Wittgenstein and Psychoanalysis: The Speaking Lion


Philosophical Investigations are centrally concerned with what could be termed, in psychoanalytic theory, the status of the ‘big Other’, namely the status of rules, the necessity to assume them combined with the impossibility to provide them with sufficient foundation, the absence of any meta-rule to rule the rules of language games. The Other is both presupposed and lacking, rules are neither uniform nor univocal nor universal. The problem of private language raises the problem of something that would escape the rule, and the paper is concerned with the question whether it can be mapped on the problem of the Freudian unconscious. The psychoanalytic interpretation hinges precisely on establishing a rule where there doesn’t seem to be any. The assumption of psychoanalysis is that the unconscious is the speaking lion that can be understood, but this puts into question both the notion of understanding and the notion of the Other. The paper argues for a conception of the unconscious as the break of the rule that cannot be recuperated or integrated into the universe of meaning.

In one of the most famous sentences of Philosophical Investigations (PU) Wittgenstein states: “If a lion could speak, we couldn’t understand him.” (Wittgenstein 2008, p. 190) The sentence is curious. Upon reflection, there was actually no shortage of speaking lions in our cultural history, and their invention goes back to Aesop’s stroke of genius, in the 6th century B. C., which turned the speaking animals into the heroes of a new genre, a demonstrational device. Looking at it in a biased Wittgensteinian way one could say that fables may well present a kind of ‘thought experiments’, or that the speaking lions can well demonstrate some rules of our language games that are tacitly assumed, and make them explicit and visible. One should recall that Aesop lived in the times of Thales, the founding father of philosophy, and there is quite some likelihood that they might have actually known each other in Miletus and have been friends. So the question of the speaking lion is as old as philosophy itself, it emerged at the same time with it. The inventor of arche, of the first foundational principle, shakes hands with the inventor of speaking lions.

Many of Aesop’s fables involve speaking lions, the most legendary being “The lion’s share” and “The lion and the mouse”,[1] but this is no doubt not the kind of speaking lion Wittgenstein had in mind. Yet, his version can be read against the backdrop of history of fables, as a curious anti-fable at the end of this venerable history, equally designed to bring home some truth. It is a fable in which a lion speaks, as in all fables, only nobody understands him. This is like a negative fable which can be taken as the modern iconic counterpoint to Aesop at the opposite end – if the birth of fable accompanied philosophy’s birth, then this one seems destined to accompany its demise. It’s like a symmetrical counterpart to Aesop.

As an aside, I can point to another candidate for this anti-fable counterpart, ‘the curious incident with the dog in the night-time’, namely the famous case of the dog that didn’t bark (in Sherlock Holmes’s story “Silver Blaze”). It was popular in the heyday of structuralism, since it can serve as an easy way to demonstrate that a non-event, an absence, can equally be a bearer of signification, the absence of a sign being just as apt to signify as its presence. With Wittgenstein’s speaking lion we have the inverse situation: the presence of a speech act that fails to produce meaning. They make a good couple: the dog that didn’t bark and the lion that spoke, the one signifying by keeping silent, the other not being able to signify by opening his mouth.

Furthermore, the specificity of Wittgenstein’s anti-fable is that this is a fable which coincides with the moral of the fable. Its story is one with its moral, for if we can’t understand the speaking lion, there is no story to be told, except for the moral, namely that we can’t understand the speaking lion. Like in Aesop, one has to invent the speaking lion in order to demonstrate the hidden obvious, but this is like the fable to finish all fables, pointing out the obvious that we can’t understand lions even if they speak. This is rather fabelhaft. – Does putting an end to fables go hand in hand with putting an end to the fable of philosophy, this fable of all fables, the ultimate fable which started off with the presumption to put an end to all fables in the first place?

Why wouldn’t we understand the speaking lion? No doubt we could understand his vocabulary, or learn it if he were to speak a foreign tongue (it would be interesting to know which one), and we could decipher his grammatical rules, but this wouldn’t suffice. To demonstrate why this is not sufficient is perhaps the whole point of PU. The situation with the lion is perhaps not so extravagant, it can be seen as an extreme case of something involved in every speech situation where the interlocutor, structurally, appears as an enigma. Just before the lion sentence Wittgenstein says the following:

“We also say of some people that they are transparent to us. It is, however, important as regards this observation that one human being can be a complete enigma to another. We learn this when we come into a foreign country with entirely foreign traditions; and, what is more, even given a mastery of the country’s language. We do not understand the people. (And not because of not knowing what they are saying to themselves.) We cannot find ourselves in them.” (Ibid.)

So there is no need for speaking lions, it is enough to make a trip to China, and to give a more poignant and pervasive example, look at the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan: no amount of interpreters can be of any use. The more they interpret the language the less they understand. So here is an updated version of Wittgenstein’s adage: If Afghanis could speak, we couldn’t understand them. As demonstrated daily on TV.

Still, this is not enough. First because this is not merely a story of different traditions and different shared backgrounds – the problem of language and its use for Wittgenstein cannot be reduced to nor resolved by multiculturalism, by opening ourselves to other cultures, including animal cultures (very much in vogue today). And second, if the interlocutor is always structurally an enigma, if there is something of a speaking lion in each interlocutor, this doesn’t entail, for Wittgenstein, that this enigma is impenetrable or inscrutable. There is an enigma, but we can always make do with the enigma, there are always ways to tackle it, provided we abandon some common misconceptions and prejudices, the spontaneous myths about ourselves and our interiority, including the myth of ‘other minds’ as fundamentally inaccessible to us, and myths about the nature of language we use. Interiority can be shared and divulged, made public, but at the same time this sharing and divulging is never simple nor uniform, it can never espouse the straight route of universality. Everything happens on this edge.

