gaslit: narcissistic perversions of the
soul's moral fabric

Talk given to Applied Section Meeting of the

British Psychoanalytical Society - 9th December 2020

(Pulling together various previously blogged thoughts regarding narcissism and narcissistic abuse.)


Gaslighting is often portrayed in terms of blame-shifting and lying, but in reality also involves far more subtle manipulations that aren't straightforward to describe. The survivor movement provides a rich repertoire of concepts to help the sufferer of narcissistic abuse think about and resist what they fell into. And psychoanalysis comes to our aid with its theory of the intrapsychic and interpersonal forms of projective identification. This talk considers what philosophy has to add. In particular we'll see what light a phenomenological perspective can shed on the (apt or spurious) allocation, within an intimate relationship, of moral properties of culpability and woundedness. We’ll also see how Wittgenstein’s ‘private language’ arguments help us understand how the narcissist sustains his illusion of self-ratifying unaccountability. In such ways we may formulate more clearly what it is for the narcissist to bend out of shape the soul’s moral fabric - both his own and those of the people in close relationship with him.


Let me begin by saying something about the kind of ‘application’ that I’m engaged in, in this ‘Applied’ rather than ‘Scientific’ meeting. My application isn’t of psychoanalytic ideas to matters outside the clinic, but rather of some philosophical thought from outside the clinic to what we find within. What I want to talk about are two aspects of narcissism, one concerning matters intrapsychic, the other having a more interpersonal focus. These correspond in some ways, I think, to two different aspects of projective identification: one a personal unconscious phantasy, the other an intersubjective process. I don’t claim that one is more fundamental than the other; a better way to think of them may be as 2 different angles on the same narcissistic process.

Today I’ve no ambitions to provide a general theory of narcissism. Psychoanalysis already has plenty of those. Instead I’m particularly concerned with that kind of narcissistic abuse that goes by the name of ‘gaslighting’. And what I want to focus on is the gaslighter’s means by which they queer the moral pitch of their interaction with their victim. This gaslighting not only warps the abuser’s own mind’s moral fabric but, as it always occurs in interaction with another, also warps the moral fabric, the morale, of the other’s mind. 

Whence ‘Gaslighting’?

The original inspiration for today’s psychological use of the term ‘gaslighting’ comes from the 1939 play Gas Light, penned by the playwright Patrick Hamilton - who himself suffered considerable characterological complications. An American film, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, was made in 1944. The play’s setting is the home of newlyweds Jack and Bella in 1880s London. Jack disappears from the flat each night, not telling Bella where he’s going. In fact he’s going to the flat upstairs to look for the missing jewels of a murdered woman. While up there, his turning on the gas lights causes the lighting in the whole block to dim; Bella notices this and also hears his footsteps through the ceiling. In a maddening way Jack convinces her she’s seeing and hearing things. ‘Gas lighting’ was then put to psychopathological use in 1969 by psychiatrists Barton & Whitehead, who documented examples of wives inventing stories of their husband’s violent behaviour in order to get them psychiatrically detained. More recently - perhaps driven by Robin Stern’s (2007/2018) book on hidden manipulation, The Gaslight Effect - the phrase has taken a more psychological turn, and is now used to describe certain forms of narcissistic abuse and the unwitting cooperation with that - especially by such abused subjects as we now, following Donna Savery (2018), call ‘echoists’. It’s the notion of lying to undermine another’s stability and morale that’s captured in most contemporary definitions; here’s a representative one from Wikipedia:

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the victim and delegitimize the victim's belief. Instances may range from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.

The internet has been a major source of supportive and illustrative literature on gaslighting, with excellent websites (e.g. the Narcissist Family Files) springing up, often created by survivors of narcissistic abuse. Here we find thousands of moving stories of people who, coming across the online literature and videos, realise that they’ve been caught in a malignant folie à deux, perhaps even for several decades, finally understanding why they’ve been so exhausted and demoralised, and finally restoring something of their self-possession. Of course we also find here plenty of narcissistic characters looking to blame their ex-partners for their woes! But what we come across should, I suggest, be compelling enough for us to distrust such adages, sometimes commonplace in psychotherapeutic circles, as “the responsibility for conflictual difficulties in relationships is always 50:50” - at least, until we’ve ascertained that our patient doesn’t belong to that segment of the population unlucky enough to be in a relationship with someone whose narcissistic traits are more prominent than average. In short, gaslighting is a very 21st century topic, one that relied on the internet to take off, and one that’s found its way into popular culture. The (Dixie) Chicks, for example, recently released their first new song in 14 years - ‘Gaslighter’ - in which lead singer Natalie Maines calls out her ex-husband’s abusive behaviour.

