Loosely – The Structure of Belief

A friend asked if I would write on the status of belief, or more specifically, the possibility of altering belief through conscious intervention or an otherwise form of reasoned action. I’d like to offer my understanding of belief as a general concept in answer, but am not entirely certain on the structure of the questioneer’s own concept of belief – therefore I’ll be using a loose workaround to characterise my interlocutor’s position to start with.

As far as I can tell then, the position I’ll be speaking against is characterised by a kind of essentialism of belief. Belief in this schema is unalterable. As it appears to me, this stance also holds that belief exists as a base element of character, an essential unit to the substance of the believer. I feel also that these characteristics are based on a basic contention which holds that belief and decision, or rather, faith and reason are diametrically opposed. Since the lead contention of my interlocutor’s stance appears to be that belief is fundamentally impossible to interfere with through any action on the part of the believer, it seems to me that a binarism can be derived from this which divides belief from conscious thought, faith from reason, and essence from action. This is doubtless a simplification of my conversation partner’s position, but in the absence of a full enumeration of it, I am satisfied to use it until such a time as more nuance becomes necessary or corrections offered.


My position on belief generally stems from the work of the poststructuralists and phenomenologists – philosophers generally active from the early 20th century until around the mid to late nineteen-seventies when that particular heritage began to go out of fashion. Needless to say, I do hold that belief can be altered and intervened in, and argue that belief is constituted in the act of positive decision in the first place. For myself, no true faith is possible without positive conscious intervention – belief, as far as I am concerned is constituted in the decision to believe.

To elaborate: belief must always have an object – there is something that is believed in. Whether that belief amounts to a belief in Santa Claus or a belief that the Earth orbits the Sun, or that God is present in all movements of everyday life, the object of belief cannot be taken alone, but always constitutes a belief system. To believe in Santa Claus is predicated on a belief in a whole mythos around the festival of Christmas, to believe the Earth orbits the sun is to believe in the value system posited by the Copernican revolution in astronomy and Renaissance science, to believe in the omnipresence of God is to participate in a doctrine formally disseminated through a church and its adherents. Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault are the philosophers most famous for discussing the contingency of meaning upon whole contextualising systems. In arguably his most famous single work, Structure, Sign and Play in the Human Sciences, Derrida demonstrates that no term in language, and all forms of meaning more generally, has meaning at all without the system as a whole. One sign does not refer exclusively to its real referent and derive meaning thusly, it instead derives meaning from referring through an infinite movement of substitutions within its system of meaning. A simple way to parse this is through the English word ‘dog’. Culturally speaking, the concept ‘dog’ is opposed to that of ‘cat’. Regardless of any evidence in support of these two animals in any way having opposed features (indeed, both are mammals with similar body shapes and domestic roles amongst humans), the meaning developed between the two concepts is defined, not wholly by reference to the real entity, but by reference to the opposed concepts within the language, the meaning-making system. Thus when asked ‘what is the opposite of dog’, the response which appears at once natural yet without reason or origin on the tongue is ‘cat’.

What Foucault adds to this is in the same vein but speaking from the realm of historical contingency rather than linguistic analysis. Foucault’s idea of ‘discourse’ is, in my estimation, most well elucidated in The Archaeology of Knowledge and Discipline and Punish. For Foucault, any enunciation, any set of statements is always entirely historical, that is, it gains its meaning from the meaning-disseminating institutions present in a given social moment. This is explicitly not limited to language, but to all ‘discursive practice’, including gesture, routine and habit, in everything from legal systems and education to where you sit on a bus. Quite apart from the intentions of the speaker or actor, Foucault’s idea of a discourse is a body of ‘anonymous historical rules’ (Archaeology of Knowledge, p. 131)  which govern the meaning of concepts within any given enunciative (meaning-making) act. Again, to clarify by way of example, it is an obvious matter of course in some cultures for grandparents to aid in the raising of children, while in others, such a proposition would be egregiously offensive and absurd. This is not a mere appeal to cultural difference – it speaks to the function of a series of institutions of value and meaning; a Confucian tradition of ancestry embedded in government and education on the one hand, and a Christian / Hellenic tradition of nurture embedded in government and education on the other, each to form very different concepts of ‘family’. This can be observed on any scale, even within one culture, so the fact that two families in the same neighbourhood can have very different relationships is a function of each individual’s relationship to and interpretation of the discourses through which meaning is generated in their everyday life (who sits at the head of the table, who works in the family, how care is given, what responsibilities are expected, etc.). Foucault performs an excellent explication of this in Discipline and Punish, elaborating how the mechanisms of observation, training and rehabilitation, originating in the prison system, now pervade military, legal, governmental, educational, urban infrastructure, and business apparatus down to the micro-level of everyday human practice – I leave it to the reader to invest in this work at their own leisure.

 It is therefore the case that belief as such always involves an individual’s placement within a belief system. There is no belief without the operation of meaning-making based on concepts developed through language and enunciative practices performed in discourse. However, simple submission within a belief system does not, for me, constitute true belief in any way. The operation of discourse and language as meaning-making and meaning-governing structures is a regular facet of everyday life; humans accept and live accepting the constructs of these systems as a matter of course – there is nothing of the character of belief in that so much as simple everyday adoption through necessity.