A page before the ‘lion incident’ he says the following:

“I can know what someone else is thinking, not what I am thinking. / It is correct to say ‘I know what you are thinking’, and wrong to say ‘I know what I am thinking’. / (A whole cloud of philosophy condensed into a drop of grammar.)” (P. 189)

So if there is impenetrability, it rather pertains to my own interior, not to the unfathomable other. There is a share of speaking lion lurking from within, but not by the nature of things, only by the incorrect usage of grammar, like the mixing up of the first and the third person (technically, descriptions and expressions), which has the fatal tendency of creating inner phantoms, the clouds which should be turned into drops, so that some salutary rain could fall. This may stand as an adage for Wittgenstein’s program: to wring some philosophical rain out of the philosophical clouds.

Famously, one of the central concepts of PU is that of the language game, and there is something in it which combines and condenses both the enigmatic side and the availability of the other, of what s/he is saying and doing. There is no game without a rule, the very notion of game is coextensive with the notion of the rule, yet their relation is all but simple. For, to start with, the rules, as far as language games are concerned, as opposed to other games such as chess (an example as dear to Wittgenstein as it was to Saussure), the rules are not given in advance, clearly put down and made public, they are subject to constant negotiation, change and lack of clear limits. Rules cannot be enumerated and delimited, as they are conveniently delimited with the game of chess or football, all the usual games that are placed in a separate and clearly marked space and time, apart from the rest of life. This is what defines games: their separation from usual ‘ordinary’ life, their formal distinctness, the spatial and temporal delimitation, and it is only within these limits of time and space that specific rules apply, rules established beforehand and publicly available to every participant. Games are set in a world apart, a world parallel to the common world of survival and daily turmoil.[2] But what Wittgenstein is after with language games, are precisely games embedded in life itself, profoundly linked with the very forms of life in which they are embedded, not games apart from life, but constituting the ordinary life, the very stuff of its ordinariness. Games are extraordinary behaviour, useless for our life functions, hence the idea of their futility (and hence their capacity to provoke passion and paradoxical seriousness, what Huizinga has called der heilige Ernst, the holy earnest).[3] Language games, as opposed to this, are essential to our life functions, for the life of language is equally the language of life itself. And what Wittgenstein is ultimately after are the forms of life (“What has to be accepted [das Hinzunehmende], the given, is – so one could say – forms of life”, p. 192), that is, something that is not reducible either to biological life or to language, something that is formed between the two, in their intertwining, their chiasmus. And one could somewhat summarily say that this is also what constitutes the proper object of psychoanalysis – neither the biological or somatic life nor the symbolic by itself, but something that emerges by the incidence of the symbolic into the somatic and happens at their interface, a paradoxical ‘surplus of life’ or an excessive life other than the life of ‘bodies and languages’ (to speak with Badiou), although not set apart, but within them, in the very midst of ordinary life, of its bodies and languages.

The language game is a thin red line, but between what? Wittgenstein spends a lot of time with the question of rules, and so did his interpreters, most famously Saul Kripke (1982), along with a host of his critics. One should certainly use some caution regarding the status of rules in Wittgenstein, for they are on the one hand no doubt essential for the use of language and at the same time not the crux of the matter when language is concerned. We can find the statement of both in Wittgenstein: that following the rules is one of the practices of language that has to be ultimately put into perspective of usage, the practice of language use, to the point that Cavell could say that “’evoking rules’ is inessential as the explanation of language” (1969, p. 138). And on the other hand: “To follow the rule is FUNDAMENTAL for our language game.”[4] So one could say, simplifying, that rules are not sufficient, but nevertheless essential. They do constitute a crucial dividing line, the thin red line between language games on the one hand and the private language on the other. For private language would be precisely a language accessible to one person only, with the rules only privately applied, not shared with others, not made public, so ultimately not a language. There are many facets to Wittgenstein’s private language argument – e. g. the question of an immediate internal accessibility of our inner experiences, or more broadly, of being the master over meaning etc., but let me just retain this one: abiding by rules and signs not being made universally available. (But then again, are any rules universally available? There lies the whole problem.) The linguists would largely agree about private language, there is a whole argument about the idiolect in Saussure, and Jakobson states somewhere that in language there is no private property, everything is expropriated and socialized.

But there is something very specific in Wittgenstein’s take on rules. One may say there is the simultaneous assertion of the necessity of rules as constitutive of language games, and the insight into their contingency, their wavering, their fickleness, their being sustained without relying on some universals and without a guarantee. One can take the notorious example, discussed in #185, the application of such a simple and straightforward rule as +2, with the pupil who correctly applies the rule up to 1000, but then continues with 1004, 1008 etc.

“We say to him: ‘Look what you’ve done!’ – He doesn’t understand. We say: ‘You were meant to add two: look how you began the series!’ – He answers: ‘Yes, isn’t it right? I thought that was how I was meant to do it.’ – Or suppose he pointed to the series and said: ‘But I went on in the same way.’ – It would now be no use to say: ‘But can’t you see …?’ – and repeat the old examples and explanations. – In such cases we might say, perhaps: It comes natural to this person to understand our order with our explanations as we understand the order: ‘Add 2 up to 1000, 4 up to 2000, 6 up to 3000 and so on.’” (P. 64)

Wittgenstein was for some time a teacher in the primary school in Otterthal (living in the neighbouring villages of Trattenheim and Kirchberg), in the Wechsel valley, a bit back of beyond (a valley now largely voting for Haider and Strache, while at the same time regularly hosting the international jet-set of Wittgenstein specialists, which makes for a hilarious mix). The story goes that he was eventually fired because he physically assaulted one of the pupils – my working hypothesis would be that this was precisely the one from #185.

