Saturday, 25 June 2011

Wittgenstein's 1940s conversations on Freud

Gloria and I met up with Michael, who is doing our philosophy and mental health course, last week in our local pub, to think about a possible essay topic on Wittgenstein’s response to Freud. Sadly both he and I were a bit disappointed on re-reading the Cyril Barrett edited collection (Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief) just how thin, uneven and mixed were the comments on Freud. (A couple of interesting thoughts. Wittgenstein contests Freud’s idea that Freudian theory would be unpopular or unappealing. The opposite is true, LW suggests. Also, despite the ubiquity of sexual themes in the interpretations, there are few explicitly sexual dreams “Yet these are common as rain” Wittgenstein observes.)

What I think both Michael and I expected, and is there in part, is a criticism that Freud illicitly blurs a scientific reading of his project (as a set of empirical generalisations about the working of the mind) with a more hermeneutic view. As one might expect, Wittgenstein does not so much directly contest the idea that there might be a scientific psychoanalysis as criticise the actual project (not ‘Project’, I hasten to add) as somehow internally inconsistent. It can’t both trade in symbols as a kind of literary criticism and also be scientific. (‘He has not given a scientific explanation of the ancient myth. What he has done is to propound a new myth. The attractiveness of the suggestion... is just the attractiveness of a mythology.’ [ibid: 51]) But this thought is only partly articulated.

What is more of a surprise, and I think it was Gloria who put her finger on this, is that Wittgenstein is as forgiving as he is about the symbolic interpretation aspect. Now he does say: ‘Freud remarks on how, after the analysis of it, the dream appears 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 through 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.’ [ibid: 51]

Still, in general in these remarks, he seems quite happy to concede that there’s something OK in itself about this style of interpretation. It is only in conflict with the idea that it is scientific. But, given for example the comment just quoted, that seems in an odd tension with the rest of Barrett’s collection in which Wittgenstein grants that aesthetic and religious language answer only to standards internal to those language games but, because they do so answer, they have a kind of objectivity. Given some of the comments in play on Freud, I would have expected the thought that, had psychoanalitic interpretation so answered to standards, it would have had its own objectivity. But it does not and thus so much the worse for Freudian theory. But that does not seem quite to happen here.