Gadamer’s Positive View of “Prejudices”

In stark contrast to a modern aversion to prejudice or bias as a hindrance to “objectivity,” Gadamer presents a positive view of prejudices in his view of hermeneutics. According to Gadamer, all of us come to the text with our own prejudices or “horizons” and these biases are not be understood as solely negative or as necessarily closing off understanding. Though it is the case that our prejudices or presuppositions can and do set limits on our interpretative endeavors, it is not the case that our prejudices are unalterable nor are they always active in a negative limiting way. Rather, they have a positive or productive function as well and actually promote understanding. Addressing this positive aspect of our prejudices, Gadamer writes,

“Prejudices 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 [pre-judgment], constitute the initial directedness of our whole ability to experience. Prejudices are our biases of our openness to the world. They are simply the conditions whereby we experience something—whereby what we encounter says something to us. This formulation certainly does not mean that we are enclosed within a wall of prejudices and only let through the narrow portals those things that can produce a pass saying, ‘Nothing new will be said here.’” (Truth and Method, p. 9).

Until we engage a text (with an openness to being changed by that text) we are often unaware of our biases. Thus, it is through our dialogic encounter with the text that are prejudices are made evident to us—i.e., we must be open or “made open” to having our presuppositions laid bare. Two analogous examples that spring to mind that might help us to better grasp Gadamer’s idea come from my own experience. The first goes back to my music (jazz) school days when I played in various jazz groups. I had become pretty familiar with a style of jazz called “swing” and in addition to playing in one of the top large ensembles at my school, I also played in a small group on the side. One semester I met a friend who was well versed in Latin jazz and asked me if I would be interested in playing a few Latin jazz gigs. I took him up on the offer and met his group that evening for a rehearsal. To my surprise, I had an extremely difficult time “getting” the nuanced and extremely complex accents of Latin rhythms (which are very different than the accents in swing for which I had a somewhat “natural” feel). Because I assumed that Latin jazz, being a species of jazz, used the same harmonic progressions, scales, and even much of the same standard tunes, I thought that simply adjusting my rhythmic feel to Latin would be no problem. However, once I was actually playing as part of group of well-seasoned Latin jazz players, I immediately sensed the inadequacy of my assumptions and realized that there was much more involved in Latin jazz than I had previously thought. A second example is my experience of living in Moscow, Russia for three years. In preparation for my new cultural experience, I studied Russian and had attained a decent conversational level of speaking, read a few Russian novels and short stories, attempted to read a bit on the Russian Orthodox Church and so on. I thought that surely such efforts on my part would allow for a smoother transition into my new culture. To an extent these things certainly helped, however, I had no idea how my own American culture had so deeply shaped my thinking and behavior. Had I not had this experience of being an “other” in a foreign environment, I would not have been made aware of my own prejudices. My experience of living in Russia among the Russian people—interacting with Russian Orthodox believers, shopping in Russian grocery stores, learning Russian jokes, and traveling on Russian trains—transformed me by making manifest my own prejudices (of which I was unaware—things like a certain American sensitivity to time and getting things done according to a schedule and a certain way that we as Americans tend to view “customer service,” and so on) and provided a way for me to see outside of my own culturally limited perspective by living as an other with a people whose life orientation often clashed with what I had come to think was “normal.” Though these are only analogous examples and are not speaking directly of “texts” per se, I do think that they illumine important aspects of Gadamer’s broad understanding of hermeneutics and the role of prejudices as the conditions that make possible our (on-going) understanding.

1. Hans-Georg Gadamer. Truth and Method. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1977.

“I-We” Sociality and Gadamer’s “Fusion of Horizons”

In Kathleen Wright’s article, “On What We Have in Common: The Universality of Philosophical Hermeneutics,” she writes the following regarding Gadamer’s understanding of the universality of hermeneutics:

“the universal aspect of hermeneutics has to do with the community we join and the communion we feel in and through the fusion of horizons.”

