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“I trust.”
This simple phrase opens up a bottomless pit of perplexity, despite the fact that trust, when present in all its solidity, is purported to overcome any perplexity. The shifter or “clutch” of the phrase—the “I” behind the personal pronoun—is engaged, reminding us of a simple truth: the subject is personally involved in the act of trust, participating actively in granting it to the other. When defining trust, the lexicographer has no option but to do so via negation, as “the belief, spontaneous or acquired, in the value—professional, moral, emotional, etc.—of another person, which makes it impossible to imagine deception, betrayal, or incompetence on their part.” A literal translation of the equivalent French phrase, “J’ai confiance,” is “I have trust,” the auxiliary verb making it all the clearer that trust denotes an element of (subjective) belonging or affiliation.
A negative definition then, and a circular one too: I only trust when I detect no reason to regard somebody with suspicion or indeed to distrust them—to doubt the authenticity of the other, their intentions and actions; I trust when I am incapable of imagining betrayal by the other. How's that for a tautological definition? Considered as an act in its own right, however, trust falls within the jurisdiction of belief; when we grant somebody our trust, we are “banking” on them—we believe we can count on them. It is an act that counters the possibility of betrayal. We “believe in the other,” yet at the same time cannot rule out the possibility of revoking this belief when reasons for “taking back our trust” present themselves…


Restoring the subjective dialectic of belief to trust involves a question: in the actions and being of the other, what is held to be trustworthy? This involves a wager on otherness, one that is demonstrated in friendship and culminates in love, thereby sustaining the social bond. Here, this ethics of the subject is illuminated by the resources of unconscious knowledge, thereby bringing to light the symbolic order, which is expressed in legal terms by the oath and the “sworn statement.” It is also illustrated by the legal institution of the “fideicommissum.” Ultimately the rotten apple in the barrel of trust, the process of ceasing to believe – which goes beyond disbelief – is what sheds light on both the conflicts involved in trust and what is at stake in this trust. We can trace the symptomatology of this process in the “social passions,” including acute forms of resentment and the development of practices of systematic suspicion, a distrust that feeds a collective form of paranoid discourse that is based on the premise of the Other’s imposture. This puts theories of language and communication to the test, by way of the dimension of reciprocation. The clinic of the subject reveals the paradox of individuals who invariably repeat situations of betrayal, investing the capital of their trust at a loss. In this, we can recognize the death drive at work: the unbinding and destructiveness at the very heart of the bond.

  • trust
  • belief
  • distrust
  • the loss of belief
  • subject
  • law
  • symbolic
  • reciprocity
  • resentment
  • language
  • communication
Paul-Laurent Assoun
Paul‑Laurent Assoun, professor emeritus at the Université de Paris, psychoanalyst, member of the Research Centre for Psychoanalysis and Medicine (CRPMS), and author of approximately forty works including Freud et les sciences sociales. Psychanalyse et théorie de la culture (Freud and the social sciences. Psychoanalysis and cultural theory, Paris: Armand Colin, 1993). Fellow in Philosophy, he holds a PhD in political sciences, and supervises research in psychopathology, following an interdisciplinary path aligned with psychoanalytic anthropology.
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