Ethics: Psycho-Analysis and the Morally Charged Nature of Personal Relations: A Response to Hannes Nykänen
There are certainly many ways of summarizing what Wittgenstein is up to in the Philosophical Investigations. One important thread running through the book is Wittgenstein’s critical discussion of two seemingly opposed conceptions of language. According to the first one, language is fundamentally a private phenomenon (cognitivism and mentalism are contemporary examples). The so-called “private language argument” is here the standard reference as regards Wittgenstein’s way of liberating himself and us from the clutches of such a conception, but it should be noted that his repeated exhortation to consider language in the context of its use is as such a way of steering clear of that conception of language. That Wittgenstein is here criticizing his own earlier theorizing is clear, for example when he, in the Tractatus, claimed that “The world is my world: this is manifest in the fact that the limits of language (of that language which alone I understand) mean the limits of my world.”
According to the other conception of language Wittgenstein takes issue with in the Philosophical Investigations, language is conceived of as an impersonal normative structure the individual has to subject herself to on pain of not making sense (structuralism and post-structuralism are contemporary examples). Wittgenstein’s discussions of rule following can be read as a way of liberating oneself from that kind of theorizing, for Wittgenstein’s point here is precisely that referring to rules does not account for linguistic understanding. Furthermore, § 500 is often considered a central paragraph as regards this issue: “When a sentence is called senseless, it is not, as it were, its sense that is senseless. Rather, a combination of words is being excluded from the language, withdrawn from circulation.” In other words, there are no logical requirements for making sense; however strange and idiosyncratic something someone says to you may sound at first, what she says makes sense if you are able to make sense of it, and if you are not able to make sense of it, the problem may just as much lie in your failure of being open to what she is trying to say.. That Wittgenstein is here criticizing his own earlier theorizing is clear: contrast his attempt at laying down the general form of the proposition in the Tractatus  and his comments on this attempt in the Philosophical Investigations.. Another telling contrast is his reference to “the boundaries of language” and “the walls of our cage” in the Lecture on Ethics, phrases that obviously connect to the theorizing in the Tractatus, and his later insight that “Language is, after all, not a cage.”
Attending to our conversations with each other, and so getting out of philosophical dead ends, is therefore not at all a trivial thing. The history of philosophy can be read as various attempts at avoiding attending to such conversations, either by retreating to an inner sphere presumably known and controlled to an incomparably higher degree than everything else, or by abstracting from everything that has to do with me and you and so reach a level of reality we can no more than succumb to. Even though these strategies may sound highly abstract, they are in many ways similar to temptations found also outside philosophy; consider, on the one hand, how attitudes such as self-pity and arrogance manifest themselves in the belief that no one is able to understand me, on the other hand, how attitudes such as resigned and fanatical forms of conformism manifest themselves in the belief that you have to accept the framework of the community you belong to. But just as is the case with any attempt at repression, be it in philosophy or outside it, such attempts will not be fully successful, for these attitudes are psychologically motivated by the desire to get away from a moral challenge, a moral challenge that thus will be the central reference also when accounting for the attempt at escaping it. In other words, the two attitudes I have mentioned here must be understood in the context of our conversations with each other, the context they are attempts at escaping from and which is thus the source of that moral challenge. (In the case of philosophy, all this is obvious also for the reason that philosophical writing, however solitary it may seem to be, still takes place in dialogue with others (and thus cannot be reduced to the self-contained subject) and claims to be thinking (and thus attempts to transcend the given, reflecting on questions that do not have ready answers).)
As is probably clear by now, my understanding of these issues is close to Nykänen’s. In fact, there are no direct objections I wish to make to his text; what kinds of objections I have to it will not be clear to me until Nykänen has further explained what he means at a number of points. My response to his text would however only be of marginal interest if I discussed such difficulties of interpretation. Instead I will expand on some issues, not necessarily the most central ones, and leave it to the reader (and to my myself as one future reader) to work out the exact relation between what I say here and what Nykänen is saying. What I will focus on is the question why our conversations with each other is central specifically to Freudian psycho-analysis. This will also, hopefully, make it possible for me to shed more light on the moral nature of these conversations.
