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.


  1. Monty Sher says:

    Paul, I’m delighted that you are making new contributions to your blog. My comments will likely include lines from my play, partly to show my mutual concerns and partly, through your reactions, to improve the play. So, in the play I don’t include your idea that, “he (Freud) was opening up a whole new world” (and I will likely include it). I do say this (through my Wittgenstein character), “You thought you would have greater influence as a scientist than as an artist. To be sure, most people today think that science exists to instruct them and that artists are for pleasure. I’ve always believed the opposite. Poets, musicians and artists like you, Sigmund, are our true instructors.”

    In my play I emphasize Freud’s role in empathic listening. Wittgenstein says, “You know I also said at one point that I was a Freudian. Yes. I greatly admired that you established a context for listening to people–empathic listening. I think your making a place for empathy is one reason our auras are joined at this moment. I also respected your interpretive creativity—unnerving as it was sometimes. I respected you as someone with convictions– even when I disagreed.” Do you agree that Freud established a context for empathic listening? If you do, what significance do you assign it.

    • Paul says:

      Hi Monty. Yes, I would definitely say that Freud established a (new) context for emphatic listening. I think one of the things that enabled Freud to achieve what he did achieve was his deep commitment to listen to his patients – he did like to construct theories to explain what they told him, but he was always prepared to change his theories if he felt they were at odds with what he heard from his patients. I think his commitment to listening to people led him to a more complex way of understanding what it is to be a human being and that the therapeutic situation and practice he created gives people an opportunity for exploring that way of understanding themselves. As I see it, his approach makes possible levels and types of self-knowledge that were not really possible before (although of course like everything new it build on and links back to what went before).

  2. A couple of questions:

    Do you think a Wittgensteinian reading of Freud’s technique links in to Wittgenstein’s comments on religion and magic? I ask because some of what you say above reminded me of the Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough – “the strangeness of what I see in myself and in others, what I have seen and have heard” etc.

    Secondly, although a good deal of Freud’s approach is blatantly creative rather than scientific, is there a case to be made for saying that his “science” side leads us to re-mystify the very thing he’s trying to lay bare? What I mean is that, taken in a certain way, the mental structure he invokes (ego, id, etc) smacks of the kind of quasi-mechanistic approach that Wittgenstein was at pains to repudiate. It can make it seem as if our own motivations are alien to us – that our “surface” reasons are mere epiphenomena obscuring the truth. Assuming I’m not off beam, could this structure be recast in a less alienating form or do you think it would have to be jettisoned entirely?

    Finally, part of the significance of the new world Freud opened up must surely come from the change it made in the lives of the people exposed to his approach. I could be wrong, but I seem to recall that Freud’s own record was somewhat uneven (and his daughter fared rather badly). Did he do enough to establish the value of his technique? And if he didn’t, was that down to the technique itself or failings in him as a practitioner?

    • Paul says:

      Philip – I agree that if one wants to put Wittgenstein and Freud together, there is going to have to be some fairly radical interpretation. Freud often writes as if the science of psychoanalysis is going to reveal the causal processes which only appear in our consciousness in a limited and often distorted way, so to that extent there is an overlap with the confused and confusing views put forward by Davidson, Dennett etc. However, the practice of psychoanalysis which involves working with and trying to help real people actually cuts across and ends up undermining this scientistic approach. Freud was keen on being scientific, but he was also very interested in trying to understand (rather than explain) people and he wanted to help them understand themselves better. I think the power of Freud’s approach becomes clearer in Melanie Klein and those who came after her; far from creating mechanistic explanations, I would see psychoanalysis as creating an incredibly sophisticated vocabulary/framework (actually quite a number of vocabularies and frameworks) for thinking about who we are and what we do. For me, the power of psychoanalysis lies in showing that the individual’s attempt to understand himself is a much harder task than we had previously imagined, and it is certainly one that no analyst would see as ever being completable.

      • You are doing for Freud what Strawson did for Kant!

        Anyway, I’d certainly agree that there’s a lot to be said for psychiatry as means of getting people to better understand themselves. I’d be interested to hear more about the reasons for the difficulty in achieving this. Is it primarily about self-honesty (which would certainly tie in with Wittgenstein’s thoughts about philosophy)? If so, then it would seem to be a case of reminding ourselves of what we already know but are loathed to admit to ourselves – and in theory at least it would be possible for someone to treat him/herself by carefully examining the facts. Or is there an aspect of the problem which goes beyond ourselves so that we couldn’t possibly hope to sort things out without specialist knowledge?

