Fluxury by Sergio Benvenuto


A mathematician is bound to be horrified by my mathematical comments, since he has always been trained to avoid indulging in thoughts and doubts of the kind I develop.  He has learned to regard them as something contemptible and, to use an analogy from psycho-analysis (this paragraph is reminiscent of Freud), he has acquired a revulsion from them as infantile.  That is to say, I trot out all the problems that a child learning arithmetic, etc., finds difficult, the problems that education represses without solving.  I say to those repressed doubts: you are quite correct, go on asking, demand clarification!

                   Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophische Grammatik[1]



          Mathematics and psychology were the two fields that would most interest the later Wittgenstein, both the philosopher and the man.  He believed his philosophical reflection could have a positive influence on these two disciplines in particular.  Although his reference was to psychology in the broader sense, he meant especially psychoanalysis, with which he had a fairly ambivalent, but nonetheless passionate, relationship[2].

          His preference for two so different fields might seem surprising at first.  For, although they appear to belong to two different races, Psychoanalysis and Mathematics have had encounters from time to time, short or prolonged but always passionate: a morganatic mutual.  That Wittgenstein’s interest converged on these two disciplines reveals a secret homology between them.  This elective affinity, which leads to an intercourse despite the considerable “racial” differences, derives from the fact that both present serious, unresolved family problems with the real.



          But what do we mean, philosophically, by psychoanalysis? Roughly speaking, two basic “philosophies” rule psychoanalysts’ interpretation of their interpretive profession.

          The first—today in decline—considers psychoanalytic activity a scientific activity like any other, a close relative of experimental psychology and the cognitive sciences.  This concept acknowledges the Freudian clinical method as differing from the experimental method which prevailed in the sciences since Galileo (aiming to formulate universal laws on a hypothetical base, according to Hume-Hempel paradigm).  But the differences between the clinical and experimental methods there are only tactical and both form one single strategy, that of objective knowledge.  Psychoanalysis should articulate theories similar to those in physics, the queen of sciences.  This interpretation usually attributes to psychoanalysis a specific object: human emotions, feeling, the Pascalian “heart’s reasons”.  Psychoanalysis ought to be a science—which attempts to be objective—of human affective life (where subjectivity is mainly identified with affectivity), a view which entered into crisis with Popper’s idea, according to which psychoanalytic theory is irrefutable and unfalsifiable: a scientific theory is built upon repeated attempts to falsify it, which is certainly not the case with psychoanalysis.

          The second concept instead does not assimilate psychoanalytic activity to an applied science, but rather to a construction.  Its model is not physics, but—I would say—mathematics, at least as Wittgenstein understood it: that is, as a “linguistic game” which does not discover anything about reality, but rather “constructs” a specific “space”, distinct from the empirical reality.  According to this concept, the difference between the so-called clinical method of psychoanalysis—which I would prefer to call dialectical method, based as it is on a two-person, complex relationship called transference—and the method of physics determines the difference between the nature of the psychoanalytic object and the nature of the object of physics.  The object of psychoanalysis is thus constitutionally different from the object of any experimental, behavioral or cognitivist psychology.  Moreover, the object of psychoanalysis is as problematical as the object of mathematics.

          In this sense, even if it were true that the psychoanalyst is interested particularly in emotions, these emotions which he evokes are only homonymous of these emotions studied for example by a behavioral psychologist.  The emotions, which the analyst deals with, are not specific objects of his knowledge, but at the most materials, which he interprets (more than explains) and through which he interprets.

          According to this non-positivist reading of psychoanalysis, the analyst interprets, rather than explains as do the sciences: he gives a narrative form to events and fantasies reported by the patient; he does not designate causes, proposing at the same time even the way to verify them (or to falsify them, as is the present fashion).  It was not by chance that Freud called his book Traumdeutung and not Traumwissenschaft, Interpretation of Dreams and not Science of Dreans.  The parallel influence of hermeneutics and Wittgensteinism affects the way in which many analysts conceive their work.

