Kafka or the Challenge of Understanding a Bafflingly Complex World

The German (or Czech – depending on how you look at it) author Franz Kafka once wrote that “the True Way goes along a rope which is not stretched at any great height but just above the ground. It seems more designed to make people stumble than to be walked upon.” The quote’s assumption that there is a True Way may seem surprisingly optimistic for Kafka, but the tentative suggestion that it seems designed to make people stumble and the lack of clarity as to what might be achieved by walking along it seem rather more typical. Kafka loved paradoxes because they seemed the least inadequate way of capturing the complexities of reality – any simpler kind of statement inevitably ruled out a mass of other possible meanings and who can say what treasures (and truths) those meanings might have contained? It was a struggle for Kafka to finish a story (or perhaps even a sentence) because there were always so many more things one might say or confusions and misunderstanding it might be worth ruling out.

I have just published a short ebook on Kafka – Why Kafka is not Kafkaesque - that explores four of his best known works (the two most finished novels – The Trial, The Castle – plus an early story – The Metamorphosis – and a late story – The Hunger Artist). The essay suggests that each can be seen as having at least three levels of meaning. So, for example, in The Trial Joseph K can be seen as an innocent man heroically fighting a corrupt and sinister system or he can be seen as a cruel, manipulative narcissist who gets what he deserves or he can be seen as a man wasting his life who is offered the chance to redeem himself but who doesn’t quite manage it. Part of my aim in writing the book was to explore the idea that the right perspective on Joseph K does not involve choosing between these three interpretations but accepting that, despite the contradictions between them, all three have value. You cannot understand Kafka (and perhaps life, or certainly people) unless you are able to hold at least three contradictory views in your head at the same time.

But contradictions are not popular among philosophers (or at least Anglo-Saxon ones), so part of what I was trying to think about was the Freudian concept of over-determination. How can what someone does be simultaneously caused by the best of motives and the worst of motives? Suppose I give my friend a present, thinking to please him but then when he unwraps it, it turns out to be something he hates and I suddenly remember that actually a few years ago he told me that he hated that kind of thing. If I had done this deliberately, my hostile feelings for my “friend” would be clear and my action easy to understand, but as described, what I was conscious of was my desire to please and what I failed to recognise was a rather murkier, more submerged desire to hurt. The simplest way of presenting this in non-paradoxical terms is to treat me as if I consisted of two people, one positively, one negatively inclined. So the positively-inclined me thought of lots of possible presents for my friend and the negatively-inclined me went along with the present-giving idea but only if I choose a specific present, the one my friend would not like.

In this kind of example it is not too hard to see how my action works as a compromise between different inclinations within me. In more complex cases, however, the fusion of the good and the bad is more unsettling. Sylvia Path’s hate poem to her father – Daddy - is also a love poem to him, and the pain of the poem is not just the intensity of the hate, but that her hate and her love are fused together, creating a bond to her father that she cannot severe but which she also cannot bear. Here it is not about thinking contradictions but about living them, and as Kafka knew from his own experience, that is a difficult and dangerous experience.

Most of Kafka’s aphorisms are rather more disconcerting than the one this post starts with. For example, “the animal wrests the whip from its master and whips itself in order to become master, not knowing that this is only a fantasy produced by a new knot in the master’s whip”. Or again: “the more horses you harness to the job, the faster the thing goes – that is to say, not the tearing of the block out of its base, which is impossible, but the tearing of the straps to shreds, and as a result the gay empty ride”. Here the darker side of Kafka comes to the fore, but I don’t think he should be seen as a writer of despair. Rather as I try to make clear in my ebook I think one of the most impressive things about him and about his writing is the refusal to give up. Reality may be bafflingly complex, but Kafka never stops trying to get to grips with it. Life may be painfully complex, but he refuses to abandon the idea that it has a meaning.

Hard Choices: Why do we do what we do?

Imagine a psychological experiment. You set up a “shop” where the people taking part in the experiment have to purchase a washing power from a choice of 12 available. They have to pay for the washing power with their own money, but they get to keep it after the purchase. The psychologists running the experiment are interested in exploring the impact of four potential factors on human choice: 1) price (there are twelve possible prices in a fairly narrow range); 2) brand (there are 12 possible brand names with associated marketing blurb); 3) visual aspects of the packaging (there are 12 possible colour schemes) 4) display layout (there are 12 possible positions a product can occupy in the display). You then run the experiment with thousands of different individuals, offering each individual a choice where the four factors are combined on a random basis. This generates  a large amount of data about people’s choices.

If we ask the subjects of this experiment, why they made the choices they did, we would certainly expect them to have answers. I imagine these answers would focus on price (“I choose the cheapest”, “I thought the safest choice was the most expensive”) or brand promise (“I chose the one that the won the poll of housewives”, “I bought this one because it contains a new ingredient called “clearon”, “The one I bought is backed by scientific research”) or visuals (“I just liked the look of this one”, “I didn’t know what to choose so I went with my favourite colour – blue”). This is our usual language-game of offering explanations for the sort of choices we are all continually making. It wouldn’t really make sense to ask the people concerned: “how do you know you bought it for the reason you state?”. It would also be a bit odd to ask them for the evidence that justifies their statement. It would certainly be very misleading to suggest that what happens is that they look inside themselves and then give the best possible report of what went on inside them. No, the truth of the matter is that generally we just expect people to be able to say why they did things. This is how we are and this is how the language game works.

