The Hermeneutics of Suspicion II

Why do I believe that water boils at roughly 100 centigrade? Ludwig Wittgenstein asks in one of his notebooks and he answers: “I made the experiment myself at school. The proposition is a very elementary one in our text-books, which are to be trusted in matters like this, because ….” The moment of hesitation suggested by the dots after the “because” leads him on to another question in his next entry: “What kind of grounds have I for trusting text-books of experimental physics?” And to this he answers tentatively: “I have no grounds for not trusting them. And I trust them. I know how such books are produced – or rather, I believe I know. I have some evidence, but it does not go very far and is of a scattered kind. I have heard, seen, and read various things.”[i]

Is Wittgenstein gesturing here toward some kind of skepticism? The opposite is the case. He is trying to determine, rather, in what our certainty about the boiling point of water consists. It is worth thinking further about this case, because it throws light on the question of certainty and uncertainty in other domains of human life and, in particular, in the domain of politics. Physics is the clear opposite of politics. In physics we possess established and agreed upon means of verification; we have far-reaching consensus; and we have in this way achieved a great deal of certainty about the physical constitution of our world. Uncertainty, disorientation, and disagreement prevail, on the other hand, in politics.

The proposition that water boils at roughly 100 centigrade looks like lots of other plainly empirical propositions but it is, in fact, of a special sort. It’s related to a convention according to which the boiling point of water at sea level is to count as 100 and the freezing point of water as 0. But when Wittgenstein measures the temperature of boiling water at the level of Vienna and determines that it is roughly 100 he is not simply giving expression to this convention, he is stating an empirical fact. It might, after all, be the case that at so many feet above sea level, water boils at a significantly different temperature from the one at which it boils at sea level.

Wittgenstein’s question concerns this empirical truth. And when he asks himself why he believes it he advances two reasons. The first is that he has measured it himself in school. But, it is possible that he was clumsy then and got the measurement wrong; or, perhaps he misremembers; or, it was possibly not water he measured but some other liquid he believed to be water (or now believes to have been water); or the boiling point of water has changed still then. So the memory alone may not be enough to assure him of the truth of the proposition. Wittgenstein adds that elementary textbooks also assert that under usual conditions (except, for instance, on high mountainsides) water will boil at roughly 100. But that only shifts the burden, because why should one believe those text-books. In reality, there are a number of other reasons for Wittgenstein’s assurance about the boiling water. He is likely to have been  told about it by his parents, teachers, and other adults. The fact is mentioned not only in text-books but also in other writings as, for instance, in cookbooks. The proposition is thus anchored in an entire social structure.

This appears to me also what Wittgenstein means when he writes: “I have some evidence, but it does not go very far and is of a scattered kind. I have heard, seen, and read various things.” Our trust in the claims of physics is not based on a single conviction (let’s say that the textbook I have in front of me is reliable); it is trust in a whole system of mutually supporting parts of which I have only an incomplete and partial grasp. In other sections of On Certainty Wittgenstein speaks of such a system as constituting a world-picture of which he again says that I have accepted it as a whole, not piecemeal. “In general I take as true what I found in text-books, of geography for example. Why? I say: All these facts have been confirmed a hundred times over. But how do I know that? What is my evidence for it? I have a world-picture. Is it true or false? Above all it is the substratum of all enquiring and asserting. The propositions describing it are not all equally subject to testing.” And a few entries later: “Think of chemical investigations. Lavoisier makes experiments with substances in his laboratory and now he concludes that this and that takes place when there is burning. He does not say that it might happen otherwise some other time. He has got hold of a definite world-picture – not of course one that he invented; he learned it as a child. I say world-picture and not hypothesis, because it is the matter-of-course foundation for his research and as such also goes unmentioned.”[ii]

