Without Prejudices, We Could Not Make Sense of Anything


Today’s blog, like many of mine, comes out of synchronicity. I read a piece on the TPM website about an uproar over a course on “The Problem of Whiteness,” to be given at Arizona State University. When I thought about what I read, I could not help but see this through an article I read just last night about how we make sense of the world. The piece was an extract from a Ph.D. thesis on psychotherapy and how it is shaped by a model of the human self. The author was discussing the idea of hermeneutics, that is the process by which we make sense of texts, including conversations. Drawing on Hans-Georg Gadamer, a Swiss philosopher, whose works are widely respected on this subject, he pointed out that psychotherapists need to recognize that whatever sense or meaning they make of their patients talk is filtered through their prejudices or pre-understanding of the meaning of words and signs.

Gadamer argues, I believe persuasively, that the meaning we give to what we read or observe is a melding of what we take in and what we already “know” about what is in front of us. We, in an important way, are our prejudices or presuppositions, another word with, perhaps, less charge to it. As we live, we acquire a story about the meanings of textual objects we encounter in life. Post-modern theorists would include all objects, arguing that whatever meanings we give to them are textual in nature. Because we share common meanings for many words and signs, we take for granted that meaning resides in the object, not in our heads. But a moment’s thought about arguments we have or dither in reading a text should point out the error in such assumptions.

Hermeneutics applies particularly in interpreting texts from previous eras where the historical and cultural context were different from ours. It has been developed as a way of interpreting ancient religious texts or objects like the US Constitution. The present US Supreme Court has several originalists who argue that we must try to understand what the words meant to the framers hundreds of years ago, not what they mean in today’s world.

This requires a hermeneutic exercise. These originalists must get beyond their prejudices to undercover the original meaning, if that is ever possible. The process of understanding is called the hermeneutic circle, a continuous going back and forth between your stored meaning-giving filters and the external object. Each iteration starts with a modified set of prejudices so that the interpretation may move closer to the sense of the external object. If the outside object is a human being, then one can enter into a conversation designed to narrow the gap between the two participants in the conversation. This is obviously much harder to do with an artifact, but each attempt at understanding will start with the last one, coming, perhaps, ever closer to the object’s meaning.

The brouhaha at ASU and other similar situations would appear to arise from a different view of how humans act. The opponents argue “that Bebout’s course was ‘racist’ and a sign of what he said was the increasing oppression of white people in the U.S.” The prejudices that Gadamer is talking about are always part of our cognitive system whether we know about them or not. Without them, the world would be empty and without meaning. We would be no more than animals with only instinct to act upon. The word has taken on a negative meaning in general conversation. The University’s statement is a bit muddled:

The statement said the “problem of whiteness” class would “examine how people talk about - or avoid talking about - race in the contemporary United States.” It also defended the course as “designed to empower students to confront the difficult and often thorny issues that surround us today and reach thoughtful conclusions rather than display gut reactions.”

If we are to act in a manner than acknowledges the other and his or her understandings of the language being used, then it is essential to know, first, that prejudice is natural and universal and critical to intentional acting, and, second, that consensual actions among people depends on having some ideas of what one’s own prejudices are. This requires a critical look at the culture, in general, and an examination of one’s own experience, in particular. Becoming aware of those presuppositions that shape your actions takes self-reflection and conversations with others. Much of what serves as filters making sense out of whatever world you happen to encounter has become embedded imperceptibly over long periods of time.

The White Supremacists who were protesting wear their prejudices on their sleeves. They act without thinking that their beliefs are not reality, itself, but only a particular story that they believe is true and needs no critical look. I don’t know the details of the ASU course, but the idea of examining our prejudices in a collective setting is always a good one. Our basic moral grounds in the US are inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The practical implications of this are that action among people should be consensual. That can happen only when they are on the same page, that is, that the words they are using to coordinate their actions mean the same to all.

Given that everyone has a unique life history, everyone’s prejudices are different. Much of the time, when doing everyday tasks, that does not manner, but when it comes to a subject of race, our culture promises that there be differences of meaning. It is absolutely unavoidable. If we are ever to live peacefully in our multi-cultural, multi-racial country, courses such as these are essential. Our standard model of reality assumes that there is only one, or at most a few meanings for words to be found in a dictionary. It ignores that there are as many meanings as there are people who have encountered the words in their lives. Many will conform to the dictionary, but more will carry a meaning developed out of the idiosyncratic experiences that constitute a single life. Don’t confuse what I am writing about with negotiations. Negotiations are all about cost/beneficial resolutions of differences. There is nothing consensual about them. This subject is more basic and is critical if we are ever to learn how to live together as equal human beings.