11. The Work of Art


“The work of art has its true being in the fact it becomes an experience that changes the person who experiences it. The ‘subject’ of the experience of art, that which remains and endures, is not the subjectivity of the person who experiences it but the work itself.”1
Hans-Georg Gadamer

OK, so we’re going to need some definitions for this one because, like it or not, we need to refer to Immanuel Kant and this section might just be tougher than your driving test or accessing your online account with a utility provider when you have forgotten your password! But, hey, let’s not be pessimistic, in the next section it’ll all be explained with some art.

Aesthetics – is concerned with questions of taste and beauty
A Priori – is reasoning that occurs before experience
Epistemology – is the theory of knowledge
Ontology – is the study of being, existence… stuff… what there is
Subjectivisation –is Kant’s way of saying something relates to a subject and not to truth or facts (objective things)
Universal – is true for anyone

So, when we last saw Gadamer, we left him leaping out of the canal of epistemology and into the stream of aesthetics because he decided to ask two questions:

“Is it right to reserve the concept of truth for conceptual knowledge?”2

“Must we not also acknowledge that the work of art possesses truth?”3

The tantalising waters of aesthetics have long been found easier to navigate outside of epistemological concerns. However, being that wonderful oxymoron that he was, a careful revolutionary, Gadamer decided to abandon such conventions and sail through them both. Good for him, I say.

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Starting by addressing his own questions, a standard philosophical technique, Gadamer posited the following statement, and by doing so encapsulated, very concisely, the essence of his revolutionary fusion of aesthetics and epistemology:

“The work of art has its true being in the fact it becomes an experience that changes the person who experiences it. The ‘subject’ of the experience of art, that which remains and endures, is not the subjectivity of the person who experiences it but the work itself.”4

Excusing the fact that the translation has managed to provide us with the word ‘experience’ four times in two sentences, there are three neat mini-revolutions contained within this terse prose: First, there is the explicit challenge to accepted models of understanding in both aesthetics and epistemology. In both disciplines, the standard criteria for the experiential subject is to be static and stable, and not as Gadamer proposes dynamic and changeable. Second, the statement regarding the work of art’s ‘true being,’ the attainment of which is predicated upon its ability to alter the spectator, acts to license the judgement of the work in a radical manner, in that any such judgment is determined by whether or not there is a perceivable effect upon the viewer. Finally, the third mini-revolution, in contrast to the malleable spectator, sees the work itself remaining constant.

Isolated into their separate constitutive parts; the dynamic spectator; judging an artwork by its ability to produce a change in the spectator; and the work remaining constant, all can be investigated into within their own debates. However, for Gadamer they all strode together to act as a central thesis. A thesis with no sense of shame as it threw the contents of its glass into the face of the most important dignitary at the party: Kant’s subjectivisation of aesthetics.

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Gadamer, being the diligent philosopher that he was, didn’t randomly throw his wine in the general direction of Kant’s subjectivisation of aesthetics; he first undertook reconnaissance in order to assess the true nature of his target:

“In his critique of aesthetic judgement what Kant sought to and did legitimate was the subjective universality of aesthetic taste in which there is no longer any knowledge of the object.”5

The effective result of such a legitimisation, therefore, removed any possibility for knowledge, and consequently truth, from aesthetic objects and dictated that they be bound together with the empire of the subjective. The whim and fancy of the individual subject was emperor and beauty, in its standard resident position, would be forever in the eye of the beholder.

Hence, Gadamer conceived Kant’s third critique as that which separated aesthetics from epistemology. Taste, beauty and the sublime were divorced from truth as far as Kant was concerned. This, of course, would be of minor concern if Kant were just an everyday down-at-heel philosopher trying to make an honest buck. However, Kant was no such mortal, because as Gadamer knew all too well, “The radical subjectivisation involved in Kant’s new way of grounding aesthetics was truly epoch-making.”6 (Epoch-making, because every succeeding generation studying aesthetics was left with the legacy of Kant’s subjectivisation, and they either had to adopt it or at the very least address it). As Jean Grondin, a close chum of Gadamer’s wrote, the subjectivisation of aesthetics, for Gadamer, was “the great impasse of aesthetics, if not the whole of modernism.”7 Such an impasse, however, made Gadamer doubt its authority and decide to confront the yawning issue of an epistemological absence. By asking his two initial questions, Gadamer stood up to his full height, rolled up his sleeves, and held Kant squarely in his sights as he set about dismantling the subjectivisation of aesthetics.

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Armed with a monkey wrench and set of spanners, Gadamer took to his task and began investigating Kant’s work on aesthetics by examining what he called Kant’s Doctrine of Taste and Genius:

“In taste nothing is known of the objects judged to be beautiful, but it is stated only that there is a feeling of pleasure connected with them a priori in the subjective consciousness.”8

Aesthetically then, nothing can be said to be a ‘truth’ about a beautiful object; there are no objective aesthetic ‘facts’ to be agreed upon as to why the object is beautiful. All that can be said is that the object appeals to an individual’s sense of taste. This feeling, as Gadamer acknowledged, however, is not wholly ring-fenced to the subjective individual per se, because it can be communicated universally and as such gain validity. By looking at a piece of Edwardian furniture I might get a feeling of pleasure in my ‘taste’ zone which you would also make sense of and understand because my love of Edwardian furniture is ‘universalisable’ to everyone.

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Consequently, Gadamer believed that Kant situated taste between the merely sensory and universal rational rules: “it imports no knowledge of the object, but neither is it simply a question of a subjective reaction.”9 Ultimately, however, because the universal element to taste is only in its communicability and not in the form of epistemic certainty, taste falls short of the requirements for objectivity and truth, and is relegated to the default status of the subjective. For Gadamer with his screwdriver in hand, having just stripped down this first component of Kant’s authority, it certainly appeared “impossible to do justice to art if aesthetics is founded on the ‘pure judgement of taste.’”10

Working ever onwards, Gadamer took out his oxy-acetylene torch and applied it to Kant’s doctrine of genius, and speedily discovered problems due to the interconnections that Kant drew between the two concepts of taste and genius. Without going into detail, Gadamer was left in no doubt that Kant’s mechanically designed aesthetics was constituted inadequately and by default found itself rooted in subjectivisation; a complete category error as far as Gadamer was concerned.

Fundamentally, then, it appeared that the justices Kant and Gadamer sought to bestow upon aesthetics were at odds. According to Michael Podro, one of Kant’s epoch respondees, “Kant’s primary purpose” was to indicate an “alternative mode of perceptual fulfilment.”11 The focus for Kant was not to find truths within aesthetics, as it was for Gadamer, but to understand a different mode of perception. This was because Kant followed up his previous two critiques on Pure Reason and Practical Reason with a third, on Judgement, that held at its core the same notions regarding a priori conditions – our mental hardwiring. The first critique was concerned with uncovering a priori conditions for “making objective, universally valid empirical judgements, both ordinary and scientific.”12 The second critique then “discovered a priori conditions for making objective, universally valid moral judgements.”13 The third critique, Gadamer’s current chosen critique of choice, then followed by finding a priori conditions for creating judgements based on pleasure, which are obviously subjective.

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In a virtually blasphemous nutshell then, Kant’s project was locked into an enquiry that prioritised the workings of the mind in terms of sensibilities, intuitions, imagination and the understanding. The Gadamerian question of a work of art possessing truth simply was of no interest to Kant. A situation that left Gadamer very frustrated, as a chap called Kai Hammermeister neatly expresses when thinking about ontology – what there is:

“Kantian aesthetics leaves us strangely unsatisfied when viewed from a different perspective, namely, when questioned about the ontological status of the work of art… Kant does not answer the ontological question at all. The aesthetic judgement does not relate to the object, but is merely the expression of the pleasurable subjective state of the free play of imagination and understanding.”14 (The ‘free play’ stuff being the whim or fancy of the individual again).

The separation is absolute, aesthetic judgements have no ontological status for Kant. As Hammermeister notes, “matters of art and matters of knowledge must not be confused.”15 An erroneous position, of course, for Gadamer who was deeply convinced that art can possess truth and can also be discussed in terms of knowledge.

Going head-to-head against Kant and his three critiques though, was never going to be an easy task. So, even having established that Kant’s legacy was problematic and one-sided, due to the ontological question being omitted and the priority given to the subjectivisation of aesthetics, Gadamer still had to find a way of demonstrating the profound wrong-headedness of such a legacy and, of course, clearly identifying what his recommended alternative might be.

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Returning to his more natural habitat – tangential modes of thought – Gadamer pursued the task by focusing his attention on the form of experience of those in an aesthetic encounter. Gadamer sought a way forward by applying his mind to the actual term ‘experience,’ which he discovered was once almost solely determined by one particular manifestation called Erlebnis: “what is experienced is always what one has experienced oneself.”16 The translators of Truth and Method usefully pitch in at this point to aid Gadamer by describing the concept of Erlebnis as “something you have,” and stating that it is always “connected with a subject.”17

Armed with the knowledge that Gadamer was almost certain to dislike this mode of experience it should come as no small surprise that he pitilessly set out how he thought an aesthetic experience of a work of art would operate under Erlebnis:

“What it ignores are the extra-aesthetic elements that cling to it, such as purpose, function, the significance of its content. These elements may be significant enough inasmuch as they situate the work in its world and thus determine the whole meaningfulness that it originally possessed.”18

For Gadamer, these ignored and distinctly ontological elements could start to give the work meaning and possibly truth, but as art, in the traditional (or Kantian) sense, “the work [of art] must be distinguished from all that.”19

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An aesthetic experience based on Erlebnis, therefore, differentiates the ‘purely’ aesthetic from that which surrounds the artwork; a separation that Gadamer could not endorse. As a process, he designated it as the adoption of an ‘aesthetic consciousness.’ Such a stance isolates the experience of the artwork, as Erlebnis, from what it regards as incidental circumstance with no influence upon the aesthetic experience per se. As far as Gadamer was concerned, the consequent outcome of this was two-fold, because “through aesthetic differentiation the work loses it place and the world to which it belongs insofar as it belongs instead to aesthetic consciousnesses,”20 in addition to the artist also losing their place in the world because they are peripheral to the aesthetic experience based on Erlebnis. Hence, aesthetic consciousness, as a direct result of another subjectivisation of aesthetics, subsumes all works of art and artists: “Aesthetic consciousness has unlimited sovereignty over everything.”21

As well as the fault of establishing a false hierarchy, Gadamer also took issue with the resulting destructiveness of the Erlebnis driven aesthetic consciousness. Following a very simple progression, if the aesthetics of a work are only significant in terms of the spectator’s experience, in the manner of aesthetic consciousness, then there is no aesthetic unity to the work because the aesthetic content resides solely in the variety of spectators who view it. However, not only is the aesthetic unity of the object destroyed, so too is the identity of the spectator employing aesthetic consciousness. Citing Kierkegaard’s work on the aesthetic stage of existence, Gadamer reminds us that a life led in the “pure immediacy” of aesthetic pleasure is “untenable.”22 By continually ignoring the non-aesthetic elements to a work of art, as a method of experiencing and pursuing a policy of aesthetic consciousness, one is doomed to a fragmentary life without continuity or coherence. One floats meaninglessly from one aesthetic experience to another.

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Ultimately, because of the destructive nature of the aesthetic consciousness, Gadamer regarded its position as unviable, to the point where he realised an imperative:

“Since the aesthetic stage of existence proves itself untenable, we recognise that even the phenomenon of art imposes an ineluctable task on existence, namely to achieve that continuity of self-understanding which alone can support human existence.”23

For Gadamer, then, the legacy of Kant’s subjectivisation of aesthetics was built upon quicksand, with its core principle of aesthetic consciousness comprehensively destroying all the components within the experience of art: the aesthetic unity of the object, the artist’s place in the world, and even the identity of the spectator. By working through the problems of aesthetic consciousness, in particular the disintegration of the spectator’s identity, Gadamer realised the necessity for an experience of art that allowed a development of one’s identity, not its destruction. This realisation produced the imperative that one should achieve “continuity of self-understanding.”24 One’s experience of art, then, should perpetuate this self-understanding and keep one’s identity alive:

“Self-understanding always occurs through understanding something other than the self, and includes the integrity of the other. Since we meet the individual artwork in the world and encounter a world in the individual artwork, the work of art is not some alien universe into which we are magically transported for a time. Rather, we learn to understand ourselves in and through it.”25

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Gadamer is taking us into deep waters here, which we shall have to continue exploring another time, but only after we have looked at some paintings that just might make everything a little clearer.


  1. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 102.
  2. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 41-42.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid. 102.
  5. Ibid., 41.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Grondin, J., The Philosophy of Gadamer, 39.
  8. Ibid., 43.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid., 45.
  11. Podro, M., ‘Kant and the Aesthetic Imagination’ included in Art and Thought, eds. Dana Arnold and Margaret Iverson, 63.
  12. Crawford, D. W., ‘Kant’ included in The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, eds. Berys Gaut and Dominic M. Lopes, 52.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Hammermeister, K., The German Aesthetic Tradition, 39.
  15. Ibid., 40.
  16. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 61.
  17. Gadamer, Truth and Method, ‘Translators’ Preface’ by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, 13-14.
  18. Gadamer, Truth and Method, p. 85.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid., 87.
  21. Ibid., 89.
  22. Ibid., 95.
  23. Ibid., 96.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid., 97.

10. Without Memory or Desire


“The fortune we seek resides in the very unprofitable, modest, and completely disrespected arena of one person encountering another as they blunder about their life at home, in the office, when out for a walk, travelling on a bus, or even when shopping. Can we learn at these moments to eschew our memories and desires and share an experience with another person that can be seen as establishing a form of contact?”

Wilfred Bion, was a psychoanalyst who created a gulf between himself and his prevailing tradition; at the time represented by Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein. He was born three years before Gadamer but died twenty-three years before him. As far as we know they never met, however their ideas do seem to overlap quite agreeably in the area of conversation. According to the wonderful Joan and Neville Symington, Bion encouraged leaving “psychological comfort” for the more exciting prospect of venturing “forth into the unknown”, to “risk the terror.”1 Shades of Nietzsche’s distaste for comfort being evident and notwithstanding, Bion recognised the limitations of his chosen discipline and wanted to find a more genuine approach that connected the analyst to the patient. The push for Bion, after twenty years of working in the fields of psychiatry and psychoanalysis, came with the realisation that “certain people seem to understand and agree with the analyst’s interpretations, yet remain untouched by analysis.”2 One particular example was a patient who, after working with Bion for some time and giving outward signs of “apparent acceptability” to Bion’s “various interpretations,”3 committed suicide.

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Such an obvious divide between rational thought, expressed through communication, and the emotional response of choosing suicide crystallised in Bion the need to re-think the workings of psychoanalysis and starting afresh. Extrapolating from other instances, perhaps less dramatic than the example given, Bion understood that if patients remained “untouched by analysis” then he needed to suspend all previous psychoanalytic thinking, such as Freud’s and Klein’s, to allow for a clean start and a new model to be born.