But the term “world-picture” is probably too narrow to capture what Wittgenstein is after. We, Wittgenstein, Lavoisier have acquired not only a way of looking at things, but also a whole set of practices into which that pictures enters. It is not only that we take the propositions in the text-book for granted, but we use and handle our text-books in a certain way, they are part of an educational and institutional structure. The trust we have in the claims of science is, to say it again, a trust in a whole system that includes propositions, people, writings, institutions, and practices. This system – let us call it “physics” for short – has, of course not always existed. It has come about in a course of historical development that is certainly worth retracing. Our overall trust in physics is constituted by bits of trust (the trust we have in a particular text or a particular teacher) that have developed over time and have come together to form an interconnected and mutually supportive system. We can speak then of a systemic trust as against trust only in this or that particular. And the two, systemic and particular trust, are somewhat independent of each other. I may entertain a systemic trust in physics while at the same time experiencing doubts about a particular text-book or a particular teacher. Particular doubt is always possible and often appropriate. I certainly should not trust unconditionally whatever I am told under the heading of physics. But this need not and typically will not undermine my systemic trust in physics.



In 1997, Bell Labs in New Jersey hired a young German physicist, Jan Hendrik Schön, who had received his doctorate earlier that year from the University of Konstanz in Germany. The people at Bell soon came to appreciate their new colleague. Within a short time, Schoen reported spectacular new results in the semiconducting properties of organic materials. His discoveries included “a field-effect transistor based on organic crystals, the quantum Hall effect and zero-field metal-insulator transition in that device, superconductivity where others had failed to find it, the first organic laser, the first light-emitting field-effect transistor, behavior indicative of transistor action in single molecules, and more.”[iii] Together with some co-authors he began to publish peer-reviewed papers in prominent scientific journals like Science and Nature. By 2001, he and his co-authors were coming out with a new research paper about every eight days. Schön’s reputation grew rapidly and he received a number of prizes and awards both in Germany and the US for his outstanding scientific work.

But not all was well. Other researchers began to discover irregularities in the numerical data and when they tried to repeat Schön’s discoveries they could not do so. By 2002, Bell was sufficiently worried to set up a committee to investigate the problem. When they requested Schön’ raw data, he claimed that he kept no notebooks and that he had erased from his computer because of limited hard-drive space. Schön’s “spectacular discoveries” turned out to be fraudulent inventions from beginning to end. In September of 2002, Schön was dismissed from his position at Bell. Two years later the University of Konstanz revoked his doctoral degree, a decision that was confirmed in 2014 by the German Federal Constitutional Court. Schön works today for an engineering firm in Germany.

When Eugenie Samuel Reich published her book on this scandal in 2009, she subtitled it „How the biggest fraud in physics shook the scientific world.” The Schön scandal did, indeed, generate some very profound questioning in the scientific world. How was it possible that Bell Labs, a highly respected institution, let this series of fraudulent action continue for five years? Where was the scientific oversight? And how about Schön’s co-authors? They were eventually exonerated; but should they not have been aware of what was going on? And what of the peers who had supposedly reviewed Schön’s articles before their publication? And how about the responsibility of the scientific journals to make sure that their publications could hold water? And how, finally, about the scientific bodies that had given Schön their prizes and awards? Myriam Saratchik, herself a distinguished physicist, wrote in 2009: “Our reluctance to question the basic integrity of colleagues, the self-interest of journals and institutions—Bell Labs in this instance—our own wishful thinking, our ambitions, and our failure to set standards for recording and storing data are all factors that enabled those fraudulent claims to go unrecognized for too long.” She added that the case “challenges our reliance on the premise that science is self-correcting—that is, that wrong results or theories are ultimately corrected and superseded.”[iv]

But the story of the Schön scandal also shows that his false claims and theories were ultimately exposed and superseded, even if it took a few years. The fraud may have shaken the scientific world, but it didn’t shake it apart. Our systemic trust in physics has not been destroyed by it. There have been other errors and frauds in physics: the announcement of n-waves in 1903, the discovery of an upsilon particle, or that of element 118. The turbulence created by these errors and frauds has, however, affected only the research edge of physics. None has undermined its central teachings. Our trust in the belief that water boils at ca. 100 has never been questioned.


