Monday, 1 September 2014

the temptation of narcissism: a wittgensteinian investigation


1. Introduction

Ludwig Wittgenstein saw his philosophical work as an ethical endeavour - the endeavour of overcoming what he called his pride. Today I suggest that Wittgenstein's inner battles are helpfully understood in terms of the psychoanalytical notion of narcissism. Narcissism involves a person being caught up in a phantasy that he or she could be his or her own 'object'. That is to say, it involves someone falsely and defensively imagining that they could meaningfully offer themselves ratification, reassurance, love, containment, otherness - that they could be mentally and emotionally self-creating and self-sustaining. Wittgenstein's inner protagonist, the one known as the 'private linguist' of Philosophical Investigations 256ff, is, I will suggest, helpfully understood as the consummate narcissist. And the private language arguments are, I argue, helpfully read as Wittgenstein's attempts to give a voice to, but then expose the illusions of, this narcissist's endeavours. By reading Wittgenstein's arguments through such a psychoanalytical lens we can also take something back for psychoanalysis: we can refine our understanding of the logic of narcissism.

In this paper I present not so much a direct competitor, as a supplement, to the prevalent understanding of Wittgenstein’s view of metaphysics as illness and of his philosophy as its therapy. On the prevalent understanding, 'illness' in philosophy is caused by an entrapment by ‘pictures’, which pictures are due to the cognitive distortion which occurs when we unwittingly read the grammar of some concept too little along its own lines, and too much along the lines offered by the model of some other concept. Hence many of those puzzles about time (travel, measurement), number (made of what), psychological states (where - in the brain?) - puzzles spontaneously arising as soon as we tacitly imagine that all nouns gain their meaning in a similar way to those ostensively defined terms for physical objects. 

Philosophical illness then consists in the dis-ease felt when we are left having to try to reconcile our picture-driven beliefs with what we take ourselves to have reflectively grasped about our experience, understanding, and environments. And metaphysical and epistemological theories then result when we try to explain (in that well-worn yet curious philosophical phrase) ‘how it is (so much as) possible that’ some perfectly ordinary phenomenon – albeit one which might well start to look a good deal less than possible when seen by a vision corrupted by a philosophical picture – even obtains. But released from the pictures which hold us captive, the dis-ease disappears and, along with it, the perceived need for theoretical explanations of the possibility of the actual.

So, anyway, the supplement I offer today urges that the picture-engendered confusions that prompt metaphysical theorising can result not merely from cognitive, but also from emotional and motivational sources. The psychology I draw on is, accordingly, psychoanalysis, and the psychoanalytic concept which will take centre stage here is ‘narcissism’. The focus is on what I am calling the ‘narcissism’ of Wittgenstein’s inner interlocutor known as the ‘private linguist’. My focus is on this because I believe that, as well as drawing on the psychoanalytic concept to make clear the character of its own arguments, philosophy is able here to return the favour by explicating a core feature of narcissism’s meaning.

This is the structure of what follows: First I document the importance to Wittgenstein of overcoming intellectual temptations to pride or vanity. Next I spell out a little of the psychoanalytical theory of narcissism. Third I provide an alternative reading of those sections of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations which are more often taken to contain something called ‘the private language argument’. This alternative reading of mine views Wittgenstein’s better self as engaged in a moral battle for honesty with that of his inner interlocutors known as the ‘private linguist’. Fourth I stress what psychoanalysis can learn from this moral battle. I conclude with some more general remarks on the narcissistic character of the metaphysical impulse in philosophy.

2. Wittgenstein and Pride

Wittgenstein’s later writings are confessional in character: ‘I want to say’, … ‘I feel like saying’… ‘Here the urge is strong’… frequently preface his remarks. Augustine’s Confessions were part of his inspiration and model (and object of critique). As Stanley Cavell writes, ‘The voice of temptation and the voice of correctness are the antagonists in Wittgenstein’s dialogues’ (Cavell, Availability, 71). This confessional character is not just a rhetorical feature of Wittgenstein’s writing. His biographer Ray Monk comments that ‘his life might be said to have been dominated by a moral struggle – the struggle to be anstandig (decent), which for him meant, above all, overcoming the temptations presented by his pride and vanity to be dishonest.’ (Monk, 278). He was preoccupied by honesty, bad and good faith, integrity, truthfulness – both in his friendships and in his work.

