Andrea Perunović, “On the notion of trust in European languages”

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Andrea Perunović is a PhD candidate in a cotutelle agreement between the University of Paris 8 and the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee (Switzerland).

The notion of trust seems to be nowadays omnipresent, dominant, in the vast variety of spheres constituting human existence. This research aims to examine the semantic properties of various terms designating the notion of trust, in different European languages. The aporia of such a task is embodied in the fact that the terms in question are characterized as untranslatable, or at least, as resisting to direct translation. Therefore, our methodology will be based on a cross-cutting approach that presupposes the intertwinement of diachronic linguistics and etymology on the one hand, and philosophical archeology on the other. This investigation tends, therefore, to discover the arché of trust. Arché in ancient greek means beginning, but equally a commandment. If we follow the argument that Giorgio Agamben develops, echoing the thoughts of Aristotle, Freud, Foucault and many others, arché is to be defined as an origin that commands the history of that of which it is the origin. In other words, that perpetual origin never ceases to command, to rule and to govern what it has created.


By adopting firstly the linguistic point of view, from the theoretical standpoints of Saussure and Benveniste, we discover important semantic differences between the English word trust and the French word confiance.


For example, the word trust is in a close relation with the adjective true, which later gave the noun truth. Digging further into the etymological sedimentation, we discover that in English language the concepts of trust and truth are closely related to the idea of social normativity. This shows up to be obvious also in anglophone philosophy, for example in John Locke’s writings. The germanic root of the term trust, dreu-, inscribe in our modern understanding of the notion, besides the obvious meaning of having faith, the meaning of consolation. Its Indo-European roots, add the ideas of firmness and solidity, which becomes clearer once we discover that English words trust and tree, derive from the same indo-european root: *drew-.


On the other side, the french word confiance, that in everyday practice is considered to faithfully translate the English word trust, has yet completely different semantic properties. It derives from the Latin word confidentia, which is coined from the prefix con-, meaning “with” and the root verb fidere (to trust, to believe, to relie), itself deriving from the noun fides. In Benveniste’s comparison of fides to its Ancient Greek equivalent peithomai, we discover meanings such as persuasion, obedience, submission etc., that are influencing, although often unconsciously, our contemporary understanding and use of the word confiance. This problematic becomes somehow more complete, once we approach it by the means of philosophical archeology, examining the texts such as Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Rhetorics.


From the historical inputs that are obtained, we should try to draw a sketch of the arché of trust, and thus critically grasp the present condition of the notion. This should be done by superimposing the meanings from different languages and philosophies that we have examined, with the goal of opening the space for, what in Walter Benjamin’s terms is called, the ‘pure language’. The arché of trust could be than articulated in the form of the following (reduced) definition: the notion of trust hides within itself the force of firm and solid obedience of the subject to someone or something, and thus represents the space opened for manipulations. While repressing the fact that trust severely limits the possibility of thought, one seeks for comfort in the state of persuasion.


As the result of this research, the new possibilities for deconstructing the manipulative character of trust shall emerge, and lead us to propose what is named the philosophy of distrust.