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Prejudice, Reason and Force

  • Brice R. Wachterhauser (a1)

Perhaps no other aspect of Hans-Georg Gadamer's Wahrheit und Methode has generated more controversy and caustic criticism than his attempt to defend the role of ‘prejudice’ (Vorurteil) in human understanding. Gadamer's goal in challenging what he calls ‘the Enlightenment's prejudice against prejudice’ is not to defend irresponsible, idiosyncratic, parochial or otherwise self-willed understanding in the human sciences, but to argue that all human cognition is ‘finite’ and ‘limited’ in the sense that it always involves, to borrow Polanyi's phrase, a ‘tacit dimension’ of implicit judgments, concerns, or commitments which shape definitively our grasp of the subject matter in ways we cannot anticipate or control. This implies a ‘finite’ or ‘limited’ view of human understanding in at least two ways. First, Gadamer seems to use the word ‘finite’ in conscious opposition to Hegel's notion of an ‘infinite’ intellect. For Hegel the ‘infinite’ was the ‘unconditioned’ and ‘self-determining’. An ‘infinite’ intellect would be its own master, an autonomous, spontaneous source of all its essential activities and contents.

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1 Gadamer Hans-Georg, Wahrheit und Methode (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1960), 254, 255. English translation, Truth and Method (New York: Seabury Press, 1975), 239240. Both German and English texts hereafter cited as WM and TM respectively.

2 Hegel G. W. F., Hegel's Science of Logic, trans. Miller A. V. (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1969), 782ff. Cf WM, 221, and TM, 207: ‘human consciousness is not an infinite intellect for which everything exists, contemporaneous and co-present. The absolute identity of consciousness and object simply cannot be achieved by finite historical consciousness.’ And, again, WM, 274, 275, 277, and TM, 258, 261: ‘understanding is not to be thought of as much as an action of one's subjectivity, but as the placing of oneself within a process of tradition… The anticipation of meaning that governs our understanding of a text is not an act of subjectivity, but proceeds from the communality that binds us to the tradition.’

3 Nagel Thomas, The View from Nowhere (Oxford University Press, 1985).

4 Cf. Heidegger Martin, Being and Time, trans. Macquarrie John and Robinson Edward (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 36ff.

5 Hirsch E. D. Jr, Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 25: ‘The act of understanding is at first a genial (or a mistaken) guess and there are no methods for making guesses, no rules for generating insights; the methodological activity of interpretation commences when we begin to test and criticize our guesses’. Cited in Thompson John B. (ed.), Paul Ricoeur: Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences (Cambridge University Press, 1981), 303. See also p. 211 for Ricoeur's concurrence with Hirsch on this point.

6 Cf. WM, 283ff., 323f., 328, 343f., 366f., 432, 448f., and TM 267ff., 305f., 310, 324f., 351f., 414, 429f.

7 This is, admittedly, an interpretative attempt on my part to understand what Gadamer seems to be saying. It seems to be consistent with the elusive and changing nature of prejudices as Gadamer understands them. More explicitly, I think, it explains why Gadamer feels we cannot asymptotically approach an objective justification of our prejudices. For a critique of Gadamer that takes him to task for overlooking such a pursuit of objectivity see Larmore Charles, ‘Tradition, Objectivity, and Hermeneutics’, in Wachterhauser Brice (ed.), Hermeneutics and Modern Philosophy (Albany: SUNY Press, 1986).

8 Gadamer Hans-Georg, ‘Semantics and Hermeneutics’, in Linge David E. (ed.), Philosophical Hermeneutics (Berkeley: University of California Press 1976), 92. Hereafter cited as PH.

9 Gadamer sees his hermeneutics as committed to this ‘bad infinite’ of ‘tireless self-correction which the finitude of human existence makes unavoidable’. Cf. Gadamer Hans-Georg, Reason in the Age of Science, trans. Lawrence Frederick G. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981), 40, 5960. Hereafter citec as RAS.

10 PH. 38.

11 ‘Geschichte ist, was wir je waren und sind. Sie ist das Verbindliche unseres Schicksals.’ Gadamer Hans-Georg, Kleine Schriften I (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1976), 10.

