Philosophy and the Therapeutic Analogy 3: The Nature of Philosophical Problems

In a previous post I isolated four non-exhaustive yet key features of clinical 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.

In what follows I shall be presenting philosophical analogies of these. The aim will be to show how the clinical ideas can shed light on the nature of some philosophical difficulties, thereby illuminating: the nature of the difficulties, the reasons why attempts to alleviate them sometimes can be counter-productive, and the best way to 'treat' the underlying disturbances.

1. A Tacit Framework of Assumptions

Philosophical Neurosis

Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, p. 308:

The first step is the one that altogether escapes notice... But that is just what commits us to a particular way of looking at the matter... (The decisive movement in the conjuring trick has been made, and it was the very one that we thought quite innocent.)

I have come to think that a good indicator of a philosophical problem which is predicated on unfortunate prior tacit assumptions is an author's use of the 'how is it possible?' phrase. Such problems are particularly prevalent in epistemology, and there are I believe good reasons to take the epistemological tradition as especially prone to the kinds of philosophical neurosis that are of concern to us. (Rorty and Hymers provide deconstructive critiques of the tradition which aim to undermine the motivation for, rather than answer, the questions it poses.) So, here are some typical 'how is it possible?' questions which present themselves as requests for an explanation - of how the phenomenon in question is possible - questions which the philosopher may be tempted to respond to at face value through the provision of explanatory theories, but which would be better dissolved, through the unearthing of the tacit assumptions which underpin the questions and which make it look as if ... well, as if something which is perfectly ordinary ought not to possible at all:

  • How is it possible that a speaker can get to know the meaning of infinitely many previously unencountered sentences of a language on the basis of his or her knowledge of the meaning of the component parts (i.e. the meaning of the words) of the sentence?
  • How is it possible that my knowledge of the meaning of a mathematical rule (e.g. 'add 2') can infallibly dictate or determine my employment of this rule in particular instances (e.g. expanding the sequence '+2': 998, 1000, 1002, 1004, 1006, etc.)
  • How is it possible for me to gain knowledge of the world on the basis of my 'perceptual representations' of it?
  • What determines my taking of signs in the way they are intended? How is it possible for me to so often correctly grasp the meaning of signs; what mediates this grasp?
  • How is it possible for me to gain genuine knowledge of what you think or feel on the basis of observations of your verbal and expressive behaviour?
  • How can it be that my self-knowledge is often infallible?
  • How do I know how to communicate (by putting into which words?) my ideas? That is, how do I know that it is apt to use those words to express those ideas?
  • How do I manage to distinguish between the real and the imaginary?
  • How is it possible for me to engage in willed action and willed expression? That is, how does the will or the mind cause the body to move?

Other problems which (I believe) have a similar root can be thought of as characterised by the 'what else?' question. Three that come immediately to mind are:

  • What must be added to arm rising (i.e. mere movement) in order to get arm raising (i.e. full-blooded action)?
  • What must be added to truth and justification for belief to rise to the status of knowledge? (The Gettier problem.)
  • What must be added to 'constant conjunction' to arrive at causation? (A Humean quandary).

Finally, we have related 'what is it that makes...?' questions, questions which purport to take a familiar phenomenon at face value and which ask what gives it the distinctive features it has.

  • What is it that makes it rational to expect what has happened in the past to continue happen in the future? Or, what is it that makes it rational to expect this rather than that to happen - i.e. to take this rather than that as an instance of the same thing as has happened previously?(Problems of induction.)

Now clearly this is a long and somewhat arbirtary list, and only a thumbnail taxonomy. And further, whether or not one of the above questions in the mouths or this or that philosopher on this or that instance counts as philosophically suspect in the way I shall detail is, I believe, best considered as context relative. Here however is the general claim inspired by the 'neurosis' analogy:

The above questions are neurotic in as much as: they only appear to be good questions if we have already tacitly made certain other assumptions. Once these assumptions are in place, then the questions will appear urgent and pressing. They will also be insoluble in the terms in which they are put, regardless of the complexity of the theoretical solutions which are proposed. Therapeutic dissolution, however, can be more successful. Here we do not simply try to 'give philosophy peace' (as Wittgenstein put it) by simply distracting ourselves from our difficulties. As in neurosis, this may provide momentary peace but only at the expense of one's moral or psychological integrity; further it leaves the problems intact. The procedures which really 'bring peace to philosophy' are those which expose the assumptions underlying the 'neurotic' questions. Once these are understood the apparent sense of (and not merely the psychological compulsion to ask) the question dissolves. The very problem is recognised as predicated on a cognitive disturbance.

