by Massimo Pigliucci
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).
While still (slowly) reading Bouveresse's book on Wittgenstein Reads Freuds, I got to an interesting bit where Witty is pitted against that compassionate curmudgeon, Arthur Schopenhauer. The battle is played around the difference (if there is any) between a cause and a reason for an action. This, as it happens, has profound consequences for the philosophy of mind, consciousness, and free will. So, read on!
Here is what Wittgenstein says: "The proposition that your action has such and such a cause is a hypothesis. The hypothesis is well-founded if one has had a number of experiences which ... agree in showing that your action is the regular sequel of certain conditions which we then call causes of the action. In order to know the reason which you had for making a certain statement ... no number of agreeing experiences is necessary, and the statement of your reason is not a hypothesis."
OK, Witty is always difficult to read, but it seems that what he is saying is that causes are hypotheses about how events are connected in the world. Reasons, on the other hand, are justifications that we give for certain actions or propositions. Perhaps an example will clarify: if I hit your knee with a small hammer, your leg will move because of a reflex. I.e., the hit, through a series of physical connections, caused the leg to move. However, if I ask you to raise your leg and you do it, your reason for doing so is that I asked you to perform the action. Wittgenstein is saying that reasons aren't causes, they are an altogether different kind of beast. This distinction does have great intuitive appeal, as we all realize that there seem indeed to be a big difference between the two cases concerning your knee just described.
Arthur (Schopenhauer), on the other hand, said about such matters: "Motivation [i.e., reason] is causality seen from within. ... Motivation [is only] causality passing through knowledge."
I'll be darn if this also doesn't make a lot of sense! The idea here is that in fact there is no real distinction between causes and reasons, because the latters are simply an awareness that we have of the causes of certain events or actions. So, for example, when I say that I got up and went to the refrigerator to get me a beer because I was thirsty, I am giving both a reason and a cause: indeed, my reason is a first-person description of the underlying cause (I was thirsty). (Incidentally, current neurobiological research seems to support Schopenhauer's contention.)
Wittgenstein seemed to prefer a distinction between causes and reasons for two, well, reasons! First, he was always distrustful of excessively scientifical or physical explanations of the human condition, especially of mental phenomena. Second, he felt that if one explains actions in terms of causes, then one is committed to an automatic form of determinism, and there goes free will out the window. Consciousness, then, is an after-the-fact illusion, a fiction that allows us to think that "we" make decisions, when in fact it's all a matter of physical causes.
The problem with Witty's position seems to me twofold: first, I don't see why causes have to be deterministic. We know (for example from quantum mechanics) that there is such a thing as probabilistic causality (though that still doesn't rescue free will, since we would at most have a random will). Second, Wittgenstein, like so many anti-physicalists, simply (conveniently) neglects to give an alternative explanation. If reasons are not a particular instance of causes, what are they, exactly? Inquiring minds want to know, and for good reasons.
(By the way, if you are wondering what all of this has to do with Freud, it is because Wittgenstein accused Freud and his disciples of confusing causes and reasons in setting up their psychoanalytical explanations.)