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Nurturing the Imagination of Resistance:
Some important views from contemporary philosophers

by Ruel F. Pepa

[This is the text of the 2004 Martin Heidegger Memorial Lecture, delivered on 28 July 2004 at the Barsam Hall Audio-Visual Room, Trinity College of Quezon City (TCQC), The Philippines]

From the Hermeneutics of Suspicion to the Post-Modern Imagination of Resistance

Stanley Honer in his "An Invitation to Philosophy" comments that philosophy does not answer questions; philosophy questions answers.

In the history of western philosophy, the most penetrating and radical questions asked by modern philosophy came out through the defiant treatises of what the French hermeneutic philosopher Paul Ricoeur in his Freud and Philosophy (1970) calls "the masters of the hermeneutics of suspicion" namely, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud. According to Ricoeur, the hermeneutics of suspicion is "a method of interpretation which assumes that the literal or surface-level meaning of a text is an effort to conceal the political interests which are served by the text. The purpose of interpretation is to strip off the concealment, unmasking those interests."[1] It unmasks and unveils untenable claims. It suspects the credibility of the superficial text and explores what is underneath the surface to reveal a more authentic dimension of meaning.

Marx's analysis of religion exposed and opposed the illusory character of the transcendent realm conceived and taught by religion to ease the misery and hardship experienced by dehumanized people exploited in work places by the new slave-drivers of the Industrial Era — the capitalists. Hence, Marx concluded that religion is the opium of the people.

With an equally devastating attack against the religion of his time, Nietzsche saw in it a determination to elevate weakness to the level of strength thereby making weakness honorable and worthy of praise. In such situation, the character of the religious human being is led to a state of domestication where the full potential of being human is not explored, much less realized. Because of the "moral values" of humility, pity, hospitality, kindness, among others, the human being has been deprived of the natural flow of the "will to power" which, according to Nietzsche, is the sole factor that makes humanity the bridge stretched between the "Unmensch" [beast] and the "Ubermensch" [Overman].

Religion in the hands of Freud was critically presented to distinguish "the real" from "the apparent". Though religion could be a source of comfort and feeling of assurance, getting one's self in a serious problem in the warp and woof of life exposes the illusions that inhabit this house of cards. In Freud, religion is simply an expression of one's wish to be protected and defended by a father-figure called "God".

It could be said at this point that the masters of the hermeneutics of suspicion though "destructive" in their methodology did not actually aim to destroy institutionalized edifices of culture and civilization just for the senseless sake of destroying them. They embarked in their respective projects to "clear the horizon for a more authentic word, for a new reign of Truth, not only by means of a 'destructive' critique, but by the invention of an art of interpreting."[2] It is only in destroying the false assumptions and the untenable platforms of awareness that new liberating paradigms of thought may arise to allow the human being a better interpretation of her/his reality. In the process, such hermeneutics of suspicion leads to a bi-focal critique — a critique that is not only trained towards the participant in a system but likewise towards the system itself.

However, the hermeneutics of suspicion in the post-modern climate is an expression of the same spirit of philosophic resistance to "a profound disenchantment with modernism (and its conviction to reason, rationalism, scientism, objectivity and progress) much earlier in Western history."[3] Modernism is generally perceived to be predominated by the key principles of linear progress, absolute truth, knowledge standardization and rational formation of states of affairs.

Nietzsche's Imagination of Resistance: Reality as Interpretations

Of the three sources of the hermeneutics of suspicion in the modern era, Nietzsche's "prophetic pronouncements" are hailed by contemporary philosophy as most expressive of the post-modern temper — the most pregnant of post-modern ideas

Nietzsche's imagination of resistance is profoundly expressed in both his minor and major philosophical works. In an unpublished essay, "On Truth and Lies in an Nonmoral Sense," which he wrote in 1873, Nietzsche argues that that which is claimed to be objective truth is nothing but a barrage of metaphors. Objective truth, the basis of scientific theories, is only an illusion. Hence, if 'truth' is relative, no amount of scientific hypothesizing can capture it.

In Beyond Good and Evil, Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future (1886), Nietzsche goes a step further in asserting this relativity. No absolute moral standards objectively predominate the human situation, a priori. There is nothing inherently abhorrent in exploitation; its moral suitability largely depends on the social status of the person who perpetrates the exploitation in society.

