Friday 12 November 2010

Delusional atmosphere, the everyday uncanny and the limits of secondary sense

Another work in progress. For a comment on Sass’ response to this criticism of him, see this update.

Delusional atmosphere, the everyday uncanny and the limits of secondary sense


In In Paradoxes of Delusion Sass aims to use passages from Wittgenstein to characterise the feeling of mute particularity that forms a part of delusional atmosphere. I argue that Wittgenstein’s account provides no helpful positive account. But his remarks on more everyday cases of the uncanny and the unreal might seem to promise a better approach via the expressive use of words in secondary sense. I argue that this also is a false hope but that there is no interesting explanation of this failure.


In Paradoxes of Delusion Louis Sass aims to counter Jaspers’ pessimism about the possibility of empathic understanding primary delusions by developing just such an account.

In this book I attempt to do what, according to Jaspers, cannot be done: to comprehend both empathically and conceptually some of the most bizarre and mysterious symptoms of schizophrenia. [Sass 1994: 6]

Whilst the bulk of Paradoxes of Delusion concerns the idea the relation between schizophrenia and solipsism, a later chapter provides a distinct line of interpretation of the specific schizophrenic symptom: delusional ‘atmosphere’ or ‘mood’ described by Jaspers in his General Psychopathology.

“The environment,” says Jaspers “is somehow different – not to a gross degree – perception is unaltered in itself but there is some strange change which envelops everything with a subtle, pervasive and strangely uncertain light.” Whatever is perceived may seem tremendously specific and meaningful, but without the patient being able to explain why; unfamiliar events and objects may appear to be copies or repetitions of themselves… “objects and events signify something but nothing definite”. [Sass 1994: 97]

The key feature of delusional mood or atmosphere is its uncanny particularity and Sass looks to some passages in Wittgenstein’s Brown Book to attempt to shed light on it.

In Schreber’s Memoirs, the feeling of uncanny particularity emerges most clearly in his discussion of the wasp miracle…”I have most stringent and convincing proof that these beings do not fly towards me by accident…. These animals always appear on definite occasions and in definite order around me.” It seems, rather, that Schreber’s experience of definiteness simply could not have been described more completely. [ibid: 99]

This description presents a problem, however. If that is the best that Schreber can do, he does not seem to have given an account of the content of the experience. Just what can he mean by ‘definite occasions and in definite order’? Presumably, another observer would notice nothing special in the flight of the wasps and Schreber does not explain the pattern that he thinks he sees. So, as Sass asks, how can we characterise or comprehend any experience ‘in which everything looks so completely normal yet at the same time so indescribably, so incomprehensibly, special’?

Sass’ idea is to make use of some passages from the Brown Book in which Wittgenstein examines the idea that grasp of meaning is a particular kind of experience. This provides a key tool for Sass’ purpose. Wittgenstein sketches a distinction between a transitive and an intransitive meaning of ‘particular’.

Now the use of the word “particular” is apt to produce a kind of delusion and roughly speaking this delusion is produced by the double usage of this word. On the one hand, we may say, it is used preliminary to a specification, description, comparison; on the other hand, as what one might describe as an emphasis. The first usage I shall call the transitive one, the second the intransitive one. Thus, on the one hand I say “This face gives me a particular impression which I can't describe”. The latter sentence may mean something like: “This face gives me a strong impression”. These examples would perhaps be more striking if we substituted the word “peculiar” for “particular”, for the same comments apply to “peculiar”. If I say “This soap has a peculiar smell: it is the kind we used as children”, the word “peculiar” may be used merely as an introduction to the comparison which follows it, as though I said “I'll tell you what this soap smells like:...”. If, on the other hand, I say “This soap has a peculiar smell!” or “It has a most peculiar smell”, “peculiar” here stands for some such expression as “out of the ordinary”, “uncommon”, “striking”. [Wittgenstein 1958: 158]

So a transitive use of ‘particular’ introduces a comparison which can then be filled out. An intransitive use marks, instead, mere emphasis, equivalent, perhaps, to saying that something is striking. Wittgenstein goes on to suggest that we can become confused as to the nature of the use of the word that we are making of it at any time. This enables Sass to suggest that one can have an experience characterised by one kind of use and confuse it for one characterised by the other such that ‘when one is having the first, intransitive type of experience, that one is noticing the sort of thing that one actually does notice in the first, transitive type’ [Sass 1994: 104]. And from this Sass concludes:

