Tag Archives: prejudice

Good Prejudice. A Passing Foray in Intellectual History

In the Latin original—praejudicium*—the usage of this notion was specific to the field of law and meant, in classical times, “a preceding judgment, sentence, or decision, a precedent” (Lewis & Short, 1879; cf. also Newman, 1979). In post-classical Latin, cognate meanings started to appear, including “[a] judicial examination previous to a trial… [a] damage, disadvantage… [and a] decision made beforehand or before the proper time” (Lewis & Short, 1879). The aspects of harmfulness and erroneousness began to emerge in conjunction with “praejudicium”. Over the centuries, they submerged the initial, neutral, technical meaning, up to the point that, today, the Oxford Dictionary defines “prejudice” as “[p]reconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience… Dislike, hostility, or unjust behaviour deriving from preconceived and unfounded opinions” and, with reference to the field of law, “[h]arm or injury that results or may result from some action or judgement.”

It is difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint the exact time when the pejoration of “prejudice” occurred. Nor can “prejudice” be understood once and for all as being exclusively a poorly formed opinion, an unreasonable belief, a false judgement, a sentiment, an assumption dictated or corrupted by sentiment, a bad behaviour, or an admixture of them, at least as far as intellectual history is concerned. Though assuming only one particular meaning of the term ab initio may be very convenient (e.g. Penco, 2019), speakers, erudite ones included, have been using “prejudice” in many ways, the variety of which the Oxford Dictionary and researchers at large cannot but acknowledge and report to varying degrees (e.g. Allport, 1954; Duckitt, 1992; Gadamer, 1985/1960; Van Dijk, 1984). Unlike artificial technical terms—e.g. the classical legal interpretation of “praejudicium”—and like all important concepts of our natural languages—e.g. love, justice, beauty, education—“prejudice” too is polysemic, ambiguous, living, contestable and contested (Dorschel, 2000).

Within philosophy, it is even possible to find positive appraisals of the term itself. For one, sensing perhaps the morally and socially paradoxical outcomes of too extreme a rejection of prejudice in all its forms, Voltaire (1901/1764) had already distinguished “different kinds of prejudices”, which he defined as “opinion without judgment.” Some of these unreasoned opinions were said to be more or less dangerously mistaken (e.g. “that crabs are good for the blood, because when boiled they are of the same color”), while others could be “universal and necessary… and… even constitute virtue.” For example, “throughout the world, children are inspired with opinions before they can judge… In all countries, children are taught to acknowledge a rewarding and punishing God; to respect and love their fathers and mothers; to regard theft as a crime, and interested lying as a vice, before they can tell what is a virtue or a vice” (Voltaire, 1901/1764). Under such social, moral and pedagogical conditions, “[p]rejudice may… be very useful, and such as judgement will ratify when we reason” (Voltaire, 1901/1764).

In his essay “On Prejudice”, Hazlitt (1903/1830) reached an analogous conclusion, but he also added two important observations: (A) that human reason may be rarely able to ratify any such opinions, thus issuing good judgements; and (B) that we may have to rely on prejudice instead, insofar as:

We can only judge for ourselves in what concerns ourselves, and in things about us: and even there we must trust continually to established opinion and current report; in higher and more abstruse points we must pin our faith still more on others… I walk along the streets without fearing that the houses will fall on my head, though I have not examined their foundation; and I believe firmly in the Newtonian system, though I have never read the Principia. In the former case, I argue that if the houses were included to fall they would not wait for me; and in the latter, I acquiesce in what all who have studies the subject, and are capable of understanding it, agree in, having no reason to suspect the contrary. That the earth turns round is agreeable to my understanding, though it shocks my sense, which is however too weak to grapple with so vast a question.

Voltaire’s case suggests that, pace very many fellow Enlightenment thinkers (cf. Dorschel, 2000) and today’s prevalent parlance exemplified by Penco (2019), prejudices may not always be bad and worthy of elimination, lest we let our children fail to acquire basic moral and social principles of conduct (cf. also Billig, 1988). Hazlitt’s reflections add that prejudices are quite simply necessary for us to function at any level. Without holding some prejudices qua tacit presuppositions of our voluntary actions, including our thinking and talking, no common person or no eminent scientist could attain anything whatsoever. Descartes (1968/1637), for instance, when engaging in radical doubt, did never stop assuming that the meaning of his own words and concepts would persist unchanged through time.

In the modern age, Pascal (1993/1670), Vico (2013/1710), Schlegel (1975/1796–1806) and Amiel (1981/1860–1863) concurred on this point, though only the last two may have used the term “prejudice” as such. In the 20th century, the great Hungarian chemist and philosopher Polanyi (1969) reached the same conclusion too. Indeed, Polanyi (1962/1958) reflected on how young persons, were they not prejudicially convinced of the value of a discipline that they do not yet know, would never endeavour to learn it, and that scientists themselves, without prejudicial faith in the actual presence of a valuable bit of unknown knowledge, would never strive to discover it, sometimes at great peril for themselves, their career, or even their wellbeing. What is more, both students and scientists may fail miserably, thus confirming the prejudicial character of their presuppositions. Had they not held them, though, then they would have not even tried. Also, had they held them lightly, then they would have been less likely to succeed. As sportsmen, soldiers and artists know well, a crucial step in achieving anything great is to believe that you can do it, even if you have never done anything like that before and would have good reasons to conclude that you are unlikely to be able to (Dorschel, 2000; it should be noted that Polanyi did not use the term “prejudice” as such).

Moreover, in spite of all the novel sciences and great technologies that thinkers such as Bacon (1902/1620) and Descartes (1968/1637) could only begin to fathom, or the revolutionary political freedoms and personal emancipations conquered since their times, Polanyi (1969) noted as well how the power and propensity of humankind for cruelty and oppression did not seem to have waned over the modern centuries. If anything, the greatest slaughters and the very imperilment of human survival as a species have characterised the most recent ones, not the distant ages that the Enlightenment thinkers would have described as filled with prejudice and superstition (cf. also Hobsbawm, 1994).

Back in 1721, Swift’s popular Modest Proposal had already reached, in a satirical tone, the murderous conclusions that his day’s allegedly enlightened and scientific rationality could lead to. Specifically, the most effective economic solution to the famine in Ireland, as he had sarcastically argued, was to breed poor people’s children for public consumption. Indeed, Swift had noted in his earlier Thoughts on Various Subjects: “Some men, under the notions of weeding out prejudices, eradicate virtue, honesty, and religion.” On its part, Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1923/1791: 467) reports the famous moralist to have said: “To be prejudiced is always to be weak; yet there are prejudices so near to laudable that they have been often praised, and are always pardoned.”

Before both these Anglophone authors, Fontenelle (1683/1803: 92–96; translation ours) had reflected on the expediency of those “prejudices” that “philosophers” seem eager to “destroy”: “common opinions” can be very “handy” and “useful”, whenever we may have too little knowledge, time or opportunity to reason fully about things—which is far from being an uncommon experience, since “reason offers us a very small number of sure maxims”. In the same pages, Fontenelle (ibid.) observed also how “prejudices” are part of the heritage or “costume” of “our Country”: they are constitutive elements of people’s identity, the source of their sense of belonging, that is, important threads in the fabric of society itself.

The importance of prejudice for identity, belonging and social cohesion is a specific theme that other defenders of prejudice discussed at length. Duclos (2004/1751: 7; translation ours), for one, defined “prejudice… a judgment held or admitted without examination, which can be true or mistaken”. Although it may be wise to try to eradicate erroneous and nefarious prejudices, he thought it unwise, “for the good of society”, to carry the Enlightenment’s battle against prejudices much farther: why “demonstrating accepted truths”, if “recommending their practice” can be enough? (Duclos, 2004/1751: 7; translation ours) Why trying to make people reach by “reasoning” what they do already by “sentiment”, or “an honest prejudice?” (Duclos, 2004/1751: 8; translation ours) Hume (1964/1742) and Chesterfield (1847/1779) made similar points, but Duclos added: “Prejudice is the common law of men” and as such it should be respected; whereas “by wanting to enlighten people too eagerly, we teach them a dangerous presumption” that can lead to dreadful moral and social chaos (Duclos, 2004/1751: 7; translation ours).**

Moral and social chaos is precisely what Burke (2008/1790: 42 & 63) observed in France at the time of the Revolution, which he believed to have been inspired by “sophisters, economists; and calculators” who thought that they were “combating prejudice, but [were] at war with nature.” Preferring, as a general rule, the present time-tested institutions to the future ones pandered by revolutionary thinkers, Burke (2008/1790: 72) famously stated:

You see, Sir, that in this enlightened age I am bold enough to confess that we are generally men of untaught feelings, that, instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree, and, to take more shame to ourselves, we cherish them because they are prejudices; and the longer they have lasted and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them. We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.