          In fact, my impression is that Wittgenstein criticized psychologists for reasons quite analogous to those for which he criticized certain mathematicians.  In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein said that psychology was sterile because of its conceptual confusions.  But, according to A. Kenny[3], he was thinking mainly of experimental psychologists, who start from a mythological vision of the nature of mental processes, taken from the common language, a vision which they accept without ever questioning it, as if this were the experimental basis of their research.

          On the other hand, Wittgenstein deeply criticized as also mythological the conception of mathematics of his immediate masters, Frege and Russell.  He attacked their Platonism, the idea according to which—to put it briefly—mathematics is an objective science.

          For “Platonists”, numbers and their relations are real objects, even though they are not sensitive but intelligible objects.  There is no difference in nature (but only in object and method) between mathematics and zoology: the second formulates descriptions and theories on animals, the first formulates descriptions and theories on numbers.  On the contrary, Wittgenstein—who incidentally had studied engineering—developed a conception of mathematics called constructivist, which some even called (albeit wrongly) conventionalist: numbers were not sui generis things but constructions, resulting from humans freely inventing rules and procedures and to which they then decide to follow.  The mathematician does not discover mathematical laws, although certainly neither he is inventing capriciously: he “plays” according to certain rules, he constructs.  The iron-clad rules of mathematics are nothing more than accepted consequences of humans’ freedom to construct.

          For Wittgenstein, to apply a calculation means that “you apply a calculus in such a way that it yields the grammar of a language”[4], somewhat similar to establishing the rules of a game.  As a consequence, “mathematics is always a machine, a calculus.  The calculus does not describe anything.”[5]  Calculating is a game that obeys rules; its outlines are positions within a game.  As such, it need not be logically or mathematically grounded.  The rules of the mathematical game need only be justified by the use: “one does as such”.

          It is impressive how Wittgenstein, in his conversations with Rush Rhees, described Freud’s theory in terms quite similar to those he used to describe mathematics.  “To say that dreams are wish fulfillments is very important chiefly because it points to the sort of interpretation that is wanted—the sort of thing that would be an interpretation of a dream[6].”  The analyst does not formulate, if but mythically, some laws governing the formation of dreams: in fact, by interpreting them in a particular way, he constructs a special game.  This interpretive activity need not be “grounded” in scientific method: it expresses its own rules.

          There is a clear parallelism between the two concepts of psychoanalysis—the “explicative” one and the “constructive” one—and the two concepts of mathematics mentioned above.  In psychoanalysis some reforms are developing parallel to those developed by Wittgenstein for mathematics: a “constructive” program against the “realist” and “Platonic” programs of the unconscious.




          However, according to some, despite Wittgenstein’s sharp criticism of logical Platonism, the mystery and fascination of the mathematical “discovery” remain intact.  It is true that all Euclidean geometry is, after all, just inference drawn from certain axioms, applying a limited number of rules; geometry, more than measure of the land, is the result of a constructive decision, of playing a game according to certain rules.  The fact remains that Pythagorean philosophers discovered some important properties of the triangle, just as, in exploring a continent, one comes across an important peak or a river.  Once axioms and constructive rules are established, the human mind becomes engaged in exploring a new real—a mathematical real produced by the mind or by its computing activity, but nonetheless a real.  Every Platonist conception stresses this fact.

          In truth, this discovery modality occurs also in other games that are not seemingly as important as mathematics.  For example, in chess we often discover new theorems.  Chess is also based on conventions or constituent rules; nevertheless, the “chess world” can be explored as though it were a largely unknown continent.  The rules are invented, arbitrary, but their consequences have to be discovered.

          Moreover, Wittgenstein’s constructivist thesis seems refuted by some so-called incompleteness theorems, starting from the most famous, Gödel’s proof.  This proof demonstrates rigorously that there will always be a certain class of arithmetical propositions that must be considered true but are indemonstrable.  There are true propositions formulated in the language of arithmetic that cannot be demonstrated from the axioms and rules of inferences accepted in arithmetic.  This calls into question an assumption that apparently Wittgenstein himself accepted: that mathematical truth coincides with its demonstrability.  If this coincidence were complete, what is true in mathematics would be reduced to the demonstrable, or even to the demonstrated: that is, the “real” displayed by mathematics would dissolve in demonstrative strategies.  This would mean, among other things, that the proof of all mathematical theorems could be mechanized.