A particularly interesting feature of this online literature has been the development of a new language to aid in the symbolisation, and hence thoughtful resistance, of such abuse. Thus we now have not only ‘gaslighters’ or narcissistic abusers, ‘empaths’ and ‘codependents’, but a whole new rhetoric of manipulation: ‘supply’ (the term in fact originates with Fenichel, 1938) consists of those the narcissist either idealises and emulates or instead abuses to prop up their own esteem; ‘hoovering’ is the attempt to suck old disillusioned supply back within the narcissist’s dominion; ‘enablers’ are those in the family who don’t question the narcissist’s inflated self-image; 'flying monkeys’ are such enablers as are tasked with doing the narcissist’s dirty work; the ‘scapegoat’ is, for example, a child onto whom is projected all a narcissistic parent’s toxic shame (contrast the idealised ‘golden child’); strategies of ‘divide and conquer’ involve setting up an environment of competition and terror in which people try to avoid the narcissist’s attack but at each other’s expense; ‘fauxpologies’ are those spurious sorry-sayings such as ‘I’m sorry you are so sensitive’; ‘I’m sorry you think I’m such a disappointment as a mother’, ‘I’m sorry to have made you angry’ (rather than being sorry for what was said, in response to which anger might well have been the apt response); ‘smear campaigns’ involve systematically discrediting those who’ve seen through the narcissist’s mask, or those who are envied or resented. Strategies for dealing with such abuse include 'going gray-rock’, i.e. disengaging and making yourself dull and non-reactive to antagonism, despite constant attempts to get under your skin. The language is, I think, particularly important: by naming what’s going on it allows for an empowering restoration of thinking and self-possession, and aids the refusal of intrusive and controlling projections. (Needless to say, the language can itself get abused: ‘You’re gaslighting me!’ has itself now become a classic gaslighting manoeuvre.)

In what follows I’ll argue that, contra the emphasis we find in common definitions of gaslighting, definitions which stress the narcissist’s perpetuation of falsehoods regarding determinate external facts, what’s often more pernicious in gaslighting are distortions to the less determinate contours of the inner life, particularly to our sense of our own moral qualities and worth. I’ll suggest too that such distortions are often provided not so much by overt misrepresentation but by the selective use of attention, by silence, subtly dismissive uses of gesture, tetchy vocal tone, selective ignoring, tacit accusations, the gradual cultivation of distorted expectations, and so on.

Gaslighting and the Indeterminacy and Holism of the Mental

Here’s an example of a somewhat subtle use of gaslighting, one that relies on acts of omission rather than of commission: 

[kris777]  When I was in my late teens, my mother had about 10 of her closest friends over for a party right after Christmas. I was sitting among them (the only one of my mother's children present) enjoying the banter when all of a sudden, my mother grabbed everyone's attention and asked "would you all like to see what my children gave me for Christmas?" They all chimed in "absolutely"!! And I knew she was about to pull one of her classic gaslighting moves as she's done it so many times. She doesn't realize she has a tell (a certain tic in her facial muscles) when she's about to go full on narc. She walked over to the tree and grabbed two gifts - the one my brother got her and the one my sister got for her. She showed both as her friends ooohhhhed and awwed over them, and then she went and put them back under the tree. Her two closest friends' eyes got very wide and puzzled but neither would look over in my direction. I did not take the bait. I knew she wanted me to spout off so that she could humiliate me in front of the group and say she just forgot about my gift - I guess she forgot she has 3 children. It was beautiful though the way her move completely backfired as everyone got very quiet and uncomfortable as I sat completely silent.