Currently, it is rare to hear any philosopher speaking well of “prejudice”, whether in the epistemic context or in others, e.g., politics, morals, education. Somehow, the pejoration of this notion has reached a point such that the usages made of it by Johnson or Fontenelle sound odd to our hears. Different words should be used, e.g., “preconception, presupposition, hypothesis, presumption, presentiment, presage, premonition, foreboding, predilection, prepossession, outlook, expectation or anticipation in general…intuition.” (Dorschel, 2000: 58 & 136; emphasis removed) Yet, as Dorschel argues (2000: 136; emphasis added), “such choice of terms is a matter of rhetoric”, in the technical sense of this term, i.e. as appropriate to the circumstances (or kairos; cf. Barthes, 1988). Depending on the audience and on the point to be made, “eulogistic” or “dyslogistic” synonyms are to be preferred, if and when “prejudice” may appear inappropriate (cf. Bentham, 1824: 214).

Still, whether we use “prejudice” or not, the fact remains that “if some of our beliefs are based on reasons, there has to be something which is not based on reasons. We are able to reason in support of certain things and to prove certain things only if and because there are other things for which we do not have reasons or proof.” (Dorschel, 2000: 135). Recognising the existence and the value of this “something” or of these “things”, whether we call them “prejudices” or “intuitions” or else, is the contribution of Voltaire, Fontenelle, Burke and the other eccentric defenders of “prejudice” qua “prejudice”. They did not succeed in stopping the pejoration of “prejudice” as such, but they succeeded in preserving important insights concerning the tacit assumptions of human agency at large, the educational limits of thoroughly rational approaches, the complex sources of morality, the roots of political power, and the needs for cultural identity and social belonging.


* The present text is part of a longer written contribution prepared for “Remix”, an Erasmus+ online teaching project on transnational migration that should commence across several European countries in June 2020.

** This short text is being published during the Covid-19 international crisis. Thus, I wish to provide a topical example of the corrosive “presumption” that Duclos associates with the modern preference for reasoning at all costs, rather than relying on good prejudice. Specifically, the reader may want to reflect on all those individuals who, especially on ever-popular social media, feel entitled to challenge with all kinds of arguments, however faulty and uninformed these may be, the far more competent individuals and institutions that their grandparents would have treated, prejudicially, with great deference and humble respect (e.g. physicians, epidemiologists, national health institutes). 



Allport, G.W. (1954), The Nature of Prejudice, Cambridge, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.

Amiel, H-F. (1981/1860–1863), Journal intime, vol. 4, Lausanne : Editions l’Age d’Homme.

Bacon, F. (1902/1620), Novum Organon, New York: P.F. Collier & Son.

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Bentham, J. (1824), The Book of Fallacies, London: J. & H.L. Hunt.

Billig, M. (1988), “The Notion of ‘Prejudice’: Some rhetorical and ideological aspects”, Text 8 (1–2): 91–110.

Boswell, J. (1923/1791), Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Chicago: Scott, Foresman & Co.

Burke, E. (2008/1790), Reflections on the Revolution in France, Hamilton, ON: Archive for the History of Economic Thought, <https://socialsciences.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/burke/revfrance.pdf>.

Chesterfield, P.D. Stanthorpe, Earl of (1847/1779), Letters, London: R. Bentley.

Descartes, R. (1968/1637), Discourse on Method and Other Writings, London: Penguin.

Dorschel, A. (2000), Rethinking Prejudice, Aldershot: Ashgate.

Duckitt, J. (1992), The Social Psychology of Prejudice, Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Duclos, C.P. (2004/1751), Considérations sur les mœurs de ce siècle, npa: F-D. Fournier, <http://www.mediterranee-antique.fr/Fichiers_PdF/PQRS/Pinot_Duclos/Consid%C3%A9rations.pdf>.

Fontenelle, M. de (1683/1803), Nouveaux dialogues des morts, Köln: J. Dulont.

Gadamer, H-G. (1985/1960), Truth and Method, New York: Crossroad.

Hazlitt, W. (1903/1830), “On Prejudice”, Sketches and Essays, London: Richards, <http://www.blupete.com/Literature/Essays/Hazlitt/Prejudice.htm>.

Hobsbawm, E. (1994), The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, London: Michael Joseph.

Hume, D. (1964/1742), “Of Moral Prejudices”, The Philosophical Works, Aalen: Scientia, pp. 371–375.

Lewis, C.T & Short, C. (1879), “Praejudicium”, A Latin Dictionary. Founded on Andrews’ edition of Freund’s Latin dictionary, Oxford: Clarendon Press, <https://lsj.gr/wiki/praeiudicium>.

Newman, J. (1979), “Prejudice as Prejudgment”, Ethics 90(1): 47–57.

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Pascal, B. (1993/1670), Pensieri, Milan: Rusconi.

Penco, C. (2019), “Prejudice and Presupposition in Offensive Language”, Nordicum-Mediterraneum, 12(3), <https://nome.unak.is/wordpress/volume-12-no-3-2017/conference-proceeding-volume-12-no-3-2017/prejudice-presupposition-offensive-language/>

Polanyi, M. (1962/1958), Personal Knowledge. Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Polanyi, M. (1969), Knowing and Being, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Schlegel, F. (1975/1796–1806), Philosophische Lehrjahre, Paderborn: Verlag Ferdinand Schöningh.

Swift, J. (1730/1721), A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burthen to their Parents or the Country, And for making them Beneficial to the Publick, London: W. Bickerton, <https://books.google.is/books?id=t1MJAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover&hl=is&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>.

Swift, J. (2014/1706), Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting, Adelaide: The University of Adelaide Library, <https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/swift/jonathan/s97th/>.

Van Dijk, T. (1984), Prejudice in Discourse, Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Co.

Vico, G.B. (2013/1710), De antiquissima italorum sapientia ex linguae latinae originibus eruenda, Napoli: ISPF, <http://www.giambattistavico.it/opere/deantiquissima>.

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Polarization and the Role of Digital Media

Group polarization is a serious and worrying phenomenon developing in democratic societies. It occurs «when members of a deliberating group move toward a more extreme point in whatever direction is indicated by the members’ predeliberation tendency» (Sunstein, 1999: 3-4). As a result, after a discussion where different points of view emerge, people tend to align to the opinion they were already tending to, before the discussion itself. For example, if confronted with someone that supports a different position, people who believe that vaccines are linked to autism will adhere to their pre-existing perspectives with much more conviction; the same will occur between left-leaning voters or pro-feminist activists and so on.

This mechanism ‒ that creates extreme views in a group after deliberation ‒ clearly leads to a strong fragmentation on political and social issues and, in some cases, to the rise of extremism and fanaticism.

When society develops into factions that are not able to communicate and understand each other, democratic institutions weaken, because democracy needs a healthy public debate (i.e. open, constructive, balanced) to remain strong and vital.

Polarization is not a new problem, nor is a specific issue of the digital age. Groups tended to be polarized far before the rise of the Internet and social media.

How is polarization shaped by the peculiar characteristics of Web and digital environments, though? Is the Internet causing a more polarized public opinion, exacerbating differences and confrontations between different groups?

Through the review of the current state of the art, I will try to point out the main characteristics and issues of online polarization. I will refer particularly to the theories developed by Cass Sunstein, one of the first academic that has recognized the importance of group polarization in democratic societies. Then, I will analyse lots of empirical studies that have tried to examine the behaviour of online group users with the aim to give a precise representation of the phenomenon. Moreover, online polarization will be addressed as a result of three different causes interacting with each other:

  1. the individual one, represented by bias and heuristics (i.e. mental shortcuts based on empirical thinking);
  2. the social one, through the formation of echo-chambers;
  3. the technological one, with the rise of algorithms and the so-called filter bubbles.


