Through the Psychoanalytoscope

Frank Cioffi

  • Wittgenstein Reads Freud: The Myth of the Unconscious by Jacques Bouveresse, translated by Carol Cosman
    Princeton, 143 pp, £15.95, June 1995, ISBN 0 691 03425 7

Jacques Bouveresse has attempted the arduous and risky task not only of construing and assessing Wittgenstein’s scattered, largely unflattering remarks on Freud but of relating them to current issues in Freud studies. The result is a valuable exercise in itself but I am not sure that this strategy was the best one for expounding and assessing Wittgenstein’s views in all their idiosyncratic splendour. Though Bouveresse says much that is illuminating, several important ambiguities are left unresolved and one major misgiving is unallayed.

It is on Freud rather than Wittgenstein that Bouveresse makes his most astute comments, though there are lapses. How can he take seriously Jeffrey Masson’s thesis that Freud substituted the Oedipus complex for the seduction theory out of a timid hope that it would be ‘more acceptable to the scientific community’? Is it credible that having upset his colleagues by introducing the unseemly topic of paedophilia into the etiology of the neuroses Freud then attempted to placate them by announcing that he had misconstrued his data and that the real trouble was that they all lusted after their mothers?

Though Wittgenstein speaks of Freud’s ‘scientific achievement’ and describes himself as a ‘disciple’, he also tells us that ‘psychoanalysis is a foul and dangerous practice’ and that Freud ‘performed a disservice’ in providing models for asinine explanations of neurotic symptoms. He says that Freud ‘discovered phenomena and connections not previously known’, and yet that psychoanalytic interpretations are ‘not matters of discovery but of persuasion’.

In addition to apparent inconsistencies Wittgenstein’s remarks display notable omissions. Bouveresse justly observes that though ‘the crucial question’ is ‘whether Freud employed appropriate methods to justify his causal assertions’, Wittgenstein is perfunctory in his discussion of these. Consider the most notable division among Freud’s critics on this issue. On the one side, it is maintained, most vociferously by Adolf Grünbaum, that only ‘controlled enquiry’ is capable of conferring credibility on Freud’s causal claims; on the other, that though this is to be excessively rigoristic, a radical rejection of Freud’s distinctive etiological and dynamic theses does not require it – the telling objection to Freud is not that he is pseudo-scientific but that he is pseudo-hermeneutic.

The most surprising feature of Wittgenstein’s remarks is that he seems to take the side of the more scientistic of Freud’s critics. In his dismissal of grounds other than the scientific ones for causal imputations he can sound like Grünbaum, as when he denies that motive explanations based on the subject’s say-so can have causal status since ‘a cause is found experimentally.’ But what experiment could show that the Count of Monte-Cristo’s motive for hounding his former persecutors was vengeance and not idle malice, or that Shylock, in plotting the death of Antonio, wasn’t just indulging a general animus against Christians? I would like Bouveresse to have done more to show how the distinctive sense in which Wittgenstein sometimes employs the term ‘cause’ qualifies his apparent scientism.

Freud several times compares his procedure in identifying the origin of a neurotic condition to the solving of a jigsaw puzzle. ‘If one succeeds in arranging the confused heap of fragments, each of which bears upon it an unintelligible piece of drawing, so that the picture acquires a meaning, so that there is no gap anywhere in the design and the whole fits together ... then one knows that one has solved the puzzle.’ Bouveresse’s objection that such a procedure necessarily falls short of demonstration is inadequate. Consider the case of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, whose manifold eccentricities include wearing a wedding dress and only one white shoe. When we learn that this is how she was attired at an emotionally disturbing moment years earlier, do we not consider that a case has been made, without the benefit of controlled enquiry, for the existence of a causal connection between her trauma and her eccentricities? The right objection to Freud’s etiological claims is not that ‘jigsaw-solving’ of the Miss Havisham kind falls short of demonstration but that Freud’s explanations regularly fall woefully short of the Miss Havisham standard in spite of a tendentious insistence that they meet it.

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