Trust Is Foundational

trust is foundational

This article is of a philosophical nature and examines the notion of the 'hermeneutic of suspicion' and contrasts it with a 'hermeneutic of trust'.

The Question of Foundations

The philosophical scene in our times includes much confused thinking and it can be difficult for someone setting out on any serious inquiry to sift through the underlying biases. In our day, when the notion of foundation is widely suspect, even derided and supposedly rejected, we need to get at least an initial orientation of where we think we are going. We need this to counter the disorientation that affects a lot of intellectual endeavour in the humanities and social sciences.

Although some notions of foundation are widely rejected, some with good reason, the question of foundations is still essential, and is still treated under the heading of methodology. This is for two main reasons. Firstly, when conducting a particular inquiry you do not know in advance where it will lead, but you do need to adopt basic positions regulating and directing the search. Without doing so you cannot gain any systematic result, but will just meander across the intellectual terrain, and in the end not even be able to say clearly where you have been or what it really meant. Secondly, in order to attain a reasonable degree of impartiality you need to adopt controls of meaning recognised and accepted by others or they will not bother to listen to reports of your travels.

Why does our intellectual culture have a problem with foundations? Why does it seem allergic to claims of truth?

There are many strains tangled together to produce this knotty situation. In this article I want to try and disentangle at least part of one of the strands, what has been called the hermeneutic of suspicion.

The Role of Critique

The world has problems so one of the tools we need in our intellectual toolbox is a capacity to critique, to look behind the surface of claims people make to see if they are really what they seem, to employ a degree of suspicion. As well as being suspicious of some motives of particular people or groups, we might come to have doubts of a more notably intellectual kind about systems of thought. Perhaps we should extend our critique to examine even what we have taken to be the foundations of our own worldview?

Up to a point all this is unremarkable, and has always characterised intellectual culture. However, in our times there are those who have taken this attitude of suspicion to a new level. They have adopted a more fundamental stance that seeks to doubt everything in a radical way. When this hermeneutic of suspicion is applied thoroughly and continuously it eventually becomes suspicious of any claims to foundational positions. It begins to criticise anyone proposing foundational truths. It sees virtue in undermining any claims to truth, for it interprets them as claims to power.

But what happens when systematic suspicion denies the possibility of objective knowledge? Why would we bother any more to spend our time seeking truth? Is this all just misguided?

The Primacy of Trust

Insofar as the present project is concerned, this article is meant to set the scene by saying something of my own methodological positions. It is perhaps too condensed for some readers, implying a lot, but rather briefly since it is only an introduction. For those readers who might find it a bit difficult, the gist of it is this.

A habitually trusting attitude is more realistic than a habitually suspicious attitude.

This is not a bias, but is the implicit methodology of any search for truth. If you habitually look at things from a negative angle you are searching for what is ‘real but not true’. That is, you expect to find that behind the things that appear to be real and true there will be something wrong.

The view that there cannot be any real foundation arises as the logical outcome of adopting a hermeneutic of suspicion as a de facto foundational attitude.

What is the hermeneutic of suspicion? When we suspect something, we doubt, we ask whether what appears to be the case really is the case. We wonder if something is ‘real but not true’. In general then suspicion is a stance we need to adopt in some circumstances.

A hermeneutic is an interpretive key, a systematic way of looking at things.

So a hermeneutic of suspicion is applying the general mode of suspicion more systematically, because we have some reason to think that there is a distortion of some kind affecting something inherently complex. A brief inquiry will not uncover the deeper roots of the problem so we need a more sustained application of a doubting attitude. Like ordinary and particular suspicions, this more systematic suspicion might be warranted. However it contains a danger. Sustained engagement in the hermeneutic of suspicion could colour one's general views with an abiding feeling of negativity. This could take on a life of its own, as it were, and become something amounting to a foundational attitude.

A Human Question

The hermeneutic of suspicion is only really relevant in studies of human reality. The natural sciences do not engage in ‘suspicion’ of the natural world but have a simple wonder about it. The human world includes problematic aspects, where the reality itself, the phenomenon being studied, is already distorted so as to be suspect.

In studying the human world there is not only the danger of developing a bias of negative feeling that takes on a life of its own, but this could also take on ideological form, of either a religious or secular type. The predominant form affecting western culture is a secular ideology of foundational suspicion of claims to objective truths about human nature, especially claims with religious foundations.

A foundational hermeneutic of suspicion cannot at root be intellectual but could only be an orientation of feeling amounting to a foundational attitude.

A Feeling Turned into a Theory

The realm of feeling mediates between meaning and the body's energies, so a ‘foundation’ can rest in a habitual attitude of mistrust or despair, on a seemingly irredeemable suspicion of everything, ultimately including one’s own self.

