metaphysical neurosis

I'm delighted to be offering a response to Wittgenstein scholar Cora Diamond, from whose writings I've learned a huge amount, at a forthcoming seminar at the Tavistock Clinic on 'Wittgenstein's 'Unbearable Conflict''.

I won't here spill the beans regarding what Cora will be saying; my response will in any case be rather self-contained. What I should like to pick up on and develop, from her presentation, is her mooting of a connection between i.) early Wittgenstein's (and Russell's) insistent dogmatic undemonstrated faith in an ultimate and singular underlying logical order in our discourse (which singular order the correct logical analysis would reveal) and ii.) his implicit sense of the vulnerabilities to which we are subject as thinking and speaking beings. The connection in question is of a motivation-defense sort: the faith is needed to compensate for the terror associated with the vulnerabilities. I want to pick this up here, not by way of looking for biographical evidence to support a certain psychoanalytical story about Wittgenstein's motivations for undertaking his philosophy - but instead by way of unpacking what I take to be some illuminating comparisons between i) a psychoanalytical understanding of neurosis and ii) the character of the struggle between metaphysical, sceptical and therapeutic voices more generally in later Wittgenstein's philosophy. Perhaps I will be able to keep my thought in that respectably demure academic zone where one can rest content with the provision of illuminating comparisons between the philosophical and the psychological cases. But of course I don't really think like that - and instead take Wittgenstein's fruitful intellectual struggles to be rather more of a piece with his moral and emotional conflicts.


Let's first rehearse the main thrust of Wittgenstein's Kehre concerning logical structure and logical analysis. In the Tractatus he claimed the theoretical possibility of making absolutely clear, analysing, (what is imagined to be) the singular logical structure immanent within our thought and talk. What makes for simplicity or complexity, what makes for our thought being decomposable into just these 'simple names', was not seen as something relative to our analytical schemes or interests or purposes but as something 'absolute' or, as we might also put it, 'of its own nature'. This analytic possibility was presupposed and not itself demonstrated. Later on Wittgenstein came to realise that analysis was necessarily purpose-relative, that language itself is not codifiable in any single way, and therefore that what he said before about the singular logical structure to our thought was nonsense.

This rather reminds me of Newton's discussion, in the Scholium of his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, of what he called 'absolute motion'. Ordinarily we deploy some or other frame of reference in order to establish movement, direction or speed. We say: the man ran at 10 miles per hour for 100 metres. We implicitly understand that this is relative to points on the athletics ground, not relative to an antelope running hither and thither in a nearby field. Newton takes the example of a man walking on a boat. He (say) walks east at 4 miles per hour. This speed is relative to the boat. Newton points out though that the boat itself is moving west relative to the ocean. So a supposedly 'truer' measurement of the man's walking is relative to the ocean. Yet, as he goes on, the earth is moving relative to the sun, etc etc: perhaps then a 'truer' measurement is relative to the sun. However Newton then spins this idea of 'true movement' outside of any context whatsoever. He wants to talk of movement relative to fixed absolute space itself - the coordinates of which somehow pre-exist any objects residing within it. He not only does this with space but also with time, which now is (absurdly, when you think about what talk of 'flow' presupposes) said to flow steadily and absolutely from its own nature - i.e. temporal duration is no longer to be thought of as relative to natural oscillations, orbits, transits or what have you.

This is what the notions of 'absolute movement', 'absolute space', 'absolute time' and 'logical simples' do: they 'sublime' (to borrow Wittgenstein's verb) the concepts in question. That is to say: Newton wrenches ordinary spatio-temporal concepts free from any particular context of application, but imagines they still carry a self-contained meaning. When he does try to explain how we are to understand these 'absolutes' he ends up fudging it. Thus he describes absolute time with a phrase something like: it flows at a constant rate out of its own nature; yet of course, as we know, the concept of flow and that of constancy themselves presuppose (and so can't be used to define) temporal standards. (Compare representationalist conceptions of vision: as if we could explain what seeing is in terms of having pictures in your head (which, since they are pictures, you presumably still have to somehow see!)) Or he talks of absolute space in terms of the 'fixed stars', which is fine if you are choosing to use those stars that do not move relative to one another as a frame of reference, incoherent if they are supposed to be fixed relative to nothing in particular - fixed relative to 'space itself' as it were.

The idea of the ether, a kind of ghostly scaffolding for the universe, an idea popular, as I understand it, at least until Einstein's day, is perhaps something of a remnant of this notion of absolute space. (cf too Bearn's idea that Wittgenstein's notion of 'subliming' or of 'sublimation' has a lot to do with the idea of sublimation in chemistry: a solid turning straight into a gas.) (Disclaimer en passant: I know nothing about the philosophy of physics; it's only that one day I happened to read the early parts of Newton's Principia.)

Like Wittgenstein's Tractatus, Newton's book was, thankfully, not entirely devoted to realising its nonsensical ambition and contains lots of interesting and hugely valuable ideas. But this basic ambition was, it seems to me, simply incoherent. Newton wants to find the non-arbitrary framework, one beyond any that we might just happen to use for this or that purpose, a framework indefatigably and autochthonously kosher. It's promise: we can exit any troubling disputes we have in physics about the movement of this or that by appeal to this independent singular and ultimate God-given set of coordinates. And we don't have to worry about the destabilising effect of realising that it is no longer obligatory to use the Earth as the frame of reference for motion (we can admit that the Earth is, so to say, only the centre of the universe to the extent that we stipulatively position it there on our maps). The Earth may be just a lowly and contingent denizen of this now bewilderingly massive universe, but despite this the promise of the idea of an absolute frame of reference (which when hypostasied is perhaps what becomes the universe's absolute matrix condensed out into an ether) is that we can at least hold onto a confidence in finding our feet within it and resolving any disputes by appeal to its ultimate high court.

Autobiographical aside: When I was 16 I started a notebook grandiosely called 'Towards a Universal Morality'. My ambition was, I believe, of the same basic form (whilst of course in a far more adolescent vein!) as Newton's: to locate and define an extra-human self-contained moral domain, crystalline and pure, immutable and timeless which could then be the absolute frame of reference with which to decide any moral disagreements. Shaken by the natural developmental collapse of my own childhood egocentrism at this time (my own micro version, as it were, of the effects of the Copernican revolution in physics), feeling radically destabilised by the sea of contrary human judgement, finding myself without what felt like adequate bearings, I tried to resolve this by looking towards a single superordinate moral frame of reference. How my intimations regarding this universal moral fabric were themselves supposed to escape being moral judgements (hence being fallible in precisely the ways I was trying to avoid) I have no idea. I imagine that I projected this supposed singular moral order into an underlying metaphysical fabric of the world itself (whether or not Wittgenstein does this in the Tractatus is famously a matter of dispute) which was then supposed to graciously crap itself out of the metaphysical clouds into my receptive mind.

Another (this time Heideggerian) aside: I wonder whether we might do well to think of both Newton and the early Wittgenstein as stuck here within an 'ontotheological' perspective, or as failing to respect the 'ontological difference'. A property of beings within a particular framework is attributed to the framework - to Being - itself. Thus we can all accept the idea of there being rules for the use of terms, and codifications which take us some way in making sense of this or that aspect of even quite general features of discourse such as: something's meaning something. But to posit an ultimate singular rules underlying discourse is as it were to mistake a property of the contained for a property of the container. Newton too keeps attributing to space and time themselves properties which in fact only pertain to entities and arrangements of entities within space and time: thus he talks about space itself having parts, or time itself as flowing at a steady pace.

Back to Wittgenstein. In the Investigations and elsewhere (e.g. On Certainty) he considers several different kinds of cases in which, for example:

  • something which is replete with intrinsic normativity, such as a rule-following practice, gets separated into two elements. One of these is the rule which contains its meaning bundled up within it, so to speak. The other is the practice of following it, which gets construed as external to the rule and as inheriting a derivative normativity from that rule.
  • a range of philosophical attempts to reconnect these rules and the practices of rule-following. Some attempts take the form of causal theories: the rule-followings need to be caused by inner representations of the rule, etc. Other theories give up on the idea of truing up the practice to the rule, instead opting for constructivism: the rule gaining its meaning from how we go on rather than the other way round. Others retreat from world-involving behaviour to an inner domain of private meanings in the hope that secure knowledge can be found in the certainties of self-consciousness.
  • a practice of ostensive definition (e.g. defining 'this Parisian stick is one metre long') gets separated into two elements. We have the stick which is seen now as just pointing to a meaning beyond it. It isn't the stick that is stipulated as one metre long, but rather a 'length of space' (whatever that means) that is defined by means of the stick. The stick is no longer a sample, no longer part of the fabric of our normative practice but is merely externally related to it, contingently pointing, if all goes well, to something (an ideal metre) that lies beyond it.
  • reality contact - stretches of world-engaging behaviour that one might have thought to themselves constitute what counts as reasonable here and there - gets theorised as separated into two elements. We have the side of thought, where reason is contained, and then its correct or incorrect representation of worldly facts outside of its own domain. The constitutive rationality of going on thus and so is lost. The rationality is all bundled up within the representing mind; the behaviour of going on thus-and-so now possesses only a derivative rationality.

