Book Review – ‘Madness and Modernism’ by Louis Sass (2017 Ed.)

This ground-breaking work revises traditional understandings of schizophrenia as ‘a form of encroaching dementia, regression, or dominance by instinct and the irrational’ and instead views it as ‘involving unusual forms of self-consciousness together with associated alienation and withdrawal – not only from the surrounding world and other human beings, but also from one’s own thoughts, feelings, and bodily presence.’ (Preface).

It is a work of ‘comparative phenomenology,’ which uses modernist art and literature as a tool to help us better understand schizophrenia. By placing both next to each other, Sass draws out some striking similarities to illuminate a potential logic that might underpin them both.

Sass argues that both modernist art and schizophrenia can be understood as evidencing ‘hyperreflexivity’ and a concomitant ‘alienation’. The range of material that he covers, and the detailed analyses of case studies of individuals with schizophrenia, make this book a brilliant attempt at better understanding a mental disorder that has, since its conception, baffled psychiatrists and researchers.  

My own academic background is in both psychology and literature, so I was extremely excited to see the disciplines used productively together to help us understand, phenomenologically, madness – and, by bringing its opposite into relief, sanity as well. Sass doesn’t try to explain the aetiology of schizophrenia, other than gesturing towards the likely conclusion that it will involve several primary and secondary factors, in unpredictable combinations, and this is a good thing. His aim is to understand, rather than explain, and this book does a fantastic job in making sense of symptoms and behaviours that have typically been distinctive by their complete incomprehensibility. I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone interested in phenomenological psychopathology and/or modernist art.

I’d be very interested to know whether any other scholar has attempted a study of contemporary, 21st century art and thought, in its relation to another form of madness? It seems that Sass is right in identifying the parallels between 20th century modernist art and schizophrenia, but times have changed, and I wonder what the contemporary parallel could be? The present day has moved interestingly away from the ‘modernist/postmodernist’ zeitgeist that Sass studied, into new territory, and I think one deserving the same kind of scrutiny that Sass gave the 20th century!

Louis Sass on Wittgenstein and Freud

[This blog captures my initial thoughts while reading Louis Sass’s chapter in Wittgenstein, Theory and the Arts (eds. R. Allen & M. Turvey), titled: ‘Wittgenstein, Freud, and the Nature of Psychoanalytic Explanation’. The bracketed page numbers are from that book.]

Louis Sass begins by acknowledging the complex relationship Wittgenstein seemed to have with Freud and the Psychoanalytic method. Wittgenstein valued the profundity of Freud’s discoveries about the human unconscious, but disagreed with Freud’s attempt to transform this theory into a scientific, deterministic, enterprise: ‘What Wittgenstein criticises, then, is not the adopting of such frameworks but only the tendency – which he discerns in Freud and various philosophers – to mistake the frameworks themselves for something in the nature of empirical assertions or discoveries.’ (260).

While theorising explanations of human action, Wittgenstein distinguishes between causes and reasons, claiming that both partake of entirely different ‘language games’. Causes establish empirical correlations, while reasons are used to rationalize or see the point of our own or others actions, and can therefore take only an ad hoc form.  

Sass writes that Freud generally portrayed himself as a scientist pursuing causes for phenomena. ‘But Wittgenstein suggests that Freud’s actual methods are, in fact, more akin to those of an aesthetic investigator who puts things side by side or strives to give a good simile, as when a critic of literature or art seeks agreements to the aptness of certain comparisons or tries to sum up a complex artistic work or effect in a succinct expression.’ (261).

‘For Wittgenstein, a key difference between causes and reasons seems to be that, whereas causal explanation operates in the third-person realm of objective or objectifiable reality, there is something more first-person about the nature of reasons, some way in which reasons are intimately connected with the point of view of the person whose action is being accounted for.’ (262)

I wonder whether this ‘something more first-person about the nature of reasons’ can be elucidated using Polanyi’s conception of tacit knowledge (which he says underlies all forms of knowing), or whether they are incompatible positions? Polanyi writes that: ‘Our body is the ultimate instrument of all our external knowledge, whether intellectual or practical. In all our waking moments we are relying on our awareness of contacts of our body with things outside for attending to these things.’ (Loc. 322 in Kindle book ‘The Tacit Dimension’). Sounding much like a phenomenologist, he is saying that because we are bodily beings, all of our reasons (and much else) will have this ‘first-person nature’. Polanyi interestingly qualifies that this does not necessarily make them ‘subjective,’ but that is a topic for another post.

(As a side note: There seems to be ongoing debate as to whether this tacit element has much explanatory value, and might not be worth being scrapped, sticking instead with the anti-private language approach that Wittgenstein puts forward. See Tim Thornton’s chapter in The Oxford Handbook to the Philosophy of Psychiatry which compares Wittgenstein and Polanyi and concludes that Polanyi’s tacit knowledge is better conceptualised as ‘context-dependent knowing’, leaving out much of the tacit bit.)

