Friday, September 25, 2009

The Masters of Suspicion

Earlier this week I read Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents, a book I was supposed to have read in college, but reading it now, it seems unlikely that I ever did. (I recall having used a lame version of one of his arguments in a paper I wrote. One wonders how I managed even that. I can only have been regurgitating the instructor's gloss.) Anyway, as with Nietzsche, I find reading Freud enjoyable, if frustrating. It's generally a real pleasure following his line of reasoning, but, also as with Nietzsche, I have a hard time taking seriously many of his specific conclusions. For one thing, of course, Freud's point of view was hopelessly male-centric, no minor detail; this stance probably led to many, if not most, of the arguments that I find problematic in what I've read. With both Nietzsche and Freud, it is especially their speculations on the "origins" of things that I find most difficult to take seriously, though they are often brilliantly argued.

In this focus on origins, I am reminded again of Gabriel Josipovici's great On Trust: Art and the Temptations of Suspicion. In the early pages of the book, Josipovici employs the language of Paul Ricoeur, who called Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx the "masters of suspicion", their work a "hermeneutics of suspicion". As Josipovici puts it, these writers
revealed that what we had taken to be natural, a 'given', was in fact man-made, the result of choices and decisions made by individuals and communities. Thus Marx laid bare the workings of capital, Nietzsche the workings of morality, Freud the workings of sexuality. Where the Enlightenment had seen all men as essentially one, and human nature as unchanging, the nineteenth-century masters of suspicion set about exploring the genealogies, the secret histories, of morals and social institutions, with the aim of freeing men from bonds to which they did not even know they were subject.
Nietzsche noted that, though men had (so it apparently seemed to him) largely abandoned Christianity, they "are a long way from being free spirits, because they still believe in truth" and "Any meaning is better than none". But for him, "inquiry [the search for truth] itself stands in need of justification". Josipovici uses these Nietzsche remarks as his springboard into his larger discussion, moving onto, first, Kierkegaard and, more generally, the problems for the writer posed by the crisis of modernity. Interestingly, of the three "masters of suspicion", it is Marx who emerges as the most accurate in his "laying bare" project. All three are still valuable thinkers, since the value of a thinker resides not completely in the accuracy of the conclusions reached, and, indeed, simply arguing persuasively that what had seemed natural was not has liberated other thinkers investigating the same areas. But Marx is the only one of the three whose particular conclusions remain relevant (I'm talking analysis here, not prognostication).

Returning to the matter of origins, an important factor in my having difficulty with the arguments on the origins of things made by Freud or Nietzsche has to do with my familiarity with the work of Chris Knight, which I have referred to several times on the blog, at some length here. One thing that Knight shows, in his application of feminist insights and "selfish gene" theory to the extensive anthropological record, is how right it appears that Marx and Engels were in their writings about the origins of things. Nietzsche and Freud seem to assume a Hobbesian state of nature when they consider such matters; thus, for example, Freud's focus on the so-called "aggressiveness" instinct, which must be repressed into aggression against one's own ego, against the instinct for primal freedom, itself necessarily suppressed by "civilization". Such accounts seem to bypass the emergence of language and culture, assuming that in our original human moment we would have necessarily been much like the other primates, when it's the very differences between humans and other primates that must be explained when one is attempting to explain human nature. Thus one must take into account language. Knight's theory of the sex strike, which puts female humans at the forefront of this process, would no doubt have been anathema to Freud, who, quite aside from his theories on women and sexuality, like Nietzsche, sees men at the origin, with women relegated to child-bearing and child-rearing. That these natural processes might be crucial to any understanding of human nature and origins is, for them, necessarily a priori out of the question.


stuart said...

Hi Richard,
To tell an origins story, all you once needed was a 'before', an 'after' and some way of bridging the gap. All you really needed was a lively imagination.

Now, however, any credible origins story has to deal with the vast amount we know about 'before' (our evolutionary history, the social life of primates, etc) and 'after' (the social life of hunter-gatherers). I think that might account for the dating of Freud's and Nietzche's accounts. The surprising relevance of Marx is I think because his best work was already more anthropological than philosophical. Nice quote I found recently: anthropology is philosophy with the people in!


Joe Miller said...

"But Marx is the only one of the three whose particular conclusions remain relevant"

Nonsense; his analysis is fundamentally anthropocentric and logocentric, and is thus still enmired in the Judeo-Christian morality that gave rise to Capitalism. His system is very much vulnerable to a Nietzschean critique.

Richard said...

Joe, I am referring there to the question of origins. I do not take issue with your criticism of Marx as anthropocentric (or as vulnerable to a Nietzschean critique, as you put it). The ways in which both Freud and Nietzsche address origins were, in the works I've read, laughably misogynistic. I make no claims of Marx being a great feminist, but his and Engels' work, as applied by Chris Knight and others (please see links in original post above for some info on his work), in combination with feminist insights, among many other things, remains in this way extremely important.