Wittgenstein was interested in Freud and thought he had something to say, but he also warned about his approach, indeed, he suggested that it was a way of thinking that needed to be combatted. So what was it that he didn’t like?
One thing Wittgenstein disliked is the presentation of psycho-analysis as a science. Wittgenstein was not anti-science, but he thought the phenomenal success of this type of thinking created huge risks that we would want to take the same approach in areas where it is was less appropriate, and the work of Freud would seem to be a case in point. Furthermore, a belief in science is often linked to an idea of progress (one day science will be able to explain everything) and a high-handed dismissal of non-scientifically-based views – two attitudes which Wittgenstein had little sympathy for.
These points sound like an emotional rather than an intellectual response to Freud, so what substantive issues did Wittgenstein have with Freud’s work? Well, one obvious point is that, although Freud takes the natural science as a model, he does not actually engage in experiments in the way that natural scientists do. He has theories and his work with patients in a sense gives him “data”, but it is all clearly very different from the way a physicist or even a medical researcher operates. Another point Wittgenstein draws attention to is the science-influenced assumption that things like dreams and jokes etc will have one cause. By contrast, Wittgenstein was keen to emphasise that such concepts tend to bring together a group of related phenomena and hence were likely to have multiple explanations. “It is probably that there are many different sorts of dreams, and that there is no single explanation for all of them. Just as there are many different sorts of jokes. Or just as there are many different sorts of language” (L&C pg48).
Developing this point, consider Freud’s claim that all dreams are wish fulfilments. It is pretty clear that this is not an empirical discovery. Freud did not look at millions of dreams, dreamt by a wide range of people of different ages and with different cultural backgrounds, occurring in all sorts of different human situations. Rather on the basis of a very limited sample, he made a universal claim. The form of his claim (“All dreams are …”) suggests that it is definitional. Effectively, Freud is defining a new kind of activity (psycho-analysis) and saying that within that activity: “to be a candidate for correctness, a dream interpretation must show how the dream was fulfilling a wish of the dreamer”. To put it another way, effectively he is saying: “dreams can be helpful in working with a patient if we use them to help the patient understand what his/her unconscious wishes are”.
If at this point someone objects: “but surely the real issue is whether a wish really did or did not cause the dream?”, then it is hard to know how to respond, since the content of the question is not as clear as it might seem. What do we actually mean by “cause” in this context and how do we test one causal hypothesis against another? As mentioned earlier, it does not seem to be a matter of experiment. Freud suggests that our unconscious wishes cause our dreams, but there is no indication that he tried a whole list of possible explanations before concluding that this was the right one nor indeed that he ruled out the hypothesis that dreams (or some aspects of them) have as it were non-meaningful (as opposed to meaningful) causes. None of these points implies a rejection of what Freud was trying to do – they simply suggest that he was confused insofar as he treated his activities as similar to those of a natural scientist and assumed that applying the concept of causation can be applied in these new areas unproblematically.
Another point Wittgenstein draws attention to is the attractiveness of Freud’s explanation. This may seem a slightly strange observation, since Freud often stresses the resistance to his explanations, but the point is that, unlike the explanations of natural science, Freud’s explanations have an impact quite apart from any evidence for or against them. “Take Freud’s view that anxiety is always a repetition in some way of the anxiety we felt at birth. He does not establish this idea by reference to evidence – for he could not do so. But it is an idea that has a marked attraction. It has the attraction which mythological explanations have for , explanations which say that this is all a repetition of something that has happened before” (L&C pg43).
This gets us closer to what Wittgenstein really did not like about Freud’s work, which is his belief that what was really going on was being hidden from people and that the prestige of science was being used to make people accept something that they did not have to accept. For example, Wittgenstein criticises Freud for giving one of his patients a sexual interpretation of her dream that robs it the beauty it had previously had in her eyes; according to Wittgenstein, the patient does not have to accept that the dream was bawdy – why shouldn’t she stick with her original claim that it was beautiful? Wittgenstein actually accuses Freud of cheating his patient here and I think that is an overstatement. It is an understandable response if Freud is seen as saying: “science has demonstrated that as a matter of fact your dream was bawdy even if you thought it was beautiful”, but it is misplaced if Freud is seen as saying: “seeing your dream in this way (or recognising these elements in it) will help you find a better way of living”.
To sum up, Wittgenstein was very interested in what Freud was saying, but he was clear that it was not science and he reacted negatively to what he saw as Freud’s attempts to use the prestige of science to force people to accept a particular approach and theories. In particular, Wittgenstein objected to the idea that the analyst could give the individual the scientific truth about his or her experiences. He saw this as confused and therefore in a sense a deception. I think there are other accounts of what is going on in psycho-analysis that Wittgenstein might have been more open to, but what he saw in Freud was an attempt to impose on patients a way of thinking that was presented as the scientifically-proven truth, and that he certainly did not like.