        Insofar as I understand psychiatry (which is not too far, I must admit) it seems to be more the former than the latter. And that makes the role of dreams quite interesting – you could, for example, see them as a kind of MacGuffin: a device which helps break down the patient’s reluctance to face up to things. “Look! You’re already confronting this indirectly through your dreams, so why not take that final step and confront it in your waking life?” From that point of view the actual provenance of the dream is unimportant. So long as it serves to get the ball rolling it’s done its job. But the danger is that once a MacGuffin is exposed for what it is then it loses much of its power. It just seems like a trick. And the helpful thing about Freud’s invocation of science was that it compelled the patient to take the dream seriously (“SCIENCE has shown that this is so!”)

        Or do you consider dream analysis to be more than a useful device?

        • Paul says:

          Not sure I want to do for Freud what Strawson did for Kant :-)
          I would make a fairly big distinction between psychoanalysis and psychiatry – not that there isn’t an overlap (!) but much of psychiatry is about trying to get people “normal” again as quickly as possible, so it can often seem that the aim is to get people not to think about things rather than to think about them!
          I think there are lots of barriers to self-understanding – of course, wanting to think one is better than one is is one barrier but even that barrier is probably more complicated than it seems and I don’t think it is the only barrier. As you suggest, Wittgenstein was very committed to self honesty and there is a lot to admire in that, but I think there is a masochistic element to his attempts to be honest with himself – in fact, generally speaking his attitude to his own feelings seems rather violent. He often seems to see things he does not like and then wants to destroy the bad bits of himself instantly and absolutely. I think an analyst would encourage him to reflect on why he wants to treat himself so violently and what the meaning of this violence might be.
          Psychoanalysis is very much a practice – a set of principles and a setting in which (if things work) a unique relationships can get created between the analysand and the analyst. The analyst brings a lot of training and experience but it is not really about specialist knowledge – its more about the importance of a two person relationship partly because the reality of another person (and their contributions) helps you stand outside your established perspective and partly because how you relate to people gets recreated and magnified in the analytic context and then it becomes very difficult to deny that you do, think and feel certain things when in that very room you will have done all these things to a person who is as benignly neutral as it is possible to be. There is a world of difference between the abstract recognition that I sometimes behave badly (but we all have our off days and it does not reflect my character or link up with any other aspects of how I behave) and watching and living that happen in slow motion in the analytic context.

  3. Oops! Yes, you’re right about the psychiatry/psychoanalysis distinction. A sloppy grasp of the terminology on my part. I was groping towards a distinction between therapy on the one hand and medical treatment on the other.

    Now, when you say there are several barriers to proper self-understanding do you mean that it’s not just a case of being too easy on oneself or that there are other issues quite aside from a faulty self-image? On the first point I’d certainly agree – indeed, often the problem is quite the opposite. We suppose ourselves perverse or inadequate when all we’re reacting to is a fairly common (though often hushed-up) part of human life. Something like that seems to have been the case with Wittgenstein himself. On the second point, I’d be interested to see a few examples, just to better orient myself in the discussion.

    Regarding Wittgenstein’s attitude towards honesty, I think it’s noteworthy that he set so much store by the idea of confession. The last thing (I presume) a psychotherapist is after is a confession of sins! And the whole sin/confession/forgiveness process seems curiously at odds with his later philosophy where Wittgenstein is at pains to stress the understandable – almost noble – nature of philosophical error. Stylistically, at least, it sits more comfortably with the stern, ascetic pronouncements of the Tractatus (“a voice from the whirlwind” as someone once put it).

    Happy new year, btw.

  4. Paul says:

    1) Happy New Year to you too Philip.
    2) I am not quite sure which was the second point, so I am not quite sure how to illustrate it :-)
    3) I think Wittgenstein’s “confessions” illustrate how introspective one can be without seeing things that others might notice more easily. There are many aspects of his confessions that look contradictory, but actually probably go together. He would only “confess” to people who he valued, but while he was making his confession to them, they were not supposed to show any kind of (human) response. Although Wittgenstein was in a sense baring his soul to them, they probably felt as if they did not exist – there is certainly no sense that Wittgenstein’s confession process involves two people relating to each other. The ideal recipient would have been a statue! Wittgenstein’s confessions list failings on his part, but the process excludes any discussion (or thinking) about why he acted as he did, and there is no discussion (or thought) about how he might behave differently in the future. In fact, the process looks as if it is about closing down any real attempt to understand himself (or relate better to others). It’s like cutting off a damaged limb – very painful especially if there is no anaesthetic, but the aim is to get it over as quickly as possible and try to move on as if it never happened (cf. his brother Paul).
    Traditionally, making a confession involves contrition and reparation, but Wittgenstein’s confession are an act of violence first on himself and then on his audience. A confession should bring you closer to the person who made the confession and fill you with sadness and sympathy. In contrast, Wittgenstein’s confessions left their recipients feeling confused and feeling that neither they nor anyone else was ever going to be close or in touch with Wittgenstein. I think the person who expressed their reaction in the most natural way was Fania Pascal who quite rightly felt she was being insulted and assaulted and got very very angry.
    I think Wittgenstein was full of very powerful emotions and that there was no way he would ever have been able to come to terms with them through self-reflection (although obviously he found ways of patching himself up – more or less). I do think that his feelings were almost literally too painful to think about. I am not an expert but I would be tempted to say that he was in too much pain to even make it to the couch and that if he had, he would have had to do a lot of work with a very skilled analyst before he felt it was safe to even begin thinking about his real innermost feelings. I think he was frightened that the truth about him was too terrible for him or anyone else to bear. And yet if you told him he was not as bad as he thought he was, he would probably find that reaction deeply insulting and want to kill you. In short, psychoanalysis suggests that people are much more complicated than we tend to think and that our emotions (in particular, fear, anger and (pain-driven) hate) are much more powerful and deep-seated than we like to think.

