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Wittgenstein on Freud and FrazerReview - Wittgenstein on Freud and Frazer
by Frank Cioffi
Cambridge Univ Press, 1998
Review by Glenn Branch
Sep 8th 1999 (Volume 3, Issue 36)

Why is a raven like a writing-desk? (asked Lewis Carroll). Poe wrote on both (answered Sam Loyd). Is what Sigmund Freud and James Frazer have in common is that Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote on both? Not exactly. Wittgenstein undertook to criticize the founder of psychoanalysis and the author of The Golden Bough, as well as the practitioners of philosophical aesthetics, for committing essentially the same sort of mistake. It is easy to be puzzled by the supposed affinity, to be sure. G. E. Moore, who was there, complained that Wittgenstein’s "discussion of Aesthetics, however, was mingled in a curious way with criticism of assumptions which he said were constantly made by Frazer in the ‘Golden Bough’, and also with criticism of Freud."

In the essays collected in Wittgenstein on Freud and Frazer, however, Frank Cioffi attempts to explain what the mistake committed by Freud and by Frazer was: roughly, Wittgenstein regarded it as inappropriate to investigate the phenomena they studied – in Freud’s case, the mental; in Frazer’s case, the ritual – empirically. Cioffi’s expository task is made difficult by the fragmentary, unsystematic, and at times internally inconsistent nature of his subject’s remarks, which survive only in manuscripts not intended for publication and in the notes of his students. (As the old joke has it, Wittgenstein controverted the academic slogan by perishing then publishing.) Nevertheless Cioffi succeeds admirably, not only in explaining what Wittgenstein’s criticisms were, but also in judiciously assessing their soundness. In passing, he provides incisive commentary both on commentators who find nothing of worth in Wittgenstein’s criticisms and on commentators whose respect for Wittgenstein verges on the idolatrous.

Exegetically, Cioffi’s main contribution is to distinguish two distinct sorts of Wittgensteinian reasons for thinking that empirical considerations are irrelevant to understanding the phenomena in question. Take, for the sake of concreteness, Frazer’s discussion of the fire-festivals of Europe, in which "the pretence of burning people is sometimes carried so far that it seems reasonable to regard it as a mitigated survival of an older custom of actually burning them" (The Golden Bough, ch. 64, quoted by Cioffi, pp. 80-81). Wittgenstein sometimes talks as though Frazer’s mistake is to propose any sort of explanatory story at all: "the very idea of wanting to explain a practice," he writes, "seems wrong to me." In asking questions about the origin of the fire-festivals, Frazer is asking questions that are conceptually inappropriate. Clarification, not explanation, is what is necessary to understand the phenomena. Sometimes, however, Frazer’s mistake is represented as his failure to ask the right question: his explanations of the fire-festivals are unsatisfactory because they fail to clarify what interests us, namely the impressions we have of the fire-festivals as "deep and sinister."

Cioffi’s attitude toward Wittgenstein’s criticisms of Frazer is mixed. In response to the first sort of criticism, he trenchantly argues that there is nothing misconceived about Frazer’s attempt to explain the distinctive features of present ritual practices by appealing to features of the ancient rituals from which they developed. He concludes that "it is in reminding us that there is an alternative direction of interest to that of explanation, and not in demonstrating its intrinsic priority, that the value of Wittgenstein’s objections to Frazer’s empirical procedure lies" (p. 263). As for Frazer’s supposed failure to ask the right sort of question about the fire-festivals, he remarks that "there are no substantial textual grounds for holding that Frazer was subliminally preoccupied with this question. But this need not absolve Frazer from error" (p. 4), for perhaps Frazer ought to have considered it. His ultimate conclusion here is disappointingly tinged with relativism: "The value of Wittgenstein’s remarks on the limits of the problem-solving potentials of science, and of knowledge in general, depends on whether those who come to them are startled into an awareness that the consummation of the project of knowledge cannot do for them ‘what they always try to make it do’" (p. 18).

