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

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.

Bouveresse calls the confusion between reasons and causes ‘the philosophical confusion par excellence’. The problem is that much that Wittgenstein has to say about this treacherous antithesis is only peripherally related to his claim that Freud confused them. Clues as to what Wittgenstein meant are provided by his remark that Freud’s book on jokes was ‘a good book for looking for philosophical mistakes because one can ask how far what he says is a hypothesis and how far just a good way of representing a fact’. What Wittgenstein generally means by ‘cause’, when commenting on Freud, is any factor in an explanation whose influence is only to be determined by empirical enquiry; this can include reasons and thus puts these in confusing opposition to what, in other contexts, Wittgenstein also calls ‘reasons’ but denies are causes since they are what the subject himself gives and are thus not based on empirical grounds.

Freud is accused of confusing reason and cause because he produces accounts whose acceptability is independent of inductive support, as if they were corollaries of theoretical discoveries and could have an authority not conferred on them by the subject’s agreement. For example, the real point of remarks like ‘a tendency to economy is the most general feature of joke techniques’ lies in their being a good way of representing what it is we find appealing about jokes and not, as Freud intermittently assumes, in their recording his conclusions as to the hidden energic processes underlying the appreciation of jokes. Wittgenstein finds Freud insufficiently aware of this and too intent on ‘sounding like science’.

Imagine a world in which people who laughed at jokes did not know what they were laughing at until they observed the unconscious processes hypothesised by Freud. Only when able to peer down a psychoanalytoscope at the joke-mechanism could they pronounce conclusively: ‘Just as we thought: a tendency to economy is the most general feature of joke technique.’ This is the world Freud intermittently beguiled himself into believing he was living in, and from whose thrall Wittgenstein’s admonition – ‘new regions of the soul have not been found’ – proposes to liberate us.

The claim that analysts confound ‘good ways of representing a fact’ with hypotheses as to hidden processes is not confined to Freud’s joke theories. Another example is the defence of his tripartite division of minds into Id, Ego and Superego on the grounds that that is what mental conflict feels like. In his monumental Freud Evaluated, Malcolm Macmillan refers to ‘the psychoanalytic tradition of directly translating subjective impressions into economic terms’. Even Richard Wollheim, who rarely rises above an abject appreciativeness in his dealings with Freud, concedes that Freud ‘sometimes treated propositions about energy and its liberation as though they were descriptions of introspectible phenomena’. This equivocation extends beyond the orthodox Freudian formulations. Critics of Kohut and his followers have complained of their oscillation between use of the terms ‘fragmented self’ and ‘disintegrative anxiety’ as subjective descriptions of the patients’ experiences and as identifying the processes which underlie them.

Wittgenstein was struck by the felicity of Freud’s comparison of certain dream images to a rebus. A rebus is a picture representing a word or name – the cigar at the bottom of the last panel of E. Segar’s Popeye strip is a familiar example. Wittgenstein called the comparison an ‘excellent simile’. But the sense in which he thinks dreams are rebus-like puts him in opposition to Freud. For Wittgenstein certain dream images are rebuses because that is how they strike us; but something could strike someone as rebus-like and not be a rebus in Freud’s sense because it did not come about in the appropriate way: it wasn’t a product of homunculoid dream-workers busily transforming the latent dream thoughts into the manifest dream by condensing, displacing or symbolising. When Wittgenstein speaks of the meaningfulness of a dream he is referring to its manifest property of being redolent of secret significance, a property which it could have even if lacking significance in Freud’s sense. But Wittgenstein puzzles us when he implies that Freud’s rooting of adult proclivities of various kinds in the vicissitudes of infancy may also be just ‘good similes’.

What in Freud’s etiological speculations might have moved Wittgenstein to this view? He may have felt it was justified because when Freud invoked certain infantile activities as explanatory of certain adult ones what determined their acceptability was not evidence but merely the felicity of the juxtaposition. Thus Freud was claiming to establish causal relations between states of affairs when in reality he was only putting them ‘side by side’.

The reason Wittgenstein is appreciative (‘excellent similes’), rather than straightforwardly condemnatory, is that even if our infantile transactions with our mother’s nipples, say, are not causally related to the turbulence the sight of breasts provokes in us as adults, they may nevertheless clarify it by making explicit the nascent tactile and buccal delights augured. By contrast, consider the suggestion of an earlier champion of the unconscious, Eduard von Hartmann, that breasts arouse men because of the unconscious prospect of the plentiful nutrition they would afford offspring. The mysterious delectability of breasts as things to be smothered and engulfed by and slobbered over is not illuminated by the assurance that our children would not be stinted of milk. If von Hartmann’s speculation fails as a hypothesis it fails completely, since, unlike many of Freud’s, its appositeness as simile cannot redeem it.

