We own our prejudices,
but they don’t have to own us.

If understood, they can
be challenged and overcome.

Their baying judgements
can be stemmed and quietened.

Prejudices don’t have to stride
impulsively through our thoughts.

How many of us, though,
have such self-control?

Within Truth and Method, Hans-Georg Gadamer questioned the self-assumed sufficiency and appropriateness of more ‘traditional’ approaches to thinking. As far as Gadamer was concerned, philosophy needed to address what it is for us to live, breathe, and be among others. Wisdom was his goal.

Basing the whole of his re-evaluative process upon the idea of experience, Gadamer tackled three particular areas: prejudices, horizons, and conversation.

For Gadamer, 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.”[1] 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.”[2]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.

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.

Now, 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.”[3]

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 many of life’s problems is within our own hands. If we can only shift our perspective on what we want from life 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.

[1] Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 267.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Warnke, G. ‘Literature, Law, and Morality’ included in Gadamer’s Repercussions. Edited by Bruce Krajewski, University of California Press, London, 2004, 93.

Published by Dr Jim Walsh

CEO of Conway Hall Ethical Society and author of 'Ethics Starts With You'.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: