Gadamer on Prejudicial Frameworks

Philosophical Hermeneutics
Hans-Georg Gadamer

According to Hans-Georg Gadamer,

Prejudices [i.e., prejudgments] 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 [i.e., prejudgments], constitute the directedness of our whole ability to experience. Prejudices are biases of our openness to the world. They are simply conditions whereby we experience something—whereby what we encounter says something to us. (Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics, 9)

In his following discussion, Gadamer draws a helpful illustration from the process of language acquisition:

How does it happen that [words] are “words,” that is, that they have a general meaning? In his first apperception, a sensuously equipped being finds himself in a surging sea of stimuli, and finally he begins, as we say, to know something. Clearly we do not mean that he was previously blind. Rather, when we say “to know” [erkennen] we mean “to recognize” [wiedererkennen], that is, to pick something out [herauserkennen] of the stream of images flowing past as being identical. (Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics, 14; brackets original; underlining for original italics)

Even when language is acquired inductively, a judgment about meaning may develop from a “surging sea of stimuli,” but this sea itself does not “make sense” to the acquirer until the acquirer reflects on the sea in the context of this judgment—that is, until the judgment becomes prejudgment and allows the sea to speak sensibly.

Et tu, Brute . . . Facts

Christian Apologetics
Cornelius Van Til

In the introduction to the second edition of Cornelius Van Til’s Christian Apologetics, Bill Edgar helpfully summarizes Van Til’s perspective on “brute facts”:

For Van Til . . . there could never be isolated self-evident arguments or brute facts, because everything comes in a framework. That is why he calls his approach the “indirect method.” One cannot go directly to the facts, as though they were self-evident. First, one must recognize the foundation and go on from there. . . . This is resolutely not a denial of the use of evidences. Everything proclaims God’s truth. Only there are no brute facts, or data in a vacuum. (5, 8; emphasis original)

From this perspective, Van Til comments:

It is these notions [of brute fact in metaphysics and the autonomy of the human mind in epistemology] that determine the construction that the natural man puts upon everything that is presented to him. They are the colored glasses through which he sees all the facts. . . . (193)

The method of reasoning by presupposition may be said to be direct rather than indirect. The issue between believers and non-believers in Christian theism cannot be settled by a direct appeal to “facts” or “laws” whose nature and significance is already agreed upon by both parties to [the] debate. The question is rather as to what is the final reference point required to make the “facts” and “laws” intelligible. The question s as to what the “facts” and “laws” really are. (129)

Of course, for Van Til,

There is one system of reality of which all that exists forms a part. And any individual fact of this system is what it is primarily because of its relation to this system. It is therefore a contradiction to speak in terms of presenting certain facts to men unless one presents them as parts of this system. The very factness of any individual fact of history is precisely what it is because God is what he is. It is God’s counsel that is the principle of individuation for the Christian man. God makes the facts to be what they are. (193–94)

In some ways, Van Til’s perspective much resembles Thomas Kuhn’s arguments about the natural sciences. Yet, one major difference is that, where Kuhn has ever-mutable paradigms, Van Til has, on the Christian’s side of things, a perception of ever-knowing, reality-constituting mind of God.

Letting Paul Be Paul

In his Romans commentary, F. F. Bruce gives the following, sound advice for those who want to understand Paul better:

We may agree or disagree with Paul, but we must do him the justice of letting him hold and teach his own beliefs, and not distort his beliefs into conformity with what we should prefer him to have said (136).

Of course, determining what exactly Paul believed is a task that inevitably involves readers and those readers’ preunderstandings, but still the adage holds: “if you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time” (cf. Hermeneutics and “the Near”).


In this post:

Romans (TNTC)
F. F. Bruce