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my elusive dreams

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The pre-Socratic philosopher Gorgias, generally regarded as one of the sophists, wrote a work, now lost, called On What is Not, and one of his sceptical arguments was about knowledge of other minds. Anthony Kenny summarises it thus: ‘that each individual’s sensations are private and that all we can pass on to our neighbours is words and not experiences’. I was immediately reminded of my [very youthful] experience of reading Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. After being very impressed with the first half of the book – a sceptical treatment of the dream theories of previous psychologists and scholars – I was so disappointed with the second half that I couldn’t finish it.

My problem was that Freud’s descriptions of his clients’ dreams were so thin and lifeless. He’d presumably reduced them to what he considered their most basic elements. Interpretation indeed.

Hopefully the connection between Freud’s thin descriptions and Gorgias’s argument is reasonably clear. My romantic side sides with Gorgias – the richness of dreams, memories and other sensations can’t be adequately captured and communicated in mere words, and a dream that can be so ‘interpreted’ is a dream not worth dreaming. However, as Kenny says, this argument was not finally put down until Wittgenstein came along in the 20th century. I’m no expert on Wittgenstein but I do remember dipping into his Philosophical Investigations, where there was much palaver about language. He used Augustine of Hippo as a whipping boy as I recall. The theme was that language is an irrefragably social phenomenon. I think he was keen to show that you can’t really create a ‘secret language’ known only to yourself. Unless you have a divided or multiplied self? But there are problems there I can see. It’s like tickling yourself, you already see it coming, and with secret language the self is precisely the one who knows the secret. There might somewhere be weird divided selves who don’t know their other selves’ secrets – I wouldn’t put anything past the brain – but these are exceptions proving rules.

So where does that leave those elusive dreams we love to have? Somewhere between Freud’s arid reductions and a multiverse of perversity.

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Written by stewart henderson

May 12, 2011 at 10:36 pm

Posted in language

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