Three Explanations for Polarization

Being polarized doesn’t simply mean having strong disagreements with others who share a different worldview: in a free society finding contrasting opinions is a sign of good health, not a manifestation of decadence. Diversity is a desirable virtue for a democratic society. But polarization goes far beyond this natural co-existence of divergent thoughts: it means having personal and «emotionally charged negative feelings» (Blankenhorn, 2015) towards those who think in other ways, that are recognized as members of an opposite, rival group. It’s “us” against “them”, in which “them” is the enemy, viewed as a group of people who are certainly wrong in their values and beliefs (while “we” are certainly right).

Why does this happen?

There are mainly three reasons why groups tend to polarize:

  1. persuasive arguments and information: people should change their minds according to the most convincing argument. But «if the group’s members are already inclined in a certain direction, they will offer a disproportionately large number of arguments tending in that same direction, and a disproportionately small number of arguments tending the other way» (Sunstein, 2017: 72). The limited argument pool will only reinforce pre-existing convictions, leading to group polarization;
  2. reputational reasons: people care about their reputation and want to be accepted by other group’s members. That’s why they tend to be aligned to the dominant position, while minority opinions dissolve in a «spiral of silence» (Noell-Neumann, 1984);
  3. confidence, extremism and corroboration: polarization increases when people feel more confident. If someone is not certain about an issue, then there’s less possibility that he might develop extreme beliefs about that issue, while extremism fosters polarization. Corroboration and agreement from other group’s members can increase someone’s confidence: like-minded people talking to each other become more convinced of their opinions and thus more extreme.

It’s also important to underline the role of traditional and social media in the development of polarization, as they are vectors of information and places that gather together homogeneous groups of people. News in newspapers, television and digital media can be reliable, truthful, or correct but never completely objective: there will always be a point of view, a shade of interpretation, a trace of subjectivity. Consumers and users choose the source of information that better fits in with their worldviews. Thus, Christians will address to newspapers that are near to the thought of the Church; right-wing voters to the ones that support the traditional values of the Right and so on.

Media, if devoted to one cause and openly partisan, can enhance polarization. This happened also in the past; but how has the Interned changed the situation?


Internet and the “Daily Me”

With the rise of the Internet, and in particular of the so-called Web 2.0 era (O’ Reilly, 2004), there has been a real shift of paradigm in the creation and consumptions of information, passing from a mediated (think about the traditional role of journalists) to a more disintermediate selection process. Users are more independent in choosing their source of information, because of the wide availability of contents on the Internet. Furthermore, on social media the exchange of info, from the producer to the consumer is much more direct and interactive: users can debate, react and contribute with their role to the success of a specific content. They can even create new contents, not being just a passive audience but turning into “prosumer” (Toffler, 1980).

In 1995, Nicholas Negroponte theorized the “Daily Me” (Negroponte, 1995), a personalized and tailored made news package, containing only information previously chosen. We are not far from that. On the Internet, users have the power to filter what they see: they can subscribe to specific newsletters or channels (for example on YouTube) and deliberately avoid source of information whose values they don’t agree with. These developments increase individual power and entertainment. Filtering, by itself, is a normal and democratic process: in a free society no one is forced against his or her will to watch or read something. The present situation combines in worrying ways «a dramatic increase in available options, a simultaneous increase in individual control over content, and a corresponding decrease in the power of general interest intermediaries» (Sunstein, 2007: 8). By “general interest intermediaries” Sunstein means newspapers, magazines, broadcasters which may bring to people not only the information they already look for, but also unwanted and unexpected information.

How does such condition affect polarization?

First, people on the Web can easily get connected to people with similar views: in like-minded groups opinions tend to polarize. In such environments, it’s also easier for individuals to self-segregate ideologically, building gated communities.

As a second issue, users of the social media are predisposed to look for information that confirms their system of beliefs. This could lead to extremism and a distorted vision of reality.


Of Biases, Echo-chambers and Filter Bubbles

I will now try to analyse the three different levels that combined together lead to group polarization on social media.

In spite of the theory of communicative rationality theorized by Apel and Habermas, human beings are not completely driven by rationality when they deliberate and take decisions. Human minds are regulated by two different thinking systems: System 1, dedicated to fast thinking and guided by emotional response and heuristics and System 2, connected to slow thinking, responsible of critical and logical speculation and needing more attention and cognitive effort (Kahneman, 2011). Each of them should be activated by specific situations. Heuristics, which are not linked to logical thinking but use empirical methods to decode reality, are useful only in certain circumstances: otherwise they can bring to distortions and misjudgements. Together with heuristics, individuals are affected in their excogitations by inclinations and prejudices, called bias, determined by personal experience and history, intimate beliefs, personality traits, and the socio-cultural context in which someone lives in.

There are many types of bias: confirmation bias is the most important aspect to be able to understand the role of personal inclinations of polarized communities online. It occurs when «one selectively gathers, or gives undue weight to, evidence that supports one’s position while neglecting to gather, or discounting, evidence that would tell against it» (Nickerson, 1998). Other two biases are important for the dynamics of polarized community: the bias blind spot (the inability to detect one’s own biases; Pronin, Lin, and Ross, 2002) and the bandwagon effect (individuals adopting the majority opinion; Nadeau, Cloutier, and Guay, 1993).

Personal inclinations can easily lead to the polarizations of one own’s beliefs: together with social influence (i.e. the process under which someone’s values, behaviours or opinions are affected by others), biases can result in polarization (Del Vicario, et al., 2016a; Bessi, Zollo et al., 2015a). This is what I describe as “individual level”: opinions tend to polarize because individuals are deceived by cognitive biases. During a discussion, participants will take as reliable only the arguments that confirm their pre-existing views, according to their system of beliefs, and reject those who contradict prior preconceptions. When in Internet, people are exposed to plenty of different opinions, but they will be naturally inclined to listen to the ones with which they already agree. This also proofs that «individuals who receive unwelcome information may not simply resist challenges to their views. Instead, they may come to support their original opinion even more strongly … a “backfire effect”» (Nyhan, Reifler 2010).

This kind of automatisms (bias and heuristics), which have existed since the dawn of times, have intertwined with digital technology in an alarming way, amplifying the diffusion of misinformation and disinformation and poisoning public debates in social networks.

The individual level of polarization on social media merges together with the social one.

Online spaces take shape as groups of social networks and subnetworks (Castells, 1996). These networks are mostly composed by people which share similar values and interests: this peculiarity is called homophily. That’s why on Facebook our “friends” are likely to be ideologically and politically homogeneous to us; that’s why on Twitter we follow mostly people which we identify with. «Similarity breeds connection» (McPherson, Smith-Lovin and Cook, 2001: 415). The tendency towards homophily is one of the causes of the formation of echo-chambers online (Bright, 2017; Barberá, 2017).

Echo-chambers are homophile clusters, digital environments that gather together homogeneous groups of people. Cass Sunstein has been one of the first academic to study them. On 2001, before the birth of social media, he wrote about the risk of fragmentation brought by these digital spaces, considering it a danger for democracy:

…it is important to realize that a well-functioning democracy—a republic—depends not just on freedom from censorship, but also on a set of common experiences and on unsought, unanticipated, and even unwanted exposures to diverse topics, people, and ideas. A system of “gated communities” is as unhealthy for cyberspace as it is for the real world. (Sunstein, 2001: 2).

Many studies have proved and investigated the existence of echo-chambers on different social networks (about Facebook: Bessi, et al., 2015a; Bakshy, Messing, and Adamic, 2015; Del Vicario, et al., 2016b; Quattrociocchi, Scala, and Sunstein, 2016; Bessi, et al. 2016; about Twitter: Himelboim, McCreery, and Smith, 2013; Colleoni, Rozza, and Arvidsson, 2014; Garimella, et al., 2018).

It’s not easy in echo-chambers to run into people that have different values and beliefs, because of their homophily. Inside of them, groups tend to polarize because some information and opinions are constantly echoed and repeated while others seem to disappear.