The psychologists, however, analyse the data and it may well generate some very interesting results. For example, their analysis may demonstrate that in the particular context of this experiment (perhaps because of the limited range of the prices or the particular nature of the layout) layout was a much stronger predictor of choice than price. So does this mean that some (or all) of the people who said they based their choice on price were wrong? Or let’s suppose that the variations in brand name and marketing blurb had no statistically significant impact on the choices people made. Does this give us the right to contradict the person who cited the marketing blur as the reason for their choice and to claim that in fact the real reason he chose the product he did was because it was in the most prominent position in the layout? Do such results provide further evidence that we don’t know as much about our own actions and choices as we think we do?

Well, what we have here is two very different ways of getting a result and since the processes are different, we shouldn’t really be surprised that the results might vary. Probably, most of us would accept that in this sort of context there are many factors that influence our choices in ways we do not recognise. But it would be eccentric (to say the least) to see such experiments as a reason for giving up our usual language game entirely. We might change our detergent buying practices (“I always decide what brand I am going to buy before I get to the supermarket so I cannot be manipulated by the display layout”), but we are not going to stop generally asking other people why they do things on the grounds that they are blind to the real determining factors. Similarly, if someone asks we why play tennis rather than golf, we are unlikely to reply: “how should I know? the psychologists haven’t yet completed their statistical analysis”.

Imagine one of the subjects of the experiment then goes to see his psychoanalyst and they discuss the choice the analysand made. The person chose the cheapest product available to him and says he only chose on price because there was no other reasonable basis for making a decision. But the analyst doesn’t find this account very convincing. After all, the individual is fairly well off and he doesn’t usually go in for penny pinching. So they talk a bit more. Who usually makes this sort of purchase in the analysand’s household? As it happens, it’s the analysand’s wife. And come to think of it, they recently had a row about this expensive holiday his wife splashed out on that the analysand thinks is too expensive and not really what he wanted to do anyway. So yes he was angry with his wife, although it is no big deal really. However, after the discussion the individual sees his choice differently. He still sees the price as influencing his decision but not because he wanted to save money or get good value, but because he was more angry with his wife than he realised. He now believes that unconsciously his purchase was a way of getting back at his wife and telling her that if she was going to waste money on expensive, selfish holiday choices then she would have to make do with the cheapest (and hopefully worst!) washing detergent.

So now we have a third process for arriving at result and again not surprisingly because the process is different, it can lead to different results. As with the second possibility, this third possibility does not automatically consign our normal language game to the rubbish heap. In some ways it is a less radical challenge to our normal language game than the psychologist’s approach, in some ways, a more challenge. We don’t want to be told that we did things for very different reasons than the ones we think motivated us, and there is a tendency to want to say: “Hang on. These are my actions and my experiences, so my account is definitive”. But in fact the normal language game is not quite as straightforward as I earlier made it seem. If a teacher says, “I am only giving her special help because she is clearly struggling to understand the material”, we may accept the utterance as sincere, but think the teacher is deceiving himself especially when it becomes clear that he only give special help to beautiful female students. Or if someone’s elderly father dies and they say: “I was expecting it, so it had no impact on me at all”, we may notice other aspects of their behaviour that point towards a different conclusion. Indeed, a month (or a year or 10 years) later, the individual himself may say: “at the time I didn’t realise how hard his death hit me”.

So it is not the case that in the normal language game the subject/speaker is beyond challenge and can never be wrong. The game is more sophisticated than that. Having said that, a game of reasons that includes unconscious reasons is a new game – it may build on possibilities in the old game, but if you allow all the players and not just the goalkeeper to use his hands, then you are not playing football any more. But again even if you find it interesting or useful to play the new game, there is no reason why you have to play it all of the time or even most of the time. After all, even psychoanalysts spend most of their time leading fairly normal lives!

Does Wittgenstein offer a talking cure for philosophers?

Wittgenstein often emphasised the difference between his way of doing philosophy and traditional approaches – indeed, he sometimes suggests that what he does should be seen as a successor activity to philosophy. Partly, this is about giving up a certain kind of ambition – the later Wittgenstein is not aiming to discover deep truths about the nature of reality or to give people insights into how they should live or to help them make sense of the world and their lives. In short, he is not offering wisdom or claiming to be a wise man.

But it is not all about renunciation. In part, he wants to make philosophy more business-like, make it an activity where you get results and sort problems out once and for all. Of course, philosophers have always been tempted by the fantasy of providing the ultimate answer to everything, but even the early Wittgenstein felt uncomfortable with this fantasy and, while claiming that his book solved all of philosophy’s problems, he was quick to add that this just showed “how little has been done when these problems have been solved”.

So how can he end disputes without claiming to be wise? Because he thinks there is a certain type of argument where nothing is really at stake. If I say that cow’s milk has a lower boiling point than goat’s milk and you say the opposite, there is a clear matter of fact about which we disagree. If I say murderers should be executed and you disagree, then although there are no facts at stake, there clearly is a real substantive disagreement. If my view prevails, then things will happen that you think should never happen.

By contrast, in his argument with the solipsist Wittgenstein denies that there is really anything at stake. The solipsist feels obliged to make certain claims (e.g. “I can never really know that another person is in pain”) but Wittgenstein does not think this is because he believes different things about the world or because he has different views about how people should treat each other. Rather the real problem is that he is  confused. He does not know his way about with the concepts he uses, so he feels obliged to make claims which don’t really mean anything or which can be given meanings but which then involve claims the solipsist would not want to make.