Back to Sass – The biggest difficulty for bringing together Wittgenstein and psychoanalysis is Wittgenstein’s emphasis that self-ascriptions are sufficient and do not require any grounding, or private, introspective access to ‘inner’ mental states; whereas psychoanalysis is of course all about those private inner mental states… (Polanyi would presumably be on the side of the psychoanalysts here).

Sass emphasises that even if Wittgenstein is suggesting that no causes can be given for motives, we shouldn’t take this in a postmodernist, sceptical or relativistic fashion. To make this point he enlists the help of a philosopher personally acquainted with Wittgenstein, Freidrich Waismann, who, in his essay ‘Will and Motive’ describes a way we can understand motives as something between a ’cause’ and a ‘reason’. This treats motives as a ‘family-resemblance’ concept that has no clear boundaries (276), and is able to encompass two extremes: the cause (lawlike) and the purpose (constituted within).

Waismann acknowledges the inherent difficulty in disciplines such as psychology (and philosophy) because of the fact that ‘our ordinary concepts are too rigid’ (qtd in Sass 277), ‘we need something looser, more indefinite … In order to describe the mental we need a language that is just as flexible; which, of course, runs counter to our usual way of thinking.’

And it is here that Sass neatly brings back mention of aesthetics: ‘The project of understanding motivation – one’s own or that of another – also has much in common with that of artistic representation or appreciation, for it is something that demands active, imaginative interpretation or an attitude of subtle, connoisseur-like discernment toward the world.’ (278) Understanding motives is like understanding aesthetic patterns but this does not lead us to subjectivism in a postmodernist way, nor to pure behaviourism. (Here Sass also references Merleau-Ponty on ‘reciprocal expression’ which I have made a note to follow up in future reading).

(Earlier in the chapter Sass mentioned Wittgenstein’s notion of ‘Seeing-as’ or ‘Aspect-seeing’, which is when we can see something in a new way, while knowing that it itself has not changed (274). I always think of art’s ability to provoke this in us…)

I love the quote from Waismann that follows so I will quote it at length: ‘There really is something like digging down to deeper layers, becoming more truthful, struggling passionately, while things become clearer and clearer. There is undoubtedly such a process of plumbing the depths in which one penetrates to one’s innermost motives. So things are not entirely subjective; there is truth after all. And yet! When we want to put our finger on it, it will not stand up; when we look more closely at it, it looks different again. It is an interpretation and yet something more than an interpretation, knowledge and yet not quite knowledge: what are we dealing with? […] We require a composite concept that combines “knowing, acknowledging and interpreting. For fathoming a motive touches on all three”.’ (279, and 136 in Waismann.)

Sass concludes by summarising his two main points. What Wittgenstein and Freud have remarkably in common is their shared ideal of clarity. Wittgenstein says so much by explicitly comparing his method to psychoanalysis: ‘It is a principal function of philosophy to warn against false analogies. To warn against the false analogies which lie embedded in our forms of expression without our being fully conscious of them. I believe our method here resembles psychoanalysis which also makes conscious the unconscious and thereby renders it harmless, and I believe that this resemblance is not purely superficial. (Wittgenstein manuscript 109, 174)’ (Sass 280). (But couldn’t you say that surely most philosophers share this ideal? I imagine that even a rouge philosopher wanting to deliberately complicate our understanding of the world would be doing so in order to make that complexity clearer in some way?)

Where Wittgenstein and Freud most drastically differ, though, relates to Wittgenstein’s second ideal of ‘awe or wonder’. Freud’s method towards greater understanding of the the human psyche was driven by the desire for scientific objectivism. This was anathema to Wittgenstein, who repeatedly argued that we should remain aware of the limits of scientific knowledge, and not try to cross those lines. Wittgenstein wanted us to avoid rationalising things into generalisations or too-clear pictures. Sass quotes Wittgenstein earlier in the chapter: ‘And may we not advance any kind of theory … We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place.’ (273) And of course his most famous quote encapsulates this sentiment: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” (Tractatus)

It’s somewhat ironic now that Freud is treated more seriously in humanities/arts disciplines than the sciences, and Wittgenstein’s (lay) reputation remembers predominantly his dry and methodological treatment of how we use ordinary language rather than his mysticism; but I think that is precisely the richness and value of both thinkers – both occupy an ambiguous space between two extreme camps, and can’t easily settle into either, as they themselves well knew.

Final thought – I think this is also why I am so interested in Michael Polanyi’s work at the moment, because he seems to have tried to build a comprehensive theory explaining why sciences and the humanities aren’t diametrically opposed projects at all, an idea he also lived by.