Group’s members see only what confirms their previous conceptions and live closed in «information cocoons» (Sunstein, 2017). Moreover, some studies have proved that members of groups that support opposite narrative (such as science vs conspiracy groups) are inclined to interact only with their own community while when they relate to others from different echo-chamber they do not communicate, but express only negative feelings or comments (Bessi, et al., 2015c; Zollo, et al., 2017).

Thus, all these elements put together ‒ confirmation bias, homophily and the isolated and deformed reality of echo-chambers ‒ lead to group polarization. It is also true that some researchers have found that not everyone is using the Internet to segregate in echo-chambers but only those who are already extremist and partisan in their views (Gentzkow, and Shapiro, 2011; Guess, 2016), although these subjects «exercise disproportionate influence» over the political system (Nyhan, 2016).

In summary, the technological element adds heavily to the mixture of biases and echo-chambers. Social media and search engines operate through algorithms, automatic procedures that using a predetermined number of steps aim to solve a problem. These technologies are mainly used for researching, content promotion, selection and filtering. Without algorithms, the average user would be lost in the depths of the Internet.

There are also collateral effects, that must be taken into consideration since they can lead to further distortions and deformations of the real, stimulating polarization and strengthening the effects of bias and echo-chambers (Flaxman, Goel, and Rao, 2016; Bessi, et al., 2016; Johnson, et al., 2017). Eli Pariser, one of the first academics to talk about this phenomenon, created the term filter bubble to address this condition (Pariser, 2011). Algorithms, by giving priority to certain contents, would isolate people in their own bubble, where alternative points of view struggle to enter. This happens because they «foster personalized contents according to user tastes—i.e. they show users viewpoints that they already agree with» (Bessi, et al., 2016). That’s exactly what is stated by a post from Facebook Newsroom about changes in the NewsFeed, published on April 21, 2016:

we make updates to help make sure you see the most relevant stories at the top… With this change, we can better understand which articles might be interesting to you based on how long you and others read them, so you’ll be more likely to see stories you’re interested in reading (Blanc, Xu, 2016).

Online platforms, through customization and the use of algorithms, give priority to the most relevant contents, but the logic behind this concept is questionable. What does the word relevant mean in such a contest? Is something relevant just because people would be interested in reading it? These tailored made services can bring to polarization because they corroborate people’s biases, by giving them what they already like or have searched for. Moreover, they reinforce the segregation of echo-chambers.



The most serious aspect of the “algorithm dilemma” is that the mediation operated by platforms to the most is unknown: many people do not even imagine according to which criteria Google or Facebook propose contents. In the same way, it’s difficult to recognize your own bias or the dynamics of echo chambers. Thus, people believe they are objective and well-informed, while their visions of the world are affected and influenced by mechanisms invisible to them. This makes emancipation even more difficult.

A homogeneous and cohesive group, isolation, and a little presence of contrasting points of view: these are the conditions that lead to group polarization. Polarization is well represented both offline and online. On the Internet, three different dynamics promote the development and spread of group polarization: personal leanings (individual level), the forming of gated communities called echo-chambers (social level) and the selective action of automatic algorithms (technological level). These elements could be considered three different kind of biases ‒ «bias in the brain, bias in society, bias in the machine» (Ciampaglia, and Menczer, 2018) ‒ that combined together isolate communities and strengthen fragmentation.



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The Rhetoric of Prejudice: Can Europe Still Be Inclusive? Some Remarks

On May 9, 2017, Europe Day, a date chosen as a sign of goodwill for the future of Europe, a group of philosophers, linguists, historians, political scientists and media experts, coming from Belgium, France, Greece, Iceland, Norway, Poland, and Italy of course, gathered in Genoa (Italy) to debate The Rhetoric of Prejudice. The subtitle of the Conference, which should not to be overlooked, posed a crucial question: can Europe still be inclusive?

Opening the conference on Europe Day was presumed to have a symbolic flavour, seventy years after the Treaty of Rome. A choice that marked the will to strengthen the ties of an already-existing scholarly network, the aim of which lies in the mutual exchange of cultural and academic concerns, in order to face without hypocrisies and restraints social and political topics, however unpleasant they may be.

The conference has been conceived as the first step of a research path which involves a larger network of scholars, from Northern and Southern, Eastern and Western Europe. In fact, this group has proposed to the European Commission a Cost action on Discourses of violence and peaceful persuasion: new and past Rhetoric in Europe, as a useful instrument to tackle the language of violent propaganda, a major challenge for Europe today. More specifically, the Action wishes to provide a comparative analysis of the patterns of both violent rhetoric and peaceful communication, in order to identify their core-principles and offer recommendations and strategies to everyone confronted with these phenomena in the public sphere (political journalists, policymakers engaged in educational and cultural policies, teachers, civil servants, social workers, NGO’s operators and International public organizations).

We believe that only an international and inter-disciplinary network will lead to a thorough comprehension of the political, religious, and philosophical roots of the persuasive arguments that, having a strong impact on social imaginary and historical narratives, seem to justify violence or, the other way around, can lead the audience to recognize the value of peaceful communication.

The inquiry has started with the meeting in Genoa and tried to trigger a free and balanced debate on language and its relations with power and society. More than ever, we focused on the multiple misgivings caused by the distorted and discriminative use of language, though conscious or unconscious.

The topic was “prejudice”, and there’s no need to remind that an abundant and eclectic literature has been produced on the issue, in the fields of psychology, sociology, anthropology and philosophy of science in 20th century, from Adorno and his eminent theories to Allport, Tajfel and Teun van Dijk, just to name the best-known scholars.

As a first step, looking at a bunch of national dictionaries could help us to grasp what prejudice is; or better, how it is defined in various contexts.

In Italian: Giudizio basato su opinioni precostituite e su stati d’animo irrazionali, anziché sull’esperienza e sulla conoscenza diretta (Il Sabatini Coletti. Dizionario della lingua italiana).

In French: Jugement sur quelqu’un, quelque chose, qui est formé à l’avance selon certains critères personnels et qui oriente en bien ou en mal les dispositions d’esprit à l’égard de cette personne, de cette chose (Dictionnaire de Français Larousse online).

In English: An unfair and unreasonable opinion or feeling, especially when formed without enough thought or knowledge (Cambridge Dictionary online).

So: lack of knowledge, experience, rationality, critical skills…

If we were to “limit” ourselves to a strictly philosophical approach, we could face the question reassessing the legacy, so to say, of the Enlightenment or Hermeneutics. According to the Enlightenment approach, we can assume that reason, in its path towards the truth, must get rid of prejudices as well as any other sort of deceitful knowledge available beforehand. But we could also deem prejudices, in the way Gadamer did, as the unavoidable starting point of any enquiry on the world and its structure. In fact, Gadamer’s treatment of prejudice is by far more moderate and “liquid”:

Actually ‘prejudice’ means a judgment that is rendered before all the elements that determine a situation have been finally examined.  […]  Thus ‘prejudice’ certainly does not mean necessarily a false judgment, but part of the idea is that it can have either a positive or a negative value (Gadamer 2004: 308).

We could also think that prejudice should not be challenged upon a rigorously rational ground, when emotions play a role in the definition of its cognitive value. More than ever since we are equally interested in the output: how prejudice is expressed and its impact on a relational, social and political level.

Here, moreover, other actors enter the scene, namely the study of language and communication: what about the various means of expressing prejudices – verbal, visual, physical etc.? Does a rhetoric of prejudice really exist? Do we rely on a typical verbal or visual form to express our prejudices? What is more, do we emphasize improperly our negative prejudices?

This issue is particularly important, because the rhetoric of prejudice and the logic of exclusion are strictly connected. If we want to think anew the European societies as societies of inclusion, we must pay close attention to language, to the different types of narratives through which negative prejudices are expressed.

Prejudice is grounded on the absence of recognition as far as identity is involved. Such a lack of recognition denounces not merely the want of a shared history, but, focusing on the existence of a small community, our common heritage and the same belonging to mankind. Any co-identity is forbidden when it comes to prejudice; what we face, here, is the rejection of co-identity, even as an option.

So if we could come close to unveil the rhetorical tools of prejudice, we could also fight prejudice by means of  a “good” rhetoric, apt to “resolve the problem itself of prejudice”.

