The Hermeneutics of Suspicion

TCS Daily – We the Sheeple? Why Conspiracy Theories Persist

The Hermeneutics of Suspicion

This is, in fact, part of why the medievals had the respect for authority that they did. They by no means believed in following authority “blindly” – indeed, Thomas Aquinas regarded the argument from authority as the weakest of all arguments. But they did think that the fact that some authority has said something gave us at least some reason to think it is true, even if that reason might often be overridden by other, better reasons to conclude otherwise. That is to say, they acknowledged that it is simply a necessary feature of the human condition that our starting point in coming to know about the world must always be what we have inherited from some authority or other – parents, church, scholars, government, or whomever. Such authorities might not always have the last word, but they cannot fail to have the first word. And to reject the mindless view that authority as such is always to be questioned is not to embrace the equally mindless view that authority is always to be trusted. It is rather just to take the sensible middle ground position that authority has an unavoidable and necessary place in our lives (intellectual and otherwise) even if it is something fallible that we often need to be cautious about.

At some level, everyone knows this, even if some people pretend to think otherwise. The secularist who chides religious believers for having faith in what the Church teaches will also tell them, in the very next breath and with no sense of irony, to shut up and trust the experts where scientific matters are concerned. That there are philosophers and theologians who can present powerful and sophisticated justifications of religious belief is taken to be no defense of the average believer – he ought to “think for himself,” says the secularist. And yet while the average secularist couldn’t give you an interesting explanation or defense of quantum mechanics, relativity theory, or evolution if his life depended on it, the fact that there are experts who can do so is taken by him to justify his own faith in their findings. As the philosopher Christopher Martin has noted, the real difference between medieval and modern people is not that the former believe in the need for authority and the latter don’t – in fact both medievals and moderns believe in it and act accordingly – but rather that the former admitted that they believed in it, while the latter pretend they don’t.

This pretense of contempt for authority per se is by no means a mere foible. It can lead to very serious intellectual errors, as it does in the work of such apostles of the “hermeneutics of suspicion” as Marx and Nietzsche. For the former, all moral, legal, religious, and cultural beliefs, practices, and institutions are “really” mere expressions of the interests of the dominant economic class within a society; for the latter (and especially for such contemporary Nietzscheans as Michel Foucault), they are “really” just expressions of a more general “will to power.” As such, they are to be regarded with distrust, and indeed (on at least some interpretations of these doctrines) as having no objective validity whatsoever. Authority, tradition, and common sense come to be regarded as something to be constantly unmasked and undercut rather than consulted as necessary, though fallible, sources of wisdom. Indeed, they come to be regarded as something positively hateful and oppressive, from which we must always feel alienated.

Such doctrines are notoriously difficult to formulate in a way that is both coherent and interesting. If interpreted as universal claims, they undercut themselves – Marxism and Nietzscheanism themselves turn out to be just two more masks for some sinister interest or other, with no objective validity. If instead they are not interpreted as universal claims – that is, if it is held that either Marxism or Nietzscheanism alone constitutes objective truth and ought not to be regarded with suspicion – then they seem arbitrary and question-begging. If, to avoid these problems, they are softened into the more modest claim that people often believe in or promote various moral, religious, or political ideas out of self-interest, then they become trivial. Everybody has always known that. And from the fact that someone somewhere might have a selfish motivation for believing or promoting some claim, it simply doesn’t follow that that claim is false or even doubtful. To think otherwise is to commit the ad hominem fallacy of “poisoning the well.” If our believing that the earth is round benefits globe manufacturers, it would be stupid to conclude from this that it must really be flat after all. Similarly, if our believing that 9/11 was caused by a bunch of jihadist fanatics acting without help from any government conspiracy somehow benefits the Bush administration, that is simply no reason whatsoever for doubting that it really was so caused.

Great stuff. I would add my unprovable opinion that the “hermeneutics of suspicion” grows as love fails in the society at large. If you have never been loved, you do not believe in love. You are betrayed. If you do not believe in love, then you do not believe that anyone does anything for any altruistuc reason. So it is a massive and infectuous projection of a root of bitterness onto society and indeed onto the universe. The heart colors the intellect more than the intellect knows, even in the most cerebral personalities.

One thought on “The Hermeneutics of Suspicion

  1. “If you have never been loved, you do not believe in love. You are betrayed. If you do not believe in love, then you do not believe that anyone does anything for any altruistuc reason. So it is a massive and infectuous projection of a root of bitterness onto society and indeed onto the universe.”

    This explains so, so much. Thanks.

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