Philosophy and the Therapeutic Analogy 2: The Nature of Neurosis

Neurotic Difficulties

This set of posts has the purpose of explicating what I take to be the most interesting and useful way of developing the (largely Wittgensteinian) conception of philosophy as analogous to psychotherapy. I shall do this by first sketching the extent to which philosophical problems can be seen to be akin or analogous to neurotic problems. Yet before even this goes ahead we need a conception of 'neurotic problem' which brings some specificity to the concept of 'neurosis'.

The term 'neurosis' has now been largely abandoned outside of psychoanalysis, in part due to the questionable ideal of removing (psychoanalytic) theory from the psychiatric classification system (especially post-DSM-III). To provide a sense of it that will be useful for our purposes, it will I believe be helpful to sketch a concept somewhat between two extremes. At the one extreme we have the classical psychoanalytical notion; at the other we have the differential diagnosis of a mental disorder which is not a psychosis or a perversion. To opt for the latter is to fail to describe any of the shared internal structure of the conditions picked out as neuroses; to stick to the former is to foreclose on the further theorisation of intuitions about the psychological structure in question.

The classical notion is just this (Laplanche & Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis, p. 266):

A psychogenic affection in which the symptoms are the symbolic expression of a psychical conflict whose origins lie in the subject's childhood history; these symptoms constitute compromises between wish and defence.

Perhaps the paradigm example of a neurotic disorder (for Freud and I suspect for many of the rest of us too) is an obsessional neurosis (a nosological category first isolated by Freud, according to Laplanche & Pontalis (p. 281), who also describe it as a 'class of neurosis ... constituting one of the major frames of reference of psychoanalytic clinical practice'). This causes us the following dilemma: What if we cannot believe that the symptoms of all or even most cases of the related nosological entity of 'obsessive compulsive disorder' (OCD) we see are compromise formations, or that they are purely psychogenic with a distinctive origin in childhood? Are such cases of OCD not to be counted as neuroses?

I shall instead be taking it that obsessional disorders in general are good paradigms of neurosis, and accordingly propose four key features of obsessions. I do not claim these as exhaustive. Further, my presentation focuses naturally on those features of neurosis required (in a later blog post) to make clear the analogy of philosophical with neurotic problems.

To pre-empt, here are what I am going to isolate as four key features of neurosis:

  1. The underlying driver of a neurosis is not the surface issue, i.e. not what the patient is inclined to see as the problem, but rather an underlying tacit framework of assumptions.

  2. The person with a neurosis experiences a deficit in their foundational and transcendental capacity to maintain a living, pre-reflective, embodied sense of the trustworthiness of others and of the world around them.

  3. They attempt to make up for this frightening loss of certainty or trust by a gamut of 'empirical procedures' - calculating, checking, reasoning, remembering. But such empirical procedures cannot make up for a loss of foundational and transcendental certainties: reflective certainty cannot replace, but rather, always presupposes, foundational pre-reflective certainty. Doubt is therefore ultimately reinforced rather than assuaged by the compulsive procedures.

  4. What disguises the futility of the use of merely empirical and reflective procedures to make up for a loss of pre-reflective certainty is a structure of phantasy which has been called the 'omnipotence of thought'. We could also call it, or at least see it as closely related to, a hypercathexis of the imagination. The underlying narcissistic phantasy has it that one can be one's own security-providing object and 'bootstrap' oneself into existential safety.

These will now be considered in turn.

1. The Problem is not the Problem

Consider obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). A traditional psychoanalytic understanding has it that obsessive thoughts or compulsive impulses are typically symptoms - compromise formations - at one remove from the (often psychosexual) conflict which is threatening to errupt into consciousness. I have a sexual or aggressive impulse; I find it unacceptable and employ defences to keep it out of consciousness; a symptom develops as some kind of compromise (the symptom is somewhere else for attention and libido to be focused). The solution often isn't all that successful and so the defences have to be continually maintained through compulsive rituals.

A standard cognitive-behavioural formulation has a different emphasis. The subject has certain intrusive thoughts (e.g. of stabbing a child); or they have anxious concerns (that they might have run someone over on the way back from work; that their hands may be carrying germs). In the case of intrusive thoughts the subject wrongly assumes that their having the thought is evidence of a desire or impulse on their part; they therefore attempt to neutralise the thought (e.g. by prayer) or take steps to prevent it from coming to pass (avoidance routines). In the case of anxious concerns the subject attempts to lay them to rest (driving back and checking whether there's a body on the road; compulsively cleaning their hands).

