2 March, 2015Issue 27.4Philosophy

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Situated Judgement

Gabriel Roberts

Adam Adatto Sandel
The Place of Prejudice: A Case for Reasoning within the World
Harvard University Press, 2014
£33.95 (hardback)
288 pages
ISBN: 9780674726840

Prejudice is a bad word. To say that a belief is prejudiced is to say that it is based on preconceptions, rather than on evidence and reason. To be prejudiced is to be moved by an unjustifiable hatred or animus for this or that group. Together with bigotry and bias, prejudice is something which we try to overcome through dialogue and education. This is what most of us think most of the time.

Adam Sandel thinks otherwise. In this lucid and well-written book, he argues that prejudice, properly understood, is not an obstacle to clear thinking, but an essential aspect of it. In this, his thought can be aligned with that of philosophers, including Richard Rorty, Charles Taylor, and Bernard Williams, who have made a case for “reasoning within the world” or defended certain forms of prejudice. Where Sandel differs is in defending prejudice in very general terms.

It is worth stating early on that the book is not an attempt to demonstrate that prejudice is more pervasive than we usually think and therefore that we should either resign ourselves to its existence or treat people’s claims to be unprejudiced as noxious ideological flim-flam. These are plausible points of view. But they are not the one which Sandel defends. He makes the more unusual claim that prejudice is a valid influence on our judgement.

The prejudice which interests Sandel is not prejudice in the ordinary sense. Instead, it encompasses all of the things, including habit, custom, common opinion, tradition, and upbringing, which influence us while evading our conscious reflection. He aligns this kind of prejudice with “the situated conception of judgement”, according to which we always judge from within our life circumstances, and contrasts it to “the detached conception of judgement”, according to which we judge best when we judge without relying on any authority or influence whose validity we have not explicitly confirmed for ourselves.

With his terms defined, Sandel considers the case against prejudice, tracing its development through the early modern period and the enlightenment. Through readings of Bacon, Descartes, Adam Smith, and Kant, he shows how the case against prejudice comprised two separate strands, the first emphasising that prejudiced judgement is untruthful because it favours an individual perspective over how things really are and the second emphasising that prejudiced judgement is enslaved because the judger acquiesces in received opinions rather than deciding for themselves. He adds that even apparent defenders of prejudice, such as Edmund Burke, in fact bought into the prejudice against it, defending it on the grounds that it was socially useful rather than because they believed in it as a legitimate source of authority.

In the twentieth century, things were different. First Heidegger and then Gadamer conceived of prejudice in terms of situated understanding. Whenever we exercise our judgement, they thought, we do not begin from scratch, but with preconceptions and commitments which we have already acquired. These are not things which we have consciously chosen, but they affect how we decide to act, and nor can they necessarily be articulated, instead constituting a practical knowledge of how we make our way in the world. Judging in a detached way, insofar as it is possible at all, is just one way of being in the world rather than a privileged way of grasping reality. This is the position which Sandel endorses and he takes it to mean that we are always prejudiced.

To a remarkable extent, Sandel depends on abstract philosophical argument, rather than on facts, observations, examples, or any of the things which might bridge the gap between theory and practice. The result is that although the general thrust of the book is clear, and although the readings are illuminating and insightful, it is difficult for the reader to work out what is being proposed.

Part of the problem is that Sandel identifies a variety of things as instances of prejudice. Sometimes, it seems as if the question at issue is whether we should depend more on practical knowledge and spend less time trying to solve problems by being articulate about them. On other occasions, Sandel identifies prejudice with a kind of background knowledge which can only be obtained by engaging in certain extended practices and which is difficult to put into words. Elsewhere, he writes about prejudice in terms of “commitments” (perhaps ones which require an agent to favour some people’s interests over others). And in other cases, he uses ‘prejudice’ to describe how even the most apparently objective statements may be intelligible only to people who share our way of being in the world.

It does not help matters that the consequences of Sandel’s arguments are often quite underwhelming. Regarding background knowledge, for example, his conclusion seems to be no more radical than that people with background knowledge on a topic may be qualified to make judgements about it even if they cannot articulate their knowledge with perfect clarity. To accept such a conclusion does not require an overhaul in one’s epistemology.

The abstract way in which Sandel’s case is prosecuted also makes it difficult for the reader to work out what he opposes. For instance, if we are always prejudiced simply by virtue of being in the world, then our everyday distinctions between what is more and less prejudiced may recur within the wider framework of total, inescapable prejudice. Even if we cannot judge in a wholly unprejudiced way, it may still make a difference whether we act in the light of habit, custom, and the rest of it or whether we attempt to find less prejudiced grounds for action. It is unclear, however, whether Sandel’s argument is effective against everyday attempts to be unprejudiced or only the more philosophically ambitious ones (such as that envisioned by Kant) which are premised on the possibility of wholly unprejudiced judgement.

There are many questions which a book about prejudice might have addressed. Should we care for our friends and family more than for other people, even though those other people might be needier or more deserving? Is there a difference between this kind of prejudice and a heinous kind, like racism? Is it that one has positive consequences and the other does not? If so, are we really so sure that our caring for our friends and family more than other people has positive consequences for everyone all of the time? Clearly, this book is not an attempt to answer these kinds of question. But the almost total absence of examples means that the reader not only comes away with no idea about how to answer them, but no idea of how to begin thinking about them in terms which would be faithful to Sandel’s intentions. Eloquent though this is, for a book about situated judgement, it is not nearly situated enough.

Gabriel Roberts Roberts recently completed a DPhil in English at Worcester College, Oxford. He is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.