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Book Forum: SIGMUND FREUD   |    
Wittgenstein Reads Freud: The Myth of the Unconscious
RICHARD D. CHESSICK, M.D., PH.D.
Am J Psychiatry 1998;155:705-707.
View Author and Article Information
Evanston, Ill.

by Jacques Bouveresse, ; translated by Carol Cosman. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1995, 143 pp., $19.95; $12.95 (paper).

Freud Among the Philosophers: The Psychoanalytic Unconscious and Its Philosophical Critics

by Donald Levy. New Haven, Conn., Yale University Press, 1996, 199 pp., $25.00.

The ordinary practicing psychiatrist will not find a study of these books useful in his or her clinical work. Bitter enemies of psychoanalysis will be delighted with the book by Bouveresse, and friends of psychoanalysis will appreciate the book by Levy. Readers with a philosophical background will find both books of value, especially if the readers also are interested in psychoanalysis. It will require more philosophical background to read Bouveresse's book because an understanding of Wittgenstein's approach to philosophy will place Wittgenstein's remarks on Freud and psychoanalysis in a context that Bouveresse either deliberately ignores or assumes that the reader knows.

It would also be helpful for the reader to have some direct familiarity with the philosophical writings of Wittgenstein, William James, and Alasdair MacIntyre as well as those ferocious attacks on psychoanalysis by Adolph Grünbaum discussed by Levy and adduced by Bouveresse. Even without this firsthand information, however, Levy's book is clear enough so the nonphilosophical reader can follow the arguments. His conclusion, with which I concur, is that "psychoanalysis is amply equipped to respond to the philosophical criticism that has been mounted against it thus far. No good philosophical arguments against it have been produced, and much empirical evidence supports it" (p. 172).

Levy, a professor of philosophy at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, points out the common confusion in philosophical criticisms of psychoanalysis, a confusion that is demonstrated in the book by Bouveresse (the latter book appeared after Levy's work was in press, but Levy's discussion may be regarded as an answer to it). Levy debates the criticisms of psychoanalysis made by Wittgenstein, William James, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Adolph Grünbaum, and, as such, his work belongs in the tradition of Robinson's excellent text (1). Between Levy and Robinson, there is little left worth considering in Grünbaum's notorious reductive arguments.

What must be taken much more seriously are the criticisms made by that eccentric philosophical genius Wittgenstein. It is quite interesting that the two arguably most important and influential philosophers of the twentieth century both (for different reasons) challenged Freud's notion of the unconscious, both insisted that cultural background practices had a very important determining effect on what is considered "truth" in any culture, and both suffered from severe psychopathology. I have discussed Heidegger's narcissistic personality disorder elsewhere (2). We know that Wittgenstein suffered from severe episodes of depression, bouts of serious suicidal thinking, difficulties in interpersonal relations, and transient paranoia, all well documented in the outstanding biography by Monk (3). Anyone without a background in philosophy who is interested in Wittgenstein should start with this biography because it places his agonizing, constantly evolving, philosophical deliberations in the perspective of his culture, his personality, and his approach to the established philosophical and scientific thought of his time. It is this perspective which lacks proper articulation in the work of Bouveresse, making it possible to misinterpret the material that Bouveresse gathers regarding Wittgenstein's comments on Freud, psychoanalysis, and the unconscious, and to which he adds the complaints of other authors, as representing a consistent and coherent attack on psychoanalysis.

There is a confusion in Bouveresse's work, so often found in criticisms of psychoanalysis among both philosophers and psychiatrists, between the writings of Freud, the writings of Lacan, and the current status of psychoanalytic theory and practice. When I read such criticisms of Freud I wonder how it would be received today if a philosopher criticized internal medicine on the basis of a textbook on internal medicine that was written by a famous internist in 1895. Even Bouveresse (p. 4) admits that Wittgenstein's familiarity with Freud through direct reading was most likely confined to Freud's first major works, The Interpretation of Dreams (4), Studies on Hysteria (5), and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (6). These writings constitute only the first few volumes of the 23 in the collected psychological works of Freud, which span a period from 1886 to 1939. Wittgenstein engaged in discussions of Freud's theories with his friends (who were not psychoanalysts), but his knowledge of psychoanalysis was more or less confined to secondary sources and the practices of his time, which can no longer be said to be typical of the theory or practice of psychoanalysis today.