The two theoretical orientations differ primarily with regard to how and where to read impulses into the psychopathology: is it the patient or the doctor who consciously believes that there are unacceptable impulses at work? What is shared by psychoanalytical and cognitive formulations however is the idea that the presenting problem is not to be taken at face value. The problem is not so much with the presenting problem, but rather with the underlying assumptions regarding the obsessive thoughts, or with an impulse the meaning of which is not being admitted.

Aaron Beck

As the cognitive therapist sees it, the patient thinks that the problem is with impulses they are supposedly having and with their difficulty in controlling these impulses as they feel they ought. The real problem, however, is understood to be with their underlying meta-cognitive beliefs - i.e. with their beliefs about the implication of the thoughts they are having, with their beliefs about what such thoughts really show about them, and with their beliefs about the power that such beliefs would have if they are left unchecked. Whilst the patient may want help with strengthening their ability to resist the thoughts, or help with making these thoughts go away, the cognitive therapist aims to modify their beliefs about the need to resist or modify the thoughts, and attempts this through modifying their beliefs about the significance of the thoughts.

The underlying insight here carries a Taoist, non-resistance, message in it. By fighting the putative impulses, by engaging in compulsive rituals to neutralise them, one only makes them stronger. By coming to accept them as simply natural, fleeting, phrases that idle their way through the mind, their power is greatly reduced. (Compare how, in a negative transference, one's own investment of the transference object with a vast amount of power to determine how one feels goes un-noticed, and what one instead becomes preoccupied by is the fight against the hostile object.)

The patient is like someone who, fearful of their bath overflowing when a broken tap can't be shut off, unwittingly places their foot most of the way over the plug hole whilst desperately clamping their hand over the water coming out the tap, with the result that the bath often overflows. If only they stepped back and trusted in the bath's natural ability to empty itself by the overlooked plughole, the water would flow in and out by itself. Occasionally the water may spill over a little, but this is an acceptable compromise for a life lived without having one's hand clamped painfully and hopelessly over the faucet.

To summarise this section:

The underlying driver of a neurosis is not the surface issue, i.e. not what the patient is inclined to see as the problem (the occurrence of the obsessions), but rather an underlying tacit framework of assumptions. These assumptions provide a framework within which an obsessional problem and compulsive attempts at solutions of this problem are set in motion. These compulsions rarely succeed for long, but the problem is not with the poor compulsive solutions, nor with the simple occurrence of the obsessions, but rather with the underlying framework.

What we need to understand now is the nature of the framework assumptions in play.

2. The Problem is Loss of Pre-Reflective Trust

As remarked by Freud, obsessional neuroses are marked by the pervasive and spreading presence of doubt. The obsessive person cannot, it seems, take for granted, trust without thinking about it, that they are, basically: reasonably healthy, tolerably good-natured, mentally healthy (i.e. with a fairly intact memory and perceptual system). Nor, often, can they take it on trust that the world, including the world of other people, are dependable. They have lost their existential repose.

The nature of pre-reflective certainty, trust, or lack of doubt, has been considered by philosophers such as Wittgenstein, Merleau-Ponty, and Heidegger.

Heidegger talks about how our relationship with the world is largely one of our immediate non-reflective immersion in an environment of 'ready-to-hand' objects. We do not direct our attention to these, wonder if they are there, or consider whether they will be up to the job. The builder, with his attention on the nail, simply picks up the hammer, and uses it. Just as we do not have to think about how to move our legs when we walk, the builder does not think about using his hammer. We may consider that it is as if it is part of his body, just as we may consider the car to be incoorporated into our body schema when we drive it past objects: we don't usually have to think about where exactly to place it. As with riding a bicycle, if we start to think too much about how exactly to use it, we may fall off or make a mistake. If the builder's hammer breaks, then of course his attention will be drawn to it - it now becomes a 'present-at-hand' object. When he gets his new hammer he may be a little anxious at first about whether it will break; soon, however, his pre-reflective trust in it - his everyday way of 'coping' in his lifeworld - will return.

