Major philosophical issues: 1) ‘Can I know that I’m not dreaming, and if so, how?’. 2) What are dreams? Experiences? States of consciousness? Mental images? Illusions? Or what?

The Wittgensteinian Background

Norman Malcolm’s Dreaming (1959) took a radical new approach, informed by concepts, principles and arguments developed in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1953):

First, when looking for the meaning of a statement, look at how it’s used. This advice derives from Wittgenstein’s take on linguistic meaning, according to which the meaning of a statement is determined by its use.

Second, there’s a verificationist criterion of meaningfulness: if a claim can’t at least in principle be verified or falsified, it’s literally meaningless, senseless.

Third, the concept of a criterion. A criterion for such-and-such being the case is a way of telling whether such-and-such is the case. Wittgenstein contrasts criteria with another kind of ‘way of telling’: symptoms, empirical evidence that has been discovered, in experience, to be inductively correlated with whatever it’s evidence for. The empirical relationship between a condition and its symptoms, the evidence for it, presupposes that the condition and the evidence can be and have been independently identified. But a criterion defines or partially defines that for which it is a criterion. Criteria are determined by convention, by our having laid down rules for the use of a concept. That p is a criterion of q is manifest, among other things, in the ways in which we teach someone the use of the expression ‘q’. So, for example, pain behaviour in appropriate contexts is a criterion for being in pain. ‘Being in pain’ doesn’t mean ‘screaming, groaning, holding the injured part of one’s body, etc.’, but that sort of behaviour justifies an observer, in appropriate circumstances, in saying that another person behaving thus is in pain. And this is a feature of the meaning of ‘being in pain’.

Wittgenstein wielded the concept of a criterion to eradicate the conception of one’s own mind as an inner space, to which one has ‘direct access’ (as opposed to the indirect access one can only ever have to the minds of others). For Wittgenstein, it has been argued,

If someone falls, breaks his leg, and lies on the ground groaning, it would be misleading to claim that this is good evidence for his being in pain. That suggests the possibility of better evidence to clinch matters, the intelligibility of doubt, the conceivability of coming to know that he is in pain in some other way than by reference to what he says and does. (P.M.S.Hacker, Insight and Illusion: Themes in the Philosophy of Wittgenstein, 2nd edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), p.312, emphasis added).

As well as the link with meaning, criteria are linked to knowledge, by virtue of conferring certainty. That the criteria for q are satisfied doesn’t in general entail that q is the case. Criteria are circumstance-dependent, and thus are defeasible. P is a criterion for q only in certain circumstances. However, if the criteria for q are satisfied, e.g. if a person behaves thus and so in the right circumstances, then it’s certain that q.

Did Malcolm apply these ideas properly?


The Life of the Mind During Sleep?

The received opinion is that to dream is to be mentally active during sleep. This seems to be the opinion of ‘common sense’, too.

Malcolm sets out to show, to the contrary, that one can’t be mentally active while sound asleep. Asserting is just one of the things the received view implies that one can do while asleep. (Aristotle says that ‘the soul makes assertions in sleep’ (On Dreams, 458b)). However, argues Malcolm, if one could assert while asleep, one ought to be able to assert anything while asleep, and therefore one should be able to assert that one is asleep. But this isn’t possible. To attempt to say of yourself that you’re asleep can only be what he calls ‘playful nonsense’ (p.6).


Judging that One is Asleep, and The Criteria of Sleep

What about judgement? Can’t one judge that one is asleep, without trying to express this? Malcolm argues not. He asks whether it can be verified that someone understands how to use the sentence ‘I’m asleep’ to describe his or her own state. If there can be such a use, it ought to make sense to verify that someone has or hasn’t mastered it. How could we do so?

By observing a correlation between a certain state of affairs and someone’s utterance of that sentence? Nope. A person who talks during their sleep is unaware of what he or she is saying, so their saying ‘I’m asleep’ doesn’t count either for or against their understanding that sentence.

Couldn’t we appeal to the sleeper’s later, waking testimony? No. Their later report that they had said ‘I’m asleep’ while they were asleep would presuppose that they already knew when to say ‘I’m asleep’, so it couldn’t be used to establish the point at issue without begging the question.

Couldn’t we work out what ‘I’m asleep’ means by comparing it with ‘He’s asleep’? Well, the use of the phrase ‘He’s asleep’ is governed by criteria. But these criteria clearly don’t govern the use of ‘I’m asleep’. So even if ‘I’m asleep’ could be used to make a judgement, Malcolm says, ‘this use would differ so greatly from that of "He is asleep" that an understanding of the latter would not argue an understanding of the former’ (p.12).