Matters are different when we turn to politics. Here we find trust (both particular and systemic) but also and just as characteristically both particular and systemic distrust. Fraud and error are common in politics and so are accusations of fraud and error; but unlike in physics we have no generally agreed upon methods to combat and correct them. Almost anything said or done in politics is disputed or, at least, disputable. All trust is open to being revoked. Particular distrust is surely endemic in political matters and, indeed, often justified. We distrust the motives and actions of the opposing party and there is always such a party. But we also distrust our own side: the wisdom and viability of proposed policies and the probity of their proponents. Infighting in what claims to be one political party is common. These are all signs of the uncertainty that inhabits politics. Systemic distrust in politics is, however, a different matter but it is likewise a recurring feature of our political reality. We discover it, for instance, in our own current state of increasing disorientation. This disorientation is associated precisely with a creeping spirit of systemic distrust. What we call “populism” is likewise a child of systemic distrust. The more common is to understand “populism” as an anti-establishment movement. But this is unhelpful for a number of reasons and populism is best understood as a manifestation of systemic distrust. We can identify four reasons why the interpretation of populism as an anti-establishment movement is insufficient. First of all, much of human politics can be conceived as a struggle between a “populus” (i.e., “a people” however defined) and an establishment or elite. But to use the term so broadly, strips it of its discriminative function. It would then turn out that almost all politics is “populist.” Second, both the notion of the people (or populus) and that of the establishment or elite are under-defined and that leaves the characterization of “populism” as the struggle between the two too vague to be of use. Third, neither the populus nor the elite form a single group. There is, in fact, no such thing as “the people” or “the elite” as specific agents within the political drama. There are, rather, both popular and elite groupings. And these will often turn out to be at odds among themselves. Thus, one elite group, say, the clergy, may align itself with a disempowered section of the populus and similarly a group within the populus may align itself with the conservative holders of property and capital. And this leads us finally to understand that systemic distrust in politics is not inevitably confined to the populus but can extend also to elite groupings. It is such distrust that may at times consolidate an alliance between some elements of the populus and some elements of the elite. Illustrations are not difficult to find. In the Protestant Reformation it was not the ordinary believers alone who lost trust in the institutions of the Roman church, but monks and nuns, priests and Bishops shared that distrust and it was this clerical elite that often stirred the distrust of the ordinary believers (think of Martin Luther and John Calvin and their religious and political agitation). Similarly, the Soviet Union collapsed not just because ordinary citizens lost faith in it; equally important was that parts of the ruling elite were equally devoured by distrust of the Stalinist system. (Think in this case of Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbatchov.)

It is in this kind of situation that we find ourselves in today. There appears to be a great deal of disaffection with the existing political structures and hierarchies. Systemic distrust seems to be spreading through our politics. Such distrust may, however, have different scope, different intensity, and different reach. We may feel distrust towards the dominant political parties, or towards the current governmental structures, or towards the existing form of political rule, or even towards politics as a whole. The scope of our systemic distrust can thus be still focused or broad and all encompassing. We know from several of Plato’s dialogues how much he distrusted the democratic Athenian state. But in the Politikόs (The Statesman) he makes clear that his distrust extends to all human politics. Such politics, left to its own devices, will inevitably lead us, in his colorful phrase, into an “abyss of unlikeness.” Only the Gods can save us and their return to the helm. Martin Heidegger appropriated this Platonic thought when he expressed his profound distrust of all political systems, East and West, in his famous interview for the magazine Der Spiegel. Only a God, he concluded, can save us. Disaffection from politics is, indeed, a significant political phenomenon and we won’t understand the nature of politics unless we also get this phenomenon into view.

Systemic distrust of this or that part of our political reality or even of politics as a whole can be more or less intense. It may lead only to a detachment from politics and a turn towards other matters. Those living in totalitarian systems often find themselves pushed in this direction. They realize how little their views and actions will count in the political scene and so they turn toward their own private or scholarly concerns. Disaffection from the suspect parts of politics is also an option and so is the violent turn against this suspect reality. Finally, the distrust will most likely not be felt by everyone or equally strongly and different people may distrustful of different aspects of the political reality. As some begin to distrust his or that aspect of the political system, others will hold on to the existing political order. Different objects, levels, and kinds of distrust will divide the population and if the intensity of the distrust is sufficiently strong one side and sufficiently resisted on the other, the political system will certainly undergo turbulence. There is, however, no formula for determining how far the systemic distrust may spread and how strong and encompassing it will be. We can only say that when it ranges far enough, is sufficiently intense, and wide in scope, the political system is likely to break down. America, The West, and the global community are clearly not or not yet at this point. But given the proliferation of political distrust we are now observing, we urgently need to determine its role in political like. A diagnosis is needed of the nature, the sources, and the strength of this condition. Or, to put it differently, what we need now is a hermeneutics of suspicion.