I will provide an organising principle for these assumptions in a moment. Let us first consider some examples from the above:

  • How is it possible that my knowledge of the meaning of a mathematical rule (e.g. 'add 2') can infallibly dictate or determine my employment of this rule in particular instances (e.g. expanding the sequence '+2': 998, 1000, 1002, 1004, 1006, etc.)

If we imagine that what it is to know a rule is only externally (i.e. non-constitutively) related to my ability to continue the series in question (the tacit assumption), then we will start to think that my knowledge of the rule must in some way guide my rule-following activity in a quasi-causal manner (from without - as a track guides a train). If we take it, ab initio, that my being able to suddenly grasp a rule is to indicate that the understanding which that grasp consists in is an understanding which consists in some singular fact about me that could be fully displayed in a single instance, then the question stands. If instead we take it that this talk of the 'guidance' provided by a singular fact on innumerable instances of rule-following activity is merely a picture which may mislead, and accept that the relation between knowing a rule and knowing how to go on in this instance (1000, 1002, 100...) is 'internal' or constutive, then the question does not appear to arise.

  • How is it possible for me to engage in willed action and willed expression? That is, how does the will or the mind cause the body to move?

If we assume (as the initial tacit presupposition) that intentional action (by which is meant, here, action which is directed towards the world and which is not accidental movement but is rather expressive of the agent's intentions) is a matter of movement caused by inner acts of will, then the question will seem a good one. If we assume that there really is a faculty of the will which is in the business of causing bodily movements, then the question appears valid. If however we do not see action as a compound notion - as a matter of bodily movements 'caused in the right way' - then the problem does not arise. If we see it instead as a sui generis and irreducible phenomenon, the intentionality of which is immanent within it, and not added to it by conative supplementation, then the problem does not arise. The question appears to look for an explanation - of how an inner thing causes an outer thing - but if we refuse this particular construal of the inner/outer dichotomy, then we earn the right to return the question unanswered.

This last point is particularly important to grasp, since a typical response to the Wittgensteinian may be: 'But this simply creates a mystery; now you have no account/theory/explanation of action at all'. The purpose of the therapeutic or dissolutive procedure, however, is not to prohibit theorisation per se. All sorts of theories of aspects of action - neurological, physiological, sociological, psychological may still be possible. Whether a quite general 'theory of action' is required will however depend on whether there is still some kind of puzzle, something not yet understood, which can motivate and give meaning to an explanatory theory. If, after all of our dissolutive work has been done, we find ourselves still genuinely puzzled and in need of explanation - if we are satisfied with the cogency of our inferences and with the clarity and univocity of sense of the concepts we are deploying - then, well, then we are surely in need of explanation. What this shows is that some or all of our perplexity was, in the terms of the analogy, not 'neurotic'. Similarly, the clinical neurotic may have emotional problems to contend with which stem not from their neurosis, but from the interpersonal, biological, economic, and social milieu in which they find themselves.

Let's consider another example:

  • What must be added to arm rising (i.e. mere movement) in order to get arm raising (i.e. full-blooded action)?

As with the last example, so too with this related question. If we start with an ontology of action which views it as made up of subcomponents (physical: arm movement; mental: perhaps an act of will), then the question naturally arises. The question assumes that a reductive analysis of action is possible; only on this assumption is it coherent to ask 'what must be added to...'. (The example is taken from Wittgenstein, who was suggesting it as a phony question; this makes it particularly ironic that a whole philosophy of action later developed which, blind to his ironic style, took Wittgenstein's question at face value and attempted to answer it with 'causal theories' of action.)

  • What must be added to truth and justification for belief to rise to the status of knowledge? (The Gettier problem.)

So: if I start with the assumption that knowledge can be given a reductive analysis in terms of ingredients which include belief, then it will be natural to ask what more is required for a belief to count as knowledge. Gettier famously pointed out that truth and justification didn't suffice. Troublesome cases of justified true belief arise - cases that we must admit we would not be prepared to call 'knowledge'. The apparent need arises to find the extra missing ingredient, to make the reductive analysis go through.