In fact, no single style is typical of the theory or practice of psychoanalysis today; it is a rapidly changing field, greatly in ferment and alive with the introduction of many new ideas such as self psychology, constructivism, and the work of Lacan. Lacan, however, cannot be considered to be representative of psychoanalysis at the end of the twentieth century even if, as a professor of philosophy at the Collége de France, Bouveresse could not help being deeply influenced by the Lacanian view of psychoanalysis. As Levy points out, the really important aspects of contemporary psychoanalysis, involving the analysis of transference, the structural theory, and so forth, are largely ignored by most philosophical critics, who seem most preoccupied with proving that Freud was not an empirical scientist and/or that there is no such thing as the unconscious. It is really hard for any practicing psychoanalyst to believe this is a serious question any more; it seems akin to the lunacy of "creationism" in the so-called religious right's challenge to Darwin.

Furthermore, it is not fair to Wittgenstein to say that this was a serious question for him. One has to understand Wittgenstein's entire philosophical approach in order to place his criticisms in an appropriate context. His sister received some analysis from Freud, and he himself was deeply ambivalent (Wittgenstein Reads Freud, p. 20) about Freud, regarding himself as a "disciple" and "follower" of Freud (Wittgenstein Reads Freud, p. 3) in spite of his combative stance. He wrote beautifully: "Freud's idea: In madness the lock is not destroyed, only altered; the old key can no longer unlock it, but it could be opened by a differently constructed key" (3, p. 387).

There is not space in a brief book review to go over the significance of Wittgenstein's philosophical thought for psychotherapists (I have described this elsewhere [7]); suffice it to say that after his Tractatus-Logico Philosophicus, Wittgenstein stopped doing philosophy entirely for quite a period (about 1919 to 1928) and then became increasingly interested in the subject. Returning to Cambridge in 1929 as an already legendary figure, he was soon appointed a professor of philosophy, but he published practically nothing afterward, and this leads to the first of the problems encountered in trying to understand Wittgenstein. He left a mass of perfectionist writing and rewriting, about 1,200 manuscript pages and 8,000 typescript pages (8). From this material, and from notes taken on conversations with Wittgenstein as well as from notes dictated by him to his pupils in his various courses, a number of books have been generated. These "books" all required considerable editing, and it is fair to say, from the point of view of a scholar, that we do not have a representative body of Wittgenstein's work from which we can conclude what his views were on any subject with clarity. Because of this, a vast secondary literature has grown up arguing about almost every facet of what Wittgenstein had to say and what he meant.

There is hope, however; the Wittgenstein Archives at the University of Bergen is planning to make his entire Nachlass available in a CD-ROM electronic edition of his papers that allows the organization of information in the fluid world of hypertext. In hypertext, each paragraph or screenful of text can be multiply interlinked with other paragraphs of text, so that readers of this electronic edition will be able to compare different stages of Wittgenstein's revisions, review his use of key terms, and so forth. But that is for the future. Although what Bouveresse has done is to collect for us the more commonly known comments made by Wittgenstein on Freud and psychoanalysis, and that is a worthwhile service, the interpretation of these comments remains extremely controversial, especially since, due to Wittgenstein's characteristic ambivalence, some of his statements contradict others.

Wittgenstein's interest in Freud increased during World War II, and there is a remarkable parallel between his complaints about proofs in pure mathematics and about the explanations offered in Freud's psychoanalysis. He regarded these as perspicuous representations that help us find our way about rather than as scientific "truths." Both mathematicians and psychoanalysts ignored him. Certainly a number of Wittgenstein's criticisms of Freud, such as his complaints about Freud's bias regarding religion and Freud's unfortunate tendency to overgeneralize, are valid, but one must also understand this in the context of the extreme difference in the personalities of Freud and Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein, like Nietzsche, was a rather isolated type of idiosyncratic "loner"; the writings of both of these thinkers have been criticized as not being philosophical writings at all. Freud, on the other hand, was very much an organization man and fitted in or attempted to fit in with the bourgeois culture of his day. Wittgenstein was a brilliant and tortured thinker who was never really satisfied with anything that he produced, constantly writing, rewriting, and revising his views in an obsessive fashion. Freud also revised his views but at a much more leisurely pace and not in such extreme detail. Wittgenstein's criticisms of Freud represent just one aspect of his general approach in philosophy, which was to attack the fundamental assumptions of not only all the major thinkers in the Western world but of Western civilization itself. This negative approach, which was also reflected in Wittgenstein's interpersonal relations, was embedded in an ambivalence toward paternal authority of all kinds, as is well-known about Wittgenstein (3).