To effect such a re-birth, a change was needed and for Bion that change started with the recognition that within a psychoanalytic session the therapist also brought their own emotional responses, feelings, and desires into the room. For Bion, the analyst was not a robotic being detached from the proceedings that entered, conducted, and then exited the session completely clean and unchanged. The reality of encountering the patient and the session was often a time to roll up one’s sleeves and get stuck in, personally wading through muck, grime, and mutual influence. The conception of the observer / critic / analyst suspended from the scene, like the eye of God, didn’t track for Bion. Rather, he knew that they were fully present as thinking, feeling and emotional beings. Such ideas were already present in psychoanalytic activity, with concepts like transference, countertransference and projective identification coming into the psychoanalytic arena; however, they were bit players, secondary themes, or backdrops to the main performance. Bion’s move was to place the emotional presence of the analyst front and centre regarding what took place in the psychoanalytic session. Setting out on this particular path, Bion confidently strode further down this previously hidden tree-lined boulevard, with stride after stride taking him away from the comfort of all prior psychoanalytic procedure or theory.

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Revolutions, after their first intoxicating breath of what one believes is fresh air, come beset with the same problems to solve that were so apparently mis-managed by the previous administration. In our case, upon realising the importance of the psychoanalyst’s emotions, Bion had to find a method of incorporating this realisation within a psychoanalytic structure that led to an interpretation of the patient’s ‘problem.’ As Joan and Neville strive to make plain, even when observing the phenomenal content of the session, the emotional atmosphere, and the analyst’s own emotional state, the analyst is still left with the problem of how to analyse such phenomena.

Borrowing from philosophy, mathematics and even psychoanalysis, Bion attempted to illustrate such phenomena, but found himself in a community of one when having to analyse and process the data according to principles. By his own hand, though, he had carved out the space to construct a completely new design and as such presented his fellow psychoanalysts with two governing principles for determining a patient’s progress: “the emergence of truth and mental growth.”4 Such a neat and velvet-covered result, however, contained within it an iron rod of integrity that meant his principles were not to be mere platitudes. For Bion, the discovery of truth as a purpose of psychoanalysis was a commitment to be seen through to the bitter end, no matter how terrifying the ride for both patient and analyst. The white knuckle roller coaster that Bion wanted analysts and patients to hop on board in order to release them magisterially into the realm of truth, was a little different to the safe and comparatively sedate entertainment Freudian patients were asked to participate in.

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Prior to Bion, and the extreme sport of truth searching, psychoanalysis was locked inside a Freudian bowling alley where one had to wear regulation footwear and adhere respectfully to the ‘pleasure-pain principle’. Under Freud’s company protocol, analysts were instructed to observe patients behaviour according to that which provided them pleasure and that which provided them pain. Bion, the revolutionary, however, did not dismiss Freud’s principles out of hand and burn the bowling alley down. Rather, he understood that that Freud only provided for certain sectors of the community and that other factions needed more facilities; from simple skateboard parks to black run ski slopes. So as well as conceding that a patient might act according to the pleasure – pain principle even in a psychoanalytic session and avoid the pain of confrontation by nodding along with their analysts interpretation, that same patient might actually unlock themselves if they underwent the emotional equivalent of a ‘no-holds-barred’ cage fight. For Bion, the challenge would be to get to the truth of why the patient acted to minimise the pain of arguing in the first place and then, from that potentially bloody and bruised starting point, work to effect the healing process by encouraging ‘mental growth’ in the patient / analyst sessions.

Bion, the revolutionary, thus issued his edict that all analysts should free themselves from wilful behaviour and gorging: “The first point is for the analyst to impose on himself a positive discipline of eschewing memory and desire. I do not mean that ‘forgetting’ is enough: what is required is a positive act of refraining from memory and desire.”5

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According to Bion, memory is dependent upon the senses and comes under “subordination to the pleasure-pain principle”6 because the governing senses are also so subordinated. Consequently, memory is seen as an unreliable source for the attainment of the analyst’s goal, due to its adherence to a different set of values, viz. the ‘pleasure-pain principle.’ Desire, obviously, can equally be seen to adhere to the ‘pleasure-pain principle,’ but interestingly Bion doesn’t make this explicit, rather he focuses his attention upon the connection between desire and thoughts, with the latter being “formulations” of the former. To make this point, Bion tells us that “thoughts are not verbal formulations merely [but can] be harboured almost unaware [as] reminiscences or anticipations.”7 Consequently, by their association to desire, thoughts come under the auspices of desire and as such are related to the ‘pleasure-pain principle,’ and therefore must also be eschewed.

Having taken away varying tools of the psychoanalytic trade, Bion then proceeds to explain why his confiscation must be so harsh: “The ‘memories’ and ‘desires’ to which I wish to draw attention have the following elements in common: they are ready formulated and therefore require no formulation; they derive from experience gained through the senses; they are evocations of feelings containing pleasure or pain.”8 In very simple terms: because the analyst’s memories and desires are already “formulated” they leave no space for the patient to affect the analyst or the interpretation. If one analyses with memories and desires, then there is no real need for the patient because the ‘pleasure-pain principle’ of the analyst won’t allow the patient to affect the outcome that has already been achieved by the analyst. So, Bion insisted that memories and desires be eliminated from the analyst’s connection to the patient: they are obstructions.

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Some further examples give a different dimension to these twin devils, memory and desire, because not only do they obstruct but they also disrupt. This is evident in the countless episodes of regular patients seeing their analyst twice a week over a period of months or years whereby maps are keenly built up by analysts and their patients based upon memory so that each remains static to the other, as they also do unto themselves. Patient A continues to be the same patient as yesterday, and the day before, etc. Such a “collusive relationship,” Bion states, prevents the “emergence of an unknown, incoherent, formless void.”9 So, memory is no longer innocently obstructing progress, but is now malevolently disrupting the relationship between analyst and patient by making it atrophy.

Desire can also operate for Bion in the same detrimental vein: “A certain class of patient feels ‘possessed’ by or imprisoned ‘in’ the mind of the analyst if he considers the analyst desires something relative to him – his presence, or his cure, or his welfare.”10 The desire to cure, according to Bion then, actually places restrictions around the patient, which, on “a certain class”, can disrupt the patient’s progress because they can become “dominated by the ‘feeling’ that [they are] possessed by and contained in the analyst’s state of mind.”11 Clearly, for Bion, this is disruptive to the care of the patient, due to the analyst actually instigating further mental regression through their desire to cure.

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Having successfully beaten his enemy to the ground, Bion stands astride his victim and with blood coursing through his veins moves in for the kill. Or, to put it another way, probably milder, having made the case for the elimination of memory and desire in the analyst, Bion moves on to consider how someone could achieve this effect. The difficulty is of course, that Bion’s bloodlust and menacing threats, for all their bravado and show waver at the end, not through any fault of their own, but because their adversary is not corporeal: there is no blood to spill, no head to remove and raise aloft triumphantly. Bion’s nemesis is not something to which one can readily neuter. They can be no carving off of memory and desire from the analyst’s brain. Instead, one is left with a far harder challenge than visceral slashing and slicing.

Bion crafted an image of the human as one that has wrapped rationality, thought, and language, around a more primitive inner being that is sometimes censored, lost, or argued away. This, of course, is central to psychoanalysis in general. Bion’s difference, however, is his realisation that for the analyst to recover any understanding of what occurs at the patient’s level of the inner being rationality, the analyst’s old friend – with its cohorts of memory and desire – does not necessarily help and is in fact more likely to obstruct and disrupt this form of understanding. Instead of pursuing the patient rationally the analyst needs to turn inwards on themselves as well.

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For Bion, it was obvious that the analyst cannot connect with the deepest recesses of the patient’s being without attempting to connect with their own. If the analyst pursues a ‘rational’ path, then there will be a clash of two different modes of functioning which will frustrate any potential connection, because the experience that both are trying to share becomes blocked by the analyst stepping outside of that experience all the time in order to interpret, value, or judge, according to a remembered or desired criteria. Bion, therefore, asked analysts to stop being scientists, in the strict sense of the word, and become once more experiential beings that interact with the world and are capable of really communicating with others, to the extent that a Gadamerian ‘common language’ might be created together in that moment.

An epistemological standard in the field of analytic philosophy can help here: Mary is a young woman who has spent all her life in a black and white room, she has never seen or experienced any colour, but she has scientifically studied everything that there is to know about colours and what it would be like to experience them. The question about Mary, then, is does she really know what it is to experience colour? Can it really be stated that she knows what that experience will be like? Whilst the debate in epistemological circles will continue ever onwards, Bion’s answer would be that she couldn’t possibly really know without coming out of the black and white room. Bion’s ultimate lesson for his analysts then, is that only by coming out of their scientific rooms can they really connect to their patients, by experiencing with them, so as to allow the possibility of ‘truths’ evolving and emerging.

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Gérald Bléandonu in his biography and exposition of Bion’s work describes this mode of practice as “a kind of anti-thinking.”12 Fortunately, it is not within our scope to follow the shock waves set off by Bion within his discipline. Instead, the fortune we have to seek resides in the very unprofitable, modest, and completely disrespected arena of one person encountering another as they blunder about their business at home, in the office, when out for a walk, travelling on a bus, or even when shopping. Can we learn at these moments to eschew our memory and desires and share an experience with another person that can be seen as establishing a form of contact? Can we reach the point where we create a common language together? Can we be instructed by Bion, in order to get past own our obstacles and sit side by side with the analysts as they learn his lesson? Are we ready to put to one side our proudly nurtured epistemologies, built up throughout the course of our lives as coping mechanisms and ways that we understand and react to the world around us, in order to have a real dance with no safety net?

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Looking into the eyes of another is an enormous act, if it is done properly. More often than not there is a mountain to climb. Personal obstacles, detritus, and bizarrely formed theories swerve into position, as if to ‘protect’ us from the infinite array of potential experiences that might ensue once we open our eyes. Can we converse without memory or desire? Can we allow ourselves to be open to the terror of what might happen if we do? Is it unethical to not even try?

This last one I can answer and it’s with a resounding “Yes”.


  1. Symington, Joan & Neville, The Clinical Thinking of Wilfred Bion, 184.
  2. Ibid. 171.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 2.
  5. Bion, W., Attention and Interpretation, 31.
  6. Ibid., 30.
  7. Ibid., 30-31.
  8. Ibid., 31.
  9. Ibid., 52.
  10. Ibid., 42.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Bléandonu, G., Wilfred Bion: His Life and Works 1897-1979, 218.

9. Conversation


“To conduct a conversation means to allow oneself to be conducted by the subject matter to which the partners in the dialogue are oriented. It requires that one does not try to argue the other person down but that one really considers the weight of the other’s opinion.”1
Hans-Georg Gadamer

Now, let’s imagine two chaps having a discussion. Umberto and Giovanni are sitting in the Coranas Café in Via dei Calzaiuoli, Firenze, halfway between the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and the river Arno. It’s a late afternoon in April and the two chaps are pretty much the only customers in the cafe, although there is an old lad wearing a black jacket and suit at the next table, gently nursing his glass of water after finishing his espresso. Let’s call him Hans-Georg and let’s also imagine he is eavesdropping on Umberto and Giovanni, not for any malicious reason but purely to observe their discussion. There is an easy flow of dialogue between the two, interspersed with bouts of florid gesturing on Umberto’s side. Giovanni is calmer; he’s the cooler customer.

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For Hans-Georg, their conversation represents an idealised and pure moment. To him, neither Umberto nor Giovanni are trying to objectify the other, they both seem to give credit for the other’s ideas. They also don’t allow themselves to get trapped into the other’s way of presenting them. For example, when Umberto says “Listen Giovanni, you can’t say that about Wittgenstein,” Giovanni immediately interjects.

“No, wait Umberto, you misunderstand me. I don’t mean that Wittgenstein was wrong. I merely mean that the Tractatus was the experiment, par excellence, that pushed the limits of logical positivism until the inevitable happened and it burst.”

“So Wittgenstein was wrong, according to you,” Umberto excitedly jumps in.

Leaving a little space after Umberto’s pronouncement, Giovanni replies “No Umberto let me finish. Wittgenstein was right because he could see that it would burst. Remember the ladder. Right at the end of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein said ‘throw away the ladder after you have climbed up theses propositions’, or something like that.”

With some difficulty, Umberto reflects in silence, before saying, “OK, so what you are saying is that the Tractatus was really Wittgenstein’s philosophical dead-end.” Pausing briefly, with Giovanni allowing him space to formulate his thoughts, Umberto continues, “I guess that was why he seemed to shift so much later on when he wrote about ethics not adding to our knowledge, although he thought it captured ‘a tendency in the human mind,’ which he admitted to respecting deeply.”

Whilst Giovanni silently nods his head, Umberto sips his espresso, and then with a look of solemnness says “I guess you are right about the Tractatus, it was a doomed exercise, there was no room for ethics in its strict propositional logic.”

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“Yeah, you know, I never quite thought of it like that,” said Giovanni, “there is no room for ethics in the Tractatus. Gosh, it sounds so obvious now that you say it.”

At this point Hans-Georg grabs his black fedora and heads for the door, after leaving payment in-between the cup and saucer for his espresso. Heading south on the Via dei Calzaiuoli, he strides towards the Arno. En route he reflects that Umberto and Giovanni really seemed to listen and help each other go further in their understanding than they could have gone on their own. Now, if Hans-Georg was the same as our Hans-Georg Gadamer he would have been delighted to witness the fluid movement of understanding between the two chaps. Who knows? Perhaps, in my little idealised Gadamerian vignette, he was?

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Back to Gadamer proper, we find him examining the term conversation, and reasoning that there are conditions of participation in a dialogue: “To conduct a conversation means to allow oneself to be conducted by the subject matter to which the partners in the dialogue are oriented. It requires that one does not try to argue the other person down but that one really considers the weight of the other’s opinion.”2

Expanding, Gadamer articulated three conditions regarding conversation. The first was that one must allow the subject matter of the conversation to dictate the flow of the conversation, and that one should not enter into a conversation with a pre-determined goal if one wants to have a genuine experience. The second was that one must remain open to what the other actually gives within the conversation, and hence respond to those opinions and not just what arises in one’s own thoughts. And, the final condition was that “every conversation presupposes a common language, or better, creates a common language.”3 With these three conditions in place, Gadamer believed a ‘successful conversation’ could take place where both participants “come under the influence of the truth of the object and are thus bound to one another in a new community.”4 There is much force here in Gadamer’s reference to community, because he tried to articulate that we should be open rather than stating that we should just be – the Heideggerian position.

Such ‘prescriptive’ thinking, though, often gets one into trouble within philosophic circles because philosophers like to pounce upon each other and slash at ideas with logical razors until any life contained within them has all but bled away.

This being true, I believe that Gadamer was both immensely audacious and ingenious to get his ideas accepted into the annals of philosophy. This is because he managed to breathe life once more into Heidegger’s enigmatic, but effectively beached, leviathan letting being be when Heidegger himself could not. By forging ahead of Heideggerian notions, and daring to be explicit in how one should relate to an other, rather than remaining in the inscrutable realm of letting being be, Gadamer nailed his colours to the mast and declared that philosophy must be useful and not just high level pontificating. Now, throw your daggers, you Heideggerians.

