“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.
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.
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.
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.
- Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 72.
- Kuhn, T. S., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 113.
- Gadamer, Truth and Method, 267.
- Gadamer, ‘The Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem’ reproduced in Philosophical Hermeneutics, 9.
- Gadamer, Truth and Method, 295.
- Warnke, G., ‘Literature, Law, and Morality’ included in Gadamer’s Repercussions, 93.
- Ibid., 94.
- 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.
- Warnke, G., ‘Literature, Law, and Morality’ included in Gadamer’s Repercussions, 94.
- Ibid., 95.