of knowledge, but not one derived from the scientific method of investigation. This game consists of a Darstellung, and not an Erklärung, of the human deeds.
Psychoanalysis, a successful failure
‘Epistemological’ commentators are prone to stress that Wittgenstein, while acknowledging Freud for having enriched the meaning of dreams, slips and psychopathological symptoms, noted how Freud did not in factguarantee to have discovered their real causes. To summarize, Wittgenstein presupposes a split between the order of meaning and the order of cause, given that to explain and to understand are two completely different “games”. In other words, it is one thing to recognize the reasons for an act and another to find the causes of a behavior. (The difference between an act and a behavior lies precisely in the fact that we seek out the reasons for the former and the causes for the second.)
Let us take a look at how Freud interpreted a young man’s blanking out on the Latin word aliquis while reciting to him by memory a poem by Virgil. Through the man’s free associations, Freud was able to connect this loss of memory to something which had been troubling this young man: he was awaiting a certain liquid (Liquidation, Flüssigkeit), in this case his girlfriend’s menstruation, and feared she might be pregnant; he was not wishing in fact for aliquis, for someone who would emerge, but instead feared him. Wittgenstein’s objections to Freud’s reconstruction would resemble those later elaborated upon by the philologist Timpanaro (1976). That Freud had done a great job in drawing out his subject’s anxieties, but that he had nonetheless not proved at all that the cause of that particular amnesia was that particular worry. Naturally, in the “game” of psychotherapy, to gracefully call forth certain memories and connections starting from a slight amnesia can prove very useful to the patient. But it is an exploit without any scientific result. Freud says what an amnesia can signify in a man’s life, but not why it actually took place. Freud’s interpretation is rather an “aesthetic explanation”. But it is precisely the “aesthetic” character of the Freudian “explanations” which seduces Wittgenstein. Traumdeutung, the interpretation of dreams, is not at all a science of dreams. To interpret a text—and thus also dreams, slips, jokes, delusions—is to say the same thing with different words, but they must be the right words—what Jacques Lacan called bien-dire, “saying well”. To explain, instead, is to determine causes which by definition have to be other than their effects. Psychoanalysis is not knowledge, but a linguistic game.
One must question at what point this split between cause and sense in Wittgenstein overlaps the division—promoted by hermeneutic thinking—between explanation and comprehension. Science explains, the Humanities comprehend. This separation exerted a strong influence on today’s so-called “narrative” psychoanalysis (Spence, Schafer, etc.), according to which the analyst never really explains but rather comprehends and proposes to his analysand a better narration of her/his existence. A good part of Anglo-American psychoanalysis increasingly abandons the scientific ideal to identify itself more closely with art or literary criticism. But the Wittgensteinian ideal of Klarheit is in no way the hermeneutic ideal of interpretive comprehension, even if today many tend to confuse the two.
Psychoanalysis’ critics stress certain of Wittgenstein’s statements, for example that “Freud has not given a scientific explanation of the ancient myth—what he has done is to propound a new myth.” Wittgenstein (1966, p. 47) also says: “To say that dreams are wish fulfillment is very important chiefly because it points to the sort of interpretation that is wanted—the sort of thing that would be an interpretation of a dream.” Here Wittgenstein would seem to think that psychoanalysis is not essentially a comprehension or interpretation of the Other’s or others’ language, but rather that it prescribes a language, in short, a game. Psychoanalysis discovers nothing, it guesses at a way of interpreting, and it is for masking this that it is often tempted by the reassurances of dogmatism.
All of this might appear to many as going toward a radical demolition of psychoanalysis’ credibility, but for me Wittgenstein’s critique goes toward a completely different direction, which should be viewed in relation to whatwas called the Private Language Argument. For Wittgenstein, expressions like “I have a toothache” do not in fact have the same grammar as expressions like “I have a cavity in my tooth”. Wittgenstein demonstrates that in the first case one is not dealing with a description of a mental object known only to me, but—in most cases—with a linguistic way of expressing my pain. What we call a description of mental states takes rather the nature of an exclamation, a scream, a cry, a laugh… in short, the private world is something we express but that we cannot know. Wittgenstein’s position is antithetical with respect to cognitivism, which instead considers itself a science of mental states.