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By establishing his three participatory conditions for a conversation, prioritising the subject matter over oneself, allowing the other to voice their opinion and the creation of a ‘common language’, Gadamer demonstrated his commitment to understanding and not to dated philosophical protocol. Being stuck on a beach with Heidegger and his whale was not useful for Gadamer. Exchanging pleasantries, sunning oneself, and endlessly chewing on a diet of phenomenology were not to be the pinnacles of Gadamer’s career. Instead, he wiped the sun cream off, pushed the whale back into its natural habitat, and bid Heidegger “Good day,” as he strode off the beach looking for an opportunity to meet someone with whom to engage openly and productively. However, before any such meeting could take place Gadamer wanted to be clearer about his ideas and so he continued to muse:

“Conversation is a process of coming to an understanding. Thus it belongs to every true conversation that each person opens himself to the other, truly accepts his point of view as valid and transposes himself into the other to such an extent that he understands not the particular individual but what he says. What is to be grasped is the substantive rightness of his opinion, so that we can be at one with each other on the subject… Where a person is concerned with the other as individuality – e.g., in a therapeutic conversation or the interrogation of a man accused of a crime – this is really not a situation in which two people are trying to come to an understanding.”5

Understanding through conversation, therefore for Gadamer, requires that each person regard the other’s opinion and not just the other as an object. A stunningly obvious truth, but one that absolutely needs stating. A friendly Gadamerian, David E. Linge, repackages this idea so that we might dwell upon it further, in case we all too rashly dismiss it due to its simplicity and bumble blithely ever onwards: “The dialogical character of interpretation is subverted when the interpreter concentrates on the other person as such rather than on the subject matter – when he looks at the other person, as it were, rather than with him at what the other attempts to communicate.”6

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The necessary realisation being that we need to stop looking at, and start looking with, if we want any actual understanding to emerge, because understanding comes through participation not observation as far as Gadamer is concerned. A bold move that will rub anyone’s inner Aristotelian up the wrong way: something, which I, of course, thoroughly recommend, endorse and condone. Consequently, when one looks with someone else one can achieve a sense of community and, as Gadamer described, feel that an experience has occurred. Such ‘soft’ results though, through sensing and feeling, build a wider picture than their individual pleasant but vague sensations, because they help to create something philosophically much overlooked. They weave together with other soft elements, such as an open disposition and the desire to learn, to craft an environment where self-consciousness can evolve and adapt, perhaps bringing us closer to the much sought after wisdom of which we yearn. Should our desire, therefore, be to create a rich tapestry from these soft threads?

700 Tapestry.fw

Such a proposition to cultivate ‘woolly-ness’ again assists in re-floating Heidegger’s whale, with its inscrutable yet essentially empty, lost, and overly neutral suggestion to ‘let being be’. This is because Gadamer started building from Heidegger’s end point, realising that the beach location was perfect, just not the article placed upon it. So, with the calm dignity of one who did not necessarily know the final design of what he started to construct, Gadamer returned to Heidegger’s sunny haven because he certainly knew how and why he needed to build. That said though, Gadamer did not revert to tried and tested principles of construction with the aim to create a stunning shiny edifice destined to summon in a new era of architecture: his programme was not driven by grand aspirations or the craving to show off. However, I fear that at this point I might have committed an authorial faux pas and leant so heavily upon my construction metaphor as to confuse the nature of Gadamer’s enterprise. Consequently, I need to request your further indulgence as I pull Gadamer’s soft and woolly subversion of Western philosophy back from the imagery of the architect’s drawing board to realm of ideas and thoughts. This I will do by gently blending from principles of construction to principles of philosophic theorising with, of course, my sincere apologies for the disruption.

Gadamer’s project then, was not a building block approach whereby a rigid blueprint is planned with construction around uniform and known materials. The step-by-step approach of starting with firm foundations and then setting down course after course of block-work in order that anyone might dwell within the result was not Gadamer’s intention. Just so, it was exactly this programmatic engineering of scientific communities with their strict adherence to principles of logic and order, which many philosophers have attempted to mimic, that Gadamer desired to avoid. He realised that something essential gets lost when one’s thinking is fashioned along such lines. For him, any restriction which entailed that truth can only be generated and found acceptable through such programmed methods, was something to rebel against. The discovery of truths should not only lead to the development of conceptual knowledge as far as Gadamer was concerned, but to other types of knowledge and even, possibly, to wisdom. Such thinking, though, is the very stuff of insurrection and Gadamer courageously leaps, as the salmon, up the waterfall of thought, against the almost overwhelming pressure of surging philosophical currents aided ever downwards by gravity and the sheer volume of names, reputations and tombs of revered learning.

700 Salmon

Continuing on his counter current achieved by his thoughts on conversations, horizons and prejudices, which have broadened our understanding of ourselves in a world that is occupied by others, Gadamer now takes us to a quite unexpected destination. Maybe he realised that he ought not to present yet more fascinating and insightful perspectives but instead dive wholeheartedly into a different terrain altogether? Maybe he had squarely fixed his sights on this new target all along and was always aiming in that direction? Whatever the rationale, motivation, or luck that brought Gadamer to this new destination, though, is of no great importance for us. What is important is what he did next. And, by asking the following two questions, Gadamer appears to violently changed tack and plunge into a completely different tradition of philosophy: “Is it right to reserve the concept of truth for conceptual knowledge? Must we not also acknowledge that the work of art possesses truth?”7

To be continued… but only after we have spoken with Wilfred.


  1. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 367.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., 378.
  4. Ibid., 379.
  5. Ibid., 385.
  6. David E. Linge ‘Editor’s Introduction’ included in Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics, xx.
  7. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 41-42.

8. The Schopenhauer Cure


“What Yalom shows is the ethically imbued human dance that occurs in brief glimpses when two people see eye to eye on something that they have both been unable to resolve on their own.”

Hopefully by now, my format is becoming clear. First I present the philosophical idea and then I select a work of fiction, an artist, a piece of music, or even a film to help illustrate the philosophical points. Alternating between philosophy and cultural outputs is a natural fit for the type of ethics I’m interested in because themes conjured up by works of art – in the broad sense – can support and give example to ideas, especially when some of those ideas are, for a change, new. Of course, time will tell whether this is a sound and justified approach or not.

The cultural output that I want to explore now is from a psychotherapist in the form of a novel. Dr. Irvin D. Yalom had over forty years of practising existential and group psychotherapy behind him before he wrote The Schopenhauer Cure as an open narrative that tried to portray, realistically, the inner workings of group therapy.

Spoiler alert: if you consider reading The Schopenhauer Cure some elements of the plot will be given away in this post.

The novel presents its characters and lives with them whilst they attempt to grapple with personal issues, relationship problems and even the terminal diagnosis of the group therapist, Dr. Julius Hertzfeld. The path trodden by Yalom in turning to literature to shine a light into the academic and practicing world of psychotherapy is one that few people can successfully navigate. Whether he is successful or not at this enterprise is a moot point. More importantly is how he creates artistic expressions of his rigorous training and professional career (the translation of ideas into art), as well as how his characters work together to find mutual understanding. And, the latter one is where we can find the artistic representation of Gadamer’s “fusing our horizons,”1 as a shift in consciousness takes place in one or other of the characters and drives them onwards to a new vantage point beyond their existing horizon.

450 The Schopenhauer Cure

The plot turns upon Julius Hertzfeld attempting to come to terms with the news that he has “one good year”2 left, before cancer curtails his existence. In a good, solid, and authentic manner Julius begins the process of examining his life and its internal worth. His deceased wife and his children are considered briefly before Yalom pushes the plotline to Julius’ thoughts about his career, which naturally mirrors Yalom’s own, with decades of therapeutic work with individuals and groups.

Thumbing through his old case files, Julius finds confirmation of his ability to treat his clients effectively, with positive reinforcement coming from every file containing closure or follow-up notes. The follow-ups are sometimes written years after the therapy sessions had ended. There is one exception in his life’s work, though. The name Philip Slate surfaces through the files as an individual he worked with without success twenty years previously. According to the files, Philip was a confirmed sex-addict, with an impressive intelligence and striking handsomeness, working in an unsatisfying job. The sticking point for Julius, as he begins to recall this particular case, was Philip’s desire to overcome his addiction and consign himself to study. Fixating upon Philip, Julius realises within himself that he needs to know what happened to this symbolic fly in his ointment.

700 Fly in the ointment

Seeking Philip out, Julius makes contact and discovers two things. The first is that Philip still appears as “cold, uncaring [and] oblivious of others”3 as he used to be. The second, rather disturbingly for Julius, is that Philip wants to become a therapist. A discovery, which in combination with his obvious inability to relate ‘normally’ to others, fascinates and horrifies Julius. Yalom, having crafted the creative tension and pull between the two main characters, then allows the plot to weave its way through their discussions and a series of group therapy sessions involving a cast of well developed but minor roles alongside Julius and Philip. In addition, Schopenhauer’s life is presented in alternating chapters with the main storyline, as a backdrop to Philip’s new obsession: the idea that he can be a philosophical counsellor with Schopenhauer as his guide.

Philip’s character, as hewn by Yalom, is a deeply self-involved misanthrope who believes that he can impart the wisdom of Schopenhauer to those he treats or works with in Julius’ group. The difficulty, that Julius sees all to clearly, is that Philip has no clue how to relate to other people. Philip avoids eye contact as much as possible and proclaims, when directly challenged, that he needs to focus on the words of Schopenhauer and that he prefers to keep his own council. Philip is also highly self-opinionated. When asked to provide feedback on Julius’ therapeutic work all those years ago he states, “Overall, I’d have to say that my therapy with you was a complete failure. A time-consuming [three years] and expensive failure. I think I did my job as a patient. As far as I can recall, I was fully cooperative, worked hard, came regularly, paid my bills, remembered dreams, followed leads offered.”4 When probed deeper by Julius, Philip continued in much the same vein, “eventually I realized you didn’t know how to help and I lost faith in our work together. I recall that you spent inordinate amounts of time exploring my relationships – with others and especially with you. This never made sense to me. It didn’t then. It still doesn’t.”5 Philip ends this particular volley by sharing with Julius the light at the end of his tunnel, “I decided to heal myself… I developed a relationship with a therapist, the perfect therapist, the therapist who offered me what no one else had been able to give… Yes, Arthur Schopenhauer, [is] my therapist.”6

450 Schopenhauer

Yalom gives Philip’s horizon concrete definition, in that it amounts to the writings of Schopenhauer, after also studying the Ancient Greeks and Germanic philosophers who followed Kant. Philip’s world is viewed through a Schopenhauerian lens that appears to give comfort and afford the understanding he needs. However, Julius, after everything that his career has been pinned on, cannot agree, especially when knowing that Philip wants to ‘preach’ the teachings of Schopenhauer in Julius’ world, the world of therapy. Julius is not against Schopenhauer per se, but just sees the limits that Philip has set himself.

So, the Gadamerian task, for Julius in his final year is to work with Philip to get him to see beyond the world as portrayed by Schopenhauer and into eyes of the people he has around him. En route, Julius dangles in front of Philip the potential quid pro quo that he, Julius, might also learn something from Philip about Schopenhauer, although Julius is in his own denial as to any probable benefit coming forth from such a source.

Both parties, hence, set out from within two extreme horizon points in an attempt to enlighten the other through the process of dialogue and group therapy. The antagonism of Philip’s approach to life ruffles Julius in the group sessions and especially when his group seem to hang on Philip’s insights such when he first brought philosophy into their circle. “Nietzsche once wrote that a major difference between man and the cow was that the cow know how to exist, how to live without angst – that is, fear – in the blessed now, unburdened by the past and unaware of the terrors of the future… in this, as in so much else, he looted the works of Schopenhauer.”7 Julius response, as Yalom gives it, is to squirm in his chair thinking he must have been out his mind to bring Philip into his group, when there is a stunned but reflective silence from the others. In contra-poise Julius stated, in a one-on-one discussion with Philip, “It’s not ideas, nor vision, nor tools that truly matter in therapy. If you debrief patients at the end of therapy about the process, what do they remember? Never the ideas – it’s always the relationship. They rarely remember an important insight their therapist offered but generally fondly recall their personal relationship with the therapist.”8

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In the second group session, with Philip in attendance, there is a direct clash of horizons as Philip attempts to enlighten the group as to Schopehauer’s views on personal attachments. “The more attachments one has, the more burdensome life becomes and the more suffering one experiences when one is separated from these attachments. Schopenhauer and Buddhism both hold that one must release oneself from attachments and…”9 At this point Julius interrupts. “I don’t think that is helpful to me… and I’m also not sure if this is where this meeting should be going.”10 Noting a pregnant glance between two of the other group members Julius continued, “I come in on that in the opposite way: attachments, and plenty of them, are indispensable ingredients of a full life, and to avoid attachments because of anticipated suffering is a sure recipe for being only partially alive.”11 The two viewpoints, quite clearly are at loggerheads, so much so that one of other group members calls Julius on it, because he is acting in a very unconventional manner.

In this strained manner, the group sessions, week by week, continue with Philip still avoiding eye contact and quoting Schopenhauer, whilst Julius tries to reign himself in from being pushed by Philip’s lack of, or resistance to, interpersonal dynamics. At the same time, Julius attempts to adopt the protective role of therapist for Philip when he can see things reaching a boiling point, such as when one of the group returns from a visit to India only to find the man she lost her virginity to, in a callous and unfeeling relationship, sitting opposite, in her beloved therapy group. When the truth of Philip’s behaviour fifteen years ago comes out, Julius is conflicted but wants to try and help both Philip and Pam, the unfortunate group returnee, to work through the pain of seeing each other once more. Philip attempts to detach himself from his previous life and behaviour by referring to himself in the third person when Pam confronts him as to what he did to her. Using this as an opener to work on the ‘here and now’ and the ‘process’ rather than ‘content’ of their obviously tortured discussion, Julius asks Philip why he used the third person, “I wonder, could you have been implying that you’re a different person now from the man you were then?”12 At this moment Philip opens his eyes and gazes into Julius’, in apparent gratitude for moving the dialogue into safer and more constructive territory. A connection, for Julius, has finally been made.

