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Wittgenstein Reads FreudReview - Wittgenstein Reads Freud
The Myth of the Unconscious (New French Thought)
by Jacques Bouveresse
Princeton University Press, 1995
Review by Glenn Branch
Oct 1st 1999 (Volume 3, Issue 39)

On its surface, the purpose of Jacques Bouveresse’s slim monograph Wittgenstein Reads Freud is simply to expound Wittgenstein’s unsystematic, fragmentary, scattered, unpublished remarks on psychoanalysis and its founder. But, as Vincent Descombes explains in his introduction, in the intellectual milieu in which it originally appeared (as Philosophie, mythologie et pseudo-science: Wittgenstein lecteur de Freud [Paris: Editions de l’éclat 1991]), it in effect urged the French intelligentsia to reappraise Freud in the light of Wittgenstein’s critique. The foil, of course, is Jacques Lacan, whose work is largely responsible for the continued hegemony of psychoanalysis in the French intellectual scene, and while there is no sustained discussion of Lacan in Wittgenstein Reads Freud, there is doubtless much for his devotees to ponder in Bouveresse’s presentation of Wittgenstein as "an anti-Lacan avant la lettre" (p. 41). Broader intellectual concerns aside, Wittgenstein Reads Freud will be of interest to anyone wanting to understand Wittgenstein’s idiosyncratic ambivalence to Freud’s work, especially because it is, as far as I know, the only book-length treatment of its topic en anglais.

Considered simply as exposition, Wittgenstein Reads Freud is unambitious but competent, dutifully organized by topic. The first chapter – "Wittgenstein: Disciple of Freud?" – sketches the extent and nature of Wittgenstein’s interest in Freud. Philosophically, Wittgenstein was unimpressed by Freud. Although it is suggestive that Wittgenstein conceived of philosophy as therapeutic, he angrily denied that there was any resemblance to psychoanalytic therapy. Certainly there are no traces of depth psychology in his philosophy of psychology, according to which (in the famous phrase) nothing is hidden. Like the author of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Freud was philosophically interesting only for his philosophical mistakes. (Literally — Wittgenstein is reported by G. E. Moore as saying "that Freud’s book on this subject [i.e., jokes] was a very good book for looking for philosophical mistakes, and that the same was true of his writings in general.") Wittgenstein was, however, fascinated by the cultural impact of psychoanalysis, the remarkable appeal it appeared to have: his remarks on Freud emphasize the power of the Freudian mythology to win adherents. If there is anything to complain about here, it is perhaps only that Bouveresse touches very lightly on the anti-Freudian sentiments prevalent in fin de siècle Vienna of which Wittgenstein was presumably aware.

In the next chapter, Bouveresse discusses Wittgenstein’s critique of Freud’s conception of the unconscious. Unfortunately, the discussion here is, in my view, the weakest in the book. First, the exposition simply fails to disentangle the threads of Wittgenstein’s critique adequately, as is shown by the fact that Bouveresse resorts to wholesale quotation (see especially the long quotation on pp. 26-27). Second, although Bouveresse originally promised to "show that [Wittgenstein’s] position on Freudian theory would not come as a surprise to readers familiar with the body of his philosophy, even if they were entirely unaware of his interest in psychoanalysis and his pronouncements on it" (p. xvii), when it comes to explaining how the private language considerations of the Philosophical Investigations militate against the perceptual model of consciousness accepted by Freud, he only mutters, "I have dealt elsewhere and at length with Wittgenstein’s criticism" (p. 24), which is not exactly illuminating. Third, although Wittgenstein’s remarks on Freud extend over two decades, the exposition treats them as unitary. For example, in The Blue Book, Wittgenstein writes, "Imagine a language in which, instead of ‘I found nobody in the room,’ one said ‘I found Mr. Nobody in the room.’ Imagine the philosophical problems which would arise out of such a convention." (Thus Wittgenstein is in effect the Bil Keane avant la lettre, to the presumable gratification of fans of the cartoon "The Family Circus," if there are any.) Bouveresse suggests that Wittgenstein’s diagnosis of the philosophical problem of the unconscious would be in the same vein: the inappropriate substitution of the substantival ("the unconscious") for the adjectival ("unconsciously"). Perhaps he is right for the Wittgenstein of the 1930s, when The Blue Book was composed, but Wittgenstein eventually rethought much of what he said in the 1930s, and it is interesting to note that the same diagnosis is not to be found in his 1940s conversations on Freud with Rush Rhees.

Chapter 3, devoted to what Bouveresse calls "the generalizing impulse," deals clearly and straightforwardly with Freud’s tendency always to seek unitary, totalizing, wholly general explanations, often on the basis of pitifully few instances. Wittgenstein, who reportedly considered for his Philosophical Investigations the motto "I’ll teach you differences" (from King Lear), disapproved. Comparing Wittgenstein’s remarks about psychoanalysis with his remarks about Hertz’s mechanics, Copernicus’s heliocentricism, and Darwin’s theory of evolution, Bouveresse seizes the opportunity to consider the question of the scientificity of psychoanalysis at length, discussing the views of Clark Glymour, Adolf Grünbaum, and the egregious Jeffrey Masson. One mistake here, pointed out by Frank Cioffi in his 1996 review of Wittgenstein Reads Freud (The London Review of Books 18:2), is the suggestion that Freud’s patients "claimed" (p. 61) to have been sexually abused as infants; in fact, the stories of abuse were interpretive products of Freud’s analysis. For Wittgenstein, however, the scientific status of psychoanalysis is not central: as Bouveresse remarks at the end of the chapter, "it is not really very important whether Freud’s reconstructions are true or false if, as Wittgenstein believes, they are basically accepted because of their enormous charm, received spontaneously as explanations that must be true and not as hypotheses whose truth or falseness is crucial" (p. 68).

