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.