In Studien über Hysterie, Breuer and Freud sums of one of their main points as follows:
We found […] that each individual hysterical symptom disappeared at once and without returning when we had succeeded in awakening to full clarity the memory of the occurrence which had occasioned it, thereby also calling up the accompanying affect, and when the patient then described the occurrence in as exhaustive a way as possible and put the affect into words.
This is all the more remarkable if one bears in mind that the symptoms are not primarily obsessional thoughts and the like, but bodily ones:
The symptoms that we have been able to trace back to such circumstances, the circumstances bringing about these symptoms, include neuralgias such as anesthesias of the most varied kind and which have persisted for many years, contractures and paralyses, hysterical attacks and epileptoid convulsions, which all observers have regarded as real epilepsy, petit maland disorders in the nature of tics, chronic vomiting and anorexia to the point of rejecting all nourishment, the most different visual disturbances, frequent visual hallucinations, etc.
These are examples of “memory symbols”; it is not consciously that the analysand is attached to the past. What she has experienced gives rise to these bodily symptoms by means of what Freud calls “conversion”– “what is it then, that here turns itself into physical pain? […] Something out of which mental pain could and should have come”– and describing the past experience which has given rise to the symptom in such a way that the memory of the event becomes full – including the abreaction in speech of its affect, which means that mere intellectual knowledge of the past experience is not the solution– makes these symptoms go away.
In other words, the symptoms are not causal effects but motivated expressions of a traumatic occurrence and the suffering it involves. Since the one who suffers is not able to give an account of the traumatic occurrence, and hence not able to explain the meaning of the expressions or how the expressions are motivated by the traumatic occurrence, the concept of unconscious motivation is here of use: in some sense the one who suffers knows what has happened, otherwise she would not act in such a meaningful way – for example, expressing sorrow and grief – but it is also clear that her saying that she does not know why she acts as she does is not a lie, and there is thus a point to describing her consciousness as divided. Trying to reach that understanding she in fact already has is then not an uncalled-for endeavour, but it also turns out that her gaining full access to it, thus not only an intellectual access but also an emotional one, is not merely conducive to the solution of the problem but is the solution to it.
Soon differences in outlook between Freud and Breuer became evident, however. The main difference between them might appear to be only a technical one: it concerns the use of hypnosis in treatment. The issue partly concerns the efficiency of hypnosis as a possible treatment, but essentially the difference concerns something much more fundamental than relative efficiency: what importance the points above have and, specifically, what it means to take them fully into account in the context of treatment. In hypnosis the specific sense of the individual symptom is made manifest, for the hypnotized patient is able to describe the traumatic occurrence in a way she is not able to do under ordinary circumstances, but what has given rise to the meaningful symptoms is by Breuer not explained in such, meaningful terms, and the fact that they can be treated by making that sense fully manifest is therefore at bottom somewhat of a coincidence. But not so for Freud:
Concerning the question when it is that a mental process becomes pathogenic, i.e. excepted from normal finalization, Breuer preferred what could be called a physiological theory; he thought that such processes elude the normal fate that originate in exceptional – hypnoid – mental states. Thereby a new question, about the origin of such hypnoid states, was put in. I, on the other hand, presumed rather a play of forces, the working of intentions and tendencies, just as they are to be observed in normal life.
What Freud here suggests is that the problem comes into existence through what he calls “repression”: something is, for some reason or other, so painful to think about that the analysand has pushed the thought of it away, without however succeeding in fully getting rid of it. The symptom is then the substitute for the repressed thought, its way of coming to expression when the way to consciousness is blocked, but in a distorted form that is therefore unrecognizable to the one whose symptom it is.. This is so important that Freud sees it as that the discovery of which amounts to the birth of psycho-analysis proper, as the differentia specifica of psycho-analysis:
The theory of repression is the corner-stone on which the edifice of psycho-analysis rests, thus really the most essential part of it and itself no more than the theoretical expression of an experience which can be repeated as often as one likes when one sets about the analysis of a neurotic without the aid of hypnosis. […] The use of hypnosis must hide this resistance; therefore the history of psycho-analysis proper does not start until the technical renewal of dispensing with hypnosis.
