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MEDIEVAL-RELIGION  January 2002

MEDIEVAL-RELIGION January 2002

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Subject:

Re: hermeneutics of suspicion

From:

Dennis Martin <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 22 Jan 2002 20:05:46 -0600

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medieval-religion: Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture

Of course, being terminally suspicious is as dangerous as being terminally naive, not to mention being just plain unfriendly.  If, when I meet someone, I greet his self-presentation only with suspicion, he will think me rather unfair, prejudiced, and inhumane.  But much worse than that, my own suspicion, if that's what dominates, will actually block my chances of ever understanding his self-presentation.

If a person has given off evidence that suggests he is untrustworthy, then I rightly approach him gingerly.  But in the absence of evidence that someone is untrustworthy, the courteous and indeed, human thing to do is to accord him an open mind and conditional trust until such time as he gives evidence that he is not worthy of trust.

This I think was John Wickstrom's point and the point of the posting to which he was responding.  Unless we have evidence that people in historic texts do not mean what they say, evidence they are lying or self-deceived, we are unjust, simply on a human level, to attribute such dishonest motives to them.  That's not terminal naivete but simple human decency.

All of us have mixed motives, few of us are totally integrated, well-adjusted, at peace with ourselves, honest about ourselves to ourselves, let alone in our self-presentation to others.  But if I move from that fact, which I think most of us would agree with, to the conclusion that I must therefore greet all strangers from other cultures or even from another neighborhood (including the Other Neighborhood of the distant past) with a suspicious mind that pigeonholes him as self-deceived or a deliberate deceiver, I have abused the argument from silence, filled in the gaps in the evidence on the basis of my view of human nature.

We do not like it when people treat us this way.  When people look at "foreign" cultures this way, we call it ethnic or racial prejudice.  We should extend the same courtesy to cultures from the past.  It's painful for historians because it means we often must say, "I don't know what really motivated this person.  But here's what he says motivated him.  I do not have clear evidence of other motives so,until such evidence emerges from the gaps and silences of the tragically pockmarked historical record, I have to suspend judgment and report what he reports of himself."  Of course, we will make use of all possible methods to extract some hint of evidence independent of the person's self-reporting to discover better his motives.  But we have to stick to the evidence if we want to be fair, decent human beings.

Now, of course, if one believes as a matter of principle that human relationships are built on conflict and mistrust, that trust/love is actually a tool used by power-elites to manipulate the weaker and that people would be better off to learn to discover the subtext under the altruistic self-presentations of people (either in the present or the past), then one will be inclined to say, "I don't know for sure, but I simply do not believe this person's self-presentation is credible."  But I've now filled in the gap based on my philosophy/religious beliefs about human nature: is  human society fundamentally and inevitably driven by class conflict or personal conflict or whatever form of conflict one wishes to highlight?  In other words, one follows Hobbes or Marx or Nietzsche.

In my appeal (which I intend as an echo of and endorsement the principles enunciated by John Wickstrom and Frank Morgret) to employ at least a conditional sympathy, a hermeneutic of trust until one has clear evidence for suspicion as the decent and humane approach to strangers, I, of course, am operating out of underlying philosophical/religious beliefs about human nature--that we are made for trust, that self-defense requires us to be wary when we have evidence of untrustworthyness but not before we have evidence, that a general suspicion of people is dehumanizing and depersonalizing.  This philosophy assumes that love, not power, makes the world go round.  Hobbes and Nietzsche thought it terminally naive.  But it does seem to me to be implicit when one denounces racial and ethnic prejudice or when one tells a group of students heading off for a semester in a strange culture to "go native" as much as possible, to be alert, yes, but not to surround oneself with a coccoon of one's own prejudices but to conditionally drop them and have an open mind toward one's hosts, to put the best construction possible on their actions, however new and strange they might be, unless and until they have proven themselves untrustworthy or dangerous.

"Proven" themselves, of course--there's the rub.  What constitutes proof, evidence that the self-presentation of the person from the past is not what it seems to be but something different, opposite, dishonest?

That's the great challenge of historical interpretation as well as cultural anthropology in the present.  In the end, much depends on our own honesty with ourselves.  If we are engaged ourselves in a self-deception, burdened by a conflicted conscience and so forth, we are far more likely to be overly, unfairly, and dehumanizingly suspicious of those we meet--it's a common mechanism for diverting attention from our own lies to ourselves by seeing the other person as the liar.

 C. S. Lewis's _The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe_, which I am teaching to students right now as a fine epitome of these virtues, shows this very clearly with the character Edmund, whose fundamental problem is lying to himself.  On the second page of the story he denies that he's tired when he is tired, which leads him to be rude and mean to his older sister.  He knows the White Witch is dangerous (ignores _evidence_ of her untrustworthyness) but enters into an alliance (trusts) her, in the process being willing to betray his siblings to death.  From that point onward, when his sister tells him what Mr. Tumnus the faun has said about the White Witch (that's she's dangerous), Edmund has to use hermeneutic of suspicion on that statement in order to salvage his own (misplaced) trust of her.  Then he has to lie about having been in Narnia, betraying his sister who had thought she now had a cowitness and would be believed by Peter and Susan.  This continues: when all four enter Narnia, Lucy wants to trust the Robin as a guide; Edmund once more employs hermeneutic of suspicion: how do we know we can trust the Robin.  But of course Edmund is the real liar here, the untrustworthy one.

It's a children's story, but it illustrates the basic principles I have argued for.  Who's right about human nature?  Hobbes, Marx, Nietzsche, Kant, Buddha, Jesus?  Depending on how one answers that question, one will suspend judgment about motives of people one meets, entertain their self-presentations with conditional empathy, conditional trust, be highly suspicious, etc.

I do believe the world would be a better place if we employed conditional empathy until we have clear evidence of untrustworthyiness and deception.  But it's risky, of course.  People have been known to get hurt that way.  On the other hand, it also permits the possibility of understanding each other, indeed, of loving each other.  But it's very risky.  The challenge is to take the decent, human risk of trusting the other while at the same time being neither "terminally naive" (being reasonably alert for evidence of untrustworthiness) nor terminally hostile and suspicious.

But I would be the first to admit that few of us manage this politeness, decency, and courtesy toward the people of the past whose lives we handle in our historical work.  Perhaps it helps to try to treat them as we would have them treat us if they were writing books and articles about our self--presentation and hidden motives.

Dennis Martin


>>> [log in to unmask] 01/22/02 07:17PM >>>
At 04:15 PM 1/22/02 -0500, you wrote:
>medieval-religion: Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture
>
>This seems to me an extremely sharp point. Anyone who claims someone's
>motivation is other what is claimed has got quite a large job of explaining
>to do. (We are usually happy to do it, encased as we are in a set of values
>and techniques intended to do just that, but it's a pretty iffy enterprise,
>epistemologically speaking).
>jw

it may indeed be difficult.  but anyone who thinks that most of the avowed
motivations that people write justifying their behavior are worth taking at
their face value, are either terminally naive, or share the agenda of the
person whose protestations they accept.  i would say that we all have lots
of explaining to do -- those of us who suspect, and those who take the
motivation as presented by the person in question.  in any case the "easy"
answer in the case is most often dangerously simplistic.

richard

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