In another book, On the Genealogy of Morals, A Polemic, Nietzsche presses further on in his attack of objectivity. Traditional morality for him is tremendously influenced by the Christian valuation of weakness and hence should be torn down. The human "will to power" is tragically devastated by one's mind-set of guilt and remorse. Christianity has contrived them to control the natural occurrence of human flourishing. Nietzsche maintains that there is no absolute, objective, supernatural and universal perspective. The human existential reality is relative: "There are no facts, only interpretations." The very absence of a definite and absolute moral influence in the human existential realm, bestows on the human being the lonely task of setting his own normative guidelines.

Nietzsche's imagination of resistance is likewise reflected in his other works which he later produced like The Case of Wagner, A Musician's Problem (1888), Twilight of the Idols, or How One Philosophizes with a Hammer (1888), The Antichrist, Curse on Christianity (1888), and Ecce Homo, How One Becomes What One Is (1888).

Among the philosophers of the contemporary period, the imagination of resistance that preoccupied Nietzsche's life of defiant philosophizing has had a massive extent of influence on the philosophizing of Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, and Lyotard among others.

Heidegger's Imagination of Resistance: Hermeneutics as Existential Understanding

Heidegger's imagination of resistance is shown in his Being and Time as he challenges the Husserlian concept of objectivity in phenomenology. "Husserl argues that objective interpretation is possible using his transcendental phenomenological method that requires bracketing the subjectivity inhering in the interpreter's life-world (Lebenswelt), the world of personal experience and desires."[4] Heidegger argues that such bracketing is not possible on the ground that "the understanding of a situation is directly mediated by a fore-knowledge, or sensitivity to situations, that is comprised by the understander's life-world."[5] Hence, holding that Lebenswelt in abeyance would even make understanding impossible. In this connection, Heidegger concludes that "as a necessary part of human 'being-in-the-world' (Dasein), things are perceived according to how they are encountered and used in one's everyday routines and tasks. Perception and apprehension thus move from fore-knowledge to an existential understanding, a largely unreflective and automatic grasp of a situation that triggers a response."[6]

In so doing, Heidegger transforms hermeneutics from a theory of interpretation (epistemological hermeneutics) to a theory of existential understanding (ontological hermeneutics).

He 'depsychologizes' hermeneutics by dissociating it from the empathetic perception of other beings. Understanding now appears as a no-longer-conscious component of Dasein; it is embedded within the context of specific situations and plans, with, in effect, finite computational resources. Therefore, interpretation (Auslegung) which depends on such existential understanding (Verstehen) is not the general logical method found in classical philology, but refers to a conscious recognition of one's own world. Dilthey's methodological hermeneutic circle is consequently supplanted by the more fundamental ontological hermeneutic circle, which leads from existential understanding situated in a world to a self-conscious interpretive stance. This self-consciousness, however, cannot escape its limitations to achieve a transcendental understanding in the sense of Hegel, who considered rationality the ability to reflectively accept or reject (transcend) the received socio-cultural tradition. According to this reading of Heidegger, fore-knowledge is accumulated over time and constrains successive exercises of existential understanding. But self-conscious understanding cannot choose which elements in the experience based foreknowledge are respecified in the bootstrapping process.[7]

In Being and Time, Heidegger's phenomenology of Dasein is basically a hermeneutic undertaking. Understanding occurs before cognition, and being able to seize the currently on-going state of affairs is not required by its meaning. It is actually the seizing of Dasein's potentiality-for-Being — a projection into the future — that is vital for the structure of Dasein. In Heidegger, therefore, we see a type of hermeneutics that engages two significant facets: 1) an understanding of the existentially previous condition of Dasein, and 2) an interpretation of the potentiality of Being that belongs to Dasein. It only means that we do not approach an object or text totally devoid of all presuppositions; Heidegger's Dasein is filled with primordial understanding.

Foucault's Imagination of Resistance: The Substructures of Concealed Genealogy

The French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926- 1984) challenged the basic notions on how the human being thinks of absolute universal truths about human nature and social transformation in the history of civilizations. In defiance of Marxian as well as Freudian influences, Foucault purported that rote activities defined people's identities and systemized their knowledge. Foucault's exploration into the issue of power and its variegating configurations is an underlying consideration in his brand of postmodernism.

Foucault's postmodern imagination of resistance is reflected in his theory of historical understanding that challenges conventional history as a chronological presentation of foreseeable facts. He replaces it with substructures of concealed and non-thematized corpus of historical information. These substructures are the determining factors and presuppositions of organization — the formation of uniqueness that justify the awareness and understanding — through which societies consummate their distinctive characters.