          But Gödel’s proof introduces a gap between the set of all true mathematical propositions and the set of all provable mathematical propositions.  All provable propositions are also true, but the reverse is not true, because, as much as one enriches the initial battery of axioms and inference rules, some true but indemonstrable propositions will always remain.  The proof machines are always finite, while mathematical truth is infinite.

          A philosophical consequence of these incompleteness theorems might, in fact, be the validation of the logical-mathematical “Platonism” which Wittgenstein criticized.  And in fact, Gödel himself leaned toward realism: precisely because the set of true propositions cannot be reduced to provable ones, the mathematician, in building proofs, is in the position of the natural scientist.  Science is possible because it is always a lesser set with the respect to the universe of objects it describes.  Just as the dream of the sciences is to make knowledge coincide with the world—to reduce the world to what we know of it—the dream of the mathematician is to prove theorems so that demonstrability and truth coincide (to the infinite).  But this remains a dream because—as Gödel proved—there will always remain some true and indemonstrable propositions.

          However, I believe Wittgenstein also indicates a third, more crooked, way, with respect to that of constructivism and realism.  In fact, once a game—and arithmetic is one—is constructed, it “generates” a real, that is not assimilated to the real generated or presupposed by other practices.  It is true that mathematical truth is beyond mathematical proof: but this “beyond” is in any case always an effect of what lies “on this side”, an effect of the mathematical calculating.  Numbers are not objects exhaustively knowable, like animal organisms for zoology, but the calculating “game” of mathematics nevertheless constitutes its own real.  In short, the real is constructed no less than is language.  Thus, are there as many different realities as there are games and languages?  This is the conclusion, which its adversaries call “relativistic”, made by some philosophers in Wittgenstein’s wake.




          And what about psychoanalysis?  Here as well “realists” have some good cards to play.

          The anti-realist and constructivist approach very popular among analysts today may restore freedom and originality to psychoanalysis, but in the end it leaves one with a sense of disappointment.  The long and tormented work of analysis is reduced to a game, a pure construction where one never “bites” into a real.  The analyst, now removed from his scientific pulpit, seemingly washes his hands regarding the truth-value of his work— what is at stake is not a real, but the consistency of the game.  From whence stems the massive promotion, in both theory and practice, of the dimension of transference: analysis, once it has become a pure two-person game—as in chess—avoids any kind of ontological commitment to what it is working-through.  And the insight of Freud and some of his followers impress us even today because we feel that they grasped something real, even if we are not able to prove it.  It is not the real-as-object of the objective sciences, but nevertheless a real.  Otherwise, there is nothing to distinguish the “game” of analysis from any other interpretive procedure; for example, artistic or literary criticism.  Or worse, even astrology is completely engaged in a pure play of analogical derivations, giving vent to everything the constitutive rules of the astrological game can and may produce.  Does the analyst ask his analysands to share the same type of belief which a game such astrology demands?

          I remember one patient who, having been issued his very first credit cards, in the following months continually lost them.  He could not figure out how, amidst all the cluttered contents of his pockets, he lost only the new credit cards.  It happened too frequently to be pure chance.  A disturbing idea emerged from his associations: “I am a discredited person”.  To enjoy credit seemed to him, basically, an abuse.  An orthodox analyst would have said that according to his Super-Ego, his Ego could not enjoy credit.  After a while (was it through this “discovery” in psychotherapy?), these symptomatic losses stopped.

          Every interpretation is merely a conjecture, in truth not verifiable.  Unlike scientific hypotheses, analytic interpretations are never corroborated in a Popperian sense: they only seem more or less plausible.  Yet, psychoanalysis risks all on the hypothesis that certain thoughts—of the kind “I am not creditworthy”[7]—produce real effects on a person, that ideas of this kind have a causal force.  (I even wonder whether reducing analysis to a simple linguistic game is not a kind of symptom of analysts, their way of acknowledging that the many who discredit analysis today are right.)

