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Gadamer and the Enlightenment's "prejudice against all prejudices."

Anyone even slightly acquainted with contemporary philosophy is aware of the postmodernist critique of the Enlightenment. From Habermas to Foucault, from Derrida to Lyotard, the Enlightenment's most cherished ideologies and presuppositions have been subjected to devastating deconstruction; they are held responsible for all the relativisms and emotivisms which (allegedly) plague our age.

In The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, for example, Haber - echoing Foucault - rejects the Enlightenment's concept of the centrality of self-awareness and its ideal of transcendent reason. Like Foucault, Habermas argues that reason is a "thing of the world." The ideology of reason must be reformulated "in line with our essential finitude," that is to say, recognizing the historical nature of the knowing subject; it must be "recast according to our received humanistic ideals."(1) Similarly, against the Enlightenment's strong conception of the a priori character of reason, Derrida stresses the embeddedness of reason in language, in forms of life, and the incommensurability of different language games.(2)

The radical critique Of the ideology of pure reason, along with the ahistorical self, are certainly not original with twentieth-century critiques of the Enlightenment. Such critiques have punctuated European thought, from Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit to Marx's last economic and philosophic manuscript of the Paris period.(3) What is new today is the belief that the ideals of the Enlightenment are irrelevant to a newer and fuller conception of humanity.

Equally radical but less known is the criticism that Hans-Georg Gadamer voices against the ideologies of the Enlightenment in his magnum opus, Truth and Method.(4) Gadamer's universal hermeneutics has been discussed and applied to issues of objectivity in the social and legal sciences,(5) but his views on the Enlightenment have not yet been subjected to systematic interpretation.(6)

In what follows I consider Gadamer's critique of what he calls "the Enlightenment's Prejudice against all Prejudices." I intend to show that Gadamer's assessment of the Enlightenment is historically oversimplified and that his assessment is inconsistent with the central projects of some Enlightenment thinkers. In many ways, his critique is less perceptive than Kant's evaluation of his own epoch. I conclude by highlighting some central questions that arise from Gadamer's position which have so far gone unanswered.

Truth and Method was published in 1960 but not translated into English until 1975. Tite book represents a life work of hermeneutical and philosophic reflection with the aim of developing a theory of Universal and Fundamental Hermeneutics.

The theory is universal in that it claims to interpret "everything which is handed down to us." Its claim to being fundamental derives from the ontological turn given to the term "understanding." According to Gadamer, understanding is the primordial mode of our being in the world: "Understanding is no longer an operation antithetic and subsequent to the operations of the constitutive life, but a primordial mode of being of human life itself."(7)

This theory of hermeneutics is offered as a corrective of both the objective method of the eighteenth century and the nineteenth-century historicism of Dilthey. It is also offered, in the fashion of many postmoderns, as an instrument for sustained criticism of the ideologies of the Enlightenment. For example, like Habermas, Gadamer rejects the objective/subjective dichotomy, the belief that reason can free itself of traditional prejudices, and the belief that self-reflection can transcend one's historical context.

These familiar rejections culminate in Gadamer's judgment that the Enlightenment fell prey to the "prejudice against all prejudices, it misunderstood the very concept of knowledge and reason in its drastic divorce between reason and prejudice, reason and tradition, reason and authority.... And [thus] there is one prejudice of the Enlightenment that defines its essence, the fundamental prejudice of the Enlightenment is the prejudice against prejudice itself, which denies tradition its power" (278). Again: "The overcoming of all prejudices, this global demand of the Enlightenment, will itself prove to be a prejudice, and removing it opens the way to an appropriate understanding of the finitude which dominates not only our humanity but also our historical consciousness" (276).

Gadamer holds the Enlightenment responsible not only for the bad repute of "prejudice" but more importantly for having distorted the very conception of rationality. He insists that reason cannot be a faculty or a capacity that frees itself from historical contexts and horizons. Every form of understanding necessarily involves some prejudice. If Gadamer is correct in saying that all forms of knowing involve prejudice, then it is difficult to imagine a more radical critique of what he takes the Enlightenment to be.