Wittgenstein spells out the significance and character of everyday trust in his last work On Certainty. A central idea is that our epistemic connection with reality - the foundations of our knowledge, of our everyday understanding, and of our everyday reasonableness and sanity - is located neither in our capacity for deductively rational reflective thought, nor in a capacity to evidence our opinions with justifications. It is not located in a capacity to accurately represent reality. Rather, such understanding is better thought of as grounded in, once again, our non-reflective grasp of our situation - in a grasp which is a precondition for, rather than a function of, our capacity to accurately or inaccurately represent the world. It is manifest in and constituted by our disposition to act and react in ways which constitute what is called a sane form of life. Such embedded and embodied in-the-world action and reaction can be thought of as providing the foundations for any later acts of thinking or representing, but is not itself to be explicated as consisting in these activities.

Consider for example a Wittgensteinian take on induction. By using the term 'induction' I mean, here, to index our ability to form rational expectations about the future based on our past experience. Now it is often assumed that this ability is based in thought - that it is a kind of predictive power. And it is also often assumed that past experiences stand as reasons for believing what will happen in the future. (An example: I expect the sun to rise tomorrow. This expectation is said to consist in a prediction that it will rise tomorrow, a prediction which is reasonable to the extent that I give as my reason for it my past regular experience of the sun's thus rising.)

From what I take to be a Wittgensteinian perspective, however, this way of depicting induction must seem misleading. What is rather the case is that (in a curious inversion of more typical Wittgensteinian complaints regarding the way in which causal and justificatory relations are conflated) my past experiences actually stand in a causal and not justificatory relation to my expectation (that the sun will rise tomorrow). My everyday rationality is manifest and constituted by my on-going coping responses to a world in which I am embedded - not by my conforming to canons of correct inference. My expectation that the sun will rise tomorrow is accordinly manifest in and constituted not by any occurrent thought that I have, but rather by my absence of surprise when it does rise. What I should require justification for would be a belief that the sun will not rise tomorrow. By contrast, the rationality of my expectation that the sun will so rise is sui generis and does not wait on the provision for it of a reasoned warrant. Its reasonableness does not come from there being reasons attached to it; it is, rather, to be considered innocent (rational) until proven guilty (irrational).

To return to neurosis: What I am claiming is that the 'doubt' which characterises obsessional neuroses amounts to a lack of 'basic trust' in the world. We can speculate about from where it comes.

Carl Rogers talked of the importance of a child or a patient being offered 'acceptance' or 'unconditional positive regard' by their parent or therapist. The idea is not of course that one should positively connote the child or patient's behaviour no matter what, but rather that, in one's basic attitude towards them, one conveys the sense that they are valued and valuable for who they are, not for their good or bad behaviour. We treat them as a 'person in their own right'. And this is to say, not that they are valuable for being a member of the species homo sapiens, but rather simply because they are the unique individual that they are.


Donald Winnicott similarly described the value of a child's being able to feel comfortable with expressively and imaginatively being him or her self. The child who is allowed to be 'alone in the presence of the other' is able to feel secure in who they are, secure in the knowledge that they are valued by the other, and precisely because of this, able to engage in their own pursuits rather than in trying to please the other. Further, the child who is able to 'play' is able to expressively be and become him or her self, to act without thinking about how they are presenting themselves (i.e. without developing a 'false self'), but with a sense that it is safe to creatively engage with the world in such a way that they can risk exposing their own idiosyncratic nature. To be able to free associate on the couch is also, surely, to 'play' in this sense. One thereby exposes oneself in the idiosyncrasies of one's own imagination, and risks being understood or misunderstood for who one is. Slowly, it is hoped, the disposition to rely on fixed schemata for self-presentation will be relinquished. One comes to trust in who one is.

We can think, too, of the basic-trust-shattering qualities of trauma. These are well conveyed by the philosopher Susan Brison in her account of her own extremely violent rape by a stranger (Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self). She also provides some understanding of this, citing the work of Jean Amery (p. 46):

Trauma... reveals the ways in which one's ability to feel at home in the world is as much a physical as an epistemological accomplishment. Jean Amery writes, of the person who is tortured, that from the moment of the first blow he loses "trust in the world," which includes "the irrational and logically unjustifiable belief in absolute causality perhaps, or the likewise blind belief in the validity of the inductive inference." More important, according to Amery, is the loss of the certainty that other persons "will respect my physical, and with it also my metaphysical, being. The boundaries of my body are also the boundaries of my self. My skin surface shields me against the external world. If I am to have trust, I must feel on it only what I want [I would rather say, expect] to feel. At the first blow, however, this trust in the world breaks down".

