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Cogito: of reasons and causes

We can only be invited retrospectively to interpret and understand our actions.

Christos Tombras
18 March 2020
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The story was first mentioned by Artemidorus of Daldis in his Oneirocritica (2nd century AD), but has become more widely known because of Freud who wrote about it.

The year was 332 BC. Alexander of Macedon was at the gates of the prosperous Phoenician port city of Tyre. He wanted to take control of the port and as a pretext he requested to offer a sacrifice to Heracles’s great temple inside the old city. Unsurprisingly his request was met with a refusal. He was angered, and decided to enter by force.

The Siege of Tyre had now been going on for some long, frustrating months. One night Alexander had a puzzling dream. He dreamt of a satyr, a creature of ancient mythology, resembling a man with a horse’s tail and ears, and an erect phallus. The satyr was dancing on Alexander’s shield. Alexander woke up puzzled and called Aristander, his seer, an accomplished and respected interpreter of dreams. On hearing the story, Aristander was able to decipher it easily. He divided the word satyr (“σάτυρος”) in two: “σα” (which means “yours”) and “Τύρος” (“Tyre”). The message from the gods is clear, Aristander announced. Alexander would only have to persist with the siege, and Tyre would be his. Alexander was very happy with this message from the gods. He doubled his efforts and, eventually, he managed to conquer Tyre.

Freud reports the story in his Interpretation of Dreams. He was interested in it because he had his own theory of dreams – just like Aristander. Both agreed that a dream has an origin or a cause. For Freud, Aristander’s insight was correct: the dream was never about the satyr. It was a play with words. Freud only disagreed in regards to the origin of the dream. Rather than taking it as a message from the gods, as Aristander claimed, he thought it should really be taken as a reflection of Alexander’s own frustration. Tyre was not his, but he wished it were. Hence the satyr.

In other words, for Freud the cause for a dream doesn’t come from outside. It is a wish that belongs to the sleeping subject; a dream represents the disguised fulfilment of this wish, and prevents any disturbance that it could have brought. At the end, the wish is fulfilled, and sleep can continue. A win-win situation.

For Freud the cause for a dream doesn’t come from outside.

Freud’s point of view represented a profound change in perspective from antiquity. But this change did not start with him. Freud belonged solidly in the long line of thinkers that began with Descartes. The Cartesian subject, i.e. the subject of Cogito that inaugurates modernity, seeks certainty and trusts that certainty can only come from within, from one’s own faculties of reason. As such, the Cartesian subject is a subject of science. By the time Freud comes into the picture, the world – at least the world of modernity – has come to accept that the speaking being can have some choice in regards to their desire. The dreaming subject is no longer seen as a passive receiver of messages; the dreaming subject is an active agent in whose mind a number of sometimes contradictory thoughts and desires struggle for dominance. It’s the subject’s choice whether they will do something with their desire. They can own it or discard it. But it is theirs. Or, as Lacan put it, the subject of psychoanalysis – i.e. the Freudian subject – is the subject of science.

There is a catch here, of course, first pointed out by Wittgenstein.

Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, Wittgenstein said, is exactly that: an interpretation. It can offer us retrospectively an explanation of some reason behind some dream. It cannot establish the cause that brought about this specific dream. The same applies to the whole of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis explains and interprets; it cannot speak about causes. Human beings can reason at length about their actions, but the actions and all accompanying reasoning cannot be thought in terms of causality. To put it differently, we can discuss, agree, disagree, and even be convinced about our reasons; but, strictly speaking, we can’t do that with causes. Reasons and causes are not on the same level of reference. Causes are on a meta-level.

Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, Wittgenstein said, is exactly that: an interpretation.

This was at the heart of the thought experiment I outlined last time, with the lottery numbers and the demon who knew them before you even had the chance to write them down. The very moment we decide to carry out an experiment seeking to probe the assumed causal chain behind a human action while still remaining on the level of action ourselves, the programme to establish causality falls apart. We can only be invited retrospectively to interpret and understand our actions.

To paraphrase some other motto of Lacan’s, one cannot have one's pie and eat it.

This piece was originally published in the March edition of Splinters.

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