Parergon: The Heuristics of Suspicion

(A segue about pragmatics in a longer essay spiraled out of control.)

I have previously written that leftists struggle with logical thought and like to replace discussion with emotion-talk.  These are two small aspects of  an over-arching shift from evaluating someone’s beliefs and actions on the basis of his reasons, to evaluating them on the basis of his motives.  C.S. Lewis apparently called this shift “Bulverism”; Paul Ricœur’s “hermeneutics of suspicion” is a related but perhaps broader category.

This leftist Manichaeanism is a cancerous outgrowth of instincts that are healthy in everyday life, where we take 99% of everything we hear at face value, making no attempt to challenge the speaker or verify his claims.  We only form precise views about how accurate or likely a claim is if it has unusual salience and thus stands out against this background of tacit acceptance, inviting closer scrutiny.

One source of salience is contradiction and incongruity (one does not accept on faith what seems impossible); another, how consequential a claim is in practical terms (“look before you leap”); a third is the speaker’s motive for repeating his claim to us.  Actually, grasping a speaker’s motive matters whether or not the motive is suspicious.  In many cases it is impossible to determine what a claim means without knowing why the speaker made it.  For example, responses to questions in casual conversation are unintelligible without the mutual understanding that the response attempts to answer the question.

41pzfj-9rrl-_sy344_bo1204203200_So we always tacitly respond to others’ motives whenever we try to speak with them.  We rarely notice what we hear is only implicit in the words that were spoken (an inexhaustible source of material for humor, riddles, and quarrels).  In this constant tacit awareness of others’ purposes we occasionally notice that their intention is not only to get us to understand a sentence in a certain way, but to get us to believe it and do something on account of it.  This raises the possibility that a speaker doesn’t care whether his claim is true, only about its effect.

The perfectly reasonable awareness of mercenary motives leads us to tune out huge amounts of innocent-looking sentences.  The superlative claims of marketers — scrawled across the city in flashing neon, crammed along the edges of web pages, pushed forward by a friendly man wearing a sandwich-board — barely earn more than a flicker of eye-movement.  The piteous claims of panhandlers and scam artists are, if anything, a warning to avoid eye-contact entirely.  The bold claims of an athletic rival are dismissed as bluster.

Certainly we couldn’t take all these claims at face value, could we?  Call it the heuristics of suspicion.

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