As we can immediately see, these experiences (irrational and logically unjustifiable beliefs) constitute forms of basic certainty. They are not based on reasoning, nor grounded in or justified by rational inference. They do not have their reasonableness or viability bestowed on them by something external which authenticates them. They are rather themselves forms of the authentic, primitive examples of what counts as reasonable here. Paranoia also involves a breakdown of such a basic pre-reflective relatedness to others. We might say that, whereas the neurotic person has partially lost the capacity to repose in the structures of certainty that they nevertheless possess, the psychotic person has partially lost the very structures themselves which would otherwise connect him or her to the world.

To summarise this section:

In neurosis we have a loss of pre-reflective certainty or trust. This is not any kind of failure of reasoning, not a failure in reaching conclusions from premises. It involves a failure to find one's feet with the world - or rather, a fearful unwillingness to take the next step. I lose the normal unthinking certainty that the ground underneath my next step, or the legs under my body, will support me.

What we need to understand now are the characteristic defences in play against such fundamental anxiety-provoking failures in pre-reflective certainty.

3. The problem is maintained by attempts to substitute warranted trust for pre-reflective certainty

Obsessional neuroses are marked not only by obsessional doubts, but also by compulsive attempts to lay to rest such doubts. One way in which the attempt is made to alleviate the doubting mind is by answering the doubts.

So: I lose a basic self-confidence in my own actions - that I have locked the door, that I have turned off the gas. I start to fear that I hit someone with my car on the way home last night. I worry that I have germs on my hands. I have a terrible intrusive worry that my child might have stopped breathing in the next room. What do I do? I go back and inspect the door or the stove; I inspect my car or drive along the route looking for a body; I wash my hands again, more thoroughly than before; I go in and check on my child.

I am not here going to consider the reason why these particular intrusive thoughts keep returning; considerations of content (such as the presence of certain repressed and contradictory sexual or aggressive impulses, or the severity of a superego with a particular history) will not be relevant later to the analogy of neurotic with philosophical problems. Other possible responses (e.g. self-distraction, avoidance, and magical attempts at neutralising 'bad thoughts') will also be irrelevant to the analogy. And the mode of thinking in which all this occurs will be considered in the next section. All that I want to comment on here is the obvious fact that the patient who is acting under compulsions is usually trying to find some way of reassuring themselves. I reassure myself, perhaps, by going back carefully, in memory, through all the stages of my drive last night. Through such reassurance I try to provide myself with conscious, positive, reasons to believe that which other people might just take on trust without even thinking about it.

Such reassurance, however, rarely lasts for long. Instead I may get caught up in long inner arguments or 'ruminations'. An obsessional doubt is raised. I try to answer it by searching my memory. Perhaps I find no evidence supporting the doubt. Yet then again, an absence of evidence does not amount to an evidence of absence: perhaps I have just not thought hard enough, or checked long enough. And so the use of deliberative rationality iterates endlessly.

Consider basic self-confidence. This confidence is marked by an absence of doubt. The person with basic self-confidence is, I suggest, not confident in themself for reasons. They do not have a conditional sense of their own value. Any form of self-esteem to be thought of as a good thing is, accordingly, not a function of being constantly reminded by oneself or by others that one is a good person because one has done this or that. Someone who is truly confident is not usually acting in this way because they have positive reasons to believe in themself, because they have answered any doubts that came along, but rather because they are able to act steadily without doubt. (Sometimes, of course, we need to find reasons to believe in ourselves before we feel confident to tackle some daunting new task. When we have mastered it, however, we can put aside these reasons and simply get on with it.) The obsessive person, however, places their self-assurance, external to their self. It is as if they are attempting to substitute the present-at-hand for the ready-to-hand; as if they are trying to reassure themselves that they can ride the bike they are on by solving the equations describing the circular movement of the foot.

Jean Piaget

The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget provides us with another useful set of terms to describe the different kinds of adaptations that we can make during development. These are assimilation and accommodation. Imagine that the child has to make sense of a new stimulus. They must make sense of it in order to be able to 'cope', in a Heideggarian sense - i.e. to be able to respond aptly to the various calls of the various phenomena inhabiting the environment, to understand the motives and feelings of others, etc. If they do not it remains brutely external, uncomprehended, baffling, and perhaps frightening - a threat. When I assimilate a phenomenon, I bring it under one of my pre-existing schema. This however will not always work - especially when we encounter something which differs ontologically rather than merely empirically from what we have previously come across. When I accommodate to a phenomenon, by contrast, it is I that must change. I must let myself be informed by it, rather than classifying it according to understandings I already possess.

