Gadamer on Prejudicial Frameworks

Philosophical Hermeneutics
Hans-Georg Gadamer

According to Hans-Georg Gadamer,

Prejudices [i.e., prejudgments] are not necessarily unjustified and erroneous, so that they inevitably distort the truth. In fact, the historicity of our existence entails that prejudices, in the literal sense of the word [i.e., prejudgments], constitute the directedness of our whole ability to experience. Prejudices are biases of our openness to the world. They are simply conditions whereby we experience something—whereby what we encounter says something to us. (Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics, 9)

In his following discussion, Gadamer draws a helpful illustration from the process of language acquisition:

How does it happen that [words] are “words,” that is, that they have a general meaning? In his first apperception, a sensuously equipped being finds himself in a surging sea of stimuli, and finally he begins, as we say, to know something. Clearly we do not mean that he was previously blind. Rather, when we say “to know” [erkennen] we mean “to recognize” [wiedererkennen], that is, to pick something out [herauserkennen] of the stream of images flowing past as being identical. (Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics, 14; brackets original; underlining for original italics)

Even when language is acquired inductively, a judgment about meaning may develop from a “surging sea of stimuli,” but this sea itself does not “make sense” to the acquirer until the acquirer reflects on the sea in the context of this judgment—that is, until the judgment becomes prejudgment and allows the sea to speak sensibly.

4 Replies to “Gadamer on Prejudicial Frameworks”

  1. To use the term “prejudice” in this neutral way (prejudgment) is helpful, in making the point that obtaining knowledge, in a general way, is a process of applying a previously discerned paradigm to new data. But “prejudice” has taken on a different coloration, which ought not be overlooked. After all, a “prejudiced peson,” as that term is used in the US, is not someone who is going around “recognizing” images. The term “segregation” could be re-habed in the same way. But what i the point, since these terms already have well understood meanings in everyday life?

    1. A good point, Richard. Gadamer seems to have something invested in rehabilitating the term “prejudice” (or, more directly, the German Vorurteil, but cf. Truth and Method, 273). Yet, to me, for precisely the kinds of usage reasons you mention in contemporary, American English, “prejudice” is indeed less helpful a term than “prejudgment” for designating the kind of thing about which Gadamer seems really to be speaking, although there too difficulties are not absent (e.g., being “judgmental” is a negative, being “judicious” is a positive, and being judicial relates to the courts). Still, yes, as a matter of course, as I’ve done here, I’d probably also typically prefer to use “prejudgment” for Gadamer’s “prejudice” and to work out from there other related points in English.

  2. David, This is really interesting. It reminds me of Derrida’s observation on language.

    The linguistic system (langua) is necessary for speech events (parole) to be intelligible and produce their effects, but the latter are necessary for the system to establish itself… There is a circle here, for if one distinguishes rigorously langua and parole, code and message, schema and usage, etc. and if one is to do justice to the two principles here enunciated, one does not know where to begin and how something in general can begin, be it langua or parole. (Jacques Derrida, Positions (1981), quoted in Jonathan Fuller, On Deconstruction:Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (1982))

    In other words, we couldn’t understand any words without a pre-understanding of language in general. However at the same time we couldn’t have an understanding of language without the existence of God. In my thinking this suggests that there must have been a divine origin to language itself. (I wrote on this recently which is probably why I think there is such a clear link, http://meaningandsignificance.blogspot.com/2011/12/why-atheists-shouldnt-talk.html)

    Anyway, to your point, if understanding words really depends on a prior understanding, at least of language itself, then why insist on coming to the text as a “tabula rosa?” Certainly we might have to adjust our prejudgements at times, but to deny them any place at all would make us infants who couldn’t even understand the text to begin with.

    1. Hi, Nathaniel (or Nathan? . . . I forget. Sorry. :-(). Good to hear from you. Hope the studies are continuing to go well. You make an interesting point, but does the fact that people understand language necessarily imply “the existence of the [the Christian?] God”? Are there really no other feasible explanations of human’s understanding of language? I’m very much in sympathy with your and Poythress’s comments about the Christian God’s being a logical starting point for human language, but does arguing toward the Christian God’s existence based on the fact of human understanding of language itself not make some key assumptions about things like the nature of existence, reality, and order? Within the context of the Christian confession, arguments like this one seem to work well (cf. Poythress, In the Beginning, 9), but that contextual framework itself is highly significant and much responsible for supplying the theoretical (and theological) capital required to move the argument from human understanding of language to the Christian God’s existence. So, your point about not coming to a text tabula rasa is important here too, and one that Gadamer would certainly affirm. In the end, we seem to come (at least to my mind) to Augustine and Anselm’s “I believe in order that I may understand.”

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