Hibben Prejudice: Can Prejudice be Defended?

by Oliver Bonnington

In 1911, John Grier Hibben, who was for twenty years President of Princeton University, wrote A Defense of Prejudice and other Essays; a ‘forgotten’ philosophical text, rarely cited, though recently reprinted. The republishing of a book can give old ideas fresh impetus by apprehending of new adherents. It can also provide an opportunity for us to reflect on its position within an established academic field. Here I just want to offer some reflections on the title essay.

In this work, Hibben set out an individualistic and cognitivist view of the dynamics of prejudice, bypassing, for instance, the roles of affect and social structures, which have themselves gained currency in the study of prejudice and stigma in the last few decades. He argued that prejudice served a ‘legitimate function’ within the mind, reasoning that ‘A prejudice is not always an unreasonable judgement, it may merely be a judgement that is unreasoned’. The main defense he offered boiled down to the idea that non-deliberation is economical in everyday life and such non-deliberative impressions can be a form of prejudice. But, even if both the idea and utility of unreasoned judgement have some validity, and I don’t fully endorse this myself, does it make for an adequate defense of prejudice?

There seem to me to be good grounds for us to reject Hibben’s defense both in the evidence of us as sentient beings who revise our thoughts on matters over time, and as people in search of practical theories that are able to account for change as well as stasis in society. Indeed, ethical imperatives, among others, whether derived through collective or individual reflection, give us cause to avoid cognitive and socio-cultural sclerosis when it comes to issues of prejudice.

It’s doubtful that we’re all constantly nudging ourselves to be critical of our practices or the ideas we and others hold in respect of different social phenomena and what counts as prejudice. Indeed, we forget why we believe certain things or why we’re doing what we’re doing all the time. Moreover, new situations requiring swift action can restrict our ability to deliberate, meaning we partly rely on tacit knowledge. But whilst our relatively non-deliberative acts and habits may enable us to carry out some practices in everyday life with a degree of effortlessness and efficiency, it doesn’t mean that they should go unchallenged, especially if the effects of such practices are deleterious on the wellbeing of others. It also doesn’t mean that they are somehow a natural, innate product of a black-boxed subconscious, as Hibben thought. Instead, prejudice always takes place in socio-cultural contexts, which are never at rest.

It’s worth noting that Hibben didn’t think the cognitive processes of arriving at conclusions were as important as the conclusions themselves: so long as we remember the conclusions, he advised, the processes become unnecessary to retain and we can therefore reliably discard them. Such essentialist thinking about what humans do does violence to the forces of reflexivity in social change and, furthermore, places a thick veil over the power of certain groups and individuals to a) be able to frame, study and draw those conclusions in the first place, and b) to lodge them as ideas with powerful constitutive abilities in the cultural system.

If prejudice is ‘legitimate’ simply because it facilitates the economical workings of the mind, then we should question why an economically working mind is so valued in certain contexts and pay attention to the nature of its social implications. Many people find security, comfort and reassurance in stable ‘facts’ or a tendency to weave neat, linear narratives and assimilate seemingly assorted and contradictory ephemera into them. Yet, to me, it seems obvious that these things are instead quite often troubling. This may lead to a certain degree of reflexive fracturing on my part (by which I mean that my thinking about the world in relation to myself and vice versa often means I fail to act purposively), but I’m much more comfortable being uncomfortable with received wisdom, whether I take it from my or others’ previous conclusions, than with just ploughing on or unreflexively stating my opinions on something because it’s economical to do so.

So, Hibben thought prejudice should be defended. I disagree; prejudice needs to be challenged and this should be a ceaseless endeavour.

Perhaps picking a fight with a dead person of whom relatively few people today have heard is not the most daring or worthwhile thing I could have done. But when Hibben’s ideas were initially published in 1911 they became part of Popper’s ‘World Three’ and we should question why and how they’ve traveled to – or rather been dug up in – the present. Maybe if we look to our current neoliberal context, with its emphases on individualism, self-responsibility and a pre-occupation with the pillorying, marginalization and abjection of certain groups, or to the ascendancy (and subordination) of particular disciplinary and philosophical viewpoints, we may find some interesting answers.

Dr. Oliver Bonnington works in the Faculty of Public Health & Policy at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

Categories: Diaspora, Diversity & Difference, Rethinking The World, Reviews


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