For Wittgenstein, therefore, there are debates (or at least aspects of some debates) that can be resolved through conceptual clarification, i.e. there is an activity that can end certain apparently interminable disputes without either party having to change their views on how things are or on how we should act. These disputes (or these aspects of some disputes) are unnecessary. Since there are plenty of real problems for us to struggle with, let us at least eliminate these pseudo-problems.

But it is not quite as simple as that. The parties to philosophical disputes do think something is at stake and they are typically very committed to the correctness of their view and to the idea that their opponents are wrong. So persuading them that they are not really saying anything (or not saying anything they would really want to say) is going to be a challenge. Success in talking with the solipsist will not involve him saying: “I now see how wrong my views were”; rather we want him to say: “I now have a better understanding of how the concepts I use work and, of course, that means I am not going to say some of the very confused things I used to say”.

Against this background it is understandable that Wittgenstein should present his work as a kind of therapy. It is not about proving the truth of certain views; it is about helping people disentangle themselves from the confused positions they have got themselves into. This may suggest that one-on-one therapy is the ideal, but since the confusions we fall into reflect the language we share, unravelling certain central and typical confusions can potentially help many different people at the same time. Real knots need to be untied one at a time, but you can discuss typical mistakes people make trying to tie knots and teach them techniques for sorting out the resultant mess.

The “therapeutic” nature of Wittgenstein’s work is also reflected in his tendency to come at the same issue many times from slightly different angles. Language offers us many related and similar temptations, so getting to a stage where we really know our way around involves making many trips rather than simply once successfully navigating from A to B. Furthermore, as with a therapist it is crucial that Wittgenstein listens carefully and accurately captures the (confused) claim that his patient wants to make. Not only will the patient not feel listened to if Wittgenstein does not use the same words, but if the words are not precisely right, he risks offers therapy for the wrong problem. If the aim is to help the patient better understand the conceptual relations embedded in the concepts he uses, the patient needs to confirm that the therapist is actually describing his concepts. Otherwise it looks as if the therapist is trying to force new concepts on him rather than helping him with those he already has.

There are other possible links one could make between what Wittgenstein does and psychotherapy. For example, Wittgenstein sometimes suggests that the problem in philosophy is often one of the will as much as of the mind. We like to feel that in our philosophical reflexions we are grappling with the hardest problems and that the answers we come up with are deep insights into the nature of reality. Conversely, we don’t want to be told it is just a matter of conceptual confusion. Neither the person who embraces solipsism nor the person who believes he has refuted it wants to be told that he just needs a better understanding of how our psychological concepts actually work. Wittgenstein’s approach offends our vanity and one can see why people have preferred the glorious search for metaphysical truth to the tiresome struggle for conceptual clarity.

So does this mean that doing philosophy Wittgenstein’s way is therapeutic in a deeper sense – might unravelling our conceptual confusions also end up making us better people? This is an attractive idea, but ultimately I think it is misleading. As an individual, Wittgenstein believed in the value of hard work. He thought that doing something really well involved giving up your vanity and being truthful about your abilities; it involved being patient rather than thinking you are so wonderful that you can achieve instant success; and it involved letting the focus of your work set the agenda rather than trying to impose one of your own. All of this is true in relation to the work of conceptual clarification, so one might claim that doing it well is potentially good for you, but only in the same sense that trying to be a good architect or a good gardner (or a good anything) might be good for your character. I don’t think Wittgenstein would want to suggest that in any strong sense reading the Philosophical Investigations might help you become a better person.

But hang on. Earlier I suggested that there was nothing at stake in Wittgenstein’s argument with the solipsist, isn’t that terribly terribly wrong? After all, when he claims not to be able to know that another person is in pain isn’t the solipsist striking at the very essence of our relationship to each other? What more could possibly be at stake! But the reason we see the solipsist as confused is because his dramatic claim does not actually lead anywhere – in everyday life he does things pretty much as we do, and that’s why it is so striking that he feels forced to make such strange claims. If the person we are talking to really began to sound like Hannibal Lector, then we would quickly stop thinking that his biggest problem was not knowing his way around his concepts.

In fact, this brings us back to the sense in which Wittgenstein’s approach is a renunciation. To suggest that philosophy is just about conceptual confusion is obviously wrong – who would want to treat the works of Plato, Kant and Heidegger as simply mistakes? The reason philosophy has been seen as the noblest of pursuits is because it does engage with what matters most to us. Indeed, even the solipsist can be seen as expressing the mixed feelings we have about being separate from each other. Perhaps his confused claim that he can never really know that others are in pain in part reflects a fear that in some sense he too is alone with his pain.

So there are aspects of philosophy that are not to do with conceptual confusion, and there are ways of philosophy that involve doing things that are not about conceptual clarification. But those are not paths Wittgenstein wanted to pursue. What he thought he saw was that you could separate off certain aspects of philosophical problems and so put yourself in a position to resolve them. In fact, what is astonishing about the later Wittgenstein’s approach is how much you can actually get sorted if you aim for clarity rather than wisdom. Philosophy’s puzzles do trigger deep stirrings in our souls and following that out can have value; but another approach is to ignore those links and simply unravel those puzzles themselves.

Interpreting Dreams or Explaining Dreams?

In a typically provocative move, Freud called the book that forged his reputation “The Interpretation of Dreams”. He presents the book as a contribution to science – it is an attempt to show that a set of apparently random and meaningless mental phenomena can in fact be explained scientifically and shown to have meaning. But interpreting dreams is what Joseph does in the Bible and there is a definite element of chutzpah in claiming that one can undertake this activity precisely in one’s role as a scientist. Can one be a prophet and a scientist at the same time? In fact, I think the fundamental question is whether showing that dreams have a meaning and showing that our dream experiences can be explained is one and same enterprise or two completely different ones.