  • How is it possible for me to gain knowledge of the world on the basis of my 'perceptual representations' of it?
  • How do I manage to distinguish between the real and the imaginary?

Let us imagine that we had tacitly accepted as a premise the idea that our perception of the world is 'mediated' by 'perceptual representations'. All that I 'really see', or perhaps better: all that I am 'immediately acquainted with', are these 'representations'. But such representations may or not accurately represent what is to be thought of as 'external' to the subject. If what or whom we are 'immediately acquainted with', however, are not our acquaintances but rather our representations of them, then it may seem that we are indeed in a pretty epistemological predicament. For, for all we know, these representations may not be being 'caused by' the external objects we take them to be of; they may be being presented to us instead by a malin génie (Descartes). There appears to be the need for some extra piece of knowledge, or for the exercise of some extra faculty, for us to be able to know whether our representations are indeed of a world which, on the assumption given, will naturally be thought of as 'external' to the reach of our mind.

If however we did not subscribe to this tacit assumption, and took it as I take it we naturally do take it - that what we are directly acquainted with in experience are indeed our acquaintances themselves (and of course all the other ingredients of the natural and social worlds) - then there is no obvious need for a theory as to how we can somehow transcend the apparent limits to knowledge provided by a putative inner wall of shadowy representations.

But let's consider, for example, that the questioner is here unconvinced by our initial diagnosis of their question. They let us know that they have all along been considering talk of our 'representations' just as a (admittedly bizarre) way of talking about our perceptual acts themselves. What they are wondering is how it is possible to gain knowledge about the world through the exercise of such perceptual faculties? But at this juncture, what are we to tell them apart from the platitudes that, as it seems to us, in perception we take on board that and how things are - we gain perceptual knowledge. What, we must now ask them, do they mean when they talk of gaining knowledge of the world 'on the basis of' the exercise of such representational capacities? Why such talk of a 'basis'? Such talk seems to naturally go along with what the talk of 'inner representations' itself encourages: that our knowledge of the world is not directly to be had - that it isn't what we achieve when we exercise the capacities in question. Normally when we talk about reaching, say, a conclusion 'on the basis of' evidence, we take it that talk of the 'conclusion' is not simply a reiteration of talk of the 'evidence'. Thus it seems to us that the philosopher has here introduced a double standard: on the one hand relying on tacit assumptions to motivate the philosophical questions; on the other hand disavowing such assumptions when enunciating their explicit commitments. Such double standards are not of course unheard of in the domain of clinical neurosis - a point I shall return to below when considering splitting.

It is of course open to the philosopher, when it is suggested to them that they are making the tacit assumptions in question, to respond with 'Yes, well, that's all well and good; the assumptions are in order.' Similarly, the neurotic may respond, when we point out the assumptions which are required for their problem to arise in the first place, by saying that these assumptions are perfectly natural ones. (If we agree with them, we may even wish to revoke our initial suggestion that they are suffering from a neurosis.) I do not wish to suggest that in certain circumstances they may not be right in making such responses. I may myself have made certain unwitting assumptions in putting the above list together; some of these I may wish to revoke when they are pointed out to me; others I may wish to disavow. The Wittgensteinian 'neurosis' analogy, however, suggests only that sometimes our neurotic worrying or philosophical questioning is the product of unwarranted prior assumptions.

2. A loss of pre-reflective trust and a correlative alienation from the world

It is now time to consider what principle organises the asking of the above questions. Or at least, time for me to confess my own belief that there is indeed such an organising principle. This is that the asking of such questions presupposes that the philosopher is tacitly conceiving of him or herself, or tacitly conceiving of the human condition, as in a state of alienation from reality or from others. That which is in fact constitutive of their mindedness or their self is rendered ontologically external to it, and epistemological questions become asked as to how they can be reunited with that which was once their abode. In fact the alienation sometimes goes one step farther, the philosopher tacitly conceiving of the self as residing behind their own mind, a mind now conceived of as an interior space, an interior space which requires successfully operating faculties for them to become acquainted with it.

I think this might seem a surprising generalisation, and so I shall wade through a few of the above examples in order to make my case.

  • How can it be that my self-knowledge is often unchallengeable?