As Wittgenstein analyses it, this uncanny experience of mute particularity is one of the characteristic delusions engendered by a certain unnatural, reflective stance characteristic of philosophizing. [ibid: 104]

The problem with this approach is that it relies on the idea that Wittgenstein does indeed provide an analysis of an experience of mute particularity. But it is far from clear that he does. I say ‘far from clear that he does’ rather than ‘clear that he does not’ for this reason. Wittgenstein’s analysis, in the passages Sass cites, concerns the view that understanding sameness and difference of meaning can be explained or analysed as sameness and difference of an experience of meaning. It is the idea that the word ‘red’, for example, comes to us in a particular way when we recognize a colour as red. It is to criticise this idea that Wittgenstein draws the distinction between transitive and intransitive meaning.

To shed light on this he compares the idea that one experiences a word in a particular way, with the idea that one might describe one’s bodily posture at any given time as ‘particular’.

You are, of course, constantly changing the position of your body throughout the day; arrest yourself in any such attitude (while writing, reading, talking, etc. etc.) and say to yourself in the way in which you say, “‘Red’ comes in a particular way …”, “I am now in a particular attitude.” You will find that you can quite naturally say this. But aren't you always in a particular attitude? [Wittgenstein 1958: 158-9]

Although it is natural, he suggests, to say this when concentrating on one’s posture it is not that there is a type of posture being picked out. Neither, however, is one’s posture even particularly striking.

And of course you didn't mean that you were just then in a particularly striking attitude. [ibid: 159]

Rather, the naturalness of the use of the word is an artefact of the situation.

What was it that happened. You concentrated, as it were stared at, your sensations. And this is exactly what you did when you said that “red” came in a particular way. [ibid: 159]

And this same idea is then used to try to undermine the compulsion to say that understanding a meaning is a matter of having a particular experience. There are experiences when one uses or understands a word just as one’s body is always in some posture or other. But nothing significant follows from this.

What is particular about the way “red” comes is that it comes while you’re philosophizing about it, as what is particular about the position of your body when you concentrated on it was concentration. We appear to ourselves to be on the verge of giving a characterization of the “way” describing the way, whereas we aren’t really opposing it to any other way. We are emphasizing, not comparing, but we express ourselves as though this emphasis was really a comparison of the object with itself; there seems to be a reflexive comparison. [ibid: 159-60]

The reason for looking at the thrust of Wittgenstein’s argument here is this. As is typical of his later work, there is a mix of both therapeutic understanding and destructive criticism. For Sass’ project to work, it would be necessary that part of the therapeutic understanding was an account of what it is, or would be, to have an experience of ‘mute particularity’ even if this were then criticised as part of the destructive aspect of Wittgenstein’s analysis. But it does not seem that that is the case. The closest that he comes to that is the account of the misleading naturalness of using the word ‘particular’ in the context of concentration. But in the elucidatory but deflating example of bodily posture, the natural utterance, whilst intransitive, does not even mean striking. Whilst natural the utterance still, in some sense, misfires. So there is no suggestion that it expresses an experience of mute particularity and thus no account of that supposed experience is given.

This is, perhaps, unsurprising. Wittgenstein puts talk of ‘particular experiences’ in the mouth of an interlocutor who wishes to explain meaning through characteristic experiences and which he – Wittgenstein – wishes, by contrast, to refute. The more the quest for empathic and therapeutic understanding of the opposing view were to succeed in granting it coherence, the less robust would be the critical counterpoint. Instead, Wittgenstein offers the most minimal account of why one might be tempted to deploy the idea of ‘particular experiences’ and then pulls the rug from under it, leaving no substantial account of what such experiences might be.

For this reason, Sass’ suggestion that we look to where we should not look for an account of meaning to help us understand an experience of mute particularity cannot work.