That all prejudices should be eliminated was indeed a common refrain of the social and political Enlightenment. In the context of that day, this refrain may be seen not so much as a part of the praxiology of knowing, but as a piece of social and political Praxis. Religious, social, and political strife, with their supporting prejudices, loomed large throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Even many of the mathematically inspired rationalisms, such as those of Spinoza and Leibnitz, were motivated by the hope of reconciling social and political factions. Furthermore, as scholars of the Enlightenment as a social phenomenon have remarked, the slave trade remained one of the largest industries; witchcraft was still a crime; racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism were rampant.(8) Although the period may have seen fewer crimes against thought than in Previous ages, Kant was still forbidden to lecture on religion, Wolff had to leave Halle to escape the noose, and Condorcet was lucky to die before the guillotine could get him.(9) It was a century that provided a natural setting for anti-prejudice rhetoric.

Putting that aside, Gadamer's claim that the Enlightenment as a whole accepted without criticism the ideal of pure reason ignores such figures as Hume, Vico, Rousseau, and Montesquieu. In the Enlightenment, "reason" came in many flavors, ranging from the habits of the mind of the empiricists through the algebraic and geometric methods of the rationalists to the constructivist concept of Vico. Moreover, Gadamer's estimate of the Enlightenment overlooks the force of what Isaiah Berlin has termed the Counter-enlightenment. This movement started in Germany around 1760 and culminated in the figures of Hamann and Herder. According to Berlin, these two were convinced that "clarity, rigor, rational orderly arrangement whether in theory of practice, can be bought at too high a price. In this sense they are the profoundest critics of the Enlightenment."(10)

Gadamer distinguishes between legitimate prejudices and those that are not. Legitimate prejudices are those that are constitutive of all human understanding while prejudices due to hasty misjudgment that lead to error are not. It is the role of reason to eliminate the latter. However, according to Gadamer the Enlightenment collapsed all prejudices into one class, producing several dichotomies: reason versus authority, reason versus tradition, and reason versus prejudice. This created the illusion that truth and objectivity are acquired through a form of understanding that has the purity of the mirror of self-consciousness, far removed from this noxious trinity. But as Gadamer rightly states in his conclusion: "Long before we understand ourselves through the process of self-examination we understand ourselves in a self-evident way in a tradition.... The focus of subjectivity is a distorting mirror. The self-awareness of the individual is only a flickering in the closed circuit of historical life" (276). Thus, to realize that any understanding is necessarily prejudiced is to perceive that the idea of reason itself refers to that which comes to be taken as rational within a particular tradition. The contraposition of reason and tradition is an oxymoron.

If the confounding of all types of prejudices into one class and the illusion of the purity of self-consciousness represent "the essence" of the Enlightenment, then it is clear that what prompts Gadamer's assessment is not the totality of the philosophical Enlightenment. It is the Cartesian model of Reason, Prejudice, and Authority. For only in this model does one find the divorce of reason from prejudice due to hastiness, or the divorce of reason from prejudice derived from tradition. In a Cartesian model, one also finds an absolute faith in reason's ability to deliver truth, certainty, and knowledge through the method of pure self-reflectivity.

However, the philosophical Enlightenment was much broader than this. Indeed, it unfolded as a dialogue which was often, if not always, a dialogue with various aspects of the Cartesian philosophy.

For example, Vico's principle that the true is the made is developed in explicit rejection of Descartes' method and of his criteria of clarity and distinctness. Ingenium rather than reason is the fundamental faculty of the mind for Vico. It is against Cartesian natural law theories that Vico develops his view of historicity, tradition, and the "natural" authority of social institutions. Furthermore, in the second book of The New Science Vico finds that eighteenth-century Philosophical scholarship is characterized by two prejudices: the conceit of the scholars and the conceit of the Nations.(11) These prejudices are tendencies to judge the past and other societies with the rationality proper to one's own age or one's own society. Clearly, Vico's concept of rationality is not addressed by Gadamer's criticism, nor can it be reasonably argued that Vico shared a "prejudice against all prejudices."