This passage has a vintage value. We don’t really need the speaking lions and the Chinese, for whoever has done some teaching knows very well that there is something of an inscrutable enigma in every pupil and every student. If a pupil could speak, could we understand him? Although the example may seem extreme, it rather describes a very common experience. For some structural reasons there is always some pupil in the class who adds +2 up to 1000 and +4 after that, there is something in this that perhaps captures the definition of a pupil, his essential trait, so that inevitably we always hear ourselves say: ‘Aber siehst du denn nicht …?’ over and over again. This is a vintage scene of the classroom, l’image d’Épinal of teaching. There is the language game of a duel where one’s own incapacity to explain is pitted against the pupil’s incapacity to grasp, with the simultaneous surmise that the ignorant pupil might have grasped something that escaped the knowing master and that he might be the one who sees further. Did he see the rule that I failed to see, a rule within the rule? But aren’t all rules secretly divided, so that there are always rules within rules? What does it involve to follow a rule if rules constantly turn out to be duplicitous and treacherous?

The use of the classroom example is perhaps most apposite, not merely a neutral illustration of the enigma of rules in general. It is perhaps the test case, der Fall, of the rule. How do we know how to follow rules and which rules to follow? How do we learn to follow rules uniformly? Is this inherently required by the thing itself, in this case by the very nature of mathematics? (And no doubt Wittgenstein’s choosing mathematics is most appropriate, for in mathematics there seems to be no strife of opinion or quarrel of interpretation, the rules seem to be singularly and deceptively free of ambiguity which afflicts all other areas. Wittgenstein, much to his credit, uses mathematics in the same vein as other examples, without flinching an eye.) Or are we following rules because we have been conditioned to follow them in a certain way? Are rules then culturally produced, hence conventional (which brings us to an old dilemma, physei or thesei)? But this dilemma – either the immanent deduction of rules from the (mathematical) thing itself, or else social conditioning and training – may itself be faulty, for how do we arrive to the supposed thing itself, to the claim of its in-itself? Wittgenstein’s line has always been to oppose both, schematically, to oppose the Platonism on the one hand and behaviourism on the other; or the transcendent vs. the socially produced. The rules would thus emerge precisely at an intersection of the two, neither immanently deducible from ‘ideas’ nor a mere product of social conditioning, but emerging in the forms of life irreducible to both, irreducible and yet not forming some separate realm apart, for the forms of life are at no moment to be endowed with substantiality. The classroom example is indicative since it points to the fact that following rules is ingrained in a certain form of life profoundly determining our society, in what Althusser has called the ideological state apparatuses (ISA), and that there is no way of following a rule, or disentangling what might be the thing itself, without being passed through ISA one way or another. I am taking the liberty of invoking the Althusserian parlance since Althusser was also a great admirer of Wittgenstein. This ‘+2’ is not a mathematical rule ‘as such’, for it cannot be disentangled from its staging, from the simple fact that it was the teacher who set up the rule, inculcating it into a recalcitrant pupil, thus giving body, namely his own, to the mathematical truths, supposedly eternal. The classroom staging is not some neutral background to the ‘+2’ addition, it is its home ground, so to speak, its native country, the particular form of life of this rule.

One could say, somewhat hastily, that the bottom-line of ISA is always that rules are uniform and univocal – maybe this is, at the minimal, the very substance of what one has to learn in school. Hence mathematics has always served as the very model of ideology (given its predominance as ‘the basic subject’ in schools).[5] Precisely by being seemingly immune to ideological strives and ambiguities it embodies the ideology proper, in its pure state, with its evidence of uniformity and univocity. And Wittgenstein’s stance, in face of this, can be epitomized by stating that rules are never uniform nor univocal, that they are always suspended in the air, yet we cannot do without them and constantly have to make do with them – by the usage and by tackling them case by case, as opposed to the supposed uniformity and univocity. – If I allow myself a somewhat speculative aside, one could say that the bottom-line could thus be that rules are dependant on ISA (at least in our modern forms of life), but that ISA don’t exhaust the rules. Thus, with Althusser against Wittgenstein, ideology is deeply ingrained in our forms of life, and, with Wittgenstein against Althusser, it would be too hasty to say that our forms of life are in themselves ideological. There is something messy and cluttered about them, they are both natural and counter-nature in one, as it were, and indeed Wittgenstein uses somewhere the term Gewimmel to characterize them (cf. Laugier 2009, p. 224; the English approximation would be swarming, hurry-scurry). Gewimmel could be set against Gewissheit in a neat conceptual pair. In the Althusserian parlance one could say that there is nothing more ideological than the very idea of forms of life underlying language, world, rules, ways of behaviour etc., but at the same time, if one adopts Wittgenstein’s perspective, one could maintain that there is nothing like the forms of life to counteract ideology, insofar as ideology consists precisely in overlooking the forms of life in which it is embedded and hence falling prey to the myth of autonomy – of language, thought, self, ideas etc., thus giving substance to ghosts. – All this would demand a longer development.

