Reframing the Masters of Suspicion

Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud

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Andrew Dole
Critiquing Religion: Discourse, Culture, Power
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Publishing
    , December
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Paul Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy (Éditions du Seuil, 1965) has, for many, fixed the intellectual legacy of Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud under the familiar moniker “masters of suspicion,” introducing a hermeneutical reading of their projects. It is commonplace to read the masters as offering a critique of false consciousness in order to clear a space for the interpretation of reality. In Reframing the Masters of Suspicion, Andrew Dole continues Ricoeur’s project of identifying a common tradition of suspicion in Marx-Nietzsche-Freud though with an important correction, arguing that what we find in this triumvirate is not a hermeneutics of suspicion, but rather suspicious explanation. By this Dole means that these thinkers sought to explain causes in the world rather than to replace those obstructive interpretations taken by everyday consciousness as self-evident.

The distinction between interpretation and explanation may appear slight, but it is significant. The hermeneutical reading of the masters was originally a reaction by Ricoeur to criticisms of psychoanalysis as unscientific. Ricoeur avoided this concern via an appeal to the distinctive role of the historical and human sciences, established especially in the 19th century, as pursuing understanding of the world rather than an explanation of it. Dole agrees with Ricoeur that the masters are dealing with suspicion, but shows that they were making arguments for the hiddenness and badness of actual causes of the conditions of workers under capitalism, the existence of European moral values, and religious and cultural mores. Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud present explanations of large-scale social phenomena. To assess these explanatory claims, Dole proposes a hybrid approach drawing from Bayesian theory and Peter Lipton’s explanationism to offer an inference to the best explanation on the basis of a theory’s plausibility and explanatory power. Dole then considers how the masters of suspicion each make a case for the explanatory power of their main theses, and how each one copes with failures of plausibility with various rhetorical or defensive strategies.

Chapters 2-4 of the book consider Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud in turn, focusing on particular texts that stand at the heart of their respective explanations. Dole identifies three distinct “explanatory styles” in Marx: two vulgar forms that identify the class interests and economic motives of individuals—along with abstract social agents—as basic causes of social conditions; and historical materialism, which identifies general social structures and conflict between economic classes as the source of explanation for history rather than individual conscious motives and decisions. While Marx is, in many cases, not guilty of vulgar forms of suspicious explanation, “historical materialism is precarious as regards theory choice inasmuch as it generates unelaborated functional explanations,” which in turn leads naturally to vulgar Marxist and Hegelian interpretations, both within Marx’s own texts and as a prominent feature of Marxist thought (70).

The primary text considered in the author’s chapter on Nietzsche is The Genealogy of Morals (C.G. Naumann, 1887), which has become an important archetype for genealogical critique ever since. Dole describes three main components of the essays that make up this work, which are integral to Nietzsche’s explanation of the rise of morality. First, Nietzsche describes tendencies such as ressentiment or various drives and instincts. Second, ideal-typical characters such as the Jew, the priest, or the warrior act upon these tendencies during (third) important events, such as the slave revolt in morality, that are triggered by particular social conditions. Dole notes that it is unclear how speculative Nietzsche’s history is meant to be, but overlooking the character of the Jew and its place in the argument of the Genealogy, especially the first essay, makes for inadequate readings of Nietzsche. Setting aside the more complicated and ultimately less relevant question of Nietzsche’s own relationship with antisemitism, Nietzsche’s explanation of the suspicious origins of morality at the very least sets its own “dangerous bait” for anti-Semites who are inclined to associate “the Jew” with badness (131). As with Marx, Nietzsche’s suspicious explanation gains much of its rhetorical power from unclear attributions of agency and historicity that invite conspiratorial accusations.

Freud’s explanation of human psychopathologies and their “social extension” in religious myth and identity (153 ff.) shares traits with both Marx and Nietzsche insofar as he distinguishes basic drives from conscious agency, while seeking to explain large-scale social phenomena by reference to it. A particular characteristic of Freudian explanation is what Dole calls the recursive ad hominem defense: baked into psychoanalytic explanation is the fact that someone who faces Freud’s explanation without recognizing its truth (about, e.g., their repressed drives) should be expected to deny its plausibility. Any critique is rendered predictable according to psychoanalysis, then, and disarmed. Meanwhile, though, Freud’s own theory is rendered problematically non-falsifiable.

It seems that there is a significant hermeneutics of suspicion that finds its roots in Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, but not in a way that one might expect. How the reader attributes agency to Marx’s capitalist, or Nietzsche’s Jew, or the repression that functions to defend Freud against critiques of his psychoanalytic assertions, does not actually explain the nature of their respective projects, but rather offers an interpretation of the attempts at explanation made by these writers. And this interpretation is vital for mounting an adequate explanation of how the masters of suspicion have themselves been employed throughout twentieth century philosophical, religious, and social scientific thought. Dole’s main contribution to such interpretation, which he offers with incisive care, is to point out that what makes suspicion so tempting as a hermeneutical project actually plays an important rhetorical role in what are ultimately suspicious explanations.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Evan Kuehn is the Interlibrary Loan Coordinator at North Park University and Metadata Specialist at Atla.

Date of Review: 
December 30, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrew Dole is Professor of Religion at Amherst College.


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