Kettle Logic1

Freud on Defensive Arguments

(From Freud's Intepretation of Dreams and Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious)

The term Kettle Logic or La logique du chaudron refers to Freud’s mention of the defensive tactics engaged by a neighbor who had borrowed a kettle and was accused of having returned it with a hole. Freud mentions this tale in his Interpretation of Dreams (Traumdeutung, 1899) and also in his Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (Der Witz un seine Beziehung zum Unbewußten, 1905). The context of it being mentioned relates to Freud’s interpretation of a dream of July 23-24, 1895 (the Dream about Irma’s Injection). The dream occurs after his conversation with his fellow physician Otto regarding Freud’s treatment of Irma. In it he was trying to exculpate himself of any failure associated with her treatment. In the dream, he argued that it was her own fault that she was ill because she failed to follow Freud’s advice. He argued that her pains were organic in nature, and did not relate to Freud’s treatment at all. He argued additionally that the pains were caused by the fact that she was a widow, and so had nothing to do with his treatment. And finally, he argued that her pains were caused by a dirty syringe administered to her by another person. The arguments were—taken together—inconsistent. “Instead of the ‘and’ in my dream,” Freud mentions, “I should have put an ‘either/or’, if I wanted to avoid being accused of nonsense.”

This is a sort of tripartite reductio such as is found in the sophist Gorgias of Leontini’s On Not Being, wherein he argues in the excerpts that exist that nothing exists, and, second, if anything does exist, it is not apprehensible to man; and third, even if it did exist and were apprehensible, it is not expressible and cannot be interpreted by anyone else.

Here's Freud's discussion of it in his Interpretation of Dreams:

"Das ganze Plaidoyer – nichts anderes ist dieser Traum – erinnert lebhaft an die Verteidigung des Mannes, der von seinem Nachbarn angeklagt war, ihm einen Kessel in schadhaftem Zustande zurückgegeben zu haben. Erstens habe er ihn unversehrt zurückgebracht, zweitens war der Kessel schon durchlöchert, als er ihn entlehnte, drittens hat er nie einen Kessel vom Nachbarn entlehnt. Aber um so besser; wenn nur eine dieser drei Verteidigungsarten als stichhältig erkannt wird, muß der Mann freigesprochen werden."

In English translation (with the prior context):

"Irma’s pains are not attributable to me, since she herself is to blame for them, in that she refuses to accept my solution. They do not concern me, for being as they are of an organic nature, they cannot possibly be cured by psychic treatment. Irma’s sufferings are satisfactorily explained by her widowhood (trimethylamin!); a state which I cannot alter. Irma’s illness has been caused by an incautious injection administered by Otto, an injection of an unsuitable drug, such as I should never have administered. Irma’s complaint is the result of an injection made with an unclean syringe, like the phlebitis of my old lady patient, whereas my injections have never caused any ill effects. I am aware that these explanations of Irma’s illness, which unite in acquitting me, do not agree with one another; that they even exclude one another. The whole plea—for this dream is nothing else—recalls vividly the defence offered by a man who was accused by his neighbour of having returned a kettle in a damaged condition. In the first place, he had returned the kettle undamaged; in the second place it already had holes in it when he borrowed it; and in the third place, he had never borrowed it at all. A complicated defence, but so much the better; if only one of these three lines of defence is recognized as valid, the man must be acquitted."

Jean Francois Lyotard’s notes on it:

“The logical retreat, absurd when it is isolated from the course of the prosecution’s argumentation, unveils the rules for the family of cognitive phrases: determination of the referent (kettle borrowed or not), attribution of a predicate to the subject of the utterance (borrowed with a hole in it or not), display of a case which proves conclusively (returned with a hole in it or not). Note that, in this trial, Gorgias pleads for the defense.” Jean Francois Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, 15.



1 See The Interpretation of Dreams, in Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, (trans. A. A. Brill), 4:119-20; see also Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Standard Edition 13:62 and 206.

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