I can briefly make three remarks concerning this passage. First:

“’What you are saying, then, comes to this: a new insight – intuition – is needed at every step to carry out the order ‘+n’ correctly.’ … It would almost be more correct to say, not that an intuition was needed at every stage, but that a new decision was needed at every stage.” (#186, p. 64)

Following the rule may give the impression of uniformity, yet every subsumption of a particular case under the general rule requires a new act of thought, not just an insight but a decision. There is a cleft between what seems to be the given general rule and on the other hand its singular instance: a practice is needed to subsume the latter under the former and a subjectivity is at stake in this cleft, inscribed in the wavering of the rule the moment one proceeds to its application. One has to fully realize there to what extent one sustains the generality of the rule by each of one’s particular decisions, rather than effacing subjectivity in the mere uniform repetition of applying the same general rule, univocally valid in all its instances. One should become aware to what extent the rule, even in its extreme univocal mathematical form sustained by formalization, is intertwined with subjectivity.

Second, the misapplication of a rule, or breaking a rule, constantly lying low in the fragile process of its application, may well constitute another rule. What seems to be a deviation from the rule may well contain its own regularity, to the point that there may be no escaping the rule, and the most unruly behaviour is still tantamount to following a different rule, so that the rule always presents the case of ‘one dividing into two’, the inherent division lurking within regularity itself. We are never quite in the univocal situation where we would have a neat opposition between the rule and its breach or a deviation, but rather in a situation where one has to figure out the breach as a part of another series, lurking within the first one, thus as the ‘coming out’ of another rule. If I anticipate somewhat, one may see in this the paradigmatic stance of interpretation in psychoanalysis – for what psychoanalysis essentially has to deal with is the breach of a series, a breakdown of regularity and meaning, it is always in the breach that the unconscious makes its coming out. Hence, its task would be to produce a different series with what appears as a breach of the first series, to unearth the underlying rule conditioning both the rule and its breach, to dig out what the rule has repressed and suppressed by being established as a rule, to see how the repressed and suppressed part nevertheless avenge themselves by breaking the rule.

Yet this is not at all how Wittgenstein sees it. Although rules inevitably call for interpretation, interpretation is ultimately for him not the name of the game (and rules are after all what constitutes a game). In the famous #201 he says the following:

“This was our paradox: no course of action could be determined by a rule, because any course of action can be made out to accord with the rule. The answer was: if any action can be made out to accord with the rule, then it can also be made out to conflict with it. And so there would be neither accord nor conflict here.” (P. 69)

This is the famous statement that Kripke made such a big case of, seeing there the paramount formulation of the basic paradox. But Wittgenstein goes on to say:

“It can be seen that there is a misunderstanding here from the mere fact that in the course of our argument we give one interpretation after another; as if each one contented us at least for a moment, until we thought of yet another standing behind it. What this shows is that there is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation, but which is exhibited in what we call ‘obeying the rule’ and ‘going against it’ in actual cases.”

Interpretation is necessary, but not sufficient. Interpretations have the tendency to multiply and proliferate, there is always more interpretation beneath any interpretation, but our hold on the rules, and the rules’ hold on us, are both tantamount to something which eludes interpretation. It is ingrained in our practice of both following the rules and going against them, and this is where rules are not merely susceptible of interpretation, but touch upon the forms of life, forms of life constantly woven of our usage and practices. This is where rules don’t offer us the luxury or the comfort of a distance needed for interpretation. We are implicated in them in ways more fundamental than interpreting them, ways underlying both obeying and disobeying the rules. And this is where rules also don’t form a neat realm apart so that one could easily isolate them and delineate them as the object of scrutiny. They reach into our being, which is a being both dependent on and irreducible to rules.[6]

Third, there is the question of rule and singularity:

“Is what we call ‘obeying a rule’ something that it would be possible for only one man to do, and to do only once in his life? – This is of course a note on the grammar of the expression ‘to obey a rule’. It is not possible that there should have been only one occasion on which only one person obeyed a rule. It is not possible that there should have been only one occasion on which a message was conveyed, an order given or understood; and so on. – To obey a rule, to convey a message, to give an order, to play a game of chess, are customs [Gepflogenheiten] (uses, institutions).” (#199, p. 68)

Singularity cannot be ruled – but should it be ruled out? Rule resides in repetition, repetition is its usage and practice, and there is an intricate web of repetitions embodied in customs, habit and institutions. Yet, rule and its repetition hang in the air, for the only guarantee of a rule is the practice of its repetition, which is, as we have seen, precarious and divided, without a foundation and without universality. Repetition doesn’t yield either foundation or universality.

“And hence also ‘obeying a rule’ is a practice. And to believe one is obeying a rule is not to obey a rule. Hence it is not possible to obey a rule ‘privately’ [privatim]: otherwise believing one was obeying a rule would be the same thing as obeying it.” (#203, p. 69)

At this point Wittgenstein, bemused, adds the famous cryptic remark: “Language is a labyrinth of paths. You come from one side and you know your way about; you come to the same place from another side and you no longer know your way about.” There lies perhaps the gist of the psychoanalytic problem of repetition.

This paragraph is in line with one of the main theses of the book, namely that the secret of meaning resides solely in the usage, that it depends on a rule one can extricate only from the practice of its use, not from what language users might imagine, believe or think,[7] not from the state of mind or intentions and not from some fixed signified, transcendent or objectively given or universal. It is impossible to fix the identity of rule and of meaning, they both present the strange mix of being predictable and unpredictable in one. What follows is also the impossibility of private language, which would be precisely following a rule in private, in one’s inner abode excepted from the public domain, although public usage is itself fragile, without transparency and stability.

