The trouble with Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein on Mind and Language - Wittgenstein Reads Freud

June 7, 1996

Ludwig Wittgenstein died 45 years ago but the fascination with this ascetic philosopher has yet to abate. He published only one book in his lifetime (although at least 22 have emerged posthumously) but books about him have accumulated alarmingly ever since. Unlike many of these, David Stern's new work takes advantage of the enormous Wittgenstein archives - only one fifth of Wittgenstein's prolific writings have so far been published - in order to seek answers to the many problems that this uncomfortable figure left us.

Foremost among these is the question of whether there are two Wittgensteinian philosophies or only one. The young Wittgenstein of the Tractatus with its austere view of language as a picture of the logical structure of the world retired from view in the 1920s. The Wittgenstein who returned to philosophy was a more discursive figure, refusing any single view of language and representation in favour of an exposition of the multiplicity of different usages to which both language and thought can be put.

Stern's researches in the Wittgenstein archives help to bridge this gap, showing how Wittgenstein became dissatisfied with the Tractarian view of mind and language, and how throughout the 1930s he explored many avenues in his attempts to overcome his reservations with the Tractatus. Wittgenstein wrote and rewrote prodigiously, returning to the same problems. Drawing on this repetitive mass of material, Stern outlines a fresh portrait of a more tentative Wittgenstein, one visible through both stages of his philosophical career, and peels away many of the interpretations overlaid by subsequent philosophers.

Wittgenstein scholars will ultimately be able to possess the complete unpublished writings on CD-ROM - the published works are already available electronically. In the interim, Stern's book provides a useful sample of the enlightenment that these archives can provide concerning Wittgenstein's intellectual progress.

Jacques Bouveresse's book examines the influence upon Wittgenstein of his fellow Viennese, Sigmund Freud. The two never met, although Freud analysed Wittgenstein's sister; but the philosopher expressed a lifelong interest in psychoanalysis. (Indeed Wittgenstein's philosophy has been accused of being a kind of therapy in itself, to be worked through in order to cure philosophers of those incorrect ways of thinking which Wittgenstein saw as being at the root of all philosophical problems.) Did Wittgenstein approve of Freud? Bouveresse's short but dense work attempts to answer this question by means of a detailed examination of all of the references to Freud that Wittgenstein scattered throughout his published works and conversations. Certainly there were temperamental and pragmatic differences between them; Freud saw himself as a scientist in the tradition of classical scientific rationalism, a tradition that Wittgenstein increasingly abandoned.

Wittgenstein seems to have approved of the great descriptive explorations that Freud made into the human psyche, speaking of himself sometimes as a "disciple of Freud". But woven into these expressions of approval for the opening up of the unconscious is a much more characteristically Wittgensteinian reservation. As Bouveresse shows, Wittgenstein disapproves of Freud's methodology, seeing him as "doing (bad) philosophy under the name of science".

What offends Wittgenstein is not that Freud postulates a particular psychic cause and explanation for dreams, jokes, praxes, etc, but that he proposes only one solution. This parallels Wittgenstein's antagonism to the view that there can be only one kind of thing we call meaning or thinking. Just as this strait-jacketed thinking leads for Wittgenstein to the creation of philosophical pseudoproblems, so Freud's insistence upon a single type of psychological explanation results in a similarly one-dimensional and misleading view of the human mind.

Bouveresse's examination of these methodological disagreements is painstaking and there is much to learn here. Those with an interest in the internal power struggles of the continental philosophical tradition may see this book as an attempt by Bouveresse to use Wittgenstein - here described as "an anti-Lacan avant la lettre" - to rescue Freud from the clutches of Jacques Lacan's revisionist psychoanalytic school. The rest of us must be glad that this central figure in the development of analytical philosophy is being taken so seriously by philosophers from other traditions. Both of these books shed light on why this troubled and driven figure continues to fascinate and irritate philosophers in equal measure.

Jerry Goodenough is a researcher and part-time tutor in philosophy, University of East Anglia.

Wittgenstein on Mind and Language

Author - David G. Stern
ISBN - 0 19 508000 9
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 226

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