The Hermeneutics of Suspicion I

“The Hermeneutics of Suspicion” is meant to be a section of the larger project I am calling The Empire of Disorientation. It is intended to be the final chapter of that text.

My intention has been to practice a particular style of political thinking which I have called “diagnostic practice.” We can, in effect, distinguish three styles of political philosophy: political idealism, political realism, and diagnostic practice. My goal was to advance the third as the most promising and most fundamental.

Political idealism is what I have previously called “abstract normative theorizing.”[i] But I have come to understand that this term may be too specific and for that reason misleading. Political idealism, as I understand it, is a style of thinking in which the philosopher seeks to spell out what politics should look like, how it should be conducted. Political idealism is prescriptive in character though not necessarily normative. If I say to you: please, wash your hands before handling food, I am speaking prescriptively; if I announce that everyone needs to wash their hands before handling food, I am advancing a general standard (of cleanliness, in this case) and more precisely a norm. Norms are general and are usually expressed in the form of principles or rules. It is true that the political idealist at times seeks to formulate an abstract standard that political life is supposed to observe. Justice, equality, freedom, democracy, order, security would be among these. Sometimes such a philosopher might even lay down principles or rules for what the implementation of such a standard requires. Thus, we have John Rawls’ two principles of justice. This style of political thinking is rightly called abstract normative theorizing. But there is another form of philosophical thinking that also aims at specifying how politics should be conducted. It consists in the rich description of an imagined alternative political reality. We sometimes call such imaginary description “utopian” and we can thus speak of utopianism as a second form of political idealism. Plato’s Republic exemplifies this utopian style of political philosophy. Like John Rawls, Plato is concerned with justice; he is so, however, by describing in detail what, according to him, a just city would look like. I want to distinguish  abstract normative theorizing and utopianism as two varieties of political idealism.

Now my first claim is that political idealism cannot stand on its own feet because any prescriptive statement about politics presupposes some understanding of the political realities. I have previously expressed this observation with respect to abstract normative theorizing in the slogan: You can’t make rules for a game, if you don’t know what game is being played. That is, you can’t make useful rules in that situation. To the extent to which you ignore or bypass  the political facts on the ground, the political norms will remain empty formulas that can be filled in a multiplicity of ways. The dilemma of political idealism becomes even more obvious when we turn to utopianism. For the question is: From where does the utopian thinker take the component elements of his account of the ideal society, if not from the real society which he knows? The picture Plato draws of his ideal (“happy”) city certainly differs substantially from the actual life of the ancient Greek city-state, but it is for all that a variant of that kind of political order. Or, to take another example: the rudimentary picture that Marx and Engels draw of the future Communist society is still a variant of the bourgeois, industrial society of their own time. The simple fact is that the human imagination is limited. And what is more: if someone were really to draw a picture of a form of life that was totally different from our own, we would not be able to appreciate it as a utopian alternative to our reality. Wat holds for utopianism is also true of abstract normative theorizing. We can see that clearly in the writings of John Rawls. He, too, can’t escape taking note of our political reality. But his account is bloodless and highly stylized, as if we were still living in the eighteenth century and its preoccupation with individual liberty and not in the rough and tumble of the twenty-first.

When we probe the writings of political idealists we discover, indeed, that they always contain or at least presuppose some understanding of the political realities. But it is often only a rudimentary view of that reality and not a critically examined one. I conclude that a securely grounded political philosophy will have to base its prescriptive formulas on a fleshed-out, realistic view of political life. Political realism appears thus as a more fundamental style of political philosophy. I don’t mean to say here that political philosophy must begin with a positivistic gathering of data as it is so often pursued under the heading of “political science.” I take political realism, rather, to be the attempt to grasp the political realities in theoretical terms. Machiavelli and Hobbes are usually seen as the initiators of a realistic approach to politics. Political realism, as I understand it, has adherents both in contemporary theorizing and in the thinking of politicians. (We might think, for instance, of Henry Kissinger as a characteristic representative of the latter type.)

