Wittgenstein and Psychoanalysis: Touchy Subjects: Wittgenstein’s ‘Freudianism’ and the Moral Dynamics of Repression


This article discusses the ‘Freudian’ dimension in Wittgenstein’s thinking, related to his insight into the fundamental role of repression in structuring our difficulties of understanding in everyday life and in theorising, individually andcollectively. I show the presence of the problematic of repression in Wittgenstein’s view of philosophising, and in his investigations of language. I also indicate how taking the moral-existential and relational character of repression seriously radically reframes the debate about the aim of, and the possibility of truth in, psychoanalysis, and how the trouble we repress basically has no fixed ‘content’ at all; rather, the ‘primal’ target of repression is the very openness between human beings.

“Why is he just sitting there; why doesn’t he say anything, why doesn’t he tell me what he thinks?”  Ever since Freud, psychoanalysts have faced this complaint from exasperated analysands who want to be told what’s wrong with them rather than listening to their own words; to the understanding, and the blocking of understanding, revealed in them.  In effect, the same complaint is lodged against Wittgenstein by philosophers who feel that, in his relentless questioning of the sense, and his uncovering of the nonsense, of their philosophical ‘positions’, he is spoiling the game; always making trouble for others while never revealing his own position.  Wittgenstein himself consistently denies offering theses or theories or arguments for any position, insisting that he is not telling anyone anything they don’t already know, or anything they could really dispute (e.g.TLP, 4.112; PI, §§109, 126–8, 599).[1]  But most philosophers want positions, and so, instead of trying to understand what these puzzling methodological assertions might mean, they disregard them and promptly discover ‘positions’ in Wittgenstein, too – say a theory of meaning as ‘rule-following’ within ‘forms of life’ or a ‘logical behaviourist’ position in the philosophy of psychology.

I will explore this shared refusal of Wittgenstein and Freud to indulge certain deep and pervasive, but basically self-deceptive, expectations placed in the philosopher or the analyst – a self-deception, alas, of which Freud himself is not quite free.  My discussion aims to make sense of Wittgenstein’s startling, but regularly ignored, claim to have been a “follower” and “disciple” of Freud; a claim not further explained by Wittgenstein, and simply reported, without comment, by his friend Rhees in the preface to lecture and conversation notes that seem to contain only criticisms of Freud (LC, p. 41).[2]  In my view, what unites the two thinkers is their insight into the crucial and pervasive role played by a dynamics of repression in structuring our difficulties of understanding in theorising and, before that, in everyday life, both on the intimately inter-personal and on a larger societal level.  Freud declares that the idea of repression, taken in a broad sense, is “the corner-stone on which the whole structure of psycho-analysis rests” (1914b, p. 16; cf. 1925, p. 30),[3] and as I will show, the theme isalso central in Wittgenstein.

Since I am a philosopher, not a psychoanalyst – and, furthermore, have never been in analysis – my discussion of psychoanalytic concepts and even of the difficulties of analytic treatment may seem presumptuous, like someone who never rode a car telling people about driving.  However, I write on the assumption that, when it comes to psychoanalysis, no one is really an outsider, just as no one is an outsider to philosophy.  Indeed, the Freudian and Wittgensteinian insight about the centrality of repression implies that analysis and philosophy are not, basically, specialist disciplines guarding a stock of esoteric knowledge – although they have such aspects, too; unfortunately, for the most part.  Rather, they are endeavours to extend in a disciplined way the self-understanding-in-dialogue that, more or less spontaneously and inchoately, permeates our everyday thinking – as does, crucially, our endless attempts to repress this understanding.


Open Secrets, and the Wish Not to Understand

At first glance, the basic orientation of Freud’s thinking seems fundamentally different from Wittgenstein’s.  Freud deals primarily with the unconscious aspects of human life, and so, he says, with “a secret … something hidden”; the secret the person keeps in repression being one which “he himself does not know either, which is hidden even from himself” (1906, p. 108).  Wittgenstein, by contrast, insists that “what is hidden” is of “no interest” in philosophy; he aims to dispel philosophical confusion by simply describing what “lies open to view” on the surface of everyday life, as it were (PI, §126).  On closer inspection, however, this apparent contrast dissolves.  Rightly understood, Freud does not really investigate anything genuinely hidden at all, while Wittgenstein’s constant aim is to make the repressed ‘unconscious’ of philosophy conscious.

The ‘secret’ one keeps in repression is an ‘open secret’; known to oneself, even if one denies this knowledge, and knowable by others, if they only care – and dare – to look and listen.  As Freud says, the way he “brings to light what human beings keep hidden within them” is “by observing what they say and what they show” – for “no mortal can keep a secret”; “If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore” (1905a, p. 77).  In repression, one betrays the secret by keeping it – or, as Freud puts it, the repressed inexorably ‘returns’; one’s repressed hostility will come out in ‘accidentally’ cruel remarks, and so on.  This is no mere empirical generalisation but, as Wittgenstein might say, a ‘grammatical’ point about the very concept of repression: it would make no sense to say that a person represses X if this supposedly repressed X did not ‘return’ in any way, ever; if the person showed no resistance of any kind to speaking openly and dealing truthfully with X.  Repression is a concept marking an unresolved difficulty, a certain distortion and deadlock in the way in which a person relates to others and herself, and this is, by definition, manifest in her relationships; there is, as it were, no place else for it to be.  Resistance, like the other manifestations of the ‘return’ of the repressed, shows itself in one’s whole demeanour, in all one’s expressions; in the face, tone of voice, posture, small gestures and so on.  There is no ‘method’ for determining whether or not someone is repressing something.  To be sure, one can direct attention to various aspects of her behaviour, but the realisation that she is repressing something, just like the realisation that she is happy or sad, expresses one’s total understanding or ‘sense’ of her.  The fact that we can ‘see’ or ‘sense’ repression in others is as natural – or as mysterious – as the fact that we can understand each other at all.  The point is that we are open, responsive, alive to each other; these responses are what our understanding of others basically consists in; it is an understanding of the other not as on ‘object’, but as someone in relation to ourselves and to others.  Our responsiveness to others, e.g. the fact that one is warmed by another’s smile or chilled by the deadness of their voice, is not a matter of intellectual understanding, but it is emphatically understanding, not mere blind reaction, and it is there whatever we do; we cannot stop it, but we can and do constantly limit and deform and ignore it in various ways – that, precisely, is what repression is.[4]

In this sense, then, to investigate repression is not really to investigate anything genuinely hidden, even if Freud often makes apparent claims to the contrary.  And Wittgenstein, for his part, is interested in what is in plain view because, he says, we are typically blind to “the aspects of things that are most important to us”; “we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful” (PI, §129).  His philosophical “reminders” (PI, §127) thus concern what is – like the repressed generally – hidden in plain view; they are “observations which no one has doubted”, but which have nonetheless “escaped remark” even if they are “always before our eyes” (PI, §415).  Philosophy is traditionally taken to be concerned with unravelling a reality hidden beneath the appearances things present ­– or, ­in a related conceptualisation, to determine how far our ‘intuitions’ can be grounded in reason.  In refusing to take appearances for granted, this approach seems laudably critical, but appearances are in fact taken all too much on trust in the assumption that one can easily state what they are, the question being only whether they correspond to an underlying ‘reality’ (or accord with reason).  By contrast, Wittgenstein is not saying, “That is how it appears to us, but in reality it is like this”; rather, he is asking us to pay closer attention to the appearances themselves; if we do, we might realise that things don’t really appear to us as we think they appear.  He does not want to prove that what we see or believe is false, but rather tries to show that we don’t really believe what we imagine or pretend we believe (cfRPP I, §548).  In the same way, Freud does not criticise what analysands tell him about their thoughts and feelings; he doesn’t say it’s not true, but encourages them to say more, much more.  When they do, it transpires that what they first said was not the whole truth, and furthermore in crucial respects a misrepresentation of their own thoughts.