I have dwelled at some length on the tricky problem of rules (no doubt essential for Wittgenstein, but not quite in the way that Kripke thought) with a particular agenda in mind. If I now take the risk of making an abrupt change of the language game, attempting a bold shortcut to psychoanalysis, then one could say the following: Wittgenstein is a great theorist, one of the greatest, of the status of the big Other, of what is called the big Other in the Lacanian theory. If one looks at PU in this way, then the entire book constantly revolves around this, and this only, it doesn’t really treat anything else. What is the guarantee of meaning? What can vouchsafe for the status of the rule? What gives the grounding to the rule? What guarantee do we have to presuppose or assume to use language at all? We couldn’t open our mouth if we didn’t presuppose a stability of meaning and a universality of rules, shared by our interlocutors, yet this is an unfounded assumption, unavoidable yet void. What we have presupposed is produced as we go along, case by case, and is not given in advance nor does it have any transcendent or transcendental existence, neither objective nor subjective. So does Wittgenstein ultimately teach us, by very different ways, that ‘the big Other doesn’t exist’, that it is ridden with lack? Does pointing to its necessity and in the same breath to the impossibility of ever pinning it down and endowing it with a firm existence, entail precisely what Lacan meant with the non-existence of the Other? Is Wittgenstein finally Lacan in disguise?[8]

There is a Lacanian antinomy of the Other, which one can pose as the antinomy of two massively opposing statements: first, ‘there is the Other’, which is the essential dimension that psychoanalysis has to deal with. Notoriously, Freud spoke of the unconscious as ein anderer Schauplatz, the other scene, another stage inherently other in relation to the one of consciousness. So there is the Other of the unconscious and Lacan proposed as one of his big slogans ‘the unconscious is the discourse of the Other’. And another of his formulas runs: ‘the desire is the desire of the Other’. These two short statements place in no uncertain terms the unconscious and desire under the banner of the Other. There is the Other at the heart of all entities that psychoanalysis has to deal with, and this may be seen as a shorthand to assemble them with a single stroke under one heading, the heading of the Other. Yet this is but the first part of the antinomy, the part positing the Other at the core. The second part of this antinomy, in stark contradiction to the first, states bluntly: ‘the Other lacks’.[9] There is a lack in the Other, the Other is haunted by a lack, or to extend it a bit further: the Other doesn’t exist. ‘There is the Other’ vs. ‘The Other doesn’t exist’. With a little push one could make Wittgenstein say roughly the same: the Other is essential, but it is ridden with a lack of guarantee, it doesn’t exist in any substantial way, it is fickle and precarious by its nature.

But the closeness is there to make out the difference.

There is a long and somewhat tedious discussion about how many Wittgensteins are there. Some people love Wittgenstein so much that they would like to have at least two of them, one is not enough. I will not pursue this discussion, except for making a very short and no doubt schematic point about the Wittgenstein of Tractatus insofar as it is important for the relation to psychoanalysis. In the Introduction to Tractatus Wittgenstein conveniently and succinctly points out its goal: “Its whole meaning could be summed up somewhat as follows: What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.” (2002, p. 27) There are two dividing lines at stake in this brief statement: first the line delimiting language, setting apart what can be said from what cannot be (‘the mystical’, pertaining to the very being of the world, not to the ways how it is); and there is a dividing line within language, setting apart the meaningful, ‘what is said clearly’, from the hazy and meaningless. Philosophy kept running into quasi-problems by not respecting this line:

“Most propositions and questions, that have been written about philosophical matters, are not false, but senseless. We cannot, therefore, answer questions of this kind at all, but only state their senselessness. Most questions and propositions of philosophers result from the fact that we do not understand the logic of our language. […] And so it is not to be wondered at that the deepest problems are really no problems at all.” (4.003)

Hence, one has to establish clear criteria of sense, take the logic as the language doctor, as it were, set up a clear relation of language to reality (“Proposition is a picture of reality”, 4.01), and philosophical chimeras will evaporate.

It is clear that in Tractatus there is no place for psychoanalysis. The propositions, or at least linguistic phenomena, that interest psychoanalysis don’t meet Wittgenstein’s criteria at all. They are all but meaningful and expressed clearly. Psychoanalysis could be seen as the direct inversion of Tractatus and its basic premises: it is only interested in statements that are senseless and unclear, badly formed and logically untenable, in statements such that don’t heed at all the last thesis of Tractatus and would certainly have to remain silent. And furthermore, to add insult to injury, it is only in such statements that psychoanalysis hopes to get the glimpse of truth. It is only where the philosophical logic doesn’t work, in what it prohibits or excludes, that there emerges a moment of truth, and the nature of this truth is such that it cannot be expressed in a proposition at all, yet it is nevertheless ‘structured as a language’. Hence, the truth claim is no longer the privilege of properly formed propositions, but something that emerges against the logical rule and disregards conscious intentions. It is not us who may speak the truth, in accordance with well established logical criteria, it is rather that truth itself speaks where one would the least expect, in a slip of both logical and grammatical structure. Truth takes the word whether we want it to or not, and especially where we don’t want it to. Psychoanalysis is the inverted Tractatus, so the situation seems hopeless, the dialogue excluded.

