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

68 Pages Posted: 23 Mar 2005


Paul Ricoeur famously dubbed that great triumvirate of late nineteenth - and early twentieth-century thought - Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud - "the school of suspicion," by which he meant those thinkers who taught us to regard with suspicion our conscious understandings and experience, whether the deliverances of ordinary psychological introspection about one's desires ("I really want to be rich!"), or the moral categories political leaders and ordinary citizens apply to themselves and the social world they inhabit ("an inheritance tax is an immoral death tax!"). "Beneath" or "behind" the surface lay causal forces that explained the conscious phenomena precisely because they laid bare the true meaning of those phenomena: I don't really want lots of money, I want the love I never got as a child; survivors have no moral claim on an inheritance, but it is in the interests of the ruling classes that we believe they do; and so on.

Recent years have been, in now familiar ways, unkind to Marx and Freud. Yet instead of a frontal assault on the critiques of the explanatory programs of Marx and Freud, the defense of their legacy in the English-speaking world has gradually fallen to those I will call moralizing interpreters of their thought. The moralizing readers de-emphasize (or simply reject) the explanatory and causal claims in the work of Marx and Freud, and try to marry more-or-less Marxian and Freudian ideas to various themes in normative ethics and political philosophy. Explanation of phenomena is abandoned in favor of the more traditional philosophical enterprise of justification, whether of the just distribution of resources or the possibility of morality's authority. So, for example, G.A. Cohen, the most influential of English-language Marx interpreters in recent decades, has declared that "Marxism has lost much or most of its [empirical] carapace, its hard shell of supposed fact" and that, as a result, "Marxists . . . are increasingly impelled into normative political philosophy." (Under the influence of Habermas, the Marxist tradition has taken a similar turn on the Continent.) Similarly, a leading moral philosopher notes that, "Just when philosophers of science thought they had buried Freud for the last time, he has quietly reappeared in the writings of moral philosophers" and goes on to claim that "Freud's theory of the superego provides a valuable psychological model for various aspects of (Kant's) Categorical Imperative." On these new renderings, Marx and Freud command our attention because they are really just complements (or correctives) to Rawls or Korsgaard, really just normative theorists who can be made to join in a contemporary dialogue about equality and the authority of morality.

Nietzsche, too, has been transformed by moralizing interpreters, though in a somewhat different way. The crucial development here has been the retreat from the natural reading of Nietzsche as a philosopher engaged in an attack on morality - a reading first articulated by the Danish scholar Georg Brandes more than a century ago - in favor of a reading which presents Nietzsche as fundamentally concerned with questions of truth and knowledge: the moralistic scruples of interpreters are satisfied by treating Nietzsche as concerned with something else, something less morally alarming than a "revaluation of values."

I shall argue that, in fact, all three of the great practitioners of the hermeneutics of suspicion have suffered at the hands of moralizing interpreters who have resisted the essentially naturalistic thrust of their conception of philosophical practice. As a matter of both textual exegesis and intellectual importance, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud are best read as primarily naturalistic thinkers, that is thinkers who view philosophical inquiry as continuous with a sound empirical understanding of the natural world and the causal forces operative in it. When one understands conscious life naturalistically, in terms of its real causes, one contributes at the same time to a critique of the contents of consciousness: that, in short, is the essence of a hermeneutics of suspicion.

Suggested Citation

Leiter, Brian, The Hermeneutics of Suspicion: Recovering Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. U of Texas Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 72, Available at SSRN:

Brian Leiter (Contact Author)

University of Chicago ( email )

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Chicago, IL 60637
United States

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