This stance in an individual might arise from constant experiences of being betrayed and demeaned, but even this would not be enough without an intellectual component that added to these experiences a ‘hermeneutic of despair’.

More commonly, a foundational hermeneutic of suspicion arises, not preponderantly from experience but from ideology.

It is an apparently systematic elaboration of an interpretive key, a hermeneutic, that pre-distorts perceptions along the lines of comprehensive mistrust.

But much of this is ‘notional mistrust’, not necessarily engaging the feelings deeply but being a routine conceptual framework providing ritual forms of suspicion directed towards formulaic targets. This can all be absorbed as a body of ideas reproduced to satisfy social demands such as university assignments. Although not deeply felt by most it becomes a superstructure of concepts applied rather superficially for social and cultural purposes.

If someone did diligently engage with it and believe it then it can have the effect of ‘manufacturing’ the feelings that would be appropriate if these interpretations were real. The fact that most people do not take these constructs too seriously, but go along with them, provides cover for those who do take them seriously. Their own genuineness demands they take a stance. It is at this point that the hermeneutic of suspicion becomes foundational in an intellectual sense, and thus also mobilises feelings in a perhaps passionate and long-term commitment. It matters a great deal then what the truth of the matter is.

The Question of Truth and Belief

The question of truth itself becomes crucial. When developed as a more sophisticated theory the very nature of intellectual inquiry itself falls under suspicion. It seems that nothing can be definitively proved, therefore there cannot be any foundation that imposes itself on the inquirer, but he or she must simply choose a foundation.

The question of belief then becomes pivotal. But belief does not become effectively operative in one's consciousness unless it either seems to impose itself as unassailable, or is enacted by decision. But if it does not impose itself, a decision to enact it seems in some degree arbitrary in principle. To adopt this belief rather than some other seems to be a mere act of self will.

This is one reason why religion has become the main target of the secular ideology founded on the hermeneutic of suspicion, and the main religion that shaped the West was Christianity, so it becomes the main target of suspicion, if not always overtly, at least implicitly. Christianity is then interpreted in two ways. In so far as simple people believe it they can be excused because they are not intellectually sophisticated enough to see that belief can only be an act of will, not grounded in truth as such. In so far as Christians are intellectually sophisticated they must be culpable for persisting in the untenable beliefs, presumably for reasons of power, perhaps obscured wilfully from themselves through self deception.

This ideology interprets the phenomenon of Christian belief as the mere assertion of will, as a more or less arbitrary set of claims that in principle can have no more claim to truth than any other.

Since Christian beliefs cannot be proven in any simple and obvious way they cannot genuinely impose themselves interiorly as ineluctable knowledge, so it is sheer presumption to treat them as such. The whole thing must be a charade about power, notwithstanding the many simple people taken in by it and no doubt doing a lot of good in spite of the dead weight of their more arbitrary beliefs.

This interpretation seems vindicated because now that Christians in more 'enlightened' societies have been exposed to the effect of the hermeneutic of suspicion their beliefs have diluted so that most of them have drifted from the church. Those beliefs obviously no longer have a deep emotional traction actually shaping their inner lives, or their outer actions. If the church itself becomes secularised then it seems to provide empirical evidence to confirm the secular ideology’s suspicions.

A Commonsense View

A commonsense view accepts as its working notion that some beliefs are not optional, but do impose themselves of necessity. They are treated as items of knowledge, aspects of the real that are incontrovertible, and so appear to fall outside the realm of ‘mere’ belief.

A theoretical view might become so sophisticated that its conception of the link between understanding and knowing is revealed to lie in belief alone, with nothing ever really imposing itself on the individual.

This is because the hermeneutic of suspicion can itself become effectively foundational. A conclusion that someone else accepts as objective, that is as being real, and so having a claim on me beyond my own will, can always be set aside with the generic response, “it only seems that way, but if we keep thinking we are bound to find eventually some further perspective that renders this apparent foundation as mere belief”.

Foundational Non-Foundationalism

It is foundational agnosticism. It is the decision on principle to never accept anything as grounded outside myself.

I decide in advance that no criteria could ever satisfy the conditions for objectivity.

This theory could become even more sophisticated and arrive at the view that my own self has no foundation, no intrinsic unity, but that even my deepest decisions and commitments are a mere aggregate, with no deeper grounding principle to even make me a self in any real, unitary sense.

Strangely, this ultimate anti-foundational stance can be adopted as one's effective foundation. Obviously it cannot be intellectually coherent, so it's real foundation rests more in the realm of feeling.

Yet ironically it can seem so compelling as an ideology that it seems to impose itself as an intellectual foundation. It feels as though it is intellectually coherent and grounded.

This ultimate contradiction should be a sign that something else is going on and that such a conclusion could not possibly be right. But what resources does one have left to think one's way out of it?