Thus, one way in which we can express ourselves most intimately is to propose or prescribe a way of expressing ourselves intimately. Language always betrays our true sentiments, but in betraying them, makes it possible to express them. For example, Wittgenstein feels that Freud’s interpretation of dreams is an excellent way of expressing dreams. “There is a work of interpretation which, so to speak, still belongs to the dream itself” (Wittgenstein 1966, p. 46). Does this mean that thanks to Freud’s Deutung, the dream essentially continues? In interpreting dreams, do we not simply continue to articulate that interpretation which dreaming already is in itself? Von Clausewitz said that war is the continuation of politics by other means. Analogously, can we say that analytic interpretation is simply the continuation of dreaming and fantasizing by other means? And thus that to interpret psychoanalytically is to continue to sleep?
We might say that for Wittgenstein, Freud offers a good vocabulary rather than true propositions about ourselves. But Freud wanted to be considered a scientist, he wanted to utter true propositions—so is Wittgenstein in fact denouncing Freud’s failure? I wonder however if Freud’s failure to demonstrate that the meaning of dreams and of symptoms is also their cause is not but a theoretical expression of every human’s failure. Freud—a failed scientist for Wittgenstein, and precisely for this worthy to be read—was a successful interpreter and witness to the way in which we are fully committed to the enormous effort which characterizes human beings: to subjectify what is not subjective, that is, to give a meaning to our contingency. In short, we like psychoanalysis so much because, in its “ungrammatical” attempt to connect in some way causes and meaning, it rewrites a constitutive process in every human subjectivity. That is, psychoanalysis would not explain subjectivity, but rather would express it perspicuously. Psychoanalysis operates as every human being does: it operates in an intermediary space between causes (which science determines) and the Cause to which we (often unknowingly) dedicate our lives. Psychoanalysis named ‘unconscious’ this twilight zone between causes and the Cause—between causal explanations on the one hand and a subjective commitment to an ethical aim on the other hand. In fact Freud called Eros—the drive which brings subjects to each other and links them—this commitment to a Cause. But our Cause causes also our acts.
An Amateur of the Real
As a linguistic game, can one draw a comparison between psychoanalysis and the multi-stable figure of the rabbit-duck which Wittgenstein borrowed from Gestalt psychologist Köhler?
Could we say that the subject as he actually lives sees a rabbit, and then thanks to analysis, shortly also sees a duck? Could psychoanalysis provide a new insight into one’s own life that one supposes, hopes, is more useful than the old one? If this were true, the representation which Wittgenstein gives to psychoanalysis would be substantially similar to the hermeneutic reinterpretation of psychoanalysis: to pass from an unhappy (useless) interpretation of one’s own existence to another happier (useful) one. If the duck is more useful than the rabbit, then the duck is better. Yet in this approach—be it Wittgensteinian or hermeneutic—the relation to the real is bypassed. Am I talking here of the Real in a Lacanian sense, one of the three registers?
There is nothing more problematic than the Lacanian concept of the Real—and perhaps it has found such favor today precisely for its ambiguity. I am not at all claiming here to definitively enunciate what we should consider the real for Lacan. We are evidently dealing with an Hegelian-style dialectic concept; the real is not the objective reality to which we refer in our practical life and in the sciences, nor is it the Kantian thing-in-itself, but rather a sort of setback of subjectivity itself, and thus of the symbolic. It is the non-subjective part which every subjectivity leaves as a mark of its own constitution. What is real is everything which evades subjective significance, what every subject is brought to consider as impossible. Thus the Lacanian Real is subjectively slanted.
Let us take the aforementioned case of the young Jewish man who forgets the word aliquis. In citing Virgil in a pathetic discussion on anti-semitism, he hopes that his heirs will be capable of vindicating the Jewish people, something his generation was incapable of doing. But according to Freud, his forgetfulness of aliquis signals that, contrary to what he said, he does not in fact want heirs, at least for the moment. Some have questioned exactly what unconscious thought would have made him blank out on that term. His girlfriend’s delayed menstruation is not in fact the unconscious thought of the man, it is more likely something that was nagging at him. What emerges here is not something unconscious in the sense of ignored, but rather a discord between two discourses: the public one directed toward future heirs, and a private one entirely different.