Similarly, Hume's notion of reason as the "the most wonderful of human instincts," is proposed in opposition to the Cartesian lumen naturale. Hume's sarcastic comments on this subject speak for themselves: "The Cartesian doubt, therefore, were it ever possible to be attained by any human creature (as it plainly is not) would be entirely incurable, and no reasoning could ever bring us to state of assurance and conviction upon any subject." It is also evident that Hume restricts the competence of reasoning in such a way as to make a "prejudice against all prejudices" unlikely. He puts the matter succinctly as follows: "If we take in our hand any volume ... let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matters of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion."(12)

Finally, it is partly against Descartes's theory of self-consciousness and his ideal of pure reason that Kant develops his critical philosophy and establishes the temporal and spatial limits of human knowledge.

Kant is not only a critic of the Cartesian model of knowledge and rationality; he also made a reflective appraisal of the period and tradition in which he lived. In ff%at is Enlightenment? Kant writes the century's epitaph: Sapere Aude; and he defines the period's characteristic project as simply the "deliverance from superstition," which is nothing but gross prejudice." Kant's understanding of the ideals of the age are more modest than Gadamer's prejudice against all prejudices. Kant does not expect or perhaps even desire the eradication of all kinds of prejudices. In this context, one may recall the pessimistic conclusion of the Transcendental Analytic. Here Kant confesses that, despite his attempt to bring human reason to the safe path of Knowledge, not all prejudices can be removed. The illusions of metaphysics are so rooted in human nature, that they can seldom be eradicated."

Sapere Aude - the courage to use one's intelligence - is for Kant a maxim of the understanding. It commands thinking for oneself in order to overcome traditional prejudices. Kant also couples the maxims of the understanding with maxims of judgment based on sensus communis which encourages the overcoming of illusions arising from the private conditions of the self.

Sapere Aude - the courage to use one's intelligence without reliance on others - does capture the practical objectives of the Enlightenment. It is a motto which enjoins humans to free themselves from their self-imposed tutelage. However, does this motto enjoin rejection of all tradition?

Rudolf Makkreel has recently argued that the distinction that Kant makes between sensus communis and common understanding is fundamental to Kant's critical confrontation of tradition.(15) Kant defines sensus communis as "the idea of a sense common to all, i.e., of a faculty of judgment which, in its reflection, takes account (a priori) of the mode of representation of all other men in thought, in order, as it were, to compare its judgment with the collective reason of humanity and thus escape the illusions arising from the private conditions that could be so easily taken for objective."16 Thus, sensus communis makes possible the recognition of the distinction between individual prejudice and universal understanding. As Makkreel argues, Kant intends to provide a means for discriminating between what is essentially communal in the tradition, and thus should be kept, from what is the result of individual illusions or idiosyncratic authority, and thus should be eradicated (162-64). Kant's struggle with the question of what should be done with everything that is handed down to us does not issue in the counsel to throw it all out. His Sapere Aude is hardly a prejudice against all prejudice.

That one may always learn from the past and that the past always makes truth claims on us are insistent claims in Truth and Method. Thus, Gadamer must think that the questions - what may we learn from the Enlightenment and what truth claims does the Enlightenment make on us? - are reasonable questions. However, Gadamer's minimalist answer, that we, learn about the noxiousness of the prejudice against all prejudices, appears in point of fact to be incomplete and systematically unsatisfactory.

The concepts of reason during and after the Enlightenment may be reasonably seen as being partly set in motion in opposition to the Cartesian analysis - however wrong-headed we may find them. Furthermore, the social and political aspirations, the hopes and ideals of the Enlightenment - along with its absorbing concern with the status of reason, knowledge, authority, tradition, and prejudice - are not accidental conjunctions. Motivation flowed both ways: from conceptions of reason, knowledge, authority, tradition, and prejudice to social and political aspirations, hopes and ideals, but also in the reverse direction. Again we need to remind ourselves of what motivated not only Descartes, but also Spinoza, Leibnitz, Hume, Vico, and Kant.