In actual practice very few people, probably none at all, can stay long in this state. Since theory and commonsense are both necessary, they need to coexist, and so must be at least potentially complementary. You still need to live in the practical world, so you need to act in ways that contradict your suspicions. In any case, one still has a foundation, but it has shifted to feelings, which now effectively predominate over reason. So one’s inescapable de facto foundation becomes prejudice.

These prejudices are now felt to be more foundational than any of the ‘mere’ theories anyone might come up with, so self-righteousness can subsist in one's own self, or one’s group, independently of sufficient reason.

A Preoccupation with Power

Reason then is reduced to the merely practical, and the relevant preoccupation of such a worldview is power.

Since identity no longer has a rational foundation in personhood it is located in group identity and self-assertion.

The hermeneutic of suspicion leads to the reduction of persons to individuals, and individuals to ‘aggregate-selves’, collections of psychic-conscious phenomena located in a body, and extrinsically related to other such ‘selves’.

The hermeneutic of suspicion reduces intellectual endeavour to games that might prove useful in the realm of power, or as entertainments, but these entertainments ultimately lack emotional traction because they no longer really matter.

Power is the realm of extrinsic relations, people acting on each other only ‘from the outside’, no longer ‘heart speaking to heart’, but autonomous self-projects bumping against each other, using or avoiding each other.

The unreality of such a project reveals it as parasitic on the real.

Suspicion cannot be foundational if only because it must entail suspicion of something. There must be something that is not suspect to provide the contrast.

Let Us Be Consistent

This is a clue we can follow to find our way back to the real. Let us take the hermeneutic of suspicion all the way to its own logical conclusion. If suspicion must be applied to everything, we must eventually apply it to suspicion itself.

Let us then treat the notion of suspicion as suspect.

Its most obvious character is of something derived, or secondary. It is not creative in any original sense, but can only act on something that already has its own reality.

If it appears to be creative this can only be ‘borrowed’ from something real, and creative suspicion is simply the uncovering of further layers and facets of the real that might also have become distorted from their proper ends.

Suspicion then cannot be foundational intellectually or ontologically. But it might remain effectively foundational as an orientation of feeling.

If suspicion is foundational then ontology can only be fiction.

Yet there is another orientation of feeling that can be foundational, a feeling of trust, of benevolence, an inclination to see everything as good.

Trust expects to find that things do make sense, not that they are meaningless.

If one subsequently comes to suspect that some things do not make sense, one can pursue one's suspicions to uncover what is wrong in the particular case.

It would be irrational to jump to the conclusion that because some things lack intelligibility therefore nothing is ultimately intelligible.

This would already imply a view of the real in which everything is so immediately connected to everything else that any defect in a part is a defect of the whole, so that everything participates in this taintedness by immediate connection.

Apart from the question of how this could be demonstrated, we could also suspect that such universal suspicion is grounded in feelings more than reason. Why would someone want to suspect everything? It is not a path to happiness.

A foundational hermeneutic of suspicion is a solipsism of feeling converted into dogma without sufficient reason.

It generates an imperative to think of everything as immediately interconnected because its only verifiable existence is in me.

But if you find yourself happy about anything you already have at least a partial foundation, a starting point. Happiness is foundational.

The hermeneutic of suspicion could only be foundational in a general state of despair. More likely it is a weighting of negative attitude, strengthened and shaped by ideology.

Happiness Is Foundational

The hermeneutic of trust begins with concrete happiness.

Such trust is not one feeling among many, but is the integration of all feelings responsive to the good.

Happiness wants to find that the world makes sense. This is not deluded, or biased, or having rose coloured lenses in one's eyes, but is the foundation of the intelligible, its general condition. Things are real because they make sense.

So to the extent that things do not make sense they are unreal.

This does not mean a simplistic view that rejects the hermeneutic of suspicion root and branch. Not at all. But it is only from the foundational stance of the hermeneutic of trust that suspicion can be fruitfully employed. True insights can still be derived from within the hermeneutic of suspicion but the attempt to mount to a systematic account of truth will be constantly undermined.

It means that the ‘unreal’, that which needs to be viewed with suspicion, can only be an extraneous defect in the real.

It can only be a distortion, a lack, a disproportion. Such distortions can only be distortions if they are distortions of something real.

The problem of evil then is this unintelligibility running like a fault line through reality. It is an intrusion of the unreal into the real. The only ‘intelligibility’ we can find in it is borrowed from the real.

Following Suspicion All the Way Through

One example of such lack of intelligibility would be to employ the hermeneutic of suspicion but not follow it through to the end by suspecting suspicion itself. Such incompleteness of intention lacks intelligibility. There is no reason not to pursue it to the end. The genuineness that drives the legitimate pursuit of suspicion is unrestricted. It does not stop short at a point convenient to one's own prejudices. And it goes all the way through to unmasking suspicion itself as inherently non-foundational.