Derrida's Imagination of Resistance: In Radical Defiance of Logocentrism

The French poststructuralist and postmodernist Jacques Derrida (b. 1930) is concerned with the deconstruction of texts and the inter-textual relationship of meaning.

His imagination of resistance is trained towards "logocentrism". While philosophers write their ideas, they however claim that philosophy is not a matter of writing. They claim that philosophy rather deals with ideas on a subject matter and writing on such a subject matter is not actually "philosophically necessary". Philosophy aims to determine the undeniable truth basic to the problem. Reason and truth — not the rhetoric of language — structure it. This location of philosophy in the dimension of truth and reason "untouched" by the written word refuses to be defined as writing. Philosophy therefore looks at writing as "a necessary evil" that gives way for the philosopher to convey his ideas.

Derrida strongly opposes such a preposterous view. For him, the philosopher's relation to language must be seen as a part of the problem of knowledge. One cannot forsake language as a negligible tool of communication for ideas are inseparably connected to language. Logocentrism views reason as conditioned by "a metaphysics of presence."

Philosophical discourse is not privileged in any way, and any attempt to explain what "meaning" means will self-destruct. Put more precisely, the signifiers of language systems cannot refer to a transcendental signified originating in the mind of the speaker because the "signified" is itself created by the conventional, and hence arbitrary, signifiers of language. Signifiers therefore merely refer to other signifiers (e.g., words refer only to other words). The "meaning" is always deferred and Presence is never actually present. Signifiers attain significance only in their differences from each other (the signifier "cat" is neither "cap" nor "car") or in what they define themselves against ("to be asleep" is understood in contrast to "to be awake").[8]

Logocentrism is understandable only as it connects with a myriad of other ideas. It is impossible to understand an idea that is not conceptualized. Ideas are all structured in language. Hence, meaning and text are perpetually connected.

Lyotard's Imagination of Resistance: The Disenfranchisement of Meta-narratives

The French post-structural philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard's (1924-1998) intellectual commitment includes a wide coverage of issues not only in the field of philosophy but equally in politics and aesthetics His scholarly works consistently touches on the notion that reality expresses itself not in "meta-narratives"[9] but in a multiplicity of particular states of affairs that cannot precisely be signified by rational theory. Lyotard believed that since politics is based on exact representations of reality, such particular states of affairs are considered to have deep political importance.

Lyotard's philosophical imagination of resistance expresses many of the foremost thematizations commonly shared in post-structural and postmodern thought. It casts a serious doubt on the powers of reason and in the process, affirms the importance of non-rationality in terms of feelings and emotions. It likewise disenfranchises humanism and the traditional philosophical anthropocentric conception of knowledge, being an advocacy of heterogeneity and difference. It proposes that a social perception which relies on the principle of "progress" has been rendered irrelevant and immaterial by the post-industrial paradigm-shift in the areas of science, technology, politics and culture.


The philosophical strand of the imagination of resistance that runs from the hermeneutics of suspicion to postmodern and post-structural uprisings is a defiant response of contemporary philosophizing against the objectivism, rationalism, and positivistic scientism of the modern era. It is also a devastating reaction against the structural conception of reality which presupposes the inevitability of universal linguistic structures which ultimately predetermine the essence of reality.

The postmodern imagination of resistance is therefore a radical expression of a denial of absolute essences, defining characters, inherent natures and other universalizations that artificially capture the dynamicity of Heidegger's Dasein.

The postmodern imagination of resistance is truly "an incredulity towards metanarratives" as Lyotard succinctly puts it. Hence, from the postmodern point of view, no interpretation of reality can ever be conditioned by certain universal, absolute, and objective grand presuppositions.



2. Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 33.



5. Ibid.

6. Loc. cit.

7. Loc. cit.


9. "'Meta-narrative' is Lyotard's term. It means a story or narrative that is presumed to have great generality and represents a final and apodictic truth [apodictic truths: an imaginary concept of truth in which it is supposed that we know something with absolute certainty. To be an apodictic truth there must be no possibility of mistake]. Modernists, Lyotard tells us, believe in metanarratives whereas postmoderns are incredulous of metanarratives. Postmoderns, in this sense of the term, are eclectic and gather their beliefs from a variety of sources while treating the resulting compilation as tentative."

© Ruel F. Pepa 2004


Department of Social Sciences & Philosophy
College of Arts and Sciences
Trinity College of Quezon City
The Philippines