Before Freud, the idea of unconscious thoughts and feelings would have seemed a contradiction in terms, but today such ideas have permeated deep into our culture. The games we play with these concepts, however, are far from clear. If I do not know my unconscious thoughts, who does and how do I find out what they are? If my unconscious does all sorts of thinking I am unaware of, is it possible that it has worked out a proof of Goldbach’s conjecture or a sure-fire way of making money on the stock-market? Probably not, but who is to say?
From a Wittgensteinian point of view, the idea of the unconscious may seem particularly paradoxical, since Wittgenstein spent a lot of time emphasising the special role we assign to the subject’s sincere utterances about his (or her) inner world. The subject is not privileged because he is the only one who can see (and describe) that inner world; rather he is privileged because his utterances express that world. They are what justifies our calling those thoughts and feelings his. If you ask me whether I think Wittgenstein was a great philosopher and I sincerely tell you that I think he was, there is no scope in our normal language-game for you telling me that actually I am wrong and what I really think about him was that he was a terrible philosopher. So far, so simple.
But we do play more complicated games. Lying is not really one of them. If I tell you that Wittgenstein was a terrible philosopher because I think this will impress you, there is nothing particularly complicated about this. My utterance is insincere – I am lying and I know it! What is more complicated, however, are situations where we say that someone is deceiving himself. Imagine, for example, that I tell you how much I love my wife’s cooking and yet you notice that I seem to spent all my time minimising the number of times I eat at home, offering to do the cooking myself, not managing to finish what is on my plate because I unfortunately over-ate at work etc. You may conclude that actually my thoughts about my wife’s cooking are not in fact what I claim them to be.
Now perhaps I know this in which case my utterances are polite or diplomatic lies, but let’s imagine that when you confront me, I am genuinely bewildered by your statements and sincerely assure you that you are wrong and that I do indeed love my wife’s cooking. At this point, you will have to decide what you think, but if the other evidence is sufficiently strong, you may persist in thinking that actually I don’t really like my wife’s cooking. Indeed, in our post-Freud world you might even start wondering whether my desperate self-deception in relation to my views on my wife’s cooking is not a reflection of a deep insecurity in my feelings about my wife.
So what has happened to the link between my utterances and my thoughts? Well, you are not denying that link altogether – what you are suggesting is that if I was not blinded by my love for my wife (or perhaps insecure about my love for my wife), then I would be able to recognise that you are correct and that in truth I do not like her cooking. So “ultimately” the correctness of your view would be shown by my agreement. But this “ultimately” is a little bit confusing, for it points to a conceptual or grammatical link rather than something that will always eventually happen. Suppose I divorce my wife and accept that I never really loved her. Presumably you will now expect me to be able to admit to myself (and to you) that I never really liked her cooking. If I don’t admit this, but on the contrary maintain that her cookery was actually one of the few things about her that I really did like, then you may change your view about what I really thought of her cookery. Or you may not – and just conclude that when things get personal, people do and say the strangest things!
So what should we make of all of this? Well, it illustrates the obvious point that when we interact with people we are confronted with what they say and what they do and typically we expect what they say to give us the key to what they do. This is what treating them as conscious agents is all about. But recognising this point does not mean we have to adopt a picture of ourselves (and of others) as simple beings, fully as it were transparent to ourselves. It didn’t take Freud to tell us that we are complex beings, but his work has massively boosted awareness of our own complexity and invited us to play games where we take more complicated relationships to ourselves (or which comes to the same thing use more complicated pictures of our selves) and to others. The permutations of these new games are potentially endless, but if they are to connect up with our usual language games they must at some point or in some way come back to the subject – with the correctness of the account of his inner world lying in his “ultimate” endorsement that it is correct. Otherwise one does indeed end up with a split subject – a person who sometimes acts and can give a uniquely insightful account of those actions, and sometimes not (“it’s as if some of my actions are done by someone else”).
In his lectures on Aesthetics, Wittgenstein gives a simple but interesting example. He imagines that he and Taylor (one of his students) were walking along the river when Taylor stretches out his hand and pushes Wittgenstein into the river. “When I ask why he did this, he says: “I was pointing out something to you”, whereas the psycho-analyst says that Taylor subconsciously hated me” (L&C pg22). So we have two very different explanations and Wittgenstein suggests that they might both be correct. This may seem a surprisingly conclusion, but let’s explore it. Can both explanations be right? Well, in terms of our normal language game we might well conclude that Taylor did not deliberately push Wittgenstein into the river. He seems upset and embarrassed about what happened, but he does not seem guilty; and when he protests his innocence, there is no hint of insincerity. There is a possibility of error (of his being an expert liar) as there always is, but even if Wittgenstein had died in the river, it is pretty clear that no court in the world would do anything but acquit Taylor.
But that need not be the end of the matter. Suppose when we examined Taylor’s recent past we find lots of “accidents”, all with a common theme. Wasn’t Taylor the one who made that embarrassing typo in a recent article and referred to “Professor Twittgenstein”? Six months ago didn’t he accidently ride his bike into a small, ageing visiting academic from Hungary? If we did find incidents like this, we might well start to think that Taylor harboured unconscious feelings of hostility to Wittgenstein (or to foreigners or whatever). The exact nature of these incidents (details about what happened and Taylor’s demeanour and reactions) would determine whether they led us to call into question Taylor’s sincerity in relation to the river incident or to see him as influenced by repressed feelings in his unconscious, but it is certainly entirely possible that we will conclude both that Taylor did not deliberately push Wittgenstein into the river and that the incident was not simply an accident but was caused by hostile feelings that Taylor may genuinely be unaware of.
At this point it is interesting to look at things from Taylor’s perspective. We can imagine various different scenarios. He might, when confronted with evidence of his unconscious feelings, agree that he has always had somewhat ambiguous feelings about Wittgenstein and that he has never really wanted to recognise his feelings of envy and irritation. Or he might reject the evidence and insist that all his feelings towards Wittgenstein are positive. Well, depending on the evidence, perhaps we will believe him, perhaps we won’t. Perhaps we will think: he needs 10 years of analysis and then he might finally be able to face up to the difficult feelings Wittgenstein stirrs up in him. But there are also quite other conclusions we could draw – maybe we will say he is ill and give him drugs to help him become normal or in some cultures he might be seen as possessed and the answer seen as exorcism.
Even for Taylor there are more options than those we have already mentioned – he might, for example, sincerely maintain that he has no hostile feelings towards Wittgenstein and yet still make a mental note that it is probably not a good idea for him and Wittgenstein to go cliff walking together. Would this be a step towards recognising his unconscious feelings or is he simply worried that he might not always be fully in control of his actions? Well, we can ask him or maybe time will tell. An interesting issue here is that we seem both to make a judgement within a language-game (he is lying vs he is telling truth) and to decide which language-games we think are appropriate to apply (he has repressed feelings of hostility vs he is possessed vs it was an accident). In any event, we can make a judgement about what we think is going on here and maybe subsequent evidence (his actions and/or his words) will reinforce our view or maybe it will lead us to change it.