« "The Black Book of Communism" | Main | A Realistic Appraisal of the Nature of the Coming Draft »

"The Hermeneutics of Suspicion: Recovering Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud"

This essay, my contribution to The Future for Philosophy (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 2004), is now available for free download here.  This is from the introduction to the essay:

Paul Ricoeur famously dubbed that great triumvirate of late nineteenth--and early twentieth-century thought--Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud--“the school of suspicion,”[i] by which he meant those thinkers who taught us to regard with suspicion our conscious understandings and experience,[ii] whether the deliverances of ordinary psychological introspection about one’s desires (“I really want to be rich!”), or the moral categories political leaders and ordinary citizens apply to themselves and the social world they inhabit (“an inheritance tax is an immoral death tax!”).  “Beneath” or “behind” the surface lay causal forces that explained the conscious phenomena precisely because they laid bare the true meaning of those phenomena:  I don’t really want lots of money, I want the love I never got as a child; survivors have no moral claim on an inheritance, but it is in the interests of the ruling classes that we believe they do; and so on.

            Recent years have been, in now familiar ways, unkind to Marx and Freud.  For understandable, if philosophically frivolous, reasons the collapse of the Soviet Union has been taken—especially in the media—as signalling the defeat of Marxism qua philosophy.[iii]  Meanwhile, Freud’s theory of the mind fell prey to the combined forces of the philosophical critique launched by Adolf Grünbaum[iv] (especially as popularized by polemicists like Frederick Crews[v]) and market-driven models of medical care (especially in the United States), which disfavored the lengthy investment required by Freudian psychoanalysis.  Only Nietzsche has remained apparently unscathed, his academic reputation and influence at perhaps its highest point ever.[vi]

            Yet instead of a frontal assault on the critiques of the explanatory programs of Marx and Freud, the defense of their legacy in the English-speaking world has gradually fallen to those I will call moralizing interpreters of their thought.  The moralizing readers de-emphasize (or simply reject) the explanatory and causal claims in the work of Marx and Freud, and try to marry more-or-less Marxian and Freudian ideas to various themes in normative ethics and political philosophy.  Explanation of phenomena is abandoned in favor of the more traditional philosophical enterprise of justification, whether of the just distribution of resources or the possibility of morality’s authority. 

So, for example, G.A. Cohen, the most influential of English-language Marx interpreters in recent decades,[vii] has declared that “Marxism has lost much or most of its [empirical] carapace, its hard shell of supposed fact”[viii] and that, as a result, “Marxists...are increasingly impelled into normative political philosophy.”[ix]  (Under the influence of Habermas, the Marxist tradition has taken a similar turn on the Continent.[x])   Similarly, a leading moral philosopher notes that, “Just when philosophers of science thought they had buried Freud for the last time, he has quietly reappeared in the writings of moral philosophers”[xi] and goes on to claim that “Freud’s theory of the superego provides a valuable psychological model for various aspects of [Kant’s] Categorical Imperative.”[xii]  On these new renderings, Marx and Freud command our attention because they are really just complements (or correctives) to Rawls or Korsgaard, really just normative theorists who can be made to join in a contemporary dialogue about equality and the authority of morality.[xiii]

            Yet even Nietzsche has been transformed by moralizing interpreters, though in a somewhat different way.  The crucial development here has been the retreat from the natural reading of Nietzsche as a philosopher engaged in an attack on morality--a reading first articulated by the Danish scholar Georg Brandes more than a century ago[xiv]-- in favor of a reading which presents Nietzsche as fundamentally concerned with questions of truth and knowledge:  the moralistic scruples of interpreters are satisfied by treating Nietzsche as concerned with something else, something less morally alarming than a “revaluation of values.”  Thus, on the European Continent, Heidegger tells us that Nietzsche is the last great metaphysician, advancing claims, like Plato, about the essence of Being,[xv] while in the hands of Foucault and Derrida, Nietzsche becomes the precursor of post-modern skepticism about knowledge and determinate meaning.   