Repression is just this kind of self-misrepresentation; the repressed ‘unconscious’ is created by our anxious efforts to hide from ourselves the sense of our own reactions.  We appear not to know what we’re doing, why we get so angry or feel so depressed, but as Freud says, our “‘not knowing’ [is] in fact a ‘not wanting to know’” (1895b, p. 270); we don’t simply lose touch with the reality of our situation, but actively “turn away from reality” because we “find it unbearable” (1911, p. 218).  Repression is this turning away.  Wittgenstein insists that philosophical confusion, too, arises not through some merely passive misunderstanding, but through an active turning away from reality.  He writes:

What makes a subject hard to understand – if it’s something significant and important – is not that before you can understand it you need to be specially trained in abstruse matters, but the contrast between understanding the subject and what most people want to see.  Because of this the very things which are most obvious may become the hardest of all to understand.  What has to be overcome is not a difficulty of the intellect but of the will. (CV, p. 17; cfPO, p. 161)

In my view, what most basically makes Wittgenstein a follower of Freud is his recognition of this fact that philosophy is characterised by ‘difficulties of the will’, i.e. by moral-emotional-existential difficulties (cf. Backström 2011 and 2013).  The problem is not that philosophers are not clever enough to discover the truth, but that we lack the courage and humility to open ourselves to it, instead using all our cleverness to avoid it.  This explains the intractability to ‘reason’ of the disagreements of philosophy, this supposedly most reasonable of all pursuits, and is strikingly revealed by the emotional charge evident in its apparently ‘purely theoretical’ debates; the elemental sense we often have that one absolutely ‘must’ or ‘cannot’ think in a certain way.  As Wittgenstein notes, giving up a philosophical claim can seem “as difficult as holding back tears or containing an explosion of anger” (PO, p. 160).  In short, repression is not merely a problem to think about; it is a problem of and in thinking, as our repressions deform our thoughts, in theorising no less than in everyday life.

It is because they allow us to ‘see’ only what we want to see, and to avoid what makes us uneasy, that we grasp so eagerly for the “mythological” pictures – e.g., the picture of understanding as a particular ‘process’ (‘in the mind’ or ‘in the brain’) or of feelings and sensations as ‘private’ – that underlie our philosophical theorising, and whose presence and confusing effects Wittgenstein is always trying to diagnose and “treat” (cfPI, §§104, 115, 254–5, 308; Z, §§211, 220).  ‘Cure’, here, has nothing to do with being convinced, through argument or some other kind of persuasion, of the truth of some thesis or claim.  Instead, one must acknowledge one’s own activity in fantasising and thereby ignoring, perverting and repressing one’s own understanding of the matter at hand; and precisely at this point Wittgenstein explicitly compares philosophy with psychoanalysis (PO, pp. 163, 165; VW, pp. 69–71; cf. Backström 2013).  Clarity does not come from my realising that ‘someone might’ think in a particular way, but from my acknowledgement that actually thought in that way and, simultaneously, that this ‘thinking’ was confused.  Wittgenstein’s ‘treatment’ – at PI, §§243–311 and thereabouts – of the fantasy of a ‘private language’, is a famous example of this kind of clarificatory work. Often misconstrued as an argument proving the impossibility of a private language, the point of Wittgenstein’s reflections is rather to reveal how the conflicting wishes loaded into the fantasy make it impossible not just to get what one wants, but to state what it is one really wants, what a ‘private language’ would even be (Canfield 1986 is a representative selection of readings; Mulhall 2007 offers a reading closer in spirit to the one indicated here).  As this example illustrates, Wittgenstein’s discussions tend to show that philosophers are as incapable of making it clear what their theorising is supposed to achieve as the Rat Man is of lucidly explaining what his rituals are supposed to accomplish.[5]

Faced with someone – perhaps a voice in himself – inclined to use words such as ‘knowledge’ or ‘I’ in characteristically philosophical ways, trying to “grasp the essence of the thing”, Wittgenstein famously states that the task is to “bring [these] words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use” by asking how they are “actually used in … in the language which is [their] original home” (PI, §116).  The aim of this move is not, however, as commentators often assume, to lay down some linguistic law about the ‘correct’ use of words given in everyday language, according to which theorising metaphysicians could be convicted of ‘transgressing the bounds of sense’ through ‘misusing’ language (for this kind of reading see, e.g., Hacker 2010 and Bennett and Hacker 2003).  The point is rather to bring out how metaphysical claims actually arise from, and for their apparent, more or less sensational and paradoxical, sense – such as “There is really no such thing as an enduring ‘I’” – still depend on precisely the everyday ways of speaking and thinking that the metaphysician imagines having moved beyond.  The point, then, is not to exchange metaphysical nonsense for plain, everyday sense, but on the contrary to show how philosophical confusionsare still completely entangled in our everyday existential confusions; elaborations and symptoms of our everyday deadlocks, which simply echo them in an abstract, theoretical idiom (for discussion of some examples, see Backström 2013).

Here, too, Wittgenstein’s approach is akin to Freud’s, who does not try to make the analysand’s pain go away but, as it were, wants to help her feel it in the right place; e.g., to feel sad about the loss of her beloved rather than, through displacement, depressed about ‘the state of the world’ – or, conversely, to feel angry about the social injustice in the midst of which she lives, rather than displacing and repressing this anger in a private depression.  Alas, Freud and many psychoanalysts following him tend to ignore this latter kind of ‘politically charged’ possibility and to ‘privatise’ human problems, although repression is just as common in both ‘directions’.  As I see it, our problems are basically moral in a sense which concerns the very roots of one’s way of being with others, and thus cuts across, and cuts deeper than, the divide between the ‘private’ and the ‘political’.  Thus, to care for justice in one’s dealings with others means caring, opening one’s heart to, these others, including to the outcasts of society, and this is obviously no mere ‘private’ matter (‘private justice’ could only mean sentimentality and arbitrariness).  But at the same time, while justice can demand radical political action from one, the stronger one’s sense of justice, the harder it will be to ‘contain’ within any merely ‘political’ framework (cf. Backström 2007, pp. 354–360).

This ‘privatising’ predilection of Freud’s aside, the important point is that, just as Freud is not trying to solve his analysands’ problems for them, Wittgenstein is not presuming to make our philosophical problems go away by bringing our thoughts ‘back to their original home’.  Rather, he is trying to help us grasp the problems where they really are, where we really are: in the ‘home’ where we live, not in some realm of imaginary ‘abstraction’ – and as we will see, the common idea that Wittgenstein’s thinking would tend towards a socially and politically conservative, unaware and unconcerned ‘privatisation’ of our difficulties ignores his radically critical analysis of our entanglement in collective modes of thinking, with their systematic repressions (for critical discussions of the once common ‘conservative’ reading, see Heyes 2003, Nagl and Mouffe 2001).  The main point is that, for Wittgenstein, philosophical problems cannot be solved on their own pretended terms – by sophisticated argumentation pro et contra – just as little as the Rat Man can solve his problems by going through his rituals.  Rather, to get clear about a philosophical confusion is to get clear about the existential confusion, the tangle of temptations and evasions, with their private and collective dimensions, from which it surreptitiously arises.  There is an important sense in which philosophy, when done as Wittgenstein aims to do it, indeed “leaves everything as it is”, as he says, for it neither justifies “the actual use of language” nor “interferes” with it, say by resolving its contradictions; rather, it gives one “a clear view of … the state of affairs before the contradiction is resolved” (PI, §§124–5).  But this in itself changes one’s own existential position, one’s way of relating to oneself and others, insofar as one can maintain the contradictory position only through confusing oneself about what one is doing, through repressively avoiding clarity.