Kris777’s mother engages here in an act of omission which, precisely because it isn’t so readily ostensible, can - if called out - be more readily defended. (In fact it likely won’t just be defended but, under the cover of the plausible deniability that such acts offer, turned into an opportunity to push a demoralising counter-accusation of over-sensitivity or presumptuous judgementalism.) 

Now, our everyday psychological vocabulary - I mean that regarding beliefs, desires, feelings, intentions and the like (I’ll call them all ‘thoughts’) - doesn’t reference individual behaviours: there’s no one-to-one correlation between particular actions and thoughts; one and the same behaviour can properly be said to express different thoughts depending on its context. And this context extends not only to other aspects of one’s thinking and the present situation but also reaches back in time to include aspects of the history of one’s interactions. (Philosophers call this the ‘holism of the mental’.) Because of this, such gaslighting as aims to distort the other’s judgement regarding his own and the gaslighted person’s thoughts has far more wriggle room than that which aims to distort our present grasp of particular facts in external reality. And what shall count as the right circumstances against which to read any particular stretch of behaviour as expressive of this or that thought will always be a matter of judgement. (I’ll come back to that shortly.) What exactly, for example, is the context in which that raised eyebrow shall count as non-accusatory surprise, or as a warranted or unwarranted accusation? Does that context obtain here, or not? And who’s to say?

We also do well to note that even utterly competent and perfectly knowledgeable observers can differ on the moral or psychological meaning of certain gestures. We sometimes encounter expressions which to one person look to be of annoyance, to another, mere indifference, and for which consulting the subject in question may provide no clear answer. We may take ourselves to be motivated by entirely selfless ambitions; another finds a sliver of selfishness there - and sometimes there can - I suggest - simply be no fact of the matter as to who here is right. Was he being annoying or just insistent? Was it thoughtless or merely casual? Uncertainty here can, as Wittgenstein (1980, §657) suggests, be “constitutional… not a shortcoming. It resides in our concepts that this uncertainty exists…” And this ‘constitutive indeterminacy of the mental’, as philosophers call it, also provides a cover of plausible deniability for gaslighters to work under.

I don’t think, however, that reference to acts by omission, to holism, and to indeterminacy fully explains how the gaslighter is able to ply his or her shifty trade. Consider for example the following description of gaslighting as ambient abuse (it’s by YouTube presenter Sam Vaknin, himself a narcissist who’s written a lot about the condition):

ambient abuse is the stealthy, subtle, underground current of maltreatment that sometimes goes unnoticed even by the victim herself until it's too late. Ambient abuse penetrates and permeates everything, but is difficult to pinpoint and identify. Gaslighting is vigorous, equivocal, atmospheric and diffuse, hence its insidious and pernicious effects. It is by far the most dangerous kinds of abuse there is. ... Ambient abuse yields an irksome feeling, a kind of disagreeable foreboding, a premonition, a bad omen; it's in the air. In the long term such an environment erodes the individual's sense of self-worth. 

How shall we understand this ‘stealthy’, ‘subtle’, ‘ambient’ and ‘atmospheric’ narcissistic abuse?

Distorting the Foundations of Judgement

Let’s continue to deepen our understanding of gaslighting by picking up the above-mentioned matter of judgement. The word has varied meanings. Philosophers sometimes use it very broadly, to stand for any determinations we make. However we often use it in a more restricted sense, one having to do with practical wisdom and manifesting in what we term ‘judgement calls’. Invoking this latter sense we might say that the need for judgement can sometimes be obviated through the use of checklists, criteria, necessary and sufficient conditions, definitions, and so on. A trainee psychiatrist, for example, might rely on an operationalised diagnostic scheme. By so doing she can, when making her diagnosis, avoid calling on her judgement (in the restricted sense). Such judgement, however, cannot be avoided for long. For example our psychiatrist will hardly be able to avoid it when determining whether one of her patient’s beliefs truly does count as a delusion. And here her ability to exercise good judgement is not something other than her grasp of the meaning of words (like ‘delusion’): she shall count both as knowing what ‘delusion’ means, and as having good psychiatric judgement, if she picks out only those mental states which competent psychiatrists pick out as delusions.