In his personal life Wittgenstein took great pains to make confession of his faults to his friends (Monk). In his philosophical writings we find him saying: ‘What makes a subject difficult to understand - if it is significant, important - is not that some special instruction about abstruse things is necessary to understand it. Rather it is the contrast between the understanding of the subject and what most people want to see. ... What has to be overcome is not a difficulty of the intellect, but of the will. ... Work on philosophy is ... actually more of a kind of work on oneself.’ (BT86) Or hear this too: ‘The edifice of your pride has to be dismantled. And that means frightful work’ (CV 30); And this: ‘One cannot speak the truth, if one has not yet conquered oneself. One cannot speak it – but not because one is still not clever enough’. (CV 35) One cannot speak it, one might rather say, because one cannot yet speak from it. Or this: ‘When I say I would like to discard vanity, it is questionable whether my wanting this isn't yet again only a sort of vanity. … As long as one is on stage, one is an actor after all, regardless of what one does.’ (PPO 139) Finally this: 'There is a temptation for me to say that only my own experience is real... On the other hand I feel ashamed to say to anyone that my experience is the only real one' (BB p. 46).

How, we might ask, can one dismount from this theatrical stage of merely representing purported truths about one’s life – and instead be at peace, and of a piece, with life itself? How can one 'conquer oneself' and live out of the truth, rather than resigning oneself to providing descriptions, evocations, representations or approximations of it?

3. Narcissism and Psychoanalysis

Psychoanalysis aims to chart and treat the unconscious forms of evasion which prevent us from meaningfully connecting with significant others in and through our feelings. As psychoanalysts see it, love is to the mind what food is to the body. Loving attachments are the mind’s cradle: they are what make both for its growth and for its capacity to weather the storms of self-dissolution at times of stress.

The social and physical helplessness of the human child makes for the necessity of a form of (‘primary’) narcissism which will not be of interest to us today: namely that healthy yet excessive self-regard and self-involvement of ‘his majesty the baby’ (Freud) tolerated and encouraged by the loving parent. Too little loving attachment – too great a disturbance or absence of the child’s recognition of himself in the mirror of his objects’ gaze – and there arises the need to defend against this disturbed recognition, or against the feelings of anger which might, if expressed, damage the attachment relationship. We therefore see arising the needs to internalise prohibitions against self-expression, or to manage intolerable ambivalence through splitting the world into good and bad objects, or to destroy our capacity to know of our own emotional vulnerability.

It is at this juncture that ‘secondary narcissism’ is understood to come on the scene. To defend against the perceived unavailability of others’ loving acceptance, the narcissistic individual attempts to become her own ‘good breast’, i.e. to use the self as a surrogate for a secure base (Jeremy Holmes). Correlatively she may enviously or destructively denigrate the importance to her of others (Heinz Kohut). Self-soothing behaviours (drug use, self harm, promiscuous sex) take the place of loving relationships; others are treated un-empathically as means to ends rather than as ends in themselves. 

As we might expect, narcissism takes several different forms. The thin-skinned or hyper-vigilant narcissist is  shy and sensitive to rejection or criticism; rather than enter into real relationships they are condemned to fearfully patrolling the boundaries of their self-as-perceived-by-others. The thick-skinned or oblivious narcissist, by contrast, has little feeling for others and shows arrogant self-serving ruthlessness; they talk at, rather than to, others (Rosenfeld; Gabbard). The destructive narcissist does not so much as try to control his objects, but more dramatically takes ruthless pleasure in destroying inner signs of attachment and dependency (Rosenfeld).

The psychoanalytic theory of narcissism is complex. There are many different sub-plots; 'narcissism' may best be described as a 'family resemblance concept' (Rustin); and there exists a tendency (which may not be a bad thing) for the theory of narcissism to become more a theoretical lens through which all psychopathology (depression, personality disorders, schizophrenia) is understood than a set of testable claims of empirical psychology.

In what follows I shall take just one aspect of narcissism as central: this is the way in which the narcissist’s mind is bent out of shape through their attempting to take themselves as their own object. What I shall claim (in section 5) is that we can use Wittgenstein’s therapeutic attempts to emancipate his inner interlocutor the private linguist to give a clearer characterisation of the logic of such narcissism. My hope is that in this way we will come to an understanding of how the illusions and the aspirations of the narcissist are sustained, and also come to a clearer understanding of just why the narcissistic ideal of self-sufficiency must be understood as an illusion.