The everyday uncanny / everyday unreality and secondary sense

Whilst the passages which Sass cites do not seem to be a promising approach to shedding light on what it is to experience the world as uncanny or unreal, Wittgenstein does provide clues elsewhere which are helpful in shedding light on this. One passage runs thus:

Let’s imagine a theatre, the curtain goes up & and we see someone alone in his room walking up and down, lighting a cigarette, seating himself etc. so that suddenly we are observing a human being from outside in a way that ordinarily we can never observe ourselves; as if we were watching a chapter from a biography with our own eyes,--surely this would be at once uncanny and wonderful. More wonderful than anything that a playwright could cause to be acted or spoken on the stage. We should be seeing life itself.--But then we do see this every day & it makes not the slightest impression on us! True enough, but we do not see it from that point of view.—Similarly when E. looks at his writings and finds them splendid (even though he would not care to publish any of the pieces individually) he is seeing his life as God’s work of art... [Wittgenstein MS 109 28: 22.8.1930]

In this example, Wittgenstein suggests a context in which one might come to view a scene as uncanny and wonderful even though the scene coincides with ordinary life. To see ordinary life in the same way would require seeing it also as though it were a theatrical performance: to see it as God’s work of art. But what does that phrase mean? What progress has been made in characterising the content of the experience by invoking such a phrase?

Elsewhere he considers a feeling of unreality and explicitly examines how it might be communicated.

The feeling of the unreality of one’s surroundings. This feeling I have had once, and many have it before the onset of mental illness. Everything seems somehow not real; but not as if one saw things unclear or blurred; everything looks quite as usual. And how do I know that another has felt what I have? Because he uses the same words as I find appropriate.

But why do I choose precisely the word “unreality” to express it? Surely not because of its sound. (A word of very like sound but different meaning would not do.) I choose it because of its meaning. [Wittgenstein 1980 §125.]

In characterising the experience, it is important to distinguish it from a case where things seem somehow fake. Everything here looks as it normally would. So fakery is not what is meant by a feeling of ‘unreality’. But given that, why is the word ‘unreal’ the right word? A first response to that question is that the word is selected for its meaning rather than, for example, its sound. But still it is not being used in its first order, ordinary meaning.

But I surely did not learn to use the word to mean: a feeling. No; but I learned to use it with a particular meaning and now I use it spontaneously like this. One might say--though it may mislead--: When I have learnt the word in its ordinary meaning, then I choose that meaning as a simile for my feeling. But of course what is in question here is not a simile, not a comparison of the feeling with something else. The fact is simply that I use a word, the bearer of another technique, as the expression of a feeling. I use it in a new way. And wherein consists this new kind of use? Well, one thing is that I say: I have a ‘feeling of unreality’--after I have, of course, learnt the use of the word “feeling” in the ordinary way. Also: the feeling is a state. [Wittgenstein 1980 §126.]

Given that the word is not used in its simplest and paradigmatic meaning it might be that it is a metaphor or simile. But that does not seem appropriate in this case. There is no possible justification for how the metaphor or simile is supposed to work. Instead, it is more basic. Although the word is not used in its simplest way and although it is not a simile, it is, still, used in a way which is derivative of that primary sense. It is another case of what, elsewhere, Wittgenstein describes as ‘secondary sense’.

Wittgenstein introduces the notion of secondary sense after having described see aspects on part 2 of the Philosophical Investigations. Wittgenstein suggests that there are some cases of seeing-as which can only be characterised with words used in a ‘secondary sense’. The key instance he gives is the attitude most of us have towards words. We feel that a word carries its meaning somehow immediately with it. It can loose this kind of meaning if repeated. Wittgenstein describes this kind of immediate perception of the meaning of a word in isolation as a form of understanding meaning.

Since Wittgenstein’s official recommendation is to think of understanding as grasp of a practice, the use of the words ‘understanding’ and ‘meaning’ in the case at hand is not straight-forward. It is not a metaphor, however, because nothing can be said to explain why we want to use these words for this kind of experience. But whilst this is not a metaphorical use it is nevertheless a secondary use: one which we find natural given the primary use, but which is discontinuous with, and could not be used to teach, the primary use [Wittgenstein 1953: 216]. Another example Wittgenstein gives is the use of ‘fat’ in the claim that Wednesday is fat. Clearly Wednesday cannot in any ordinary sense be compared with other fat or thin things. And it would be optimistic to attempt to teach the meaning of ‘fat’ by giving Wednesday as an example. Nevertheless, many language users give spontaneous expression to the thought that Wednesday is a fat day.