The next chapter of Wittgenstein Reads Freud is concerned with Wittgenstein’s remarks on what he once referred to as "an abominable mess" – the confusion of reasons and causes, the philosophical mistake par excellence. Bouveresse’s task here is especially difficult, for, as Cioffi remarks, "much that Wittgenstein has to say about this treacherous antithesis is only peripherally related to his claim that Freud confused them." As in chapter 2, Bouveresse appears to be insufficiently attentive to the possibility of Wittgenstein’s change of opinion, running together texts from the 1930s and 1940s. It is also troubling that he relies so heavily on the work of Wittgenstein’s sometime collaborator Friedrich Waismann. Nevertheless, his exposition here is sensitive and nuanced. Especially noteworthy is his remark that while the distinction between reasons and causes is often understood to be exclusive, nothing in Wittgenstein’s thought insists on it: "The crucial point seems to be that even if the reason or motive can eventually be a cause, it cannot ever be simply a cause" (p. 77).

Chapter 5 begins by alluding to "three underlying assumptions of Freudian theory" (p. 82), the first of which is the topic of the chapter, psychic determinism. Strangely, on the philosophical problem of determinism, Bouveresse quotes lavishly from writings of the physicist Max Planck. It is unclear to me why he chose to do so. Is it because he takes Planck to have influenced, or to be influenced by, Freud or Wittgenstein? Or because he takes Planck to be authoritative on the topic? Or simply because he takes Planck to have stated the problem nicely? Bouveresse discusses Freud’s assumption of determinism for the greater part of the chapter, eventually concluding, quite rightly, that "The principle of determinism which Freud invokes to justify his idea that all the events of mental life mean something hasn’t really much to do with determinism … We might call it the principle of interpretability, since it means that all mental events can be interpreted in a certain way that makes them appear to have a meaning, finality, or function" (p. 96). The latter principle is the second underlying assumption, which stems, ultimately, from Freud’s lust for generality (which turns out to be the third assumption). Since the first assumption is otiose, Bouveresse might have done better to avoid the trinitarian schema in the first place.

Freud’s treatment of slips – errors of the tongue and pen, parapraxes, "voluntary" forgettings, and the like – is the topic of chapter 6. Wittgenstein’s criticism of Freud, although astute enough, is not especially striking, and it is unsurprising that Bouveresse devotes much of the chapter to reporting the similar but more developed criticism of Sebastiano Timpanaro’s The Freudian Slip. Similarly, Wittgenstein’s criticism of Freud’s principles of dream interpretation, the topic of chapter 7, is astute but unremarkable. Bouveresse begins by discussing Freud’s broadening of the concept of language to allow for the idea of "the language of dreams"; it is disappointing that he fails to connect Wittgenstein’s remarks about the meaningfulness of dreams with his remarks (in the Philosophical Investigations and elsewhere) about meaning in general. The remainder of the chapter rehearses the implausibility of Freud’s interpretative method, both of dreams and of the product of free association. Finally, in his brief concluding chapter, Bouveresse sums up Wittgenstein’s verdict on psychoanalysis.

Bouveresse’s writing is consistently clear, and occasionally punctuated with flashes of sarcastic humor: especially wicked is his comment that "we French are well known for our tendency to sometimes confuse the practice of philosophy with the practice of free association" (p. xviii). Bouveresse himself is not prone to the confusion, but then again he once wrote an essay with the charming title (if memory serves) "Why I am so un-French." He is able to draw upon the resources of analytic philosophy to good effect – for example, his discussion of reasons and causes in chapter 4 is materially aided by his judicious discussion of the views of Donald Davidson and Daniel Dennett. And he is certainly no stranger to the rising Anglo-American tide of anti-Freudian scholarship, citing (among others) Adolf Grünbaum, Frank Cioffi, and Frank Sulloway.

For all its virtues, however, Wittgenstein Reads Freud is of fairly limited interest to the educated public at large. There certainly are better ways to learn about Freud’s thought. There certainly are better ways to learn about Wittgenstein’s thought: as Bouveresse acknowledges, his philosophical interest in psychoanalysis was, at bottom, incidental. And there certainly are better critiques of Freud: Wittgenstein’s is marred not only by its fragmentary nature but by its reliance on various controversial and idiosyncratic philosophical positions he held, its disregard for the historical questions relevant to assessing Freud’s work, and its concentration only on Freud’s particular brand of psychoanalysis. (Bouveresse acknowledges this as well: "I certainly do not think the question of psychoanalysis can be settled by what Wittgenstein has to say about it, as pertinent as his observations and criticisms in general may be" [p. xviii].) Essential reading for those interested in its topic, Wittgenstein Reads Freud is for everyone else optional.


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