Wittgenstein says that “we do not draw conclusions” in philosophy; “‘But it must be like this!’ is not a philosophical proposition” (PI, §599).  Whereas arguments are essentially hypothetical, insofar as one might in principle always discover flaws in them however secure they may appear, Wittgenstein insists that there must be nothing “hypothetical” in philosophical considerations; rather than advancing debatable claims, philosophy “simply puts everything before us, and neither explains nor deduces anything” (PI, §126).  This seems incomprehensible on standard, argument-centred views of philosophy, but it makes perfect sense if philosophy is indeed, as Wittgenstein suggests, a struggle with, and clarification of, basically moral-existential rather than merely intellectual difficulties.  Suppose that I have treated my daughter condescendingly, self-deceptively (repressively) taking myself to be kind and helpful.  Telling her, perhaps as a result of what I have ‘learnt’ from talking to my analyst, that I now realise I ‘must’ have treated her condescendingly, would not express genuine moral insight, but merely perpetuate my alienation from her and from myself in new form, for I would still be talking to her as though I myself had no sense of her and of myself in relation to her, and must therefore resort to making inferences and drawing conclusions about how my attitude might or must be ‘construed’.  And the fact that I might feel very guilty and ashamed for the behaviour I thus ‘accept responsibility for’ does not turn my alienating refusal to understand into insight.  Understanding comes only through opening myself to my daughter, which means asking her to forgive me, for in cases where one has wronged someone, one’s insight takes the form of longing for their forgiveness, i.e., for opening up the relationship one closed down through one’s wrongdoing – and would still keep closed by withdrawing into a guilty and shamefaced conviction that one does not ‘deserve’ to be forgiven (cf. Backström 2007, pp. 360–9).  The longing to ask the other’s forgiveness emphatically expresses understanding – one cannot long to be forgiven for behaviour one cannot see anything wrong with – and there is nothing hypothetical about it; one does not ask to be forgiven for what one ‘might’ or ‘must’ have done but, simply, for what one did.  Forgiveness is also crucially different from apology, because it is not reducible to, and in a certain sense is not even focused on, the particular misdeed for which one asks forgiveness, but concerns and opens up the whole relationship to the other.  Thus, to say “I forgive you for this, but not for that” in effect reduces ostensible forgiveness to the level of apology, of calculative ‘moral book-keeping’ (cf. ibid., pp. 216–27).  As we shall see, psychoanalytic interventions are, or should be, non-hypothetical in the same way as forgiveness and philosophical insights are, and this puts the persistent problem of their ‘validity’ in a new light.

In sum: with regard to existentially crucial matters, in everyday life and in philosophy, understanding and truth, ‘seeing how things are’ – always the professed aim of philosophers, analysts and scientists – is not difficult because the truth would be hard to find, but because it is hard to take and to speak, to express.  However, the difficulty here is, in a certain sense, not well described in terms of the concepts of ‘truth’ or ‘knowledge’.  In and behind its multifarious surface forms, repression is, I suggest, about the acute difficulty of opening oneself to another human being; a difficulty strikingly illustrated in the difficulty of asking for forgiveness.  This opening oneself to the other can also be called love – in the fullest sense of the word, not in the sense of any of the romantic or ‘realistic’ or other ideological misrepresentations through which love is in fact repressed.  Love is the transcendence in and between human beings; repression is the refusal of this transcendence, the thwarting of the development, the further opening-up, of the openness between oneself and others and, at the same time, within oneself, that is, in one sense, always already and inescapably there.  The openness cannot be simply eliminated; it can only be fully entered into and lived out, or else repressed.  At bottom, what we try to repress is our own love; we try to keep ourselves from feeling the love with its attendant pain and sorrow that we, in a certain sense, are.  This conception of love and repression – which I can only roughly indicate here, but which the whole of Backström (2007) elucidates, following the pioneering analyses in Nykänen (2002) – is not to be found explicitly worked out in either Freud or Wittgenstein, but there are, as I hope to show here, elements in the thought of both which point in this direction.


The Symptomatology of Everyday Language and the Myopia of Suspicion

In reflecting philosophically on language, we are typically transfixed by the question of how our words – these ‘mere’ sounds or signs ­– ‘latch onto’ the world or manage to express our thoughts.  We puzzle over how this is possible, assuming as a matter of course that we want to express our thought about the world, i.e. quite ignoring the problematic of repression, while the fact that we use words in speaking to each other is treated as an uninteresting background to the marvel of reference and meaning.  Thus, we fail to reflect on the fact, or treat it as merely a psychological curiosity, that words can indeed be “hard to say”, or again can be “wrung from us – like a cry”, as Wittgenstein, characteristically breaking with philosophical convention, emphasises (PI, §546).  When words are hard to say, the difficulty is daring to express one’s thought to someone, even to oneself; it does not concern the relation between ‘word’ and ‘object’/‘thought’, but the relationship between human beings.  Similarly, repression, which is manifest for instance, and centrally, in the way in which things become hard or impossible to say, is a deformation of one’s relationship to the other.  This means that, contrary to common ways of theorising the phenomenon (e.g., Boag 2012, Erdelyi 2006), which mirror philosophers’ fascination with the relation between signs and thought rather than with the relationship between speakers, repression is not primarily about the vicissitudes of particular, definable ‘mental contents’ – thoughts, memories, feelings – but about characteristic ways in which one relates to the other; a destructive choreography of avoidance, manipulation, humiliation, and so on.  This relational choreography charges specific ‘contents’ with whatever charge they have.

Consider the phenomenon of touchy subjects – which is an everyday name for (an aspect of) the phenomenon Freud calls ‘resistance’.  Although we often speak as though there were certain subjects (e.g., sex or politics) that are somehow touchy in themselves, there are only subjects that someone is touchy about.  If you introduce the subject it will touch them, but in a way in which they do not want to be touched.  It is not the subject that touches them, it is you, and their reaction will be directed at you, not ‘at the subject’ – or: it is the speaking ‘subjects’ that are touchy, not the ‘subjects’ that are spoken about.  And clearly, whether a subject is touchy or not depends on the relation between particular people; a subject can be touchy for you to discuss with me even if you can perfectly well talk about it with someone else.  Subjects are touchy because we are touchy, shy of each other’s touch, whether the touch is physical, or through words or glances.  If you are touchy, you shy away from the other, and this manifests itself in the emotions and feelings – ranging from vague unease or irritation to anger, resentment, indignation, revulsion or sheer panic – that surge up in you when you are touched.  These emotions are what repression feels like; that is, what it feels like to withdraw from contact with another.  The crucial point is that repression is not only, as Freud rightly emphasises, an affectively charged affair, but that affects can in themselves be forms of repression.  And these include many apparently ‘positive’ affects, e.g., various modes of sentimental and/or moralistic elation, that, in their way, feel very ‘good’ and are generally regarded as perfectly legitimate, even noble (cf. Backström and Nykänen, forthcoming).

Touchy subjects are at the centre of psychoanalysis.  As I understand it, the ‘talking cure’ aims to help the analysand reach a point where she feels she can say and fully mean – and actually does say and mean – the things that before felt impossibly hard for her to say, even to herself; untouchable.  The aim of analysis is often abbreviated in the slogan ‘making the unconscious conscious’, but what this means, concretely, is that the analysand speaks her mind to someone else (the analyst); that is, neither holding back nor planning ahead, she simply and fully speaks, addresses the other, in the speaking fully hearing and meaning what she says.  I will return to what I take this process to involve.

Returning to Wittgenstein, everyone knows that he made the investigation of language, of our use of words, central in philosophy.  He famously urges philosophers, instead of  expressing inevitably speculative, ideological opinions about what our words mean, to “look at [their] use and learn from that” – where the difficulty, he says, is to “remove the prejudice which stands in the way of doing this” (PI, §340).  This, he insists, is “not a stupid prejudice” (ibid.).  That is, again: we are not dealing with mere failures of the intellect, but with a deep aversion to looking at language in a certain light.  Words are deeds, and the point is to become clear, against our inclinations, about what we are actually doing in saying the things we say to each other; how, in speaking to each other, we form – and deform – our life together.  As Wittgenstein says: philosophy is “not a description of language usage, and yet one can learn it by constantly attending to all the expressions of life in the language” (LW I, §121, emphasis added).

