Incomprehensibility and Understanding: On the Interpretation of Severe Mental Illness

Philosophy, Psychiatry, and Psychology 10 (2):125-132 (2003)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 10.2 (2003) 125-132 [Access article in PDF] Incomprehensibility and Understanding:On the Interpretation of Severe Mental Illness Louis A. Sass Keywords hermeneutics, psychopathology, paradox, Wittgenstein, solipsism, delusion, principle of charity, phenomenological psychopathology. I would like to begin by thanking Rupert Read for the care he has put into reading my work, and into thinking through its implications in the context of the "new-Wittgensteinian" interpretation of the thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein. This interpretation derives from an influential reading of this philosopher's early book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1961), that is not explicitly discussed in Read's article, yet that lies behind much of his argument. Read does allude to this reading of the Tractatus when he refers to the concept of "logically alien thought" (see Conant [1992]), and by citing, in his endnotes, the Diamond, Conant, and Cerbone articles that appear in Crary and Read's edited collection, The New Wittgenstein (2000). In an earlier paper that also addresses my work, "On approaching schizophrenia through Wittgenstein," Read (2001) explicitly discusses the relevance of the new-Wittgensteinian interpretation of the Tractatus.According to this new-Wittgensteinian interpretation of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein took absolutely seriously his own realization (explicitly stated at the end of the Tractatus) that his book was internally self-contradictory, and he therefore realized that all or nearly all the sentences of the Tractatus must be totally devoid of any meaning or semantic reference. According to this austere view, the vast bulk of the Tractatus only pretends to be making meaningful statements about the nature of logic and semantics; its real purpose is to give the reader the illusion of meaning, and this it does in order to lead the reader to the eventual realization that there can in fact be no meaningful statements or thoughts at the level of self-referential abstraction at which the Tractatus pretends to be operating. Further, when Wittgenstein (1961) writes (in the famous last line of the book), "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent" (p. 189), this statement should, supposedly, not be taken as any kind of mystical pointing toward some ineffable realm or truth, but, rather, as an austere recognition that there just are no ineffable truths—that, so to speak, there just is no mystical there there. [End Page 125]Rupert Read sees an analogy between, on the one hand, the (supposedly mistaken) readers of Wittgenstein's Tractatus who think that Wittgenstein is exploiting self-contradiction to allude to some higher, ineffable truth (i.e., something that can be pointed at even if it cannot be said), and, on the other hand, my own elucidation of Schreber's contradictions (see especially Chapter 2 of Paradoxes of Delusion [1994]) to argue that Schreber can be said to be having particular kinds of experiences, which I refer to as solipsistic or quasi-solipsistic in nature. Just as Wittgenstein's self-contradictions can (supposedly) point nowhere other than to their own failure to mean, so Schreber's self-contradictory and other nonstandard statements cannot (according to Read) be used to illuminate in any meaningful way the form of experience that supposedly lies behind them—as I, for example, have tried to do by offering a phenomenological account of Schreber and schizophrenia. Patients like Schreber and Renée cannot really be understood, just as we cannot really understand logically alien thought—which, in fact, is not really thought at all; in both cases, there is only the illusion of meaning, only the mirage of an alternative mode of thinking or of living. This, at least, is Read's new-Wittgensteinian claim.Few readers of Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology will, I suspect, be familiar with these discussions centering on Wittgenstein's Tractatus, which were introduced largely by the philosophers Cora Diamond and James Conant (see Crary and Read [2000]). (I myself have found their writings fascinating and inspiring in many ways, despite my ultimate disagreement on fundamental issues.) 1 Most readers of Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology will have no way of assessing the validity of this austere reading of the Tractatus...

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