One way in which we could understood how somebody could be puzzled about self-knowledge in such a way that their puzzlement encourages them to ask the above question is if we take it that they might think that fallible knowledge of the self by the self were not in need of explication, but that unchallengeable knowledge of the self by the self were. They may, that is, have tacitly taken our fallible knowledge of facts of nature or, say, of social arrangements - i.e. facts which are not facts about our own selves - as a paradigm of knowledge, and with this paradigm in place start to question how there could be such a thing as unchallengeable knowledge. How can it be that we may not be wrong? What extraordinarily special epistemic glue must there be which ties some of our knowledge of our selves to ourselves so securely and which sometimes even makes error unthinkable?

So how does this fall under the above-described case of alienation? What I am imagining is that somebody who proceeds with the above picture of self-knowledge is thinking of themselves as initially estranged from themselves, and of thereby being in a position of being able to find things out about themselves. Now this sometimes is a genuine possibility - witness psychoanalysis and other contemplative and soteriological pursuits. But of course we musn't just take such developed cases of (possible absence of) self-knowledge as paradigmatic of what self-knowledge means - as providing the model for understanding, say, our knowledge that I now have a toothache, or that I want a drink of water, or that I believe it is Thursday today. These are clearly not facts about myself that I may need to find out; if such were my predicament then you would be justified in certifying me not wanting in knowledge but insane. Rather, here my self-knowlege, if we are even to call it that (Wittgenstein for one considered witholding the ascription, although Wittgensteinians such as John Hyman have demurred), is at one with my sensation or feeling or belief itself. Perhaps no role has yet been provided in the language-game of sensation self-ascription for the concept of knowledge. We are just not sure what it is someone is saying when they say 'I know I am in pain' - other than, perhaps, that they are in pain, or that they know what 'pain' means. We may also consider the fact that some self-ascriptions are themselves criterial for (i.e. partially constitutive of) beliefs and desires. Or we may consider the performative dimension of other self-ascriptions where in saying, for example, that 'I promise to x' one is not fallibly reporting a prior or occurrent act of self-commitment, but rather, in the act of speaking, thereby making the commitment. The lack of room for error is once again not a function of some miraculous self-acquaintance, but rather of the epistemological irrelevance of the acquaintance paradigm. If however we did start with such a paradigm, and took it that we were typically estranged from ourselves - that we were typically in the existential predicament of needing to find out such facts about ourselves - then the question starts to make sense.

  • How is it possible for me to gain genuine knowledge of what you think or feel on the basis of observations of your verbal and expressive behaviour?

Here the basic idea seems to be that we are to take ourselves as naturally estranged from one another - that we are typically presented with one another's mere 'external' behaviour, from which inferences are to be made to states which are accordingly to be thought of as 'internal'. Perhaps it is said 'I cannot see your pain, only your pain behaviour'. From this (grammatical) remark, however, the inference is drawn that we must therefore make an inference to a pain which remains hidden and inner. (As if I were to say that, when I see five green bottles on the wall, I do not see the number five, but only the bottles, and so must infer the number from other aspects of my visual perception.)

If however we accept a conception of our mental and emotional lives as immanent within our behaviour - behaviour which can accordingly be viewed as expressing or avowing our thoughts and feelings, as itself fully intentional and alive with mentality - then the epistemic task of finding out what other people think on the basis of 'mere behaviour' does not arise. We hear what they think when we listen to them speak. We visually take in the pain in their face, the depression lived by their comportment, their intelligence in their reactions, and so on. Take it that we are fundamentally aliented from one another (and that thoughts and feelings are fundamentally estranged from the living body), though, and the philosophical questions arise: How can we ever find out from 'mere behaviour' what another is feeling? To answer the nagging 'problem of other minds', endless theories (theory-theory, simulation theory, etc.) are proposed, and endless problems with these are discerned (such as: how, if this were our predicament, could we even come by the idea that psychological predicates are applicable to others?).

I want to set myself a hard case - one which looks as if it has little to do self- or -world- estrangement. So consider logical necessity:

  • In virtue of what are necessary truths true? i.e. what makes them true?