Wittgensteinians have certainly questioned Freud’s status as a scientist and denied that he offers genuine causal explanations. For example, they have pointed that he makes bold and very general claims on the basis of a very small amount of evidence and that his claims are implausibly universal (“all dreams fulfil wishes”).  This may make it sound as if Freud is being criticised for being insufficiently scientific, whereas the more radical Wittgensteinian point is that what is interesting about what he is doing has nothing to do with science or with causes. One way of appreciating this is to note the emphasis that Freud places on the dreamer – it is not just that the dreamer has to provide the associations that constitute the (causal) context in which the dream occurred, rather the correctness of an interpretation is only finally established when the dreamer accepts it as correct. One of his own dreams that Freud interprets is a dream of his uncle and having given a fairly length interpretation, he notes that the interpretation does not fully satisfy him and therefore cannot be correct. So he continues the analysis and arrives at what he considers a full and correct interpretation.  But this does not make sense as part of a scientific enterprise focussed on causes (even where the scientist himself acts as the subject for his experiment}. You don’t assess causal processes by asking someone whether they think that the process you have described really gets to the heart of things! Nor does their assent establish that the correct causal explanation has finally been identified.

On the contrary, if one wants to find a parallel to what is going on here one has to look in a very different arena.  It is much more like trying to understand the impact that a particular event or an experience had on someone. Suppose I am trying to understand why I am fascinated by Hamlet. After some reflection and discussion I may say “I can now see much better why Hamlet should have such a strong hold on me, but I feel that there is something more. My fascination with Hamlet is still not fully clear to me”. So either the fascination stays slightly puzzling or the reflection and discussion continues until I feel satisfied and my interest makes sense to me. Someone might object that this still is a discussion of causes – aren’t I (and those I talk to) trying to understand what causes me to want to read Hamlet, see the play and discuss it etc? No – if it was about causes, we would have to test them and we don’t test causal hypotheses by asking someone which one satisfies them! This is a very different discussion – it is about trying to understand me as a person, not about trying to establish a pattern of causes and effects that will allow us to predict and manipulate the world. Of course, the language game of reasons is related to the language game of causes, but it is also significantly different.

So if the language game of reasons is about how we make sense of things, how we can understand them, does this mean that it doesn’t really tell us why something happened (because the real explanation for events are causal explanations)? No. Suppose you say you are going to the cinema and invite me to come too and I decline. You may ask me why I said no. I don’t respond to your question in the way I would if you asked me about why my car is not doing what we would normally expect it to, i.e. I do not come up with a series of causal hypotheses and seek to eliminate them systematically, starting with what seems to me the most likely. Rather I just give my reason – “I can’t stand the star of the film – Hugh Grant”. Now you can understand why I said no, but not because we have conducted an almost instantaneous piece of scientific research.

However, if my statement is not a causal explanation, does this mean that it does not explain why I did not want to go to see the film? Does it mean that my statement does not really give an insight into why what happened happened? Of course, not. Reasons do explain and to that extent reasons and causes can be in competition. Scientists investigating the mind have had lots of fun devising experiments where people offer reasons for their choices that clash with the factors that seem to be really determining their choices, and some of the scientists (and people impressed with their findings) do seem to want to take this as the start of the process of getting rid of reason-based accounts altogether.  That raises too big an issue to tackle here now, but those who want to go that route are confused if they present the shift as being from rather inadequate causal accounts to much sounder, more reliable causal accounts. In fact, what is going on is a shift from one way of understanding why something happened to a totally different way. It is not like moving from pub football to the Premier League – it’s like moving from football to cricket.

Let’s get back to dreams. Is there a way of making sense of what Freud is doing if we accept that he is not establishing the causes of dreaming and of dreams? Definitely. One of the established conventional views Freud is attacking is that dreams are random, meaningless and have nothing to do with the normal course of our mental lives. He is insistent that we should treat them at least to some extent in the same way that we treat the other more “respectable” aspects of our minds (and similarly he wants to encourage us to treat mad people (and the mad aspects of our own activity) as much more similar to the non-mad than people before him had typically done). In terms of our earlier example, just as we can try to understand why I declined to accompany you to the cinema, so too we can try to understand why I dreamt that I was stranded in a foreign country without my luggage, my passport and my return ticket. Our attempt to find the reason for the first event is typical of the language-game of reasons; attempting to find a reason for the second type is a surprising and controversial extension of that language game.

At this point it is quite open to people to say: “There is no point in trying to find the reasons for your dream. It was just a dream! It does not have a meaning. And there is certainly no point in trying to link it up to who you are, how you feel about things etc. It is just random”.  Another possibility is to say something like this and then add: “actually it is not really random. Your dream does have causes, but we have only made a tiny bit of progress in identifying those causes. Eventually we may be in a position to predict that you will dream of being a stranded passenger in an airport, but even when we are able to do this, this won’t mean we will have discovered the significance of your dream. Your dream doesn’t have any significance. It is just a caused event – like the heart attack we could predict to the minute if we had enough data about what you plan to eat and do over the next five years. Our ability on this scenario to predict your heart attack would not imply that it had a meaning or that we knew it!”.  So it is quite possible to reject the idea of applying the language-game of reasons to dreams, but what Freud tries to show is that actually you can apply something like the language game of reasons to dreams and that doing so can have powerful and very interesting consequences.