Now, to initially and ongoingly calibrate our judgement regarding ordinary moral and mental matters we rely on interaction with our families, teachers, peers and psychoanalysts. Our calibration consists both in conforming our judgement to that of others and, when enough of that has happened and we’ve developed sufficient mental apparatus of our own, in testing our judgement by also exploring our disagreements with them. (Part of what’s insidious about gaslighting is that, obtaining largely within couples, it involves isolating the victim from alternative sources of calibration; now that she can’t see her friends, her skewed judgement goes quite unchecked.) And what I want to stress here is that these skews to judgement needn’t involve anything so flagrant as buying into out-and-out lies about what facts obtain - about what was and wasn’t said or done. It’s at least as often, or as well, in judgements about the meaning of such facts that these skews are here introduced.

Many of our morally significant interactions involve our ongoing sense of when we’re to blame and, correlatively, when we’re being wronged. The determination of this is always contextual - both situational and historical - and typically relies on judgement. What after all shall count as being over-sensitive, and what instead as a reasonable standing up for oneself? When is and when isn’t one’s forgetting a culpable matter? (NB a typical verbal trick of the narcissist is to spuriously push for non-culpability merely on the basis of unintendedness, conveniently ignoring that we are also responsible for what we should have thought, but didn’t think, about. Another is to substitute commiserative for apologetic meanings of ‘sorry’.) What counts as showing apt consideration, and what instead counts as taking up a perverse invitation to jettison one’s self-possession and instead be possessed by the other? What counts as an understandable tired tetchiness that should be tolerated by another, and what as someone's failure to take apt care for his relationship? What shall be taken as disrespectful, and what as relaxedly casual?

If the persons in a couple have well-formed moral sensibilities, they will often enough agree as to what counts as the violation of reasonable behavioural norms. If they were to ‘graph’ the domain of their responsibilities for the moral upsets obtaining within their relationship, enough of their plots will coincide for meaningful moral discourse to be possible.


If however we here encounter a relationship between a narcissist and someone who buys into the narcissist’s tacit revaluation of moral values, we find them accepting a new moral reality, one in which the narcissist shirks responsibility and projects blameworthiness. In this new reality, new rules have tacitly been introduced; the narcissist has subtly queered the pitch of the distribution of responsibility and blame, and distorted the moral fabric of her victim’s soul. But still, how does she get away with such distortions to judgement?

Our Embodied ‘Understandings of Being’

I want to approach this question by thinking on the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of the unconscious. And to get going with this we’ll need to understand 2 concepts which Merleau-Ponty develops from Husserl and Heidegger. 

The first is that of the ‘lived body’. Whilst Freud offers us an unconscious of individually repressed ideas, the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty offers us a bodily unconscious. The body in question is not the body qua mere organism, not that which is studied by anatomy and physiology, but rather the body as lived. This notion, taken over from Edmund Husserl, has to do with the body: as the coordinated site of sensation and instinct, as a largely perceptually invisible locus of our perceptual points of view, as the sensate receiver and explorer of the world, and as a structure of habit and know-how with well-practiced motor sequences and perceptual Gestalten sedimented into it. It’s with and in our lived bodies that we automatically grasp how close or far to stand to others. We who aren’t beset by autistic disability or schizophrenic illness can readily coordinate our gestures and come into communicative synchrony with others. And only with this subconscious intercorporeal synchrony in place can we make ready sense of one another’s actions and utterances. In this way the lived body provides a recessive foundational background which all our explicit communicative acts presuppose.  

