Gadamer and Prejudice in Interpretation

Is all prejudice bad in interpretation? At first glance we might  think so. As we discussed in the lecture, there is always a danger that we might project our prejudices onto a text. For example, the belief that language is simple and that the meaning of words stays static presents certain problems. This can (as we saw) produce some quite unusual readings of a text: if John Bunyan wants us to “move our bowels” for Christ, then a “literal” interpretation of this will lead us to some questionable religious practices! More seriously, prejudice can have seriously detrimental effects on the way we see the world. The consequences of prejudices against particular races and religions are all too clear both in history and contemporary life.

However, in the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer, the German philosopher explores what he describes as the “the fundamental prejudice against prejudice itself” in the Enlightenment tradition. What if, Gadamer asks, the Enlightenment has actually skewed the meaning of “prejudice”?  What if prejudice can be returned to its Renaissance meaning, “Pre-judgement” rather than simply used as a negative category? How would an awareness (and an acceptance) of our own pre-judgements (our prejudices) influence our attempts to understand a text?

The “historicist” tradition that Gadamer is critical of emerged from the Enlightenment. This imagines that we can somehow approach the text in an entirely neutral way: as a completely blank slate ready to understand the text in all its purity. The text is imagined as a historical artefact that we can understand if only we can lose our pre-conceptions and understand the historical, social and culture background of those who produced the text.

Yet as Gadamer argues, this is not actually a very useful way in which to work. The historicist approach imagines that we have come to a place in which we will have a broad understanding of the circumstances of the original text’s production. In other words, we will be able to criticise the text from above – as the all-seeing historian we can look down from on high and interpret. The problem with this approach, as Gadamer points out, is that we are constrained by our own historical existence. In other words – each of us is writing at a set moment in history. We will be superceded by the next generation, who will no doubt look down their noses at our foolish attempts to understand the past. We always like to think that right *now* is the pinnacle of civilization, but give it fifty years and scholars will be laughing at the research we produce. Similarly, Gadamer argues that while we should be careful not to apply our own fore-meaning to a text, we can’t expect to approach it with some kind of robotic neutrality. “The important thing,” Gadamer writes “is to be aware of one’s own bias, so that the text can present itself in all its otherness and thus assert its own truth against one’s own fore-meanings”. After all,  our own biases are usually responsible for what we choose to study. It is unlikely that we will be researching a text that we have no interest in. We have chosen to study the texts that we study because we have some form of interest in them (the exception being when I *make* you study them on this course). At a very basic level, our prejudice therefore not only influences the texts that we choose to study, but what we hope to get from them. If I read a book, I expect that what I am reading can be understood. More than that, if I choose to read a book motivated by my own interests, I accept that the book might have something to say to my present situation or contemporary concerns. After all, I’m unlikely to read something that I think is entirely irrelevant (even as a historian!). While recognising that the world of the original text is different from my world, I can nonetheless attempt to bridge the gap between my own limited view of the world (my “horizon”, which I cannot see beyond) and the limited view of the text. I can enter into a dialogue with the text, allowing it to speak to my world and my concerns, while appreciating the world of the text for what it is. As my horizon fuses with that of the text, the prejudices I hold (the meanings I expected that I would find) become clear – I can examine them, question them, find out whether they are valuable or hinder my understanding of what the text is saying.   Of course, this doesn’t mean that we uncritically accept the prejudices we find in the text – it too is susceptible to the insights that I might bring in from within my own horizon. In this way, we can engage in a fruitful conversation with the text that allows us to see, modify (or perhaps even verify) the  prejudgements we have when approaching it.

This is not to say that Gadamer’s approach is the right way to interpret a text, but he gives us one of many methods through which we can approach a text. Why not explore the hermenutics section of your bibliography to find out more?

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About andrewcrome

Lecturer in religions and theology at the University of Manchester.
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