What Wright wants to highlight is that according to Gadamer a “successful conversation” involves the interlocutors forming a community and being changed or transformed by the subject matter of the conversation. We can easily see what Wright calls the “I-we sociality” involved in a conversation between two living, breathing individuals, but how are we to understand this sociality when the conversation partner happens to be a text? “With whom or with what does the interpreter actually share an understanding? Gadamer seems to be responding to this kind of question when he states that, ‘It is more than a metaphor; it is a memory of what originally was the case to describe the task of hermeneutics as entering into a conversation with the text (Truth and Method 368). Gadamer maintains, therefore, that the shared understanding, the ‘fusion of horizons,’ that comes about through the interpretation of a text is social in the same I-we sense as the shared understanding, the ‘fusion of horizons,’ that we achieve through a conversation” (p. 237). Here I think that a musical analogy (or two) might help in shedding light on Gadamer’s claim. Consider a solo piano piece written by Beethoven (the score being analogous to a “text”) and its performance (interpretation) by a 21st century pianist. The pianist does not simply approach the score in a monologue fashion, but rather attempts to enter the lifeworld of the piece—a lifeworld that goes beyond Beethoven, as Beethoven himself stood in a tradition of musicians and his composing reflects the various influences of his musical predecessors (Haydn, Mozart, etc.). Likewise, the pianist herself represents a musical tradition—a tradition which perhaps has been shaped by French impressionism and a genealogy of Russian composers. Consequently, when the pianist performs Beethoven’s piano concerto, she, as well as, the piece itself are transformed and a ‘fusion of horizons’ takes place. In a sense, the “conversation,” has been going on for some time (several hundred years); the 21st century pianist (the “I”) is simply joining in (and participating in the “we” and vice versa).

Gadamer’s Alternative Concept of Meaning

In an excellent introductory essay to Gadamer’s work, Philosophical Hermeneutics, David Linge discusses the ways in which Gadamer’s phenomenology of the game overcomes a number of hermeneutical difficulties. For example, instead of attempting to explicate understanding from the subjective points of view of the author or interpreter, Gadamer describes understanding as analogous to what occurs in the phenomenon of playing. In a game, the individual in a sense loses him/herself in the give and take of the game and experiences a release from subjectivity. As Linge explains, “what is essential to the phenomenon of play is not so much the particular goal it involves but the dynamic back-and-forth movement in which the players are caught up—the movement that itself specifies how the goal will be reached. Thus the game has its own place or space (its Spielraum), and its movement and aims are cut off from direct involvement in the world stretching beyond it” (xxiii).

Gadamer utilizes this “self-presenting, self-renewing” game structure to engage some of the most difficult and important issues in hermeneutics, viz., “the problem of meaning and of the fidelity of interpretation to the meaning of the text” (xxiii). For Gadamer, the meaning of a text is not simply restricted to the intention of the author, nor is interpretation solely construed as an attempt to replicate the author’s original intention. This reflects in part Gadamer’s understanding of the text itself as something living and dynamic. Moreover, the text cannot be approached as if it were a math problem in which one and only one answer is correct. Nor should one attempt to come up with a method or formula that when applied produces the same result each time—such a model has more in common with scientific experiments than with a living, breathing textual dialogue. In addition, a hermeneutical theory that restricts the meaning of the text to the intention of the author is riddled with seemingly insoluble difficulties. “The basic difficulty with this theory is that it subjectifies both meaning and understanding, thus rendering unintelligible the development of tradition that transmits the text or art work to us and influences our reception of it in the present. When meaning is located exclusively in the mens auctoris, understanding becomes a transaction between the creative consciousness of the author and the purely reproductive consciousness of the interpreter. The inadequacy of this theory to deal positively with history is perhaps best seen in its inability to explain the host of competing interpretations of texts with which history is replete, and that in fact constitute the substance of tradition” (xxiv). Some try to explain away the multiplicity of interpretations by claiming that there is a kind “meaning-in-itself” which is univocal, yet its significance for interpreters over time varies. This, however, is unsatisfactory as it is clear that interpreters in different historical epochs have disagreed not merely in the significance or application of the supposed univocal meaning of a text but in what they thought they saw in the very same text (xxiv). Rather, than limiting the meaning of a text to the author’s intention, Gadamer understand the text as having an “excess of meaning” upon which tradition builds. Elucidating his position, Gadamer writes,

“Every time will have to understand a text handed down to it in its own way, for it is subject to the whole of the tradition in which it has a material interest and in which it seeks to understand itself. The real meaning of a text as it addresses the interpreter does not just depend on the occasional factors which characterize the author and his original public. For it is also always co-determined by the historical situation of the interpreter and thus by the whole of the objective course of history … The meaning of a text surpasses its author not occasionally, but always. Thus understanding is not a reproductive procedure, but rather always also a productive one… It suffices to say that one understands differently when one understands at all (Wahrheit und Methode, p. 280).

Listening for Built-in-Flexibility as a Hermeneutical Disposition

Below is an excerpt from the recent paper that I presented at Baylor. I would be interested in your feedback (positive and negative)—specifically, I would love to hear ideas as to how what I suggest might be brought into conversation with the hermeneutical insights of Gadamer [whom I have just begun to read this week and am thoroughly enjoying] (or others who have done work in philosophical hermeneutics). Any suggestions regarding primary literature on Gadamer other than Truth and Method and Philosophical Hermeneutics, as well as secondary literature on Gadamer would be appreciated as well.