But can the value of Freud’s speculations in general survive their exposure as disguised similes? Could we retain what is valuable in Freud’s insistence on the ubiquity of infantile sexual influences if we divest them of their causal status and take him to be saying instead: ‘I am only comparing men’s attitude towards money with their infantile feelings about faeces’; ‘I am only comparing the catamite’s gratification at penetration by penises to the child’s pleasure in the expulsion of stools’; ‘I am only comparing friendship between heterosexual men to love affairs between homosexual men’; and so on? How are we to persuade someone who finds this kind of discourse fatuous that he is wrong? Should we even try?

Bouveresse has an interesting discussion of Wittgenstein’s suggestion that the source of our bemusement by psychoanalysis lies in its ‘peculiar charm’. Wittgenstein locates one source of this ‘charm’ in ‘the idea of an underworld. A secret cellar. Something hidden. Uncanny.’ He doesn’t illustrate, but he may be referring to Freud’s tendency to populate the unconscious with hidden agents moving in mysterious ways their wonders to perform, like the Numskulls in the Beano. Blinky pulling his master’s eyelids down like blinds when he doesn’t want to see what is going on outside is akin to the eye that ‘refuses’ to see in Freud’s account of psychogenic blindness. This engaging façon de parler also crops up in his account of the consolatory power of humour, which he sees as a consequence of ‘the superego speaking kindly words of comfort to the intimidated ego’.

Wittgenstein suggests that our obliviousness to the deficiencies of Freud’s monotonous invocation of Oedipal origins is due to its having the attraction of mythological accounts: ‘it is all the outcome of something that happened long ago ... giving a sort of tragic pattern to one’s life.’ (He was anticipated on this point by Svevo’s Zeno: ‘they have found out what was wrong with me. The diagnosis is just the same as the one that Sophocles drew up long ago for poor Oedipus: I was in love with my mother and wanted to murder my father ... I listened enraptured. It was a disease that exalted me to a place among the great ones of the earth: a disease so dignified that it could trace its pedigree even to the mythological age.’) The term ‘myth’ has lost much of the pejorative force it had for Wittgenstein. What was once taken as derogatory is now a familiar component of Freudian apologetic. As befits a Teflon culture hero, Freud is rarely permitted to be straightforwardly wrong about anything; whatever turns out to be empirically false is pronounced poetically true. What fails as fact succeeds as parable.

However, what Wittgenstein calls our ‘subservience’ to Freud – which he predicts we will be long in overcoming – isn’t just due to the intrinsic ‘charm’ of his ideas. Bouveresse himself inadvertently provides an instance which can’t be so explained when he tells us that Freud’s erroneous seduction theory was based on his patients’ claims to have been sexually molested as infants. But if there is one point on which Freud’s initial proclamation is definite, it is that it was not based on the claims of his patients; rather, it was based on the hypothesised molestations fitting so neatly the rest of the jigsaw presented by the patient’s symptoms, dreams etc. Why then the singular uniformity with which an account has been propagated that an hour in a library would have exposed as baseless? (It even got by the ultra-scrupulous Janet Malcolm and the legendary fact-checkers at the New Yorker, as well as Adolf Grünbaum, where it is accompanied by hubristic protestations at ‘exegetical mythmaking’ in Freud studies.) I think that the deluding charm in these instances, as in many others, was that of the Freud legend itself. Grünbaum, Malcolm and a legion of others erred because they followed Freud’s own retrospective, strategically distorted accounts, and were incapable of suspecting that he may have been fabricating. King Richard will lose his hump before Freud his unmerited reputation for candour.

It is a pity that Bouveresse did not avail himself of one of the few specific examples which Wittgenstein gives, and in connection with which he voices his strongest objections to Freud’s interpretative procedure, castigating it as ‘immensely wrong’. The rebuke was provoked by an interpretation Freud gives of a flowering branch held by the dreamer which she herself associates with the lily spray carried by Gabriel in paintings of the Annunciation but whose meaning Freud insists is genital. Wittgenstein says that in bringing this image into relation with the dreamer’s sexual life Freud had ‘cheated’ her. I don’t think that at this point Wittgenstein is saying that the dreamer is being cheated because instead of searching for the true causes of the dream-image Freud insisted on rounding up the usual suspects, but rather, because the ideas whose confluence determined the branch image – an erect phallus, masturbation guilt etc – did not coincide with those of which she was already aware in a penumbral, nascent way. I believe that Wittgenstein is objecting to the proffering of objective, pre-existent meanings, however empirically warranted, because he sees them as constituting a violation of the compact between analyst and patient. What was ‘immensely wrong’ was for Freud to take his patient away from her vague sense of the significance of that which she contemplated – whether her dream or her life – to its diagnostic implications. This view provoked one outraged psychoanalyst to compare Wittgenstein to someone who encourages a victim of cancer to neglect her condition until it is too late.