The Wittgenstein of PU also proposes a dividing line, yet now not guided by logic, but by a different pursuit. There is the dividing line between the language games, ruled by rules, although in a fickle way, and on the other hand the pit of private language, ultimately its impossibility. The distinction between meaningful and meaningless is far less certain since it depends on the rules which are ‘suspended in the air’, never uniform and univocal. Language games cannot be delimited, they have no clear borders, they are the veritable ‘games without borders’ (to invoke the title of an old TV show). They have always already begun and there is no end in sight, we are always caught in them, with no clearly pre-established rules and with no outside. They cannot be disposed into some neat classification (if anything, their classification would look like the one proposed by Borges from the alleged Chinese encyclopedia that Foucault was so fond of). There is no meta-rule to rule their rules, and any attempt at their classification would be just another language game. One could say: language, under the auspices of language games, presents itself as an inconsistent whole, it cannot form a well defined and delimited whole, one can never observe it from outside, there is no meta-language that wouldn’t itself be prey to language games. The slogan that there is no meta-language – which is one of the stock of Lacan’s slogans – also means that there is no language in the first place, not as a delimited sphere, a domain that could be set apart. In relation to language, one doesn’t have the luxury of a meta-level, and hence language becomes something that escapes being grasped as a totality – it rather presents itself as a Lacanian not-all, le pas tout.

But if language games have no simple exteriority, they nevertheless have an internal border with the private language. What discriminates the two – and I am taking only this aspect as the guideline, I am well aware that there are others – is precisely the question of the rules. However uncertain and fickle their status is, they are nevertheless something that establishes language at its core. The rule makes sense only as something publicly available, hence stepping in the light of generality (if not universality), thus private rule cannot acquire the status of a rule. It would present the limit case of singularity, of something followed just by one person only once, to push it to the extreme.

Psychoanalysis starts from an assumption that may look like the direct opposite of the claims of PU. Namely: there is a strange kind of private language. Another name for it is the unconscious. But what this ultimately means is that the rule is not the discriminating trait to oppose language and private language, for in the unconscious there are private rules which make that ‘the unconscious is structured like a language’, as Lacan’s notorious adage goes. If it is structured like a language, this implies that it follows rules, as any language, although these rules are not publicly available, accessible to the community of speakers, and what is more, they are not even available to the speaker him/herself. This is precisely the place and the mission of analytical interpretation: to disentangle the rules that this private language has been secretly obeying, not some general rules, but the rules different from case to case. It tries to establish the rules in what appears as unruly and senseless – the slips, the jokes, the dreams. Its guideline is: there are rules which govern this seeming chaos with a secret hand. There is a crucial difference with Wittgenstein’s private language which is supposed to be a language privately comprehensible to one only, regulated by his own secret rules, in the position of master over its meaning. Here we have a private language that is in the first place not comprehensible even to that one person, to its exclusive user, although it is only him, the speaker, who detains the keys to unravelling this nonsense. There is no universal clue (e. g. some vocabulary of symbols etc.), everything ultimately hinges on treating singularity. The formations of the unconscious may well present the extreme case of a rule practiced only once by one person only, but over and over again, the singularity repeating itself and insisting. Thus it would seem that the job of analytic interpretation would be to restitute the rules, elusive not only to public but equally to their user and producer, to return these rules to the public use, to availability, to effect their integration into the domain accessible to others, their socialization – and in language everything is socialized by definition. What was private has to become public – this is the translation that one could give, for this particular purpose, to the Freudian adage Wo es war, soll ich werden. In this respect it would appear that interpretation is also the restitution of meaning, providing meaning to the meaningless along with sorting out the rules of the unruly. Secret rules and secret meaning would thus make their coming out through the heroic feat of the analyst. The notion of transference in psychoanalysis is precisely this: placing the unconscious into the realm of the Other, its axiom is that the private language pertains to the Other, that there is a rule of the unruly, and the analyst is the material token of this, the shorthand of the Other.

So is the unconscious a language game? A language game whose peculiarity would be that is was played according to unknown rules, unknown to the player himself, and would present the limit case of being played by only one player only once? Only once but over and over again? And the task of the analyst would thus be to restitute it to the rule and make it public? To turn it into a ‘common’ case of repetition, as opposed to the insistence of unrepeatable singularity? But this is the limit of analytic interpretation itself, for once it would do this it would ruin its object. By disentangling the rules it ruins them as the rules precisely ruling the unconscious. The unconscious would thus evaporate and be made conscious, come to light and pertain to the public domain. No doubt there is a great charm to discovering the private rules and the hidden meaning, something that makes us struck by awe with so many Freud’s interpretations of dreams. ‘Vow, how come I didn’t think of it! We didn’t see it, but it was all there!’ Just as we are struck by the solution of a rebus – and Freud often compared dreams to a rebus. It took Freud’s keen eye and capacities of detection matched only by Sherlock Holmes.