4. The Private Linguist as Narcissist

Paragraphs 243ff – and especially 258 – of the Philosophical Investigations (PI) are often taken to contain an argument – the ‘private language argument’ – which is supposed to show us how we cannot develop psychological concepts (with terms (‘S’) for sensations, feelings etc.) using purely intrapsychic resources – say by ‘inwardly pointing’ to (quasi-ostensively referencing) our sensations and naming them.

As the secondary literature has it, either there is in the internal world a lack of the requisite conceptual ‘stage-setting’ for the quasi-ostensive act in which ‘S’ is to be paired with its referent (eg M McGinn), and/or it can be proved, from the absence of a consequent operational ‘criterion of correctness’ for deploying ‘S’, that the antecedent ostensive act which aimed to make for ‘S’’s normative deployment must have failed (eg Hacker, Glock). This latter interpretation, which takes the absence of a criterion of correctness for the use of 'S' as a demonstrable conclusion of a (private language) argument has, to my mind, itself conclusively been shown to fail as an argument in recent years (especially Law’s Five Private Language Arguments; also Schroeder).

The outline of this latter traditional (Hacker, Glock) interpretation goes something like this:

a) We can see that no operable criterion of correctness obtains for the use of 'S' despite the putative inner ostensive act.

b) Such a criterion is however required for the meaningful deployment of 'S'.

c) Therefore no actual ostensive definition can have occurred.

Depending on how it is elaborated, the difficulties said to obtain for the argument usually turn on an implausible implicit verificationism present in the demand that genuine ostensive definitions must result in operational criteria (e.g. samples, charts or measures) for the use of 'S' - or instead in (rather pointlessly) taking for granted what the private linguist is simply unlikely to accept, that criteria of correctness be of necessity publicly available (rather than available only to the private linguist). My purpose in outlining these matters here is not however to enter into a complex interpretative and logical discussion, but rather to provide a foil for the rather different interpretation of PI258ff in what follows.

Here are its broad outlines of my interpretation, which consists only of 2 reminders to us regarding the nature of our concepts of the inner and of ostensive definition:

a) Let's just start with the idea that the inner world is an intrinsically non-normative domain, in so far as, of its very nature, there just is here no allocated scope here for talk of: erroneous or correct inner judgements, a seems right / is right distinction, etc. (On this view the 'Cartesian' idea that error in the inner world is impossible because of the clarity and distinctiveness of the deliverances of inner sense doesn't even get off the ground: 'grammar' (the logic of our concepts) has already taken care of the work of this putative inner faculty.)

b) practices such as ostensive definition, however, aim precisely to introduce or refine the meaning, and make for the normativity - to set up a contrast between merely seeming and actually being right, of particular ostensively defined terms ('S').

c) We can therefore see that there is no use for ostensive definition in the inner.

In what follows the claim will be that the private linguist's resistance to such reminders is of a piece with his narcissism. The fantasy of being able to help oneself to both (i) the grammatically sanctioned certainties of subjective expression (when I speak from my thoughts and feelings I can't coherently be said to be going wrong) and (ii) the epistemic certainties of objective knowledge is, I shall suggest, of the very essence of narcissism itself. Wittgenstein’s struggle against his narcissistic inner voice is a perfect instance both of what is described in PI255: ‘The philosopher’s treatment of a question is like the treatment of an illness’, and of his ‘struggle to be anstandig (decent) … above all, overcoming the temptations presented by his pride and vanity to be dishonest.’ (Monk). The paragraphs following PI243 accordingly – I believe – constitute what in psychoanalysis would be called Wittgenstein’s working through of the narcissistic phantasy structure which pretends that one can reap the benefits of normativity (i.e. objective correctness, genuine empirical knowledge) without sacrificing the benefits of subjectivity (i.e. the inalienable authority of the genuine subject avowing his or her thoughts and feelings).

