Saturday, June 4, 2011

Why are traditions important?

Hans-Georg Gadamer writes in Truth and Method (1960) that the Enlightenment in the 1700s was characterized by a breakthrough of science with a front against any form of tradition. Religion and other forms of belief in something supernatural just stood in the way of the achievement of man's real goal, namely to create a condition of the individual human happiness, and personal self-development. The more reason managed to overcome prejudices and traditions, the closer the man would be a golden age where tolerance, harmony and peace prevails. Reason and intellect were highlighted at the expense of imagination and emotion.
Gadaner meant in contrast, that both prejudices and traditions are necessary for understanding. He tries to connect hermeneutics with Hegel's dialectical philosophy. According to Gadamer, we can only interpret ourselves, our world and delivered the texts of the past, through what he called the merging-of-horizons. Such fusion means that we change our own horizon. Everything depends on the understanding of the merging-of-horizons and their relationship to history. He states that understanding the meaning of prejudices and traditions are important all understanding. He does this through three steps: First by understanding what an object is, second by understanding the importance of the interpreter's own situation, and thrid by undertsatnd the
interests of the interpretive subject. I will elaborate around these three steps in this and future blogs.
Steven Shapin writes in the book The Scientific Revolution (1999) that "science is a situated and social activity, and that it must be understood in relation to the contexts it grows out of ... understanding must encompass all aspects of science" (p.16 -17). He asks how and why it has been become so that we perceive the distinction between the social and scientific as something obvious. Shapin's claim is that "what we choose to describe, reflect inevitably our own interests, although we always try to tell everyone how it really was. That means there is inevitably something of us in the stories we tell about the past" (p.8).
The first step that Gadamer takes in Truth and Method to restore the meaning of prejudice and tradition is all about re-thinking the insights of Husserl, that any understanding of an
object of knowledge is an understanding of the object as "something" (p.247). All understanding involves, in other words, adding a meaning that the object does not have in itself. No one can, for example, see all sides of something three-dimensional simultaneously. Through my experience of something three-dimensional which I can only se two dimensions of, I perceive a three-dimensional object. Husserl says that we intend each side as a side. Transferred to our prejudices, this means that we shed a verdict on anything before all the facts are available, often because of personal experiences from the past, values, attitudes, etc. Our prejudices (understood as to "pre-judge") can be confirmed or rejected through experience or further knowledge acquisition. Gadamer believes that to assume that all prejudice is illegitimate and mis-leading is simply to have a prejudice against prejudice. Gadamers attemt to restore the meaning prejudice goes far beyond this.
In Norway it is today illegal to hit children, even in raising purposes. My father meant, when I was a child in New York, that the ones you love one must chastise. I got a beating/spanking when I did something wrong. I can easily criticize my father for the blows I received, it is not right to hit children, and I have zero tolerance for violence. But to understand my father's action before I judge him as violent, I need to know more facts. I know for example that it was expected in the society we lived in that one should "punish the ones you love." The beating/spanking of children was not only permitted, but also expected. I also know that my father was himself beaten every Saturday as a child, with his many brothers, with birch twigs. Although they had not done anything wrong, they were all beating every Saturday, even in "the name of Jesus". This was both a cleansing process and a preventive action. This knowledge does not make being beating more legitimate, I still believe that it is wrong to hit children. But my prejudice against my father is put to a test, where I must be re evaluate my them because I realize that my father was a man created in his own time and a part of his own history.
The tradition of beating children has been changed. We've beaten childern for thousands of years based on interpretations of biblical texts and traditions that have prevailed in the society. Inm Norway we have broken this tradition by, among other things, gaining greater insight into childhood as an object of knowledge. Children and childhood is "something" we put a meaning into, and which is not there in itself. Previously, it was common with the idea that children and childhood was "something" which in itself was evil, and evil must be displaced by beating the child. Today we know much more about children as an object of knowledge and know that such an understanding (prejudice) is incorrect. This recognition affects our prejudices against children and has changed our tradition of beating them. Traditions can fortunately be changed!

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