I am still, bravely, struggling through Gadamer’s Truth and Method. It is one of those sorts of works that it very interesting, at least in the bits I understand (which are rare, to say the least). I think I might be sort of seeing what he is trying to say. At least, I am starting to work out how he links into other writers that I have read and who use some of his works. I my poor benighted mind, of course, these things have a tendency to be linked back to wargaming, largely because that is my hobby, but also, partly, because I think wargaming is a human activity that is actually sufficient complex but bounded to be a useful test case to the wild and wacky ideas of philosophers.
Anyway, one of the things I think Gadamer is trying to get at is that we do not start from neutral ground or a level playing field when we read something. Mostly, by ‘read’ Gadamer means texts, but I do not think that it has to be limited to texts. We can just as successfully read pictures, statues or artefacts from a past age. That is, we come to a text with a set of what Gadamer calls prejudices, or at least that is how the word is translated. However, the word is not used in a prejudicial way. It is simply the way the world is, or at least, simply the way our world is.
To try to explain: when I read a text I cannot simply merge my mind with that of the author (either the real one or the implied one). I am bringing to that text a whole sheaf of prejudices. That is, I am reading the text as someone situated in a historical context (we could call it ‘now’, but that eventually simply adds to our difficulties). I have interests, such as wargaming. I have a history of my own, the things that have happened to me either generally or specifically to bring me to the text at this time. I live in a culture which might be more or less formative of my views, interests, outlooks and worldview, depending on how much I accept, reject or try to ignore them.
In short, by reading a text I am not just reading a text. I am engaged in something far more complex, something in a situation, informed by other things, and so on.
I have a feeling that I might have banged on about this before, and seem to recall some difficulty in comparing accounts of the Battle of Waterloo as to what time it actually started. Thus, if I read a text about Waterloo, I am bringing to that text a memory of all the other things I might have read about the battle. Not only that, I am bringing the sorts of things I might have read about armies in the Napoleonic Wars. I might also bring some ideas about the politics and culture of the day. And so on.
But I also bring my current day to the text. For example, my view of Napoleon might well depend on whether I am French or English or German or Russian. It might also be mediated, say, by my view of the European Union. If I am a ‘little Englander’, than I may well believe that Napoleon was nothing but a Corsican ogre. If I am an EU fan, then I might regret that Boney did not go a little further along the union of European nations, and even suggest that if he had, World War One would have been unnecessary.
Of course, as wargamers, we ask slightly different questions from most politicians and historians. We would like to know from our accounts such things as how many cavalry the Prussians had, or what time the battle really did start. But even these questions arise from our own background as wargamers, mostly amateur historians and, naturally, the culture and society we spring from.
And here, to some extent anyway, lies the rub. It is really difficult to analyse the prejudices we might suffer from as a result of our existence in a certain time and place. Even in a more limited sense, we can bring our biases to a historical account of a battle. It is really easy to fill in the blanks in an account from what else we know. We do not even necessarily notice that we are doing it.
As an example, on my way to work I have to cross a certain set of traffic lights. Because I have seen what happens, I know that there is little point in jumping them when they turn, because, just around the corner there is another set phased to change slightly sooner that the first one. I know this; it is part of my mental equipment, so I do not even think about it. However, some other drivers either do not know or do not think very much (oddly, many of them drive BMWs). They steam along the road jumping the lights. I then catch up with them at the next set. I often consider giving them a friendly wave, but decide against it as they seem stressed up enough as it is.
But the point is that, in my experience, history, whatever, I have reached a certain conclusion about those sets of traffic lights, and I do not even think about applying it. It just is the way it is. If they come along and change the phasing, I would be confused, at least, but generally I would probably still not jump the lights as they turned. And if I read an account of, say, the Battle of Waterloo which ignored the arrivals of the Prussians, I might well simply mentally add them, rather than wondering about the text I read. The human mind is very good at doing that, and we really have to be paying attention to spot the errors.
So our history and experience can change or augment the texts that we read. We make assumptions which can be invalid. Our only defence is that we cannot help it.