            In Anglophone philosophy, the development has followed a somewhat different trajectory, but arrived, nonetheless, at the same resting point.  The late Walter Kaufmann, a gifted translator but unreliable scholar, saved Nietzsche from the misrepresentations of the Nazis, but added his own by introducing a more straightforwardly moralistic interpretation:  Kaufmann’s Nietzsche turns out to be a congenial secular liberal, committed to self-realization.[xvi]  Since Kaufmann, however, the primary tendency among English-speaking interpreters has been, as on the Continent, to locate Nietzsche’s central philosophical concerns outside of the theory of value:  for example, as a certain sort of philosophical skeptic about truth, knowledge, and meaning.  This approach, which dominated Nietzsche studies beginning with Arthur Danto’s 1965 book Nietzsche as Philosopher,[xvii] received its most sophisticated articulation in Alexander Nehamas’s 1985 study, Nietzsche:  Life as Literature,[xviii] a book which presents a “Nietzsche” that, one suspects, Georg Brandes would not have recognized.

            I shall argue that, in fact, all three of the great practitioners of the hermeneutics of suspicion have suffered at the hands of moralizing interpreters who have resisted the essentially naturalistic thrust of their conception of philosophical practice.  The resistance, it is important to note at the beginning, has taken different forms.  On Cohen’s reading of Marx, for example, Marx is, indeed, a kind of naturalist, but a failed one:  Marxists are better-served by turning to moral theory, according to Cohen, given the failure of the naturalistic project. On Nehamas’s reading of Nietzsche, by contrast, the naturalism is simply ignored, in favor of a reading that makes Nietzsche morally palatable by reading him as claiming only that the best kind of life is one that displays the coherence of the ideal literary character.  In the case of Freud, finally, recent interpretations have been straightforwardly moralistic:  Freud is, indeed, a naturalist, on these accounts, but one whose central claims either lend support to or require supplementation by claims from—of all sources!—Kantian moral theory.

This paper argues against all three forms of moralizing readings, and in support of the claim that, as a matter of both textual exegesis and intellectual importance, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud are best read as primarily naturalistic thinkers, that is thinkers who view philosophical inquiry as continuous with a sound empirical understanding of the natural world and the causal forces operative in it.  When one understands conscious life naturalistically, in terms of its real causes, one contributes at the same time to a critique of the contents of consciousness: that, in short, is the essence of a hermeneutics of suspicion.

            Now admittedly, such a rendering of the “hermeneutics of suspicion” would have seemed strange to Ricoeur, who was in the grips of a fairly crude philosophy of science.  He thought the hermeneutics of suspicion stood in opposition to a “scientific” understanding of phenomena.  “The statements of psychoanalysis are [not] located...within the causal discourse of the natural sciences,” Ricoeur says, then adding that since psychoanalysis is concerned with “motives”--though not motives that “coincide with any conscious process of awareness”-- “its explanations resemble causal explanations, without, however, being identically the same, for then psychoanalysis would reify all its notions and mystify interpretation itself.”[xix]  The talk of “reification” is, shall we say, obscure. Psychoanalysis, as Freud himself understood it, offers causal explanations that appeal to unconscious motives, and while these causes are laden with meaning, they are causes nonetheless.[xx]  To be sure, when philosophers of science thought that all causal explanations had to conform to one model--usually drawn from some idealized version of physics--it seemed that a hermeneutic explanation, one that took seriously the meaningfulness of certain mental states qua causes, was necessarily not part of the causal discourse of science.  But that understanding of causal explanation is now, happily, defunct,[xxi] replaced with a new pluralism that recognizes, as one philosopher of science puts it, that “explanatory adequacy is essentially pragmatic and field-specific”[xxii]  Sciences may all offer consilient explanations of diverse phenomena, and generate true predictions, but beyond that, there is room for a plurality of logical forms and degrees of quantitative precision.

            This last point bears emphasizing:  naturalism in philosophy--certainly as it is relevant to Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud--is fundamentally a methodological view, which holds that philosophical inquiry should be both modelled on the methods of the successful sciences, and, at a minimum, consistent with the results of those sciences.[xxiii]  The supernatural finds no place in our best ontology, on this view, simply because the methods of the sciences don’t require positing its existence.  Because naturalism, so understood, gives priority to actual scientific practices, it repudiates the characteristic doctrines of mid-20th-century scientistic philosophy, such as the idea that all genuine sciences must ultimately be reducible to physics, or the claim that all genuine explanations must have a certain logical form or at least the form of the explanations we find in physics.  Physics is a successful science, but so too are evolutionary biology, cognitive psychology and geology, despite the fact that they aren’t reducible to physics, and despite the fact that they explain phenomena in ways that look unfamiliar from the austere ontological and methodological repertoire of physics. 

            Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud are more important, to be sure, for their methodological naturalism, brought as it is to bear on questions of great moment, than for all the details of their empirical theories.  We must allow that on many particulars, these three great practitioners of the hermeneutics of suspicion are not satisfactory--indeed, can not be uniformly satisfactory since they sometimes contradict each other! Of course, empirical progress is the norm in all forms of inquiry that aim for a naturalistic understanding of the world.  And just as evolutionary biologists find it necessary to modify parts of the explanatory framework bequeathed them by Darwin--even as they preserve the main elements of his outlook--so, too, should practitioners of the hermeneutics of suspicion expect to dispense with many of the particular theses associated with Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, even as they retain the general explanatory framework that informs their hermeneutics of suspicion.[xxiv]  As one recent researcher, reviewing experimental evidence supporting Freud, wrote:  “To reject psychodynamic thinking because Freud’s instinct theory is his view of women is dated is like rejecting modern physics because Newton did not understand relativity.”[xxv]  To take Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud seriously as philosophical naturalists demands nothing less.

            If we can recover the naturalistic ambitions of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, we will also accomplish two important meta-philosophical goals:   first, it helps make philosophy “relevant”--as the critics of philosophy so often demand--and, second, it bridges the so-called analytic/Continental divide in philosophy.  Philosophy becomes relevant because the world—riven as it is with hypocrisy and concealment—desperately needs a hermeneutics of suspicion to unmask it.  And by taking these three seminal figures of the Continental traditions as philosophical naturalists we show their work to be continuous with the naturalistic turn that has swept Anglophone philosophy over the past several decades.  Such a reconciliation of Continental and Anglophone philosophy may seem to some the wrong one, but it is beyond the scope of this essay to defend the importance of the naturalistic turn.[xxvi]  All I hope to establish here is that the antipathy to naturalism often thought to be constitutive of “the Continental tradition” is simply an artifact of cutting the joints of that tradition in certain places.[xxvii]  Much of that Continental tradition has earned the--sometimes justified--antipathy of Anglophone philosophers, but there is reason to hope that just as German intellectuals of the 1840s and 50s, in the grips of the first great naturalistic turn in philosophy, gave up on Hegel as an obscurantist metaphysician,[xxviii] that we, too, may leave behind Hegel and his progeny.


      [i] Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy, trans. D. Savage (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1970), p. 32.

      [ii] “If we go back to the intention they had in common, we find in it the decision to look upon the whole of consciousness primarily as ‘false’ consciousness.”  Id. at 33. 

      [iii] Marxism had been so long associated with the Soviet Union, that that system’s collapse was taken to coincide with the collapse of its putative intellectual foundations.  Of course, this association is, from a philosophical point of view, a non-sequitur.  Indeed, the Soviet Union arguably collapsed for Marxian reasons:  bureaucratic central planning clearly fettered the development of the forces of production, and thus was eventually supplanted by nascent market forms of production and distribution.

      [iv] Adolf Grünbaum, The Foundations of Psychoanalysis:  A Philosophical Critique (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1984).

      [v] See infra n. 85.

      [vi] Even analytic philosophers like Christine Korsgaard and Thomas Nagel--ones with Kantian sympathies no less!--now refer respectfully to his ideas.

      [vii] See G.A. Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History:  A Defense (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1978).

      [viii] G.A. Cohen, If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? (Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 103.

      [ix] Id. at 109.

[x] See, e.g., Jürgen Habermas, Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns, 2 vols. (Frankfurt:  Suhrkamp, 1981), translated as The Theory of Communicative Action by Thomas McCarthy in two volumes (1984, 1987) published by Beacon Press (Boston).

      [xi] J. David Velleman, “A Rational Superego,” Philosophical Review 108 (1999), p. 529.

      [xii] Id.

      [xiii] One hopeful sign that the tide may be turning with respect to Marx is Jonathan Wolff’s splendid book, Why Read Marx Today? (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2002).  At times, to be sure, Wolff expresses a certain uneasiness about the epistemic status of Marx’s claims..  “My point,” he says, “is that we value the work of the greatest philosophers for their power, rigour, depth, inventiveness, insight, originality, systematic vision, and, no doubt, other virtues too.  Truth, or at least the whole truth and nothing but the truth, seems way down the list....There are things much more interesting than truth.  Understood this way, Marx’s works are as alive as anyone’s.”   Id. at 101.  Yet elsewhere--and Wolff makes the case powerfully--he notes that Marx “does say may true and inspiring things.  His work is full of insight and illumination.”  Id. at 125.