The capacity to accommodate is described by Piaget principally in cognitive terms, but it is also clear that it is, or depends essentially on, emotional capacities. Consider what happens if I am forced to mature too quickly. Perhaps I have not been gently and gradually exposed to new, challenging, and at first frightening stimuli. I only have a limited repertoire of coping responses; I only have a limited range of schema with which to relate to my world. It will be unsurprising, then, if I am forced to over-rely on assimilation. New phenomena will be treated like old ones, and their disturbing features which do not admit of assimilation will be ignored or split off in our understanding. I will also tend to avoid situations which challenge my assimilative schematic capacities. Further, since neither accommodation nor assimilation will come naturally to me (the first because of my lack of an emotional capacity to encounter the ontologically new without terror, the second because the ontologically new just won't slot neatly into my pre-existing schema), I will need to spend time thinking my way to the relevant discernment: actively rehearsing certain similarities and narratives to ensure that the other, the foreign, does not break through into consciousness.

To sum up this third feature of neurosis:

Neurosis is maintained in part by attempts to make up in conscious thought for what is lacking in pre-reflective attunement. Such attempts to 'think' one's way into comprehending contact with the world are always challenged by a world that threatens to outstretch such thought. Therefore the atttempts need to be constantly rehearsed. Furthermore, the constant ruminative adumbration of experience prevents the opportunity for any real assimilation. The neurotic person is so lost in their constant ruminative attempts to assimilate that they forgoe the admittedly terrifying opportunity of accommodating to the stimulus - i.e. of coming to tolerate it 'in its own terms', without attempting to reduce it to something other than itself.

Next I turn to the frame of mind in which this attempt at assimilation is typically prosecuted.

4. The omnipotence of thought, or the narcissistic hypercathexis of the imagination

Something on which the two - psychoanalytic and cognitive-behavioural - psychologies agree is the significance for obsessional neurosis of what psychoanalysts call the 'omnipotence of thoughts', which cognitive therapists call 'thought-action fusion'.

Freud (Totem and Taboo, p. 87) describes a patient who is:

unable to believe that thoughts are free and will constantly be afraid of expressing evil wishes, as though their expression will lead inevitably to their fulfilment. This behaviour, as well as the superstitions which he practices in ordinary life reveals his resemblance to the savages who believe they can alter their external world by mere thinking.

(It will be interesting to compare, in a later post, this with the following which appears in both Wittgenstein's Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, I, 125, and in his Philosophical Investigations, 194:

We mind about the kind of expressions we use concerning these things; we do not understand them, however, but misinterpret them. When we do philosophy we are like savages, primitive people, who hear the expressions of civilized men, put a false interpretation on them, and then draw the queerest conclusions from it.)

The cognitive therapist David Clark describes thought-action fusion as:

Thinking about a negative event increases the probability that it will happen or "bad" thoughts are morally equivalent to "bad" deeds. (e.g. "If I think a loved one might have an accident, she is more likely to have a real accident.")

In an interesting paper the psychiatrist Russell Meares proposes that many forms of OCD have (p. 289):

Russell Meares
a developmental history characterised by marked overprotectiveness allied with parental failure to respond to core aspects of the child's personal reality. The combined effect of these parental behaviours is likely to impede the establishment of a mature conception of the boundary between inner and outer worlds. The consequence of such a deficiency is the persistence of the magical form of thinking which is essential to the production of OCD. In addition the individual is left with a disruption of personality development, the main features of which include timidity and falseness.

Thought-action fusion is clearly a double-edged sword. On the one hand it causes the patient great distress, since obsessional thoughts will appear far more disturbing if the patient takes them as equivalent to realities. On the other the patient can recruit this mode of thinking as a defence to cope with anxieties.

The ur-anxiety for a baby is, it is natural to speculate: being left alone, unfed, dying. To cope with this the baby, when hungry, is said to hallucinate a good, comforting, breast. Such a (somatic and olfactory) hallucination presumably involves a self-directed activation of some of the same neural pathways as are stimulated when the baby really does have a feed, and also depends on the ability to simultaneously and partially shut down those pathways which otherwise causally underpin its acquaintance with the reality of its situation (the absence of the breast). This disposition to inhabit an unreal world, and to accept, when in this state of mind, that 'thinking makes it so', naturally persists into adulthood. In combination with the above-described anxieties, it makes for the possibility of both the terrors of obsessional thought (thinking 'I want to kill' makes this so) and also of the neurotic attempts to perform what Freud called 'undoing' (un-thinking 'I want to kill' neutralises the original putative desire).