          But how to define this “cause”?  Must we return to an objectivist conception, to the idea that psychoanalysis is a science of psychic objects?  Not necessarily, because the notion of “object” today presupposes the gaze and the procedures of objective research.  But then where lies the causality at play in the analytic interpretation?  It seems to occupy a logical no man's land, a sort of impossible space between the objective causal connections and the logical inferences.  But is there some possible intermediate space?  It seems that the respectability of psychoanalysis—and thus its possible survival in the next century—counts on the following: that there is a real, which is distinct from both the objective reality and the mathematical real.

          Some analysts find a way out by saying that psychoanalysis is an historical science: it does not deal with objective laws, as in physics, but with historical (albeit mental) events.  Analysis need not presuppose the laws of the mind—are psychoanalytic theories then completely an abusive forcing?—but instead aims at a convincing reconstruction of a specific subject’s “history”.  The analyst might question the impact of the primal scene on a subject, much as an historian would question the impact of the economic crisis in France before the Revolution of 1789.  I will not discuss here the validity of this thesis, which belongs to the—still uncertain and much-discussed—statute of historical explanations.  But unlike the historian, the analyst seemingly seeks out one type of causality only, what I would call the significant cause (in the English sense, that is, “significant person” as someone dear and important).

          One can assume that a subject’s regularly losing credit cards, for example, is caused by his need of signifying himself as “discredited”—a cause that hardly can be reduced to the four Aristotelian (efficient, final, material and formal) causes.  In other words, the analyst starts from the assumption that certain, first of all childhood, interpretations have a force.  Unlike logical inference, whose apparent force is, in fact, the force of the form of life that pushes us to infer—the significant cause has a force, which produces effects in the subject.  To reconstruct this causing force is no simple hermeneutic or linguistic (in Wittgenstein’s sense) game.  It is difficult to prove its existence using the scientific method (although I do not say completely impossible), which is why it is intellectually more comfortable to take refuge in the muffled and complaisant world of hermeneutics.  Yet, despite all this, if psychoanalysis has affected our century so profoundly, it is not only because it has introduced one more linguistic game: it is because psychoanalysis had the pretense to allow us to come in touch with some real forces, that is, the causal forces exerted by certain instances, including logical ones, upon our concrete life.

          From whence derives the idea, held by many analysts, that it is no more matter of interpreting (nor of explaining, in the sense of the objective sciences) but rather of reconstructing something of a subject—particularly the unconscious that determine him.  The analyzand’s interpretation (and not mine), according to which, “I lose credit cards because I am discredited or not creditworthy”, would constitute only the first step toward a reconstruction of how this subject became convinced of this.  But the reconstruction of subjective interpretations is obviously itself an interpretation.  Today’s fashionable preference for reconstruction (versus interpretation) seemingly “projects” on the subjects’ unconscious the interpretive capacity of the analyst.  Moreover, if the analyst’s task consists rather in deconstructing or unknotting or unraveling the subject’s neurotizing interpretations, then in some ways a subject needs the insight of this interpretation dominating him.  A subject must recognize, sooner or later, the force that the significant cause exerts on him.

          The significant cause—were psychoanalysis ever to convince a world, ever more charmed by the power of the virtual, of its existence—would probably provide a dimension which would give objective force to inferential processes; a sort of pineal gland to transform the logical into the epistemological.  What psychoanalysis basically counts on is that there are (unconscious) thoughts and reasoning which affect [effect on] our behavior and emotions; and that, in certain cases, the logical or linguistic order touches the real, and modifies it.