Raymond Geuss has in recent years made a strong case against political idealism and specifically the kind of normative theorizing advanced by John Rawls. In his book Philosophy and Real Politics (Princeton 2008) he asserts unconditionally that “political philosophy must be realist.” (p. 9) It must be concerned in the first instance, he adds, “not with how people ought ideally (or ought ‘rationally’) to act … but rather with the way the social, economic, political etc. institutions actually operate.” (Ibid.) It must recognize that “politics is in the first instance about action and the context of action, not about mere beliefs or propositions.” (p. 11) It must accept that “politics is historically located,” (p. 13) It must also understand that “politics is more like the exercise of a craft or art” than an application of a theory. (p. 15) Its exercise depends on skill rather than theoretical understanding. Geuss writes provocatively: “In my view, if political philosophy wishes to be at all connected with a serious understanding of politics, and thus become an effective source of orientation or a guide to action, it needs to return from the present reactionary forms of neo-Kantianism to something like the ‘realist’ view, or, to put it slightly differently, to neo-Leninism.” (p. 99) But what does he mean by “neo-Leninism”? According to Geuss: “Lenin defines politics with characteristic clarity and pithiness when he says that it is concerned with the question that keeps recurring in our political life: ‘Who, whom?’ … Although Lenin’s formula is basically correct, it is perhaps too dense and needs to be developed or extended… First of all, the formula should read not merely ‘Who whom?’ but, rather, ‘’Who [does] what to whom for whose benefit?’ with four distinct variables to be filled in, i.e., (1) Who, (2) What, (3) To whom, (4) for whose benefit? To think politically is to think about agency, power, and interests, and the relations among these.” (pp. 22 and 25) And so Geuss concludes: “If one takes this extended Leninist model as the matrix of political philosophy, certain consequences would seem to follow. The first is that it would be a mistake to believe that one  come to any substantive understanding of politics by discussing abstractly the good, the right, the true or the rational.” (p. 28)

Terms like “idealism” and “realism” have wide currency in philosophy and they are used in numerously different ways. We need, for that reason, be deliberate and cautious when we speak of political and political realism. We can see that, for instance, when we think about Donald Trump and political realism. He certainly shares with political realists their scorn for seeing politics in moral terms. Unlike George W. Bush, he doesn’t speak of an axis of evil in the world; and unlike Barack Obama and the Democrats, he is little concerned with the issue of human rights. As an amoral capitalist he believes in self-interest and the exercise of power, in the use and pursuit of money in politics. He believes in “the art of the deal.” In these respects we might call him a political realist; surely not a political idealist. But we know also that he is not much interested in the actual realities on the ground. He sticks to a simple picture of the world, despises experts, and ignores advice. In his factual claims he is often quite unrealistic. Trump makes us understand that the term “political realism” is ambiguous. In one sense it is a general belief about how human beings act and a set of policies derived from this: the belief, for instance, that human beings are essentially selfish or that they can be successfully bullied into what one wants them to do. In another sense the term realism refers to a commitment to the need to recognize the actual, concrete political facts. Trump shows us that the two don’t necessarily go together. Political realism can, in other words, go hand in hand with a lack of realism.

And we can apply that lesson also to those thinkers we have come to recognize as political realists, be they Machiavelli or Hobbes, Carl Schmitt, the author of The Concept of the Political, or Samuel Huntington, the author of The Clash of Civilizations. All these writers pride themselves on their realism, but they often operate with highly schematic pictures of human motivation and this often tints and even mars their genuine concern with the actual realities of political life. The concept of political realism must thus be used with caution. Raymond Geuss, who is widely considered today to be an advocate of political realism, has, in fact recently renounced that label. I heard him do so a few months ago at a conference in Norwich, England, but he did not say then what bothers him now in this term.