258 contains the first voicing of the key argument. The private linguist wants introspectively to define the term ‘S’ by inwardly concentrating on and pointing to a sensation arising within. Wittgenstein replies:
But “I impress it on myself” can only mean: this process brings it about that I remember the connexion right in the future. But in the present case I have no criterion of correctness. One would like to say: whatever is going to seem right to me is right. And that only means that here we can’t talk about ‘right’.
Many readings of this have, I believe, been led astray by the idea that ‘the present [our] case’ (unserm Falle) refers to a predicament peculiar to the private linguist, rather than to a feature of the quite general (subjective) context. If that (first option) were so, the most striking about the above passage would be its complete emptiness of any argument showing why and how the private linguist has failed in providing the requisite criterion. Yet substitute an acknowledgement that the inapt character of talk of correct judgement here is a function of the subjective context in general, and the argument becomes clear: Why (Wittgenstein is asking) is the private linguist aspiring to something (the founding of normativity) in a domain which, of its essential nature, repels the normative?

Let us get a fix for a moment on what it means to describe the subjective domain as (as I put it) ‘repelling the normative’. On an uncontentious understanding of Wittgenstein’s explication of selfhood, part of what is meant by talk of ‘being a subject’ and ‘subjectivity’ is that we do not normally leave it open to doubt that such a subject may think they are feeling happy, sad, pain – yet not be (hence PI258: ‘…whatever is going to seem right to me is right’… or far better: ‘here we can’t talk about ‘right’.’). (There are of course exceptional cases in which someone may be said to be self-deceiving even about occurrent feelings, cases of central importance for psychoanalysis; yet these are precisely cases in which his or her subject-hood is itself compromised. (Cf Cavell, MWM 264 (my italics): ‘to say that behaviour is expressive is … to say that in order not to express it he must suppress the behaviour, or twist it. And if he twists it far or often enough, he may lose possession of that region of the mind which that behaviour is expressing.’))

As a (grammatical) rule, to be a subject is to be treated as an authority on what one thinks or feels – an authority of a special sort, since one’s avowals of what one thinks or feels are authoritative in virtue of their being ‘transparent’ to – directly voicing, rather than correctly or incorrectly reporting on – the thoughts and feelings themselves (Finkelstein). After all, we do not typically report judgements on – express beliefs about – what we think and feel (since we normally just avow these thoughts and feelings directly). But even when we do treat ourselves in this somewhat self-alienated manner, the second-order beliefs which we thereby express are themselves presumably directly avowed, and therefore at least their articulation is not coherently describable as correct or incorrect (which is not to say that it is not coherently describable as true or false: truth and falsity one could say are functions of propositions; correctness and incorrectness functions of judgements).

There is of course nothing mysterious about this authority. It is due neither to a mysteriously incorrigible faculty of ‘inner sense’ (Kant), nor to a constructivist entitlement we are given to ex post facto ‘make up our own minds’ (Wright). It is rather a simple point of logic (‘a whole cloud of philosophy condensed into a drop of grammar’. (PI p. 222)): since an avowal of a feeling transparently voices that feeling, rather than (say) voicing a judgement about the feeling, it straightforwardly follows that talk of ‘correctness’ or ‘error’ is out of place when the avowal itself is what we are considering. What is avowed or expressed – if it is (say) a belief or judgement rather than an emotional feeling or sensation – may be correct or incorrect; the avowing itself will not be.

We achieve first-person authority to the extent that we achieve subjectivity: i.e. to the extent that we speak from (rather than about) our thoughts and feelings. What this means is that we cannot coherently be said to be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in such avowals, and what this in turn means is that the very idea of inscribing normative practices (i.e. practices the following of which can be described in terms of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’) through quasi-ostensive definitions in the intrapsychic context is a mere fantasy. Note however that the fantasy is compelling precisely because, if it could be realised, it would amount to an idealised self-dependence: we could reap the harvests of inner authority whilst also not having to look outside the authoritative domain of the mind for the normative resources that are prerequisite for true knowledge. It is for this motivating reason, I believe, that Wittgenstein’s inner interlocutor does not easily relinquish his ambitions.

In 259 the interlocutor asks if there might not at least be a subjective version of normativity: perhaps ‘the rules of the private language [could take the form of] impressions of rules’. Wittgenstein’s natty reply is that ‘the balance on which impressions are weighed is not the impression of a balance.’ Working through the hold of the fantasy of (the very idea of) subjective normativity constitutes the work of several further passages. For example in 267 we have: ‘Suppose I want 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, Wittgenstein ironically asks, ‘should we also call it justifying an imagined choice of dimensions?’ 265 contains a similar answer to the private linguist: to perform a normatively characterisable act in the imagination is to do nothing other than to imagine performing such an act. ‘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.’