      [xiv] Based on lectures first given in the late 1880s, they subsequently appeared in English as Friedrich Nietzsche, trans. A. Chater (London:  Heinemann, 1915).

      [xv] A more compelling reading of Nietzsche along these lines than Heidegger’s is presented in John Richardson, Nietzsche’s System (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1996).  For my own doubts about this interpretation, see my review in Mind 107 (1998):  683-690.

      [xvi] Although long discredited, this reading continues to resurface.  For a recent example, see James Conant, “Nietzsche’s Perfectionism:  A Reading of Schopenhauer as Educator,” in R. Schacht (ed.), Nietzsche’s Postmoralism (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2001).  For discussion of the sloppy scholarship here, see my review in Mind 112 (2003):  175-178.   As Thomas Hurka points out, Conant even quotes selectively from “Schopenhauer as Educator,” and mistranslates a central term in order to support his (mis)reading.  See Thomas Hurka, “Nietzsche:  Perfectionist,” in B. Leiter & N. Sinhababu (eds.), Nietzsche and Morality (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

      [xvii] (New York:  MacMillan, 1965).

      [xviii] (Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard University Press, 1985).  Nehamas does repudiate, correctly, Danto’s attribution of a pragmatic theory of truth to Nietzsche.  But in its overall interpretive orientation, it follows in Danto’s footsteps.

      [xix] Freud and Philosophy, p. 360.

[xx] As Peter Railton eloquently puts the same general point in his contribution to this volume:  “How could any explanation of a human phenomenon be causally adequate if it failed to give us an account that accurately rendered the lived experience or subjectivity of those immersed in a practice?—such experience is surely the primary data to be accounted for.  And how could an understanding of human action be meaning adequate if it failed to locate those ideas, images, or motives that actually played a role in bringing about the behavior and its effects?”

      [xxi] See Nancy Cartwright’s and Philip Kitcher’s essays in this volume.

      [xxii] Richard W. Miller, Fact and Method:  Explanation, Confirmation and Reality in the Natural and Social Sciences (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1987), p. 95.

      [xxiii] I have defended this view of naturalism in various places:  see, e.g., my Nietzsche on Morality (London:  Routledge, 2002), pp. 3-6, and my “Naturalism and Naturalized Jurisprudence,” in Analyzing Law:  New Essays in Legal Theory, ed. B. Bix (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1998), pp. 81-84.  Michael Rea, in one of the most careful and systematic (albeit highly critical) considerations of philosophical naturalism, reaches a similar conclusion:  see Michael C. Rea, World Without Design:  The Ontological Consequences of Naturalism (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 2002), esp. chapters 2 and 3. 

[xxiv] Obviously, they shouldn’t retain the framework if it proves empirically unsustainable.  And equally obviously, this way of approaching the hermeneutics of suspicion makes it hostage to empirical fortune:  but as far as I can see, that is what Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud intended, and that is what makes them genuinely interesting and significant.  On recent empirical support for Nietzsche, see my essay on Nietzsche’s theory of the will in The Blackwell Companion to Nietzsche, ed. K. Ansell-Pearson (Oxford:  Blackwell, forthcoming) and the essay by Joshua Knobe and myself on the empirical foundations of Nietzsche’s moral psychology in Nietzsche and Morality, op cit.; on Freud, see infra n. 89; on Marx, see infra nn. 41-46.

[xxv] Drew Westen, “The Scientific Legacy of Sigmund Freud:  Toward a Psychodynamically Informed Psychological Science,” Psychological Bulletin 124 (1998), p. 334.

      [xxvi] But see the introduction to this volume, and, especially, the contributions by Alvin Goldman and Peter Railton.

      [xxvii] This is not to deny that anti-naturalism is an important theme in post-Kantian philosophy on the European Continent in the 19th- and 20th- centuries; it is to deny that such a theme constitutes an ineliminable element of Continental philosophy.

[xxviii] No one put it better than Schopenhauer, who remarked that the emblem of a university committed to Hegel’s philosophy would be “a cuttle-fish creating a cloud of obscurity around itself so that no one sees what it is, with the legend, mea caligine tutus [fortified by my own obscurity].”  On the Will in Nature, trans. E.F.J. Payne (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 24.

March 23, 2005 in Hermeneutics of Suspicion | Permalink