The second concept which is relevant here is Martin Heidegger’s notion of the ‘clearing’. Heidegger invites us to eschew the problematics that arise from thinking of human understanding as self-contained and inner, as something we could enjoy and bring to bear on a world utterly external to it. Instead he wants us to think of ourselves as consisting primarily of being-in-the-world - as always-already situated in a world of which we’re a part. We are, in the terms of the metaphor, ourselves a part of the world’s woods and thickets, but within these our culture, including our language, and our own personal histories create a ‘clearing’, and within that clearing matters can show up for conscious consideration. What can show up there depends, however, on the clearing’s structure. What Merleau-Ponty was interested in were cases where something which we might expect someone to encounter within their clearing has instead become part of their being’s very fabric. Rather than rely here on the usual metaphors for repression, Merleau-Ponty thinks in terms of ‘generalisation’: what once showed up within the visual field instead now becomes part of the field’s invisible boundary, constraining what can be seen. On this view the unconscious is, as it were, the water the fish is always swimming in without realising it, or an invisible ‘atmosphere’ (to use another of Merleau-Ponty’s terms) or unconscious mood with which we’re utterly identified, which utterly surrounds us and which we can’t help but breathe.

To bring these two concepts together now: it’s with and in our lived bodies that we encounter the world, and what’s visible of that world depends upon the ‘set’, so to say, of that body. Consider how sometimes in therapy or analysis you sometimes think, after eventually arriving at a valid formulation, that in some inchoate sense you’d known what the problem was from the way the patient walked in the door on his first visit to your consulting room. Or think of how the transference functions as an invisible force field utterly constraining the way the patient relates to you. On his way up to your door he sometimes slips from one mode of functioning into another quite regressed one, one now constraining the thoughts available to him. The disturbance is contained in his lived body’s habitual postures - postures of deference or shame, fear or awkwardness, for example. Because the patient is this body, is as it were enclosed within what Reich called his ‘character armour’, the way it structures his encounters isn’t visible to him. Psychopathology, on this view, involves the fixation, into the general structure of the clearing, of that which would better be placed as a discrete moment in the living of a life. And psychotherapy, amongst other health-giving relationships, involves the remobilisation and diversification of these structures through a disidentificatory process of symbolising them.

The third concept I want now to introduce is that of intercorporeality. Different cultures have different ways of inhabiting the body, different forms of gesture, different codes regarding eye contact, what counts as warmth and what as flirting, and so on. Such cultural mores sediment themselves invisibly into the lived body, just as accents do into our voices. Let’s focus on such moral emotions as guilt, shame, penitence, forgiveness, warmth, love, confidence, diffidence, open-heartedness and so on. These attitudes not only have their characteristic embodiments - the downward eyes of shame, the expansive motions of open-heartedness, the stride of healthy confidence, and so on - but are ongoingly entrained in us through our interactions with others. Their ongoing entrainment in us is sometimes explicit - as when a parent says ‘Now go and apologise to her!’ - but is often conducted implicitly. Subtle shifts in tone and pitch, fleeting facial micro-expressions, a bodily stance that is slightly less or more welcoming or shunning, the placing of pauses in discourse - these all contribute to the co-regulation of our moral interactions. Our lived bodies constantly find their complementary levels in relation to one another. Together we spontaneously enact - bodily, linguistically and epistemically - our correlative moral sensibilities. My concernful voice correlates with your wounded posture; your sudden move toward me with my flinching away. And we unreflectively understand together when it is that, say, looking into the other’s eyes constitutes openness, and when instead it amounts to presumptuous interrogation or intrusion. Or what tone of voice, what prosody, shall count as innocent and what as suggestive of reproof. This corporeal co-regulation provides the bedrock on top of which our words sit and in relation to which they have their meaning. And, to finally get back to our principal concern, it provides the entry point through which such projective identification as is interpersonally efficacious takes its effects: I can think of a few patients who fairly mastered the art of the projection of a sense of personal uselessness through, say, the slight arching of a single eyebrow or an in-drawing of breath. 