What the psychoanalyst would call the ‘omnipotent’ allure of being both judge and judged, measurer and measured, nevertheless maintains a strong hold over the private linguist, a hold which reduces them to desperate measures. In 260 for example he asserts ‘Well, I believe that this is sensation S again’. Doesn’t the alleged fact of this belief at least guarantee that he must mean something by ‘S’? The answer of course is that the normative dimension of the use of ‘S’ is what gives any such assertion of belief its content – and not the other way around.

As the working through proceeds, Wittgenstein’s tone grows more confidently ironic. Hence in 268 he notes:
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, and what of it?” And the same could be asked if a person had given himself a private definition of a word; I mean, if he has said the word to himself and at the same time has directed his attention to a sensation.
What is presented as a two place relation that does work has collapsed into a manifestly otiose application. In 279 this is reduced to the even pithier: ‘Imagine someone saying “But I know how tall I am!” and laying his hand on top of his head to prove it.’ The fantasy (the 'picture') has finally lost its hold.

5. The Meaning of Narcissism

The private linguist hoped to be able to make for normativity by purely intrapsychic means. The fantasised rewards were clear: if he succeeded he would be able to help himself both to that authoritative incorrigibility which is the mark of subjectivity, yet also to the possibility of correctness, of genuine cognitive content, that is the mark of objective judgement. Such a subject would be self-satisfying in his knowledge, immune to error, closed to interrogation by others; his cognitive self-esteem would be second to none. In what follows I claim that this phantasy is the very heart of narcissism itself; the private linguist expresses narcissism as it manifests in an intellectual register, but the same wish to inscribe normativity within subjectivity is what constitutes narcissism in its emotional manifestations too.

I once witnessed an unpleasant exchange on the bus from London to Oxford. At the end of each day a preening young man manifesting a thick-skinned variety of narcissism talked on the phone, at length and at volume, to his partner. This had begun to irritate his regular fellow commuters. One of them finally confronted him, pointing out the notice on the bus window which asked passengers to keep phone calls short and quiet. The young man speedily and angrily shouted: ‘Who do you think you are to tell me what is too loud or too long?’, and carried right on with his obnoxious conversation.

This young man wanted to maintain a sense of his own entitlement, whilst at the same time refusing to submit to the authority of anyone other than himself to determine whether or not he was entitled. His angry response was so thought-stopping that no-one could reply with the obvious non-rhetorical answer ‘Well, I am a member of the general public, a fellow traveller’. In asserting here the propriety of that response I do not mean at all to sanction the viability of a reduction of normative content to the matter of how the general public tend to carry on (Kripke). The point is rather that what counts as too loud or long in a public context is precisely not something which any of us can determine within ourselves – as if (279) we were to place our hand on top of our head to affirm our knowledge of our own height.

A more honest response for the young man would have been to have turned his face against the idea of validation altogether: to say that he didn’t care a damn for the values in play regarding the making of phone calls. This however is where the narcissistic ‘solution’ comes in: with the idea that I can still be right in what I do whilst denying the say of anyone else regarding what is to count as right. When we are young – in the phase of ‘primary narcissism’ – this is precisely what is indulged in us. We decline (sensing its cruelty) to always hold the young child’s thoughts and actions accountable to those very same standards which at other times are nevertheless tacitly invoked to inform the meaningfulness of these thoughts and actions.

Secondary narcissism is the defensive pursuing of this strategy in later life, the strategy of having one’s own emotional cake and eating it. The narcissist cannot take the risk of authentically speaking from his own feelings, because then he would risk being found accountable in whom he himself is. Instead he tacitly authors a story for himself and others about his own life; and then lives, not out of his life, but out of his story which he endlessly rehearses. The imagined sphere of his authority is extended through the authorship of the story, but there is little real life – with its attendant doubts and wonders – here. The face that peers back from the narcissist’s mirror is cold and lifeless. The more that the narcissist attempts to ‘become his own object’ – the more that he holds himself accountable to and recognisable by what are really only ‘subjective standards’ (i.e. not actual standards) – the more lost and perverted[2] he becomes. 