I offer the following analogy as a way to explore the possibilities that jazz might offer as to how we as Christians read the “text” of creation, as well as the text of Scripture. The analogy runs as follows. First, God’s revelation, both natural and supernatural, might be understood to play a similar role to what jazz musicians call “lead sheets.” Second, our various and multi-layered understandings of this revelation would then be similar to the different ways that jazz works can be performed and interpreted. Before proceeding further, let me explain what a jazz “lead sheet” is by way of comparison to a classical score. A jazz lead sheet is similar to a notated score for a classical piece; however, only the melody is written out in standard musical notation. In other words, in contrast to the classical score in which the bass line, the chords, and more or less every note that will be played is written out in full notation, a lead sheet allows for much more flexibility. For example, above the melody one simply finds chord symbols, as opposed to chords displayed in standard notation with specific voicings. Writing the chord symbols in this manner affords the pianist or guitarist, as well as the bassist, a significant amount of creative freedom in performing the piece. However, we should be clear that this freedom does not swallow up the form or structure, as one must choose harmonies and bass lines that fall within a certain trajectory of the specified chord symbol that will support the melody and mark out the general harmonic structure of the piece. Thus, with a jazz lead sheet, one is in a sense “tied to” the “score,” i.e., one must agree to submit to the “givens” that make the piece to be what it is and respond accordingly.[1] Yet, in other sense, one’s own personality, skill level, and creative sensibilities also come through making each performance something unique. One might even say that the flexibility that lead sheets afford, coupled with the distinctly human traits and personal idiosyncrasies that manifest in improvisation, in a sense engenders greater intelligibility and appeal to the piece itself. That is, the built-in flexibility of lead sheets aids in preserving the piece through the passage of time while simultaneously allowing and even expecting various re-articulations because it “has room for” the creative expansions that inevitably come with temporal progression.

Keeping with Christianity’s desire to uphold the traditional doctrines of God’s incomprehensibility and yet knowability in light of his condescending to reveal himself to us, perhaps our understanding of the created order given the ultimate “Signified” to which both the created order and Scripture point, indicates that our approach to understanding and interpreting these signs should not be a quest to attain the closest “copy” of the original archetype as God knows and understands it. After all, how could we as creatures know creation or Scripture as God knows them? Instead of trodding down the path of univocity, a more fruitful way to conceive our role as interpreters may be to think of ourselves more like jazz improvisers. That is, as those who are called to creatively re-interpret God’s various “lead sheets,” which themselves were never meant to produce a one-to-one, univocal meaning for us but rather a multi-layered analogico-symbolic meaning that reflects the inexhaustible nature of the Author.

Anticipating possible objections, viz., does this not lead to relativism and render the text more or less superfluous? On the contrary, just as in no way is it the case that when a jazz piece is performed and interpreted by various musicians from different time periods, a kind of free-for-all takes place in which the “original” melody is somehow destroyed, neither would it be the case that our interpretations have no strictures whatsoever and no relation to God’s archetypal ideas. Though it is the case, that each jazz performance is distinctive,[2] there is a common, yet dynamic range that “grounds” each performance such that the melody is recognizable when played in a wide range of styles (from traditional to more “out” styles). If one simply ignored the melody and harmonic structure or distorted either such that they become completely unrecognizable, then clearly one has “gone astray.” Certainly, I am not suggesting that, but I am wondering whether the analogy might help us to conceive anew a more dynamic and historically “friendly” approach to interpreting and understanding creation, as well Scripture.

Regarding the latter, a reading of the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament indicates that both Jesus and the Apostle Paul were quite comfortable citing Greek translations of the Old Testament and in no way felt compelled to quote a pristine original. Here we might interject that perhaps the drive to get back to a “pure” and “untainted” text is connected with deeply modernist expectations and assumptions regarding history, the belief that diversity of text types are somehow inherently bad, and that moving closer to the original will necessarily bring greater clarity.[3] Rather than discuss each of these in detail, for brevity’s sake, I simply point out that with translations, of course, we do not have one-to-one exact replicas of the original; however, this does not mean that God’s word fails to be communicated. After all, translations such as the Septuagint(s) and others harmonize well with the mission of the Church to make disciples of all nations. Just as Christ came and incarnated Himself to save His people, so too the written word of God is incarnated via translations so as to be intelligible to numerous peoples of diverse languages and cultures. Becoming incarnate of course involves complications, inconveniences, ambiguities and various other distinctively human challenges, yet our Lord so valued humanity that He willingly took on flesh and not simply for His time on earth, but for eternity. In light of our Lord’s, as well as St. Paul’s contentment with what we might provocatively call “imperfect” yet incarnational translations, perhaps such examples teach us something of God’s comfort with the “messiness” of an historical revelation as well as pressing us to continually question and submit our expectations and presuppositions as to the nature of Scripture to Scripture itself.