The claim on the table, then, regarding narcissistic abuse is that it often consists not only in such manipulations as are lies, nor only in manipulating the terms of explicit moral judgement, but also in distorting the whole paralinguistic, bodily, context in which all such judgement is situated. The deep habit structure of our intercorporeal lives is perverted. It is our openness to the automatic co-regulation of moral sensibility that allows in the narcissist’s warping of the mind’s moral fabric - i.e. that projectively bends out of shape our soul - i.e. bends out of shape our morale and our moral self-understanding. The indrawn breath, proximity and distance, vocal tone, bodily openness and closedness, and facial micro-expressions, may all be used to set the scene for the perverted morality tale which then plays out in the lives of the narcissist and her victim. Just as the natural corollary of another’s sadness is our own pity, or of their anger is our fear, so too is an automatic taking up of the demoralised stance of shame the near-inevitable outcome of the war of attrition waged in part by implicit accusations. This is then sustained by the victim learning to walk on eggshells, to avoid triggering the narcissist’s avowed disappointment, accusations and rage. His skill at walking on these eggshells is far greater than he himself realises: his ‘understanding of Being’ itself, as Heidegger puts it, has shifted (Dreyfus & Wakefield, 2014); he now dwells in an invisible-to-him atmosphere of unconscious shame, discouragement, and guilt. When a victim of narcissistic abuse who has escaped, and begun to recover, has to see his abuser again, his whole demeanour, gestures, posture, tone, automatically shrink back down. And from the vantage of this alternatively configured lived body, a whole different world comes back into view for him.

The Intrapsychic Situation

So far what’s been discussed is the interpersonal situation: how gaslighting takes its pernicious effect on the narcissist’s victim. I now wish to think about what it is that happens alongside this within the mind of the narcissist. A common way of understanding narcissism is that it involves excessive self-love, grandiosity and superiority (covering over painful shame and inner fragmentation). This, I think, is rather like the idea that gaslighting primarily involves lying about facts. It’s not necessarily wrong, but doesn’t illuminate the underlying structural situation.

Consider the following exchange I witnessed on the Oxford-to-London commuter bus:

Every morning a preening young man would talk loudly, at length, and obnoxiously to his boyfriend on the phone. A fellow passenger had had enough and – pointing to the window sign requesting passengers to keep mobile conversation quiet, short and to the essential – asked if he might limit his conversation to the advantage of his fellow passengers. The young man quickly flew into a rage, and exclaimed to her ‘Who are you to tell me what’s too loud or too long or inessential?!’, and returned to his obnoxious conversation. (So thought-stopping was this furious response that the complainant did not think of the correct answer: ‘I’m a member of the general public’.)

We recognise this as a paradigm of narcissism. But what, considered intrapsychically, does this narcissism consist in? Is it just that he thinks himself superior to others? That rather suggests we think his narcissism results from his having an intelligible but false thought. But this, I think, fails to do justice to the character of his exclamation, the implication of which seemed to me to be that his fellow passenger’s negative appraisal traduced his universal right to that sovereign self-determination which is constitutive of personal dignity. And this in its way was of a piece with his aim which appeared to be to queer the moral pitch of the interaction, spuriously projecting his own blameworthiness into those who would judge him.

What this man seemed to be claiming was that only he could possibly know whether his actions reflected a valid imperative – not because his fellow passenger didn’t, as a contingent matter of fact, have access to the relevant facts about his life situation, but rather simply because she was not he. But what exactly is awry with his thought? In what follows I suggest that we can arrive at an answer to this by considering an aspect of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s deliberations on the very idea of a ‘logically private’ language.

The ‘private language arguments’ are contained in §§243-315 of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. In them we find Wittgenstein inviting us to try to ‘imagine a language’ (§243) which ‘describes my inner experiences and which only I myself can understand’ (§256), a language to be set up by giving ‘myself a kind of ostensive definition’ for a sensation term ‘S’ by concentrating ‘my attention on the sensation – and so, as it were, point[ing] to it inwardly’ (§258). (It’s because only I could possibly understand that which only I experience that it’s called a ‘logically private’ language.)

In arguing that we have here only the illusory fantasy of an actual language, Wittgenstein first reminds us of an important feature of genuine sensation language. This is that, if it feels to me like I’m in pain, then I jolly well am in pain. Or, to put it better, there simply is no appearance/reality distinction in play when we’re talking about our conscious inner experiences. This just is what it means for us to be ‘authorities’ regarding our own mental states. This authority is extremely important to us: we rightly complain about intrusion into this sovereign aspect of our lives. (I’m reminded of a couple who visited for dinner before lockdown. I asked what they wanted to drink. One told me ‘a beer please’, but the other somehow had different ideas for his partner. After some squabbling the first, with patience and good humour, said ‘Well Richard, the problem is that I’ve decided what I want; it’s just that he hasn’t yet decided what I want!’ The joke made clear the patent absurdity of the idea of someone else knowing better what we want when our mind is already made up.)