But this is not what psychoanalysis is about. This is the part which integrates the unconscious into the framework of a language game, not just something ‘structured as a language’. No doubt there is a language game of analytic interpretation, to the point that the unconscious, such as it was brought forward in Freud’s famous cases and interpretations, has become the topic of cultured conversation and part of the doxa. The unconscious of e. g. Wolf-man, Rat-man, little Hans, Dora or Schreber has become utterly socialized, yet it is clear that the socialization, its entry into canonized knowledge as well as the common opinion, doesn’t do away with the persistence of the unconscious. It points to something in language which persists despite interpretation, it insists in face of it being interpreted, no matter how much one attempts to publicize its rules. It insists precisely as something not simply recalcitrant to rules, but something that insists despite it being made public. The more it is debunked, the more it makes up new private rules, but which are always dissipated by being made public. It always appears in a flash, not something that can be sustained or turned into a substance, not some designated realm of secret rules and meanings that one could simply oppose to usual rules and meanings or ultimately conflate them. It is not a chaotic activity of unbounded psychic forces, for rules are essential to it and constitutive of it, yet its rule evaporates the moment it is made public. So the analytic interpretation is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for a discourse on the unconscious. The part which pertains to unearthing the hidden meaning and rule is utterly misleading, its most charming part is also its weak spot insofar it creates the deceptive appearance that we have thus met the unconscious in person and brought the hiding criminal to the public eye (if not to justice). This is why Lacan insists so much that the point of interpretation in analysis is not in providing the seemingly meaningless with meaning – this is but its preparatory stage, a prelude – but ultimately aims at reduction of meaning. To give just one quote:

“[…] interpretation is not limited to providing us with the significations of the way taken by the psyche that we have before us. This implication is no more than a prelude. It is directed not so much at the meaning as towards reducing it to the non-meaning of the signifiers, so that we may rediscover the determinants of the subject’s entire behavior […] not in its significatory dependence, but precisely in its irreducible and senseless character qua chain of signifiers.” (Lacan 1979, p. 212)

So it is not merely the question of providing meaning and establishing the rule of the unruly, the reverse side of it is to bring forth the utter contingency of both rule and meaning, their being suspended in the air, to use Wittgenstein’s parlance: “Any interpretation still hangs in the air [hängt … in der Luft] along with what it interprets, and cannot give it any support. Interpretations by themselves do not determine meaning.” (#198, p. 68) This is precisely the point that Lacan aims at, in another parlance, with the ‘irreducible and senseless character of signifiers’ and with the claim that interpretation is not about determining meaning. And one could see there, in another way, the process of ‘grasping a rule which is not an interpretation’ (#201), the point where rules reach into the sphere of repetition which shapes our being, not by being endowed with meaning, but in their meaninglessness. This is the point that Lacan will scrutinize under the double heading of automaton and tyche, freely borrowing the terms from Aristotle. One could say, summarily, that there is first a trajectory from meaning/rule to repetition as automaton, and then from automaton, as the symbolic repetition underlying ‘language games’, to tyche, the repetition of something that eludes the symbolic and reaches into the real, but which one can only get to through automaton.[10]

The unconscious always emerges as an interruption, the interruption of a regularity, of following the rules and language games, as well as the interruption of meaning, as something that doesn’t make sense. The point of analysis is not to make good this interruption, to integrate this alien body into a continuity, to fill in the gaps and straighten out the distortions, but quite the opposite, to enhance its interruption value, as it were, to insist on the form of interruption and distortion rather than on the content which emerges in its cleft. For content can always be recuperated, despite its spicy and offensive undertones, subject to taboos and prohibitions. The content pertains to the preconscious which can always be recovered by consciousness, but its very form can’t. It is the form of interruption that cannot be straightened out, a gap – in meaning, in the rule – that cannot be filled in and healed. But this is not some minor or marginal malfunction, for what psychoanalysis has taught us is that the very status of the subject is correlative to this gap. It is because of the interruption, not because of the rule, that we are subjects.

This is where the analytic interpretation is always an intervention. It doesn’t merely spell out the meaning or extrapolate the secret rule – by doing this it changes the nature of the rule and meaning in question. Psychoanalysis is not hermeneutics, disentangling the hidden sense of a particularly incomprehensible text, it is a practice of changing the very thing it interprets, if it is worthy of its name. In Wittgensteinian terms one could say: establishing a new usage and hence transforming the forms of life in which usage is embedded. It is where the analytic interpretation hits upon its limit that it finds the lever and the resource which turn it into practice and transformation.

“If a lion could speak, we couldn’t understand him.” For our purposes we could propose the paraphrase: “If the unconscious could speak, could we understand it?” First thesis: the unconscious speaks, it doesn’t do anything else, it never ceases speaking. Ça parle, it speaks, as Lacan never tires of repeating. And perhaps the speaking lion is not a bad parable of the unconscious: the idea was always around that the unconscious is precisely a beast in us, but a speaking beast, which makes all the difference. Second thesis: we can understand it, we can unravel its nonsense, but understanding is not the name of the game. By understanding it we at the same time lose it by integrating it into the realm of meaning, yet it persists as the break of meaning and of rule – everything can be integrated except this break itself, and psychoanalysis is nothing but a sustained effort to keep fidelity to it. Subject, truth, practice and transformation are all at stake in this break.


Ahmed, A. (2010) Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (London/New York: Continuum).


Assoun, P.-L. (1988) Freud et Wittgenstein (Paris: PUF).


Benvenuto, S. (2006) “Wittgenstein and Lacan reading Freud”, Journal for Lacanian Studies, vol. 4, no. 1. 


Bouveresse, J. (1995) Wittgenstein reads Freud (Princeton: Princeton UP).


Caillois, R. (1958) Les jeux et les hommes. Eng. tr.  Man, Play, and Games, trans. Meyer Barash (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1961).


Cavell, S. (1969) Must we mean what we say? (Cambridge: Cambridge UP).


Cioffi, F. (1998) Wittgenstein on Freud and Frazer (Cambridge: Cambridge UP).


Kripke, S. (1982) Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language (Oxford: Blackwell).


Huizinga, J. (1938) Homo Ludens. Eng. tr. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955).