In other words, what I suggest is that in jazz improvisation instead of seeking to replicate a piece in a univocal fashion, producing in a sense a “zerox” copy of the original within strict (literal) confines of the (human) author’s intention, we should instead become like jazz improvisers who creatively re-interpret the original melody such that it is clearly recognizable, yet it speaks to the culture of the day. Moreover, allowing for multi-layered, symbolic, re-creative interpretations that arise out of the Christian metanarrative of creation, fall, redemption in Christ, and final consummation in Christ, is yet another expression of a harmonious unity-and-diversity bringing forth a dynamically rich display of the infinitely diverse ways in which God can be imitated, participated and hence worshipped.

[1] The communal aspect of jazz performance is an important factor here as well. For example, if the pianist simply decides to play chords that have no relation whatsoever to the chord symbols, the rest of the group or ensemble will be affected (not to mention thoroughly frustrated) as their parts will not correlate at all with the random harmonic superimposition on the part of the pianist.
[2] One might argue that even with classical music where all the parts are strictly defined and written out, the same piece played by the same group or musician is strictly speaking never played the same way twice.
[3] On the contrary, what if moving closer to the original actually moves one more deeply into the realm of mystery and thus requires in a sense more “graced” faith (at least in this life)?

Part III: A Brief Introduction to Jean-Luc Marion’s Sur la théologie blanche de Descartes

With this [see Part II] background in place, we are now ready to examine what Marion means by the “white theology” of Descartes. A good place to begin is with a brief glance at the work’s table of contents, whose basic twofold structure offers a helpful way in to the question. Book One of Théologie blanche focuses on the loss of analogy, whereas Book Two is centered on the need to establish a foundation. The two books of the work are structured as correlatives; that is, once analogy has been lost, the need to establish a foundation arises. What causes the loss of analogy? To answer this question, Marion examines with great care a peculiar Cartesian doctrine that the majority of an earlier generation of scholars had always considered marginal or anomalous. For Marion, however, it is the fundamental teaching of Descartes, for apart from it none of his other teachings can be properly understood. In 1630 Descartes wrote a series of letters to Mersenne in which he puts forth this doctrine, namely, the doctrine of the created “eternal truths.” The doctrine holds that the eternal truths in the mind of God that render the world intelligible are in fact created—the truths are eternal and created, which sounds like a contradiction. Even if it is not an outright contradiction, it is certainly a departure from the traditional teaching that goes all the way back to Augustine. To claim that the eternal truths are created is undeniably an innovation, so the question becomes, Why does Descartes innovate in this way? The teaching is a departure from the prior tradition because according to the traditional understanding, especially in its classic Thomistic formulation, the divine ideas of possible creaturely essences in the mind of God are identical with God’s very essence, differing from it only in reason. Similarly, the truths of which the essences form components are “within” the mind of God only insofar as they are indistinguishable from the mind of God itself. Descartes wants to say that the eternal truths concerning creatures are just as much creatures as the creatures themselves. In Descartes’ novel teaching, the truths are therefore as radically different from God as the creature is from the Creator.

Why does Marion regard this peculiar doctrine as “the” central teaching of Descartes over all others? After all, Descartes only mentions this doctrine explicitly in a handful of letters. In his 1630 letter to Mersenne, Descartes begins a certain passage in French but then in mid‑sentence switches into Latin. So why the switch? Latin is the language of scholastic philosophy, and perhaps Descartes wanted to be precise, or it could be that he is quoting someone—but whom, as he doesn’t name the person? Marion suggests that Descartes is in fact quoting someone, and he adds that Descartes likely assumed that Mersenne would recognize the quotation, so it was unnecessary to identify its source. So who is the quoted author in question? None other than the Doctor Eximius of the Jesuit order, Francisco Suárez. Marion contends that Descartes is quoting Suárez every time the 1630 letter shifts into Latin, and that he does so precisely in order to contradict Suárez. For example, Descartes declares in Latin that the truth of the eternal truths is completely dependent on God’s knowledge of them, not the reverse—but the reverse is just what Suárez holds. Descartes says that the eternal truths are dependent on God’s knowledge of them for their truth, whereas Suárez holds that the truths are true regardless of whether God knows them or not. Descartes denounces this assertion as blasphemous, since it maintains that the eternal truths are independent of God and that he is therefore subject to them. By announcing that the eternal truths are created, Descartes re‑asserts God’s transcendence by refusing to admit the existence of any autonomous principles to which God must submit.