Another way of approaching this issue is to focus on the impact dreams have on us. What makes dreams so fascinating is that they seem absurd and yet significant. We could image a tribe who seemed to have very similar dream experiences to us but who took little or no interest in them. They don’t share their dreams with each other, but if we ask them if they see pictures in their heads while they sleep, they say yes but that the pictures are random and not worth talking about. If we really insist, they might provide us with a dream narrative, but they see the whole process as a waste of time and don’t understand why we are so bothered about it. The point of this comparison is to highlight the fact that most of us don’t react like this. With differing degrees of regularity, we wake up and want to tell others what we have dreamt or find ourselves puzzling over our dreams during the course of the day.  Despite their strangeness, we are strongly inclined to see dreams as meaning something. Nowadays we are less likely to see our dreams as messages from the gods, but most of us will have at some point wonder: “what does the fact that I had this dream say about me?”

So dreams strike us as puzzles and Freud’s interpretations are one way of diffusing that sense of puzzlement. He takes something that does not seem to make sense, that seems completely alien to our mental world and he offers a way of making sense of it, a way of connecting it with our thoughts and feelings. Here, in contrast with the causal approach, the privileged position of the dreamer is easy to understand. As we offer our interpretation, we might ask the dreamer: which bits of the dream still don’t seem to make sense to you? Which bits still seem unconnected to your experience? In this context, it is understandable that the process continues until the dreamer says: “yes. The dream now makes sense to me”.

The conclusion that Freud is playing the language-game of reasons rather than that of causes (which he sees himself as playing) may seem to undermine his achievement. But this is mistaken – what is revolutionary about Freud is that he extends the language game of reasons in a way that no one would have imagined possible. Rather than providing a new set of causal explanations, he encourages us to think about ourselves in very new ways.  Dreams are incorporated into our mental world but as part of trying to persuade us to see that mental world in a revolutionary new way. There is more to us as human beings than we realise or want to admit. Freud does not just find in dreams connections with our conscious thoughts and emotions, he finds in dreams thoughts and emotions that we don’t want to admit are ours. In other words, all sorts of things that we don’t want to see as reflective of who we are are suddenly treated as giving important insights into the truth about us. It’s that idea that really made Freud famous. Despite how he himself initially thought about it, he was not just annexing some new territory for science; rather he was opening up a whole new world.

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 :-)

Dreams, Meanings and Causes

Last night I had a dream. It was hard to understand and yet seemed full of significance and I wanted to tell other people about it and try to work out what it meant. This sort of experience raises various questions – the most obvious are: “what caused my dream?” and “what did it mean?”. It is tempting to see these two questions as intimately linked, but in a Wittgenstein-inspired way I will argue that they are very different.

So let’s start with the meaning of dreams. Our dreams certainly strike us as full of meaning, but do they really have a meaning or is that an illusion? One interesting comparison here is with music, since we sometimes listen to a piece of music and feel that it is saying something to us, if only we could understand it. For me, Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major is all about hope and despair and the music seems to be exploring different ways of trying to deal with the difficult things in life. So are those meanings really in the music? Well, I certainly experience the music as deeply meaningful, and those words at least begin to suggest the kind of meaning it has for me.

It is worth considering this experience in a bit more detail. I listen to a piece of music and it strikes me as deep and full of significance. I listen to it again and again and can perhaps begin to say something about the meaning it has for me. It is interesting (and heart-warming) if others find the same or a similar meaning in it, but this is not essential in terms of my experience itself. Furthermore, finding the meaning is not like solving a crossword where the clue is intriguing before I know the answer but once solved loses its interest. On the contrary, once I have some idea of what I think the music means, I want to listen to it more to explore that meaning and to refine (or change) my idea. Relatedly, my attempt to understand the music (to capture the meaning it has for me) does not aim for completion – whatever I manage to say about the music, there will always be more to say. It’s not like a roman a clef where once you have worked it out, it loses all interest. For me, Schubert’s quintet is a meditation on life and for as long as the meaning of my existence is unclear to me(!), listening to the piece will both stir up emotions and give me something to ponder.

I would suggest that our experience with dreams is often similar. They strike us as meaningful and we are often interested in trying to explore that meaning. We typically want to enlist other people in that exploration, but often get fairly protective of our dreams when others try to interpret them for us. Sometimes we make no progress in trying to understand them and just dismiss them; other times we think we can make some sense of them, but the dream probably still retains some degree of mystery. Ultimately, we are still left wondering: what did it mean? What does it say about me that I should have dreamed that particular dream?

Asking what caused the dream comes at things from a rather different perspective. We can certainly try to understand dreams scientifically. Here it is interesting that scientific research can modify (and has modified) our concept of dreams, although we normally don’t pay much attention to this. A hundred years ago if you asked someone whether they had a dream and they said no, that was essentially the end of the matter (unless they subsequently changed their mind and remembered that after all they had had a dream). Today we can monitor brain activity while people sleep and on the basis of what these monitors show we may say that someone dreamed even if they can’t remember their dream or deny that they had one. There is no reason why we should not take the brain activity as the decisive criterion of whether someone dreamed, but we do need to recognise that this is a fundamental change in the concept of dreaming.