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Julius builds on this breakthrough moment by reposting to one of Philip’s statements, that he feels happier when he does not have to deal with people, by saying, “but, if you’re going to be in a group or lead groups or try to help clients work on their relationships with others, you absolutely cannot avoid entering into relationships with them.”13 Philip, from now on edges towards Julius’ horizon and Julius seems to give the impression that he is trying to edge towards Philip’s by remarking that maybe he’ll reflect on Philip’s proffered Heideggerian statement regarding death being the “impossibility of further possibility.”14

Julius and Philip work through several key crisis moments over the months, ebbing and flowing into each other’s horizon, culminating in the final group meeting. There are unsettling instances and moments of real progress on the way which demonstrate the sure but uneasy shift in Philip’s centre of gravity, or vantage point. At the final session Julius summarises their situation or, in Gadamerian terms, their horizons, “I don’t believe we’re as far apart as you think. I don’t disagree with much that you and Schopenhauer have said about the tragedy of the human condition. Where you go east and I go west is when we turn to the question of what to do about it.”15 Later Philip breaks down looking directly into Julius’ eyes and passionately says with tears and self-loathing “no one who has known me has loved me. Ever. No one could love me.”16 At this moment Pam, the catalyst of his first shift in moving towards Julius’ way of viewing the world, steps in and says, “I could have loved you, Philip.”17 Julius’ work is done as Philip’s breakdown reveals to him that Philip can trust and respect other people and that he knows he will be better off for it.

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Strictly speaking, the fusion of Gadamerian horizons between Julius and Philip never finds concrete realisation in terms of duration. Instead, what Yalom shows is the ethically imbued human dance that occurs in brief glimpses when two people see eye to eye on something that they have both been unable to resolve on their own. The fusion of horizons is after all the tantalising child’s blown bubble that mesmerises those whose attention it dazzles but then bursts as soon as it is touched. All the same, it makes life seem somehow richer for its passing existence.

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  1. See Gadamer, Truth and Method, 307.
  2. Yalom, I. D., The Schopenhauer Cure, 11.
  3. Ibid., 19.
  4. Ibid., 26.
  5. Ibid., 28.
  6. Ibid. 30.
  7. Ibid., 83.
  8. Ibid., 62-63.
  9. Ibid. 99.
  10. Ibid., 100.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid., 180.
  13. Ibid., 182.
  14. Ibid., 197.
  15. Ibid., 331.
  16. Ibid., 334.
  17. Ibid.

7. Horizons


“A person who has no horizon does not see far enough and hence over-values what is nearest to him.”1 Hans-Georg Gadamer

Shifting outlook from the inward looking processes involving prejudices, Gadamer catapulted his thinking outwards as far as the eye can see to re-evaluate another common term in day-to-day use: horizons. And, in the course of such appraising, he introduced a radical metaphor for how we engage with the world around us.

Cutting to the chase, Gadamer’s new perspective was the realisation that the level of consciousness we have been able to attain so far is analogous to a personal horizon. Whereby we find ourselves, as he put it, with a “range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point.”2 Which, because Gadamer was focussed upon hermeneutics – the study of understanding – translates into consciousness having a fixed point around which it perceives the world.

At this juncture, it is important to note that in order to have more than just a limited consciousness one needs to have a horizon. Without such a horizon one finds oneself somewhere between a goldfish and a sty-bound pig. As Gadamer illustrated, “A person who has no horizon does not see far enough and hence over-values what is nearest to him”.3 Rounding it all out, the near-sighted person, if one follows Gadamer’s logic, has little actual consciousness. Heads up then if we want to have a respectable level of consciousness beyond the merely conscious. Look up and look around.

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So, having an horizon means that we can see a wider picture and are not limited purely to considering what is in front of us. Possessing a horizon gives us consciousness beyond that of the piscine and the porcine – something to which we can all aim at and hopefully master. However, we are limited by what we can see within our horizon and advancing beyond it requires a shift in consciousness. This should not present too drastic an obstacle though, because by the very fact of having the horizon – an important first step – we are also able to comprehend that there are sights beyond our current vision.

To my mind this is rather like taking a walk with Gadamer on a sunny day. Doing up our shoelaces, we leave the aquatic and animal kingdoms behind as we stroll out into the farmer’s field next-door to meander through his little patch of heaven and wheat, which we have gazed upon everyday from inside the cosy double-glazed and arm-chaired paradise, we call home. Thrashing between the golden stems of wheat, we scare the crows we have watched so often from our window settling down to munch on their delicious free meal full of starch, fibre and natural goodness. The farmer’s combine-harvester is parked next to his barn on the left, just as it always is when we have looked out in-between feasting ourselves on Gadamer’s nutrition packed, well maybe just tasty, plum jam sandwiches.

700 Plum Jam Sandwiches

The point being that by wandering into the horizon we have seen so many times before we still only really see the same old things we used to cogitate upon before we set a single shoe-clad foot outside our door. Gadamer, though, unbeknownst to me has got his hiking boots on.

Gadamer, you see, has realised that there is something beyond our own familiar vista, something beyond our horizon that could be explored. So, by concentrating our efforts and shifting our lumbering consciousness up we push through the last of the wheat to emerge at the far side of the farmer’s field. A tall hedgerow bounds the horizon that we have so far managed to see, with who knows what on the other side. Wishing that I had thought to wear a thicker coat to protect me from the thorns I plunge into the thicket after Gadamer.

Previously unknown territory slowly comes into view as I adjust my glasses and brush off the common knapweed, st. john’s wort, and butcher’s broom to say nothing of the wild fauna that seems to have wormed and wiggled its way down my back. A lunar landscape does not appear, although, how would I know that one such a scene was not there to greet me, seeing as how I have never gone beyond the comfort of my horizon before? Instead, there is a rather worn out country lane with a pub peaking out from round the bend on the left. Gadamer, possibly in need of refreshment, has already started walking in that direction. It’s almost as if Gadamer knew that if the vantage point changed then so would the horizon!

700 English Country Pub

Over the hedge a whole new horizon comes into view and I’m glad Gadamer persuaded me to explore. As I sit next to him sipping at a cool refreshing cider, apparently local as the barman has informed us, It seems that by altering my vantage point I am achieving a genuine new horizon where new levels of understanding can be gained. I mention to Gadamer that maybe after we finish our pints we could continue to explore and possibly find slightly more erudite arenas into which we can cast ourselves.

The point being that not only am I enjoying going beyond my traditional horizon, I am also open to such shifts in my vantage point from where I can conceive and create new horizons of experience. So, even though our own personal horizons may be “limited and finite,”4 as the nice Gadamerian chap, Richard J. Bernstein observed, they are also “essentially open”5, or, as I have described, able to lumber and charge through hedges. Achieving openness though, as many eastern philosophers will tell you, is not effortless. Would I ever have got beyond my horizon limit, the hedge, if it weren’t for Gadamer? Mind you, I was open to the prospect and that’s key to Gadamer’s concept of individual horizons.

Moving on, there is a second critical stage to Gadamer’s work on horizons and how we think, understand and engage with the world. The introduction to this next stage of Gadamer’s horizon metaphor can be a little tricky, but it is navigable.

For Gadamer, understanding per se is something that is “historically effected”6. Our consciousness is not something that has popped out of nowhere, it has evolved throughout our lives and been effected by our own personal history and gives us our own unique horizon from within which we understand and process the world. As Gadamer said, probably repeatedly, but in this instance in conversation with Carsten Dutt, “no one is a blank sheet of paper”7. Consequently, each of us is different and sees the world through our own “historically effected consciousness”8, or ‘horizons’. Now, the tricky bit is how we bump our horizons together.

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Gadamer, rather obliquely, rolls these issues of horizon bumping and “historically-effected consciousness” together: “The task of historical understanding also involves acquiring an appropriate historical horizon, so that what we are trying to understand can be seen in its true dimensions.”9 So, what does that mean? The umbrella consideration of ‘appropriate’ is a useful starting point because I take him to mean that we need to be self-aware and understand ourselves as individuals that have been affected by our history: we are not objective gods, we are unique subjects. And as unique subjects we are limited and finite in our current understanding. However, in-built within each of us is the capacity to mature, adapt and grow intellectually. As well as recognising our own capacities, though, we also need to regard that which we survey in its “true dimensions”, by which I understand Gadamer to mean that we need to have respect for that which we observe from our own horizon. And, this is the absolutely critical bit. We must take seriously, to the point of imperative, how the other – that which is not self – is to be incorporated within the metaphor of our personal horizon.

In order that we do not objectify the other, or their claim, we must avoid trying to assimilate them into our horizon as it stands, but also we should not attribute an alternative horizon to them into which we transplant ourselves whilst ignoring our own horizon. Instead of objectifying them, as in the former, or indeed objectifying ourselves, as in the latter, we need to recognise the fluidity of ourselves with the other and attempt to achieve what Gadamer termed a ‘fusion of horizons.’ Exciting and stimulating as this ‘fusion’ sounds, Gadamer very quickly grounds this concept before it takes flight in a flurry of naïve enthusiasm that conjures images of brightly adorned dancers grinning and singing vacuously about their mutual love for each other and the planet. Gadamer, after all was neither a hippy nor a Hollywood hack but a careful and methodical philosopher who instantly after he evoked the wonderful phase “fusion of horizons”10, determined that the most important application to this idea would not be musical fervour but order, discipline, and restraint.

700 Hippies dancing

For Gadamer, the “fusion of horizons” required regulation, and this he saw as the task of a “historically effected consciousness.” Again, in talking to Dutt, Gadamer said “we must take the encounter [the potential fusing of horizons] seriously” because “one of the most essential experiences a human being can have is that another person comes to know him or her better.”11 Isn’t that what we all want – to be understood? To have someone that listens properly to the wit and wisdom we have to bestow whilst also appreciating the depths of our torment and highs of our joyful responses to the world.

A personal ego masseuse or oral amanuensis, however, was not Gadamer’s end-goal here. Rather, he realised that a dialogue needs to be created in order for there to be a fusing, as opposed to a swamping, of horizons. One-way traffic really isn’t going to cut it in Gadamer’s world. This is because he deeply believed that, just as we are each finite up to any moment of time, we are also each capable of being shown more than we can see within our own personal horizon. Or, as he said to Dutt, “Through an encounter with the other we are lifted above the narrow confines of our own knowledge… because there is always something about which we are not correct and are not justified in maintaining.”12 There is always another horizon to be shown or explore, and another hedge to be pushed through.

The regulation of any “fusing of horizons,” for Gadamer, as we have seen demanded seriousness, however, it required much more. As far as Gadamer was concerned such regulation would be given the principle focus of his attention because, for him, it was “the central problem of hermeneutics.”13 The application of such a fusion, therefore, was given no small role within his Magnum Opus, Truth and Method. Gadamer, warming to his theme, insisted that the crux of understanding compelled the avoidance of any objectification of the other, or oneself, in order to allow each to entwine with the other, in a fluid movement that generates understanding. One has to say that surely Gadamer is right when he commits himself to this steadfast position. How many times in our intellectual awakening and broadening, when chewing the fat with a close friend, colleague or family member, have we stumbled upon either a shared eureka moment or personal insight from one to the other. The process of openly fusing our horizons in a dialogue of trust and respect can yield dramatic shifts of vantage points in our consciousness.

Two People ideas

So much was Gadamer enamoured with this “central problem of hermeneutics” that he spent most of his adult life eagerly entertaining interested parties, from near and far, in debates and conversation. A famous example of his desire in this area was his wish to converse with Jacques Derrida. Unfortunately, it seems that the respect and trust was not there from Derrida’s side when they finally met publically at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1981. Derrida, Gadamer analysed subsequently in conversation with Dutt, was not “capable of engaging in genuine conversation”14 and saw “both Heidegger and myself as part of the logocentrist camp.”15 It appeared, to Gadamer, that Derrida didn’t want to play Gadamer’s game – which one could tell would have caused Gadamer great inner turmoil. To be able to converse with the great French Deconstructivist and probe each other’s horizons could have led to great things in Gadamer’s mind, whilst also, by the very fact of conversing, giving his version of philosophical hermeneutics implicit validity. Instead, we are left with Gadamer’s rather mournful and tragic encapsulation “Whoever [Derrida] wants me to take deconstruction to heart and insists on difference stands at the beginning of a conversation, not at its end.”16

Perhaps, in Derrida’s case, Gadamer chose badly because Derrida had to stick to his own guns and not be lulled into what he presumably saw as some kind of trap. Or, maybe as Gadamer suggested in his conversation with Dutt, dialogue just wasn’t Derrida’s strength. Derrida apart, who possibly had a variety of other things going on, it is really not too hard to see that Gadamer was onto something ethically in trying to regulate the “fusion of horizons,” by cultivating trust and respect. Indeed, it is testament to his belief in his project that he had the conversations with Dutt when he was ninety-three years old when he was “genial, direct, and never at a loss”17. Quite a powerful message in terms of zest for life and also thirst for what he believed in: people can converse and, together, they can constructively (Derridean pun intended) push the boundaries of each other’s understanding. An ethical thirst, n’est pas?


  1. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 302.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Bernstein, R. J., Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis, 143.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 307.
  7. Gadamer, Gadamer in Conversation: Reflections and Commentary, ed. Richard E. Palmer, 43.
  8. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 307.
  9. Ibid., 303.
  10. See Gadamer, Truth and Method, 307.
  11. Gadamer, Gadamer in Conversation: Reflections and Commentary, ed. Richard E. Palmer, 49.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 307.
  14. Gadamer, Gadamer in Conversation: Reflections and Commentary, ed. Richard E. Palmer, 61-62.
  15. Ibid., 62.
  16. Ibid., 61.
  17. Ibid., 1.

6. A Scandal in Bohemia


“Women are never to be entirely trusted—not the best of them.”1
Holmes to Watson, The Sign of Four

“No one should underestimate anyone else, because we are all capable of surprising each other and moving beyond those prejudices that would seek to define us.”

Sherlock Holmes’ view on women is his prejudice and for one so highly critical of other’s capacities for observation, Arthur Conan Doyle reveals an elephantine blind spot in his character’s third outing.

In June 1891, The Strand magazine published A Scandal in Bohemia as the first of twelve short stories, released one at a time each month, containing the exploits of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. Two novels preceded this batch, A Study in Scarlet, first published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual 1887, and The Sign of Four, first published in Lippincott’s Magazine in February 1890. Within these first forays of Sherlock Holmes, of whom Conan Doyle would eventually write a total of four novels and fifty-six short stories, an incredibly clear picture is given of the self-proclaimed consulting detective’s abilities and limits.


Famously, in A Study in Scarlet, Watson went to the bother of writing a list, of his new friend and co-lodger in 221B Baker Street, in order to try and make sense of Holmes’ unusual knowledge surfeit and deficit in different arenas of human intellectual endeavour:

“Sherlock Holmes — his limits.

  1. Knowledge of literature – nil.
  2. Knowledge of philosophy – nil.
  3. Knowledge of astronomy – nil.
  4. Knowledge of politics – feeble.
  5. Knowledge of botany – variable. Well up in belladonna, opium and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening.
  6. Knowledge of geology – practical, but limited. Tells at a glance different soils from each other. After walks, has shown me splashes upon his trousers and told me by their colour and consistence in what part of London he received them.
  7. Knowledge of chemistry – profound.
  8. Knowledge of anatomy – accurate, but unsystematic.
  9. Knowledge of sensational Literature – immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.
  10. Plays the violin well.
  11. Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman.
  12. Has a good practical knowledge of British law.”2

Watson then throws the list into the fire in frustration and despair at attempting to grapple with Holmes’ bizarre spheres of interest. However, as is well-known in literary circles, such a device does serve to provide illustration of the character it portrays even if it is reportedly dashed to oblivion by its author. Holmes is given his own treatment and placed under the microscope.