The everyday concept of narcissism is of someone who is self-loving and apparently indifferent to others. The psychoanalytic concept aims to trace the various manifestations of narcissism – pathological self-preoccupation, inability to relate, treating others as means rather than as ends, self-defeating self-reliance, addictive self-soothing behaviours, etc. – to a deformation more in the form than in the contents of the narcissist’s mind. Narcissism places a kink in the subject’s capacity to give and receive acknowledgement and love. We may say with Freud that the narcissist substitutes his own ego as the object for his libidinal cathexes. But what I think is the important moral of Wittgenstein's Investigations is his explanation of why this cannot ever really work. We can only offer ourselves a fantasy of self-recognition, a fantasy of self-ratification, a fantasy of self-love - and this is because true recognition, ratification and love require an otherness, an objectivity, that simply can't be provided whilst remaining in the domain of pure subjectivity. The narcissist wishes to enhance his subjective authority whilst diminishing his need for objective recognition, thereby failing in the ethical challenge of acknowledging the two as correlative sides of the single coin of the personality. He eschews dependence on others, and all the creative, enriching, meaningful possibilities of this dependence. Humiliation is avoided by also avoiding that humility which is a necessary precondition for a genuine responsiveness to the other. In the place of object dependency is substituted a domain of quasi-pornographic, solipsistically deployed images which now only carry an echo of the meaning of that domain from which they have been tacitly lifted (cf Sass, Paradoxes of Delusion). The narcissist's defences are, like the insistent urgings of the private linguist, geared up to preserving what is only the illusion of the independent determinacy of this land of shadows.

To summarise, then: Wittgenstein's inner interlocutor, his poorer self the private linguist, tries to indulge a fantasy of self-ratification. He wants to hold on to a narcissistic illusion that he can offer himself genuine recognition from within his own mind, and thereby be neither dependent on nor accountable to a wider community of human subjects. Various moves in the fantasy are offered (inner acts of 'impressing' something on oneself, inner acts of justifying or testing something in one's imagination, etc.); they are then debunked. My claim is twofold: i) that what we have here can be seen as Wittgenstein working through the grip of an omnipotent, narcissistic intellectual phantasy which is of a piece with his more widely avowed view of philosophy as striving to be decent and as working on one's pride; and ii) that the logic of this phantasy - the wish to inscribe normativity within subjectivity - tells us something essential about the very notion of narcissism.

6. Narcissism and the Metaphysical Impulse

To end let’s return again from psychoanalysis to philosophy. The example of philosophical narcissism pursued above was that of the private linguist who hoped to make room for normativity in a purely subjective context. The narcissistic character of this is clear not only in the way he argues, but in what is argued for; it is this, I claimed, which allows us to take the distortions of the private linguist as shedding light on the meaning of narcissism itself. Accordingly we have here to do with more than cognitively-driven misunderstandings of the grammar of psychological discourse; instead we have emotionally motivated forms of self-misunderstanding which have their heart in our perennially failing attempts at tolerating having to purchase inner authority at the cost of outer responsibility and accountability.

But what of other forms of metaphysical puzzlement? Are these best understood simply and only along the cognitive-linguistic model – as e.g. grammatical propositions wearing empirical clothes? Or can we see Wittgenstein’s (or our own) other battles with the metaphysical impulse as further instances, in the intellectual register, of his (and our) ‘moral struggle … to be anstandig (decent)’ (Monk, 278)?

I see no reason to accept a universal answer to this, any more than to trace all actual psychopathology to either cognitive or motivational sources. Instead I will consider two aspects of metaphysical illnesses which seem to me to be narcissistic in character. Both concern what D Z Phillips (following Wittgenstein) called our disposition to (not merely misread, but to) 'sublime the logic of our language'. Where what 'sublimation' amounts to here is something like a tacit wrenching of a concept out of its conceptual home, followed by attempting to set it up as an external measure of the ingredients of that home.

This notion becomes clearer with an example. We use the words 'real' or 'reality' to make a range of discriminations (real versus fake watches, real versus put-on emotional expressions, 'he behaved like a seargent major but in reality he was a dustman', etc.). There are what we might call the utterly different kinds of reality or existence enjoyed by various phenomena: emotions, occupations, numbers, colours, shapes, physical objects (watches, artworks), money, etc. (cf 'Everything is what it is and not another thing', Bishop Butler - a remark Wittgenstein thought of using as a motto for the Investigations.) But if a philosopher comes along and sublimes the concept of 'reality', she may now start asking whether (even what within the local language games we take as paradigms of) smiles or primes or artworks or God or thoughts or colours or values or particules or stories or minds are 'actually real'. What it is to be 'real tout court', as it were, is not explained - and characteristically we are just supposed to intuit how to deploy the term in its decontextualised form. (What will normally happen is that we will tacitly deploy a use of 'real' which accords with the implicit metaphysics - for example a type of scientific naturalism in which what is really 'real' is to be specified by physics - of the day.)

