(Ludwig) Wittgenstein and (Louis) Althusser: Two Philosophers Analysing (Sigmund) Freud

By Roazen, Paul | Queen's Quarterly, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

(Ludwig) Wittgenstein and (Louis) Althusser: Two Philosophers Analysing (Sigmund) Freud


Roazen, Paul, Queen's Quarterly


PAUL ROAZEN is professor emeritus at York University. His most recent book is How Freud Worked: First-hand Accounts of Patients.

IN libraries across North America, Freud's works are catalogued under the designation "Philosophy," and therefore writings in the tradition of thought he succeeded in inspiring -- which means a lot of books by now -- have accordingly been similarly categorized. The librarians who made the original choice about where to place Freud's text have seemed confirmed in their judgement. At any rate, and as a matter of historical inquiry, we now know that Freud was more philosophically well read and sophisticated than he ever liked to acknowledge in public. At the time he was getting his medical qualification he also toyed with taking a simultaneous degree in humanities.

Reading books like Ray Monk's superb biography, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (London: Jonathan Cape, 1990), and Louis Althusser's engrossing memoir, The Future Lasts Forever (New York: The New Press, 1993), is a reminder of just how important a figure Freud has been throughout the twentieth-century history of ideas as well as that of psychiatry. One might suppose that Wittgenstein's legacy -- both his earlier positivistic phase as well as his engagements with the epistemology of ordinary language -- was immune to the reach of psychoanalysis. And, within the rather hermetic tradition of French Marxist thinking, it could appear that Althusser was also outside the scope of Freud's impact. But, as we shall see, in wholly different ways Freud's psychoanalysis becomes central to understanding what such different thinkers as Wittgenstein and Althusser were up to.

Monk has provided an account of Wittgenstein's life that is thoroughly compelling, interweaving his subject's ideas with the world in which he moved. He may have become one of the most strikingly original figures within British empirical philosophy, but Wittgenstein was born (1889) into one of the richest families in Hapsburg Vienna. Monk, by training a philosopher, is marvellous at recreating the cultural ambience of old Viennese society. For example, Ludwig's upper middle-class father was once offered the chance to join the aristocracy, but refused the possibility of adding the aristocratic "von" to his name on the grounds that "such a gesture would be seen as the mark of the parvenu." In the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire no one with self respect wanted to appear patriotic, and in everything Monk writes about Wittgenstein's early life one can also see something of the world in which Freud was then living as well. Pre-World War I Vienna, which rightly thought of itself as poised on the precipice of extinction, was at the same time a great showplace for many of the best elements of Western culture. In music and art, not to mention philosophy and psychology, Vienna was an outstanding representative of the achievements of the West. The most creative of Vienna's writers and artists all knew one another, and the story becomes the more awesome as one realizes that the spiritual birthplace of Nazism was also that of Zionism.

Wittgenstein's own family seems to have been both talented and tormented; three of his brothers committed suicide, and one of his sisters was an early advocate of Freud's views and evidently was personally analyzed by him. Monk persuasively argues that Otto Weininger's Sex and Character can be a central means for understanding the conflicts with which Wittgenstein found himself confronted. Weininger's book was a special source of inspiration to Wittgenstein, and many of its views are reflected in his own later philosophical writings.

Once Wittgenstein had been advised to go to Cambridge, England, for the sake of studying with Bertrand Russell, we start to understand something of how formidable, if not terrifying, Wittgenstein could be to encounter. Although the friendship between the two men lasted only a few years, it is impressive how Wittgenstein's demanding character could be temporarily matched by Russell's ability to put up with his protege. …

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