Imagine that scientific research in this area continues to make progress and that we could read off the content (or some of the content) of the dream from the brain activity. We will then have two accounts of the dream, and there is no reason why they should always be the same. The dreamer says: “I was in a room with three people” and the lab technician adds: “actually there were four”. The dreamer continues: “One of the people started to shout at me but I could not recognise who it was” and the technician interjects: “yes you could. It was your mother”. This is certainly not the game of dreaming as we have traditionally played it! In fact, in the scenario I have suggested we have two accounts and to that extent two different games. We may say that what the monitors reveal shows objectively what happened, but equally one could argue that, since a dream is an experience, what the dreamer says is authoritative. However, it does not really matter if we call one account “objective” and the other, “subjective” – the point is what we do with these accounts and their interest. The dreamer (and the rest of us) may well be interested in the “subjective” account even if it differs from the “objective” account, and we may also be very interested in thinking about the significance of the divergences between the two accounts. It is certainly not a foregone conclusion that we would say: “there is no point my giving you my confused and distorted account of the dream – you might as well go straight to the real thing and get a clear and accurate account from the lab”.  (Similarly, a machine’s (or a music expert’s) account of the “real” meaning of the Schubert Quintet would not replace (or trump) my attempts to understand what the piece means to me).

So far, we have looked at dreams in terms of meaning and then from a scientific perspective. What about the Freudian account? There are many different issues one might explore here from a Wittgensteinian perspective, but one central issue is the question of what constitutes the correct interpretation of my dream. There are three obvious possibilities:

  1. The account I accept as best helping me to understand my dream;
  2. The one my analyst believes is the more accurate reflection of what is going on inside me;
  3. The one that has the greatest therapeutic impact on me.

From what we have said earlier and from what Wittgensteinians typically write in relation to Freud, one might assume that the first answer has to be the preferred choice. But this is wrong. Each of the answers is possible – the point is that they each define a rather different game. In fact, there is at least one further possibility, for one could give up the whole idea of talking about the correct interpretation of a dream and just talk about good/interesting interpretations and poor/uninteresting ones. Just as there is no correct interpretation of Hamlet only interpretations that bring the play to life (and others that don’t), so too perhaps what matters most in dream interpretation is the extent to which the interpretation gives the dreamer food for thought and different indeed conflicting interpretations may each bring something interesting and important to the table.

Why on earth is it so difficult to describe the Contents of my Consciousness?

The contents of consciousness are supposed to be what I am most directly aware of – they are the only things I know with certainty and perhaps the only things I really do know. Describing them should be the easiest possible task for anybody – all you need to do is to say what you are aware of and anything you don’t flag up is ex hypothesi irrelevant, since your failure to mention it indicates that it is not among the current contents of your consciousness. So, go ahead. Stop reading for a a minute and just jot down a list of the current contents of your consciousness.

If you try to do this, one problem you encounter is a worry about capturing everything (or indeed anything!): consciousness is this weird, fleeting thing – it never seems to stay still long enough to be captured! Some novelists have tried to capture the stream of consciousness, but even when we read their hard-to-understand narratives, we know that they are not really trying to capture literally everything that was going on in their character’s consciousness. This should give us pause for thought – if there is too much going on for us to capture it all, in what sense are we conscious of it all? How does this sense of an impossible-to-grasp reality relate to the philosopher’s talk of a series of ideas and impressions whose essence lies in their being clearly and distinctly perceived by us?

Another worry arises from the fear that any attempt to capture the contents of our own consciousness inevitably has a distorting impact. This seems a reasonable point. But again it is puzzling in terms of the model we tend to use in approaching this issue. If something is among the contents of my consciousness I must already be aware of it, so what does becoming more aware of it mean? Surely I am either conscious of something or not? Leaving that puzzle to one side, there does seem to be some truth in the idea that the attempt to observe our own consciousness modifies it – when I focus on the question of what can I currently hear, I become much more aware of the sounds around me. It seems tempting to say that not all the contents of my consciousness have my full attention and that when I do focus my attention on them, something sort of changes.

This may seem very trivial and unproblematic (we often hear a sound or catch sight of something and then listen or look more closely), but it is hard to represent this in terms of the content of consciousness model. How can something be among the contents of my consciousness and therefore something I am aware of even when I am not paying it any attention? How can some of the things that are present to my mind be as it were in the full brightness of my attention while others are in reasonable light, some in a twilight zone and others in almost complete darkness?

I have been writing this post in a fairly quite room, but through the open window some noises drift in from the street and others from the rest of the house. If I listen intently, I can differentiate between different noises, determine the direction they seem to be coming from, identify some of them fairly confidently and at least attempt to describe some of the others. Now what should I say about the auditory contents of my consciousness BEFORE I listened intently? Was I hearing the seven different sounds I was later able to differentiate or was I hearing some vague amalgam of them all? Was I consciously aware that one of the sounds was a passing airplane before I listen carefully and recognise it as such? Presumably not, but what should one say about the auditory content of my consciousness at that time – the experience was caused by the passing aircraft, but my awareness wasn’t of a passing aircraft (it only became that after more careful listening and reflection). It would seem that the “content of my consciousness” was an awareness of a passing aircraft minus the awareness of what it was – the same as my later experience, but simultaneously totally different. No wonder it is difficult to describe!

Let’s think a bit about visual rather than auditory experience. If someone rushes pass me so fast that I cannot recognise them, what visual experience do I have? The obvious way to capture my experience would be to say that it is like a blurred photograph. But how blurred was my impression? If I show you a lot of blurred photographs, you could rank them in order of blurriness - now could you put the visual impression you had into this sequence? And can you remember different visual impressions of fast-moving events that you would put at different places in the sequence? Here one might be tempted to say that in this sort of situation my visual impression is blurred but indeterminately blurred – this sounds good, but it is not clearly it really means anything!