Here is another example:  In the preface to his Principia, Newton reported that his physics aimed at the goal of determining the 'absolute' movements in space and time of celestial objects. By 'absolute' he means: not relative to a temporal or spatial frame of reference. For example, of a man on a ship, we may ask about the direction and velocity of his movement, but in reporting this we may fail to note that not only is he walking over the deck, but the ship itself is moving over the earth, and the earth is itself moving through space. From this we might (rightly) conclude that questions about motion are necessarily relative to frames of reference. Newton however, having 'sublimed' the concept of movement, (wrongly) takes it that there is a 'true' or 'absolute' movement to be had which is what we get when we take account not only of the man's movement over the ship, but also of the ship and the earth. Similarly when we think about measuring time: it will not do, if we are to follow Newton, to (rightly) stipulate one or another natural oscillation as a temporal frame of reference against which the phenomena of interest to us can be contrasted. Rather we should (wrongly) be able to determine the regularity or absolute duration of such measures themselves. (In order to perform both these moves Newton tacitly and incoherently attributes parts, or rates of flow, to space and time respectively themselves.)

So, what is narcissistic about such acts of sublimation? As I see it there are two related aspects of such metaphysical tendencies to sublimation which betray the theorist's narcissism.

The first concerns the ambition to extract oneself from the world and to understand the phenomena we encounter from without. (The desire for context-transcending abstraction in itself is of course no bad thing - it is an essential component of thinking and theorising per se. What is incoherent however is when, with metaphysical hubris, we attempt to deploy thought outside of any context whatsoever (the 'view from nowhere' as Nagel calls it). The second concerns the theorist's tacit arrogation to herself of the capacity to hold onto and vouchsafe the meaning and meaningfulness of her theoretical terms despite their being wrenched from those contexts which (if she would but admit it) constitutively embed their deployment.

The psychological narcissist attempts to nourish themselves with their own love - yet love must always come from without for it to be psychologically transformative or nourishing. The private linguist indulges in the fantasy that he can make do with a subjective form of normativity to ground the meaningful deployment of the terms he introduces for his own use. More generally, the procedures of the philosophical narcissist reveal - in the very asking of his questions - his arrogation to his own mind of functions that can only be performed by socially and materially embedded discursive practices. 'I know what 'real' means all right' he says; 'What I want to know though is whether these [points to some trees which might normally function rather nicely as paradigms of 'real trees'] are real.' The narcissism consists in the tacit belief that one could, purely from within oneself, hold onto such a meaning for the word 'real' despite its decontextualisation.

We could view a large part of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy as devoted to the task of persuading us that we do not after all know what we mean when we ask, say, the sceptical questions which beset us. The confident belief that we know jolly well what we mean by our questions, but are just stuck for answers, and so must busy ourselves by ‘working on’ the theory of this or that, is a precondition of much metaphysical philosophy. It might then not be misleading to describe our coming to this ashamed yet therapeutic acknowledgement – that not only our theoretical answers, but even the questions which prompted them, fail to carry the sense we assumed they carried – as a prime intellectual example of that ‘frightful work’ of dismantling ‘the edifice of [our] pride’ (CV 30).[3]


[1] Both CBT and psychoanalysis investigate the irrationalities that lie at the heart of emotional suffering. To simplify greatly: CBT tends to trace the irrationality to inferential mistakes, whereas psychoanalysis views it as motivated by the avoidance of emotional pain. CBT, that is, looks to disturbances of mental, and psychoanalysis to disturbances of personality, functioning to explain environmentally unintelligible emotional distress. Fischer views Wittgenstein as unhelpfully constrained in his understanding of illness and therapy by the then unavailability of today’s cognitive theories of psychopathology. Like many clinicians I tend in my clinical work to use both models where appropriate; in this paper however I start to explore the rich resources of psychoanalysis for developing Wittgenstein’s understanding of philosophical illness and its therapy.
[2] Perverted: per vertere: turning away (from what is genuine).
[3] This paper has been greatly improved by helpful comments in particular from Louise Braddock, and also from Sarah Richmond, Jim Hopkins and Edward Harcourt.