12 Cf. WM, 1ff., and TM, 5ff.

13 Gadamer's appreciation of this insight stems from Kant's Critique of Judgment where Kant discusses the impossibility of having rules for the application of rules, or, as the case may be, methods for using methods. Cf. WM, 27ff., and TM, 29ff.

14 Die Sache can be translated in a variety of ways with several different nuances. Die Sache can mean simply the subject matter or theme of some discourse, or text. Alternatively it can also be translated as ‘things’ as in Husserl's maxim ‘Zu den Sachen selbst’ or even as ‘object’, which is the meaning implicit in the imperative, ‘Reden wir sachlich!’ (‘Speak objectively!’). Moreover, it can be translated as ‘concern’ as in ‘Das ist nicht meine Sache’ (‘That's not my concern’ or ‘That's none of my business’) or as ‘interest’ in the sense of ‘was un angeht’ (‘that which pertains to us’). Gadamer also has the Latin ‘causa’ in mind, which can be translated as ‘case’ as in a legal case or as in ‘this is the case’. Gadamer appeals to many of these meanings in different contexts but it seems he always wants to underline our participation and interest in whatever we seek to understand. Nevertheless, this seems to me to be an area of Gadamer's thought that awaits further clarification.

15 WM, 269, and TM, 253. One might with good reason object to Gadamer's bifurcation of the natural and human sciences but this dispute does not affect the point at issue.

16 Cf. WM, 268, 269, 341, and TM, 252, 253, 322.

17 Cf. Heidegger M., ‘Hölderlin and the Essence of Poetry’, trans. Scott D., in Existence and Being (South Bend: Gateway Editions, 1949), 270ff. For a good discussion of how Gadamer appropriates this ‘dialogical’ model of human existence see Wright Kathleen, ‘Gadamer: The Speculative Structure of Language’, in Brice Wachterhauser, Hermeneutics and Modern Philosophy (Albany: SUNY Press, 1986). See also reprinted in this volume Bernstein Richard's ‘What is the Difference that Makes a Difference? Gadamer, Habermas, and Rorty’.

18 Gadamer H. G., ‘The Problem of Historical Consciousness’, in Rabinow and Sullivan, Interpretive Social Science: A Reader (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), 108.

20 Cf. Gadamer's ‘What is Practice? The Conditions of Social Reason’, in RAS, 6987.

21 Gadamer H. G., ‘Hermeneutics and Social Science’, Cultural Hermeneutics 2 (1975), 316.

22 Bernstein Richard, ‘From Hermeneutics to Praxis’, Review of Metaphysics, 35 (06 1982), 823845.

23 Cf. WM, 261ff., and TM, 245ff.

24 WM, 263, and TM, 248.

25 In RAS, 2137.

26 RAS, 36.

29 WM, 477ff, and TM, 460ff.

30 WM, 507, and TM, 485.

31 Habermas Jürgen, ‘A Review of Gadamer's Truth and Method, in Dallmayr and McCathry, Understanding and Social Inquiry (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977), 358.

32 Feyerabend Paul, Science in a Free Society (London: NLB, 1978), 89.

33 Gadamer H. G., ‘Letter to R. Bernstein’, reprinted in Bernstein R., Beyond Objectivism and Relativism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983), 264.

35 RAS, 87.

36 ‘We are always dominated by conventions. In every culture a series of things is taken for granted and lies fully beyond the explicit consciousness of anyone, and even in the greatest dissolution of traditional forms, mores, and customs the degree to which things held in common still determine everyone is only more concealed.’ RAS, 82.

37 Gadamer H. G., ‘Practical Philosophy as a Model of the Human Sciences’, Research in Phenomenology, 9 (1980), 82, 83.

38 See Bernstein R., ‘What's the Difference that Makes a Difference? Gadamer, Habermas, Rorty’.

39 Rorty Richard, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton University Press, 1979), 315.

40 Cf. Rorty Richard, Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), 164.

41 Gadamer Hans-Georg, Kleine Schriften I (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1976), 44.

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