Part II: A Brief Introduction to Jean-Luc Marion’s Sur la théologie blanche de Descartes

By Derek Morrow

[Part I can be accessed here].

So why does Marion place Descartes’ “white” theology in the middle of the trilogy? To answer this question, we first need to take a step back and look at what is meant by the “gray” ontology of the first book. In that book, Marion examines The Rules for the Direction of the Mind, an early work of Descartes that was never published during his lifetime, not least because he left it unfinished in 1628. Given these peculiarities, even today the significance of the work and the relation it bears to the published corpus remains a hotly contested question among scholars. Marion argues that the Rules should be read as though Descartes were conducting a silent and unacknowledged polemic against a philosopher whose authority is still too great to risk confronting directly. On this assumption, Descartes has a distinct audience in mind as he draws up his Rules, but he never identifies this audience by name. For if he were to name the adversary, Descartes would then be required to mount an explicit refutation of the adversary’s thought, which is something he is not interested in doing for various reasons. Who is this unnamed adversary? None other than Aristotle, the hidden interlocutor of the Rules.

At first glance, this thesis may seem a bit too imaginative or far‑fetched. After all, isn’t the entire claim of a hidden interlocutor built on an argument from silence? What warrant does Marion give for this interpretation? First, by a very close textual analysis, he demonstrates that the characteristic teachings of the Rules, many of which turn up later in the published writings, take on a greater intelligibility on the assumption that they are intended to replace various corresponding teachings in Aristotle. Marion’s demonstration consists, then, in lining up the Rules of Descartes, one rule at a time, against its opposite number in the Aristotelian corpus, and then showing that Descartes contradicts Aristotle by using his own words with a meaning that Aristotle would not recognize. Through the course of this exacting comparison, which Marion carries out in extensive and convincing detail, it becomes apparent that whenever Descartes advances a characteristically “Cartesian” claim, he has Aristotle in mind—without ever naming him as such. Marion thus shows that in the Rules Descartes is conducting a dialogue with Aristotle in which he contradicts him without ever acknowledging that he is doing so. The contradiction, as such, remains forever unstated.

So Descartes’ ontology is “gray” because in the doctrine of the Rules he uses traditional Aristotelian vocabulary (thus giving the impression that he is not contradicting Aristotle), but he invests it with a meaning not found in Aristotle (which enables Descartes to contradict Aristotle without acknowledging that he is doing so). Marion calls this process of linguistic reinvestment a process of “metaphorization”—and he intends this term to be taken in its literal etymological sense, as a “carrying over” (Gr. meta-pherein) from one linguistic domain to another. Aristotle’s words haven’t changed but their meanings have, and this tacit substitution enables Descartes to avoid constructing an argument that would refute Aristotle directly, even while he borrows from Aristotle what he needs for his own purposes. In the Rules, Descartes sets about constructing a new ontology that will replace Aristotelian substance ontology, but only by a kind of bait and switch. That is, Descartes never actually demonstrates that Aristotle’s view of substance is false; instead, he brackets the issue and then illicitly and unjustifiably takes what he needs from Aristotle’s ontology in order to construct its replacement. The new Cartesian ontology is therefore “gray” because it is neither black nor white, neither Aristotelian nor unabashedly anti‑Aristotelian, but somewhere in‑between. Its lack of specificity, its parasitic relation to Aristotle, and its rhetorical avoidance of any direct confrontation with him all conspire to make the gray ontology of the Rules an implicit ontology, implicit because it promotes an anti‑Aristotelian epistemology that paradoxically lacks the fully developed ontology it needs at its core to sustain it. As its title proclaims, in this work Descartes presents “rules” that direct the mind in the search for truth; these rules draw on Aristotelian ontology and epistemology, but only to contradict them tacitly or to make use of them in ways that are incompatible with their principles. Thus while not denying the existence of substance, for example, Descartes pirates that structure and abstracts as many of the features of substance as he needs for his gray ontology. Accordingly, in the Rules Descartes transforms traditional Aristotelian ontology into an epistemology without being, into an intentionally ambiguous but new ontology—a “gray ontology” in that it is not fully Aristotle nor does it refute Aristotle.