Brian Leiter

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Ideologies involve a mistake about their origin: agents think that the ideology arose because of its responsiveness to epistemically relevant considerations (e.g., evidence, reasons, etc.), when, in fact, it arose only because it was responsive to the interests of the dominant economic class in the existing economic system.

Brian Leiter (born 1963) is an American philosopher and legal scholar who is currently Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Chicago Law School, and founder and Director of Chicago's new Center for Law, Philosophy, and Human Values.



"The Hermeneutics of Suspicion: Recovering Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud"

From The Future for Philosophy, ed. Leiter (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004), pp. 74-105
Full text online
  • If we can recover the naturalistic ambitions of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, … philosophy becomes relevant because the world—riven as it is with hypocrisy and concealment—desperately needs a hermeneutics of suspicion to unmask it. And by taking these three seminal figures of the Continental traditions as philosophical naturalists we show their work to be continuous with the naturalistic turn that has swept Anglophone philosophy over the past several decades. … The antipathy to naturalism often thought to be constitutive of “the Continental tradition” is simply an artifact of cutting the joints of that tradition in certain places.
  • Perhaps more striking is the accuracy of many of Marx’s best-known qualitative predictions about the tendencies of capitalist development: capitalism continues to conquer the globe; its effect is the gradual erasure of cultural and regional identities; growing economic inequality is the norm in the advanced capitalist societies; where capitalism triumphs, market norms gradually dominate all spheres of life, public and private; class position continues to be the defining determinant of political outlook; the dominant class dominates the political process which, in turn, does its bidding; and so on.
  • The Marxian theory of ideology predicts that the ruling ideas in any well functioning society will be ideas that promote the interests of the ruling class in that society, i.e., the class that is economically dominant. By the “ruling ideas” we should understand Marx to mean the central moral, political and economic ideas that dominate discussion in the mass media and in the corridors of power in that society. The theory is not peculiar to Marx, since the “classical realists” of antiquity like the Sophists and Thucydides advanced essentially the same theory: the powerful clothe their pursuit of self-interest in the garb of morality and justice. When Marx says that, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas” (The German Ideology) and that, “Law, morality, religion are to [the proletariat] so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests” (The Communist Manifesto), he is simply translating in to Marxian terms the Sophistic view “that the more powerful will always take advantage of the weaker, and will give the name of law and justice to whatever they lay down in their own interests.” (W.K.C. Guthrie, The Sophists (1971), p. 60).
  • Rosen suggests that the rule of the few might simply be the result of coordination problems confronting the many in overthrowing the few. … The coordination problem explanation of why the few rule the many is that the many can’t coordinate their behavior to overthrow the few, but the actual phenomenon the Marxist theory explains is that the many don’t even see the need to overthrow the few, indeed, don’t even see that the few rule the many!
  • Rosen would still demand, no doubt, an explanation of why the ruling class is so good at identifying and promoting its interests, while the majority is not. But, again, there is an obvious answer: for isn’t it generally quite easy to identify your short-term interests when the status quo is to your benefit? In such circumstances, you favor the status quo! In other words, if the status quo provides tangible benefits to the few—lots of money, prestige, and power—is it any surprise that the few are well-disposed to the status quo, and are particularly good at thinking of ways to tinker with the status quo (e.g., repeal the already minimal estate tax) to increase their money, prestige, and power? (The few can then promote their interests for exactly the reasons Marx identifies: they own the means of mental production.) By contrast, it is far trickier for the many to assess what is in their interest, precisely because it requires a counterfactual thought experiment, in addition to evaluating complex questions of socio-economic causation. More precisely, the many have to ascertain that (1) the status quo—the whole complex socio-economic order in which they find themselves--is not in their interests (this may be the easiest part); (2) there are alternatives to the status quo which would be more in their interest; and (3) it is worth the costs to make the transition to the alternatives—to give up on the bad situation one knows in order to make the leap in to a (theoretically) better unknown. Obstacles to the already difficult task of making determinations (1) and (2)—let alone (3)—will be especially plentiful, precisely because the few are strongly, and effectively (given their control of the means of mental production), committed to the denial of (1) and (2).
