Wittgenstein, Freud and the Therapy of Language: Recognizing the Perspicuous or Constructing Mythologies?

Marie Guillot


The most obvious respect in which Wittgenstein can be compared to Freud is that they
are both therapists of language. In accordance with the programmatic assertion that
"The philosopher's treatment of a question is like the treatment of an illness"
(1953, § 255), Wittgenstein dedicates his thought to healing grammar diseases and
subsequent conceptual confusions. Similarly, Freud's attention goes to all the
anomalies that jut out of speech - puns, slips of the tongue, and above all dreams,
the latter being relevant to the linguistic paradigm since they are regarded as
rebuses or cryptic texts in need of deciphering. The following objection might nip
the comparison in the bud: apparently, for Wittgenstein, language distortions are the
causes of the illnesses - "mental cramps" (1958, p. 59) and "sicknesses of the
understanding" (1956, p. 157) - whereas for Freud, they are only symptoms betraying
deeper troubles of another nature. For Wittgenstein, speech disorders would come
first in the etiological chain, where for Freud they come last. But this opposition
may be a superficial one. For Wittgenstein, strictly speaking, language as such
cannot be responsible for philosophical diseases; for it would be inconsistent with
the claim "that every sentence in our language 'is in order as it is'. (…) Where
there is sense there must be perfect order." (1953, § 98) Language is not
intrinsically misleading or deviant; it is not likely to de-regulate itself
spontaneously. Hence, there must be a prior cause of linguistic illnesses, which
should be searched for beyond the immanence of grammar. Wittgenstein seems to find
this cause in an unconscious, metaphysical desire of the understanding to break the
rules, to "[run] its head up against the limits of language" (1953, § 119). Thus, for
Wittgenstein as for Freud, linguistic anomalies are the manifestations, rather than
the ultimate causes, of diseases whose source is to be found in repressed cravings of
the human mind.


philosophy; 20th century philosophy; Wittgenstein Ludwig; linguistic symptom; philosophical confusion; saying vs showing; talking cure; performative speech act; philosophical method

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