Sunday, 27 August 2017

now i know what i feared

In The Blue Book (dictated 1933-34) Wittgenstein notes that whilst we sometimes feel afraid of something particular ('transitive' fear), at other times we may just feel afraid full stop ('intransitive' fear; I suspect this is essentially the same as 'anxiety' - the distinction between fear and anxiety will become important later). In considering an example of the latter he asks whether we do well to represent it to ourselves with 'I am afraid of something, but I don't know of what?'. 'Consider this case', he says (25-6):
we have a general undirected feeling of fear. Later on we have an experience which makes us say, "Now I know what I was afraid of. I was afraid of so-and-so happening". Is it correct to describe my first feeling by an intransitive verb, or should I say that my fear had an object although I did not know that it had one? Both these forms of description can be used.
And, to help us grasp the legitimacy of this latitude, he invites us to 'examine the following example':
It might be found practical to call a certain state of decay in a tooth, not accompanied by what we commonly call toothache, "unconscious toothache" and to use in such a case the expression that we have toothache, but don't know it. It is in just this sense that psychoanalysis talks of unconscious thoughts, acts of volition, etc.
Now is it wrong in this sense to say that I have toothache but don't know it? There is nothing wrong about it, as it is just a new terminology and can at any time be retranslated into ordinary language. ... But the new expression misleads us by calling up pictures and analogies which make it difficult for us to go through with our convention. ...
Thus, by the expression "unconscious toothache" you may either be misled into thinking that a stupendous discovery has been made, a discovery which in a sense altogether bewilders our understanding; or else you may be extremely puzzled by the expression (the puzzlement of philosophy) and perhaps ask such a question as "How is unconscious toothache possible?"
You may then be tempted to deny the possibility of unconscious toothache; but the scientist will tell you that it is a proved fact that there is such a thing, and he will say it like a man who is destroying a common prejudice. He will say: "Surely it's quite simple; there are other things which you don't know of, and there can also be toothache which you don't know of. It is just a new discovery".
Here Wittgenstein is offering a deflationary answer to the question 'Are we right to talk of 'unconscious fears and desires'?' We feel an undirected sensation of fear or longing. If you ask us 'What of or for?' we may either reply i) 'of or for nothing' or say ii) 'I don't know what of or for'. Wittgenstein invites us to draw an equivalence between these utterances: we can say what we like, although it's best of course if we don't then go on to mislead ourselves about what we mean by what we say.

How might we mislead ourselves if we talked in one or the other way? Well, we might think that i) and ii) contrast in that the fear of i) supposedly has no object, whilst ii) supposedly has an unknown object. When we consider the toothache analogy, however, we're not drawn to think that there is any difference between there here being what we call 'unconscious toothache' and 'tooth decay but thankfully no toothache'. And we can then usefully extend our grasp of this to the case of not knowing what we fear.

The analogy is unfortunate if pushed in an unhelpful direction. One unhelpful direction is that which makes objects (the intentional objects of intentional attitudes - fearing etc.) equivalent to causes. What causes toothache is tooth decay; toothache is not about or of tooth decay. What causes my fear may however be pretty much of a piece with what my fear is of (a tiger's chasing me, say, and a tiger's biting me). Yet there's no reason to push it in that direction, and every reason to think that Wittgenstein would not have wanted us to do that.

We may also distinguish between two forms of undirected feelings of fear. In one case I later discover that earlier I had, say, unwittingly ingested a large quantity of caffeine. In the other case I later 'have an experience which makes [me] say, "Now I know what I was afraid of. I was afraid of so-and-so happening".' The first of these cases provides a cause but no object for the undirected fear. The latter case may make us want to revise our description of undirectedness ... but, nota bene, this would be a non-compulsory decision on our part.  For we could, after all, equally say that an undirected feeling of fear which yet had a certain cause but no object has turned into a directed feeling of fear where the object now coincides with the cause.

This provides one way in which we may after all want to talk of a non-equivalence between there being nothing which a fear was of and someone not knowing what particular something he was afraid of. By this I mean: we could use our distinguishing between such cases to give life to a distinction between not knowing something and there being nothing to know. And not: we can use an already-intuitively-grasped distinction between knowing and there being nothing to know to accurately depict such cases.

We would not want to talk of knowing what we were afraid of in the caffeine case; instead we would just talk of knowing what made us afraid. However this is not to disagree with Wittgenstein's important suggestion that knowledge and what is known are not here, in the case of unconscious fear, to be understood along the model of knowing or not knowing that there is, say, a tiger chasing you.