Now, as Wittgenstein insists, our common ways of speaking are pervasively deformed by tendencies to evade certain shared difficulties.  He says that an “entire mythology” is “laid down in our language”, an “immense network of well-kept false paths” along which we move into predictable confusions(PO, pp. 199; 185):

People are deeply imbedded in philosophical … confusions.  And to free them from these presupposes pulling them out of the immensely manifold connections they are caught up in.  One must so to speak regroup their entire language.  – But this language … developed as it did because people had – and have – the inclination to think in this way.  Therefore pulling them out only works with those who live in an instinctive state of rebellion against //dissatisfaction with// language.  Not with those who, following all of their instincts live with the herd that has created this language as its proper expression. (PO, p. 185)

This, according to Wittgenstein, is what the ‘home’ of our concepts looks like; it is not a place from which philosophers can, as Hacker and many others assume, cull some unproblematically authoritative ‘criteria’ of sense and nonsense.  Alas, while Wittgenstein’s interpreters typically give his remarks on language a very central place, they tend to disregard his insight into how our pervasive difficulties with interpersonal understanding deform our very language and conceptuality.  To see how this deformation ‘works’, consider the example of vanity.  Obviously, human beings cannot be neatly divided into a well-defined class of vain people and then ‘all the rest of us who are not vain’.  Rather, vanity is the name of an unfortunate orientation hardly anyone is free from – which, indeed, no one can be quite free from who cares about their prestige and social standing at all – but which we tend to mark, in our use of the concept of vanity, only in cases where we regard it as in some sense especially salient.  But someone else’s vanity typically seems salient to us because it flatters or hurts our own; for instance, it may be flattering to one’s vanity to contemplate and lament the vanity of those who are obviously more concerned than oneself about a particular aspect of their position or appearance; thus, people brimming with intellectual vanity flatter themselves with not caring about ‘externals’ like nice cars or pretty dresses.  Indeed, vanity is an essentially repressive response; a response, that is, that can only exist by denying its own character. I refuse to see my own vanity – I might say I simply want to look good or make my point, “doesn’t anyone?” – but a good index of it is the frequency with which I claim to find vanity in others.

Vanity and other destructive, self-centred, essentially repressive attitudes are everywhere; everyday life would be unrecognizable without them – in fact, it would be paradise. Thus, repression is not primarily a private problem, rooted in the difficulty individuals have in adjusting to the symbolic order of the culture with its moral and other demands; rather, repression is a pervasive dimension of that order itself, and of the language through which we form, uphold and converse about it.  This means that repression is not only manifested in failures to apply moral concepts in standard ways, e.g., in one’s describing what others recognize as a mean and cruel joke as a piece of ‘innocent fun’, but also in the standard use of those concepts.  For instance, it is part of the everyday use of the concept of vanity that in the very act of branding certain people and behaviours as ‘vain’, we mask and repress the pervasiveness of the problem of vanity.  What gets ‘officially’ distinguished from vanity as a ‘sense of propriety’ or ‘discretion’, say, is largely no more than the socially ‘normal’ form that vanity takes; the way ‘we’ are all vain, and which we therefore do not call – and with all the sincerity of the repressor do not see as – ‘vanity’.

This means that, as long as one stays on the level of what competent users of language volunteer in justificatory description of their use of concepts, one has merely delimited what Lear aptly calls “the ego of the concept”(2006, p. 448).  To see the full body or face of our concepts, their real use – or, borrowing Wittgenstein’s distinction, to move from the level of ‘surface’ to ‘depth grammar’ (PI, §664) – one has to ask questions about them that make us, their users, uncomfortable by revealing the tensions and contradictions which simultaneously drive and undermine that use.  In Freudian terms, our concepts reveal themselves as symptoms, inherently unstable compromise formations precariously containing contradictory tendencies – e.g., the impulse to recognise the futile egocentricity of vanity and the tendency not to want to see how deeply this vanity goes in oneself and in structuring our social ‘normality’.  The general, unacknowledged, aim of this and similar patterns of repression pervading our life and its conceptuality is, I suggest, to reduce to ‘reasonable’ proportions what are felt to be the unbearable demands of a wholehearted openness to the other, thus ‘legitimising’ to some extent one’s own disgust, self-disgust and the other difficulties one has with being open.  Our common language functions in a persistently repressive way because or insofar as these difficulties are broadly shared among us.[6]

What we repress are those aspects and implications of the meaning we claim for our everyday thought and behaviour that would, if drawn out, make it impossible to uphold those very meaning-claims.  Uncovering the repressed ‘unconscious’ is not, then, like the discovery that a government, in addition to its official program, also has a hidden agenda, agreed upon in some shadow-cabinet, with goals incompatible with the official ones.  Rather, it is like listening carefully to the government’s official statements of its policy, and realising that those statements are self-contradictory or imply positions the government will not accept as its own.  It is less like “You say X and deny Y, but in fact you secretly think Y”, than like “You say X and deny Y, but in fact what you say implies Y ­– so what do you really mean?”  Thus, exposing the repressed is more akin to Socratic cross-questioning than to the detective’s work of inferring whodunit by piecing together evidence that the criminal has inadvertently left behind – albeit Freud was tempted to think of his analytic work of interpretation primarily on the latter lines (e.g., Freud 1906; cf. Ginzburg 1980).  Wittgenstein’s aim, by contrast, is emphatically the Socratic one of revealing the unacknowledged tensions and self-contradictions – and here, merely formal or logical self-contradictions are not at stake, although these may appear as symptoms of the existential contradictions at issue – that constitute, but at the same time undermine from within, the various explicit or implicit ‘positions’ we tend to take up in philosophising, and before that, in everyday life (on Wittgenstein as Socratic, cf. Wallgren 2006).

Freud’s tendency to see analysis as a kind of detective-work à la Sherlock Holmes – a stance correctly characterised as, in Ricoeur’s (1970) phrase, a “hermeneutics of suspicion” – is problematic insofar as suspicion, as a general attitude to what people say and do, is itself a thoroughly repressive orientation.  The real task, if one wants to understand human life, is not to be suspicious, but on the contrary to step out of the interminable oscillation between credulity and suspiciousness that defines the ‘ordinary’ social attitude in which we tell each other that “people, sadly, are not to be trusted” – temporarily, credulously, excluding the members of the current ‘we’ from this suspicious ‘judgment’.  (This logic is very clear in gossip, but implicit in many other genres of speech.)  If one simply looks at what people say and do, at what their attitude, the spirit of their actions, is, one does not need to suspect anything for it’s all there in plain view.  Vanity, for instance, is not hard to see – but the catch is that one ‘can’ see it only insofar as one’s own repressive investments allow; that is, insofar as one has for one’s own part stepped out of the social game of enviously-admiring mimetic identification and hostility, where appearances rule supreme and credulity and suspicion are constantly in play (on Freud’s relative neglect of the role of mimetic desire, see Girard 1977 and Borch-Jacobsen 1988).  To understand the existential difficulties of human beings is not, to stay with the Sherlock Holmes analogy, like finding out who stole the gold watch, but rather like understanding the ‘depth grammar’ of property-relations, i.e. what it really means, in terms of the whole moral-existential, inter-personal dynamics involved, for people to covet and own things, to make claims about their ‘right’ to things, for instance to gold watches, while others do not even have a ‘right’ to food and shelter – where the owner of the precious watch perhaps feels, on a more or less repressed personal level, that she has no ‘right’ to expect anything good from anyone, that she does not ‘deserve’ to be loved.  In terms of the persistent association, noted by Freud (1908, pp. 173–4), between gold and faeces in our fantasies, one could say that she needs her pieces of gold to relieve her sense – which, on a deeper level, the gold only aggravates – of being just a piece of shit.  It seems to me that this kind of dynamics is of central importance in understanding our consumerist culture.

Alas, Freud tends to accept covetousness at its false face value as a given ‘fact of life’, rather than questioning its sense and supposed ‘naturalness’.  To take a central instance, he presents the oedipal drama as driven by a dynamics of possessiveness, rivalry and jealousy, in which the child proceeds as though the parents should by rights be devoted to it exclusively, and regards anything contradicting this as proof of their ‘unfaithfulness’ (1917a, p. 332; 1910, p. 171).  I do not dispute the importance of something like this dynamics, but I want to emphasise that we are dealing with demands raised in the name of love, and that rivalry and jealousy cannot be understood as sui generis; their agonizing character comes from their being repressive responses to love – and the same is true of the character of coldness and deadness that attends covetousness directed at precious possessions (think of the legend of King Midas).  All these destructive responses, even if they arise because we do not fully and only love, but also have a great fear and mistrust of each other, could also not arise in the absence of love; their very destructiveness reflects the presence of love, for what they are destructive of is love (cf. Backström 2007 and Nykänen 2002).