The rhetorical analysis of prejudice has a large space of inquiry: cultural industry and media produce and reproduce a set of diffused prejudices; the discourses of political leaders are often embedded with prejudices; through everyday language and, in the present tense, from blogs and social networks, harmful sentences filled with words of hate and racial, sexual, ethnic, religious prejudice bounce in the net, as well as just till the newest shape prejudice has picked up, the one which points the finger against experts in the fields of politics, science, medicine, education, media…

Once the ruling classes were highly influential in the production and diffusion alike of prejudices; today, though, elites experience a great loss of fortune and guidance, being followed, or even recognized, no more by public opinion. The leading role has passed to the web-based influencers, who seem not to violate the horizontal power-structure streaming from the net. All in all, public discourse itself apparently has become flat, so that popular judgment, instead of public opinion, is feared of.

We should wonder whether it be feasible to fight this state of affairs, triggered by what I would call “horizontal prejudices”, by means of a rhetorical strategy embodied in daily acts of non-racism, non-anti-Semitism, non-homophobia, non-misogyny etc., where the moral and linguistic extents are inextricably tied up, which means resisting those prejudices stationing inside of us as well.

Adhering to this view, the distinguished scholars in rhetoric and argumentation, history of philosophy, social ethics and political science attending the Conference have delivered their papers, a first group of which is published here.


The congress got started with the prolusion of Maria Zaleska, associate professor at the University of Warsaw, Department of Italian Studies, and president of the Polish Rhetoric Society, who stressed the crucial role of rhetoric and the need to depict a “good rhetoric” through a novel appreciation of its theoretical and methodological stances (please note that her contribution will have to be uploaded at a later stage than the others). A road alike was taken by Victor Ferry, a member of the Groupe de Rhétorique et Argumentation Linguistique at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, a network of scholars who try to rejuvenate the teaching of Chaim Perelman. Dr. Ferry has argued that precise argumentative techniques could be used, as revealed by multiple experiences of high-school and college students groups, to soften social habits and teach people mutual respect, when it comes to ideas and values so different to seem irreconcilable.

Carlo Penco, professor of philosophy of language at the University of Genoa, has focused, by his side, on non-offensive language as a means of self-discipline: in the steps of the Italian philosopher Flavio Baroncelli, former professor of moral and political philosophy at the University of Genoa, Penco maintained that the collapse of any distinction of the public and private spheres in the field of communication, most noticeably in social media, threatens the same role of non-offensive language as a tool of respect and appropriateness. New media and technology, then, challenge us all to find original solutions to overcome negative prejudices.

The freedom-attaining potential of language by means of a close dialogue between reason and emotions has found its way in the paper of professor Paola de Cuzzani, of the University of Bergen, who provided the audience with an interesting and innovative reading of Spinoza. While Dr. Hans Marius Hansteen (University of Bergen) has compared Adorno’s theory of authoritarian behaviour to Paul Ricoeur’s main theses. In so doing, he has revealed how ideology, utopianism and prejudice share a possibly common ground when we deal with an identity-driven utopia which leads to a sort of dis-humanizing rejection of the Other.

Pascal Nouvel, professor at the University of Tours – François Rabelais, by his side has proposed an interesting, new tool to explore the logic of prejudice: the analysis of inner discourse in classic, award-winning novels. Quite an extraordinary example of this method has been presented by Nouvel in his reading of the inner speech of detestation in some pages of In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust.

We have seen, so far, that the pluralistic nature of the approaches has allowed us to debate the rhetoric of privilege in nearly every distinctive feature. The same applies to the papers more centered on the social relevance of prejudice, as to philosophy, politics and the media. There is no need to say that the very idea of prejudice retains a strong impact on political culture, public communication and policy-enhancing: Giorgio Baruchello, professor at the University of Akureyri, offered a provocative though persuading study of Donald Trump’s political rhetoric through the lens of Richard Rorty’s vision, while Dr. Alberto Giordano (University of Genoa) has emphasized the fact that contemporary populists set up their discourse around some fixed patterns such as the worship of the people, an inner appeal to prejudice and the rhetoric of privilege.

The conference closed with a stimulating paper centered on the ambiguous and often dangerous liaison between prejudices and media: Dimitra Dimitrakopoulou (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki), indeed, has wondered how much both traditional and new media increase or fight prejudices, relying on their peculiar lexical and narrative choices in the Greek political context.

In the end, while countries like Greece and in Italy, but it might be said the whole Southern Europe, must confront with dramatic choices all along the refugee and migrant crisis, the scholars who attended the Conference agreed on the reflection that the way in which old and new media handle the story of migrants and refugees could be a good starting point to question the topic of prejudice in our countries. Would it be enough to fight the rhetoric of fear and build anew an inclusive Europe?


Populism, Prejudice and the Rhetoric of Privilege

In a short statement released late in the evening of April 23, 2017, just after the first run of the French presidential elections, madame Marine Le Pen, the well-known candidate of the far-right party Front National who had won the second position after Emmanuel Macron, addressed her supporters gathered in her headquarters:

 Il est temps désormais de libérer le peuple français, tout le peuple, sans oublier nos compatriotes d’Outre-Mer qui ont exprimé à mon égard une confiance qui m’honore, il est temps de libérer le peuple français d’élites arrogantes qui veulent lui dicter sa conduite. Car oui, je suis la candidate du peuple[1]. (Le Pen 2017a)


This passage, quite impressive indeed, seems clear enough to introduce the working hypothesis that I will try to prove throughout this paper, that is to show how much, and how frequently, populists set up their discourse around a relatively small number of patterns, which happen to be often intertwined. All in all, my guess is that we may identify three main narratives:

1) the worship of the people;

2) a hidden appeal to prejudice;

3) the rhetoric of privilege.


Why are they so fundamental? In my view, because they serve the creation of the most remarkable character which may be found in most populist galleries, i.e. the ‘enemy of the people’, who apparently enjoys all those benefits and rights that people at large have been stripped of. I will proceed by offering a quick insight into the most interesting studies on populism and its rhetoric, sketching the three main narrative patterns by means of a close look at recent samples of populist political communication and, as a final point, submitting some provisional closing remarks.



Defining Populism: A Never-Ending Story

The vast and varied literature on populism, its nature and rhetorical legacy is proof of a continuing fascination for scholars, who, nonetheless, fail to agree on a standard definition of the concept itself. Three approaches, at least, contend the market of political science, each stressing a (presumably) unique feature of populism:

1) the ideology approach;

2) the discoursive approach;

3) the attitude approach.


According to the first, populism can be understood only in terms of an ideology, however thin it may be (Canovan 1981, Mudde 2004; Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser 2017). It is, for sure, an odd ideology, moving beyond class identity and political affiliation (the left/right cleavage so often derided by populists) but holding a strong grab on the sovereignty of the people, the crucial role of leaders (whose words often have a healing effect on social evils, according to Incisa di Camerana 1976) and the anti-establishment perspective, issues which could make of populism an inner alternative to the liberal democratic theory and practice (Mény and Surel 2000).

Still, the ideology approach underestimates the communicative value of populist narratives, which is why a good number of researchers have developed the discoursive approach, focusing on the rhetorical patterns performed by most populist leaders and representatives. Scholars such as Taguieff (2002), Laclau (2005), Reisigl (2007) and Cedroni (2010), however differing in the scope and methodology of their analyses, share a common belief in the fact that populism is «a political style that is used by a wide range of actors across the world today» and consequently highlight its «performative aspects» (Moffitt 2016: 28).

Others, though, – like Betz (1994), Taggart (2000) and De la Torre (2008) – deem both the ideology approach and the discoursive approach equally inadequate to embrace a phenomenon so complex as populism is. In fact, their proposal lies in the depiction of populism as an attitude, a state of mind marked by «a peculiar vision of social order grounded on the faith in the aboriginal virtues of the people, whose primacy as the sole legitimate foundation of political life and governmental policies is openly and proudly called for» (Tarchi 2015: 52).

Notwithstanding the differences, the aforementioned approaches converge towards the acknowledgment of ‘the people’ as a key principle in populist thought and storytelling. Yet, they seem to miss – more or less extensively – a crucial point, i.e. that the supremacy of the people (at least, in the brand new fashion sanctioned by populists) is forcefully, and furtively, connected to an ambiguous usage of stereotypes and prejudices in order to stimulate a spontaneous reaction of the people (i.e. the voters) against those targets which are blamed for their privileges (however real or presumed). This is what I will deal with in the next two paragraphs.



