A Change of Focus

When I started this blog two years ago, I was planning to write about Wittgenstein; I am not sure what aspects of Wittgenstein I planned to write about, but in the years before starting the blog I had not spent much time thinking about philosophy, so the blog was part of a wish to reawaken and deepen a long-standing passion of mine. As it happened, I have found myself doing lots of reading and thinking about psychoanalysis over the last two years and this has coloured (or indeed dominated) the small number of posts that I have contributed to this blog. So I am coming clear and recognising that the real focus of this blog is Wittgenstein and Freud – how can you make sense of psychoanalysis from a Wittgensteinian perspective? Or perhaps more controversially is it possible to find a way of bringing together the achievements of each of them? As this question suggests, I think it is and I have a fairly clear idea of what this might involve, but at this stage this is only a bit more than a hunch and I hope I can stay fairly open-minded on where I might end up.

My hope within the next five years is to write a book on Wittgenstein and Freud, so part of the aim of this blog is to help me shape my thoughts. My real hope, however, is for some dialogue – I don’t want to develop my ideas in seclusion; rather I hope that feedback from others will help me see what I am getting wrong and give me a sense of whether others think that what I am saying is eccentric, obvious or potentially interesting. So all comments very welcome (apart from product spam!!). For the Wittgensteinians out there, this blog will continue to take a strongly Wittgensteinian perspective on things, but those things are likely to relate to the mind and the Inner as explored by Freud and psychoanalysts. If you think that trying to combine a Wittgensteinian view of the mind and a Freudian view is a Quixotic enterprise, then all I can say is be patient and let’s see if we can get anywhere :-)


  1. An interesting project! I don’t know too much about Freud. I’ve read a few bits here and there but that’s about it. At the same time, however, I can’t help thinking psychoanalysis (if not used too dogmatically) can be helpful, and I tend to be strongly sceptical of the modern psychiatric tendency to “medicalise” problems. Do you anticipate that your thinking will touch on this area, because it’s certainly a hot topic at the moment.

    On the Wittgensteinian side of things, I’m increasingly fascinated by his conception of philosophy as akin to therapy and the technique he developed to embody that idea in his work. That has perhaps been the biggest shift in my thinking since I started my blog (and I’m becoming a bit of a bore on the topic). Moreover, I can’t help wondering if there’s really a neat division between the philosophical part of our life and other areas. Sorry, that’s badly put. I mean is just about philosophy? Doesn’t it have implications for the whole of your life if you reject (or, at least, put in its place) the picture of people as a weird cut-and-shunt composed of “rationality” on the one hand and “instinct” on the other. (And isn’t Freud at least in part responsible for the perpetuation of that illusion?)

    Anyway, I’m rambling. I’ll certainly keep an eye out for your posts and I’m happy to offer whatever comments I can.


    • Paul says:

      Many thank, Phil. I definitely agree with you about medicalising our personal problems. We are much happier treating our mental health problems as chemical malfunctions in the brain than as issues that have some kind of meaning.
      In terms of splitting off philosophy from the rest of our lives, I am afraid I think that Wittgenstein did a fair amount of that. For me, he was a man who struggled with an almost unbearable sense that the truth about himself was so awful that it could not be shared with anyone, so he buried that sense as deep within himself as possible, lived most of his life in a fair amount of isolation and wrote the anti-private language argument to demonstrate that in principle all experience is shareable!! The pain in Wittgenstein the philosopher is almost always physical and fairly momentary; the pain in Wittgenstein the man is deeply psychological and almost impossible to live with.
      I also agree that it is easy to see Freud as suggesting that man consists of a veneer of civilised rationality that hides the unpleasant reality of our instincts, but one of his virtues was that he was never afraid to change his views (indeed, he seemed almost compelled to keep surprising his followers by challenging his own orthodoxies). Certainly later psychoanalysts have been strongly opposed to splitting things into “good” and “bad” bits. Typically, when we split things, we idealise one element and demonise the other, and then get worried as the ideal element starts to look awfully vulnerable in its purity to the incursions of the strangely vigourous bad element.

