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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 10.2 (2003) 135-141

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On Delusions of Sense:
A Response to Coetzee and Sass

Rupert Read

schizophrenia, Wittgenstein, Schreber, Faulkner, Benjy, grammar, madness, Cogito

The great writings on and of severe mental affliction—those for instance of Schreber, 'Renee', Donna Williams, Artaud, Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, Coetzee's In the Heart of the Country, Kafka's "Description of a struggle," and even (I would add) key parts of The Lord of the Rings—present us with something deeply enigmatic. They have, we might say, a strong grammar, a grammar—a mode of hanging together, and (in this case) of linguistically seeming to make a sense that is not our sense and that we cannot make sense of— . . . they have a grammar all of their own, and all of its own, a grammar that resists and rejects interpretation even as it sometimes seems to offer interpretations. 1

It was Wittgenstein's view that to make mental illness unpuzzling was a mistake, or (better, perhaps) a mythologically problematic move. Wittgenstein's aim in his philosophizing was to understand what was enigmatic when it could be understood without unwisely turning it into something altogether unpuzzling . . . and then to acknowledge that there are some things that may remain forever puzzling, without committing oneself to the metaphysically disastrous claim that the reason they are endlessly puzzling is that they lie outside the boundaries of human life, language, or reason, as though we could peek outside those alleged boundaries to see what was there, but never truly say anything about it.

There simply may be places where our understanding—phenomenological understanding, understanding of what it is like—gives out, and not because it is (or we are) merely human. For instance, perhaps one cannot capture some mental illness by intellection alone, or even perhaps at all. Perhaps the best understanding one can have of mental illness is purely negative (in a sense at least as strong as that involved in negative theology, wherein God is only defined by what it is not).

Louis Sass (2003) writes

I am not sure whether or not Read would accept that a philosophical position can be understandable despite its containing deep, internal logical tensions (perhaps he would not). If such understanding is possible, however, it does seem to open the way for a similar understanding of conditions like that of Schreber. (p. 127)

Unfortunately, however, it is indeed not possible—that is, this notion is merely a fantasy—by my lights. Philosophical positions, all of which turn out to contain such inexorable tensions, cannot be understood: they are mirages. Solipsism, as a position, is not any better (or worse) off [End Page 135] than (say) (Metaphysical) Realism. They are both mirages, just different aspects of the same nothing. 2 Considered as positions, they are in the end literally—when one understands their logic—one and the same nothing. Wittgenstein already made this quite clear in his Tractatus. Perhaps in contrast to Sass, there is then nothing special about solipsism: it is just one mode of presentation rather than another of the illusion that there can be philosophical positions.

Sass claims that in saying this kind of thing I am committed to ruling out that some mental illness can be understood or can even exist, on abstract intellectual grounds. I am not. I am simply wishing to leave open the possibility that there may be things that some people utter or seem to experience which intellection gives us little or no assistance with. If Sass wishes to deny this, then I suggest that it is he and not I who is the absolutist intellectualist here, in insisting that rewriting something deeply strange in a weaker grammar is furthering our grasp of it.

My suggestion concerning Faulkner's presentation of Benjy, in my original paper, was that it is a mythological mistake to think that Faulkner provides us with the tools for giving an unpuzzling rendition of what had perhaps appeared to be "another country," inaccessible to us. Rather, Faulkner's representation...