Review of Jacques Bouveresse’s Wittgenstein Reads Freud: The Myth of the Unconscious (from Jan. 2009)

First, this reminded me of how slippery and difficult Freud, as opposed to “Freud,” really is, and that it is in the clinical, early Freud where the most interesting problems still remain. Second, I think that I am persuaded by the author that Wittgenstein gets Freud right, that his judgment is essentially correct. (My only caveat here is that Wittgenstein’s model of what proper science should be is clearly inspired by the physical sciences, and so it is easier for him to score against Freud; a proper appreciation for the methodological differences biology involves, and Freud’s tacit commitment to being, as Sulloway calls him, a “biologist of the mind” would make some of the charges not stick, or not stick so readily, especially the charge of hasty overgeneralizing). To put it in contemporary terms, Freud was not a scientist exactly, but a subtle reformer of folk psychology. But if we understand folk psychology as Wittgenstein does, not as a theory but as practice, as how we live and talk together, we can see him as inventing a new language game (for example, consider the circumstances in which one says “I was trying to ___,” before and after Freud). My one complaint about the book is that while it is in no way opaque, and it seems to have discussed all the relevant issues pertaining to its topic, the discussions are not tidily organized; I feel I should’ve been taking notes and constructing an outline. Otherwise you find it difficult to say what exactly you’ve learned in the end. Last, one of the little pleasures of the book is the occasional glimpse one gets of how the French so don’t get Wittgenstein, but feel obliged to regard him as an authority anyway, presumably because he is famous and writes beautifully. The author alludes to French commentators who, apparently, have been trying to figure out how to synthesize Wittgenstein and Lacan, presumably because they must both be right (they’re fashionable, that settles it, right?) and because they both talk about language a lot. There’s something wryly amusing about that, but to say more would be rude.

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