The Hermeneutics of Suspicion
3:AM: You use a striking phrase in one of your essays, “the hermeneutics of suspicion”, to discuss three of your intellectual heroes, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. Could you say a little about what you were getting at in that phrase and how it is really relevant for the intellectual left today?
BL: The phrase itself derives from the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, though I take strong issue with how he understands what such a “hermeneutics” - or method of interpretation - involves. But what Ricoeur correctly notices is that Marx, Nietzsche and Freud represent ways of thinking about and analyzing human societies and human behavior that share certain structural similarities. First, they typically suspect that people’s own self-understanding and self-presentation are misleading as to what really explains why they say what they say and do what they do. Second, these thinkers try to show that the real explanation is one that would undermine the credibility of the beliefs and values people affirm.
Take a wonderful Freudian example, that has since been confirmed by experimental work in psychology. A “reaction formation” is a psychological process in which one forms moral views in reaction to desires that one really has - so, e.g., one becomes a vociferous critic of the immorality of homosexuality and gay marriage precisely because one has strong homosexual urges and desires that one finds threatening. A reaction formation is a “defense mechanism,” a way of trying to protect oneself from desires one doesn’t want to act upon. The typical religious or moralistic homophobe will conceive of himself as “defending family values” and “traditional marriage,” when, in reality, he only mouths these moralistic platitudes because deep down he’d like nothing better than to have anal or oral sex with another man. If, in fact, it’s the reaction formation that really explains his moral beliefs, then those beliefs can’t possibly be justified, since they arise from a mechanism, reaction formation, that’s inherently unreliable (that is, it’s not a reliable way to figure out what’s morally right or wrong). This bears emphasizing: if what really explains your moral attitudes is that they are a desperate psychological attempt to restrain your own desire for what those attitudes condemn, then why should anyone else take them seriously?
Leiter Reports. Brian Leiter interviewed by Richard Marshall at 3:AM magazine.