          When is it that a psychoanalyst feels he is faced with something real?  I would say in all the phenomena of resistance.  Despite the profusion of sharp and ingenuous interpretations, despite the refined handling of transference, despite the brilliant and careful analytical exploits, the symptom persists; something resists to the speech, to the point that one might suspect some organic cause.  Yet, if psychoanalysts believe in the reality of the unconscious, it is because they believe that a large part of the unconscious is not analyzable: it is a reserve of resistance, and as such, opposes itself as an opaque real to any interpretation.  It is what Freud, speaking of the dream, called its “navel”[8].  As in arithmetic—Gödel dixit—there will always be a margin of truth which is not demonstrable.  Analogously, the paradox of the unconscious, according to Freud, is that it keeps in reserve a margin inaccessible to interpretation: the unconscious is something real precisely because it is not reducible to the interpretable.  On the contrary, the unconscious is (partially) interpretable because it is real.  If the unconscious is never fully analyzable—and like the Zuydersee cannot be drained—then it is real, it is not an ontological halo sprinkled around the epistemological atmosphere by the interpretive activity.  It is insofar that the analyst’s activity has a limit that the analyst, in short, has a value: that is, that the Freudian unconscious exists i.e. insists against interpretations.

          The mathematical real, instead, is apparently without resistance: the universe of numbers and relations, as if by magic, agrees with reason.  Only in mathematics does Hegel seem to be absolutely right: “everything that is real is rational, and everything that is rational is real.” This harmony of mathematics is what has charmed Platonists of every epoch, Galileo included.  But then, there are those incompleteness theorems, which show us that even in mathematics, the real and the rational do not completely coincide.




          And does the consideration of those symptoms which, more than others, resist interpretive activity—the so-called obsessional symptoms—support or not the theory according to which the practice of the unconscious can even not be interpreted “realistically”?

           In fact, an obsessional form of life more than any other would seem to illustrate the force of the mathematical real in the concrete existence of human beings.  An obsessional is completely taken up with numbers: with accounts which don’t balance, with debts more or less impossible to pay off, with penalties to serve or reckon with, with calculations and numerical rituals.  Usually, analysis reveals the obsessional subject to be bound a parent’s (usually the father’s) guilt, be it real or imaginary; the son in some ways does penance without enjoying any alleviation of the guilt and reduction of the penance; he discovers his inherited debt, which gets him eternally into debt.

          The classical or routine psychoanalytic explanations emphasize the affective ambivalence.  But the conflict between two contradictory affective drives aimed at the same object can produce many different symptoms; what escapes is the “mathematical” specificity of the obsessional neurosis.  And the obsessional phenomenology ceaselessly recounts crimes or swindles to expiate, money and accounts to settle, shortages and deficit, unpaid or unpayable installments, about penalties without debt and debts without penalties[9].

            In other words, the obsessional is not a de facto but a de vita (existential) Platonist: thanks to him, we can realize how real numbers are! When an analyst says that the obsessional splits affect from representation, in the sentimental and “positivist” language of objectivized feeling, they are alluding to something very serious: that the representations which constitute the obsession have nothing to do with the affective world of meaning, of libidinal life, or of understandable and creative speech.  With obsessions, the mathematical real frees itself from affective and vital meanings, to the point of totally paralyzing the subject as agent.  It is as though mathematical forms and relationships got the upper hand over life forms and relationships.  It is as though numbers and reckoning had freed themselves, in some monstrous way, from what they apply to, and had gone off on their own.  Try to imagine numbers that take the bus, or drink at a pub.  The inhuman world in which an obsessional is forced to live is the result of the symbolic world of the mathema overwhelming the concreteness and pathemai of our vital senses.

          Let us imagine a world where objects no longer obey the laws of physics, but the formal laws of mathematics—like the logician Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland wherein physics, in fact, would coincide with logos, with language.  As a child I was upset by the story of Alice; other fairy-tales gave form to my imagination, but Carroll gave form to something I could not at all imagine.  How can one imagine the Cheshire Cat’s smile, which appears before the smiling cat?  This is thinkable only in a logical world, certainly not in the physical world that we are accustomed to imagine.  This logical world resembles a bit the difficult universe of the obsessional who lives in a daze, split, torn between two realities: on the one hand, the real of the human, vital and intentional actions, and on the other, the real of mathematics and logic.  



          What, then, would a Wittgensteinian psychoanalyst, or psychiatrist, say? As an alternative to “realism”, he might view the obsessive compulsion as the price to be paid for a form of life which has broken every bridge with the universe of useful, usual and pleasant things.  The obsessive “real” would be simply an implication, which the obsessive subject would take literally.  Viewed as such, some consider analysis as anti-hermeneutics: i.e., the right analysis of an obsessional would be not so much interpreting, but rather undoing, or deconstructing, the obsessional inferences—the unconscious interprets, the analyst’s task is to dis-interpret[10].