Whilst such inner sovereignty is of course extremely important, Wittgenstein points out that the inapplicability of the seems/is, appearance/reality, distinction here means that we can’t do such things as dream up our own logically private languages to describe what we’re inwardly feeling. For meaningful language is essentially normative - which is to say, its uses are evaluable as correct or incorrect. If, however, there’s no such thing as me using a term wrongly within my own mind, then there’s also no such thing as me using it correctly here (see §258). (This, by the way, is why it’s important that genuine psychological language always has a double aspect: on the one hand we may use it inwardly to authoritatively ascribe thoughts, sensations, wishes, etc. to ourselves; on the other hand, there are observable patterns of behaviour which anchor these psychological states and which function as criteria for the ascription of them to us by others.)

In the text Wittgenstein’s inner interlocutor attempts various strident formulations against himself and in support of the idea of a ‘logically private language’. He tries to insist such things as that, still, here, he can

  • believe that this is the sensation S again.’ (§260); 
  • ‘I can (inwardly) undertake to call THIS ‘pain’ in the future.’ (§263); 
  • I can give myself ‘a subjective justification’ (§265); 

To which his better self responds with a thoughtful irony:

  • ‘Perhaps you believe that you believe it!’
  • ‘The balance on which impressions are weighed is not the impression of a balance’;
  • ‘to imagine … justifying [isn’t to] justify.. [what’s] imagined’, etc. (§§259-267).

In Wittgenstein’s practice of philosophy, it is the illuminating comparison which does much of the work in helping us be freed from compelling illusions. To help us break loose from the fantasy that we could enjoy both sovereign invulnerability to error at the same juncture as we can make substantive truth claims he offers the example of a particular design for a self-driving steamroller he once saw, one in which:

the inventor’s mistake is akin to a philosophical mistake. The invention consists of a motor inside a hollow roller. The crank-shaft runs through the middle of the roller and is connected at both ends by spokes with the wall of the roller. The cylinder of the petrol-engine is fixed onto the inside of the roller. At first glance this construction looks like a machine. But it is a rigid system and the piston cannot move to and fro in the cylinder. (Philosophical Grammar §141; see also Zettel §248 and Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, volume 1, §397.)

Other examples of this fatal ‘rigidity’ are provided by someone saying: ‘ “But I know how tall I am!” and laying his hand on top of his head to indicate it!’ (Philosophical Investigations §279). Or: another man pushes on a car dashboard to try to make the car go faster (Blue Book p. 71); yet another tries to give himself a gift by passing it from one hand to another (Philosophical Investigations §268); a final chap buys ‘several copies of the morning paper to assure himself that what it said was true’ (Philosophical Investigations §265). Wittgenstein uses these absurd examples to make clear how the would-be private linguist’s case is just as absurd: here too there’s a normatively fatal non-independence of the ‘inner standard’ for S from the ‘inner judgement’ that here we meet with an S again. Again, if whatever you want to say is to count as correct, then the very idea of correctness, of your words actually having meaning, is lost. No work gets done: the steamroller or car stays where it is, the news is not corroborated. 

Let’s return this discussion now to our young man on the bus. Implicit in his challenge – ‘Who are you to tell me what is too loud or too long or inessential?!’ – is, I suggest, a wish to achieve two incompatible things at once: 1. On the one hand he wishes to be counted as having correctly grasped the meaning of the terms: ‘too loud’, ‘too long’, ‘inessential’. The communication is after all predicated on him and his interlocutor sharing an understanding of the meaning of the terms – otherwise his challenge should itself be pointless. 2. On the other hand, he wishes to be treated as the unchallengeable and sole judge of what here is to count as ‘too loud’, ‘too long’ etc. Whatever he judges to be essential or inessential is to count as such. In short, he wishes to still have his normative cake even whilst popping it down the cakehole of his own subjectivity. 