One subject to consider in such a hermeneutics is the link between particular and systemic trust and distrust. Our systemic trust in physics did not come about all at once. It developed in stages as particular bits of trust came into play. We began to have confidence in the methods of those who pronounced on matters of physics. We came to respect the institutions of the scientific academy and the research university. Publishers and scientific journals established their reliability. And so on. These particular bits of trust came to be struts in the edifice of systemic trust. Systemic trust was the cumulative outcome of a manifold of particular trusts we have come to acquire. When the struts of particular trust are destroyed, systemic trust may get weakened and ultimately get destroyed. But while the growth of systemic trust is always cumulative, the destruction of systemic trust can also be sudden. Consider personal relations of trust and their breakdowns. Assume that you have trusted someone fully and unconditionally (a partner, a loved one); but then you discover that your trust in this person was at some point broken. This need not induce a complete, total, and sudden breach of trust, but it may and frequently does. Feeling betrayed in one thing, you now conclude that you should never have trusted that person at all and certainly should not trust them with anything from now on. Such moments are known to us also from large social contexts. Here are examples of the destruction of systemic trust – some cumulative and others that were sudden.

The Protestant Reformation began with Christian believers losing their trust in particular religious practices and beliefs. The moral integrity of the Pope was questioned and with it the institution of the papacy; the financial probity of monasteries and churches was thrown into doubt; traditional institutions and customs were questioned in the name of the Bible. Such particular doubts accumulated and eventually led to systemic distrust of the entire clerical structure. The French Revolution exposed the distrust that had accumulated around the established political and economic order of France. The systemic distrust exploded eventually in  a regime of terror and anarchy. A similar process led to the Communist Revolution in Russia. In the 1930’s, many Germans ended up distrusting their government’s ability to solve the overwhelming economic and political problems of the post-First World War period; their distrust extended to the mainstream political parties and their leaders and from there to the democratic system of government. The result was another collapse of a political system. In the 1960s, many Chinese began to lose faith in the Communist Party that had brought an end to prolonged civil war and that had re-established China as an independent state. Once the distrust reached a critical point, it needed only a few words from Chairman Mao Zedong to trigger a wholesale upheaval we know as the Cultural Revolution, a vast manifestation of systemic distrust. What we are witnessing today in America and also in other parts of the world is the transformation of particular bits of distrust into the systemic variety.

One feature stands out when that happens. It is not that the need for trust evaporates when a system of trust (a whole world-picture) collapses. For it turns out, that we cannot live for long without some form of trust. It is, rather, that the trust gets re-configured in this situation. It becomes concentrated and now turns to a single figure or a single institution in which it invests everything. There emerge then bearers of trust – not typically as passive objects in which trust is invested, but as active persons or institutions that advance themselves as worthy of trust. Systemic distrust has thus generated the great leaders of the Protestant Reformation (Martin Luther, John Calvin), the protagonists of the French and Soviet Revolution (Robespierre, Lenin), and political champions (Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong). In our own precarious political situation, Donald Trump has proposed himself as a bearer of systemic trust and he has for some people, indeed, become the one in whom that trust is currently invested. But Trump is a deeply flawed and limited figure and may not succeed in maintaining that role. This does not mean that his possible failure will restore the systemic trust on whose decline Trump’s rise has depended. Others may want to compete for the role of bearer of trust at that moment. Stephen Bannon is surely one contender for this position.



[i] On Certainty, 599 and 600.

[ii] On Certainty, 162 and 167.

[iii] Myriam Sarachik, Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World,  Physics Today 62, 10, 57 (2009);

[iv] Ibid.

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