          A Wittgensteinian psychoanalyst or psychiatrist would probably say that the obsessional patient, far from showing the effectiveness of the affective world—where affects would impose themselves on the subject, through his fantasies, as if they were things—is making a mistake parallel or isomorphic to that made by the “realist” mathematical logician, as Frege or Russell did.  According to these realist logicians, mathematical inference is something quite mysterious: they “readily imagine that inferring is a particular activity, a process in the medium of the understanding, as it were a brewing of the vapour out of which the deduction arises”[11], insofar as all this corresponds to something happening in a world composed of eternal and extra-temporal entities.    Even the obsessive, like the realist psychoanalyst, thinks that the compulsion (a form of psychic inference) “is a particular activity, a process in the medium of the understanding, as it were a brewing of the vapour out of which the obsessionnal compulsion arises”.  The obsessive also lives in a world of commands, parental oracles, prophecies and sins; in short, he lives in a world beyond time, plunged in the eternity of the unconscious, just as logical truth is eternal.    But all this does not allow the psychoanalyst to be victim of the same mistake as the obsessive, that is, to take as real—even if an affective, imaginary, sui generis reality—the strange force that constrains the obsessive to act, think or calculate against his own will.  Otherwise the same psychoanalytic theory is colored by a sort of obsessional fetishism.  Like the constructivist mathematician, the psychoanalyst should keep in mind that the obsessive is trapped by his own game: he gives inferences the force of reality, yet these inferences themselves have no real power.

          They have no power because, in fact, in mathematics as in logic, there is nothing that forces us.  The commonly held idea of Logic as a sort of inexorable tyrant who does not allow us any freedom and obsessionally coerces us, is mistaken, because it attributes to Logic a power which is in fact the power of our binding commitment.  “Logic and ethics—according to Otto Weininger—are fundamentally the same thing: both are nothing more than duty to oneself”.  The compulsive force of logic and calculus is nothing more than the projective reverberation of the constraining force of our form of life.  And in what does this form of life that pushes us to calculate, count and infer consist?




          “For what we call ‘counting’—Wittgenstein says[12]—is an important part of our life’s activities.  Counting and calculating are not--e.g.--simply a pastime.    Counting (and that means: counting like this) is a technique that is employed daily in the most various operations of our lives.“ And then: “The truth is that counting has proved to pay [sich bewährt hat]. [...I]t can’t be said of the series of natural numbers--any more than of our language--that it is true, but: that it is usable, and, above all, it is used.    “  In other words, the logical or mathematical constraint is nothing else than the sign of the persistence of our usage, and of the utility we get from the “playing” with numbers in this specific way.

          But if, at a certain point, inferring, calculating, counting, etc., are no longer useful activities, if certain habits held since childhood lose their meaning, this implies that there was probably somewhere an (let’s say ethical) error in our life.    The analyst’s function should then be to reconstruct this ethical phase-displacement the penalty of which is neurotic symptom.  The force of unconscious drives is, in fact, the force of the form of life to which we are resigned, and for which we do not want to pay the price—hoping, as everyone does (even those luckier than neurotics), that we can have our cake and eat it too.  At some point, we miscalculated, and this error constitutes the demonic force of the symptom.  Like the realist thinker, who fetishizies numbers as entities unbound to social practice of calculation, the obsessive—as well as the psychoanalyst who follows him in his theory—fetishizies numbers and thought.  He has succeeded in disconnecting the rules and entities from practice, and this disconnection gives us the sensation that we are dealing with a (perhaps affective) impose of objectivity.