Truth in Analysis: Beyond Proof and Interpretation

Having sketched a ‘Freudian’ account of the basic concern in Wittgenstein’s investigations of language, let me now move to consider Wittgenstein’s opposition to Freud.  For despite calling himself a “follower” of the “extraordinary” Freud, Wittgenstein felt that there was something in Freud’s “whole way of thinking” that needed “combating” (Malcolm 1984, pp. 100–101; LC, p. 50).  Wittgenstein’s objection to psychoanalysis is connected with what he saw as Freud’s fraudulent scientific pretensions (cf. Freud’s claims at 1925, pp. 58; 70).  For Wittgenstein, psychoanalysis is decidedly not a science (e.g.LC, pp. 25; 41), but he in no way considers this an objection in itself, for most of our understanding – including, crucially, both that sought in philosophy and our basic comprehension of each other – is not scientific, yet very real and, far from being subject to ‘justification’ or correction by science, is presupposed in all scientific practice.  Wittgenstein was very critical of the role that science – or rather an ideological, one might say idolatrous, fantasy of its power – has come to occupy in our culture, including in philosophy (e.g.CV, pp. 5–7; BB, pp. 17–18), and he certainly did not object to Freud’s scientific pretensions because he wanted to uphold the good name of science.  Rather, his concern was that psychoanalysis might have a “terribly bad influence on people” insofar as it subjects the analysand to a veritable “myth-formation” that comes to “dominate his personality”, the myths acquiring an “unassailable” status in his mind by being “insinuated to him in the guise of cold scientific facts” (BEEMs 158 [1938], p. 24r; cfLC, pp. 51–2).[7]

Closely related to this charge of myth-making, many critics have argued that Freud’s mode of interpretation in effect gives him complete interpretative license in moving from the manifest phenomena (dreams, symptoms and so on)to what he claims is their ‘unconscious’ meaning or function.  If a no can mean yes, a fear can mask a wish, a thing be represented by its opposite, or by any other thing that resembles it in the slightest way, or by a word that sounds a bit like the name of the thing; if many and contradictory interpretations can simultaneously be true of the same action, and so on, Freud caneasily, as Timpanaro notes, “reach a single point of arrival from any point of departure whatever”, and so his interpretative approach “defies any imaginable refutation” (1976, pp. 43; 119).  Wittgenstein makes a related point:

The fact is that whenever you are preoccupied with something, with … sex… for instance … then no matter what you start from, the associations will lead finally and inevitably back to that same theme.  Freud remarks on how, after the analysis of it, the dream looks so very logical.  And of course it does.  You could start with any of the objects on this table – which certainly are not put there by your dream activity – and you could find that they all could be connected in a pattern like that; and the pattern would be logical in the same way. (LC, pp. 50–1)

The ingenuity of many Freudian interpretations lend them an illusory impressiveness; we think Freud has revealed the meaning of the thing, failing to realise that, as Wittgenstein says, it “could have been expressed in an entirely different way”, leading us to be “persuaded of something different” (LC, pp. 27–8).  To my mind, critiques along these lines do show the hopelessness of the idea of proving psychoanalytic interpretations right.  The problem here is not, however, that Freud is too ‘liberal’ in allowing the flimsiest associative connections in his interpretations, so that they may be utterly fantastic and, as he himself remarks, often resemble bad jokes (1905b, p. 173).  After all, we should expect bad jokes and fantastic lies to be told by analysands desperately trying to cover over the truth, determined to do anything they can to avoid a plain statement (cf. 1906, p. 110).  What is true, however, is that given this set-up, Freud can in practice, if he wants to, make a plausible case for ascribing whatever meaning he chooses to the analysand’s talk.

According to Freud, the correctness of the analyst’s interpretations is guaranteed by the fact that suggesting a false interpretation to the analysand will have no effect on her, and so simply “drops out, as if it had never been made”; this allows Freud to assert “without boasting” that “such an abuse of ‘suggestion’ has never occurred in [his] practice” (1937, pp. 261–2; for similar statements, see 1895b, p. 295 and 1896, p. 205).  But while it is indeed true that if an interpretation supposedly concerned with emotionally charged, repressed conflicts fails to elicit a strong response at any point, it must be off-mark, it clearly does not follow that an interpretation which elicits strong and apparently ‘productive’ responses must therefore be true.  A crucial possibility, as Freud himself notes, is that the analysand goes along with the suggestion of the analyst in a “hypocritical” way, i.e., because it is “convenient for his resistance to make use of an assent in [the] circumstances in order to prolong the concealment of a truth that has not been discovered” (1937, p. 262, emphasis added).  Suppose the analyst suggests an interpretation that, under the pretence of offering an impartial, scientific understanding of family dynamics, allows the analysand to indulge in self-pity and bitter accusations against her parents.  If she is inclined that way, she will enthusiastically collaborate with her analyst in ‘remembering’ her life in a way that corroborates this picture; that ever “completes and extends” it (ibid.).  And the analyst will hardly be inclined to ‘suspect’ anything; after all, he was the one who proposed this way of looking at the situation in the first place, perhaps because he felt drawn to it out of the same self-serving and self-deceptive motives that move the analysand to accept it.  As Freud notes, “every unresolved repression in [the analyst] constitutes … a ‘blind spot’ in his analytic perception” (1912, p. 116).  That is: the analyst has a covert interest in getting the analysand to accept a view of her realities and possibilities limited enough not to challenge the analyst’s repressive misrepresentation of his own possibilities.  And let me note that the emphasis Freud and many analysts after him place on the need to gain a ‘realistic’ view of life is obviously very convenient if one wishes to narrow one’s outlook from the start, to rule out certain crucial but all too challenging possibilities.  Alas, the seemingly very radical critique of this kind of comfortable ‘realism’ offered by certain Lacanians, who pronounce love, that most challenging of human possibilities, to be constitutionally ‘impossible’, can be just as effective in limiting one’s horizons (cf. Backström 2014).

So Freud’s pretensions to be able to guarantee the correctness of his interpretations and to rule out suggestion in some objective way are indeed fraudulent.  Granting this critical point is not the end of the matter, however, but only the very beginning.  The whole difficulty arises because one unthinkingly accepts the paradigm of factual scientific truth, which quite misconstrues what it means for someone to understand themselves, or for one person to understand another.  Freud insists – as a minority of analysts (e.g., Gabbard and Westen 2003) still do – that it is possible, at least in principle, for analysts to attain this misplaced ideal of scientific truth; his ‘scientifically’ minded critics insist it is not, at least not in practice, and therefore dismiss psychoanalysis (e.g., Grünbaum 1985, Macmillan 1997).  For their part, most contemporary analysts agree it is not, and assume that therefore the aim of ‘truth’ must be given up, to be replaced by the aim of creating a coherent ‘narrative’, telling a ‘convincing’ – that is, in some quasi-aesthetic sense ‘satisfying’ – story that is subjectively experienced as ‘meaningful’ and ‘helpful’ (for early statements of this view, see Schafer 1980, Spence 1980; a forceful critique is Laplanche 1999).  The real lesson of the critique of Freud’s interpretive procedure, however, is that if one thinks there are ‘objective’ or even ‘inter-subjectively valid’ criteria for determining the truth of interpretations, one will be disappointed, and Freud’s whole procedure will either appear fundamentally fraudulent or a mere game of story-telling.  But that is not the way to think about truth in analysis.  When seen in terms of the striving for, and the difficulties of, interpersonal understanding, the question of truth and fraudulence will appear in a different light, and the idea of proving the correctness of analytic interventions appears as one side of the confusion whose other side is the idea that ‘there is no truth, only different interpretations’.  The latter view dominates not only contemporary analysis, but the intellectual climate of our officially ‘pluralistic’ societies at large, and sometimes – for instance in the critical remarks on Freudian interpretation quoted above – Wittgenstein might seem to accept it.  The main thrust of his thinking is very different, however.