Whilst experiencing the meaning of a word or ascribing a width to days of the week may seem to be of limited interest, the Wittgensteinian philosopher Oswald Hanfling argues that the secondary use of words is widespread [Hanfling1991]. In aesthetics, he argues, words such as ‘sad’ applied to music are used in secondary sense. (The music need not make a hearer sad, does not sound like a sad person etc.)

Words in secondary sense are also used in the expression of some moods and feelings. In characterising how such a feeling feels, in describing its ‘content’, one makes use of a phrase that does not straightforwardly mean (in this context) what it seems to say, although what it is used to say in the context depends on its primary meaning. To see ‘life as God’s work of art’ looks to be such a use. To say that something is or feels unreal or uncanny is the same. The scene is not really unreal. Nor could it feel as if it were unreal. (What would that be? What would it be if true?)

Secondary sense and delusional atmosphere

But if the ‘everyday’ sense of the uncanny is a matter for secondary sense, could the same approach work for the psychopathological case of delusional atmosphere? Could it also be a matter of ‘seeing as’ albeit expressed only in secondary sense? To consider this, it is helpful to contrast Schreber’s ‘stringent and convincing proof’ that he finds in the definiteness of the flight of wasps with both seeing the duck-rabbit as a duck and hearing meaning in a word. There is a key disanalogy in each case.

First, some further account can be given of the experience of seeing the duck-rabbit as a duck. One can say that one now seeing these protuberances as the beak, the direction of gaze is now to the left etc.. In Schreber’s case, as Sass emphasises, no further clarification by Schreber is available of how he experiences the wasp order. (This is why Sass talks of an intransitive sense of particularity.)

Second, unlike the experience of hearing meaning in a word, we lack a shared spontaneous use of ‘proof’ in anything like the wasp case. There is no agreement that it is natural to use that word in the face of apparently random wasp flight. In the face of this absence, one might still hypothesise that Schreber is using the word ‘proof’ in secondary sense. But that would be at most a kind of external structural description of his utterance justified by external marks or indication of such a use and, aside from spontaneous agreed use, it is not clear that there are any such marks.

It might be tempting (it is for me) to draw a firmer conclusion from such a case and to say that there is a limitation on the kind of secondary sense that words can carry. Somehow ‘proof’ in the context of wasp flight, just cannot carry the meaning Schreber wants to give it. But that would be to mythologize secondary sense in the same way that construing the limits of sense as limitations mythologizes primary sense.

The more modest conclusion is that just as in the case of primary sense there are combinations of symbols to which we have not given a meaning (there is no custom, practice or institution for combining them that way), so in the case of secondary sense, we have not spontaneously found a role for a characteristic expressive use. If that is the correct, modest, conclusion, how characteristic does the role have to be?

When dealing with a ‘feeling of unreality’, we are inclined to say: “All I know is that under certain circumstances human beings often say that they felt everything around them was ‘unreal’. Naturally we also know what use of this word the people had learnt, and besides that something about their other utterances. More we do not know.”--Why don’t we talk in the same way when what is in question is utterances expressive of pleasure, of conviction, of the voluntariness and involuntariness of movements? [Wittgenstein 1980 §789]

We can say something in reply to this. The expressive uses of language for pleasure, conviction and voluntariness can all be disciplined by both third person criteria and further descriptions of use. By contrast, the further descriptions that apply to feeling of unreality are few and closely dependent on its first person expression (not vice versa).

But just as ‘butterflies in the stomach’ can take on stable third person conditions of use so there does not seem to be any principled barrier to less familiar use gaining more connections to a richer description of the context for its ‘proper’ use. Unusual secondary sense expression is just the limit case of this.

If so, the limits of secondary sense relevant to charting psychopathology may be porous and there is no interesting explanation of why we do not understand Schreber, if we do not. We just do not.


Read, R. (2001) ‘On approaching schizophrenia through Wittgenstein’ Philosophical Psychology 14: 449-475
Sass, L.A. (1994) The Paradoxes of Delusion, New York: Cornell
Wittgenstein, L. (1958) The Blue and Brown books, Oxford: Blackwell
Wittgenstein, L. (1980) Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, Oxford: Blackwell
Wittgenstein, L. MS