In the light of the concept of repression it is possible to understand Freud’s criticism of the efficiency of hypnosis and thereby understand what the disagreement is at bottom about. Breuer is on the right track, Freud would say, when he connects the efficiency of the method to the genesis of the symptom – Breuer’s method consists in hypnotizing the patient and thus inducing her to return to the hypnoid mental state which gave rise to the problem– but it is still only a coincidence that remembering and talking are specifically efficient. But if the problem is at bottom about repression, hypnosis would never count as a solution to the problem, even if it is not impossible that making use of it is relatively efficient. Hypnosis merely sidesteps the repression; hypnosis makes the analysand put the experience into words but without her confronting those inner resistances which made her repress the memory of the experience.By contrast, psycho-analysis, Freud’s alternative to hypnosis, does not play the same game as other methods, and does consequently not play it merely better. For the ultimate aim of the treatment is for Freud notthe removal of the symptoms, but to set to work at the problem itself; the aim is not catharsis(Breuer’s aim), but understanding (in other words, analysis).The disagreement between Freud and Breuer should therefore in the end be understood as concerning what it takes to have solved the problem, and Freud’s conditions are here much more demanding than Breuer’s.
The further development of the practice of psycho-analysis can be understood as a growing insight into the meaning and importance of the idea that the symptoms have sense and of the concept of repression. In an instructive paragraph of the paper “Erinnern, Wiederholen und Durcharbeiten” (one of the so-called “Papers on Technique”),Freud sums up the development up until then (1914) in three phases. The first one, the cathartic one, we have already discussed. The next one consisted in the attempt at circumventing the resistances by means of free associations in order to arrive at remembrance of the repressed situation. The third phase Freud describes in this way:
Finally the consistent technique used today has evolved, in which the doctor refrains from focusing on a definite moment or problem, is content with studying the present mental surface of the analysand, and uses the art of interpretation mainly in order to recognize the resistances that appear on it and to make them conscious to the patient.
As we can see, in the second phase the method was still too close to hypnosis (the associations of the patient substitutes that widening of consciousness hypnosis made possible, a substitution which is necessary in the case of such patients who are not hypnotizable); it is not until the third phase that the importance of repression is really taken seriously. To say that repression is the basic problem is not to explain the problem by pointing to a historically distant process having given rise to it, for repression, or rather the inner resistances that bring it about, is something that affects the analysand here and now. What she should discover is consequently not a purely historical fact – in which case the analyst could in principle just communicate the missing information to the analysand – but something that, although it may have a historical content, still exists as something painful here and now. In other words, the inner resistances that have brought about the repression do not show themselves only at one point in time; repression is rather a continuous process, and the sense it has is only derivatively a historical one. For this reason, the focus of the analytic sessions will more and more be shifted from the past to that which happens in the sessions themselves, that is, to the analysand’s behaviour during them, and a hypothesis about some specific traumatic occurrence is no longer needed.Primarily the analysand’s ways of relating to the analyst will be in focus, that which Freud calls “transference”: the activity based on repression, originally found only outside sessions, is repeated also here.(As specific symptoms are no longer seen as of central importance in the third phase of the development of psycho-analysis, focusing on transference can be seen as the substitute.) As Freud famously writes: “finally all conflicts have to be fought out on the territory of transference.”Why is transference so important? How come the problem is treated by analysing the complications that arise in the relation between analysand and analyst? The only answer to this question – if one does not return to a coincidental, purely physiological explanation – is that the problem isa problem concerning interpersonal relations, a problem which is not isolated to my relation to some specific individual (whom I, say, had some conflict with in the past), but arises everywhere, especially in relations in which I am challenged, challenges that unsurprisingly arise in the relation to the analyst. Freud writes:
The decisive part of the work is achieved by creating new editions of the patient’s old conflicts in his relation to the doctor, in the “transference,” new editions in which the patient would like to behave in the way he formerly behaved, while one, by mobilizing all available mental forces in the patient, compel him to a different decision. Transference thus becomes the battleground on which all forces, struggling with each other, should meet.