This reveals the hermeneutic of trust as the most deeply and thoroughly critical stance. It is not rose-coloured glasses, but the serenity to question everything, because questioning as such is a manifestation of trust, not suspicion. To question is foundationally to wonder, not to doubt.

Doubt is a derived good subordinate to wonder and oriented to its recovery.

But when doubt is needed, it is followed through all the way till it reveals a new and deeper source of wonder.

The End of the Line

If the hermeneutic of suspicion was really foundational one would give up questioning altogether and merely act. Ultimately such action has two forms. One is revolutionary violence, quickly giving way to mere violence, since the ‘revolutionary’ component still aspired to something intelligible, so consistency requires its abandonment. The other is mere hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure without principled restraint or thought.

Since a parasite still needs a host, the hermeneutic of suspicion usually stops some way short of its ostensible goal so as to avoid self extinction.

Any of these pauses could become opportunities to discover the deeper foundation in trust, and begin turning away from the tactics of despair.

Unfortunately, because there are many grounds for legitimate suspicion, there being many evils in the world, defensive measures have to be adopted. But it is crucial that these are recognised clearly as defensive measures and not the building blocks of the originating good itself.

Otherwise systematic distortions are built in as we begin ‘defending against the good’.

The Primacy of Integration in Understanding

We can mistake our own current lack of understanding as indicating a lack of intelligibility in the thing we are trying to understand. We can mistake some goods as bad. Yet the solution to lack of understanding is more understanding, not to prematurely conclude there is nothing there to be understood. Trust is the strongest foundation for the persistence required to think things all the way through and out the other side to where the good is revealed again.

Suspicion wearies the suspicious so they give up short of the goal. Trust strengthens the happy to persist.

If the hermeneutic of suspicion becomes foundational in its specifically intellectual effects it leads to a systematic error – radical pluralism.

It differentiates but does not adequately integrate.

It leads to the idea that understanding is not ultimately intrinsically unified, but only put together into assigned unities. Understanding can only be an aggregate. Then we end up with only an ‘administrative unification of knowledge’.

This view rests on the misidentification of understanding with conceptualisation. If understanding is only subsistent in sets of concepts, which in turn depend on an irreducible plurality of images for their expression, there is no possible inherent unification of understanding. Yet understanding also, and more foundationally, subsists in insights, which come to be expressed in concepts, making use of images. Yet this ‘conversion’ of insight to concept does not occur without remainder. The intrinsic unification of understanding remains subsistent in conscious understanding as unified. This reveals the inherently personal nature of intellect.

But in modern times the hermeneutic of suspicion has essentially overlooked the reality of insight. It implicitly assumes that it must only be a trivial thing. This means that the entire project of intellectual inquiry unravels. All is gradually atomised into particles that are only extrinsically ‘related’. Understanding no longer subsists in persons but could in principle be entirely ‘mechanised’.

Clutching at Utopia as a Last Straw

This is what lies behind the idea that meaning and language are one and the same. The reduction of meaning to language without remainder parallels the reduction of insight to concept without remainder.

Once the effervescence of the initial process of the reduction of everything to language games has passed, parasitic as it was on what it had borrowed from the real for sport, there remains only the dull resentment directed towards innocence.

Yet since the aspiration to happiness and the good is foundational, people do not want to acquiesce in unhappiness. And since genuineness also keeps wanting to bubble up, some people and groups compartmentalise their suspicions, projecting them selectively onto some ideologically defined other. Then in their own domain they see everything as benevolent, declining to be suspicious of themselves.

This leads to a utopian imagination, and a divided soul; righteousness for us and suspicion on everyone else.

However, trust is not a stance one adopts, as though one began from a neutral perspective, surveyed the evidence, and on balance decided that good had the edge.

Trust already necessarily pre-exists one's self-conscious aspirations. Indeed one only develops a psychological self at all as an exercise in both seeking and defending the good to which one is innately oriented.

To ‘be me’ is already an at least partially successful outcome of the orientation to trust.

Neutrality is not a dynamic, but an absence, and a tendency to inertia. What we more commonly think of as neutrality is a balance, and not between good and bad, but between two aspects of the good.

Trust Is Foundational

So trust is foundational both to feeling and to inquiry.

The hermeneutic of trust privileges the good. In other words it seeks the truly intelligible. It does not deny the need for suspicion but incorporates it as a secondary attitude and method, drawing on it as necessary.

This foundational notion of the good implies that things have natures. That is, the essence and end of a thing are not convenient fictions we use for the sake of inquiry. They are the subsistence of the thing as such. The particular kind of abstraction that prescinds from natures, essences, ends is a subordinate process within the larger whole that includes these considerations.

From all this we can see that the foundational belief that underlies inquiry is that in knowing we know being. That is, when we come to truly know something, what we know is not merely a subjective opinion but being itself.