          According to this approach, to consider the unconscious or numbers as things—of which we can then make a science—would be the result of forgetfulness.  Forgetting our interpreting practice led us to describe the unconscious as a scientific hypothesis, and not as the concept which expresses our interpreting practice, our knowing how to handle symptoms and dreams, or even joke; and this forgetting led us to split the metapsychological concepts from the social practice of analysis and interpretations.  Thanks to this forgetting and splitting, the psychoanalyst—at least when he theorizes—falls into the same error as the obsessive subject, and like the obsessive, pays the price of powerlessness.  The obsession over an impossible-to-pay debt is in fact itself the price to pay for having separated rules and concepts from one’s own forms of life.  Mutatis mutandis, the “realist” (not constructivist) psychoanalyst, theorizing the unconscious as a real force in our minds, must confront this real as an insurmountable resistance, as an irresistible constriction and power.

          But for the Wittgensteinian thinker, it is not by chance that the theoretical psychoanalyst and the obsessional could incur a similar mistake--and that both could in turn err in an analogous way to the realist or Platonist mathematical logician.  Perhaps, what we call “unconscious”, in a non-realistic logic, responds to the same need that leads to certain errors in mathematics and logic.  An analyst’s interpretation of a neurotic symptom or of a dream is plausible probably because the “logic” in the symptom or the dream corresponds to the same logic operating in mathematics as well.  The analyst interprets neurosis or dreams as interpretations wherein a subject is imprisoned.  In other words, the unconscious probably is a world of interpretations-arguments and not of the affects-things.

          Put otherwise, we are able to interpret the unconscious, in one way or another, because the unconscious itself would be interpretation.  When Freud in the “Wolf Man Case” speaks of the primal scene and of its structuring function as the mythical origin of sexuality, he is not actually speaking of a trauma.  A trauma is such precisely because it overwhelms all interpretations, like hitting the head with a hammer—one can interpret it later as one prefers, but the hammer blow remains traumatic simply because it does not mean anything.  It leaves its mark on the head, but the blow in itself signifies nothing; which is why we are forced to “find a reason”.  Now, when Freud speaks of an “originary fantasy” as the primal scene, he speaks not of an event as such, but of an interpretation by the child (which, moreover, was an improbable event: his upper class patients did not sleep in their parents’ bedroom, and thus did not observe them having intercourse).  Not by chance did Freud also speak of “infantile sexual theories”, of interpretive constructions by the child, whose theories ignore all enlightened scientific explanations that adults generally provide about sex.  We can call them “theories” because they are a way to give a meaning and a response to the order of the world through their drives, that is through the forms of life dominant during the infantile period.

          Freud’s challenge consists in claiming that these theories, interpretations, conjectures and reconstruction by the child (and, we can suppose, sometimes by adults) are not superstructures or secondary rationalizations, but rather constitute the hard core of any subject which the analyst must confront.  In other words, these interpretations will assume the strength, the consistency, the rigor and the necessity of a real universe—as in mathematics.  The neurotic prison is a misunderstanding: no wall contains us.  The unconscious would then be the fruit of inventions made up mostly by the adults who encircle the child; but these inventions construct.  And the subject who ignores these “constructions” which make up our soul, who in a Voltairian way doesn’t give a brass button about them, risks stumbling over the neurotic symptom, or something similar.  Symptoms would be the “logical” consequences of the interpretations of life and love, and about those consequences we wish to know nothing.  We refuse to deal with them.



          Some time ago, while conversing with a young, brilliant mathematician, I was told that a mathematician should never worry about the practical or scientific applications of his own research.  In fact, a mathematician occasionally has the feeling that he is pursuing his own mental chimeras, or that he has lost all contact with reality.  But he also knows that an interesting mathematical line soon or later will find practical applications.  Non-Euclidean geometries, which initially resembled gratuitous games, very soon found an application in physics: the Einsteinian space is Riemannian.  Today, the analysis of prime numbers—which had appeared as a pure game—has found very useful applications in computer sciences.

              At that point I asked: “But what constitutes a mathematically interesting trend?”  to which the young mathematician unhesitatingly responded: “Any research which gives pleasure to the mathematician!” I then asked: “But then, can we say that the pleasure the mathematician derives from his research is an indirect clue that his own research has touched on the real?” After some thought, he answered: Yes.  Nobody knows why, but that’s the way things are.

