Random thoughts on random topics

Oude Kerk, Amsterdam

On dream interpretation

Suppose you dream about your sister’s house being on fire. Take the case where you interpret the dream as somehow connected to your worries about your sister’s well-being. There are (at least) two ways of looking at that: a. having that dream is worrying about your sister; or  b. having that dream is caused by your worrying about your sister. Now the question is whether there is a difference between the b.-interpretation and the case of a connection with a previous sensory experience of having seen a house on fire combined with worries about your sister. 

Note that the first interpretation fits Wittgenstein’s general way of analysing emotion in terms of characteristic expression. The emotion of worry comes with various such characteristic expressions, and dreaming about the object of the worry in particular way, i.e., having dreams with a particular kind of content, may well be one such characteristic expression associated with the emotion. 

Cioffi (in ‘Making the Unconscious Conscious: Wittgenstein versus Freud’, Philosophia, 2009) makes a distinction between internal significance and external hypothetical causal relations. However, it is important to note that something having internal significance usually does rely on external factors, and an explication of the significance crucially involves reference to those external factors. And that makes the ‘internal – external’ distinction less clear/strict than the terminology might suggest.

Wittgenstein’s criticisms of Freud appear to be two-fold: a. that Freud gives what Cioffi calls ‘further description’ type interpretations that he then presents as causal explanations; and  b. that the causal explanation is mono-causal: all dreams have the same cause (at the type-level). Do note that this strict separation appears, minimally, difficult to apply (if not actually unfounded) in view of the earlier considerations about the role of external factors in both types of interpretation. 

Wittgenstein in Culture and Value:

[…] a picture is drawn on a big sheet of paper & the sheet is then folded in such way that pieces which do not belong together at all in the original picture collide in appearance & a new picture, which may make sense or may not, is formed (this would be the manifest dream, the first picture the ‘latent dream thought’). Now I could imagine that someone, who sees the unfolded picture, might exclaim ‘yes that is the solution, that is what I dreamed, but without gaps & distortions.’ It would then be this acknowledgement that made this solution the solution […]

Note that in this description the actual picture, i.e., the elements of which it consists and the way these are arranged in the picture, constrains the ‘presentation’, i.e., the dream. For example, an element of the actual picture can be obscured, but there cannot be something in the ‘presentation’, i.e., in the dream,  that is not there in the actual picture. This does suggest some kind of external connection that is not part of the dream but  plays a (co-)constitutive role. 

There is a remarkable analogy between assigning significance to dreams and treating certain events as miraculous. Recall Wittgenstein discussion of the bleeding statue in the Lectures on Religious Belief. The interesting case there was that of someone who said ‘Yes, it’s a fraud, it’s red ink, but stil … ‘ Isn’t assigning significance to dreams a similar kind of attitude? ‘I know that [follows a story about current cognitive neuroscience findings into what happens when we dream], but still …’ In both cases the causal aspect of the event drops out as irrelevant. That a complete and satisfactory causal explanation can be given (in the dream case), or in fact has been given (in the statue case), does not matter for the significance of the event as such. 

So there are in fact two gaps between the event of dreaming and the interpretation. First there is the gap between looking at the event solely from a causal perspective and not considering it as something interpretable, and looking at it as something that is up for interpretation and that calls for interpretation., And then there is the gap between looking at it as interpretable and being puzzled as to what the right interpretation might be and arriving at a satisfactory interpretation. The second gap is the one that is closed by dream interpretation. The first gap is not closed by any investigation or interpretation, it is closed by making a choice: to treat the event as potentially meaningful . Notice the resemblance with certainty: treating something as a certainty is a matter of choice, not the outcome of an investigation.  (This also puts Wittgenstein’s musings about dream language and how we treat doodles in Conversations on Freud in the right perspective.)

The analogy with certainty  suggests another way of looking at the folded/unfolded pictures metaphor Wittgenstein uses in Culture and Value.  As we noted above, the unfolded picture constrains the folded pictures that it can be transformed in. Can this be likened to the way in which ‘nature’ puts external constraints on possible certainties? That would also provide the means to deal what was said above about the role of external factors ‘inside’ dream interpretations. Even though it is a matter of choice to treat a dream event as having significance, that does not allow one to assign it any interpretation one likes: the space of possible interpretations is externally constrained, also by  those elements in the dream that have clear external reference. 

Martin Stokhof
from: EOL Discussion Board
date: Spring, 2020