Unfortunately, it’s not just perceptions of fast moving events that cause problems. Look at yourself in the mirror. Now examine the degree of similarity between your two eyebrows. You may well discover that they are not as similar as you might have expected (or hoped!). So in your very first visual impression were the eyebrows the same or different or was the visual impression of this barely moving object also blurred and if so, how blurred? Perhaps you will say that you cannot answer this question because that visual impression was a few minutes ago, so you have forgotten what it contained. But did you really know at the point you had it? And if you didn’t, are you now going to say that your visual impressions whose existence consists in being perceived by you have lots of features that you are unaware of and cannot describe?

So far the examples I have used refer to what philosophers (and nowadays lots of other people) call “sense data”. These are certainly the most popular and obvious candidates for being contents of consciousness and, although only an idiot (or a Wittgensteinian) might want to call this concept into question, it is striking that restricting the task of describing the contents of one’s consciousness to that of simply listing the sense data one is currently receiving does not make it that much easier. However, what about the other contents of consciousness – thoughts, beliefs, feelings, emotions, etc? Each of these raise further puzzles – take thought as an example. If a thought of my sister is among the contents of my consciousness does that thought contain the idea that I am sorry she has had to work so hard recently or is that idea something that wasn’t originally in my consciousness but entered very quickly after the initial thought? If I think “I am glad my sister beat cancer” and I know that it was breast cancer she had, was “breast cancer” among the contents of my consciousness or not? It seems very hard to know how to answer these questions and yet we are supposed to be talking about the things I am most intimately acquainted with!

I won’t talk about beliefs, feelings, emotions or sensations but they too raise questions about the consciousness model that seems so self-evident to all of us and seems to be taken for granted in most philosophy of mind and most writing on psychological issues. For me, Wittgenstein calls that model into serious question and the aim of this post has been to suggest to those who didn’t originally question it that it is perhaps not as straightforward and self-evident as it might initially seem. Hopefully, in my next post I will talk a bit how a Wittgensteinian approach seeks to avoid some of these difficulties.

Wittgenstein and Freud in Heaven

Wittgenstein and Freud meet in heaven and, after some time discussing what Vienna was like in the early part of the twentieth century, they get down to business. Wittgenstein goes first. With the slightly ironic, knowing smile that denizens of heaven tend to adopt when talking about earthly things, he starts to talk:

“Well, Sigmund, I know you achieved many great things in your writings, but I am sure you will not want me to embarrass you by talking about them. Instead, I will focus on aspects of your thinking that seem to me to be wrong or not quite right. To start with, it is interesting that while you are tremendously keen to differentiate the way you think about the mind from the way philosophers do, in fact, it seems to me that your approach is actually still very influenced by their views. For example, your concept of pre-consciousness is a solution to a problem that would not exist if one thought about consciousness in a less traditional way. I suppose it does not really matter and, of course, you moved away from this concept in the course of your writings, but it does illustrate the way in which (particularly early in your career) you seem to be building an annexe to a ramshackled building rather than recognising that the whole building would be better off demolished. I might add that you always seemed to have had a strong hankering to reduce the mind to the brain and, although you seem to give this up explicitly, even towards the end of your life there still seems to be a certain amount of – what shall I say – ambivalence?
I know that, like me, you had a certain scepticism about progress, but it seems to me that in some ways you were still rather uncritical in your belief in it – not to mention, your rather dismissive attitude to primitive peoples. Of course, the most striking example of your belief in progress is your passionate commitment to science. Along with that, you seem to have a strange attitude to facts and theories. You seem to think that given enough data and careful enough observation, the correct concepts and theories will inevitably emerge. As long as the scientist sticks to the facts, nothing can go wrong! In a way this seems rather paradoxical because one of your great achievements is showing how anything can be interpreted in an almost indefinite number of ways. How odd then that you should sometimes write as if our account of the mind will be correct if only we do not let theory blind us to the facts. When it comes to meta-psychology, you seem to lose your sense that there are many different ways in which something could be seen or said. That leads me on to a rather more important point. I do worry that your focus on science and scientific truth impacts on the power relation between the analyst and the patient. Frankly, I don’t like the idea that there is one scientific truth about the patient’s experience and that it is the analyst who knows this truth best and whose task is to help the patient accept emotionally as well as intellectually the correctness of this account. I know that in practice your work with your patients was much more a joint exploration, but it is certainly an aspect of your work that worries me.”

Freud smiles and takes a reflective puff on his cigar.

“Well, Ludwig. Some interesting comments. I won’t respond to them, and I will pay you the same compliment you paid me and not embarrass you by talking about your achievements. Instead let me share with you some of my thoughts on your work. One of the things I find fascinating about your work (both the early and the later stuff!) is that you combine a desire to take a really strong position with a desire to be neutral and to say nothing anyone can disagree with. You are as it were a conciliatory extremist – you want to tell your opponent that he is totally wrong, but you also want to reassure him that you are not really disagreeing with him and certainly that nothing you have said should upset him. Perhaps it is not altogether by chance that you earlier used the word “ambivalence”. More generally, I see in your work a desperate wish to avoid emotion and to focus on a pure world of thought which is as far as it is possible to be from human suffering. You would rather talk about conceptual relations than human relations, and although you are driven to continually talk about pain and whether pain can be known and shared, you don’t want to engage with the real difficulties of what this involves. You fear that people’s words will somehow contaminate the deepest things, so you want to protect those things but you don’t want them to stay permanently and irrevocably private. They are in principle shareable even if you can never imagine being able to share them. In a way, you always seem to want to bracket off what is most important – paradoxically for you philosophy (which you devoted most of your life to) seems never to be about the most important things. I know we are now friends, but frankly you seem to set limits to your own thinking and then when you reach those limits, you lapse into mysticism or a kind of “who-knows” acceptance of religion. I know from my work and from my own experience how difficult it is to talk about things, but surely what we shared was a belief in the power of thought to help us unravel apparently insolvable problems and to find a way of saying what it seemed impossible to say? You wanted to show the fly the way out of the flytrap, but why not admit it is not really about flies and that the places we find ourselves in are rather more frightening and harder to escape from than flytraps?”