          Even the psychoanalyst in his practice is driven first of all by pleasure.  He doesn’t always care whether what he says or conjectures is real: he is seduced by the mere consistency of his reconstruction.  As in the case of the mathematician, perhaps we should trust the pleasure that psychoanalysis continues to give us, despite its limits.  That pleasure exists certainly because of its significant connections--but it is nourished by the secret trust that these significant connections have an “affect” on our flesh and blood.







[1]Eng. trans. Philosophical Grammar, ed. by Rush Rhees, trans. by Anthony Kenny, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1974), pp. 381-2.


[2]  Concerning the increasing literature on relationship between Freud’s and Wittgenstein’s thought, see especially: John Wisdom, Philosophy and Psychoanalysis (New York: Philosophical Library, 1964). Frank Cioffi, "Wittgenstein's Freud" in Peter Winch ed., Studies in the Philosophy of Wittgenstein (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969), pp. 184-210. Frank Cioffi, “Freud and the Idea of a Pseudo-Science” in Robert Borger and Frank Cioffi eds., Explanation and the Behavioural Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1970). Charles Hanley, "Wittgenstein on Psychoanalysis” in Alice Ambrose and Morris Lazerowitz eds., L. Wittgenstein: Philosophy and Language (London: Allen & Unwin, 1972), pp. 73-94. Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin, Wittgenstein’s Vienna (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973). Morris Lazerowitz, The Language of Philosophy. Freud and Wittgenstein (Dordrecht-Boston: D. Reidel, 1977). Aldo Gargani ed., Wittgenstein e la cultura contemporanea (Ravenna: Longo, 1983). Sergio Benvenuto, La strategia freudiana (Napoli: Liguori, 1984). Paul-Laurent Assoun,  Freud et Wittgenstein (Paris: PUF, 1988). Brian F. McGuinness,  Wittgenstein e Freud, "Lettera Internazionale", 22, Fall 1989, pp. 31-35. Sergio Benvenuto, Wittgenstein, Freud e il Linguaggio privato, "Lettera Internazionale", 22, Fall 1989, pp. 36-37. Charles R. Elder, The Grammar of the Unconscious, Pennsylvania State University Press, Univ. Park (PA), 1994. Jacques Bouveresse, Wittgenstein Reads Freud. The Myth of the Unconscious, trans. by Carol Cosman (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1995). Sergio Benvenuto, Review to Bouveresse, “Philosophie, mythologie et pseudo-science” in Journal of European Psychoanalysis, 1, 1995, pp. 172-180.


[3]Cf. Anthony Kenny, “Il privato cartesiano” in Capire Wittgenstein, Marietti, Genova 1988, p. 224.

[4]Friedrich Waismann, Wittgenstein und der Wiener Kreis, ed. by Brian F. McGuinness (Oxford: Blackwell, 1967); Eng. trans. by Joachim Schulte and Brian McGuinness, Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle (Oxford: Blackwell, 1979), p. 126.

[5]Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle, cit., p. 106.

[6] “Conversations on Freud” in Wittgenstein, Lectures & Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief”, ed. by Cyril Barret (Berkeley & Los Angeles: Univ. Of California Press), p. 47.


[7] In Italian “godere di credito” means at once to have a good reputation and to be worthy of credit.

[8] Cf. Sigmund Freud, Interpretation of Dreams (1899), SE, IV, 1, p. 111, note n.1: “there is at least one spot in every dream at which it is unplumbable--a navel, as it were, that is its point of contact with the unknown.”  See also Jacques Derrida, “Résistances” in Résistances de la psychanalyse (Paris: Galilée, 1996), pp. 13-53.


[9] The theme of “installments” emerges already in the Rat Man, who closely associates Ratten (rats) with Raten (installments), and thus his financial debt. See Freud, Notes Upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis, SE, X, pp. 213 ff.

[10] Cf. Jean Laplanche, “Aims of the Psychoanalytic Process”, Journal of European Psychoanalysis, 5, 1997, pp. 69-79; Jacques-Alain Miller, “Il rovescio dell’’interpretazione”, La Psicoanalisi, 19, 1996, pp. 120-127.


[11]Wittgenstein, Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, trans. by G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1967), I.6.

[12]Ibid., I, 4.

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