Wittgenstein on Freud

Laura Quinney, in her book Literary Power and the Criteria of Truth, mentions some of Wittgenstein’s perspicacious remarks on Freud. Since I’d earlier talked about Ernest Gellner’s criticism of Freud as well as his criticism of Wittgenstein, this neatly closes the circle. The great irony is that Wittgenstein’s remarks more or less articulate the substance of Gellner’s criticism of Freud.

If you are led by psychoanalysis to say that really you thought so and so or that really your motive was so and so, this is not a matter of discovery, but of persuasion. In a different way you could have been persuaded of something different. Of course, if psychoanalysis cures your stammer, it cures it, and that is an achievement. One thinks of certain results of psycho­analysis as a discovery Freud made, as apart from something persuaded to you by a psychoanalyst, and I wish to say this is not the case.

Freud in his analysis provides explanations which many people are inclined to accept. He emphasizes that people are disinclined to accept them. But if the explanation is one which people are disinclined to accept, it is highly probable that it is al so one which they are inclined to accept. And this is what Freud had actually brought out. 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 by reference to evidence-for he could not do so. But it is an idea which has a marked attraction. It has the attraction which mythological explanations have, explanations which say that this is all a repetition of something that has happened before. And when people do accept or adopt this, then certain things seem much clearer and easier for them. So it is with the notion of the unconscious also.

Freud is constantly claiming to be scientific. But what he gives is speculation – something prior even to the formation of an hypothesis.

Freud was influenced by the 19th century idea of dynamics­ an idea which has influenced the whole treatment of psychology. He wanted to find some one explanation which would show what dreaming is. He wanted to find the essence of dreaming. And he would have rejected any suggestion that he might be partly right but not altogether so. If he was partly wrong, that would have meant for him that he was wrong altogether-that he had not really found the essence of dreaming.

Freud refers to various ancient myths in these connexions, and claims that his researches have now explained how it came about that anybody should think or propound a myth of that sort . Whereas in fact Freud has done something different. He has not given a scientific explanation of the ancient myth. What he has done is to propound a new myth. The attractiveness of the suggestion, for instance, that all anxiety is a repetition of the anxiety of the birth trauma., is just the attractiveness of a mytho­logy. “It is all the outcome of something that happened long ago.” Almost like referring to a totem.

Analysis is likely to do harm. Because although one may discover in the course of it various things about oneself, one must have a very strong and keen and persistent criticism in order to recognize and see through the mythology that is offered or im­posed on one. There is an inducement to say, ‘Yes, of course, it must be like that.’ A powerful mythology.

Rush Rhees describes Wittgenstein’s position toward Freud as follows:

He admired Freud for the observations and suggestions in his writings ; for “having something to say” even where, in Wittgenstein’s view, he was wrong. On the other hand, he thought the enormous influence of psychoanalysis in Europe and America was harmful-”although it will take a long time before we lose our subservience to it”. To learn from Freud you have to be critical; and psychoanalysis generally prevents this.

Wittgenstein’s concern, that Freud and psychoanalysis would broach no criticism of its authority, is the focal point of Gellner’s sociological attack. Wittgenstein accepts the meat of Gellner’s criticism of Freud, while still insisting on Freud’s importance. And that is about the truth of it all. So for me, Wittgenstein is the winner.