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The False Mirror: A Brief History of Prejudice

by Anja Steinbauer

Men can’t multitask; women can’t resist shopping; the English have a sense of humour; the Germans don’t; philosophers spend their lives navel gazing; politicians can’t be trusted; and civil servants are boring. Stereotypes, preconceived ideas, prejudices: they are ubiquitous. Sometimes they are annoying, sometimes funny, sometimes devastating. To philosophers they are the ultimate challenge.

Philosophy has its demons to fight. Having always put an emphasis on a commitment to truth, philosophers have been quick to identify the obstacles that stood in their way of honouring this obligation. Though they couldn’t always agree on the origins, scope and definition of prejudice, it, in all its forms, emerges as one of their archenemies.

The first philosophical musings about prejudice started in the classical age. Cicero talks about prejudice (praeiusticium) as the opposite of truth, associated with error. However, he makes clear that rather than being the result of ignorance, prejudice is born out of manipulation. In a legal context he explains that it means that jurors have listened to a particular account of a case over and over again, so that once a trial happens the lawyer who is arguing that version of the case has very little work to do to convince them of the veracity of his words.

The Enlightenment put particular emphasis on the problem of prejudice. Unfortunately, it lost sight of Cicero’s valuable insight into the connection between manipulation and prejudice. Prejudice came to include a whole range of erroneously acquired positions. Francis Bacon went so far as to argue that our natural understanding is a “false mirror”of the world, as prejudice is a natural condition to which we are all prone: “The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.”

“Prejudice” (préjugé) became a fashionable term before and during the French Revolution, a tool for condemning both religious tradition and the socio-political status quo. Voltaire illustrated the difference between prejudice and mature judgement: “But it is through prejudice that you will respect a man dressed in certain clothes, walking gravely, and talking at the same time. Your parents have told you that you must bend to this man; you respect him before you know whether he merits your respect; you grow in age and knowledge; you perceive that this man is a quack, made up of pride, interest, and artifice; you despise that which you revered, and prejudice yields to judgment.” The French revolutionaries did not share this optimism that we will outgrow prejudice as we mature. They took ‘prejudice’ to denote all kinds of errors of the mind, which, in the worst cases, could only be eradicated by means of the guillotine!

Most Enlightenment thinkers, you will be relieved to learn, favoured less bloody ways of dealing with prejudice. Immanuel Kant distinguished between preliminary opinions and prejudice. Both are purely subjective, but there is nothing wrong with forming a preliminary view of an issue as long it is recognised as such, as a kind of work in progress. The problem with prejudices is that they are preliminary opinions that are mistaken for final conclusions. However, prejudice is not just an intellectual mistake; it has a serious moral component as well. Kant tells us that prejudice is a position that we take with respect to a ‘generalised other’, a moral client who needs to be taken into account in our thinking. Through imagination we need to be able to understand the perspective of this ‘other’. To be free of prejudice is thus only possible for someone who “can easily regard the matter from a very different point of view”, who can overcome her ‘logical egoism’ and relativise her self interest.

If prejudice can be overcome, can it not be avoided altogether? Following Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer showed that all understanding is ‘permanently determined’ by what he calls pre-understanding. In the end, he says, all understanding is always “reflection of a given pre-understanding.” This means that whenever I need to understand someone or something I approach it with a certain pre-understanding. Why is this so unavoidable? The reason lies not in some genetic disposition but in our own past. Prejudices are based on our ‘historical reality’; in other words, if you have a past, you also have prejudices.

This issue of Philosophy Now starts with a collection of articles which examine prejudice, hospitality towards strangers, and the different ways in which we as human beings perceive one another. So, what are the lessons to be learned here? Most, though not all, philosophers seem to believe that prejudice is cognitively impossible to avoid but that it can be rationally and/or morally overcome – although this may be trickier than we realise. As always, critical thinking is required. And once we properly apply critical thinking, we soon see that while it is true that men can’t multitask, women can resist shopping. … Prejudiced, moi?

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