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.


  1. At the film “Wittgenstein” Freud is accused by being dead wrong by Wittgenstein. It takes one Vianese to know another he says.

    • Paul says:

      Wittgenstein certainly talked of psychoanalysis as an “abominable mess” but he did also call himself a follower of Freud. So the picture is not clear. Overall, I think he was mainly negative about Freud, but I think that is partly because he did not fully understand what Freud was doing (although Freud too was not absolutely clear on this himself!).


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