Let us approach this issue from a slightly different direction. As is well known, psycho-analytic treatment is a conversation, a “talking cure”.This would not be anything remarkable if the conversation were only a means for the doctor to attain some knowledge about the problem, a problem that is then treated in other ways. According to Freud, however, “analysis and solution coincide,”and the problem is consequently connected to the analysand’s lack of knowledge. If the reason why the analysand lacks this knowledge were external to the problem, the analyst would make an independent analysis of the problem, partly with reference to what the analysand has said in their conversations, and then communicate the result to the analysand, which, if the analysis is correct, should be the solution to the problem. But the reason why the analysand lacks this knowledge is not external to the problem, it is internal to it. Freud writes: “there are other things which one would not like to admit to oneself”The analysand’s lack of knowledge is only secondarily the problem, primarily the problem concerns the reason why she lacks this knowledge, that is, the problem concerns what she wants and does not want to understand and acknowledge. This problem is consequently not remedied by giving the missing information to the analysand, for the basic problem concerns whether she is able to mean what she says when she repeats this information. It is for this reason that psycho-analytic treatment is exclusivelya conversation; the treatment of the problem is a conversation in which this question of meaning what one is saying is dealt with. In other words, the conversation is here not, as it was for Breuer, a situation in which the affect is discharged in words;in such a description the question of meaning is, if it is at all present, hidden in a causal terminology.
What Freud is after is that one sets to work at the repressed sense the problem has, and, as we have seen, this work above all takes place in the relation of analysand to analyst. But why is that? The answer to this question is of central importance: in such a relation, that is, in an interpersonal relation, there is room for influence that is not about power, force, manipulation, and the like. Although this may sound obscure to some theorists, it is in fact almost trivial. If someone asks me something, I do in most cases answer her, even if the question is awkward. But even if I refuse to answer, I do not disregard the question: I may say “I will not answer that question” (and nonetheless answer it, in a way) or think to myself “to such an insolent person I will not give an answer” (and nonetheless give a kind of answer to the question to myself). I am touched, I see myself as addressed. But this is no causal reaction: that I see myself as addressed by her question is not comparable to me giving a start if she yells it into my ear. And my reaction to the question is not comparable to an occurrence of whatever kind affecting me: if my vacuum cleaner breaks down, I may do something about it or, if I take that to be too exerting, disregard it, but my relation to the question put to me is not of that kind. Here I have no choice: I am addressed by it. Furthermore, the answer I possibly give to the question put to me is not to be seen simply as a report of an already existing reality. This is obvious when the question concerns an issue I have no finished thoughts about, in which case the person who puts this question to me not only invites me to tell her my thoughts about the issue but above all to consider the issue, for the first time, once more, or more thoroughly. But even in the case where I see my thoughts about the issue as finished, expressing these thoughts as an answer to a question put to me changes me and the situation. For example, saying that you are sorry for what you have done, that you love someone, or that you find this and that person extremely irritating gives these thoughts a clarity and seriousness they would not have when only thought, in which case they may in fact only be possibilities I play around with, even if I tell myself otherwise.
In interpersonal relations there is consequently something which makes it possible to work through the resistances and become conscious of them, provided that I become challenged in this relation. Psycho-analytically speaking, this could be expressed by means of the concepts of negative (hostile) and positive (affectionate) transference, provided one does not distinguish between them in Freud’s categorical way.According to him, transference is a repetition of emotional reactions which in fact apply to others;without in any way denying this possibility, I simply want to remind the reader of a more general way of understanding the fact that positive and negative elements in the relation to the analyst are intimately connected to the problem treated and are important for the solution of it. Positive transference, in the sense I give it here, referring to the fact that I see myself as addressed by the question put to me, can certainly exist on its own – if the analyst has not yet touched upon my sensitive spots – whereas the negative kind cannot exist on its own but is dependent on the positive kind, for it is only if I see myself as addressed by the analyst’s question that I can find it testing and react hostilely to it, and for this reason and in this sense they should not be categorically distinguished. Of course, the negative transference may, if it is great, result in me not turning up for the sessions. But that only underlines the fact that positive transference is there: the only way of escaping the analyst’s questions is to see to it that she cannottalk to me. What makes interpersonal relations into a possibility for working through the resistances is, consequently, the existence of this positive “transference” in them.