But we cannot reduce the contrast between these two discourses to the duck-rabbit alternative of the multi-stable figure. We have here instead a sharp contrast between what I would call the “ideal discourse of the project” and the comparison with something Real: with the fact that, without really wanting it, following coitus a woman can remain pregnant. What emerges from Freud’s analysis is a certain hypocrisy within the ideal discourse of the project, its clash with an unappreciated and unwelcome order, in this case the biological reality of reproduction. So it is not a case of denouncing the “bad interpretation” which we have given to our life (as hermeneutic psychoanalysis believes), but of pointing out the limits and ultimately the falsity of our ideal and projected discourse with respect to the real.
The interesting psychoanalytic interpretations are thus not a question of preferring one interpretation over others, for example a Freudian interpretation over a Jungian, Kleinian, Marxist, or phenomenological one. The psychoanalysis which awakens us—even through the stratagem of interpretation—aims to a real that lies beyond any interpretation, a real that our unconscious interpretations almost touch but miss, with which we must sooner or later come to terms. Wittgenstein grasps the consolatory side of psychoanalysis (its giving a sense to suffering, but he misses its approach towards the real. Lacan, on the other hand, once said that the analyst “is an amateur of the real”–psychoanalysis tends to the real, albeit in a dilettante manner.
Along the above lines, we might go further and interpret differently the incommensurability between causes and meaning. It is true that Freud’s meanings are not causes, but his real interpretative work, which he called the unconscious, lies in this crashing of meaning against the rock of causes. The unconscious and the theory of the unconscious seem to play one and the same game.
Freud places sexuality in this position of real, thus distinguishing it from love; love is sexuality which has taken on meaning and become the ideal discourse of the project. It is not by chance that Wittgenstein always showed interest in a work which places sexuality in an eminent position with respect to every interpretation—in the sense that the sexual interpretation is privileged precisely because sexuality, like death, is beyond every interpretation.
We know that Wittgenstein in his life made a dramatic distinction between the dimensions of love and sex. That is, he loved some men, but sexual arousal was for him always a difficult barrier to cross. Sexuality as such was for him essentially a dimension of the real in the sense that it was impossible for him to integrate the force of sexual desire in the socio-syntonic register of love, idealization, and erotic and family projects. Wittgenstein’s life itself is witness to the irreducible, in short real, character of sexuality.
Critique of Meaningful Reason
So Wittgenstein’s representation of psychoanalysis as a (perhaps) perspicuous representation is itself not entirely perspicuous, because he does not see psychoanalysis’ tropism towards the real. Paradoxically, the hostility that Wittgenstein feels towards science does not allow him to see how much psychoanalysis, like science and mathematics, aims in the final count precisely at the real. In effect, Wittgenstein views mathematics as a pure construction, in short, as a linguistic game: for him, mathematics designs nothing real, it is only practical, not so different from a game of chess, which has very complex formal implications without in any way describing the world. Analogously, his disdain for science derives from the idea that science, by limiting itself to predict what will happen in the world based on empirical regularities called causes, misses the essential, that is, the forms of life which give place to various practices, of wh ich science with its predictions is one. Wittgenstein was not interested in explaining things, but in clarifying discourses.
The reference to forms of life certainly places Wittgenstein in the Western transcendental tradition which itself goes back to Kant; Wittgenstein, through Schopenhauer, continues the Kantian project in a wider sense. We can consider his philosophy as a sort of Critique of Meaningful Reason. And we can view forms of life as a transcendental condition of linguistic games.
But calling on forms of life as conditions for any possibility of meaning and of linguistic games makes him miss the perspective that I refer to here as “aiming at the real”. That is, he does not consider linguistic games as practical strategies for confronting the real, intending by real even that part of life, bare life, which escapes the ideal discourse of the project. We might say that the various human activities—be they science, art, religion, philosophy, or psychoanalysis—find their nobility not in their being pure linguistic games, but in their being each one of them an activity that aims at the real—that is, to something situated outside of every discourse regulated as a game. In this perspective, science is not reducible solely to constructing predictive models allowing the world to be controlled technologically: even science confronts the real to the degree in which it allows itself to be dis appointed by nature, to the degree to which at a certain point it confronts the pure event, without cause and without an ultimate origin.
In this perspective, what distinguishes psychoanalysis from every other consolatory practice, what guarantees a sense in the ocean of non-sense, is its pretense to point out a real dimension—beyond the ideal discourse of the project—which every subject implies and ignores in the web of its own games.
Paper for the Conference “Freud and Wittgenstein” at Jan Van Eyck Academie, Maastricht, NL, 7-9 September 2011.