      • Yes, it’s striking isn’t it that Wittgenstein, of all the people on God’s earth, should be the one to come up with the private language argument. The spirit of the Tractatus seems far closer to his personality right to the end. On the other hand he was starting from a pretty difficult position. His home life, his school life, his experiences in the Great War – any one of those could’ve left him traumatised to some degree. So maybe for him just being able to die of natural causes was a kind of victory – look at the fate of his brothers! Nevertheless, when I read about what he was like in the 30s and 40s and consider the philosophy he was developing at the time I can’t help thinking “physician heal thyself!”

        All the same, I think I’m right in saying that depressed people often feel isolated and misunderstood – indeed they feel they cannot be understood. Is there no connection between that and a society that tends to isolate and atomise? A society that is in many respects reductive and presents us with a choice between dualism and materialism when it comes to making sense of ourselves? And does something like Wittgenstein’s therapeutic philosophical approach offer nothing when it comes to undoing the damage? I’m keen not to claim too much in this respect. It would obviously be foolish to suggest one could work through the Investigations and come out a healthy, happy person. But that doesn’t mean that something like that couldn’t at least have some kind of supporting role.

        Well, maybe, maybe not.

  2. Hmm. When did I write that one? A Christmas comment would be a good way of putting it.

  3. Monty Sher says:

    Paul, is it meaningful to compare Freud and Wittgenstein as regards their methods? Is it accurate to regard both as phenomenologists? Freud was a theoretical phenomenologist, right? He made theories (presumably) based on observations of his patients and what they said. Wittgenstein could also be regarded as a phenomenologist, but his observations regarded language generally. I guess they have a different relationship to meaning. Freud regarded his theories as uncovering the dynamic origin of his patients’ locutions. Wittgenstein aimed at showing the relationships between different usages in the language game. They were both concerned with the language of motives and intention. Is there any fruitful connection between Freud’s interpretations and Anscombe’s essay Intention?

    • Paul says:

      Hi Monty. I am not sure I would see either of them as phenomenologists. I think one of the most interesting things about Freud is trying to work out the status of his claims. He does (as you suggest) often talk as if his claims are necessary theoretical postulates to explain observed phenomena, but I don’t think it is as simple as that. As far as Wittgenstein is concerned, the key thing for me is his sense that we can fall into conceptual confusion and then not know what to say or say things we do not mean. For example, we end up concluding that we never really encounter things in themselves, only appearances of things. Or we conclude that thinking is a super-fast process because an idea may strike you and it may then take you half an hour to fully explain it to me. So we get by very well with our concepts most of the time and then suddenly we say the most confused and confusing things!

      In terms of the juxtaposition of Freud and Wittgenstein, one striking thing is that Wittgenstein emphasises the privileged position of the speaker in relation to his own inner life. So normally if I say: “I feel angry” and I am being sincere, then that settles the matter. This is not because the speaker has 20/20 vision when it comes to introspection but because this kind of statement is not really a description at all. If you like it’s a piece of verbal behaviour. If someone shakes their fist at you, you won’t say to them: “are you sure you are connecting the right gesture with your inner state – perhaps wringing your hands would have been a more appropriate gesture than shaking your fist?” Similarly, if someone says to you: “I am furious”, you won’t say: “are you sure – perhaps a more fitting phrase would be: “I feel sad”? So typically Wittgenstein spends his time reminding philosophers (and others) that first person uses of psychological concepts are criteria for inner states, not descriptions of them.

      Now Freud looks like he is making the same mistake as the philosophers (because he thinks first person uses are poor, inadequate and often distorted descriptions) but rather than ending up in empty confusion, his “mistake” some how turns out to be very useful. Even more interestingly, what he does seems to fly in the face of our normal language games because when you say to a psychoanalyst: “I feel happy” (or “I feel angry”) there is every chance he may think or even say: no, you dont’! So we enter a strange new world where the subject does not know what he is experiencing! The simple Wittgensteinian response is to focus on Freud’s claims to be a scientist, rubbish those claims and take this as showing that the whole thing is a waste of time. What I want to try to do is to show that there is no real clash between Wittgenstein and Freud and that surprising as it may seem Wittgensteinian clarity can actually throw a positive light on Freud’s real achievements.

  4. Monty Sher says:

    Don’t stop there! More, please.


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