When one considers concrete cases, the apparent self-evidence of the general idea that things can be interpreted in many different ways dissolves.  Suppose you ask me if I miss someone: I answer that I do, but then add “…of course, it could be interpreted differently”.  What else could I mean by this strange formulation than that I am unsure about how I feel?  Perhaps I miss my friend, but am also relieved that he finally left and the quarrelling ended; or I discover to my surprise that, while I thought I would miss him terribly, I have thought about him very little since he left, and feel strangely light at heart.  In the latter case my reaction shows that I had upheld a more or less repressive picture of my relation to him, of which I am now ready to let go (perhaps only to replace it by another, equally false, picture).  This is not really a matter of different possible interpretations, however, but of a real ambiguity or indecision in my feelings.  If I say, with feeling: “I miss him so”, adding “… but of course it could be interpreted differently” could only be an ironic joke, precisely because the real ambiguity that makes talk of different interpretations even seemingly meaningful would be missing.  To be sure, if one’s difficulties are deeply enough repressed and become acute enough, we may get the kind of mad ‘double-bind’ where an apparently deeply felt “I miss him so” is spoken by someone who at the same time ruthlessly keeps the ‘missed’ person away (cf. Bateson et al 1956).  But, again, the point is not that there are two different, or many different possible interpretations of this demeanour, but that there is a deep conflict in it.

But aren’t there, very obviously, different possible interpretations of what is really going on for instance when someone longs for and misses another?  Perusing books in psychology and philosophy, or spiritual self-help-guides, will quickly show the variety of perspectives on offer!  Certainly, but the question is what this variety signifies.  What if the great variety of apparent ‘opinions’ and ‘perspectives’ on the meaning of life is created by our tendency to fearfully repress and falsify our actual and inescapable understanding of life through all kinds of ideological interpretations and ‘stories’?  And indeed, if there were only interpretations, but no truth felt to be unbearable that these ‘interpretations’ served to fend off and repress, the interest in interpreting itself would be reduced to that of a mere pastime, and the emotional urgency actually manifest in the insistence on particular interpretations – or, for that matter, in the denial that there is anything beyond interpretations – would not be there.

Of course, I cannot prove the truth of what I just said, nor is the truth of inter-personal understanding, generally, susceptible of proof.  When faced with objections he feels unable to meet satisfactorily in writing, Freud is wont to refer to the “regrettable fact” that “no account of a psycho-analysis can reproduce the impressions received by the analyst as he conducts it, and that a final sense of conviction can never be obtained from reading about it but only from directly experiencing it” (1909a, p. 103).  This response might seem merely a convenient way of refusing to engage justified criticism, and it can obviously be so used; however, the character of inter-personal understanding also gives it a deeper justification.  As Wittgenstein notes, “I might know from certain signs and from my knowledge of a person that he is glad, etc.  But I cannot describe my observations to a third person and – even if he trusts them – thereby convince him of the genuineness of that gladness, etc.” (LW II, p. 86).  The crucial word here is thereby; for while the other may believe me when I tell her how glad you were, this will not be because I have given her a description of your behaviour which justifies that conclusion (contrast this with the case where, say, my description of your behaviour justifies her in concluding that you must have known the danger was over, else you would not have left the shelter).  And it is not merely, of course, that I cannot describe to another how I know you are glad; I cannot describe it to myself, either.  While I am not uncertain about your feelings, I cannot point to anything, to any supposed criteria your behaviour fills, that would justify my certainty of your gladness.  “But does accepting no criterion as certain mean: never being certain that someone else feels this or that way” Wittgenstein asks, rhetorically, and answers; “Can I not be quite certain and yet accept no criterion as certain? I am (behave) certain, but for instance I don’t know why” (ibid., p. 87).

Obviously, these considerations do not show that Freud’s interpretations are true; their point is only to bring out the confusion in thinking that there could be anything like a proof of our understanding of each other.  Proving something means adducing grounds that anyone – any competent observer – will accept as showing that things are in a certain way, and the more sceptical and suspicious the observer one manages to convince, the better.  By contrast, someone who in a suspicious spirit demands ‘proofs’ of the other’s love will clearly never be convinced; think of the proverbial jealous husband or the obsessive neurotic whose suspicions are never appeased.  As Freud rightly suggests, what makes neurotic doubts insatiable – or: what makes doubt neurotic – is that it is a doubt about love; that is, a fearful indecision about and fleeing from love, which is then “diffused over everything else”, as the one “who doubts his own love may, or rather must, doubt every lesser thing” (1909b, pp. 190–1; 241).  Being convinced of the other’s love through proofs is impossible because love can be perceived only by someone who himself loves, who opens his heart to the other’s touch.  Suspiciousness, asking for proofs, means closing one’s heart, keeping one’s guard up, not venturing out to meet the other, but love is that venture (cf. Marion 2007 and, again, Backström 2007 and Nykänen 2002).  This venture, love’s wholeheartedness, has nothing to do with credulity, for credulity is the failure to ask for proof where proof could (and should) be asked for; a failure motivated by unacknowledged fears and wishes, say the wish to be accepted by a group of the ‘likeminded’ who ‘agree’ not to ask certain questions.  But one who loves wholeheartedly does not fail to ask, and is not afraid to ask, any questions; she is neither credulous nor suspicious, but longs to know and be known by the other without reserve.

How, then, is the impossibility of proving the presence of love related to determining the truth of analytic interpretations?  Well, such interpretations are about the analysand’s relations to the people closest to her; they concern her attitude and feelings towards them and, as part of this, her view of their attitudes to her and to each other.  These attitudes, however, are directly related to love, to its presence or its refusal and perversion, and how she views others, what she ‘can’ and ‘cannot’ see in them, is a direct reflection of her attitude.  Insofar as her view of her relationships is expressive of and deformed by hostility, self-pity or other destructive attitudes, it is false in the existential sense, which is the one at issue in analysis.  The falsity cannot be proven ‘objectively’, by pointing to ‘facts’, however, for all the facts are susceptible to being reinterpreted so that they serve the will to accuse, the wish to indulge in self-pity, or whatever the current motive to falsification may be.  The falsity will be clearly seen only when the situation is seen in the light of love; that is, by someone who approaches the people involved lovingly, for that means approaching them without private or collective agendas, longing only to reach them and know them (again, cf. Backström 2007).

In line with this, Freud says that the final purpose of analytic interpretations is to help “liberate repressed love”; psychoanalysis aspires to be “a cure by love” (1907, p. 90).  The basic analytic aim is thus not for the analysand to gain ‘knowledge’ of anything, but to get in contact with the love in herself, i.e. with the people she loves – or would love if she did not, in a repressive response to the very possibility of love, turn away from and close herself to them.  To my mind, Freud’s pretensions to prove the ‘objective’ correctness of the interpretations supposedly instrumental in this process of reawakening love register his failure to think through his own insight.  The analysand has difficulties in relating to others in an open, free, loving way; these difficulties are manifest in her ‘compulsion to repeat’ destructive behaviour-patterns in the transference.  Since the problem is her way of relating to others, it can only be overcome insofar as her relationship to the analyst, special and in a certain sense ‘artificially restricted’ as it is, can show her, concretely, the possibility of an open, free relationship in which she can discover that it is possible – really possible, not just ‘in principle’ – to talk to and be with someone without the defensively destructive manoeuvres she has learnt to rely on.  It is only within a relation without demands and anxieties that she can start to ‘remember’, i.e. to think and speak freely about her life with others, instead of ‘acting out’ its characteristic, ‘unspeakable’ deadlocks. (Cf. Freud 1914a.)