Hallucinatory wish-fulfillments are ultimately as unsatisfactory as they are relieving. To the extent that they provide us with relief from pain, they do so at the expense of our contact with reality - our contact with the only thing that can really provide us with true nourishment, growth, recognition, and a medium for becoming ourselves. The hallucination is ultimately a futile attempt to 'be one's own object', as I wish to put it; its narcissism is constituted by this function. But the attempt to (as I also want to say) 'be one's own mirror', or to 'think oneself into being', is ultimately futile: we only find in this subjective inner mirror what we fear or hope will be there, and so can never gain a genuine sense of ourselves as an enduring and valuable self.

I want now to make the perhaps surprising claim that the nature of this structure of phantasy is best, or at least well, illustrated by (a particular way of reading) Wittgenstein's famous 'private language argument'. I do not myself believe that we have here any real argument - but rather a series of reminders proposed in the context of an inner battle with an interlocutor who is in the grip of an omnipotent phantasy. In what follows I shall not consider exegetical issues (dealt with elsewhere in a paper - Reinterpreting the Private Language Argument - currently submitted) but will just present the structure of the inner tussle.

In a psychoanalytic idiom the tussle can be described as taking the form of reminding an interlocutor that they cannot be their own object. We may say too that this interlocutor wants to get real milk out of a phantasised breast. And perhaps we might also say they want to have their cake and eat it, or to promote masturbation as the basis of a satisfying love relationship.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

The interlocutor attempts to play various tricks on himself and on Wittgenstein to disguise the unsatisfactory nature of the hallucination. At times this involves tacitly characterising the hallucination as if it possessed genuine objectivity; at other times it depends upon tacitly levelling the standards for objectivity to that of the merely subjective. The procedure is, in time-honoured all-too-human fashion, accomplished by the 'splitting of the ego', so that the part which provides the standards is kept in isolation from the part which abrogates them for narcissistic ends.

In philosophical terms, the structure of the tussle and the principle issues at stake are as follows:

On the one hand we have what is conferred on us when we are treated as genuine agents and subjects. We are accorded a certain authority regarding our own minds. If I say I have a thought, then (pretty much) I do. There is no such thing as being wrong here. There is, on the whole, nothing that being 'wrong' or 'right' about the occurrence or content of one's own conscious thoughts and sensations. (I am taking it that exceptions do not disprove the rule. Further, I am not intending to include all psychological concepts - in particular, there is room for the possibility of correctness and error when we are considering more thoroughly dispositional concepts such as the 'emotions'.) In this sense we are sovreign in the kingdom of our own minds. This kind of authority is in fact the key characterising factor for the inner.

On the other hand we have the objectivity and normativity that characterise our judgements about a world independent of us. Such judgements can be not only true or false, but also and more importantly can be correct or incorrect, right or wrong. There are standards for such judgements, standards that we can fail to live up to. It is this logical possibility of our being in error that provides our judgement with what we value about it: that it can also be said to be correct, to get things right. It is also what provides for the normativity of all of our concepts, even those employed in our avowals of thoughts and sensations. There is admittedly no such thing as thinking one is having an occurrent thought x or sensation y, knowing what x and y mean, but being wrong about it. Nevertheless there is such a thing as correctly or incorrectly understanding the meaning of x or y: talk of error or correctness here certainly makes sense.

Accordingly, there is no such thing as founding a language game within the inner. The price of our regal authority within our own minds is our always being a mere subject in the kingdom of the outer. We cannot crown ourselves: our being so crowned (as authorities regarding our own mind) depends upon our willingness to subject ourselves to the authority of standards which are necessarily external to us. In particular, whether we can be said to have correctly (or incorrectly) mastered the discourse we use to authoritatively avow or express our thoughts and sensations is not something that can itself ever be self-declared. We sanction infallibility with regards to truth to that same degree as we remove the license of normativity. And, vice versa, we award the license of normativity to the same extent as we vitiate the decree of infallibility.

The 'private linguist' however wants to have their cake and eat it. They wish to both have it that they can set up normative standards, and that they can do this within the inner, i.e. within that domain characterised by the logical impossibility of error. The passages following PI 265 go through this tussle again and again.

