Being suspicious

We live in a constant state of suspicion. Suspicion of other people’s values, intentions, ideas that might hide something else, of words that might be damaging, of facts that might turn out to be fiction – of fiction that might be not just fictional, but counterfactual.

Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, the high priests of the hermeneutics of suspicion (says Paul Ricoeur): in politics, in philosophy, in psychology. We are their heirs.

Trust is becoming a rare commodity.

We have developed our critical sense to the point where there is little room for innocent belief. And that belief might just be naive credulity, anyway. So we suspend judgment, fall in with the familiar, retreat from verdicts until the jury is back in – which might never happen.

There is a perceived surplus of lies, illusions, delusions and fallacies in the world. Facts are reliable because they appear to be  (1) unmoving, (2) undeconstructible, (3) unmediated.

Our concern with unmediated reality goes back a long way.

One of the earliest recorded suspicions is about our concern with unmediated reality and has to do with writing.

In one of his dialogues (Phaedrus), Plato tells the story of the origin of writing. He has Socrates record that when the Egyptian god Theuth offered the gift of writing to King Thamus as a wisdom-enhancer and a tool against memory loss, the king became suspicious of the pretended benefits. He feared that wisdom will only be apparent in those who resort to writing, while outsourcing human memory will have a negative effect on those who do it.

Socrates’ claim is that writing is inferior to speech because writing, unlike speech, does not have unmediated access to knowledge about reality. You know about things directly when you perceive and think about them, or when you use speech to convey your thoughts. Writing, on the other hand, makes use of complicated systems of signs which, well, get ever more complicated. Representing truth through written language can become a false substitution for truth.

Socrates was wrong about speech, of course, as it is also a system of signs. But the suspicious positioning of the philosopher who reportedly resisted writing his whole life shows that the history of our Western cultures is also a history of suspicion.

1 thought on “Being suspicious

  1. Vaisamar

    For Socrates, the person writing down his ideas with ink (lit. “black water”, ἐν ὕδατι μέλανι) is like a farmer who cultivates little “Adonis gardens” which bloom quickly, but only last a few days. They may be useful for those who treasure up reminders for themselves (ἑαυτῷ ὑπομνήματα θησαυριζόμενος), lest they forget in old age.

    For Socrates, it is vital to sow one’s ideas not into such “gardens of letters” (τοὺς μὲν ἐν γράμμασι κήπους), but into souls, by means of the art of dialectic (τῇ διαλεκτικῇ τέχνῃ). Sown in this fashion, the “seeds” (i.e. the logoi) do not remain sterile, but produce fruit in others. Interesting how the metaphor is so similar to the one used by Jesus in John’s Gospel.

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