Truth in psychoanalysis, then, is neither about ‘matching interpretations with reality’ nor about creating ‘coherent narratives’, just as the truth of our words generally cannot be understood, contrary to what our philosophical tradition assumes, in terms of either matching propositions with reality or matching them with each other into coherent wholes.  Rather, the basic question concerns the truthfulness of the relationship between speakers, and the truth or otherwise of what is said in analysis, including in the analyst’s interpretations, must be understood in this light.  The analyst might communicate an interpretation of the analysand’s troubles that is in a certain sense true and insightful, and yet the communication might be offered and/or taken in a way that turns its ‘truth’ into a lie (for an interesting example, relevant to the discussion in the next section, see Casement 2011).  Striking illustrations of such transformations can be found in Ingmar Bergman’s films, which are full of intense scenes where someone suddenly bursts out in a frank, piercing confession indicting another and/or themselves for bottomless emotional and existential corruption.  And yet, even more remarkable than the sudden voicing of ‘truth’ is the fact that nothing is changed by it; the people remain stuck in precisely the same hopeless deadlock of mutual isolation and cruelty that they just described so clearly; if anything, the despair is heightened by the fact that describing it did nothing to unlock it.  This is not really to be wondered at, for the salient point is that Bergman’s characters do not really want to break out of their deadlock, however much they suffer from it; they do not want to, because it could only be broken open by forgiveness, and for that they lack the courage, the humility, the love.  Therefore, their very declarations of ‘how things are’ become merely one more expression and repressive continuation of their despair, calculated to further hurt and isolate the other and themselves.  Thus, Bergman’s characters, like many of Dostoyevsky’s, illustrate the point of Wittgenstein’s remark that “You can’t be reluctant to give up your lie and still tell the truth” (CV, p. 39).

Situations of the kind depicted by Bergman are often put to very different use, however, as (supposedly) illustrating that, contrary to what I claim, truthfulness and openness are not always good things: “Just look what good – i.e. none – it did these people to be open!”  But my point is that Bergman’s characters are not really open, or truthful; on the contrary they close their hearts to each other, and therefore even their apparent ‘truth-telling’ is poisoned.  They can appear to be open only if one confuses openness – that is, the wholeheartedness, the lack of reservations that may be there in one person’s turning to the other – with, say, mere honesty, frankness, spontaneity, or emotional intensity and lack of inhibition, or with some other psychologically more or less determinate attitude or mode of behaviour.  Such attitudes and behaviours are, as such, neither good nor bad: they may be either, depending on the context.  Openness, in the sense in which I speak of it, is on a different level: it gives the light in which these contexts are seen aright, gives us a sense of what is good and bad.  Things are good between human beings to the extent that we dare to be open; to the extent that we do not, there is suspicion, fear, disgust or some other repressive attitude – although this sad fact is often rendered more or less imperceptible by various defensive secondary elaborations, in the way, say, that polite interaction may drape and hide the latent sense of distance and distrust it presupposes in pleasantries (by contrast, there is no need and no place for mere politeness when you’re with a really good friend, precisely because the sense of distance that politeness manifests and manages is not there).  These remarks are not at all meant to be ‘normative’ in the sense of ‘recommending’ openness; to my mind, that would be about as meaningful as recommending joy or vitality as the way to live a good life.  To be sure, a good life will be a life of vitality and joy but, unlike a healthy diet, they are clearly not things one might decide to ‘go in for’ in order to achieve a good life, but rather themselves aspects of that life (along, unavoidably, with pain a grief).  They are in short supply insofar as we find it difficult to open ourselves to life’s goodness – or, as one might also say, our lack of joy and vitality makes life’s goodness hard for us to see and feel.  And joy and vitality presuppose, or are forms of, openness;  I can make nothing of the characterisation of someone as ‘an extremely closed person, but full of joy’, and insofar as I can imagine something like a vitality without openness, I imagine a kind of desperately insistent, ‘driven’ energy, a kind of confined and raging life – not a freely unfolding, fully living one.

I am not, then, ‘recommending’ openness. I am also not depicting some ‘ideal’, perhaps a life ‘fit for angels rather than humans’, and thus irrelevant to our human concerns and difficulties.  On the contrary, I am trying to say something about what our human-all-too-human concerns and difficulties are about.  I am not saying it is easy to be open, but insisting that without openness, there would be no difficulties – but also no joy and no sense – of the kind characteristic of human life.


 Not a Something, but Not a Nothing Either” 

Let us now return to the very beginning of this paper and the question of the expectations we place in philosophers and analysts.  Suppose an analysand has implicitly framed her situation and her expectations in somewhat the following terms: “I’m unhappy and I don’t know how to get out of the mess I’m in; please help me, tell me what’s wrong with me and what I should do to become happy”.  Thus, the analyst would be, as Lacan says, set up as ‘the subject supposed to know’.  Now, this involves a basic falsification insofar as the analysand presents the situation as though she were suffering under some ‘alien force’ that has taken possession of her (cf. Freud 1917b, pp. 141–2) and from which only an outside authority can relieve her.  The point is not that actually, she knows what that menacing force is, but that there is no force; there is nothing, no ‘thing’, to know.  There is only her own fear of opening up to the other, to love.  The fear is real enough, but it is not based on anything.  However, the fear has as its corollary her anxious clinging to something or other as the ‘thing’ that supposedly makes opening up impossible; it may be a certain kind of imagined personality trait (“I’m a person who never…”), or a specified fear of this-or-that (“I’m so afraid of looking ridiculous, I have such bad self-esteem, so I can never…”), or anything else.  The analysand may cling first to one thing, then another, and the clinging may be accompanied by explicit claims about the ‘things’ she clings to, or it may come out only in her reactions to what takes place in the analytic dialogue (‘acting out’).  These variations are unimportant; the point is the clinging itself, through which the analysand closes herself, and so actually makes openness impossible.

In this connexion, the idea of finding in the past the root-cause of one’s troubles – a fixed point of Freud’s thinking from very early on (cf. Masson 1985, pp. 239–40) – amounts to perpetuating the repression rather than analysing it, for love-trouble often takes the form of repressive-destructive fixation upon certain past situations and patterns of relating which are taken to ‘predestine’ one’s future relationships to a ‘tragic’ repetition of the destructive forms of the past (cf. Wittgenstein’s critical remarks at LC, p. 51).  Freud’s concept of Nachträglichkeit – the idea that an experience/memory may gain its traumatic meaning or ‘impact’ only later, through new experiences (cf. 1895a, pp. 353–6) – could be given a generalised sense here: to be ‘traumatised’ means loading ever more destructive meanings into the past with each new experience, which one takes to both ‘confirm’ and ‘result from’ that past (on this dynamics, cf. also Shapiro 2000).  But while situations can be terrible, they are not traumatic in themselves; rather, the fixation on and clinging to them makes them traumatic.  If a child encounters callousness and abuse she will necessarily suffer from it, but the mode of her suffering, as a child and later an adult – the extent to which she will turn her suffering into self-pity or vindictiveness, for instance – is not determined by what has been done to her, but by how she responds to it.  I am not saying that the abused child who becomes a self-pitying and vindictive adult should be blamed for it; that would be both stupid and cruel, adding insult to injury.  Blame is not the issue at all; the point is, on the contrary, to help the victim see, remember and feel that she is free; to shatter the picture of herself as the helpless, pitiful butt of abuse that her abusers managed to make her believe – because, on some level, it felt like a relief, it blunted her suffering.

Destructive attitudes may also involve a fantasised structuring of one’s relations to others around characteristic ‘primal scenes’, but here, similarly, the point is that these scenes express and manifest the attitude, rather than explaining why or from whence it arose.  One’s vanity, to return to that example, cannot be explained by reference to experiences one had as a child; rather, it may, among other things, come to expression in the way in which one cherishes and retells certain ‘key’ memories which boost one’s vain ego, while bitterly dwelling on, or again ‘forgetting’, certain others, which hurt one’s vanity (Freud’s lack of clarity on this point can be seen, e.g., in his reflections on the “origin” his own “ambitiousness” [1900, pp. 191–8]).

We are now in a position to see the real significance of the fact that repression is not primarily about repressing any specific ‘contents’ at all.  The notion that repression is motivated by there being something in particular – some particular memory or impulse – that one cannot bear to face is itself the first repressive falsification.  The repression of particular contents is secondary; the ‘primal repression’ consists in the withdrawal from openness with the other, and the first ‘victim’ of repression is one’s own longing for and faith in an open encounter.  This primal repression is attended by ‘secondary’ repressions in the form of all kinds of ersatz-behaviours which function to mask the original withdrawal, taking one’s mind off it and turning one’s attention to other things of whatever kind.  The apparent specificity of the patterns of avoidance in repression is in one sense quite arbitrary, the point being that some specificity or other, some focus or other is needed; ersatz-behaviours provide this focusing. But repression has no special form or method; one can withdraw from openness by remembering just as well as by forgetting, by speaking as well as by keeping silent, by knowing as well as by not knowing, by being honest (in the sense illustrated in the Bergman examples) as well as by being dishonest, by being reasonable as well as by being irrational, by being emotional as well as by distancing and numbing oneself, by kindness as well as by meanness, by pity as well as by cruelty, and so on.