The People

What do populist mean when they invoke ‘the people’? If it is true that «all forms of populism without exception involve some kind of exaltation and appeal to ‘the people’» (Canovan 1981: 294), a remarkable feature of contemporary European and North American populism seems to be located in their embracing losers and victims – of globalization, governments and ruling classes, international organizations, industrial and financial élites, intellectual circles etc. – and turning them into ‘the people’[2]. A pro-common man and anti-elitist stance has always characterized any sort of populism, of course: for instance, the former leader of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), Jörg Haider, repeatedly stated that «very often plain people got a much wider good sense than top-notch politicians, who nonetheless try to teach them what moves their inner desires» (Cedroni 2014: 48). But, while we must surely keep in mind the «difference between populist audiences (those who are spoken to by populists) and populist constituencies (those who are spoken for by populists)» (Moffitt 2016: 96), it is nonetheless amazing to hear of how many odes to the real, and therefore disgraced, men and women are stunningly sung by populists, as in the case of Donald Trump’s inaugural address:

What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. January 20th 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now. (Trump 2017a)


In this portrait of ‘the people’, the moral and political dimensions of public life are strictly tied up, so that Nicholas Bay, the secretary-general of the Front National, could assert, back in 2015, that «the French long for a real, meaningful change, not merely a political but a moral break», since they had looked with disappointment at «the disdain towards democracy and the people displayed in the last few days by the affiliates of the political élite» (Bay 2015). These words let us notice another double-sided feature of populism, that is the contempt for traditional politicians and the consequent acclaim of populist leaders as the sole ‘voices of the people’.

No surprise that both Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, just to mention the most relevant, have largely relied on some slogans of the sort all along their campaigns: Trump’s merchandising managers made stickers and hats available with the motto ‘I am your voice’ and sold them abundantly, while Le Pen’s posters often claimed her being ‘la voix du peuple’. But why are populist leaders deemed as extraordinary by their supporters, at least as far as their proximity with the people is concerned? Because they can handle quite skillfully the rhetoric of difference: ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘pure people’ and ‘the corrupted few’, the ‘honest bulk of the people’ against the ‘wealthy turncoats’. A very good example, once again, is offered by a passage in Trump’s inaugural speech:

 Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning. Because today we are not merely transferring power from one Administration to another, or from one party to another – but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People. For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished – but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered – but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s Capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land. (Trump 2017a)


In sum, populist leaders are perceived as different not merely because they can legitimately speak for the people, but in so far as they belong to the people – which is funny, indeed, when we recall that a lot of populist billionaires like Trump, Berlusconi, Perot, Fujimori and many more have pretended to act as the true representatives of the common people. In so doing, it has been written with more than a reason, they can be successful «by emphasizing action and masculinity, playing into cultural stereotypes of the people and by proposing ‘common sense’ solutions at odds with the opinion of experts» (Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser 2017: 68). In the meantime, we should never forget what Jan-Werner Müller has argued so persuasively, that «in addition to being antielitist, populists are always antipluralist. Populists claim that they, and they alone, represent the people» (Müller 2016: 2). Which is why they need to sketch a detailed catalogue of enemies and their servants, appealing to our inner prejudices to decry their pretended privileges and clearing the way for an illiberal, absolute representative presumption.



Enemies, Prejudices, and Privileges

Many enemies, much honour: it seems like our populists have learnt the lesson well. Professional politicians, as we have seen, are the first on the list since they belong to the worst class, that of the ‘enemies of the people’. Politicians are not reliable because «they are not willing to do anything for you [common people], since they are submitted to Brussels, Berlin, to corporate interests and financial powers» (Le Pen 2017c); besides, they do not comply with the popular will, a reason to choose the populists who, instead, «offer the electorate a real alternative to the old status quo» and «ensure that the politicians are reminded that real people must not be ignored» (UKIP 2017: 2, 3).

Politicians, though, are just a small portion of the overwhelming assemblage of the enemies. Matteo Salvini, the young leader of the Northern League, tweeting right after the first run of the French presidential elections, for instance, included in the list «politicians and journalists, philosophers and pseudo-artists» not to mention the «bankers [who] celebrate Macron», while «around 40% of farmers and workers voted for Marine Le Pen» (Salvini 2017). Farmers and workers, the ‘pure people’, who vote for the populists, against the (un)happy few. Who are the latter? The privileged, the rich, the well-educated, the well-born, the ones who live under the State’s patronage and drain resources from the poor while scorning them.

Other targets, yet, are required these days: the EU and eurocrats are among the best for populists, both right-wing and left-wing (let me mention at least the anti-European rhetoric of Podemos and Syriza). European authorities are seen, a priori, as unfriendly rivals and true obstacles on the path of the people: UKIP leaders, for example, have long dreamt, before Brexit, of «a Britain released from the shackles of the interfering EU» since Europe is a «failing super-state that tells us what to do and does not listen to what we want» (UKIP 2015: 5). Of course eurocrats enjoy plenty of privileges, granted by the States’ contribution to the EU budget and sharply criticized by populists who, as in the case of the Finns Party, ask for the «termination of detrimental EU-bureaucracy» (The Finns Party 2015b: 5). Besides, eurocrats’ guilt exceeds by far their existence being, as they are sometimes, «designated by national governments to sit in mysterious committees» (Lega Nord 2014: 3).

The EU, in fact, in most populist narratives is portrayed as the ‘bad guy’ who forces member States to raise taxes and cut the healthcare, social insurance, culture etc., while the same «nation States are less and less democracy-driven», since the EU is an «obscure and distant entity» and does not listen to the people (Lega Nord 2014: 3). But Europe is responsible, as well and most noticeably, of the worst crime of all (in mainstream populist perception): the ‘open-door’ policy when it comes to immigration issues. Right-wing populism has monopolized the topic, since it «endorses a nativist notion of belonging, linked to a chauvinist and racialized concept of ‘the people’ and ‘the nation’» (Wodak 2015: 47); it consequently blames European authorities for «the EU’s founding, unshakable principle of the ‘free movement of people’» (UKIP 2015: 12) and proposes the «demission of the Schengen treaty to take back control of national borders» (Le Pen 2017b).

Still, there is something more subtle and disguising: the frequent appeals to anti-migrants prejudices (mostly anti-Muslim, at present) are often mingled – at least in the last few years – with a novel narrative pattern which emphasizes the alleged privileges of migrants and asylum seekers. After all, few months ago, Donald Trump explicitly told the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, that «immigration is a privilege, not a right, and the safety of our citizens must always come first» (Trump 2017b). But the same applies to what has been called the ‘welfare chauvinism’, a phenomenon that has recently reached its apex when European populist parties such as Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), the Swiss UDC, the Front National and the Finns’ Party (formerly known as the True Finns), have denied any legitimacy to whatever claim over national healthcare and social security programs put forward by «migrants who lack necessary skills for employment as well as for those with religious and cultural reasons that are not willing to accept basic European concepts and principles of equality and freedom of speech» (The Finns Party 2015a: 1). Even more plainly, right-wing populists very often deplore the fact that ‘our people’ is left behind, while the State and communities ‘pay for them’:

The Finns Party does not accept that people can reside in Finland illegally – never mind that these people are getting health and social care as well as extra and wider services. The asylum seekers are also getting support for transport and leisure activities – this situation should be reviewed. The Finnish welfare-state should not be acting as a magnet for immigration – the system should be prioritising Finns for receiving education and medical care and treatment services. The repercussion of the immigration flow on the welfare-system and its effect on the Finnish population must be brought under control. (The Finn’s Party 2017: 11)


How? Easy to figure out: as a first step, by the «termination of any public medical aid for illegal migrants» (Le Pen 2017c); then, maybe, introducing «an Australian-style points based system to manage the number and skills of people coming into the country» (UKIP 2015: 11) and so forth. The anti-privileged-migrants narrative deployed by populists is multifaceted as it is effective.