This too was just what we found with our private linguist. He wanted to be able to inwardly institute, and accord with, actual norms for the correct use of ‘S’, but also to continue to enjoy his inviolable first-person authority regarding his suffering of S. He refused to accept that the coin which has first person authority (of his avowals of S) as one of its faces must have an availability to appraisal (of the correctness of his use of ‘S’) as its other. It is this fantasy of normative self-sufficiency and yet inviolability – of being able to purchase the goods of normative warrant without handing over some of his first-person authority – which – I’m suggesting – constitutes a key structural element of the intrapsychic heart of narcissism.


How should we understand the relationship between these two, inter- and intra- personal, aspects of narcissism? Recall the diagram presented above which described the interpersonal situation where a narcissist creates an illusory skew in her partner’s understanding of his own moral character:   

Set alongside this now a representation of the skew in the narcissist’s illusory intrapsychic distribution
of authority and accountability:

In both cases we find a narcissistic subject bending the meaning of words, actions, expressions out of shape to hide her culpability and accountability. But it should also become clear how the perverted sense of authority aids the skewed representation of moral culpability. The young man on the bus found it outrageous that anyone else should presume to have a say as to what should count as too long, loud or inessential a conversation for him. We might describe his attitude as one which in fact sets its face against the very idea of a fellow passenger. In such ways we see how truly corrupt narcissistic abuse is: it bends out of shape the narcissistic subject’s own soul, trashing his conscience and devaluing his relationships. And it bends out of shape the soul of his victim, covertly demoralising her through its insidiously enacted revaluation of her moral self-understanding.

Above I discussed something of Wittgenstein’s inner battle against the illusions of a ‘private language’. These were not, I believe, restricted to his philosophical life. For he was often preoccupied by his own unholy desire for utterly secure admiration or for an inner security quite beyond this world - a longing which, I believe, can be traced to the emotional impoverishment of his childhood, and an impoverishment which left him believing that only displays of genius could secure the affection of others. I have developed this theme elsewhere; there’s no time to develop it further here. Instead I shall simply illustrate it with an example from one of his dreams; this one is from 28.1.1937:

I stood with Paul & Mining [his pianist brother Paul and elder sister Hermione] … as if on the front platform of a streetcar …Paul told Mining how enthusiastic my brother-in-law Jerome was about my unbelievable musical gift; the day before I had so wonderfully sung along in a work of Mendelssohn …. it was as if we had performed this work among ourselves at home and I had sung along with extraordinary expressiveness and also with especially expressive gestures. Paul and Mining seemed to completely agree with Jerome’s praise. Jerome was said to have said again and again: “What talent!” … I held a withered plant in my hand with blackish seeds in little pods that had already opened and thought: if they were to tell me what a pity it is about my unused musical talent, I will show them the plant and say that nature isn’t stingy with its seed either and that one shouldn’t be afraid and just throw out a seed. All of this was carried on in a self-satisfied manner. – I woke up and was angry or ashamed because of my vanity. … May I not become completely base and also not mad! May God have mercy on me.’ (PPO pp.163-4)

To end, to provide another helpful metaphor for the narcissistic wish, and to show something of the inner emancipation from this narcissistic defence which Wittgenstein achieved during this time, we may contrast the above dream with another dream of his, recorded 10 weeks later (11.4.1937). The image he presents (and which is also drawn on by Nietzsche in Beyond Good & Evil) is taken from the Narrative of Baron Munchausen’s Marvellous Travels - a famous 18th century work of fiction by Joseph Raspe (himself an inveterate swindler who based his tales on the self-aggrandising stories of an actual Baron Munchausen - who in turn wasn’t best pleased by the satire). In one such tale the Baron is out riding and, finding himself stuck in a swamp, pulls upwards on his own hair to extricate both himself and his horse from the quagmire. The dream, which is just a fragment, consists of Wittgenstein exhorting himself to trust in what is not of his own making, and to relinquish the narcissistic fantasy of (as we might put it) suckling at one’s own breast:

 “But let us talk in our mother tongue, and not believe that we must pull ourselves out of the swamp by our own hair; that was – thank God – only a dream, after all. To God alone be praise!” (PPO p. 243).



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