Consider the religious man – perhaps born in an Evangelical family and raised with all the trappings of Evangelical Christianity held as inalienable truths, going on with his life in the same manner and never once deviating from this path – a believer for life, so to speak. As far as I am concerned, at no point in this life is true belief or true faith in exhibition. It is as if the man is merely a feature of his environment – it doesn’t matter who he is or what he does, he could be any man, his entire life exists as a continuous and unrelenting operation of the discursive structure in which he has found himself. Consider a different person of religion – this person a convert, raised in the firm belief of a certain set of concepts – perhaps that of no god, or of some other god, or simply just believing whatever their family or significant peers believed, be it ambivalence, ardent atheism or whatever takes your fancy. This person, she becomes a woman of religion, a full-blooded evangelical, no different to our first case in habit or lifestyle. In this case also, no true faith, no true belief exists. The person has simply moved from one environment to another, fully adopting one discourse’s practices and language as truth, then abandoning those practices in order to fully adopt another. Nothing in the person is distinct from the discursive environment in which she is embedded – once again the person herself is meaningless, there is no true belief in the system in which she finds herself, merely a subservience to status quo, a blankness in her which is filled by the ideologies of her current social context.

The Existentialists suggest the way to what I take as true belief or true faith. Kierkegaard, adamant protestant, and Nietzsche, famously for the declaration: ‘God is dead, and we have killed him’, find themselves unlikely bedfellows in this regard. Within a Christian frame, Kierkegaard argues that ‘Innocence is ignorance’, a state like that of Eden where a human is ‘in immediate unity with his natural condition’ (The Concept of Dread, 37). Within this frame, the state of paradise – a prelapsarian garden – is a state in which man is not differentiated from its surroundings. Man only gains freedom through falling, through independence from its surrounding state of being, through becoming self-aware (through Sin and knowledge of Good and Evil in the Christian context). Nietzsche argues similarly that the goal for humanity is the kind of man who is independent of both tradition and convention, swayed by neither the trappings of the past nor the status quo of the present. Though the concept of Ubermensch is most famous for its adoption within National Socialist ideology, the fundamental point has much more to say about the freedom of man as an individual over any and all proximate systems of thought than about the superiority of any national ideology in general.

The point of significance is that a human only gains freedom through separation from their immediate conceptual environment. This, for me, is the starting point of true belief or true faith. Without self-awareness, and the full capacity to doubt and, indeed, deny that a given discourse is true, the possibility of belief does not exist. A person moves in and out of many discourses and many conceptual realms in the course of a lifetime, acting on the ideological systems of each in turn – this does not make that person a believer in any of them, only a conduit through which each of them operates (in order to reproduce an economic reality if you’re a Marxist, to reproduce its memes if you follow that kind of theory, etc.). If I am raised in a family of agnostics and follow their customs, I move out and begin to spend time with atheists and follow their habits, then later convert to Christianity because I am spending time amongst many other Christians who convince me to do so, in no way am I a true believer in any of these systems of thought – I am nothing more than a person who is, as Kierkegaard would put it, is ignorant, who lacks the self-awareness to qualify as a free functioning subject. To adopt the discourses of my immediate surroundings is something that proceeds through the simple ongoing interaction with the people in my proximity. This is little more than a convenience. Indeed, many go through life in this way and this way alone – none are possessed of faith in its richest character. To possess true belief is to make the active decision to adopt a system of meaning in full light of the knowledge that it is fallible and deniable.

If it seems like I am targeting theism unfairly, please forgive another example based in religion – it is an easy lens through which to illustrate the point, though I hold that this character applies to anything that can be believed whatsoever. Imagine again a member of the church, which church doesn’t matter, nor whether they’re lifetime devout or recently enlightened. If this individual does not acknowledge the possibility of the entirety of their doctrine being false and mistaken, and still elect to follow it, they are bereft of faith. Assuming they do not acknowledge the fallibility of their doctrine, imagine entertaining a conversation with this individual. Whether you speak to them from a position of agreement with them or a position of opposition, there is nothing to be spoken about with regard to their so-called belief. Even if you are both followers of the same church, it would be a conversation utterly without merit to, for example, question this person on their interpretation of the nature of the holy trinity, or the implications of the story of Cain and Abel, to pick examples at random. Even if this individual produces sound arguments and well-organised rhetoric, unless they have sought to challenge these arguments and found them lacking in some manner, then belief in its truest form cannot exist. The problem is not a problem of the content of what he might have to say, it is a problem of whether you are truly speaking to him at all. If he produces an internally watertight argument for the nature of the holy trinity being fundamentally based on the holy spirit, it would have no meaning to hear it from him if he had not already acknowledged his argument’s failings and chosen to proceed in his belief in that position anyway. To produce arguments with flawless internal logic is admirable for sure, but without acknowledging that the formation of that logic itself is a function of a given discourse, and therefore possesses the possibility of complete untruth, there is no belief in the argument regardless of its rhetorical execution. One may as well speak to a machine, or (if such a thing were possible) converse with the ideology itself – which is essentially what this kind of person becomes; a pure embodiment of a discourse, but in no way someone capable of belief or faith.