We have come so far to witness a full circle: the worship of ‘the people’ – even better: the belief that populists, and they alone, serve «the interests of a imagined homogeneous people inside a nation State» (Wodak 2015: 47) – has become the basis, and the ideological anchorage, for a series of appeals to intimate, well-rooted stereotypes and prejudices fueled by a discourse centered on a flamboyant condemnation of the privileges that others than ‘the pure people’ (politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, businessmen, intellectuals and, lately, migrants) apparently enjoy against the popular will. And this, in turn, «attracts the attention of the all-important media through which they [populist leaders] broadcast their appeal to ‘the people’» (Moffitt: 68). Voilà.



Final Remarks

In this paper I have tried to argue, looking at the most recent samples of political discourse in Europe and America, that most messages sent by populist are intended to flatter the people and stimulate prejudice-based reactions by means of the rhetoric of privilege, the strong impact of which on public opinion cannot be underrated. These narrative patterns, in my view, serve the purpose of creating a large gallery of enemies – however implausible they can be – that populists must rely on to develop their anti-establishment arguments.

What does this outcome tell us on populism and its nature? First, it confirms that Ruth Wodak was right when she maintained that populists are used to «instrumentalize some kind of ethnic/religious/linguistic/political minority as a scapegoat for most if not all current woes and subsequently construe the respective group as dangerous and a threat ‘to us’, ‘to the people’» (Wodak 2015: 2), even though we might add that the same applies to any social group that doesn’t fit in their fictional portrait of ‘the people’. Second, it gives us some practical insights into the rhetorical tricks veiled under their advocating a democratic revival, that, when populists «succeed in leading the government of a democratic society» (as in the case of Hungary and Poland), suddenly turns into an authoritarian project including «centralization of power, weakening of checks and balances, strengthening of the executive, disregard of political opposition and transformation of election in a plebiscite of the leader» (Urbinati 2014: 129).

Our analysis seems to teach us something more, yet: populism prospers where public opinion is too fragile and dumb to find out any hidden appeal to prejudice and stand against it. After all, as Walter Lippmann wrote long ago, public opinion relies heavily on stereotypes, since they offer us «an ordered, more or less consistent picture of the world, to which our habits, our tastes, our capacities, our comforts and our hopes have adjusted themselves» so much that «any disturbance of the stereotypes seems like an attack upon the foundations of the universe» (Lippmann 1991 [1922]: 95). Here, precisely, may be found the final reason why populist rhetoric is so attractive: no challenging thoughts, no self-responsibility, no efforts required, just a number of lame excuses and pleasant customary prejudices. But what’s that if not another form of propaganda, a well-designed «effort to alter the picture to which men respond, to substitute one social pattern for another» (Lippmann 1991 [1922]: 26)?




Bay, N. (2015), La voix du peuple!, Décembre, 4, 2015, http://www.frontnational.com/2015/12/la-voix-du-peuple/.

Betz, H.-G. (1994), Radical Right-Wing Populism in Western Europe, Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan.

Bobbio, N. and Matteucci, N. (eds.)(1976), Dizionario di politica, Turin: UTET.

Canovan, M. (1981), Populism, London: Junction.

Cedroni, L. (2010), Il linguaggio politico della transizione. Tra populismo e anticultura, Rome: Donzelli.

Cedroni, L. (2014), Politolinguistica. L’analisi del discorso politico, Rome: Carocci.

De la Torre, C. (2008), Populismo, ciudadania y Estado de derecho, in De la Torre, C. and Peruzzotti, E. (eds.)(2008): 23-53.

De la Torre, C. and Peruzzotti, E. (eds.)(2008), El retorno del pueblo. Populismo y nuevas democracias en América Latina, Quito: FLACSO.

Gest, J. (2016), The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Incisa di Camerana, L. (1976), Populismo, in Bobbio, N. and Matteucci, N. (eds.)(1976): 859-864.

Laclau, E. (2005), On Populist Reason, London: Verso.

Lega Nord (2014), Programma elettorale della Lega Nord per le elezioni europee, http://www.leganord.org/phocadownload/elezioni/europee/Programma%20elettorale%20europee%202014.pdf.

Le Pen, M. (2017a), Déclaration de Marine Le Pen au soir du 1er tour, Avril 23, 2017, http://www.leparisien.fr/elections/presidentielle/marine-le-pen-il-est-temps-de-liberer-le-peuple francais-23-04-2017-6877368.php.

Le Pen, M. (2017b), Mes 10 mesures immédiates, https://www.marine2017.fr/2017/04/13/10-mesures-immediates-2/.

Le Pen, M. (2017c), Remettre la France en Ordre, https://www.marine2017.fr/2017/04/17/remettre-france-ordre-profession-de-foi/.

Lippmann, W. (1991 [1922]), Public Opinion, New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

Mémy, Y. and Surel, Y. (2000), Par le peuple, pour le peuple. Le populisme et les démocraties, Paris: Fayard.

Moffitt, B. (2016), The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Mudde, C. (2004), The Populist Zeitgeist, Government and Opposition, 39 (4): 541-563.

Mudde, C. and Rovira Kaltwasser, C.R. (2017), Populism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Müller, J.-W. (2016), What Is Populism?, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Reisigl, M. (2007), The Dynamics of Right-Wing Populist Argumentation, in Van Eermeren F.H., Blair, J.A., Willard, C.A., Garssen B. (eds.)(2007): 1127-1134.

Salvini, M. (2017), Tweet, April 24, 2017, https://twitter.com/matteosalvinimi?lang=it.

Taggart, P. (2000), Populism, Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Taguieff, P.-A. (2002), L’illusion populiste, Paris: Éditions Berg International.

Tarchi, M. (2015), Italia populista. Dal qualunquismo a Beppe Grillo, Bologne: Il Mulino.

The Finns Party (2015a), The Finns Party’s Immigration Policy, https://www.perussuomalaiset.fi/kielisivu/in-english/.

The Finns Party (2015b), The Main Concerns, https://www.perussuomalaiset.fi/kielisivu/in-english/.

The Finns Party (2017), The Finns Party’s Platform, Municipal Elections,  https://www.perussuomalaiset.fi/kielisivu/in-english/.

Trump, D.J. (2017a), Inaugural Address of President Donald J. Trump, January 20, 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/inaugural-address.

Trump, D.J. (2017b), News Conference, March 17, 2017, https://www.rt.com/usa/381175-trump-merkel-presser-live/.

United Kingdom Independence Party (2015), Believe in Britain. UKIP Manifesto 2015,  http://www.ukip.org/manifestos.

United Kingdom Independence Party (2017), UKIP Local Manifesto 2017, http://www.ukip.org/manifestos.

Urbinati, N. (2014), Democracy Disfigured. Truth, Opinion, and the People, Cambridge Ma.: Harvard University Press.

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Wodak, R. (2015), The Politics of Fear. What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean, Los Angeles-London: Sage Publications.




[1] «It is time, at least, to free the French people, the people as a whole, not to forget our fellow citizens of the departments outside France who have pleased and honoured me with their faith and consent, it is time to free the French people from arrogant élites ready to influence its conduct. Because it’s true: me alone, I am the candidate who speaks for the people».

[2] See Gest (2016).

Prejudices, Philosophies and Language: Spinoza and His Strategies of Liberation

The reflection about the category of prejudice has been one of the biggest themes of modern thinking from the scientific revolution through the Enlightenment and Positivism, up to the twentieth-century debate about the philosophy of science. The theme of prejudice intersects with the one of nature, of knowledge and of the obstacles that prevent a correct comprehension of reality. This reflection comes primarily from Francis Bacon. He identifies the purification of the intellect from “idola”(prejudices) which blind the mind, as the first step of the quest for knowledge. It goes on with Descartes’s theory. According to him, the first act of the new philosophy is the choice to separate the mind from the senses and to free the mind of prejudice: “quin etiam nullis author sum ut haec legant, nisi tantùm iis qui seriò mecum meditari, metemque a sensibus, simulque ab omnibus praejudiciis, abducere poterunt ac volent”.[1] This reflection leads to the great Enlightenment’s fight against superstition and prejudices, sources of distortion of our knowledge of the world and of social discriminations. Voltaire says that prejudice “est une opinion sans jugement. Ainsi dans toute la terre on inspire aux enfants toutes les opinions qu’on veut, avant qu’ils puissent juger.”[2] And he goes on saying that, even if not all prejudices are false and negative, it’s useful to submit them to the judgments of reason in order to recognize which of them are the good ones: “ceux que le jugement ratifie quand on raisonne.[3]

Kant is amazed that someone could ask himself if prejudices are useful, and goes on saying: “Es ist zum Erstaunen, daß in unserm Zeitalter dergleichen Fragen, besonders die wegen Begünstigung der Vorurteile, noch können aufgegeben warden”.[4] Prejudices are source of wrong judgments and are caused by the lack of reflection, because prejudices are temporary judgments taken as principles or definitive judgments.[5] Moreover, Kant goes on saying that prejudices aren’t singular concepts; in fact, it is not a prejudice to affirm that an individual is dishonest, but it would be a prejudice to extend that assessment to a whole category of people.[6] Prejudice is therefore an undeserved generalization.

