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Published 22 October 2008, doi:10

Dreaming: A Conceptual Framework for Philosophy of Mind and Empirical Research

by Jennifer M. Windt
The MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2015
824 pp., illus., 1 col., 4 b/w. Trade, $65.00
ISBN: 978-0-262-02867-7.

Reviewed by Richard Kade
Ubiquitous Iconoclast
Sunnyvale, CA 94089-1622 USA


"What a singular moment is the first one, when you have hardly begun to recollect yourself, after starting from midnight slumber! By unclosing your eyes so suddenly, you seem to have surprised the personages of your dream in full convocation round your bed, and catch one broad glance at them before they can flit into obscurity. Or, to vary the metaphor, you find yourself, for a single instant, wide awake in that realm of illusions, whither sleep has been the passport, and behold its ghostly inhabitants and wondrous scenery, with a perception of their strangeness, such as you never attain while the dream is undisturbed."- Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Haunted Mind, 1837

The epigraph above, preceding the Table of Contents, sets the tone for the entire book, which endeavors to bridge most potential gaps between specialists in philosophical and neurological realms as far as what might be useful from methodic phenomenological study of dreams.

The author admits in the opening paragraph of the acknowledgements (pg. xiii) that this book began as her dissertation. By the conclusion of the Introduction (pg. xxv), a note to the reader explains that such a long book, encompassing so broad a range of issues from diverse disciplines, creates necessary redundancies. Given those differences in backgrounds, the discourse of some issues might seem to some perfunctory-to-superficial, while to others overly detailed. Trepidation over those issues was unwarranted.

The main weakness of the entire premise, exhaustively annotated, footnoted, cross-referenced and fully indexed, is the speciousness of so much of the thinking done over the decades before even Freud and Jung were born.

In much the same way that Lincoln joked about "homeopathic soup ... made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death," one can think of psychiatry being watered down (take away the Rx pad) into psychology, which, if possible, is further diluted into everything from neurobiology to cognition.

Research [1] shows how "one cannot use the physical rules from the cellular level to completely predict activity at the psychological level. By way of analogy, if you wanted to understand the text on [a printed] page, you could analyze the words by submitting their contents to an inorganic chemist, who could ascertain the precise molecular composition of the ink. Yet no amount of chemical analysis could help you understand what these words mean, let alone what they mean in the context of the other words on the page."

Study of any significance of dreams reveals little more about a person remembering any such experience than does his or her reaction to Rorschach inkblots. In the best-case scenario, a trained shrink may recognize traits that might lead a subject to harm him- or herself and, perhaps, prescribe medication to help minimize aberrant behavior, although so much remains unknowable in terms of what ideas flit through the clinically bonkers (think of Bobby Fischer, [2] Robin Williams or Dali, whom Stefan Zweig had visit Freud in London in 1939) [3].

A better way to think of the problems associated with dream analysis might be to consider studies of handedness that dwell on such side-shows as heredity vs. environment - even after defining those terms determining the extent of "fanaticism" of preference versus "ambivalence" (or ambidexterity). Tests abound to determine just where on the "spectrum" one lies (lacing fingers, crossing arms, wadding and tossing a ball of paper into a recycle receptacle) with results often defying rhyme or reason (such as one subject who performed most tasks requiring being seated left-handed, whereas those done standing are more naturally right-handed).

So it is with dream analysis. Even if a satisfactory definition of terms can be established, variation between individuals renders any attempt at correlation of cause and effect ambiguous.

What might have lent greater (even if peripheral) interest, philosophically, and could at least have been entertaining would have been greater use of literary references to the quirkiness of dreams generously peppered throughout and on epigraphs to the individual chapters; everything from Shakespeare (Queen Mab, Puck and Prospero) through Keats to T.E. Lawrence:

All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous ... for they may act on their dreams with open eyes to make them possible."

The publisher's statement [4] best summarizes the tone of the work:

Dreams, conceived as conscious experience or phenomenal states during sleep, offer an important contrast condition for theories of consciousness and the self. Yet, although there is a wealth of empirical research on sleep and dreaming, its potential contribution to consciousness research and philosophy of mind is largely overlooked. This might be due, in part, to a lack of conceptual clarity and an underlying disagreement about the nature of the phenomenon of dreaming itself. In Dreaming, Jennifer Windt lays the groundwork for solving this problem."

To her credit the author does lay out a practical plan in the introduction for ease of reading whereby one scans the introductory and summary sections of each chapter to obtain a better feel for the material covered so as to assess the relevance to those particular facets of the argument of greatest immediate interest.

Not all thought-provoking allegorical references need be from literary giants. The line from Jung might well apply to this tome, "Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens." [5]


[1] Satel, Sally and Scott O. Lilienfeld "Losing Our Minds in the Age of Brain Science" Skeptical Inquirer 2013 Volume 37.6, November/December (posted at: www.csicop.org/si/show/losing_our_minds_in_the_age_of_brain_science - excerpted from their recent book, Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience [New York, NY, Basic Books, 2013].) See also leonardo.info/reviews/jun2015/caillat-kade.php (Ctrl + F -> Shanks).

[2] Krauthammer, Charles, "Did Chess make Him Crazy?" Time - Vol. 165, Issue 18 - 2 May 2005 p. 96. time.com/time/columnist/krauthammer/article/0,9565,1054411,00.html.

[3] Dali, Salvador, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali, (London, Vision Press, Ltd., 1976) p. i (Introduction by Robert Melville, June 1968).

[4] https://mitpress.mit.edu/authors/jennifer-m-windt.

[5] Jung, Carl G., Memories, Dreams, Reflections (original German title: Erinnerungen, Träume, Gedanken) (New York, NY, Doubleday 1963).

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