I myself argued at this conference that the problem with political realism was not so much the ambiguity of the term, as the fact political realism, though it is certainly superior to and more fundamental than political idealism, is itself still philosophically ungrounded. In order to recognize this, we should ask ourselves from where the political realist draws his insights about political reality. When we look at the writings of so-called realists, we notice, as I have just said, that they often operate with very large and untested assumptions concerning, for instance, human nature (our basic selfishness or inborn cooperativeness) or social relations (as being naturally relations of subjection or domination), or of social institutions operating exactly like individual human beings (the doctrine of the raison d’état). We need to ask ourselves, instead: how do we actually come to know the political realities? What are the possibilities and limitations of such knowledge? What concepts are adequate for grasping and describing this reality? This leads me to conclude that we need to pursue a third style of political philosophy, the one I have called diagnostic practice. I mean by this precisely a style of political thinking that attends to the cognitive and conceptual dimensions of our political understanding.

We can describe the differences between these three styles of political thinking in the following way. There is, first of all, and maybe as the oldest and most established form of political philosophy, a style of thinking that associates politics with ethics. Political idealists speak, in fact, regularly of politics as applied ethics. Then there is a style of political thinking that wants to look at the structures and processes that constitute our political reality. This, we could say, treats political philosophy as a branch of ontology. There has recently emerged a philosophical study of social reality and social relations that goes by the name of “social ontology.” We could say that political realism might be considered a part of this kind of undertaking. But there are also as I have said, cognitive and conceptual questions that need to be asked. That is the concern of diagnostic practice. This kind of practice might thus be considered to belong to the larger area of epistemology. It concerns the specific epistemological conditions and constraints of political understanding. My claim comes to this: political epistemology trumps political ontology and the two together trump prescriptive political idealism. The relation between the three is not one of either-or but rather of priority and fundamentality.

One basic premise of diagnostic practice is that all our thinking about politics (whether it is that of an engaged politician or that of a political theorist or philosopher) is conducted within the field of political reality. The question for diagnostic practice is then how and to what extent that field makes knowledge of itself possible. Diagnostic practice will concern itself therefore with three kinds of question. The most general is how and to what extent the inhabitants of the political field understand that field and their own place in it. Every inhabitant of that field is positioned in a distinctive temporal and spatial location and this will, of course, affect their perception of the field as a whole; it will provide them with specific insights but also limit their range of vision. Politics is, moreover, an active enterprise and not simply one of understanding. Given the inherent limitations of our knowledge, we find ourselves forced to action under non-ideal cognitive conditions. How then do we manage to act when we have no full grasp of the situation in which we find ourselves? The third question concerns the outcome of our actions. Given that we have only a limited grasp of the reality of the political field and given, in particular, that we are inevitably unsure of the thoughts and intentions of other actors, how can we ever be confident about the consequences of our actions?

Political theorists can suspend judgment in cases where political agents may be forced to act. They can take time to assemble their knowledge of the political situation, of the thoughts and intentions of the political actors, and of the consequences of their actions and can do so with some degree of detachment. But even they are confined in their range of vision by the spatiotemporal location they occupy. They may find their access to the past obstructed by the lack of traces left over in monuments, documents, or memories; they may discover their capacity for comprehending the present in its vivid detail to be limited; and like everyone else in the political field they will find themselves unable to look clearly into the future. They may also lack adequate concepts for organizing and describing the political field and its complex, ever shifting configurations. The outcome has to be that the insights of the political theorist, including the political realist, will inevitably tenuous. As for the political actors themselves, the political field will always be even more so a domain of uncertainty and often of disorientation.

The diagnostic approach is meant to throw light not on a reality apart from us, but on one in which we ourselves are embedded as political thinkers. Diagnostic practice has to provide an account also of both political idealism and political realism. Diagnostic practice must equally attempt to throw light on the diagnostic practice itself and on those who pursue it (and thus on ourselves).  We will want to ask what powers of reason the diagnostic thinker can rely on in making his claims. Diagnostic practice needs, in other words, finally turn its eye on itself.