In all these and many other cases discussed by Wittgenstein we find an implicit trashing of the immanence of mind and meaning in body, language and world such that praxis is denatured into something non-intrinsically-standard-bearing; a correlative hypostasising or subliming of mind and meaning; and a philosophical project of securing the viability of our de-normativised praxis, or (in constructivist and conventionalist flip-overs) the contentfulness of the rules and representations, by binding the two back together with theory.


Let's change tack now and consider what light some commonplace psychoanalytical ideas might throw on all this. The central concepts I will make use of here are those of defensive splitting and good-enough mothering. We will also have recourse to notions such as introjection, idealisation, narcissism, the paranoid-schizoid position and the depressive position.

The human situation is initially - i.e. for the baby - one of extreme vulnerability, whose fear threatens to overwhelm him or her. Inadequate and insensitive mirroring, attention, care and feeding result in devastation for the sense of what Winnicott calls going-on-being. This puts real strain on a child's ability to synthesise good and bad experiences as both being of the same object - of the same mother. The idea that the bad mother is also the good mother is terrifying: we feel we need the good mother, whilst the mother who fails us may be our downfall.

To keep the good mother safe, then, she is idealised; the bad mother is split off from her. The bad mother may perhaps be identified with in the manner described by Fairbairn: by taking the 'bad' within oneself (identification with the aggressor) what is left in one's experience of the world beyond oneself is good, salvific, hopeful. The main way this happens, I want to suggest, is not usually as any kind of discrete belief that oneself (rather than one's mother, say) is 'bad'. Instead it comes through a lodging of the bad in what different philosophers have called the 'background', 'clearing' or 'atmosphere' (Messrs Searle, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty) of one's experience. This, in other words, is what we meet with in the case Cora refers to - of Jonathan Lear's patient whose basic entrenched way of seeing was radically inflected by the unmetabolisable disappointment that then inevitably swamped her mind in every situation as it unfolded. Not that so-and-so on such-and-such an occasion could clearly be seen as at that time disappointing and as not then loving me - but rather that, in a diffuse and at least largely unconscious and on-most-occasions manner, I am as I can myself own and anticipate, unlovable and disappointing, and that the world will also be experienced as disappointing to the extent that I might dare believe in my lovability.

Other defences are of course possible. Rather than this diffuse introjection, the child may engage in more active and particular splitting and projection. In this way he holds onto a sense of himself and his objects as good and lovable. Perhaps it is, then, just that split-off other mother, un-recallable at happier times, who is the hateful one.

As well as this splitting and projection in the 'paranoid-schizoid position' the child can take refuge in omnipotent wish-fulfilling fantasy, taking comfort from imaginary breasts, substituting their own reliable (if rather empty) fantasy for an unreliable (but potentially genuine) other. He or she imagines she has more power and control over the vicissitudes of available nurture than is really possible.

If however there is enough of an experience of what Winnicott calls good-enough mothering, the child can begin to grow in their basic trust in their own survival, their own lovableness, the world's often-enough goodness. The world is safe enough; the mother is good enough; the self is lovable enough. Idealisations of the mother can gradually be dropped: her failings become tolerable and forgivable. As all this happens a sense of the independent reality of the world can develop - of a world independent of the wishes of the child. It is important that the mother is not, as it were, too good, or else the child will never have the need to develop her capacity to tolerate frustration which is essential for the relinquishing of omnipotent narcissism and the establishment of reality testing (i.e. the separation of fantasy and reality).

Such a child, who is able to begin to bear frustration, and to have a sense of survivability, of going-on-being, can also start to trust that she will survive the real loss of people or objects or ideals. In other words, in this - 'depressive' - position mourning starts to become possible. Emotional experience does not become trapped in an un-focal, swamping, mood-inducing form, but instead can become discrete.  Psychoanalysts have thought a lot about the way in which what they call 'symbolisation' makes this discrete suffering possible. By coming to symbolise their experience - for example, by putting it into words that are used to a genuine end of communicating, of sense-making, of representing what is absent as absent - thinking and the carrying-on-being of the thinker become possible.

