Best of The Month – The Place Of Prejudice
Kobus Cilliers | On 08, Apr 2020
Even the scantest of internet searches will immediately and definitely show that we associate prejudice with ignorance and bigotry and consider it a source of injustice. So how can prejudice have a legitimate place in moral and political judgment? In this ambitious work author Adam Sandel shows that prejudice, properly understood, is not an unfortunate obstacle to clear thinking but an essential aspect of it. The aspiration to reason without preconceptions, he argues, is misguided.
Ranging across philosophy from Aristotle to Heidegger and Gadamer, Sandel demonstrates that we inherit our “prejudice against prejudice” from the Enlightenment. By detaching reason from habit and common opinion, thinkers such as Bacon, Descartes, and Kant invented prejudice—as we understand it today—as an obstacle to freedom and a failure to think for oneself.
The Place of Prejudice presents a powerful challenge to this picture. The attempt to purge understanding of culture and history leads not to truth, Sandel warns, but to shallowness and confusion. A purely detached notion of reason deprives judgment of all perspective, disparages political rhetoric as mere pandering, and denies us the background knowledge we need to interpret literature, law, and the past. In a clear, eloquent voice, Sandel presents instead a compelling case for reasoning within the world.
Sandel employs several clever approaches throughout. The first is to point out that those who claim to have rid themselves of prejudice are, without exception, kidding themselves, even setting themselves up to be more susceptible to prejudice by creating a fictitious realm in which they are immune to it. He offers as an example the “prejudice against prejudice” itself, as Hans-Georg Gadamer put it. The detached ideal of having no perspective is naturally quite effective at concealing the fact that it is itself a perspective, a tradition at every moment seeking to forget that it is a tradition.
To Sandel’s positive case for prejudice we could add more examples. Argument influenced by prejudice is also known as rationalization or motivated reasoning: instead of a free inquiry, started from a neutral standpoint and equally open to any possible conclusion, motivated reasoning is a counterfeit, presenting itself as open when it is actually working backwards to prop up an existing opinion. But motivated reasoning can often help to elaborate and generate ideas. Think of how science, despite its airs of objectivity, often in practice advances through rival factions with rival theories, each motivated to produce novel evidence and arguments that will prove their own side right and the other wrong. Or consider our adversarial trial system: Instead of pretending that lawyers could objectively derive a single, best interpretation of the evidence, it unabashedly presents to juries two partisan interpretations, with two teams motivated to produce the best case for each. These are models of how to employ the cognitive virtues of self-interested argument to correct its very well-known vices — if not quite making a giant leap that plants us squarely at the feet of The Truth, then at least lumbering in its general direction.
This understanding of rational inquiry suggests something like the dialectic model of the ancient Greeks, in which each view aims not only to be more accurate than its rivals, but to subsume them. In part this just means that rival views must be disproved, but it also means, as the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre describes it in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1988), that “a successful correction of a false view” requires “that we are able to explain why we might expect such a view to be generated if our overall standpoint is correct.” In contrast with the detached ideal, this conception of reasoning is tentative and bound by history. To understand a theory requires not just giving its latest formulation, but telling the story of its development, including the major false ideas held along the way, and how their refutation led to the more accurate and comprehensive theories held now. This model sees our understanding as expanding not through some single and final heroic act in which we rid ourselves of all perspectives, but through a gradual process in which we encompass more of them.
The dialectic model does not do away with bad prejudices — widely held but wrong ideas, especially ones that are assumed without being recognized. But it suggests that prejudices in this sense can be condemned as such only in retrospect, from our expanded view. And so too, in political argument and personal encounter, to call out an idea as a prejudice requires an account of why it might have been held without question, and why it is false or misleading beyond the mere fact that it was held without question. From the TRIZ perspective, we know too that the dialectic – we want prejudice and we don’t want prejudice – is merely a contradiction to be solved and transcended.
Sandel’s broader argument is not that prejudice is advantageous or inevitable, but that properly understood it is a component of reason. Reading Aristotle, Sandel argues that an individual’s character “can be understood as a ‘prejudice’ in the sense of a particular life perspective — a viewpoint from which certain actions appear desirable that otherwise might seem unworthy.” This does not mean that “our judgment would be improved if only it could be freed” from the particularities of character. Rather, judging well, obtaining the ability to discern the good, means gaining the ability to “partake of the right perspective, the right ‘prejudice.’”
