Wittgenstein, Schreber, the Schizophrenic Mind, and the Paradoxes of Delusion, reviewed

Ludwig Wittgenstein is well known in his late works for having compared philosophy – or better expressed, Wittgenstein’s own anti-philosophical philosophy – to a kind of therapy. Daniel Paul Schreber is the best known celebrity schizophrenic of the 20th century and perhaps of all time. This book by Louis A Sass creates a framework for bringing Wittgenstein’s philosophical problems and methods to bear on the disorder of which Schreber gave an account in his celebrated memoirs; memoirs, which incidentally were the subject of extensive commentary by some of the most famous psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, and thinkers of our time including Sigmund Freud, Eugen Bleuler, Carl Gustav Jung, and Karl Jaspers.


One of the child training devices used by Daniel Paul Schreber’s father (Moritz) to correct the posture and attitude of Children

Persisting philosophical puzzles such as the skeptical problems of the existence of the external world, other minds (also called “solipsism”), and how anyone can ever know anything at all, have an repetitive, obsessive compulsive dimension to them that makes one suspect there is more here than meets the eye. Wittgenstein’s approach was to look at how our language made it possible for us to fall into such delusions, but that was not his only contribution. He also questioned the form of life and consistency of the academic philosopher whose way of life was missing the authenticity required to be whole and complete. Thus, he gave away his fortune and became a school teacher for a time prior to deciding to transform the system of academic philosophy from within as a kind of philosophical therapist. Thus, though Wittgenstein undoubtedly had his personal and emotional struggles and issues – as do all human beings – they were nothing like the loss of touch with reality that caused Dan Paul Schreber to be incarcerated in a mental hospital for some thirteen years. Rather the use being made of Wittgenstein is to get access to the paradoxes of delusion of the schizophrenic mind (as Louis A Sass writes in his book with the same title) from the inside. In short, the use is to increase one’s empathy with the so-called schizophrenic mind. This is a high bar. The short answer (though with many conditions and qualifications) is that the schizophrenic does not so much suffer from regression to an infantile emotional state (as the tradition coming out of psychoanalysis would have it) as from a hyper-rationalism akin to the solipsist. The seriously disturbed individual such as Senate President Daniel Paul Screber is actually living the solipsism and disintegration of the external world that the philosopher engages as merely an intellectual exercise. The psychotic is not suffering from a dis-inhibition of emotions but from a dis-inhibition of reason. This is not a romanticization of madness (as some readings of Foucault might have it) but a distortion of reason which contains within itself diverse variations of unreason. This is a self-deceiving condition that is generated from within rationality itself rather than by the loss of rationality (Sass p. 12). This puts Sass at odds with Karl Jaspers, who magisterial General Psychopathology considered schizophrenia to be empathically and even intellectually incomprehensible. Unlike the interpretation of Jaspers for whom the schizophrenic was quite simply unable to be comprehended or empathized with, Sass gives us access to the paradoxes of delusion. But one has to read Wittgenstein and get inside the head of the skeptical philosopher. This may not be easy – but it is doable.

As noted, Daniel Paul Schreber was the most famous psychotic of the 20th Century and possibly of all times – a celebrity schizophrenic. After a psychotic break that had features of what we would today call “paranoid schizophrenia” he was incarcerated involuntarily for some thirteen years. As part of his effort to resume what was left of his normal life, he wrote an elaborate account of his mental illness. This account was read and commented on by Sigmund Freud, Carl Gustav Jung, Eugen Bleuler, Karl Jaspers, and other famous men of the time. In fact, Schreber’s gambit worked. The publication demonstrated to the court that, though the author-patient definitely had many unconventional, even crazy, ideas, he was not a threat to himself or the community. The result of so many commentaries by thinkers, who are so much more significant today than the patient himself, is that our understanding of Schreber and his experience of madness is almost inaccessible for the number of interpretations that have been layered on top it. Granted, the commentaries are interesting and useful – and sometimes more accessible than the memories themselves. Yet it is time to take a look at what Schreber’s experience was like from the inside. That is what Sass does; and his discovery is that schizophrenia is not what it seems to be. A close reading of these memoirs by Sass – which, by the way, is not an undertaking for the faint of heart – discloses schizophrenia as diverse philosophical conundrums as lived experiences from the inside with the “lived-ness” being significantly ad variance from the standard experiences of most ordinary people. This journey through a hyper-self-consciousness of a hyper-reflexive quasi-solipsism, uprooted from the lived body, illuminates both psychosis and philosophy. The paradoxes of delusion disclose that the psychosis is not so much believing in non-existent things as disbelieving in things that most ordinary people believe in. It is not so much a lack of reality as “seeing as,” precisely in Wittgenstein’s sense. There is an ironic aspect to many comments by the schizophrenic such that, even though his thinking is disordered and “off the rails,” it is not so much regressed and primitive as in over-drive and hyper-analytic. Not so much Dionysian as Apollonian. For example, Schreber does not so much believe he has been transformed into a woman as standing in front of a mirror he sees himself as a woman. That is, he does not literally believe he has a woman’s breasts as that he has what today would be described in a comical, devaluing way as “man titties.” The discussion recalls psychoanalyst Helene Deutsch’s “as if” personality (which is not quoted by Sass), but the “as if” is not just an isolated individual but an entire form of life. So perhaps psychoanalysis does have a contribution to make, and a germ of an idea is to be found, but it was never systematically elaborated as a secondary process in comparison with primary process regression. Here Sass does yeoman service in undoing the mistranslations and simplifications that have occurred in translating Schreber’s original memoir. Of course, translation was not a problem for Freud, Jung, Bleuler, and Jaspers, who read the memoirs in the original; but they introduced other over-simplifications in the interest of fitting Schreber’s experience into their own diagnostic categories, a risk to which we are still open given our “need” to use the DSM in its various versions. It is a further question, not engaged by Sass, whether the innovative educational practices of Daniel’s father (depicted in the illustration) might have been the equivalent of abuse and some of the paranoia and psychosis might have been the consequences of delayed trauma and abuse. Still, Sass does a nice job with what is valid in the rehabilitation of introspection, phantom concreteness, and mute particularity. The latter is the sense that everyday events have some deep significance; a sense of infinity in the moment. We humans are meaning machines waiting to bestow meaning on events which may or may not have support the meaning we give to them. Phantom concreteness is the sense that abstract distinctions have been reified, objectified, or otherwise made material. Those familiar with the sense-data theories of Russell will appreciate that sense-data display phantom concreteness. Our experience is supposed to of sense data of which the tables and chairs in the world are allegedly composed. The reduction to absurdity is that we do not experience tables and chairs we experience sense-data; except that we don’t. Our experience is of tables and chairs, not the phantom sense data. Both seem to contribute to the sense of hyper-reality, unreality, and emptiness that seems to haunt some psychotic states for which the sometimes unconventional behavior and speech are an attempt to compensate, keep at bay, or master.

Sass provides a compelling account of how philosophical solipsism, idealism, and phenomenalism (not phenomenology!) gives us access to the experiences of schizophrenic individuals and provide the disorder with its characteristic aspects.

Louis A Sass, The Paradoxes of Delusion: Wittgenstein, Schreber, and the Schizophrenic Mind. Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994; 177 pp.

Categories: Emotions, empathic interpretation, empathic understanding, Empathy, historical empathy, Mental illness, Other Minds, schizophrenia, solipsism

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