However, if the conversation between the analyst and the analysand was about something safe and distant it would be far from clear how the fact that the analysand is, so to speak, forced to answer without anything or anyone forcing her to, could be of any help. But this is not what the conversation is about. Since the resistances will manifest themselves in the analysis itself – among other things and above all as negative transference, as I have used the concept here – the conversation will be about something which is there in front of (or between) them. In other words, the resistance is not only an obstacle, for when it manifests itself it can be interpreted, and the resistance is hence not only something that conceals. The very act of concealment shows something! And here the fact that I see myself as addressed by the question is of great importance. To myself I need not mean what I say: the problem is, as we have seen, a problem of meaning in this precise sense.However, the question asked by the other person is alien enough to be independent of the repression and is therefore able to challenge me,but not so alien that I am able to ignore it or give it an answer that I know she will see through. I am not able to treat her and what she says completely instrumentally, and the analyst aims at this gap I am not able to close. In other words, the question asked by the other person is neither internal to me (in which case it would be part of the repression), nor external (in which case I need not care about it). Here we have something that in opposition to my own repression impels me to lift it. In other words, what makes it possible for the analytic sessions to be potentially helpful is the combination, or the amalgamation, of positive and negative transference: the negative transference concerns the way in which the analysand is challenged, a challenge without which nothing would happen, the positive transference concerns the fact that a question asked is something different than a causal force it is possible to relate completely externally to.
As I have showed here, conversations are absolutely central to Freudian psycho-analysis, both as regards its understanding of the problems it tries to solve and as regards the way in which they could be solved. In short, the issue concerns the morally charged nature of personal relations. These relations are thus morally charged in a way that cannot be reduced to morality conceived of as a social system of conventional rules regulating people’s behaviour, a system of rules potentially internalized, for the questions here concern, among other things, why these rules have the content they have, why they have the function they have, why they are internalized (if they are). In order to answer such questions, one would have to refer to the morally charged nature of personal relations, for the system of rules is an attempt at meeting that charged nature, thus presupposes it and does not explain it. Freud is partly aware of this fact, when he writes that “He [the ‘Rat Man’] had said to himself that a [self-]reproach can certainly only arise as the result of violating one’s most own, personal moral laws, not the external ones. (I agree, whoever merely violates the external ones indeed often regards himself as a hero.)”However, if we only referred to his own ideals, the same problem would only arise again: his own system of rules is an attempt at meeting the morally charged nature or personal relations, thus presupposes it and does not explain it. In other words, the fact of repression would be very unclear: how come these rules have such a power? On the contrary, it is possible to interpret these rules as a result of repression: it is easier to bear the thought that I have violated my “most own, personal moral laws” than that I have violated someone: in the former case, I just have to sort out a situation of inconsistency between my behaviour and my ideals, in the latter case, I would ultimately have to ask her forgiveness in the spirit of love, hoping that she will meet me in the same spirit. Accordingly, it is easier to bear the thought that I have violated “the external ones” than that I have violated someone, especially since that social system of conventional rules regulating people’s behaviour might accept, indeed exhort, my action, something that Freud’s hero is obviously aware of.
In fact, these two seemingly opposed conceptions of morality, either as a matter of my “most own, personal moral laws” or as a matter of social system of conventional rules regulating people’s behaviour, correspond to the two seemingly opposed conceptions of language I mentioned in the beginning, the two conceptions of language Wittgenstein helps us to liberate ourselves from. Liberating oneself from them is consequently nearly related to liberating oneself from these two conceptions of morality, and vice versa.
Freudian psycho-analysis might contribute to such a liberation and, I contend, will only be properly understood after that liberation having taken place.