Political idealists are intent on proposing not just any alternative to our political institutions and practices but alternatives they consider better than what we have. But from where do they take that conviction? Utopianism often relies on intuition. The utopian thinker draws a picture of an alternative reality that he hopes to be so appealing that we will naturally come to see it as superior to what we have. Let us say, for instance, that it is a picture of peace and abundance. Everyone will surely prefer a political system that can provide these goods. The only problem is that the utopian thinker cannot tell us how to get there and attempts at implementing the ideal may go horribly wrong. Mao Zedong was inspired by Marx’s vision of a communist society and sought to establish a state in which the usual division of labor was abolished. Everybody would equally share in all tasks. Households and villages would produce their own necessities, even their own coal and steel. Mao called this “The Great Leap Forwards.” It ended with the death from starvation of some 40 million Chinese people. Throughout the twentieth century various attempts have been made at a radical reconstruction of society in the name always of some utopian vision; but all, it turns out, have failed.

It might be argued that they have failed for two reasons but that this is no ground for giving up on all utopian hopes. Our utopian visions have failed, first, because they had no rational basis, and, second, because they did not sufficiently consider the problem of their implementation. But once we begin to reflect on the rational basis of a utopian vision, it seems we are shifting grounds away from the utopian variety of political idealism to the normative kind. For at that point we begin to think in terms of general standards that our political order is to live up to and, perhaps, even of principles and rules for the implementation of these standards. We can see this clearly in Plato’s utopianism. His Republic draws a detailed picture of an alternative political order, but Plato also feels the need to justify his utopian vision by arguing that it implements a standard of justice which is not egalitarian but hierarchical and is based on a supposedly natural order of human capacities. Plato also considered the question of how such a system could be established. He pinned his hope on philosophically educated rulers or tyrants (“philosopher-kings”) but he was also fully aware that such men may be rare and that they may have a chance at instituting a new political order only under exceptional conditions such as a complete breakdown of democratic society.

There are reasons then why utopianism will drift into normative theorizing. Our question concerning the viability of political idealism thus becomes one concerning our capacity for justifying political norms. For the normative theorist will, of course, not want to advance his norms as free-standing and without further justification. Nor should he seek to justify these norms by appeal to some intuition for at that point we are back to the situation that destabilized the utopian variety. Intuitions are inherently ungrounded, disputable, and insufficient as guides to political action. How then will the normativist back up his favorite norms? The only available answer seems to be by some kind of rational calculation and argument. This is how Immanuel Kant sought to justify his ethical principle, the categorical imperative. We can see how John Rawls sought to adapt this Kantian procedure in his attempt to justify his principles of justice. The question is, how successful such an abstract appeal to reason can possibly be.

This is a point to which I will need to return. I set it aside for the moment in order to turn my attention to political realism. For one might think that the normative thinker will be successful only, if he has an adequate grasp of the political realities. Such a grasp, it might be added, is essential, furthermore, if we are to have any clear understanding of how our ideals (utopian or normative) are to be implemented. We need to know in this case what our actual situation is and what is possible in it. To return for a moment to Mao Zedong and the Great Leap Forward. Mao’s problem in pursuing this project was multifold. We might say that the vision of the communist society on which he operated was too indistinct to be ever converted into reality. But he certainly also had an inadequate knowledge of the economic realities of China in the 1950’s and throughout the course of his experiment he remained so detached from those realities and so un-informed about them that he continued with his experiment to its last bitter end.

But how well do we ever understand the political realities in which we are operating? To what extent are the concepts we use to describe and analyze those realities – the concepts, for instance, of Marxist dialectical materialism – adequate? When we start to think seriously about political realism we are driven into considerations that concern what I have called diagnostic practice.

Our problem is that in politics we seem to be always operating under imperfect cognitive conditions. It is this idea we must seek to elaborate. Now we need not assume that there are ever perfect cognitive conditions. Philosophers committed to the belief in pure reason, may think so. But we can leave them to their own useless ruminations. The important point for us is that knowledge in political matters does not reach the same standard as that in some other fields. I am inclined to think, for instance, that our knowledge in physics is of a different sort from that we have when we think in or about political matters. It is useful, then, to compare and contrast these two kinds of knowledge.



[i] Politics and the Search for the Common Good, chapter 1.

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