At the end of my last blog I used the word “prejudiced” in the sense of biased, partial or one-sided, and usually this is meant in a negative sense. Often the negative connotation of the word is even stronger. So the Internet version of the Cambridge Dictionary describes the substantive “prejudice” as “an unfair and unreasonable opinion or feeling, especially when formed without enough thought or knowledge”. Now it is so that there are also positive prejudices. Nevertheless, there is always a sense of reprehensibility attached to it, but is having prejudices only to be disapproved of?
The German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer has examined the concept of prejudice in his treatise Truth and Method. He defends there the view that there is a prejudice against prejudice. According to him “not until the Enlightenment does the concept of prejudice acquire the negative connotation familiar today.” (273) And Gadamer continues: “Actually ‘prejudice’ means a judgment that is rendered before all the elements that determine a situation have been finally examined. In German legal terminology a ‘prejudice’ is a provisional legal verdict before the final verdict is reached. For someone involved in a legal dispute, this kind of judgment against him affects his chances adversely. Accordingly, the French prejudice, as well as the Latin praejudicium, means simply ‘adverse effect,’ ‘disadvantage,’ ‘harm.’ But this negative sense is only derivative. The negative consequence depends precisely on the positive validity, the value of the provisional decision as a prejudgment, like that of any precedent.” (ibid.)
So, actually a prejudice is a pre-judice, so a pre-judgment: a preliminary judgment passed before the final judgment. It will be changed into a final judgment when one has enough information for doing so. As such “prejudice” is a neutral concept, neither positive nor negative: “Thus ‘prejudice’ certainly does not necessarily mean a false judgment, but part of the idea is that it can have either a positive or a negative value.” However, “[t]his seems a long way from our current use of the word.” (ibid.) How did this come about? According to Gadamer, this change of the meaning of the concept must be attributed to the “spirit of rationality” during the Enlightenment: “The German Vorurteil, like the English ‘prejudice’, ... seems to have been limited in its meaning by the Enlightenment critique of religion simply to the sense of an ‘unfounded judgment.’ The only thing that gives a judgment dignity is its having a basis, a methodological justification (and not the fact that it may actually be correct). For the Enlightenment the absence of such a basis does not mean that there might be other kinds of certainty, but rather that the judgment has no foundation in the things themselves—i.e., that it is ‘unfounded.’ This conclusion follows only in the spirit of rationalism. It is the reason for discrediting prejudices and the reason scientific knowledge claims to exclude them completely.” (ibid.; my italics)
Gadamer shows then how the origin of the negative meaning of “prejudgment” is to be found in the supposed necessity of a “methodological justification” of the facts. The essence is that in the Enlightenment the view took root that all knowledge must have a rational – in this case methodological – foundation, but when the Enlightenment philosophers examined the knowledge acquired in the past, they saw that such a foundation was absent and that this knowledge was often obscure and so must be false. For them past knowledge was simply a prejudice. In this way the concept of prejudice got the negative meaning it still has. But was it rational that the Enlightenment philosophers saw past knowledge as prejudiced? For what else could their predecessors have done? Waiting until rational methods had been developed? And was all knowledge collected in the age of Enlightenment true and unprejudiced? Of course not.
I think that we must see it this way. Having prejudices belongs to the characteristics of man and necessarily so. Let’s assume you are a stone age man. You have ideas about how the world is like, such as “bears are dangerous”. Now a bear crosses your path. The bear sees you but does nothing and goes quietly his way. So, your idea that bears are dangerous is not confirmed. Should it be skipped as being a prejudice? Everybody knows that bears can be dangerous, even though the statement should actually be “all bears are dangerous under some [specified] conditions” (Just like many prejudices could be qualified so). Anyway, I guess that the necessity of prejudices has developed, because they were often functional and could save your life, even if they might be false, or false in some circumstances. It was often simply impossible or not practical to test them so you could better have them. Actually today it is still so. For often we are in a new or only partly known situation. Should we then first test what is the right thing to do, before we finally act? Usually it’s not possible, so we simply act, based on the views we have, even if they are prejudices in the sense of the pre-judgment described above.
Having prejudices is not problematic. What is problematic is having them and then deny that you have them and to refuse to change them, if they are false. However, that is what too often happens. Often we lack the facts and we cannot collect them for some reason or another, but nevertheless we must act. Then we act and must do it in pre-judiced way. But it is a challenge to get the facts right and to act according to them.