Philosophy and Psychoanalysis

It will I suspect already be evident how some of the above psychoanalytic ideas - of the good-enough, the fear associated with the insecurities engendered by a disturbance in going-on-being, and defensively motivated splitting - find their analogues in the philosophical scenarios described in the first section. But before we get to that I want to point out one further very important aspect of the painful purgatory of the paranoid-schizoid position. This is that it is largely self-sustaining. We might sometimes imagine it only held in place by the ongoing defensive motivation to ward off the original disappointments. However what we encounter, again and again in clinical practice, is the ultimately stultifying misery-entrenching result of the defences at work. Once we meet with narcissistic retreat we find an ego position than can no longer receive succour from the world, and is left trying to suckle on phantom breasts. Or when we have to do with paranoid projections the projector now encounters a hostile world even less to be trusted than before. Or we have intellectualising efforts to make do, to repair basic faults with intellectual castles built in the air - but their foundationlessness just keeps coming back to our attention again and again. Or, in Lear's example, we have the forestalling of disappointment by a kind of owned anticipation of just this very possibility, which then occludes all that is not disappointing, yet which however then renders invisible all those more rewarding and promising affordances on offer.

This, too, is I think what we find in the kinds of examples Wittgenstein considers. Once the basic split is in place - the idealised normativity or intentionality being safely lodged in an extra-worldly undegradable Platonic domain, in a mental representation, in a sublimated sample, etc., and our once-living once-meaning-replete practices now all normatively denatured and goofy - then our best efforts to rejoin then tend only to make matters worse. So we wonder how we are going to reconnect some idealised, safely-self-contained, mind-relegated 'inner representation' with that in the world which it represents, and use our brains to construct a clever causal theory ... only to find that the causal story cannot make good the representation's normativity, or at least not without tacitly presupposing it. The gulf between thought and world looms even wider. We become more desperate. Obsessional attempts at justification aim to quell the obsessional doubts resulting from the basic fault of a loss of non-ratiocinative repose in the life-world.

Or we have a bright idea of a way out... and try and collapse one half of the split into the other, or to construct one half out of the resources available on the other side. One or another form of idealism, conventionalism, constructivism, behaviourism, etc. results. But we now encounter a merely ghostly world without the habitable solidity we crave (idealism), or we find ourselves with only a sham form of the certainties we were hoping to trust in (conventionalism), or we end up losing our spontaneity and dynamism of will (behaviourism), or merely haunting the meaning-depleted shadows of our discursive practices.

The philosophical patient craves certainty, finds the mish-mash rag-bag hurly-burly of our conversations and diverse purpose-relative conventions to be unsettling. To deal with this, absolutes are proposed. Ideals are split off and projected. The world and our workaday words may now be more goofy and tawdry - but at least the possibility of meaning has been salvaged - by being projected either inwards (into the self-interpreting inner representation) or outwards (into the otherworldly Platonic necessities). Yet, yet the gulf now terrifies us even more than before. The good object is saved through idealisation - but simultaneously put out of reach. The whole defensive endeavour is implicitly narcissistic: it attempts to render that in which one must trust and acquiesce - the diverse serviceability of our language, our connectedness with one another, our foundational reality contact - in terms which belong to the interiors of these practices, in terms which are thinkable within the mind of the theorist. (To cast Being (Rede, Mitsein, Dasein etc.) itself in terms belonging to mere beings, one could say, is the epitome of narcissism. The local thinkability of these terms is in fact dependent on the theorist being sunk into the entire practices. With our feet thus sunk in to Being we can muster certain thoughts, deploy this or that rule here or there, with our heads; the narcissism involved is the idea that we can take our feet off the ground and navigate our way back to Being just with our heads, spinning the coordinate map which guides us out of what is now conceived of as absolute self-sustaining cognition.)

What then is the analogue to the psychoanalytic working-through of the patient's anxieties, their gradual relinquishing of their defences as they come to trust in the availability of the analyst? What I believe we find in Wittgenstein in his working through, as he comes back to the same problematic from different angles, engaging again and again with the troubled interlocutor, is his encouraging us to have faith in the good-enough mother that is our ordinary (non-sublimed, that is) language. 'Let's look at how we go on. Well, what do we say here? Well, here is one possibility:…' Wittgenstein is constantly trying to return us home, from when words have gone on that kind of holiday that ultimately turned into a nightmare, to the diverse contexts of our lives. 'Look', he says, 'perhaps we can live here after all'. 'Maybe, you know, praxis doesn't need to be immune from imperfection (doesn't need to be serviceable in all imaginable contexts) to be good-enough'. Wittgenstein helps us back to finding ourselves at home in our language with an increased diet of examples, with humour, with his own healthy internalisation of a helpful Mr Sraffa (Wittgenstein's chief sanity-conferring interlocutor) to bring us back down from the vertiginous heights of our preoccupations. Our worries are not then so much formulated into questions that can then be solved. Instead, like a neurotic preoccupation that one can no longer relate to, or like a dream or psychotic delusion that is hard to recall, they slowly dissolve away. We come back to the rough but serviceable ground. And now, now philosophy finally finds some peace.


Popular Posts