If we can only shift our perspective…
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. And, as far as Gadamer was concerned, both hermeneutics and philosophy needed to address what it is for us to live, breathe, and be among others, rather than mulching at the same old stagnant metaphysical issues year after year.
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 ordinary experiences. His re-evaluations went a lot deeper than the tasting of a Danish pastry with one’s early morning coffee.
Wisdom was his goal. 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 be content to use the same intellectual tools that once raped and pillaged the now revered landscape? Perhaps, an innovative approach is needed which prioritises the importance of wisdom before fact detection?
Eloquently and persuasively, Gadamer began to outline how we might re-mould the flesh and bones of our thinking. One can almost see Nietzsche smiling, as his 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 personal 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 to open our eyes, so that we may notice, acknowledge and welcome the other into our lives and thoughts.
Beginning with prejudices and taking as his starting point 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 axis 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. 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 find 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.”4 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,”5 which acted as “safeguard” to “all error.”6 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,”7 and authority “is responsible for one’s not using one’s own reason at all.”8 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.”9 Gadamer’s self-appointed task, then, was to bring prejudices back from their exile and to 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.”10
So, for Gadamer, prejudices are not restriction based but are the modes with which we grapple the world around us. They are the platform from which understanding, experience, and connection can commence. Without them, 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.”11
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 they can also 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.
Coming back to Gadamer, though, his main concerns regarding prejudices were that we need to be aware of their existence and that they exert influence whenever we try to understand something. So, for Gadamer, the crucial idea was 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, by adding together the awareness of one’s own prejudices with recognition of the autonomy of the text, artwork, or other person, we start to get an equation whereby the result is the requirement for 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.”12
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 an 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,”13 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.”14 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.”15 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.”16 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 can 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. The clues are there…
In the Sign of Four, Sherlock Holmes says to John Watson, “Women are never to be entirely trusted—not the best of them.”17 From such a statement, one might argue, that Sherlock Holmes’ view of women is his prejudice. And, further, in one so highly critical of other people’s capacities for observation, it could also be said that Arthur Conan Doyle reveals an elephantine blind spot in, this, his character’s second outing.
In July 1891, The Strand magazine published A Scandal in Bohemia as the first in a series of twelve short stories containing the exploits of Holmes and 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 and precise picture is given of the self-proclaimed consulting detective’s abilities and limits.
Famously, in A Study in Scarlet, Watson went to the trouble 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 intellectual endeavour:
“Sherlock Holmes — his limits.
- Knowledge of literature – nil.
- Knowledge of philosophy – nil.
- Knowledge of astronomy – nil.
- Knowledge of politics – feeble.
- Knowledge of botany – variable. Well up in belladonna, opium and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening.
- 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.
- Knowledge of chemistry – profound.
- Knowledge of anatomy – accurate, but unsystematic.
- Knowledge of sensational Literature – immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.
- Plays the violin well.
- Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman.
- Has a good practical knowledge of British law.”18
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,”19 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.”20 So, thoroughness gets added to Holmes’ portfolio as Conan Doyle continues to craft his character. Next, though, comes a moment whereby Holmes becomes flesh and Conan Doyle avoids the pitfall of fashioning a two-dimensional dramatis persona.
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. Thwarted, he gnaws at his lip, drums his fingers and after “pacing wildly up and down the room,” 21 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.”22 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 as well as the scientific tenacity to see things differently as he has so far understood them to be.
In The Sign of Four, Conan Doyle resumes addressing Holmes skillset by informing his readership 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.”23 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.
Consequently, the picture Conan Doyle paints of Holmes within these 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 within his chosen discipline. It is, therefore, 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 driving Holmes into the dead-end of male stereotypes and realising that such a position urgently needed 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 rock Holmes a little on the pedestal he given his creation? As is well known, the author had a rather uneasy 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 relegated to second place by Irene Adler, whom he, forever afterwards, was to call ‘the woman’. Importantly, though, it is his prejudice that is shown up, caught short and found wanting.
At times, 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.”24 Deftly let off the ‘objectifying-women’ hook, for the moment, because he is apparently reporting what other men think, as opposed to giving any personal insight, Holmes is also able to retain what Watson described as his “cold, precise, but admirably balanced mind.”25
However, Holmes does fall completely into the trap of prejudice in his regard of women by conceptualising them as a set, with no real personal individuation. A two-dimensional viewpoint makes him presume that he can understand ‘them’ better than ‘they’ can understand themselves. Such an attitude allows him pronounce generalisations like, “Women are naturally secretive, and they like to do their own secreting,”26 as he remarks 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”27). Holmes, then, further embroils himself by confidently bragging, “I will get her to show me,”28 when Watson naturally asked how he will find the photograph when five attempts, initiated by others in the King’s employ have failed.
As the story progresses and follows Holmes’ carefully laid out plans, Adler does indeed ‘show’ him where she has secreted the photograph. The call of “fire”29 is raised by Watson and other Holmesian actors in the street when a plumbers smoke rocket is set off in her sitting room, containing a seemingly injured Holmes, disguised as a “simple-minded non-conformist clergyman.”30 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.”31 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 ‘knows’ how women will behave, Holmes decides that he can wait until eight the following morning to reveal the location of the photograph to the King of Bohemia. 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 plan to Watson openly in the street, just as Adler walks behind them disguised as a “slim youth in an ulster”32 who even says “Good night, Mister Sherlock Holmes.”33
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.”34 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. So, she acts according to her own thoughts and behaviour and not 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?”35 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.”36 By which Conan Doyle makes clear that Adler surpasses both the King and Holmes, as Watson concludes the story with a wonderful phrase: “the best plans of Mr Sherlock Holmes were beaten by a woman’s wit.”37
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.”38 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.
- Kant, I. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Norman Kemp Smith, Macmillan Press Ltd., London, 1929, 72.
- Kuhn, T. S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, second edition, The University of Chicago Press Ltd., London, 113.
- Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 267.
- Ibid., 267.
- Ibid., 277
- Ibid., 270.
- Gadamer, H-G. ‘The Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem’ reproduced in Philosophical Hermeneutics. Translated by David E. Linge, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1977, 9.
- Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 295.
- Warnke, G. ‘Literature, Law, and Morality’ included in Gadamer’s Repercussions. Edited by Bruce Krajewski, University of California Press, London, 2004, 93.
- Ibid., 94.
- Ibid. Jean Grondin in The Philosophy of Gadamer. Translated by Kathryn Plant, Acumen, 2003, 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. Edited by Bruce Krajewski, University of California Press, London, 2004, 94.
- Ibid., 95.
- Doyle, A. C. The Sign of Four, included in The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Novels. Edited with annotations by Leslie S. Klinger, W. W. Norton and Company, 2006, 311.
- Doyle, A. C. A Study in Scarlet, included in The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Novels. Edited with annotations by Leslie S. Klinger, W. W. Norton and Company, 2006, 34-35,
- Ibid., 51.
- Ibid., 102.
- Ibid., 116.
- Ibid., 116-117.
- Doyle, A. C. The Sign of Four, included in The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Novels.Edited with annotations by Leslie S. Klinger, W. W. Norton and Company, 2006, 220.
- Doyle, A. C. A Scandal in Bohemia, included in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Penguin Books, 1981, 20.
- Ibid., 9.
- Ibid., 25.
- Ibid., 16.
- Ibid., 26.
- See ibid., 27.
- Ibid., 24.
- Ibid., 28.
- Ibid., 29
- Ibid., 30.
- Ibid., 31
- Ibid., 32.
- Doyle, A. C. The Bruce Partington Plans, included in His Last Bow, Penguin Popular Classics, 1997, 85.