There is a risk in this reading. Aristotle’s view is that an individual’s ability to reason well requires his or her possession of certain virtues. Differences in opinion among individuals, then, can in part be explained through their differences in disposition, life experience, and so forth; these elements account for their differing strengths and weaknesses as reasoners. But the kind of perspective Sandel aims to describe is a more elaborate one than can really be found in Aristotle’s account of character.
Aristotle, Sandel notes, contrasts two kinds of understanding. The first, craft knowledge, is abstract, formal, and explicit. The second, practical wisdom, involves an understanding of purposes and situations, is “irreducible to rules or principles,” and is “embodied in the agent’s action … rather than represented in his or her mind.” Hannah Arendt developed this into a contrast between work and action: “Arendt maintains that action is always situated within a ‘web of enacted stories.’ Only insofar as work is drawn into this web does it acquire meaning. Detached from the world of action, she argues, our ability to manipulate and fabricate things would be pointless.”
What Sandel is really after here is reversing the conventional ordering of our understanding. Where the Enlightenment picture treats our given world of experiences as clouding our philosophical deliberation, Sandel aims to show that the abstract statements at which philosophy aims emerge only by our drawing out of our vast store of experiences and intertwined worldly concerns. It is just this world that gives reason its motive, after all, for it is just this world that reason aims to reveal and make coherent.
This is where Sandel’s project really begins to shine. It is also, not coincidentally, where it becomes plain that the idea of judgment he is defending is something that occurs so fluidly across mental life that he would probably have been better advised to jettison the label prejudice entirely rather than attempt to reappropriate it. Here he also brings in the work of Martin Heidegger — and does a fine job of making Heidegger’s forbiddingly jargony work accessible. Sandel argues that it is in the fundamental nature of perception and so of thought to be situated and engaged in a particular scene in the world. Our philosophical reflections, intrinsically bound by perspective, do not find their meaning by the force of abstract imperatives, but from how they arise out of a world not of our own making — the physical world, and the human recrafting of it, that we are born into. “We can reflect upon [the world] philosophically only insofar as we already exist within it, only insofar as we are engaged with the world and understand it as a world of concern to us,” Sandel writes. “In this sense, philosophy does not teach us something new, as if it connected us to reality for the first time. Illuminating the world means clarifying what we, on a certain level, already know.”
To explain this view of bounded freedom, Sandel offers the illuminating metaphor that we are compelled to become authors of the latest chapter in a book already written by others. “In this situation, the author is clearly not free to write whatever he desires. Insofar as he must continue the story, any addition, any new creation, is determined by the standard of [the] story itself, by the unity of meaning that the text expresses. The addition, even if we speak of it as a wonderful enhancement, is nothing other than the story itself.”
Cognitive science teaches that each of our minds has two broad systems for thinking. System 1 carries out mental processes that are rapid, emotional, perceptual, intuitive, automatic, and largely outside our awareness. System 2 carries out mental processes that are abstract, analytic, deliberative, and seemingly within and controlled by our consciousness. This division was pithily captured in the title of Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. And it might seem to align remarkably well with the division Sandel develops from Aristotle through Heidegger, between the knowledge explicit in our thoughts and the understanding implicit in our actions — so much so that the two could even be seen as scientific-philosophical counterparts.
Today researchers are assembling an ever-longer list of what they consider cognitive biases, which are apparently the product of a jumble of cognitive mechanisms that evolution has snatched up and crammed uncomfortably together. A new philosophical effort is needed to account for the findings of this science, and to challenge its shortcomings. Efforts like the one undertaken in The Place of Prejudice will be vital to this task. Adam Sandel offers a picture of a mental world pervaded to its lowest levels with intelligibility; a world in which sensation and feeling and passion are not raw and brutish things, but brimming with meaning awaiting revelation and articulation. If philosophy succeeds in reckoning with this science, we will be able to see more clearly the kind of beings we are: animals rational yet always immersed in some scene and bound to act within it, unified beings in a multifarious world we did not ask to enter yet have no choice but to make our own.