In addition to Watson’s list, Conan Doyle gives us many defining characteristics of his creation. In the same novel, we see Holmes’ strict adherence to the scientific method when questioned by Watson concerning his unwillingness to speculate as to why Tobias Gregson had summoned them to 3 Lauriston Gardens. “No data… It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgement”3, Holmes explains. Conan Doyle also presents in the same text, Holmes’ complete agreement with Gregson, to the point of regarding it as a virtue, that one must never overlook items that might appear trivial: “To a great mind, nothing is little.”4 Thoroughness gets added to Holmes’ asset portfolio as Conan Doyle continues to craft his character. Next, though, comes a moment whereby Holmes becomes made flesh and Conan Doyle avoids the pitfall of producing a two-dimensional dramatis persona.

700 To A Great Mind

When attempting to prove that a box containing two pills is connected with the murders of Enoch Drebber and Joseph Stangerson, Holmes cuts one of the pills in half, dissolves it in milk and places the saucer of contents in front of a dying terrier which Watson was due to put down. Expecting the pill to contain poison, Holmes is irritated to see no adverse effect on the dog. The scene is played out in front of Inspectors Gregson and Lestrade, as well as Watson. Holmes, of course, is keen to demonstrate his powers to all of the above. Thwarted, Holmes gnaws at his lip, drums his fingers and after ‘pacing wildly up and down the room’, he seizes upon the cause of his problem, cuts up the other pill and dissolves it into the remaining milk in the saucer. At first lick, the terrier shivers and takes it last breath. Holmes then exclaims, “I ought to know by this time that when a fact appears to be opposed to a long train of deductions, it invariably proves to be capable of bearing some other interpretation.”5 In so saying, Conan Doyle demonstrates that Holmes is cognisant that even he can make errors and that when following the scientific method it becomes necessary to formulate a new theory to both explain the previously known facts as well as the latest piece of information that caused the error. Holmes, then, can be seen to have humility and also the scientific tenacity to see things differently as he has so far understood them to be.

In The Sign of Four, in the chapter headed ‘The Science of Deduction’, Conan Doyle resumes addressing Holmes skillset via the revelation that Holmes has written a monograph concerning the tracing of footsteps and another “upon the influence of a trade upon the form of a hand, with lithotypes of the hands of slaters, sailors, cork-cutters, compositors, weavers, and diamond polishers.”6 Holmes also conducts, at Watson’s request, a demonstration of his powers of observation upon a watch previously owed by Watson’s father and elder brother, which causes Watson to accuse Holmes of conducting inquiries into the history of his unhappy brother, so successful is Holmes at performing deductions from minutiae.

Watson and Holmes at home

The picture Conan Doyle paints of Holmes within his first two outings is rich and nuanced. We find a self-assured workaholic at the peak of his profession and abilities, whose gifts extend to being able to observe and deduce from the smallest details in a manner that seems to betray an element of super-human powers – so proficient is he at dominating his chosen discipline. Consequently, it is all the more startling to discover that Holmes should have any prejudices at all. One would think that he would have obliterated such blind spots from his life in order not to hamper his mastery over his work.

To regard women as a class of their own, and fall prey to the standards of the time, where in everything else he shows himself to be above the common herd is quite surprising. However, one really needs to say ‘hats off’ to Conan Doyle for realising that he had driven Holmes into a dead-end of male stereotypes and that such a position needed urgently to be challenged. Or maybe, Conan Doyle wasn’t that politically aware and ahead of his time to foreground the matter. Perhaps, he just wanted to give Holmes a comeuppance? As is well known, the author had a rather troubled relationship with his creation and, indeed, did try to kill him off at the Reichenbach Falls a few years later. Either way, the presentation given in A Scandal in Bohemia is one where quite clearly Holmes is outwitted and left in second place by Irene Adler, whom forever afterwards he was to call ‘the woman’. Importantly, though, it is his prejudice that is shown up, caught short and found wanting.

600 scandal-in-bohemia-manuscript_2

Holmes’ prejudice regarding women plays and dances around the edges of objectification, with Conan Doyle giving him such remarks as, “She is the daintiest thing under a bonnet on this planet. So say the Serpentine Mews to a man.”7 Which deftly lets Holmes off the ‘objectifying-women’ hook because he is apparently merely reporting what other men think, as opposed to giving any particular insight, or interruption, into what Watson described as his “cold, precise, but admirably balanced mind.”8

Where Holmes does fall completely into the trap of prejudice, though, is in his regard of women that conceives of them as a set with no real personal individuation. This viewpoint makes him see ‘them’ in a two-dimensional way that presumes to understand ‘them’ better than they can understand themselves. Such an attitude makes him state to Watson generalisations like, “Women are naturally secretive, and they like to do their own secreting,”9 as remarked when discussing where Adler has contrived to hide the compromising photograph of her and the King of Bohemia. (The photograph dating from a time when the king was a mere crown prince and in love with Adler, whom he described as the “well-known adventuress”10). Holmes, then, further inculcates himself by confidently bragging, “I will get her to show me,”11 when Watson naturally asked how he will find the photograph when five attempts, initiated by others in the King’s employ have failed.

525 The King of Bohemia

As the story progresses and follows Holmes’ carefully laid out plans, Adler does indeed ‘show’ him where she has secreted the photograph, when the call of “fire”12 is raised by Watson and other Holmesian actors in the street and a plumbers smoke rocket is set off in her sitting room, containing a seemingly injured Holmes disguised as a “simple-minded non-conformist clergyman.”13 In his discussion, after the fact, Holmes explains his theory to Watson’s ever open ear: “When a woman thinks that her house is on fire, her instinct is at once to rush to the thing which she values most. It is a perfectly overpowering impulse… A married woman grabs at her baby – an unmarried one reaches for her jewel box.”14 On the back of his success, though, Holmes starts to get his comeuppance.

Thrilled by the events conforming to his theory, Holmes massively underestimates Adler and overlooks that she might actually think and behave in a way different than the one Holmes has prescribed for women. Believing that he is firmly in control of the situation, because he ‘won’ the first round, and thinking he knows how women will behave, Holmes decides that the coup d’état of revealing the location of the photograph to the King of Bohemia can wait until eight the following morning. This is because he believes Adler won’t have risen for the day by that time and they will have unimpeded access to the sitting room and its contents. Convinced of his own mastery of how Adler, as a woman, will think, he volunteers this second round plan to Watson openly in the street just as Adler walks behind them disguised as a “slim youth in an ulster”15 who even says “Good night, Mister Sherlock Holmes.”16

550 Goodnight Mr Holmes

One assumes that upon over-hearing Holmes’ indiscretion as to voicing his plan, Adler decides to flee the nest and leave her house in the depths of the night, taking the photograph with her to “the Continent.”17 The cause of this chain of events, which Holmes did not compute, is presumably her realisation that she betrayed the hiding place of the photograph and acting upon her own thoughts and behaviour and not those of Holmes’ thoughts upon the ‘doings of women’.

To give Holmes his credit, though, he realises his error, almost instantaneously, when he reads her letter to him, left in the hiding place, and vocalises this in dialogue to the King, who witnessing the turn of events, proclaims “Would she not have made an admirable queen? Is it not a pity she was not on my level?”18 To which Holmes replies, “From what I have seen of the lady, she seems, indeed, to be on a very different level to Your Majesty.”19 By which Conan Doyle makes clear that Adler surpasses both the King and Holmes, because Watson concludes the story with “the best plans of Mr Sherlock Holmes were beaten by a woman’s wit.”20

600 Irene_Adler.fw

It is a shame Holmes never speaks to Adler after his newfound respect for her. Possibly, then he would have regarded her with a moral attitude as opposed to a prejudiced one. But then, does Holmes regard anyone with a moral attitude? Certainly, various police inspectors are always given short shrift by him and Watson is only very sparsely accorded something akin to respect for his intelligence. Holmes’ brother Mycroft is perhaps the only person whom Holmes gets close to regarding with a moral, as opposed to prejudiced, attitude. In The Bruce-Partington Plans Holmes states of his brother: “He has the tidiest and most orderly brain, with the greatest capacity for storing facts, of any man living.”21 However, with the possible exception of Mycroft, most encounters in Holmes’ life are ones whereby the other person gets reduced to an almost quantifiable set of behaviours which Holmes can identify and understand in such a way that he feels he has a better grasp of the other than they have themselves. The result being, in the majority of the time, that he is right. And yet, even this set of highly thought-out prejudices can come unstuck in their overconfidence and dealing with the Irene Adlers of the world.

Several lessons can be learned here. Holmes seems to learn his in that he clearly understands he has underestimated Adler. Another possible one, that strikes a blow for feminism, is that he shouldn’t have underestimated those he so firmly and collectively prejudiced: women. For me, however, there is one final critical lesson that everyone can take from this early ‘warts ‘n’ all’ Sherlock Holmes tale: no one should underestimate anyone else, because we are all capable of surprising each other and standing beyond those prejudices that would seek to define us.


  1. Doyle, A. C., The Sign of Four, 83.
  2. Doyle, A. C., A Study in Scarlet, 34-35, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Novels, Ed. Klinger, L. S.
  3. Ibid, 51.
  4. Ibid, 102.
  5. Ibid., 116-117.
  6. Doyle, A. C., The Sign of Four, 11.
  7. Doyle, A. C., The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, A Scandal in Bohemia, 20.
  8. Ibid., 9.
  9. Ibid., 25.
  10. Ibid., 16.
  11. Ibid., 26.
  12. See ibid., 27.
  13. Ibid., 24.
  14. Ibid., 28.
  15. Ibid., 29
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid., 30.
  18. Ibid., 31
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid., 32.
  21. Doyle, A. C., His Last Bow, The Bruce Partington Plans, 85.

5. Prejudices


“If we can only shift our perspective on what we want from life and social living, by learning to recognise our prejudices and having the courage, strength and confidence to leave them aside on occasion as opposed to allowing them to dictate and march headlong through our relationships.”

In addition to the well-known churning undercurrent that is Friedrich Nietzsche, philosophy also has the calm, but no less potent, waters of Hans-Georg Gadamer. Within his magnum opus, Truth and Method, Gadamer, just like Nietzsche, questioned the self-assumed sufficiency and appropriateness of more ‘traditional’ approaches to thinking. In his text, Gadamer set down a re-interpretation of a neglected and overlooked philosophical school of thought: Hermeneutics, the study of understanding. For Gadamer, philosophy needed to address what it is for us to live, breathe, and be among others in the world around us, rather than stagnantly mulching the same old metaphysical issues year after year, generation after generation: It should be quite clear as to why Gadamer appeals.

In order for Gadamer to fulfil on the deal and address this perceived need, he began a series of re-evaluations based upon a particular type of experience. As one might expect this would not revolve around an ordinary type of experience. It went a lot deeper than experiencing the ordinary taste of a Danish pastry with one’s early morning coffee.

Bun and coffee

Wisdom is the goal here: a most underrated, forgotten and abused currency in our age of science and thrusting knowledge economy. For example, why is it that we can understand the importance of sustaining the resources of our planet, through a process of environmental education and change, and yet still continue to use the same intellectual tools that once raped and pillaged the now revered landscape? It seems an innovative approach is needed to thinking which prioritises the importance of wisdom before fact detection.

However, Gadamer did not ask that we change our intellectual tools. Instead he showed in a very quiet and gentle way, but equally eloquently and persuasively, that we should re-mould the very flesh and bones of our thinking. One can almost see Nietzsche smiling, as his very vocal demand for a re-evaluation of values finds a kindred spirit. However, rather than pursuing a course of outrage against Christian values and morality, Nietzsche’s bête noire, Gadamer chose to re-evaluate ostensibly less controversial subjects.

Basing the whole of his re-evaluative process upon the idea of experience, Gadamer tackled three particular areas: prejudices, horizons, and conversation. By taking each in turn, we shall see not only how Gadamer unveiled his philosophy, but also how he can open our eyes so that perhaps we may notice, acknowledge and welcome the other into our lives and thoughts.


Beginning with prejudices and taking as his starting block the person who directs their gaze ‘on the things themselves’ in order to understand them, Gadamer rapidly constructed his argument and demonstrated his willingness to break free of the rigid conventions of ‘traditional’, or phenomenological, thought, by invoking an old philosophical chestnut.

In-between ‘inventing’ the German language and becoming the fixed point from which both analytic and continental philosophies were to descend, Immanuel Kant wrote the following in the Critique of Pure Reason: “it is… solely from the human standpoint that we can speak of space, of extended things, etc… This predicate [of space] can be ascribed to things only in so far as they appear to us, that is, only to objects of sensibility.”1 One hundred and eighty years later, in California, Thomas Kuhn wrote, “What a man sees depends both upon what he looks at and also upon what his previous visual-conceptual experience has taught him to see.”2 Depending on how you like your philosophy and respecting that each is starting from a unique place in time and thought, one of these philosophers, that I’ve caught and ‘biopsied,’ could attract your momentary attention with their idea and set off a sparkling new train of thought for you. However, the point about which they are both circling is the notion of ‘theory-laden observation’. This, if my friends across the ages and I have not quite made clear, is the idea that we cannot regard the world mutely, we always observe with prejudice.

Returning to Gadamer, we can see that his programme did not stumble on the old polished chestnut. For him, the person gazing at the thing itself, for example, a book, undertakes a process whereby they “project a meaning for the text… because [they] read the text with particular expectations in regard to a certain meaning.”3 Such ‘expectations’ do not come from the thing that is gazed upon, instead the ‘person who is trying to understand is exposed to distraction from fore-meanings.’ These ‘fore-meanings,’ according to Gadamer, come from our prejudices, our internal modes of orientation, with which we try to understand the world. They underpin our engagement with everything that we sense, and they help us to understand the new, the suspicious, the mundane, the beautiful, etc.

Predict - fore meanings

The problem Gadamer had in determining prejudices in this manner, however, was the traditional use of the term ‘prejudice.’ This he traced to the Enlightenment and its resolve to eliminate the twin prejudices of ‘over hastiness’ and ‘authority’ through the ‘methodological disciplined use of reason’, which acted as ‘safeguard’ to ‘all error.’   The root of such enlightened thinking, for Gadamer, lay in Descartes’ method where ‘over-hastiness is the source of all errors that arise in the use of one’s own reason,’ and authority ‘is responsible for one’s not using one’s own reason at all.’ Prejudices therefore, due to Descartes’ methodology, were seen as hindrances to reason and were not to be employed by any ‘enlightened’ person wishing to purge themselves of faulty reasoning from the end of the 16th century onwards. Gadamer, however, sought to oppose this methodological decision and asserted that ‘the fundamental prejudice of the Enlightenment is the prejudice against prejudice itself.’ Gadamer’s self-appointed task, then, was to bring prejudices back from their exile and give them new meaning:

“Prejudices are not necessarily unjustified and erroneous, so that they inevitably distort the truth… They are simply the conditions whereby we experience something – whereby what we encounter says something to us.”4

So, for Gadamer prejudices are not restriction based but are the modes with which we grapple with the world around us. They are the platform from which understanding, experience, and connection can begin. Without them, it would appear we would begin each day anew but learn nothing; everything would be meaningless and confusing because we would not be able to form any internal correlation between one event and the next. Without our Gadamerian prejudices, we would be lost, confused, and probably extinct.


Continuing in this rich vein, Gadamer distinguished between different types of prejudice: “The prejudices and fore-meanings that occupy the interpreter’s consciousness are not at his free disposal. He cannot separate in advance the productive prejudices that enable understanding from the prejudices that hinder it and lead to misunderstanding.”5 Our prejudices, it appears cannot be identified as to which are blind and which are illuminating. They are there to allow growth and understanding but also can restrict and disable us. Choosing which ones to apply in any given circumstance goes beyond the ability of most individuals and would, I believe, be quite dehumanising. Imagine being able to choose which prejudices to apply. Our behaviour would be invariably inconsistent. It would be as if we were a machine that had no real investment in the community we inhabited. Decisions would be channelled through us as if by a committee of puppet masters who each had a period of unique ownership over our corporeality at any one time. There would be multiple conflicts in our personality, even though at the same time we would learn and increase our knowledge far more than most.

Coming back to Gadamer though, his main concerns regarding prejudices were that we need to be aware of their existence within us and that they exert influence whenever we try to understand something. So for Gadamer the crucial idea is that we need to be aware of our own biases and that we have prejudices, or fore-meanings, that help/hinder when we encounter the world around us.

Know Yourself

The world around us, of course, is a splendid diversity of things. It could be a book, it could be an artwork or even another person. The vital issue at stake is that it is ‘other’ to us.

So, adding together our crucial ideas and vital issues, awareness of one’s own prejudices and recognition of the autonomy of the text, artwork, or other person, starts to give an equation whereby the result of such an addition is the requirement of a particular kind approach to the world and the ‘other’ things that are in it. Georgia Warnke, one of those wonderful people who realise the importance of Gadamer, describes this approach as “a specifically moral attitude.”6

As with many other topics that we shall look at in this series, we can start to visualise some points of distinction in how we can regard the world. Gadamer uses the example of ‘Thou’ to help separate these ways of encountering other entities beside ourselves in our universe.

In a few words, the first way of experiencing a ‘Thou’ uses the other as a means, by treating them as a object, such as a god – or really the idea of a god, whereby we modify our behaviour to meet our own ends according to how we decide to interpret the god. Again using minimal expression, the second way is self-regarding, because the other is eliminated by a presumption that effects to understand them “better than he or she understands him or herself,”7 which actually only leaves one communicating with oneself. This being for Gadamer, where “one allows one’s prejudices to prevail unchecked because one simply takes them for the original meaning of the text itself.”8 The third way “is the moral experience of the Thou in which one allows ‘him to really say something to us.’ In this moral relationship, we neither objectify the other nor claim to speak for him or her.”9 The non-reduction to either objects or ourselves, as seen in the first and second ways of experiencing, allows “others to be and to express themselves.”10 In the course of this ‘moral’ relationship, which allows the other “to be and express themselves,” there is an opening up of our prejudices which could allow possible modification by the other. Such a process can effect a change at the level of our understanding and at the meta-level of our prejudices.

So, by not treating the other as a means to an end, objectifying them or subsuming them into ourselves, courtesy of overactive and dominating prejudices, one can find oneself free to adopt a ‘specifically moral attitude’ towards the other that allows for a unique and ‘exclusive’ encounter to take place.


Consequently, the solution to the problem is within our own hands if we can only shift our perspective on what we want from life and social living, by learning to recognise our prejudices and having the courage, strength and confidence to leave them to the side on occasion as opposed to allowing them to dictate and march headlong through our relationships. There is an obviousness here that lends itself to a branch of philosophical thinking still little understood in the English speaking world. Eastern Philosophy, my crude understanding tells me, unlike Western Philosophy has the gathering of knowledge firmly in second place to the primary task in hand: the gaining of wisdom. Consequently, much of this philosophical genre is taken up with profound and poetic statements that seek to find a way through our icy exterior and resonate briefly with that core of soulfulness or wisdom that we carry around inside each and every one of us. An inner kernel of purity, innocence and virtue, if you desire to embellish, which lies buried beneath a lifetime of facts and interpretations built-up and layered to form an almost impenetrable shell, which both separates as it protects. However, rather than treating you to a tangential eastern interlude, in whose waters I should all too rapidly be out of my depth, we shall return to Gadamer whose next focus, on horizons, will do the job quite nicely as it happens, but only after consulting with a high-functioning sociopath in the next section… the clues are there.


  1. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 72.
  2. Kuhn, T. S., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 113.
  3. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 267.
  4. Gadamer, ‘The Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem’ reproduced in Philosophical Hermeneutics, 9.
  5. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 295.
  6. Warnke, G., ‘Literature, Law, and Morality’ included in Gadamer’s Repercussions, 93.
  7. Ibid., 94.
  8. Ibid. Jean Grondin in The Philosophy of Gadamer discussed the related problem of cutting ‘ourselves off from the things themselves,’ when attempting to be aware of our prejudices, 85.
  9. Warnke, G., ‘Literature, Law, and Morality’ included in Gadamer’s Repercussions, 94.
  10. Ibid., 95.

4. The Crucible


“When the urge comes to be suspicious of our neighbour, or the person fleeing persecution in their own country, we should resist and stay true to more ethically minded principles that uphold our humanity through small but vital acts of respect and kindness.”

In the summer of 1692, an extraordinary sequence of events led to twenty people being executed for witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts. Another four to thirteen, the records are unclear, died in prison before their potential execution for the same ‘crime’.

Arthur Miller, after considerable research, wrote The Crucible as a dramatic reconstruction of these appalling events. Debate still rages as to the strict historic accuracy, but that was never his goal. His intent was to capture and deliver what he described as the “essential nature of one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history.”1 Courtesy of his playwright’s gift for giving authentic voice to these lost individuals and those that condemned them, The Crucible, since its outset in 1953, has been regarded as a modern classic of literature. The tale of accusations fuelled by mistrust and religious dogma, but most of all the system induced need for self-preservation, is one that still haunts and shocks more than sixty years on. Written as an allegory for McCarthyism, prevalent at the time in the United States, Miller hit upon the perfect vehicle to warn his society of Senator Joe’s dangerous practice of making unfair accusations which turn into prejudiced allegations. McCarthy combined these with improper investigative techniques that led, ultimately, to ‘Kangaroo Court’ styled hearings, which in turn ruined reputations, ostracized, made unemployable, or imprisoned thousands of innocent people. Homosexuals, Hollywood celebrities and state department officials were among those targeted by the ‘Un-American Activities Committee’, as were swathes of the armed forces such as the three thousand sailors who lost their jobs with the Coast Guard at the start of the Korean War after a ‘review’ was carried out.


Miller’s play, although a social comment on contemporary politics, preserved strict artistic integrity in its subject matter and never overtly poked its head from behind the stage curtain with a knowing wink, except once in a strangely developed narrative interlude two-thirds of the way through Act One. Almost concealed, in the middle of Reverend Hale’s introduction, Miller shows his colours and states “in America any man who is not reactionary in his views is open to the charge of alliance with the Red hell.”2 It’s little wonder that in 1956 Miller himself started to be investigated by Un-American Activities Committee.

The plot of The Crucible hinges upon a group of girls, aged eleven to seventeen, caught dancing in the woods with Reverend Parris’ slave-girl, Tituba, whom he brought back with him from Barbados. The problem being that Tituba was seen to be waving her arms over an open fire, possibly incanting and some of the girls were naked as they danced. From the moment of their discovery a spiral of accusation, suspicion, revenge, land-grabbing and a battle between principles and self-preservation emerges, whilst the religious powers that be drove a whole community into a now infamous Catch-22 situation: confess to witchcraft or be executed. In their eyes, of course, this meant being damned to an eternity in hell after, presumably, being driven from their home as a witch, or instant death. Not a great choice and one that shows the pernicious power of an accusation.

Salem Witchtrials

Throughout the play, Miller presents the tragic drama though the voices and actions of different characters. In particular, we see John Proctor struggle at the beginning with his inner turmoil, the adultery he committed with his ex-servant Abigail Williams, one of the girls, whom Miller deftly presents as a viciously manipulative and self-interested ringleader. Proctor’s strife continues because, having confessed his sin to his wife, Elizabeth, and wanting to deal with the matter as a personal issue between the two of them, the twist of events forces him to make his adultery public in order to save his wife who was accused of witchcraft by the spurned and vengeful Abigail. Ignorant of her husband’s testament, Elizabeth Proctor is brought into Deputy Governor Danforth’s court to corroborate John’s claim as to what motive lies behind Abigail’s accusations. The proof being that she too must publicly announce her family’s shame and state that John committed adultery with Abigail, whom he now holds nothing but contempt for. Elizabeth is unwittingly reluctant to declare the real cause of Abigail’s dismissal as their servant and is consequently led from the court to prison. As the door closes behind her, John shouts “She only thought to save my name!”3 The spiral unravels further for John, who has just seen his wife effectively imprisoned for witchcraft, because Abigail now initiates a phase of events that seals his fate too.

Affecting sighting of a ‘spirit’ bird sent from Mary Warren, the Proctor’s new servant and whom John convinced to tell the truth in court about the girls lying, Abigail starts to communicate with the ‘spirit’ and become entranced by it. The result being that the other girls in the court join in the affected entrancing and turn upon Mary Warren who then breaks down and performs an about-face on Proctor shouting and pointing “You’re the Devil’s man!”4 Danforth, caught up in whirlwind of events, crystallises Proctor’s fate, in the only way he knows how, by asking him to confess his association with the Devil or become imprisoned.

Spirit Bird

After three months in jail, Proctor is allowed to see his wife Elizabeth, and in saying that he wants to live is resigned to accept the consequences of this coerced admission. His forced confession, of knowing the Devil, is verbally obtained as a very terse and begrudging statement: “I did.”5 However, this is not enough for Danforth because he wants Proctor to sign a statement to the same effect. Proctor unwillingly does so but then rips it up when he finds out that Danforth wants to display this statement, the spoils, upon the church door for all to see. With this gesture Proctor seals his doom, so that rather than blackening his name and those of his family he is hanged.


Miller further draws out the atrocity when he considers Proctor’s friend, the eighty-two year old Giles Corey, whose fate is tied up with that of Thomas Putnam, the wealthiest man in the village. When Corey recounts an earlier day at court when Putnam’s daughter cried out that a friend of Corey’s was a wizard, who was then duly imprisoned, the issue of land-grabbing comes to the fore. As Corey explains, if someone were to be hanged as a wizard, then his property would be forfeited, his family made homeless, and his land sold to the highest bidder, which in this case would be Putnam. Consequently, Corey accuses Putnam of putting his daughter up to crying out witchery in the court in order to swoop in and buy the land. Corey’s problem, however, is that Danforth wants proof that Putnam has manufactured such a scheme with his daughter. Corey presents the verbal testimony that he acquired it from “an honest man who heard Putnam say it!”6 Without the name of this honest man, Danforth refuses to accept its validity and Corey refuses to give up the name for fear that Danforth will imprison the man, especially after Corey’s own wife was imprisoned because he stated that she reads unknown books and hides them. As Corey saw it he had made the mistake of once naming names and he wasn’t about to commit the same error. Deputy Governor Danforth then holds Corey in contempt of court and has him imprisoned.

Later on, when asked to say “aye” or “nay” to his indictment, Corey protects his family’s property by saying nothing. (One is left to assume whether the murder accusation he levied at Putnam was primary or secondary to his being associated with Proctor and his ‘knowledge’ of the Devil). By remaining mute, Corey effectively choses not to choose (to be hanged as a wizard nor to confess his knowledge of the Devil). Either way he sees the danger of his land becoming forfeited and his family robbed of their livelihood. Danforth, not to be frustrated or outwitted by such a loop-hole decides to invent a third option for those who remain mute when asked to confess their knowledge of the Devil, and has Corey pressed beneath heavy stones until he says “aye” or “nay”. Corey’s only words, however, are “more weight”7 and then he expires.

Giles Corey

By crafting his play so tightly as to highlight the power of false accusations and the danger of suspicions, Miller shone a light on one of “the most awful chapters in human history” and also provided a warning flare as regards McCarthyism. However, his own critical analysis demonstrated that there is a broader brush to be applied when viewing events politically. Miller saw that in such climates, political opposition starts to take on an ‘inhumane overlay’ which then for the dominant power justifies the rejection of all normal modes of civilized discourse. “A political policy is equated with moral right, and opposition to it with diabolical malevolence. Once such an equation is effectively made, society becomes a congerie of plots and counterplots, and the main role of government changes from that of the arbiter to that of the scourge of God.”8

The analysis applied here fits so perfectly with the events in Salem in 1692, and in the United States in the early 1950s, but doesn’t it also resonate with George W. Bush’s foreign policy after 9/11, encapsulated in his 20th September 2001 TV address? “Our ‘war on terror’ begins with Al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.”9 The scourge of God, it seems is waiting, lurking, and ready to be roused at a moment’s notice, whereby the actions of the few provide excuse for Governments to mobilise their battalions of enforcers.

The Scourge of God

The problem here, however, is that when a situation starts, panic and ethical blindness take hold and spread like wildfire amid what were robust and healthy communities. At best, anxious individuals became ultra wary of each other and at worst start finger pointing at their neighbours before their greatest fear comes home to roost and they get pointed at themselves. The grip of suspicion infects and runs rampant like a plague, especially when fuelled by those in authority. Malicious behaviour towards the guy who lives three doors down becomes justified with ‘moral right’, as Miller understood, and is in fact the polar opposite of morality. Being buoyed up with ‘right on one’s side’ is rarely, if ever, an ethical place to be, especially when concentrated in a pressure cooker environment created by Governments which seek to quash any non-believers and flex their muscles to demonstrate their power. Suspicions lead to snide comments, allegations and accusations before anyone has realised that their autonomy has been hijacked by a pernicious political plot designed ostensibly to protect, when in reality it actually manufactures fear, anxiety and hatred. This is the great evil which comes from on high and which seeks to eviscerate our delicate ethical leanings when we are least prepared. The task for each of us, of course, is to do all in our power to prevent ourselves from becoming puppets and drones for someone else’s power play that really doesn’t care about the individual level.

Consequently, when the urge comes to be suspicious of our neighbour, or the person fleeing persecution in their own country, we should resist and stay true to more ethically minded principles that uphold our humanity through small but vital acts of respect and kindness. Hopefully, then human dignity will not be pushed face down in the mud and maybe, just maybe, we might suffer better fates than John Proctor and Giles Corey when holding onto such principles.

If we all do one act

The outcome is far from certain, but by now the risk of dismissing ethics should be clear, in that there are many and varied potential adverse effects for the individual and humanity in general if one continues blindly not bothering to acquaint oneself with what ethical behaviour is. So let us now get acquainted and begin the task proper…


  1. Miller, A., The Crucible, 11.
  2. Ibid., 38.
  3. Ibid., 100.
  4. Ibid., 104.
  5. Ibid., 121.
  6. Ibid., 87.
  7. Ibid., 118.
  8. Ibid., 38.
  9. https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010920-8.html

3. The Lucifer Effect


“If we don’t look into the other’s eyes and allow them to look into ours then one or other of us will soon become objectified and treated in a manner normally reserved for engaging with things rather than humans.”

Why bother trying to be ethical?

In February 1969, in the Bronx, New York City, a ten-year-old car had its number plates removed and its bonnet/hood left slightly open to make it look ‘abandoned’. An identical car was similarly abandoned in Palo Alto, California. In the course of forty-eight hours the Bronx Oldsmobile suffered no less than twenty-three separate destructive incidents, according Philip Zimbardo who was conducting twin social psychology experiments. The Palo Alto car, by comparison, had its hood closed by an elderly gentleman and three neighbours reported a theft to the police of an abandoned car when Zimbardo drove it away after two weeks. Among other things, Zimbardo concluded that Palo Alto was inhabited by people who have a good sense of community spirit, faith in the police, and a sense of fairness and trust. All positive social attributes that give an indication of an environment where ethical behaviour should thrive.

1959 balck and white Oldsmobile

Zimbardo then conducted another social experiment in Palo Alto that would resonate throughout the world and become synonymous with the word evil.

The Stanford Prison Experiment was conducted from 14th – 20th of August 1971. It was supposed to have a longer duration, but it had to be aborted due to the extreme level of behaviour taking place within it.

After a lengthy process of advertising, then assessing and screening one hundred candidates, who all volunteered to take part in a paid study of prison life, were whittled down by Zimbardo to twenty-four suitable participants. Most were Stanford University students or students in the area attending summer schools at Stanford or Berkeley, or Palo Alto residents. Zimbardo and his team wanted young men who appeared normal, healthy and psychologically average. They didn’t want usual prison types or anyone with obvious social or psychological problems or issues: ‘bad seeds’ were screened out. Essentially, bright, healthy, and perceived normal young men studying in a decent area of the county were chosen.

Typical students

Of the twenty-four participants, twelve were assigned to be ‘guards’ by the simple act of tossing a coin to see whether each person would be a ‘guard’ or a ‘prisoner’. The reasoning being that there could be no bias as to choosing who the ‘guards’ would be by Zimbardo and his graduate students assistants. Once the list of ‘guards’ was established, they were all brought in to receive a day’s brief orientation. There wasn’t time within the budget to give any training per se, so they were given two specific instructions only: practice no violence against any of the ‘prisoners’ and allow no escapes. Zimbardo also conveyed that he wanted the mock prison to create a sense of powerless in the ‘prisoners’.

The ‘guards’ were then instructed to carry out ‘arrests’ of the other twelve participants as they went about their daily lives in Palo Alto and to make it as authentic as possible, but on a pre-agreed date when the volunteers were told to make themselves available for the experiment they had signed up to. So, with all the ‘guards’ complete with uniforms purchased at the local Army surplus store the ‘arrests’ took place and each ‘prisoner’ was brought to specially converted basement of Stanford’s Psychology department that would function as the jail. One of the key components of the ‘guards’ uniform was the then popular police custom of wearing mirrored sunglasses that prevents anyone from seeing their eyes. Zimbardo saw these reflective glasses as part of the process of creating what he termed deindividuation: a social psychological concept whereby the individual losses self-awareness in group situations. In this instance the ‘guard’ becomes the role they are assigned rather than being themselves, an autonomous human individual with their own personality and behavioural characteristics.


Once the ‘arrests’ were made the jail-time proper could commence. Each ‘prisoner’ was blindfolded and stripped naked in preparation for being sprayed with a delousing powder. From that moment, the ‘guards’ spontaneously started to ridicule the ‘prisoners’. The ‘prisoner’s’ uniforms were then handed out, a smock dress with numbers on the front and back and nylon stocking caps to cover and contain long hair, as a substitute for head shaving, but equally aimed at removing individuality, just as the numbers on the uniform would prove to do. No underwear was allowed and chain shackles were permanently attached to the ‘prisoner’s’ legs. At this point, the blindfolds were removed and the ‘prisoners’ paraded in front of full length mirrors so that they could see themselves: the humiliation had begun.

Rules were then read out to the ‘prisoners’ and they were told to address the guards as ‘Mr Correctional Officer’. When laughing and giggling broke out amongst the ‘prisoners’ a new rule was immediately introduced and implemented: no laughing. The rules were worked out by a ‘guard’ participant assigned the more precise role of warden on the day of orientation. There were seventeen rules dealing with silence, number not name use, obeying orders, receiving smoking and mail privileges etc. The final rule, though, enabled a potential contravention of one of the two specific orientation day’s instruction and was ‘failure to obey any of the above rules may result in punishment’.

During the first evening the ‘guards’ on duty got the ‘prisoners’ to perform a count of their newly assigned numbers going from left to right along the line of twelve. One of the ‘prisoners’ laughed and a ‘guard’ pushed him back against the wall with his ‘billy club’ (truncheon/baton) and angrily shouted “No laughing”1. The scene then escalated with the ‘guards’ making the ‘prisoners’ perform jumping jacks and/or press-ups arbitrarily if they deemed a ‘prisoner’ to count off their number incorrectly by. On this, the first night, the ‘guards’ began to take pleasure in forcing their whims on the ‘prisoners’.


In the middle of night, at 2.30pm, the new shift of ‘guards’ wake the ‘prisoners’ with loud shrieking whistles to perform the count, in what was swiftly becoming a control ritual to be implemented at any time. One of the new ‘guards’, when questioned after the end of the experiment stated that the reflective glasses made him feel safely authoritative. The next day the same ‘guard’ started pushing the shoulders back of those ‘prisoners’ he thought were not standing straight enough.

In the course of this first twenty-four hours the ‘prisoners’, in little conclaves, had started expressing anger to each other at how they were being treated and attempting to hatch plans to frustrate the ‘guards’. Clearly resentment was brewing and simmering on their side, just as some of the ‘guards’ were finding new ways to have ‘fun’.

A flash point quickly erupted, on the second day, when one ‘prisoner’ had his bedclothes thrown onto the floor by a ‘guard’ who said that the bed was a mess. The ‘prisoner’ lunged at the ‘guard’ screaming which caused the ‘guard’ to push the ‘prisoner’ off, and whilst punching him in the chest he called for reinforcements due to the ‘emergency’ in Cell 2. When the other ‘guards’ came they roughly captured the ‘prisoner’ and threw him into a smaller cell with another reprimanded ‘prisoner’. As a result of another perceived infraction in another cell, the ‘guards’ took the sheets and blankets from the occupants outside and dragged them through dirt and hedges to cover them in thorns, dirt and other detritus.

400 smaller

Slightly later in that second day, some of the ‘prisoners’ decided to barricade themselves into their cell by turning their beds up against the door; they also called out to the other cells to do the same. To overcome this tactic, one of the ‘guards’ armed with carbon dioxide fire extinguishers aimed and released it at the offending ‘prisoners’ so that the ‘guards’ could force their way into the barricaded cell. One of the ‘prisoners’ who refuse to come out was handcuffed round his ankles, after being thrown to the ground, and then dragged by feet out into yard. Food is then withheld from the ‘prisoners’ at lunchtime and later that day the night shift ‘guards’ are asked to come in early to help the day shift storm one of the cells, remove the beds, strip the ‘prisoners’ naked and threaten to withhold the evening meal as well.

By the fourth day the ‘guards’ were well into their routine of punishment, but as one of them dished out the now standard slow press-ups to one of the ‘prisoners’ he even went so far as to put his foot in-between the ‘prisoner’s’ shoulder blades and stepped hard on the down cycle of the press-up. At this point, Zimbardo noted he had seen drawings of the guards at Auschwitz performing the same thing.

The Stanford Prison Experiment continued for another two days in similar vein with humiliation, deprivation of food and sleep, and physical punishments becoming the norm before Zimbardo and his colleagues drawing everything to a close. Maybe one final image to dwell upon is when four well behaved prisoners were taken to their ‘parole hearing’ they had their feet shackled to one another in a long line and bags placed over their heads to complete the dehumanising process.


Zimbardo debriefed each participant thoroughly and obviously analysed intently the findings of the experiment, just as Stanley Milgram did with his electric shock experiments, drawing his conclusions from a social psychology point of view, but perhaps more relevant to us are the ones he drew as a human being: ‘In just a few days and nights the virtual paradise that is Palo Alto, California, Stanford University became a hellhole. Healthy young men developed pathological symptoms that reflected the extreme stress, frustration, and hopelessness they were experiencing as prisoners. Their counterparts, randomly assigned to the role of guards, repeatedly crossed the line from frivolously playing that role to seriously abusing ‘their prisoners’.

To some it might be obvious, but let’s lay it out. The Stanford Prison Experiment marks a post-holocaust moment in time whereby unthinkable acts of dehumanisation were let loose almost within a few short hours from people one would think were perfectly decent human beings. Now, Zimbardo, after a long period of reflection, described the ‘system’ that he and his assistants imposed, as the trigger or catalyst that enabled ‘good’ people to perform ‘evil’ acts. While this is a perfectly valid conclusion I would like to focus upon a different aspect to what he witnessed.


One of the crucial elements in the Stanford Prison Experiment was the way that the ‘prisoners’ had their individuality, and thereby humanity, effectively removed piece by piece to cause a complete breach of ethical behaviour. Replacing their names with numbers is an obvious example of this process of dehumanisation. However, even the wearing of mirrored sunglasses by the ‘guards’, which prevented eye contact between two individuals, is also such a breach because if we don’t look into the other’s eyes and allow them to look into ours then one or other of us starts to be objectified and treated in a manner normally reserved for engaging with things and not humans. Withholding food and physically causing the other person violence doesn’t need explaining in conjunction with the loss of ethics, if we take them at their easily identifiable prima facie value: they just are brutal behavioural traits and not within anyone’s scope of ethics. However, what I’m interested in is how those behavioural traits came into being in a place where Zimbardo especially tried to screen out individuals with unethical/anti-social tendencies.

Zimbardo described the ‘system’ as that which caused ‘evil’ to surface, but it is in the elements that made up the ‘system’ where we can see signs of just what is important to ethical behaviour.

  • It is in the genuine eye contact between individuals.
  • It is in the respect that each person ought to show for the other as another human being.
  • And, it is in the allowing of the other person to show their individuality and be different to any perceived image or caricature that someone else has of them.

Giving genuine eye conduct, respect, and not casting others in our own image, though, is not easy. But understanding such requirements is a step forward, is it not? Or, would we want to find ourselves, possibly only metaphorically, with our foot between someone else’s shoulder blades because we have lost touch with what it means to be ethical? Because we are decent ‘normal’ people, too, right? … Just like those Zimbardo recruited and selected into his little prison experiment…

Balck and White 700


  1. Zimbardo, P., The Lucifer Effect, 49.

2. Other People


“In that moment of recognition a realisation occurs – we are met by another person, another person who is equal to us.”

Let us be clear, though. That we think we should only choose between deontology, utilitarianism and virtue ethics is a masterful coup on behalf of stagnant philosophies. Each time we engage with such thinking we are evading the issue that is most pressing and purely conducting a solipsistic ritual that has no real influence upon our ethical bearing. To debate which theory we should adopt at any given point is to miss the point of ethics. Ethics is about allowing the humanity of the other person to have impact upon us rather than ignoring them as we devote ourselves to internal cogitations. Ethics is at work when we get stopped in our stride by the mere existence of the other person as we walk up and allow them to be themselves rather than an object to be persuaded, policed or preened over. Ethics is about how we are with other people and not about how we think about ethics.

700 wide two green men

Debating and cogitating as to how we might act if we stumble across an ethical problem that falls neatly into discussions of moral theory is not what I mean by ethics. Thinking about the greater good, our duty or trying to be virtuous is to pontificate irrelevantly. Concepts of duty and virtue vary with cultural changes in geography and the governing premise that we should act to promote the most good is, to be frank, not good enough. Instead of coolly assessing the merits of each of these analytic traditions we shall cast them aside and leave them to the province of teaching aids for burgeoning philosophy students trying out their newly learned debating skills. The ethics we need operates at a different strata level. We don’t need theories and flow charts that prescribe, we need an ethics that impacts upon us at an individual level.

When you and I collide in the street, even as strangers, something unique and wonderful occurs. In that moment of eye-to-eye contact, there comes into being a recognition that, whilst completely original and exclusive, is repeated an infinite number of times everyday. That instance, the recognition of another, is played out daily in every bar, school, factory, and pavement across the planet wherever someone catches the eye of another person. It is so omnipresent that we take it completely for granted and rarely, if never, think about its presence.

700 wide faces

The merest glimpse of another’s face that elevates to eye contact can take place in a clichéd ‘split-second’. This literal, melodramatic, and overused phrase both describes and foregrounds the element of time in the transaction, just as it brashly swamps what it should only really describe. That said though, its place within our thinking on this subject is reasonably deserved because we only need such a small amount of time to comprehend that we are in the presence of another: there is no incremental scale based on chronology that necessitates longevity in order to reach a threshold of recognition. Recognition therefore, not being dependent on time is presumably something other dependent. What is it to recognise the other as a person? What criteria are instantly met and passed through? Is eye contact the thing that is required? Whatever the mystical threshold actually is I’m not concerned, because my interest lies in is what happens as that threshold is crossed.

In that moment of recognition a realisation occurs – we are met by another person, another person who is equal to us. The other person is not a ‘lower’ or different life form, such as a horse or a dolphin. They are on the same level as us. So much so, that the resonance of recognition is palpable every time it happens. We might take our encounters for granted, but the force of them is always there to arrest our journey even if for a ‘spilt second’. One way to avoid such palpable resonating, connection, and interaction is to ignore other people as we go about our daily lives. Avoiding eye contact in the doctor’s waiting room, never looking into the windscreen or side windows of fellow car travellers. Glossing across people walking down the street next to you, can defuse, obstruct, or remove the timbre and tone of humanity if so desired. The problem with this, of course, is that some people don’t want you to avoid them, so they seduce you in one form or another to encounter them. Or, occasionally you have to engage with other people because you need to make some kind of transaction, a purchase or a request. Placing avoidance to one side for the time being though, as a problem for those with mental health issues or a hobby for miscreants, the more vital topic for attention and reflection can come back into focus: the moment of recognition itself.


When one recognises a stone, tree, or animal in the course of one’s daily monotony there is no palpable resonance. There is, conceivably, a sense of minor achievement, similar to getting a question right in a test, if the object in question vexed us momentarily as to its correct identity. There is really nothing more to be gained, in the arena of recognition, from such an encounter. The hurtling vehicle that is our lifelong journey pauses not or even slows down; it carries on with the same velocity and in the same direction as if the object had never existed to us. From the moment we wake until the moment we rest, we drive ourselves along the same canyons, runways, and country paths that we always have; and there is a constant inevitability to these everyday journeys. Our patterns are fairly, no virtually, predictable even though there are also unique. Anyone studying us would, after a fashion, become bored with the repetition of our thoughts, desires, and time absorbing activities. The phrase ‘creature of habit’ hovers over every one of us threatening to solidify, and render us frozen and lifeless. The cure and redeeming elements, that prevent such a chill wind from capturing us, are those brief, all too rare, moments when we allow ourselves to become arrested, derailed, or slowed down by something that we either find interesting or that is powerful enough to cast warmth across our mundane lives; occasionally both these attributes are necessary. Unfortunately stones, trees and animals rarely muster a rise in temperature. That, which does of course, is the moment of recognition.

The intervention of another human into our lives always carries heat. For a lot of people, the consequent movement in mercury is rarely, or never, enough to affect any impact. For others, the heat is too much and it burns, forcing them to take avoidance measures. For most though, the icy chill of one’s journey into a fore-drawn destiny is too powerful and will only ever be slightly susceptible to melting once or twice after the initial openness and innocence of youth has passed. Near frozen lives become governed by rules of thought and strict access control measures that limit the ascension of new ideas, so much so that some travel as if they were the sole inhabitant of the planet at times. So locked into their own thoughts and ways of viewing the world they become guilty of succumbing to that most alluring state of mind and action: solipsism. To actually listen, or allow someone else’s point of view to be considered, appears sometimes as the hardest challenge when in this mode: as if a hairdryer is used to melt a glacier. The seduction of solipsism is quite simple in its basest form, because it translates one’s personal ideas to the perfect form of how ‘things’ should be. There is no need to consider anyone else’s voice when our own is right, is there? Hence, solo we can become, and we build monuments to our selves; carefully securing the foundations, erecting the superstructure, and then finally crafting the surface edifice to ensure its unique and perfect homage is unmistakeable. Such a careful, time consuming project, once complete, does not bare criticism well, after all, a vast amount of energy has gone in to making the crowning glory of our lives: our granite-like selves. Consequently, once built, such a monument is rarely torn down by its maker; instead it is usually made more weather-proof so as to protect it from unwanted gusts and sheets of rain. Despite such strong-arm preventative measures though, a real threat to any creation in this vein can be the warm front that others might bring. One moment of recognition could either start a melt or set up a resonant vibration that shakes the structure so violently as to snap the supporting elements, whose inherent brittle nature is always subject to potential failure in extreme conditions.

700 Easter Island Head

The capacity of the moment of recognition then appears potentially able to induce a tremendously powerful set of personal events when unleashed. The exact mechanism of this release as indicated before is not of interest to me. Instead, what is of interest is the realisation that it is present and that it has such power. Much of Western philosophy has occupied itself with the logical problem of intersubjectivity, or how to prove that other people exist. The starting point for this problem being Descartes’ cogito (I think therefore I am), which tantalisingly appeared as a rather good re-starting place for much philosophical thought. The only issue I have with it, is that the acknowledged neatness, simplicity, and overall startling self-evidence of the cogito never allowed for any realistic extrapolation to other people. In a world of only one person it summarises the proof of existence brilliantly. In a world of more than one it proves to be quite possibly the worst starting place to discuss any other existences. Such a Cartesian dead-end, which has been vainly mined for over four hundred years in the hope of yielding further gems of wisdom, should now be firmly sealed up, given its blue plaque, and consigned to history. Descartes struck the only gold to be found there and no more should his inspiration haunt us when we are in pursuit of discovering what other people might mean to us. It is time to accept that the logical proof of others evades us. The time we have should now focus, not on questions of logic, but rather on the power that encounters with others have upon us.

500 mining

We are undeniably affected by each other, and I for one am no longer interested in those discussions that pontificate the existence of others and demand for the logical possibility that other people may only be in our minds. This has been a fundamental waste of time and energy for generations and it deserves to be surpassed by a more fruitful hope. Be gone, you tormenting bloat fiend that has sapped and tricked our greatest thinkers with your siren song. We see through your chicanery and want to hear tell of the new endeavour that has dared to make itself known from under your colossal weight!

Acerbic I might be, but is that a reason to write me off and continue no further? Maybe my words hurt your thoughts and feelings after years of studying? An apology I can make, but a retraction I cannot. Therefore, I am sorry if you feel I have treated your subject unjustly, but I will not recant the sentiment that drove me to write my words. Like you, I am passionate about my subject and again, like you, I want to seek out wisdom, but dare I say that unlike you I will no longer become embroiled in futile discussions concerning the possibility or not other people actually exist, because finally, and I stake my claim here, I believe that it is morally wrong to dither anymore on this issue. Our lives are governed by the brutal day-to-day fact that other people are real and separate entities from us. They are not thoughts, electrical impulses, or otherwise from an evil genius or god-like entity. Instead, they are as real, boring or interesting as they appear. Boredom aside though, they are actually there and need to be treated as such, without doubt. Doubt, has long been the unfortunate luxury of a certain branch of Western Philosophy and it now needs to be lead off to pasture so as to allow for the entry of new blood. This fresh life supporting liquid, though, shall not be the logical opposite of doubt, for Nietzsche has taught us well, because ‘certainty’ is no replacement at all, but merely a continuation of the same dialogue. Instead, the new blood shall be ethics; a subject that will release us from the shackles of oppositional thinking and logical dead-ends, and that Emmanuel Levinas called ‘first philosophy’.

New Blood

So, perhaps with our Levinasian clue delicately placed, we can start to see that the scope of ethics involved with trying to grapple with the problem of how we should treat each other, let alone prognosticate upon the reintroduction of the death penalty for those assigned the badge ‘terrorist’, is too wide for traditional moral theories to ethically carve a way through. They just aren’t equipped to deal with such a complex issue. The questions looming over and running through the issue are many and varied and refuse to conform to a flow chart model of if “yes” then proceed to ‘A’ and if “no” go to ‘B’. There isn’t any linearity to the matter, instead there is an, at times, overwhelming context in the fields of history, justice, law and human rights surrounding our journey towards civilisation. Such a context and complexity, therefore, needs new tools. A word of caution, though: just because you have all the right tools in your tool kit it doesn’t necessarily follow that anything you create will be perfect, useful or even able to function properly. Success is to be found only in how the tools are wielded… and ultimately we each do the wielding in own our individual ways.


1. An Ethical Thirst


“It’s time for a change and it’s time for us to realise what we mean to each other even if at first we don’t understand and can’t see why the other believes, or does, the things they do.” 

Yes, it’s a play on words. I want to conjure and draw attention to a thirst that needs to be quenched because there is a positive drought sweeping over us, which threatens to create a bleak, desolate and fearful existence. We are blindly falling into oblivion and with each passing day there appears to be no arrest to our descent. News item after news item generates shudders and terrors as we stare fixedly into the stream of chaos, distress and horror with which we are seemingly presented.


Migration, violence, war and terrorism are eclipsing famine, disease and natural disaster. There is an increasing miasma of danger being felt to emanate from the actions of other humans, which is beginning to suppress our perspective upon the natural predators of human life. The battle with nature and struggle for life has been given over, wholesale, to scientific saviours to fight the good fight. Meanwhile, we ‘unscientific ones’ are left to focus our worries upon each other and fantasize about the threat that our neighbour poses as he apparently hides behind closed doors manufacturing pipe bombs and stockpiling illegal weapons.

As we plough ever onwards through ceaseless days of torment at the mercy of omnipresent global communications, we harden day by day to the passage of our fellow citizens as they too go about their lives. The walls within which we call our homes start to take root in our minds, slowly setting down mortar and brick to keep nightmare possibilities at bay. Where once there exalted innocent and open minds, embracing life’s continual excitement in the spirit of exploration, desolate wastelands of fear and deserts of paranoia spread, choking our reasoning and intellect. “Better to be safe than sorry” we expound as we shut and bolt the front door closing ourselves off from each other. In a single generation we have executed the freedom and joy we had as children playing, as children should, with each other in the street, and handed down to our offspring the padded playgrounds that technology can provide in the security and safety of our own home.


Fear of deviance has caught hold of our imagination and constructed a “no-brainer” decision to keep our kids from potential harm. We understand our actions to be those steered by personal choice when we escort our young ones to the playground as opposed to unleashing them down the road. But are they personal? Or, are they swiftly becoming conventional? When does the act of the one realise that it is the act of conformity, and not actually personal at all? Or, do we acknowledge our ovine proclivity and put it down to “common sense in this day and age”? Hopefully, there are a few good souls out there that rally and rage against this unwritten curfew, even if they might begrudgingly adopt it. Further, though, spreads the desert…

The achievements of the 20th century that took so many great strides to overcome inhumanity are slowly showing signs of erosion. The abolition, by so many, of capital punishment is in great danger if one believes and becomes persuaded by ‘debating’ polls glibly erected to canvas a simple click of a button, which, if enough people press, starts to become a powerful political tool in the wrong hands. Can it be that we live in a society that can excavate and smash one of the foundations of a mature society by naively swaying the populace with fear? The focus of fear, of course, being that post 9/11 iconographic term coined by George W. Bush, ‘Terrorists’, with the question for debate being whether or not terrorists should get the death penalty.

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Can it be that we are so ready to go backwards on this issue and if so what next? Are our human rights to be knee-jerked into question by other online polls after being fought for by legions of academics, politicians and believers in the post holocaust world of the 1940s? Should we rescind a few of the Articles of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, such as 13 (2) (“Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”) and 14 (1) (“Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”) because they are becoming inconvenient? Let’s have an online poll right now to make the decision and present the case afresh in true tabloid sensation style. Or, rather, let’s not unpick the fabric of one of the truly remarkable successes that our evolved hairless simian species has managed to achieve!


The fostering and nurturing of fear, suspicion and hate is the problem and it needs to be opposed because it alone is causing the drought. Left unchecked, it will cripple humanity through war and convince individuals to self-impose barriers to community that will escalate the loneliness and depression that swarms exponentially among us. The rains to eradicate the draught can come though… if we want them to. The question is, of course, do we want them to come? However, before we start jumping up and randomly performing rain-dances we really ought to find out just what the rain is made from.

Maybe we can start our precipitation analysis by looking at fear, suspicion and hate and also their opposites, calmness, trust and love. The most noticeable difference between these two sets of emotions and feelings is that those in the ‘positive camp’, (calmness, trust and love) appear to need some focused work from us as individuals. They don’t just happen. They normally take time to develop and to take shape within us. However, those in the ‘negative camp’ (fear, suspicion and hate) are now rushing fully formed into our minds and emotions at speed; and this is a major problem because we aren’t taking any time to process before spewing forth ‘gut’ reactions and creating stories in our heads regarding personal safety for ourselves and our loved ones.


So why is it that suspicion comes on much quicker in our consciousness than trust? It used to be the case that these antonyms followed a similar path of progression within our minds. One would experience the presence of another person and start to weigh up the information gathered by their actions and conversation to the point of making an opinion as to whether we would like them, admire them or trust them. The process, though, would take time and be one that we would continually check within ourselves when new information was received. It was rare that we make an immediate assessment or follow the recommendation of a friend unchecked. However, that was when we lived in a simpler environment where interaction with others, and more importantly the thought of others, was an easily identifiable event in our daily lives. If the Postman speculated on the newcomer in the village as he handed over our letters we would mark this as an, albeit minor, event in our day. Can we say the same today? Plus, we would consider what the Postman said and weigh up in our thoughts if we trusted their opinion. Rather vitally, we gave space to the information received and also our processing of it. By doing so, of course, we gave the same degree of attention to discovering if we could trust the Postman or be suspicious of him. This is rarely the case these days.


There is an enormous plurality to the quantity of events that we allow ourselves to be exposed to that shows no signs of slackening off in our present age. The consequence being that we are training our minds to shortcut the information and processing time we give to each new interaction that bubbles to the surface of our frontal lobe. Such speed of grappling aids decision making when in environments where pace is the key criteria to judge our engagement with a given topic. However, perniciousness creeps in when this same rapid skill set is applied to issues that actually deserve a far more superior stratum of thinking than those that generate swift, instantaneous, classifications. Such issues are those that consider our relationship to other humans, and, let’s face it, these are issues where we should not scrimp mental energies.

The ability to apply ourselves to questions of other human beings is under a malevolent pressure because it is swept along with the flood of information we are coerced/desirous to process regarding the general world around us. From protecting the password to our latest online subscription to absorbing the latest extra-circular school activity offered to our children to hundreds of face to face and email dialogues we have at work to glancing at the newspaper headline opposite us on the commute declaring the latest atrocity and outrage as given over by people trying to sell their papers. We are digesting at a phenomenal rate. Reading, listening, processing, choosing, deciding and concluding, we are thinking at speed throughout most of our lives. When a new piece of information is presented to us, we have to hustle our assimilations in order to be ready for the next conveyor belt item that has to be consumed. At work this facility undoubtedly makes us more employable because we are seen to be capable and quick-witted. The same is not true though if we apply this method when assessing our fellow self-conscious, bipedal and weary mortal coil inhabitants.


The mutually supporting system of information barrage and our short-cut processing is a pandemic threatening to infect and poison all of us under their widespread scorching plague that destroys our abilities to genuinely consider and reflect upon each other and to be able to see beyond the all too easily at-hand fear, hate and suspicion. The inoculation needs to be given out. It is time for us to shake off the sleeping sickness that we have allowed to run rampant through our mental processes. Enough short cutting, enough mis-judgement, enough categorisation and enough sloppiness of thinking, its too bloody dangerous. We need to wake up and realise where we are and just what we are capable of if we continue to use our auto-pilot when we should be absolutely focused, in control and able to function at our best intellectually, when we are thinking about each other. Fear, hate and suspicion must be overcome by a different category of thinking than we normally apply. We have to think deeper, we have to think longer and we have to think wider, we owe it to ourselves not to think simplistically and we owe it to each other after five thousand known years of war, torture and mayhem that we have inflicted upon each other.


It’s time for a change and it’s time for us to realise what we mean to each other even if at first we don’t understand each other and can’t see why we each believe or do the things we do. The lessons learned in the twentieth century and the results achieved subsequently by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have shown us the danger that lurks in each of us and also the good that we can collectively attain, striving for global civilization. We must not go backwards, we must continue to strive, we must also realise the risks we face every day by lazy thinking that seeks to reduce questions of other people to problems that must be overcome. Each of us deserves consideration, thought and understanding. Each of us deserves to be treated ethically. Thinking first will help us. Thinking first will enable us to become better humans and we have to rise to this challenge. This won’t be easy though and we will slip, trip and fall on many occasions. However, perhaps a start can be made in the right direction if we realise the danger posed by fear, hate and suspicion and start to drag ourselves away from the brink by developing a new thirst, an ethical thirst.

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