Though the implied equation between an analyst’s interpretative powers and a biopsy report explains why Freudian analysis arouses such profound mistrust, Bouveresse is nevertheless mistaken to say that there is no way other than a dreamer’s acquiescence to determine the acceptability of an interpretation. This can be illustrated by the very dream which Wittgenstein discusses. Freud thinks that the camellias which sprouted from the branch show that the dreamer was unconsciously identifying herself with the courtesan-heroine of La Dame aux camélias. Let us suppose that the dreamer rejected this interpretation but related that in the dream she was incomprehensibly addressed as ‘Madame Valéry’, which the analyst recognises as the name of ‘la dame aux camélias’ in the opera Verdi based on the story. It is this kind of consideration which makes conceivable, if not often feasible, an alternative, objective way of conferring meaning on the dream, independent of the dreamer’s agreement.

There are obviously cases where it is morally obligatory to treat a patient’s experiences diagnostically and to refuse to assist in the development of their unformulated subjective significance. Shatov (in Dostoevsky’s The Devils) is impatient of Kirilov’s rhapsodising about his intense ‘moments of harmony’ and warns him they may signify epilepsy. Is Shatov cheating Kirilov? Does an analyst stand to his patient’s complaints as to the symptoms of an undiagnosed epileptic?

Psychoanalysis has evolved in a direction which gives Wittgenstein’s criticism more relevance than it once would have. What would be patently obscurantist when applied to the paralyses, contractures, convulsions, pains, paraesthesias and anaesthesias which were so common among the presenting symptoms of Freud’s first patients is more defensible when applied to the apprehensions, dejections and vague malaises which figure prominently among the complaints of present-day analysands. Unlike the scientific critics of psychoanalysis Wittgenstein is not asking that it live up to its scientific pretensions but that it abandon them. This implies an explanatory nihilism as to the possibility of causal knowledge continuous with that implicit in Montaigne’s resignation to his ignorance of the source of his love for La Boétie: ‘Because it was him; because it was me.’

Even if we confine the problems addressed by the analyst to the states of mental distress that patients typically complain of – feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, neglect, humiliation, rage – the same antithesis nevertheless arises between ‘getting clear’ about the distress and discovering its causes, and demands clearheadedness as to which aim we are pursuing.

Bouveresse sees an analogy between the kind of understanding afforded by a psychoanalysis stripped of explanatory pretensions, and that afforded by philosophy as Wittgenstein conceived it. I think it lies in the extent to which the aim of both is facilitated by ‘putting into order what we already know without adding anything’. A type of understanding of our past, for example, is conceivable which promises nothing more than an enhanced command of the themes on which our mind plays its variations – a discursive equivalent of time-lapse photography. But there must be more candour as to the limitations of such a project. Wittgenstein reminds us that ‘one can learn the truth by thinking as one learns to know a face better by drawing it.’ But however rewarding we find this activity we must resist the temptation of thinking that it can tell us why the nose is strong and the chin weak. This mode of exploration of my condition may leave me clearer as to who or what I blame, yet no wiser as to who or what is really to blame.

Even if the idea of an Unconscious, decodable only by a technique for which Freud held the patent, were finally to succumb to scepticism, something somewhat continuous with psychoanalysis as we have known it might still be tenable. The practice could transmute into an autonomous activity divested of explanatory and crudely therapeutic pretensions, disdainful of the grandiosity of the founder and devoted to one object only – the elucidation and articulation of self-feeling. But would an activity so conceived be psychoanalysis? Perhaps we could claim for it what Wittgenstein claimed for his new conception of philosophy – that those involved in it might come to feel: ‘That’s what I really wanted.’

The real problem this kind of Wittgensteinian self-understanding presents is not the genealogical one of its relation to Freud but rather that of deciding what value is to be placed on an activity which merely focuses the unfocused, thematises the unthematised, propositionalises the unpropositionalised and so forth, if the outcome is not causal knowledge. It is this question which Wittgenstein’s criticism of Freud compels us to address.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences