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.