The Hermeneutics of Suspicion – Beliefs cannot transform into knowledge.


I started this post months ago to jot down notes for a reading group on Ray Brassier’s The Hermeneutics of Suspicion.  The first half, broadly speaking, is a discussion of ideology, and the second half is a review of Brandom’s book on Hegel (which I am reading so I will not discuss this second half until I finish that book).  There were a bunch of things in the paper that blew my mind, as often happens when I read Brassier.

My big takeaway from the whole thing, that may actually have a long range philosophical impact on my life is the offhanded observation of rule based activities (knowledge) vs cause based activities (knowledge).   This is predictive vs explanatory.  Kant is in the rule camp, Aristotle in the cause camp.  Both are kind of wrong: we cannot predict the future, nor can we really explain anything.  We cannot turn beliefs into knowledge. What can we do? Create multiplicities of mappings. If you want – skip the post and just read the last paragraph. I think it is really insightful.

I don’t even want to call these models, but interfaces for that connect one rule with another, one cause with another, one reality tunnel with another.  I am going to continue to meditate on this, rules vs causes.   What follows is essentially my notes of salient points as I read Brassier’s essay.

So how do we talk about subjective observations versus objective observations?

The scientific method taught us about empirical data collection and measurement. But what about subjective experience?

By subjective experience I don’t just mean the hard problem of consciousness like qualia (how do I know your red is the same as my red). But those aspects of life that can only be interpreted not defined.

I am thinking about this while reading  Ray Brassier’s The Hermeneutics of Suspicion for a reading group. It begins by unpacking false consciousness.  With the prayer blockchain I would think why is it important to record desires (prayers) encrypted on an immutable ledger (the blockchain).  Why cant we steal desires or double spend desires? Something about this rhymes with the idea of false consciousness.

False consciousness is the difference between what we desire vs what we are conditioned by society to desire.  Through class warfare and sexual repression that operate in our cultural unconscious, we are betrayed as to what we truly desire and why we desire the things that we desire.

Those factors that contribute to false consciousness, will to power, sexual repression and class struggle according to Brassier “have a symptomatic character: their proper description is at the same time an interpretation.”   I am fascinated by what Marx describes in (I think) Capital as types of understanding beyond knowledge. Normally this is described as praxis, but in this case it is interpretation or perhaps hermeneutics. To describe the class power as a force, is to provide an interpretation, not a definition or a fact.It is all based on a point of view (or perspective) and is ideological and not objectively scientific. The perspectival or subjective nature marks it as different from objective empirical observations.

Brassier says

[marx,nietzsche, freud] … identify effects that are meaning-laden but whose meaningfulness is not constituted by consciousness: it transcends the varieties of belief and desire commensurate with our own understanding of our individual experience… the meaningfulness of these unconscious beliefs and desires (e.g., class interests, slave morality, the Oedipus complex) differs in kind from that ascribed to psychological states.

The methodology of Nietzsche, Marx and Freud:genealogy, historical materialism, psychoanalysis is different from the methodology of the scientific method. This to me is obvious. Why this is different from traditional philosophical discourse is less obvious to me, although it does seem to make sense.

Why are these methodologies different from transcendental idealism, absolute idealism, or cartesian rationalism as Brassier relates. It is because we are no longer interested in what can or cannot be rationally discussed but in interpreting phenomena beyond using rational categories?  What are drives if not base desires beyond or prior to reason? As Brassier interprets Jameson’s distinction between theory and philosophy “reason can never become wholly transparent to itself.” Which is why we need ‘dialectics’ and theory.

There is a digression as to what Kant contributed: namely a recourse to reason that is not grounded in god, and reason not grounded in causes. This second point was difficult for me to unpack. I think it means that there are laws to reasons: “rule-governed discursive activities” as Brassier says. They are not causal, or related to psychological states. I do not think something as a cause of something else. I think it as the expression of a rule.  Contrast this to Descartes who provides a reason for existing – that I am thinking. It is causal not rule based.   This apparently is the rejection of Aristotelean epistemology.

For Jameson, philosophy is just another ideology. One that believes there exists something called ‘Truth’. Theory meanwhile honors practice/praxis against concept. As Brassier says “Practice is the reactivation of the transcendent of the sensible against the latent hylomorphism of Kant’s critical rationalism.”  It is the Nietzschean genealogy that exposes this, philosophy or reason as a product of history, rather than Marx or Freud questioning the ability of reason as the only recourse to understanding.

At this point we bring Brassier brings in Brandom to discuss the relationship between reason and causes  through Brandom’s notion of believing and believed: the distinction between “epistemic states and their content.” (Is this not another form of hylomorphism – just saying) Brassier continues “Genealogy reduces reasons to causes by driving a causal wedge between believing and believed, asserting and asserted, severing the justificatory tie that connects the former to the latter.”

This is a reinterpretation or separation of genealogy from ideology. Genealogy provides a way to connect, in the terminology of Brandom, the act of believing to the connect of the belief.

Brassier quotes Brandom as saying that ideology is the structure of beliefs. It is why people hold beliefs. Is this in contrast to knowledge or facts a la Plato? We will see. I would say the theorists would hold that all that is exists are beliefs, that there is no knowledge or facts and that all is ideology.

The movement that begins with Plato, the movement from belief from knowledge is rejected. There is no justification for beliefs. The factors that relate the content of the beliefs to the act of believing Brassier refers to as superempirical (e.g., Libido, class struggle). They are objects for proof, but objects for interpretation.

Here is a good quote from Brassier: “Marx and Freud materialize the superempirical in terms of production and drive respectively.” And we should not confuse materialization for scientification (if that is a world). This is perhaps what Marx, Freud, et al are trying to do.  But this does not make these objects of science (justification).

And this is interesting because it provides an opening for why is theory important. In my opinion not Theory, but  theorizing is important because it is theory that lets us interpret these superempirical forces.   “The evocation of the ‘unjudgeable’ in sensible experience becomes the default of justification that justifies the split between reasons and causes, between what we believe and why we believe it. The unfolding of this dialectic of reasons and causes—which is also the dialectic of suspicion and trust—leads us back to Hegel.”

Brassier’s conclusion is unclear to me. Is it an interpretation of Hegel (and Brandom) as overcoming the gap in reason and un/irreason: “This gap is simply reason’s “other,” variously figured as the sensible, time, becoming, event, etc. But Hegel’s fundamental insight is that reason takes time.” Or is this a justification for theory?  

One final note. In western philosophy there is always this gap that has been addressed in different ways. Kant (things not subject to philosophy), Wittgenstein (things we cannot talk about), even Plato (the mythological substrate at the end of a dialogue).  The question is what are we grounding this gap in. Beginning with Kant we are suppressing it (we are going to ignore it – perhaps correlated with the rise of psychotherapy). With Plato, the gap is mythology (or theology) – the supernatural. What are some more useful options today?  Perhaps somatic – grounding in the body. And this is related to my review of spinal catastrophism.