By contrast, consider the religious woman, an advocate of one God or another, who both cares to understand and fully acknowledges the possibility that another religion has merit and its own measure of truth.  Consider that she also cares to pay attention to and investigate the merits of atheistic discourse, scientific discourse, polytheistic and pantheistic discourse, as well as other assortments of spiritualist and paganistic ideology. If she remains firm in her decision to follow the path of her choosing, not only does she epitomise freedom in the sense both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard hold most highly, she also possesses belief in the truest sense. If you ask this woman about her ideas on the mysteries of faith, then she really has something to say – because you can be certain that what she says is hers, absolutely hers, not the mere repetition of discourse, or the recital of a discursive logic speaking through her tongue, but a genuinely considered disposition which she as a free individual has taken the time and effort to unravel and chosen to hold as true based on her own volition.

This holds true just as surely for the claim that ‘the Earth is flat’. To even use this idea, this sentence, presupposes an idea of ‘Earth’ as opposed to something-other-than-Earth, be that space and the planets, the heavenly firmament and hell, or the ancient Apeiron, which in turn presupposes a cosmology – a discourse governing beliefs about the nature of the universe.  It is impossible to speak about this contention without first understanding the world-system, the network of meaning that it entails. To declare my belief that ‘the Earth is flat’ constitutes no true belief at all without acknowledgement that there is a counter-system of meaning which declares that the Earth is round, or in some other state. Truly, to echo again Kierkegaard, a declaration such as this is nothing more than ignorance, a wilful ignorance of the possibility of alternatives – which amounts to nothing other than stupidity; is the very definition of stupidity.

I have made quite a lengthy exposition, but it should be obvious from this why, for me, the very idea of belief is impossible without decision. An idea simply accepted and taken as true is no belief whatsoever, and a human who does so barely registers as a free subject in the Nietzschean sense any case. The refusal to understand and accept the merits of diverse viewpoints amounts to wilful ignorance, which is itself the definition of stupidity, and furthermore rank irresponsibility. True belief, true faith, is the decision taken by a free subject to follow a system of meaning and to uphold its merits, while acknowledging the possibility of the absolute fallibility of that system in the face of alternatives. This is the very essence of belief itself. I refer to one more philosopher in support of my point – the famous phenomenologist and ethical thinker Emmanuel Levinas, who states in Totality and Infinity that ‘the atheist separation is required by the idea of Infinity’ (p. 60). Infinity for Levinas means religion, and is predicated on ‘atheist separation’, by which he means, the absolute independence of a being from its system of being and meaning: belief cannot exist without the believing being being wholly independent from the concepts in which it believes.

At this point the question of whether a belief can change based on a decisive act alone is more or less trivial with the answer affirmative. No true belief exists without decision, hence a belief altered – from the Earth is flat to the Earth is round, say – can of course exist. Especially given that the believer must acknowledge the fallibility of their belief and the truth of alternatives, then I see no difficulty in this, save the commitment on the part of the individual necessary to truly believe anew with sincerity. It should be clear here that this stands against the idea of belief as an opposite to reason, or faith as an opposite to conscious thought, or essence as an opposite to action. True belief and faith are the apotheosis of reason, an apogee of the committed and focused pursuit of thought. The essence of a personality is not necessarily found in the beliefs that go unchallenged and unnoticed in them, apart from their determined action (though this can be the case). The essence of a personality can just as easily be present, and all the more so for the commitment made, in the active and conscious choice made to believe in X, Y or Z in the full light of its flaws and opponents. A free subject is one who is independent of, and self-aware within, the discourses which surround them. This is a goal for any human to aspire to. The opposite is wilful ignorance, the complacency and arrogance to choose not to court or understand or acknowledge the essential viability of competing systems of meaning, which makes a human no more than a discourse machine or an ideological marionette – the prisoner blind to the prison, to speak in more cliche terms. True belief cannot be the idle submission to a dogma, nor can it be the pure logic of an ardent follower. For the former case simply exists within a discourse like a fish not noticing it lives in water, and the latter speaks with an arrogance that posits that water is all that could possibly exist. Only in the considered and measured doubt of self-criticism and the firm and thoughtful listening of commitment is true belief to be found.


This has been somewhat apart from my usual style, far more philosophical in tone and rhetoric, so I hope it was not too much to bear with for the casual reader. For those well-versed in the literature I have discussed, I also ask that you bear with my interpretations: I am not formally trained in philosophy and approach these works from the direction of literature, so if the nuances of the extremely rich positions of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are lost in my writing, I hope you will forgive me. Lastly, to my interlocutor, I hope you have found this an informative and entertaining read and I’d welcome a response should you feel so inclined.

Thanks for reading!