This ambivalence is reflected in the Bouveresse collection of Wittgenstein's comments about Freud, the unconscious, and psychoanalysis. There is no single coherent discussion or point of view regarding psychoanalysis that can be extracted from the scattered, disorganized, and contradictory comments and the casual remarks made by Wittgenstein over his professional lifetime. As Stern (8) pointed out, "Although Wittgenstein is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential philosophers of this century, there is very little agreement about the nature of his contribution. In fact, one of the most striking characteristics of the secondary literature on Wittgenstein is the overwhelming lack of agreement about what he believed and why" (p. 442). It is not easy to cull out the sense from the nonsense of a thinker who, for example, said he was against women's suffrage because "all the women he knows are such idiots" (3, pp. 72–73).

Even self psychologists will be disappointed when they try to understand Wittgenstein's notion of the self. He rejects the objectively constituted ego of such thinkers as Kant, Nietz~sche, and Freud, but he never specifies his notion of the philosophical self and how it is related to the everyday self of which we commonly speak: "Unlike the Cartesian self, the philosophical self is unindividuated and Wittgenstein describes it accordingly also in his Notebooks as a `world soul' " (9, p. 330).

Wittgenstein's approach to all Western thought might be summarized by his statement in On Certainty (10) that at the foundation of every well-founded belief lies a belief that is not well-founded. This brings him to the cutting edge of modern philosophical thought and to the beginnings of the new movement in psychoanalysis involving intersubjectivity, but that is another topic.

Both of the books under review here are well written and, if they are read with a background of acquaintance with the thinkers being discussed, will be intellectually rewarding to those psychiatrists who are interested in philosophical topics.

Robinson P: Freud and His Critics. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1993
 
Chessick R: The effect of Heidegger's pathological narcissism on the development of his philosophy, in Mimetic Desire: Essays on Narcissism in German Literature From Romanticism to Post Modernism. Edited by Adams J, Williams E. Columbia, SC, Camden House, 1995, pp 103–118
 
Monk R: Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. New York, Free Press, 1990
 
Freud S: The Interpretation of Dreams (1900): Complete Psychological Works, standard ed, vols 4, 5. London, Hogarth Press, 1953
 
Breuer J, Freud S: Studies on Hysteria (1895 [1893–1895]): Complete Psychological Works, standard ed, vol 2. London, Hogarth Press, 1955
 
Freud S: The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901): Complete Psychological Works, standard ed, vol 6. London, Hogarth Press, 1960
 
Chessick R: Great Ideas in Psychotherapy. Northvale, NJ, Jason Aronson, 1977
 
Stern D: The availability of Wittgenstein's philosophy, in The Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein. Edited by Sluga H, Stern D. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp 442–476
 
Sluga H: "Whose house is that?": Wittgenstein on the self. Ibid, pp 320–353
 
Wittgenstein L: On Certainty. Translated by Paul D, Anscombe G. New York, Harper, 1972
 
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References

Robinson P: Freud and His Critics. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1993
 
Chessick R: The effect of Heidegger's pathological narcissism on the development of his philosophy, in Mimetic Desire: Essays on Narcissism in German Literature From Romanticism to Post Modernism. Edited by Adams J, Williams E. Columbia, SC, Camden House, 1995, pp 103–118
 
Monk R: Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. New York, Free Press, 1990
 
Freud S: The Interpretation of Dreams (1900): Complete Psychological Works, standard ed, vols 4, 5. London, Hogarth Press, 1953
 
Breuer J, Freud S: Studies on Hysteria (1895 [1893–1895]): Complete Psychological Works, standard ed, vol 2. London, Hogarth Press, 1955
 
Freud S: The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901): Complete Psychological Works, standard ed, vol 6. London, Hogarth Press, 1960
 
Chessick R: Great Ideas in Psychotherapy. Northvale, NJ, Jason Aronson, 1977
 
Stern D: The availability of Wittgenstein's philosophy, in The Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein. Edited by Sluga H, Stern D. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp 442–476
 
Sluga H: "Whose house is that?": Wittgenstein on the self. Ibid, pp 320–353
 
Wittgenstein L: On Certainty. Translated by Paul D, Anscombe G. New York, Harper, 1972
 
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