March 05, 2006

Masters of Suspicion

by G. D. Robinson
PREMISE / Volume II, Number 8 / September 27, 1995 / Page 12
The French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, while essentially operating from within the reader oriented end of the spectrum, is uncomfortable with the intrinsic subjectivity associated with such hermeneutics and seeks to walk the fine line between a call for objectivity (grounded in some way in the text), and yet at the same time seeking to remain "open" to what the text may have to say. Ricoeur's hermeneutic of suspicion represents his attempt to retain both science and art, whilst disallowing either an absolute status...
  • Marx's analysis of religion led him to the conclusion that while religion appeared to be concerned with the lofty issues of transcendence and personal salvation, in reality its true function was to provide a "flight from the reality of inhuman working conditions" and to make "the misery of life more endurable." Religion in this way served as "the opium of the people."
  • Similarly, Nietzche's understanding of the true purpose of religion as the elevation of "weakness to a position of strength, to make weakness respectable" belied its apparent purpose, namely to make life for the 'slave morality', the weak, the unfit, a little more endurable by promoting virtues such as pity, industry, humility, and friendliness. Thus Nietzche unmasks religion to reveal it as the refuge of the weak.
  • Likewise with Freud, the same pattern of "unmasking" to reveal and distinguish "the real" from the "apparent" is evident in his analysis of religion. So, while religion was perceived to be a legitimate source of comfort and hope when one is faced with the difficulties of life, in reality religion was an illusion that merely expressed one's wish for a father-God.

It was only a small step for Ricoeur to recognize the suspicion of religion and culture offered by the heroes and then apply the same principle to the act of communication under the rubric of a hermeneutics of suspicion. Furthermore, Ricoeur insisted that it would be a mistake to view the three as masters of skepticism. Why is this? Because, while it is true they are involved with destroying established ideas "All three clear the horizon for a more authentic word, for a new reign of Truth, not only by means of a 'destructive' critique, but by the invention of an art of interpreting."

In other words, each of the masters have, in their own way, unmasked a false consciousness, a false understanding of the "text" (society) by systematically applying a critique of suspicion, with the result that the true understanding, one that more faithfully tracks and correlates with the real situation now becomes unmasked and revealed. All three, for Ricoeur, "represent three convergent procedures of demystification."

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