Think of the awkward silence that may arise between two strangers in an elevator.  This awkwardness has no special content; here, the difficulty of opening oneself to the other is, as it were, revealed in itself.  However, one typically reacts to it by immediately giving it a particularizing ‘reinterpretation’; if one does not claim that there was something in particular that one couldn’t reveal to the stranger – say, that one didn’t want to speak because one was ashamed of one’s accent – one will say that there was nothing in particular one could think of to share with him; “I didn’t know what to say, I couldn’t find anything to talk about”.  So: either there is something particular one can share, and then things are taken to be fine, or there is something particular one can’t share, which is bad, or there is nothing in particular to share, and that’s bad too.  Everything is thus presented as revolving around contents: the people involved and their relation is simply excluded, as though they were just the conduits of the content circulating between them; as though, if no ‘valid’, ‘interesting’, ‘valuable’, ‘proper’ content is there, their being there with each other were a mere insignificant ‘nothing’.

How it happens that this ‘nothing’ has the power of creating unease and downright panic in us – think of a really long elevator ride – remains quite unexplained, however.  And, indeed, it cannot be explained, in the sense that there is nothing in particular that frightens one in the other; rather, what frightens one is precisely the ‘nothing in particular’ of the open encounter, in which the singularity of the other and of oneself is revealed, felt, in the very contact between ‘I’ and ‘you’.  To borrow Wittgenstein’s remark in a closely related context; the reality of the other and of oneself in the encounter is“not a something, but not a nothing either” (PI, §304).  The masking of the singularity of the encounter behind particularising (“There was nothing in particular to talk about”) or again generalising (“One can’t talk to that kind of people”) moves, so pervasive in our everyday encounters, also pervades our philosophising and other theorising of human life, including in psychoanalysis (cf. Backström and Nykänen, forthcoming).  Wittgenstein’s constant endeavour is, one could say, to show how our attempts to determine and explain what our understanding consists in, or to prove or justify it, break down; how there is nothing in particular that this understanding consist in, although it manifests itself in countless different ways, and may be connected to all kinds of particular experiences (see, e.g., PI, §527 and all the way to the end of Part I).  This is not scepticism, however, for Wittgenstein is not at all denying that we understand each other; on the contrary, he is reminding us that we do indeed understand each other.  Insofar as we withdraw from that understanding, from contact with the other, our understanding takes on a ghostlike appearance, as speaking with someone is devitalised or depersonalised into strings of signs supposed to carry a ‘meaning’ expressed by no-one to no-one.  As Wittgenstein remarks, philosophers seem to want, as it were, to ‘address’ the object they are reflecting on, rather than another human being (PI, §38).  Thus we get nonsensical questions about how ‘a sign’ (all by itself?) can signify, or how ‘one’ (who?) can know that an analyst’s interpretation is correct.  The specific form of philosophical questions seems absurd from the perspective of so-called common sense, of course, but the devitalisation or depersonalisation of speech so striking in philosophical theorising occurs constantly in everyday life, too, in countless guises; this is a crucial aspect of the ubiquity of repression.  Think, for instance, of how often one says things like “I said I was sorry”, as though the words one spoke had some magical power in themselves to make a difference, even if anyone can hear from one’s voice that one is not sorry at all.

I have suggested that neither human understanding – that is: human contact – nor the difficulties, the dread, suffering and repression, connected with it, have any particular content.  But just saying this, and even ‘accepting’ it intellectually, does not, of course, mean that one can really bring oneself to believe it.  For the urge to particularise, to ‘fix’ and reduce our problems to this or that; and, correlatively, to reduce our sense of the goodness of life to this or that thing which we ‘like’, ‘need’ and are ‘satisfied with’, is not some intellectual misunderstanding, but an expression of our fear of unreduced, unrestricted contact with the other; of the transcendence, the infinity that this opens us to.  These fearful fixations need to be, as Freud says, ‘worked through’ as they arise, that is, when and where the fear, and the urge to fix things, really grips one – whether this happens in the immediately personal contexts of everyday life or psychoanalysis, or in the apparently, but in the end not really, less personal context of philosophical thinking.  And as Wittgenstein points out – responding to the sense, no doubt raised also by what I have said, that in always coming back to the most elementary realities, he seems to make things too simple: “Philosophy unties the knots in our thinking; hence its result must be simple, but philosophizing has to be as complicated as the knots it unties” (Z, §452).[8]


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[1] For the abbreviations used in referring to Wittgenstein’s writings, see the Bibliography.


[2] Wittgenstein’s criticisms of Freud have received more attention – e.g., by Benvenuto (2006), Bouveresse (1995), Cioffi (1998) – than the kinship between the two thinkers, but the latter, too, has been commented on, among others by Baker (2004), Cavell (e.g., 1976, p. 72), Lazerowitz (1977), Lear (e.g., 1998, pp. 11–12), Majetschak (2010), Wisdom (1969) – and by myself in Backström (2013).  Cioffi (2009) has recently argued that the idea of a significant kinship presupposes a “banalised” reading of Freud, but in my view this claim depends on juxtaposing the most confused aspects of Freud’s theorising with what is in effect a banalised reading of Wittgenstein.


[3] Freud often uses the term ‘repression’ in the broad sense which I will retain. At other times he uses it more narrowly to refer to a particular kind of defensive manoeuvre to be contrasted with, e.g., ‘projection’ or ‘denial’. In such contexts, ‘defence’ takes the place of ‘repression’ as generic term. On Freud’s shifting use of these two terms, see the editorial appendix in Freud (1926), pp. 173–4, and Freud’s own statement at pp. 163–4.


[4] Accounts inspired by Wittgenstein and stressing the non-hidden and non-inferential character of repression – albeit not in precisely the terms used here – can be found in Billig (1997) and (1999), Dilman (1984) and Lorenzer (1973). A rather different, Lacanian, account stressing these same aspects is Johnston (2005).


[5] On this point, I agree with so-called ‘therapeutic readings’ of Wittgenstein (Crary and Read 2000 is a representative sample).  However, in my view such readings tend to ignore, or at any rate they do not emphasise sufficiently, the crucial entanglement of philosophical confusions with everyday moral-existential difficulties, which I will focus on, and which I believe Wittgenstein found central.


[6] For detailed analyses of the inner contradictions of various moral concepts, and of moral discourse generally, along these, in some ways very Nietzschean lines (cf.  Nietzsche 1888, Foreword), see Backström (2007) and (forthcoming), Backström and Nykänen (forthcoming), and Nykänen (2002), (2005) and (2014). Naturally, what I say has application only insofar as our concept-use has a moral-existential dimension; insofar as merely practical concepts such as ‘length’ or ‘weight’ are concerned, there is nothing to repress or deform. But when we speak figuratively of a ‘weighty’ opinion, say, we have moved into the problematic dimension that interests me here.


[7] If Wittgenstein’s criticism of psychoanalysis seems harsh, he is equally harsh – which is not to say unrealistic – in his judgment of the probable influence of his own work, which he surmised would “first stimulate the writing of a whole lot of garbage and … then this perhaps might provoke somebody to write something good” (CV, p. 62).


[8] Acknowledgment: I would like to thank the Academy of Finland for the generous financial support that enabled the research for this article.


Joel Backström is a researcher in philosophy at the University of Helsinki, most recently within the Academy of Finland-funded project ‘A Science of the Soul? Freud, Wittgenstein and Neuroscience in Dialogue’. He teaches philosophy at Helsinki, and also at the Finnish Theatre Academy. He is the author of The Fear of Openness: An Essay on Friendship and the Roots of Morality (Åbo : Åbo Akademis University Press, 2007), “Collectivity, evil and the dynamics of moral value”, with H. Nykänen, Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, forthcoming. He published articles on philosophical ‘moral psychology’ and the relation between Freud and Wittgenstein. [jbackstr@abo.fi]

Publication Date:

November 19, 2014

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