Paragraph 265, for example, considers the case of someone who wants to appeal to a dictionary to justify their translation of a word. Wittgenstein asks: 'But are we also to call it a justification if such a table is to be looked up only in the imagination?' His interlocutor replies 'Well, yes, for then it is a subjective justification'. But Wittgenstein reminds him that 'justification consists in appealing to something independent'. The situation is as if 'someone were to buy several copies of the morning paper to assure himself that what it said was true'. He concludes: 'Looking up a table in the imagination is no more looking up a table than the image of the result of an imagined experiment is the result of an experiment'.

Another way to put this point is as follows: There is no more reality to performing an imaginary experiment/ostensive definition / justification than there is to imagining performing an experiment / ostensive definition / justification. With the former formulation it can look to us for a moment as if there is really something that is being performed - something being performed 'in the imagination'. The latter formulation however reminds us that this is something of a facon de parler: if we imagine doing something, then we aren't actually doing it. The 'impossibility of error', the absence of normativity, makes for an absence of that kind of objectivity that provides us with a genuine, secure, grounding.

The point is made again and again in the passages that follow: 267: 'Suppose I wanted to justify the choice of dimensions for a bridge which I imagine to be building, by making loading tests on the material of the bridge in my imagination. This would, of course, be to imagine what is called justifying the choice of dimensions for a bridge. But should we also call it justifying an imagined choice of dimensions?' 268 asks: 'Why can't my right hand give my left hand money? - My right hand can put it into my left hand. My right hand can write a deed of gift and my left hand a receipt. - But the further practical consequences would not be those of a gift. When the left hand has taken the money from the right, etc., we shall ask: "Well, what of it?" And the same can be said if a person has given himself a private definition of a word.'

Again, there isn't the requisite independence between the two hands for the passing of an object between them to count as giving. Giving is what one person gives to another, independent, person. Justifying 'in the imagination' is also not to count as real justifying. There is not the requisite independence of the justification and that which is justified.

The examples continue in the following sections of the Investigations. I hope now that it is already becoming obvious to the psychoanalytic reader, through these examples, that the private linguist is indeed operating under the sway of a powerful omnipotent phantasy which they are reluctant to concede. To paraphrase Wittgenstein: to hold up a mirror to oneself and see oneself in it in the imagination is to do nothing other than imagine holding up, and imagine seeing oneself in, a mirror. One cannot thereby gain any increase in one's sense of one's own reality or validity.

We can imagine our needs being met in phantasy. We can also really meet our imaginary needs. No-one can deny this to us. Yet however powerful such phantasies may be, we can never really meet a real (non-imaginary) need through the use of phantasy. We can never get more out of a phantasy than we put into it. The hypercathexis of the imagination wrongly encourages us to imagine that, like a perpetual motion machine providing free energy, the second law of thermodynamics can be broken.

It is easy to see in the very structure of this omnipotent phantasy the beginnings of a split within the self. In order to be taken in by the illusion of being able to feed itself, the self in phantasy is split into a giver and a receiver. Its unity is necessarily lost. The hand which receives must remain unaware of the fact that it is the hand of the same body as the hand which is giving. We thereby sustain the illusion of a gift being given.

Our desires are never genuinely sated. They are rather simply lost to us when they are obliterated by the process of splitting and the function of narcissistic, omnipotent phantasies. To allow our desires to be genuinely sated we need to dare to confront a world filled with real milk. This is a world which can also let us down, and in which we must acknowledge the possibility of hunger and death. To the extent that we turn away from it, we numb rather than satisfy our desire.

It is time to conclude this point and this blog post. I have been considering just four elements of neurotic problems which I consider essential (but not sufficient) both to neurosis and for the drawing of the analogy with philosophical problems in the next post. To explicate these I have sometimes made use of philosophical ideas, but this has not yet been to the end of promoting the analogy, but only rather to the end of making clear the essential nature of genuine neurosis. The fourth aspect of neurosis can be summarised as follows:

The neurotic deploys phantasy to quell their desire and still their profound fears that their basic desires will not be met. The omnipotence of thought appears to accord powers to thought which in reality it cannot possibly possess. These include the powers to genuinely satiate, rather than obliterate, desire. The masquerading of obliteration as satiation occurs through a process of the splitting of the self. Once the self is split it appears that the left hand really can give a gift to the right hand: their both belonging to the same body is overlooked. A hypercathexis of the imagination encourages the assumption that we can get more out of the imagination than we ever put into it.


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