Two popular answers have been Platonist (necessary truths are true in virtue of a realm of Platonic facts) or Conventionalist (necessary truths are made true by the conventions we have - they are true in virtue of how we 'go on' in language). The Wittgensteinian middle way between these two alternatives is, as is fairly well known, to deny that necessary truths are made true by anything. They are not made true by our conventions; rather, they are our conventions. (Conventions do not make themselves true; rather what is true is that: such and such are our conventions. We need to distinguish between the idea of a sentence which functions as a (true or false) description of a state of affairs, and a sentence which expresses a convention. We can of course also have sentences which do describe the conventions of our language. However these sentences do not function as necessary propositions, since they are only contingently true (or false) descriptions of the necessary propositions.) And such conventions would not be any less 'true' if we had different conventions. If we had different conventions, then we would have different necessary truths. The so-called 'hardness of the logical must' is thereby preserved: if we had the convention that '2+2=5', or that 'batchelors are married men', then at least one of the terms (2, +, =, 5, batchelor, married, men) would mean something different than it does in our own current notation.

So, let us accept this middle way for the moment - accept that the grammar of 'necessary truths' is not to be understood on the model of the grammar of 'empirical truths' (i.e. of propositions which are made true by the way that things are). What has this to do with alienation? What I want to suggest is that someone who thinks that necessary truths are made true by something may think this because they have become, in their self-conception, alienated from what I want to call their own 'life with language'. Necessary propositions embody the forms of our thought; our accordance with them is of a piece with our cognitive enculturation - with our learning of the meaning of the terms and rules governing the use of such terms. Such rules are, I suggested, not 'true in virtue of' anything; all that is true is that such and such statements express such rules - that these are the rules that we have. If, rather than embodying such normativity, I take myself to be the in possession of propositions which are made true by something external to their normative function, then I have become estranged or alienated from the source of their normativity. In my assumption that all language functions merely descriptively, I have become blind to its living expressive and intrinsically conventional character. Some propositions, far from functioning to merely truly or falsely describe states of affairs, themselves expressively embody, prescribe, license, or proscribe our inferences. By tacitly assimilating necessary propositions to the model of the descriptive, I lose the sense of their intrinsic rather than derivative normativity.

3. Attempts to reason our way to reality can estrange us further from it

This treatment of necessary truths may remain opaque, so let me turn to some other examples. I also want to consider the other part of this aspect of the neurosis analogy: that philosophical problems arise both due to an alienated conception of our relation to reality, and due to a correlative loss of pre-reflective embodied, engaged, non-reflective trust in the world. Consider our everyday inductive knowledge.

  • What is it that makes it rational to expect what has happened in the past to continue happen in the future? Or, what is it that makes it rational to expect this rather than that to happen - i.e. to take this rather than that as an instance of the same thing as has happened previously? (Problems of induction.)

Here we have the idea that there must be something that 'makes it rational' to expect what has hitherto happened to continue to do so. The implicit suggestion is that we don't here have to do with a defining instance of rationality - as if the rationality of our expectation, here, was extrinsic to it. That is to say, it as if, in order to retain a grip on our sense that it is rational so to expect, we ought to be able to appeal to some fact, by way of providing a justification for, the expectation. Just as with rules and examples of rule-following, or with a feeling and its expression, an internal relation is being tacitly framed as an external relation.

The pre-reflective certainty which is contained in our implicit (i.e. unformulated) expectations as to what will happen next has been construed as a thought in need of justification. The praxical dispositions which constitute what 'reasonableness' amounts to, in the context of my ongoing negotiation and anticipation of the events of my environment, are viewed as only reasonable to the extent that a justification can be provided for them. Under the sway of a rationalistic conception of what 'reasonable' means: i.e. under the sway of a preconception that it always involves us in actual or potential justification, we are forced into a conception of our sane praxical relation to reality which sees it not as possessing its own sui generis rationality, but as awaiting confirmation or disconfirmation from a disengaged faculty of reason.

Thus the philosopher who is held captive by the preconceptions informing the classical problem of induction may think that I will not be countable as rational in my empirically grounded belief that the tap will spew forth water when I turn it on unless I can supply, as a reason, grounds for my belief. Perhaps my past experience - of the tap spewing forth water in these circumstances - is itself to be taken as the reason. Someone who is prepared to take this step, however - (a step which, as Wittgenstein described it (above), is 'the one that altogether escapes notice', that 'commits us to a particular way of looking at the matter', which 'was the very one that we thought quite innocent') - quite quickly finds themselves on a slippery slope of unending sceptical doubt, the need to reassure oneself through rational procedures, and so on. Thus, once it is accepted that the rationality of my everyday expectations (not my predictions, note, but rather my unreflective anticipations) is contingent on my capacity to offer a reason for them - as if the rationality did not consist simply in, here, expecting just this or that, but rather in my capacity to justify such expectations - then the question can again be asked, with childlike insistence: 'But what makes it rational to reason in that way? Why is it rational to expect what has happened before to happen again? And in any case, what is to determine what counts as 'the same again'? (Goodman's 'grue' etc.)