What are the conditions of intelligibility for talk of having had an experience which we are happy later to further describe with "Now I know what I was afraid of. I was afraid of so-and-so happening"? I propose that we can only understand this as recovery from an agnosia or as de-repression. In proposing that we can only understand objectful yet object-unavowable fear as agnosia or repression I intend a conceptual, not an empirical, thesis. The claim is that it's unintelligible to suggest that one had a feeling with an 'unknown' object unless one's prepared to posit a mental blockage of a neurological or psychodynamic sort. Absent such a defeater on an ascription of the capacity to avow the object and the claim that there was an object all along, and not simply a cause, becomes - I'm claiming - unsustainable.

Consider the difference between the caffeine case and the repression case (my fear with repressed 'knowledge of my fear's object'). In the former case our understanding does not belong to psychology in the sense that it is not to be understood in terms of my psychology. There is nothing about caffeine which scares me - which is not to say that it does not have specific chemical properties which cause me to become anxious. There is however something about my boss walking in with that de haut en bas expression on his face which freaks me out. Unpacking this aboutness necessarily invokes mention of my distinctly psychological states: thus he reminds me of my beloved yet infuriatingly haughty father. Our understanding of my reaction is of a sort which belongs uniquely to the intelligibility of our human lives; it makes human sense to you why I reacted as I did.

Without my fear belonging in this way to my psychology, without it being the kind of thing to which meaningful understanding may be brought to bear, it is - I suggest - impossible to sustain a meaningful distinction between it and objectless anxiety. This marks an important difference between repression and agnosia which explains why, in the case of agnosia, the decision to speak of a 'fear with an unknown object' truly does seem as optional as the decision to talk of unfelt tooth decay as 'unconscious toothache'. Whilst we are not compelled by the facts to talk of recovered repression cases as involving a fear of something we know not what rather than as involving a fear which only becomes objectful at the moment of de-repression, we are yet surely more moved to talk here in the former way than we are in the case of the agnosia. In the agnosic case it seems truly arbitrary to us whether we talk of our intention as having or as not having an object.

Wittgenstein, I think, here and elsewhere tends to underestimate the conceptual significance of denial (and motivational dynamics more generally) for the logic of psychodynamic forms of unconsciousness. None of this is intended to contradict his apt deprecation of an assimilation of the logic either of the knowledge or of the objecthood of unconscious emotion (emotion with an unconscious object) to such cases as our knowing what's in the cupboard. Instead it's intended as a protest at his assimilation of the logic of the dynamic unconscious of psychoanalysis to the merely descriptive unconscious of psychology, an assimilation which disguises the way in which reference to disavowal as opposed to disability motivates us in an inclination to preserve the objecthood and not merely the causality of such unconscious emotion.

Ten or so years after he dictated The Blue Book Wittgenstein completed part 1 of the Philosophical Investigations. In sections which bear comparison to his earlier offerings (except for being about a 'visual room' rather than 'unconscious toothache') he has it that (401):
You have a new conception and interpret it as seeing a new object. You interpret a grammatical movement made by yourself as a quasi-physical phenomenon which you are observing. ... But there is an objection to my saying that you have made a 'grammatical' movement. What you have discovered is a new way of looking at things. As if you had invented a new way of painting; or, again, a new metre, or a new kind of song.-
This takes us closer to the idea that we cannot easily and without loss translate psychoanalytic discourse into ordinary language in the way that the comparison with unconscious toothache suggests. Freud is indeed wrong to think that he has discovered that emotion may in fact be unconscious, rather than discovered how driven we are by what we may call 'unconscious emotion'. In this sense psychoanalysis really is 'a new kind of song'. Yet if we accept that it truly is 'a new way of looking at things' (or an alternative set of 'rules of representation') we risk succumbing to another temptation - the temptation to imagine that the 'things' looked at can readily be specified independently of this 'new way' (or of the 'rules') - as if we are here looking at the same things (x, y, z) in different ways.

Freud did not just invent a new way of talking, nor merely make empirical discoveries about the causes of certain behaviours and illnesses. To change the object for our metaphor of a 'new kind of song' away from the psychoanalytic discourse to the unconscious itself: Freud provided for us a new way of listening, a way of listening which enables us to hear a song we've sung for a long time, yet a song to which we've previously been so habituated that we couldn't distinguish it from silence.