What about Freud? Cioffi is perhaps best known for his own assiduous and acute criticisms of Freud, which were recently collected in Freud and the Question of Pseudoscience (Open Court 1998), also reviewed on Metapsychology. (It is regrettable, but not calamitous, that his 1969 essay "Wittgenstein’s Freud" appears there and not in Wittgenstein on Freud and Frazer.) While traces of Cioffi’s critique appear in the relevant essays, the main focus is appropriately on Wittgenstein’s criticism of Freud. Again Cioffi distinguishes two sorts of criticism to be found in Wittgenstein. Sometimes the complaint is that Freud’s mistake is to propose any sort of explanatory story at all in his study of various mental phenomena. While Cioffi rejects the complaint in the case of Frazer, he says that it is not entirely inappropriate in the case of Freud, particularly the Freud of Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious. Sometimes, however, the complaint is that Freud’s mistake is to provide explanatory answers to questions that require clarification instead. Here Cioffi is sympathetic. "There are occasions," he explains, "on which the ‘self’ we are attempting to fathom – or its products, like dreams – does not figure as merely a datum for causal explanation but as a complex intentional object whose multiple aspects we are striving to discriminate, articulate and arrange and towards which we are trying to clarify our feelings" (p. 13). A further attraction of Cioffi’s discussion, by the way, is the careful manner in which he relates it to Wittgenstein’s oracular formula "Freud confuses reasons and causes."

Wittgenstein on Freud and Frazer is not without its irritations for the bibliographical rigorist. Although most of the essays appeared originally elsewhere, the details of the original publications are not provided. The system of bibliographic reference is not at all uniform: citations are given variously in parentheses, in footnotes, and in endnotes. There are quoted passages for which no citation at all is provided. Especially annoying is the reference (on p. 302) to the 1987 essay "Qualia and materialism: closing the explanatory gap," which omits not only the reference (viz. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 48, pp. 281-98) but also the name of the author (viz. C. L. Hardin, who might well feel insulted). In addition, there is no bibliography for the whole book. Reproaches are in order for Cambridge University Press.

There are also the two problems that inevitably beset collections of essays on any narrowly circumscribed topic: redundancy and discrepancy. For example, in the introduction, Cioffi describes two classes of Wittgensteinian reasons for thinking empirical considerations to be irrelevant, listing two reasons for each class. In the afterword, he again describes two such classes, but here the second class contains only one reason, while the two reasons contained in the first class are not the same as in the introduction. It is clear that Cioffi is neither confused nor inconsistent; it is clear that he is simply dividing the same conceptual space differently; but the discrepancy is not conducive to clarity. To be fair, it is entirely possible that only by starting afresh could Cioffi have avoided these problems.

Considerable pertinacity is necessary to extract the full benefit from the essays contained in Wittgenstein on Freud and Frazer. Only readers with strong antecedent interest in Cioffi’s topic are likely to think the effort to be wholly worthwhile. The difficulty is in part due to the cryptic nature of Wittgenstein’s remarks and in part due to the intrinsic obscurity of the topic. Compounding the difficulty, however, is Cioffi’s penchant for allusion. His essays teem with references to novels, poetry, plays, paintings, biographies and autobiographies, works of literary criticism and art criticism, works of history, newspaper articles, and so on – running the gamut from Henry Adams to Mikhail Zoshchenko (whoever he may be). The effect is at times appealing and useful, even perhaps necessary, as in his attempt to discuss the ineffable attitude of what Santayana called congenital transcendentalism. At other times it is overwhelming. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Wittgenstein on Freud and Frazer is essential reading for those interested in its topic.

Glenn Branch received his BA in philosophy from Brandeis University and is presently on leave from the PhD program in philosophy at UCLA. Among his philosophical interests are the philosophy of mind, evolutionary psychology, and the scientific status of psychoanalysis.


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