  • Nehamas invokes Nietzsche’s talk of the “eternal basic text of homo natura” (BGE 230, quoted above) as evidence of aestheticism--the view, recall, that “texts can be interpreted equally well in vastly different and deeply incompatible ways” (p. 3). But the talk of “text” in this passage is actually incompatible with aestheticism. For in this passage, as we have seen, Nietzsche asserts that prior claims to “knowledge” have been superficial precisely because they have ignored the “eternal basic text”— ewigen Grundtext—of man conceived as a natural organism. That this text is eternal and basic implies not that it “can be interpreted equally well in vastly different and deeply incompatible ways” but just the opposite: readings which do not treat man naturalistically misread the text—they “falsify” it. It is these misreadings, of course, that Nietzsche, ever the “good philologist,” aims to correct.
  • Just as Darwinian adaptationists assume that every biological phenomenon must be explained in terms of natural selection (no matter how unconducive to reproductive fitness it may appear initially), so too Nietzsche assumes that whatever explains “life” must also explain these particular instances of life which appear hostile to it. "'Life against life,'" Nietzsche says is a "self-contradiction" that "can only be apparent; it has to be a sort of provisional expression, an explanation, formula, adjustment, a psychological misunderstanding of something, the real nature of which was far from being understood" (GM III:13). … The crux of Nietzsche’s explanation turns on three claims:
(1) Suffering is a central fact of the human condition.
(2) Meaningless suffering is unbearable and leads to "suicidal nihilism" (GM III:28).
(3) The ascetic ideal gives meaning to suffering, thereby seducing the majority of humans back to life.
  • Edmund Gettier convinced most philosophers that the received wisdom of millennia about the concept of knowledge was mistaken: “knowledge” was not simply a matter of having a justified, true belief … A justified true belief isn’t “knowledge” when the justification for the true belief isn’t the cause of why the agent holds the belief. As Philip Kitcher put the point, in explaining the stimulus Gettier provided to the “naturalistic” turn in epistemology: “the epistemic status of a belief state depends on the etiology of the state.” … We can understand, now, the logic of the hermeneutics of suspicion as exploiting precisely this point about the epistemic status of belief: we should be suspicious of the epistemic status of beliefs that have the wrong causal etiology. That’s the lesson of the Gettier counter-examples, and it is the lesson which underwrites the suspicion that Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud recommend by way of providing alternative causal trajectories to explain our beliefs. To be sure, beliefs with the wrong causal etiology might be true; but since they are no longer cases of knowledge, we have no reason to presume that to be the case.
  • Millions of people profess knowledge of the reality of God, claiming miracles witnessed or voices heard. If what really causes them to believe that they know of God’s existence (and that they have had these experiences) is an unconscious, infantile wish for the protection of an all-powerful father-figure, then we have reason to wonder about the epistemic status of their belief.
  • Beliefs arrived at the wrong way are suspect: that is the epistemological point exploited by the practitioners of the hermeneutics of suspicion. It is ironic, to be sure, that, in recent years, these practitioners should have fallen prey to moralizing readings, readings that, themselves, cry out for a suspicious interpretation.

“Morality Critics”


From The Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy (2007)

  • Continental morality critics are plainly not without ethical views of their own—namely, views, broadly, about the good life for (some or all) human beings—since it is on the basis of these views that they criticize “morality.” Therefore, we need to understand the contours of the “morality” to which these critics object—for ease of reference, we will call it “morality in the pejorative sense” (MPS)—since it must be distinguished from the normative considerations that inform their critiques. … We can usefully divide Continental critics of morality into two camps … In the first camp are those thinkers who see the individual’s acceptance of morality as such as an obstacle to the individual’s flourishing; in very different ways, Nietzsche and Freud are these kinds of morality critics. In the second camp are those philosophers who see morality as among the “ideological” instruments that sustain socio-economic relations that are obstacles to individual flourishing. On this second account—most obviously represented by Marx and perhaps some of his descendants associated with the Frankfurt School.
  • On Marx’s view an individual is flourishing when … he labors freely, meaning that work is an end-in-itself, and not merely a means to “earn a living.”
  • Ideologies involve a mistake about their origin: agents think that the ideology arose because of its responsiveness to epistemically relevant considerations (e.g., evidence, reasons, etc.), when, in fact, it arose only because it was responsive to the interests of the dominant economic class in the existing economic system.
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