We accept and live by many of the political and social ideals of the Enlightenment. Gadamer appears to be counseling us that we should divorce these from their ties to the Enlightenment's discussions of rationality, knowledge, authority, tradition and prejudice because these discussions are presumed to be tainted by the prejudice against all prejudices. However, Gadamer's insistence on the historicity of belief and understanding implies that the ideals of the Enlightenment which are still operative must find the historical roots of their rational elaboration somewhere else than in the tainted and rejected Enlightenment discussions. But where? Are they to be found in the historical roots of our present understanding of rationality - e.g., in science and technology? Gadamer is silent on this question. He is also silent on how a rational elaboration on the still operative ideals of the Enlightenment is to be carried out,

(1.) Jurgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990), 1-22. (2.) Jacques Derrida, Positions, trans. Alan Bass (London: Athlone, 1971), 74. (3.) Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Dietz, 1956). (4.) Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (New York: Crossroads, 1989). (5.) Richard Bernstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism. Science, Hermeneutics and Praxis (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1983). (6.) The sole exception is Joel Weinsheimer, Gadamer's Hermeneutics: A Reading of "Truth and Method" (New Haven: Yale UP, 1985), 90, 167-69, 173. This claim may need qualification since the so-called Habermas-Gadamer dialogue is mostly concerned with their perspectives on the Enlightenment. However, Habermas' views on the subject are not concerned with the arguments presented here. For the debate see: Theodore Kisiel, "Ideology Critique and Phenomenology, the Current Debate in German Philosophy," Philosophy Today 14 (1970):151-60. (7.) "The Problem of Historical Consciousness," in Interpretive Social Science: A Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow and William M. Sullivan (Berkeley: U of California P, 1979), 129-30. See also Bernstein, 34. For a reformulation of the above position, see Truth and Method, 259-60. (8.) Harold E. Pagliaro, ed., Racism in the Eighteenth Century (Cleveland: Case Western Reserve UP, 1973), 239-383. (9.) Lewis White Beck, Eighteenth-Century Philosophy (London: Free Press, 1966), 1-11. (10.) Isaiah Berlin, Against the Current (New York: Viking, 1980), 1-24. (11.) The New Science of Giambattista Vico, trans. Max H. Fish (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1968), book 1, sec. 2. (12.) David Hume, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1955), 159. For a careful and important assessment of Hume and tradition see: Donald Livingston, Hume's Philosophy of Common Life (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984), 173. (13.) Immanuel Kant, What is Enlightenment?, ed. Carl J. Friedrich (New York: Modern Library, 1949), 132-39. (14.) "It is the land of truth - enchanting name! - surrounded by a wide and stormy ocean, the native home of illusion, where many a fog bank and many a swiftly, melting iceberg give the deceptive appearance of farther shores, deluding the adventurous seafarer ever anew with empty hopes, and engaging him in enterprises which he can never abandon and yet is unable to carry to completion": Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (London: St. Martin's, 1963), 257. (15.) Rudolf A. Makkreel, Imagination and Interpretation in Kant (Chicago: U Of Chicago P, 1990), 154-71. (16.) Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment (New York: Hafner, 1951), par. 40, 136. Sensus communis refers to the beliefs held in common by a community and is distinguished from common sense. Mythic beliefs held in common would be an example of sensus communis but not of common sense. Sensus communis is the Natural tradition of a society which for Vico operates at the level of law and morality and for Kant at the level of aesthetic judgment. See Rudolf A. Makkreel, "Some Kantian Reflections on Historical Understanding, " in Vico Past and Present, ed. Giorgio Tagliacozzo (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities P., 1981), 15-34.
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Author:Palmer, L.M.
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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