Wittgenstein looks at Freud and ponders for a while. The two men then wander off amicably together – probably going to the “flicks” or the interesting new exhibition at the museum of archaeology.

The Lightning Speed of Thought

Imagine the following conversation:
A: I was thinking the other day about Casement.
B: Oh yes.
A: I think the way he was treated was terrible.
B (looking puzzled): what do you mean? (suddenly understands) oh you mean Roger Casement the Irish Nationalist and poet? I thought you meant Patrick Casement the psychoanalyst.
So what was involved in B’s thinking that his friend was talking about Patrick Casement when he was really talking about Roger Casement? Presumably it was something that happened at the moment Casement was first mentioned – perhaps an image flashed briefly through B’s mind? But B doesn’t mention an image and although sometimes when someone mentions a name, an image does flash through our minds, it does not always happen. Furthermore, an image wouldn’t really get us very far, even if B did report one. We might ask: was it an image of a seated or a standing Patrick Casement? And if someone suggests that perception of the image was so fleeting that this question is inappropriate, we might well ask: so how could B be so sure the image was of Patrick Casement if he only saw if for a split second?

These Wittgensteinian reflections should leave us a bit puzzled about how we use language in this area – what is going on when we confidently explain what we meant? Or when we explain that we thought someone meant one thing when it later turned out they meant something else? The reference to the past seems to be essential – after all, we are interested in what the person thought/meant at the time because it is this that explains what they said next or how they reacted etc. My understanding of Wittgenstein is that it is misguided to look for something else to justify the individual’s claim that that was what he mean or what he thought the other person meant. There is no mental event distinct from the individual’s explanation.

Furthermore, in terms of brain states Wittgenstein would be highly sceptical about there being any change in the brain that corresponds to B thinking that A meant Patrick Casement when A actually meant Roger Casement. I don’t think Wittgenstein would be totally dogmatic on this – in the sense that if people do want to analyse what happens in people’s brains in these sort of situations, then they can of course do so and maybe some interesting results will emerge. However, one would have to be careful interpreting the results. Suppose we did develop a machine that in these situations was able to give 100% accurate information on what the listener took the speaker to mean. So in our example the machine on the basis of some kind of brain scan would indicate that Casement had initially been understood as Patrick Casement and then when we question B he would confirm this.

It is difficult to see quite how this might work really, but perhaps if we imagine that all this happens in one hundred years time, we can try to ignore any misgivings we might have. The interesting question, however, is what would happen if after a million “correct” results (i.e. results that agreed with what the human subject said) the machine yielded a conclusion that differed from what the individual said? Of course, the individual might be lying (they hate machines or want to cause problems or think they will become famous) but lets imagine that the individual is being totally sincere. What do we say then: “you may have thought that you mistook my mention of Casement for a reference to Roger Casement, but actually you did understand me correctly and just did not realise it”?

This seems clearly wrong and in a clash between the machine and a sincere human being, I don’t think we would have much choice but to back the human being. Maybe the brain scan malfunctioned or maybe the correlation we thought we had found is actually not as strong as we thought. Philosophically, the more important point is that what we are interested in is the individual’s account of his thoughts. It is not that we put up with his account in default of something more reliable or because we cannot get direct access to the real thing (the actual mental event/the brain state change). Rather his words are all we have, need or want.

Interestingly, psycho-analytic or other more sophisticated accounts can give us a reason for suspending or modifying the usual language game. In the clash I imagined between the machine and the speaker, I said we would definitely go with the speaker’s account, but what if one could come up with a more elaborate account which would explain why (while being sincere) the speaker was still mistaken? Suppose, for example, B felt very guilty about his role in the recent death of a freedom fighter. Might that encourage us to agree with the machine that he did momentarily think of Roger Casement, but that he blanked that idea from his mind because of all the difficult emotions the name thus understood would conjure up for him?

Apology for Interrupted Service

It is always sad to see a blog where the blogger has run out of steam and this may well be what this site looks like (or even is!?). The truth of the matter is that this site signalled my wish to get back to thinking and writing about things and that has not changed even if my productivity has fallen to zero. In fact, as may have been obvious, I have become very interested in psycho-analysis and I hope that at some point I will get round to writing a good book on Wittgenstein and Freud. There is certainly a lot to be said there, since a lot of what Freud writes is scarily bad from a Wittgensteinian point of view and yet he was very clearly onto something. It would be nice to show Freud fans that Wittgenstein can bring some useful clarity and to show Wittgenstein fans that psychoanalysis is not just an “abominable mess”. Anyway, in the meantime I do not have the time and energy to go back to Wittgenstein in the way I had hoped, so I fear that this post may be it for some time (or even indefinitely). However, hopefully that won’t mean that I have given up thinking about things. And one day if my brain has not gone soggy, I hope I will have something to share :-)