    • Actually, your points about Wittgenstein’s confession answer my question about the “second point” – ie, it’s primarily a matter of the diversity of barriers to self-understanding. Moreover, as you say, locating the particular barrier in a given case is by no means the end of the matter.

      Someone once confessed to me what she felt was an astonishing and shameful secret about her past. To me, however, it seemed unusual but by no means as strange or shameful as she thought. I told her so, hoping it would make her feel less isolated. That turned out to be a big mistake. From her reaction it was clear she was angered by what I said (though she tried to hide it). It was only later that I realised the self-characterisation of her experience as “extraordinary” was very important to her and was one of the things that helped her cope with what had happened. Indeed, by undermining her interpretation I was calling into question a whole narrative that she had created for herself – not just about that particular experience but about her life in general. I thought I was offering her support but I was kicking down her house around her ears. As you say, a much trickier business than we sometimes suppose.

      As for Wittgenstein’s confession, I agree with what you say and would add that it seems a blatant case of “crossing pictures”. The impersonal confessions he gave are the ones you give to a priest, not your friends. They only make sense in the wider context of the Catholic Church’s practice of confession whereby the priest performs a double-function, being (a) a person who hears and understands what you say, yet at the same time (b) the impersonal ear-piece of God. Confessions to friends are nothing like that and it’s an astonishing blunder to think that the two types of confession could be conflated in that way. Still, it’s what you might expect from someone who couldn’t bring himself to believe yet couldn’t help seeing everything from a religious point of view.

  5. Monty Sher says:

    I’d like to expand one of your thoughts about the relationship of cause to the interpretation of dreams. You imagine someone saying, “Your dream doesn’t have any significance. It is just a caused event.” Can’t this be turned into a challenge to Freud’s scientism. I’m suggesting that cause and meaning have a fatal relationship. If a dream is caused, it is meaningless. I think that’s true. Indeed, I wonder if that doesn’t settle Freud’s implicit dilemma regarding the relation of scientific explanations of dreams to their interpretation: he can’t have it both ways. If he opts for a scientific explanation, whatever linkages he finds are sterile, without human content. However, I can imagine his having a counter argument along the following lines. One cannot eliminate cause from the human context. Embryonic and later physical development are causal processes. The causal processes he ‘discovered’, e.g., the genesis of conscience in the oedipal complex, are parallel to the physical processes. They provide the structure within which real human choices are made. Dreams are constrained (determined) epi-phenomena derived from those choices. He would refuse the fatal relationship for a tandem one: the more cause the less meaning; the less cause the more meaning. Freud certainly would not have thought such distinctions were necessary—except, perhaps, in response to philosophers. Still, I wonder if there’s a line he can draw. Can any causal dynamic be admitted for a psychological process without destroying its meaning?

    • Paul says:

      Tough question :-) The successes of science do mean that all of us have a tendency to see all explanations as causal and see causal explanations as the most important ones. And this even affects the way we speak, since people certainly do say things like: “it was the view that caused me to buy this apartment” or “the constant sniping from my boss caused me to resign” where a Wittgensteinian would see the speaker as citing reasons rather than pointing to causes. Similarly, I suppose a Freudian might say: “where someone believes in God, it is their early relationship with their parents that causes them to hold this belief”. Now is this really a causal explanation? I think what the Freudian is doing is pointing to what he sees as a highly illuminating parallel and we may accept that this is the right way to understand that person’s belief (or we may not). So we accept that this is the right way to understand what happens. We agree, e.g. that his belief in God arose out of his sense of his father’s absence when he was a child. If we agree that this is the best explanation and accept that the sequence of events was 1) he felt desperately abandoned and 2) he started to believe in God, does this mean that we are putting this forward as a causal explanation? I am not sure it does – although clearly we are not just putting it forward as one interesting way of looking at things, we are suggesting is the correct way of looking at what happened. I definitely don’t think I have quite got to the bottom of things here!!!


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