About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Wittgenstein vs. Freud

I'm reading a fairly heavy (though fortunately not very long!) tome by French philosopher Jacque Bouveresse, Wittgenstein Reads Freud: the Myth of the Unconscious, which I picked up during a recent visit to Vienna (I was taking a few hours off and went to see Freud's home out of curiosity). I want to share some interesting notes, as Wittgenstein is always fascinating and yet baffling to me, and actually so is Freud!

Apparently, Witty often referred to himself as a "disciple" of Freud, and clearly admired the latter's intellect. However, beware of a compliment coming from Ludwig! Here are a few comments on psychoanalysis and its inventor, straight from the philosopher's pen:

* "Freud's fanciful pseudo-explanations (precisely because they are brilliant) perform a disservice. Now any ass has these pictures available to use in 'explaining' symptoms of illness."

* "Freud is constantly claiming to be scientific. But what he gives is speculation -- something prior even to the formation of a hypothesis."

* "Wisdom is something I never would expect from Freud. Cleverness, certainly; but not wisdom."

All of this makes Wittgenstein sound remarkably like his contemporary philosophical colleague, Karl Popper (also a Viennese, incidentally), who criticized psychoanalysis on the ground that it fails to meet Popper's criterion of "falsifiability," which allegedly differentiates science from pseudoscience (contemporary philosophers have moved beyond falsificationism, and admit that the boundary separating good science, bad science, and pseudoscience is somewhat fuzzy). Yet, Witty and Popper were actually often at odds, and they had a famous public dispute during a visit of Popper to Cambridge, where Wittgenstein was working.

Indeed, although I actually agree with the comments quoted above, their origin is to be found in Wittgenstein's (I think) excessive distrust of scientific explanations of human phenomena (such as the workings of the mind). Wittgenstein has made some blunders of his own, as in his criticism of Darwin's theory on grounds similar to his rejection of Freud:

"I have always thought that Darwin was wrong: his theory doesn't account for all this variety of species. It hasn't the necessary multiplicity."

By which he meant that the Darwinian principles of common descent and natural selection are insufficient to account for the variety of forms seen in the biological world. While this is in fact very likely true, it does not imply a rejection of Darwinism, but rather its expansion, building on Darwin's original insight (which is exactly what has happened over the past 150 years in biology).

Well, more on Witty vs. Freud if I have the stomach to keep reading Bouveresse...


  1. Maybe it's just me, but I never understood how anyone ever took Freud seriously. After 30 seconds of hearing about the Oedipus complex in into Psych I was pretty sure he was full of it, and its fairly obvious that his Id/Ego/Superego concept is just a lift from Socrates's three elements of the soul. It's like Gardner said (or paraphrased from someone else, I forget) "where Freud was original he was wrong, where Freud was right he wasn't original." (I'm paraphrasing a paraphrase, I think.)

  2. Well, I wouldn't dismiss good 'ol Sigmund that easily (and neither does Wittgenstein, as I'm continuing to read Bouveresse's book), but I completely agree with your parallel between his Id/Ego/Superego and Plato's three-partite soul. In fact, I've always been a bit puzzled by how rarely that obvious similarity is mentioned.

  3. Massimo, have you read any Dawkins by chance?

  4. David, yes, I've read plenty of Dawkins, though not his most recent stuff (there is only so much I can take from a single author, especially people like Dawkins or Gould... :-)

    Anything specific you were thinking about?

  5. "especially people like Dawkins or Gould"

    What do you mean? Just curious.

    I'm about to start Dawkins' "The Ancestor's Tale", by the way. I've seen several very favorable reviews, I hope they were right.


  6. J, what I meant was that Dawkins is getting a bit repetitive (his latest is a collection of previously published essays); Gould's writing style had deteriorated significantly over the years, so much so that his last technical book was boring, self-aggrandizing, with parenthetical statements that ran more than one page, and footnotes to help future historians of science reconstruct his thought. Give me a break!

  7. I've noticed that phenomenon in many blogs, too. They get repetitive after awhile, and I end up hunting out alternate opinions in the form of other blogs.

    Thought I'm sure this one will be different. ;-)

  8. I agree with most of what Witt. and Popper said about Freud and yet if one reads him as a "fictional" contribution or a hypothetical speculation on human psychology Freud is often interesting. I think in the long run he will be looked at as a kind of pre-scientific natural philosopher but a natural philosopher groping toward a science of mind and brain.

    On the side of science, I think Freud himself would despise most post-modern uses of his theories. If anything Freud believed in 'naturalistic' explanations. I think he himself believed that if, for instance, neurological or chemical research contradicted his theoretical "guesses" then his theories would have to be revised.

  9. Massimo - you seem like a good guy. I was (and am) a Wittgenstein zealot, so I definitely think he is worth working on. As a good Wittgensteinian, I rejected the idea of mental processes, so I was deeply unimpressed when Freud patted himself on the back and announced that as well as conscious mental processes there were unconscious mental processes. However, although he started from a very confused picture of the mind, he did actually have something pretty amazing to say. So I am now pretty fanatical about both Wittgenstein and psycho-analysis. So perhaps I just need to be locked up :-)


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