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:
- The account I accept as best helping me to understand my dream;
- The one my analyst believes is the more accurate reflection of what is going on inside me;
- 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.