Recall the obsessive who, no longer being able to take their memory, action, perception, understanding and environment for granted, thrown out of their pre-reflective certainty through anxiety, aims to quell their painful doubt through cognitive procedures. Unable to trust in the intrinsic viability of their grasp of the world, they aim to buttress their faith in themselves and in their world through rehearsals of the grounds for their safety. Once the pre-reflective certainty has been lost, however, they themselves are condemned to an impoverished, closed-in, life, since their practical and internal rituals of checking and confirming simply reinforce the grip of the neurosis. The spadework of reason paradoxically digs ever deeper the hole of doubt. So too, as the analogy would have it, with the philosopher. Having tacitly taken on board at an intellectual rather than emotional level a self-conception of our engagement with the world as rationally grounded in the deliverances of disengaged reason, intellectually sceptical doubts spring forth in ever greater profusion.

4. Doubt, certainty, and the hypercathexis of the philosophical imagination

The fourth element of neurosis isolated for the sake of the comparison with philosophy concerned a structure of phantasy - the 'omnipotence of thought' - which disguised the futility of the use of merely empirical and reflective procedures to make up for a loss of pre-reflective certainty. It is important for my handling of this analogy - as I shall explore in the next post - to take any literally psychologistic reading - i.e. to avoid equating philosophical with neurotic disturbance (without denying of course that philosophers are as neurotic as anyone else!). What I shall be claiming instead is that we can draw an analogy between that state of mind characterised by omnipotence and narcissism in the analysand, and the history and practice of philosophy, and that this analogy can in both cases help explain the grip of the neurotic or philosophical problems we are considering.

What I have in mind by the phrase 'hypercathexis of the philosophical imagination' is simply the institutionalised tendency of philosophical thought to avoid problematising itself in order to 'get on with the job'. A question is asked ('How does the mind get in touch with the external world?', 'How do we know we are not brains in vats?', 'How is it possible to...?', 'What else is needed for x to count as y?', 'What makes it the case that...?'). The fact of its repetition, or the fact that various possible answers come to mind, or that problems with these answers come to mind, reinforce the idea here that we do indeed have a sensible problem. Philosophy accordingly becomes professionalised. It becomes respectable for philosophers to report 'Currently I am working on the problem of xyz', as if they and we are obliged to unreservedly comprehend their task as serious one of solving problems, delivering analyses, developing theories, and the like.

Now perhaps sometimes this is indeed an apt description of the philosophical endeavour. Yet it is important to note the alternatives - alternatives that become especially significant when we come to philosophical engagement with the kinds of problems which call for therapeutic dissolution rather than quasi-scientific solution. And the alternative which is being explored here is precisely this therapeutic one - of attempting not to solve a problem which has been taken at face value, but rather to explore the possibility that one didn't all along understand what one was saying as well as one thought, the possibility that it may result from a 'picture which held us captive'.

In the context of Wittgenstein's philosophy this alternative mode of philosophical endeavour has been described (by Cavell and others) as 'confessional' in character. The theme of confessing to, owning up to, admitting, temptations is especially concentrated in paragraphs 254-369 of the Philosophical Investigations (although it can also be found passim). As James Peterman has noted, Wittgenstein is constantly interested in what we or he is or are 'tempted to say'.

254: ...what a mathematician is inclined to say about the objectivity and reality of mathematical facts, is not a philosophy of mathematics, but something for philosophical treatment.