Could the words ‘I’m asleep’ be used to make a judgement at all, though? That is, even though no-one can know whether another person makes correct use of the words ‘I’m asleep’ to describe their own condition, is it nevertheless possible that a person could make correct use of these words? Suppose I say to myself ‘I’m asleep’ and believe that these words accurately describe my condition. Could there be a distinction between my being right and being wrong here? Malcolm argues that there couldn’t. The availability of the distinction between being right and being wrong is part and parcel of making a meaningful judgement. Where there’s no detectable difference between being right and being wrong, Wittgenstein said, ‘whatever is going to seem right to me is right. And that only means that here we can’t talk about "right"’ (Philosophical Investigations, §258).

Couldn’t I find out whether I’m really asleep or not? I couldn’t do so by asking someone else, since that would prove that I’m not asleep. What about, after I awake, reflecting on my previous condition and asking myself whether that’s the condition called ‘being asleep’? What would the description of my condition be? It would have to be of some conscious experience. But, says Malcolm, ‘having some conscious experience or other, no matter what, is not what is meant by being asleep’ (p.12, emphasis added).

The notions of truth and falsity have no application to one’s ‘judgement that one is asleep’, so the sentence ‘I’m asleep’ can’t have a correct use (nor an incorrect one) to express a judgement of one’s state. (This doesn’t, however, mean that it can’t be meaningfully used at all). Nothing could even tend to prove that the ‘judgement’ ‘I’m asleep’ was either true or false. So the supposed ‘judgement’ is unintelligible.


Being Asleep and Being in Pain

Malcolm compares ‘I’m asleep’ with ‘I’m in pain’, remarking that there’s an inclination to suppose that these two sentences have the same sort of use, that they are both used to describe states of oneself. One doesn’t find out that one is in pain by using a criterion. After one has learnt the language, saying the sentence itself becomes a new criterion of being in pain. But there are criteria for determining whether someone uses the sentence ‘I’m in pain’ correctly: the person’s behaviour, and the circumstances. With sleep, just as with pain, there’s an outward criterion. But this criterion doesn’t play a part in establishing whether someone understands the sentence ‘I’m asleep’. If we try to suppose that uttering those words was conjoined with the criteria for sleep, we would have to ask whether the sleeper was aware of saying ‘I’m asleep’. And we would need an outward criterion of this. If, on the one hand, the person shows the kind of alertness and knowledge of what he or she is doing that are normal in one who is awake, then he or she isn’t asleep. If, on the other hand, he or she shows no such alertness, then he or she wasn’t aware of saying anything. ‘In neither case has the right kind of connection been made between those words and the fact that they are supposed to describe’ (p.16). The idea that the sentence ‘I’m asleep’ could be used to describe one’s present state is unintelligible. So if anyone claims that they sometimes observe themself to be asleep, this claim is unintelligible. One can’t think one is asleep, or even wonder whether one is.


Lucid Dreaming

This has immediate repercussions for lucid dreams, usually characterised as dreams in which 'the subject is aware that he [or she] is dreaming’ (C.Green, Lucid Dreams, (Oxford: Institute of Psychophysical Research, 1968), p.15). Lucid dreamers are supposed to be able, in their dream, to wonder whether they are dreaming, to correctly convince themselves that they are, to alter the course of their dream, and even to wake themselves up from their dream.

For Malcolm all of this would be confused. But he could redescribe the ‘content’ of a lucid dream as follows:

I dreamt that I realised I was dreaming, dreamt that I was affecting the course of my dream, and then dreamt that I woke myself up by telling myself to wake up.

Malcolm would claim that this has the decisive advantage of not being conceptually confused.

Some Objections

The words ‘Are you asleep?’ do have the grammatical form of a question. But they’re not used as a question. Their purpose is to find out whether the person will respond, not to find out which response he or she will make. This purpose can be served equally well by making an utterance which isn’t a question.

Don’t we sometimes wonder whether we are dreaming? We say things like ‘Am I dreaming?’ or ‘I must be dreaming’. Doesn’t this show that we sometimes do wonder whether we’re asleep, or that we think we’re asleep? No. We shouldn’t be deceived by the look of these sentences, but should consider their actual use. They’re used as exclamations of surprise. You can’t literally wonder whether you are asleep. If you’re wondering anything at all, you’re not asleep.