Lacan, J.:

–       –  (1979) The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, transl. A. Sheridan (Harmondsworth: Penguin).

–        – (1980) “L’Autre manque”, Ornicar?, vol. 20-21.

Laugier, S. (2009) Le sens de l’usage (Paris: Vrin).

Laugier, S. & Chaviré, C. (eds.) (2006) Lire les Recherches philosophiques de Wittgenstein (Paris: Vrin).

Milner, J.-C. (2000) “De la linguistique à la linguisterie” in Lacan, l’écrit, l’image (Paris: Flammarion).

Pfaller, R. (2002) Illusionen der Anderen (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp).

Soulez, A. (2004) Wittgenstein et le tournant grammatical (Paris: PUF).


Wittgenstein, L.

–        –(2002) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C. K. Ogden (London/New York: Routledge).

–       –(2008) Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell).


[1] Perhaps the most telling one comes from La Fontaine. In his fable “Animaux malades de la peste”, “Animals afflicted by plague”, a plague is decimating the animals, supposedly as a punishment for their sins, so they have to hold council and look for a culprit, like in Oedipus. The lion, given his royal status, starts by confessing that he has indeed devoured many sheep and along with them many a shepherd, so perhaps his sins are so great that they may be the cause of the plague. But he is quickly exculpated by the sly fox. Many beasts follow suite and make their bloody confessions, but in the end there is the donkey who confesses to have grazed some grass, illicitly, and he is designated as the obvious true culprit, and duly put to death. So here there is no trouble in understanding the speaking lion, and what is more, there is no difficulty not only in understanding what he says but particularly in understanding what he doesn’t say. He doesn’t mention his status and his superior strength, he never threatens nor tries to get the upper hand. All his speech acts are straightforward, the trouble stems from his speech non-acts. There is a language of power which functions precisely by not being uttered, by not being made explicit, but which is clearly understood by everyone, and acted upon. Here not only do we understand the speaking lion, but we also understand very well the non-speaking lion, the part that he keeps silent about. There can be no doubt as to which language game lion is playing, once he opens his mouth, for this is the kind of lion with whom we share our forms of life, since Aesop’s times, i. e. the forms of life of power. They hinge upon the ways in which the authority of an utterance is constructed, as well as the authority of non-utterance. When the lion speaks we can hear him roar. And one can quickly surmise that the speaking lion, in this particular case, may well have the contours of none other than Louis XIV (as commentators point out), but whose words, along with omissions, have to be put into lion’s mouth to be uttered at all. – In fables our condition of speaking beings is quite literally turned into a ‘form of life’, a form of animal life, or more precisely a form of denatured animal life, in order to bring forth our nature and its form of life. We are animals afflicted by the plague of language, but whom should we designate as the scapegoat?


[2] One can recall some illustrious books on the matter: Johannes Huizinga (1938) Homo ludens; Roger Caillois (1958) Les jeux et les hommes; etc.


[3] I must point to the lucid pages devoted to this by Robert Pfaller (2002).


[4] This is from Bemerkungen über die Grundlagen der Mathematik, quoted by Laugier (2009), p. 226.


[5] This is the product of the late 19th century when mathematics has largely replaced Greek and Latin as the cornerstone of education, the move that coincided with the massification of compulsory education. Cf. the work of Sverker Lundin (unfortunately mostly available only in Swedish) for the history of introducing mathematics as the basic and general subject, and for various accounts trying to justify its utility and common benefit, accounts always heavily laden with ideological assumptions.


[6] Could one see in this some basic Wittgenstein’s figure of thought: indispensible for, yet irreducible to?


[7] One is tempted to say, with Marx: Sie wissen es nicht, aber sie tun es. They don’t know it, but they are doing it.


[8] For academic sake I must list some useful literature on the subject: Assoun (1988), Bouvresse (1995), Cioffi (1998), Milner (2000), and the sustained efforts by Sergio Benvenuto since the early eighties. I have found particularly useful Milner’s short paper.


[9] One can find it e. g. in this minimal and straight form in one of Lacan’s last public statements: “L’Autre manque. Ça me fait drôle à moi aussi. Je tiens le coup pourtant, ce qui vous épate, mais je ne le fais pas pour cela. [The Other lacks. I don’t feel happy about it myself. Yet, I endure, which fascinates you, but I am not doing it for that reason.]” Lacan 1980, p. 12.


[10] As an example of private language Wittgenstein gives the following: “Let us imagine the following case. I want to keep a diary about the recurrence of a certain sensation. To this end I associate it with the sign ‘S’ and write this sign in a calendar for every day on which I have the sensation.” (#258, p. 78) One could see in this ‘S’ the private rule of a meaning over which one could be the sole master, but which coincides with mere ‘S’, Lacan’s designation of the symbolic, in its pure senselessness.


Mladen Dolar is professor and senior research fellow at the Department of philosophy, Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana, and the advising researcher at the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht, Netherlands. He is the author of a dozen books, mainly published in Slovene and some of them translated into a number of languages, and of over a hundred papers published in scholarly journals or as book chapters in various languages. His publications in English include Opera’s Second Death, with Slavoj Žižek (Cambridge: Routledge 2001) and Voice and Nothing More (Boston: MIT Press 2006). His main area of research is the German idealism and French contemporary thought, focused on the Lacanian psychoanalysis. He is one of the founding members of what is referred to as Ljubljana School. [mladendolar@yahoo.com]

Publication Date:

November 19, 2014

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European Journal of Psychoanalysis