255: The philosopher's treatment of a question is like the treatment of an illness.
277: But how is it even possible for us to be tempted to think that we use a word to mean at one time the.... How can there be so much as a temptation here?
278: "I know how the colour green looks to me" - surely that makes sense! - Certainly: what use of the proposition are you thinking of?
288: My temptation to say that one might take a sensation for something other than it is arises from this: if I assume the abrogation of the normal language game with the expression of sensation, I need a criterion of identity for the sensation; and then the possibility of error also exists'.
298: The very fact that we should so much like to say: "This is the important thing" - while we point privately to the sensation - is enough to show how much we are inclined to say something which gives no information.
299: Being unable - when we surrender ourselves to philosophical thought - to help saying such and such; being irresistibly inclined to say it - does not mean being forced into an assumption, or having an immediate perception or knowledge of a state of affairs.

The neurotic's predicament is a function of his being unable - when he surrenders himself to neurotic thought - to resist the way of looking at, understanding, his life situation inspired by his dominant unconscious phantasies. These phantasies give rise to certain preoccupations, preoccupations which displace the painful absence of successful emotional relationships or rewarding work in his life, but which provide their own numbing and frustrating problematics, problematics that are without any apparent resolution. And what I claimed in the previous post is that the dominant structure of phantasy which provides the neurotic with temporary relief is their quasi-belief in the omnipontence of their thought. And what this amounts to, I claimed, was the belief that their thought can be self-grounding, can sustain itself, with no need of external succour. They can then (imagine themselves to) be, in the Kleinian idiom, their own breast; they no longer need others, nor need submit themselves to the vulnerabilities that real relationships entail (the possibility of being hurt, rejected, left behind, unfed, left mourning).

The philosopher's omnipotent phantasy equivalent, I am claiming, is their apparent assurance in the meaning of their utterances, even in the detached sceptical scenarios which they imagine. Is it not conceivable that I am a brain in a vat? Given that it is so conceivable, do we not need grounds for believing that we are not? Might I not always be in error about the 'external world'? What rationalises the assumptions which are central to my conceptual scheme? I perfectly understand all the words of these questions - at least in their natural application I do so understand them. The self-confidence with which the philosopher proclaims the meaningfulness of their predicaments, the confidence that, even in these obscure, anti-social, un-anchored sceptical contexts their words would still have meaning: this is what I am describing as the 'hypercathexis of the philosophical imagination'. And the belief that our engaged, embodied, embedded, praxical, enactive, expressive, intersubjective, pre-reflective life requires rational grounding in disengaged rational reflective cognition - a form of cognition which is being conceived of as self-sustaining and transparent - is the omnipotence phantasy of the philosophical imagination.


In the above I have claimed that philosophical thought is prey to quasi-neurotic disturbance.

  1. The philosopher may ask questions under the influence of a tacit preconception of how things stand.
  2. This preconception makes way for the construction of putative problems which appear to demand philosophical explanations or theories, or rational reconstructions, by way of solution.
  3. The preconception, however, is a function of an 'alienated' conception of the human's relation to reality. The pre-reflective and praxical foundations of our contact with reality are problematised, and the attempt is made to provide a reflectively rational foundation for our praxical endeavours.
  4. What maintains the apparent viability of the strategies is a blindness to the fragile or even merely apparent meaningfulness of the questions which the philosopher poses to himself, and a blindness to the vacuity of reflective thought which is not itself grounded in practical rationality.

In the next and final post on this topic I consider the question of why philosophers fall foul of such quasi-neurotic predicaments.


Wittgenstein, Diktat fur Schlick, p. 28:

Our [Wittgenstein's] method resembles psychoanalysis in a certain sense. To use its way of putting things, we could say that a simile operating in the
unconscious can be made harmless by being articulated. And the comparison with
psychoanalysis can be developed even further. (And this analogy is certainly no

Unassimilated notes:

The person suffering from a neurosis (i.e. all of us), like the private linguist, indulges in phantasies of being able to feed themselves. Like the idea of free energy, the idea is that we can inwardly sustain ourselves in perpetual motion, or even get out more energy than we put in, thereby creating good feelings ex nihilo. Such phantasies break what we could think of as the 'second law of psycho[thermo]dynamics', ignoring the fact that we need an input of 'milk' or 'love' from outside if the self is to go on surviving. Emotional energy is used to create an inner split, such that an inner giver is separated from an inner receiver. A temporary identification is effected with the inner receiver, who can temporarily experience the pleasure of being fed/loved. Another way of describing this omnipotent state is as a kind of narcissistic hypercathexis of the imagination.

Why we seek therapy, and what we really need from therapy, may be quite different.


Popular Posts