D’Holbach resumes with more radical tones the position of the Enlightenment about this theme: “L’ignorance, les erreurs et les préjugés des hommes sont les sources de leurs maux. La vérité doit tôt ou tard triompher de l’erreur.”[7]  The fight against prejudice has not only the aim to open the way to the real knowledge of reality; it’s the unavoidable step of progressive individual and social improvement. Experience and reason are essential to triumph on prejudices[8] and the instrument is instruction:

Pour que la morale ait du pouvoir sur les hommes, il faut les éclairer sur leurs vrais intérets; pour qu’ils soient éclarés, il faut que la vérité puisse les instruire, pour les instruire, il faut que le préjugé soit désarmé par la raison, c’est alors que les nations, tirées de cette enfance que leurs tuteurs s’efforcent d’éterniser, s’occuperont de la réforme de leurs institutions, des abus de la législation, des idées fausses qu’inspirent l’education, les usages nuisibles dont elles souffrent à chaque instant.”[9] The role of the educator was given to the “philosophe” presented as “medicin du genre humain” (physician of mankind).[10] The “philosophe” has to address himself to principals and to people “La verité a deux moyen de triompher de l’erreur: soit en descendant des chefs aux nations, soit en remontant des nations à leurs chefs.[11]

D’Holbach continues by saying that the most efficient of the two ways is the second one, because illuminated chiefs can die and be substituted by despots, while an “instruit et raisonnable” population can’t die. From this extended debate about prejudice, here summarily outlined, emerge some distinctive elements of the concept in matter. Prejudice is a pre-established opinion, a rush to judgment, lacking of a rational justification or of precise knowledge of the judged object, a conviction made up without any foundation. It acquires a negative value with hard social consequences.

Obviously, we must remember as well the critics who spoke against the Enlightenment’s and positivist traditions. I mean the reassessment of prejudice that finds its highest expression in Gadamer’s theory. Prejudice is the pre-comprehension, that is the knowledge that pre-exists the experience and so it’s a condition of making a reflective judgment about the world. In a hermeneutics perspective, prejudice is the necessary intuitive pre-cognition that the interpreter can’t leave out of consideration. Gadamer distinguishes between positive and negative reading of the term “prejudice”. The positive prejudice makes comprehensions possible while the negative obstacles and hardens it. The difference between the two isn’t in the bigger or in the smaller correspondence to the real world. On the contrary, both negative and positive prejudices can’t be preventively distinguished.  The distinction becomes clear during the process of understanding. The subject consciously uses them in an endless debate with the other possible “horizons of sense”.[12]

In the wake of these philosophical debates the great and complex analysis of psychology has been gradually introduced with the discussion between cognitivism and constructivism. The social-constructivist approach seems to be close to the criticism of the Enlightenment’s tradition developed by Gadamer and the hermeneutical approach. Social constructivism develops a particular attention for the language understood as an instrument of interpretation of the world and of comparison of “horizons of sense”. On the other hand, studies about the definition of prejudice as a cognitive mistake have been developed. For example, Allport which inserts the emotional element in the cognitivist definition: “Prejudice is an antipathy based on faulty and inflexible generalization. It may be felt or expressed. It may be directed toward a group or an individual of a group.”[13]

During the years, more or less successful strategies against prejudices developed strategies tending to eliminate and reduce them. Gordon Allport himself developed already 60 years ago the hypothesis of contact. If prejudices come from a lack of knowledge among different groups, the contact with individuals of the out-groups will help to discover that a lot of prejudices and stereotypes are wrong. Recent researches have however underlined that prejudices is higher in towns with more immigrants, where the possibilities of a contact are higher.[14] So contact and knowledge do not always bring to more positive relationships.

We don’t want to underline these analyses here, even if they are important and fruitful. We want to leave from a question: did we really destroy or at least attenuate the negative strength of prejudices after centuries of fight against it? Actually, prejudices exist and they’ll always and always continue to direct collective and social life, and they often foment aversion and hostility towards other individuals, groups, nations and races. The idea of the Enlightenment that prejudice is to be fought with rational and objective knowledge freeing us from fast and preconceived opinions, as well as the position of hermeneutics calling for an awareness capable to distinguish the prejudices able to produce new cognitive horizons from the ones that stop it and render the vision of the world infertile, does not seem able to produce fully efficient strategies of liberation.

In order to understand this difficulty, I’d like to go back to the beginning of the reflection about prejudice made in modern thinking, and specifically to that author, who can’t be easily put in any simplistic category: Spinoza. He is hardly categorizable because his doctrine puts itself in the confluence of different traditions: the Renaissance’s immanentist naturalism,[15] the re-elaborations of elements already present in medieval philosophy[16] and in Jewish thinking,[17] and the study of the new mathematical science of nature. All this makes Spinoza not so much a forerunner of the radical Enlightenment,[18] but an “anomalous” thinker, as Toni Negri writes, an atypical modernity.[19] This atypical modernity can perhaps allow us to shed light on the complex phenomenon of prejudice. According to Spinoza, this phenomenon lies at the confluence of different elements: language, habit, experience, and daily morality.

Spinoza is among those who think that it’s necessary to remove prejudices from the mind, prejudices “quae impedire poterant quominus meae demonstrationes percipererunt”.[20] In his writings, we find a very long list of prejudices: the final causality attributed to God or to nature; the illusion of human free will; moral concepts of right and wrong, merit and sin, reward and punishment; the aesthetic concepts of beautiful and ugly, perfection and imperfection, order and confusion; concepts elaborated by theologians; miracles as a God’s works that lie outside the natural order.[21]

According to Spinoza, where do all these prejudices that he enumerates come from? Spinoza’s reflection about the category of prejudice runs through different levels, from the epistemological to the political one and it strictly connects to his theory of language.[22] Spinoza didn’t write a treatise on language, but nearly every one of his writings attempts some analysis of language. Let’s see what he says about this subject.

Words are conventional and arbitrary signs of things “prout sunt in imaginatione”.[23] Signs are images in the way explained by the scholium of the second part of his E. after proposition 17, that is affections of the human body whose ideas represent to us exterior bodies as if they were present to us. These images, as Spinoza explains, aren’t figures or the more or less objective reproduction of things. They are the product of interaction of our body with other bodies and they simultaneously express both the power of our body and the power of other bodies. Images are bodily traces of these meetings that “say” of both bodies, and that “confuse” both bodies in a unique sign. The body’s affection corresponding to the idea of this affection is what Spinoza calls “affect”. In turn affect expresses the increased or decreased power of the body (corporis agendi potentia).[24] Thus language is a web of patterns of affectivity.

The origin of the language is so explained thanks to the body.[25] In this way language is part of an immediate and not adequate knowledge, and so it’s always the expression of a confused knowledge. There is a double confusion: in front of the infinite complexity of reality, the human body, which is finite for definition, makes a process of practical simplification of which language is one of the products. In the scholium of proposition 40 E.II, when Spinoza explains to us the origin of the notions we call “Transcendental” and “Universal”, he illustrates this process of confusion and simplification. Our limited body is able to form just a limited number of distinct images. When the number of images becomes excessive, Spinoza says that images will be confused in the body and also the mind will be unable to distinguish all those images, and therefore it will apply only one tag: that is a general term, a word (e.g. a being, a thing, a man, a horse, etc.). Language is what is used to classify.[26]

It’s interesting to remember the development of the “term” human being. When the human body is affected by a lot of traces that form a lot of images of man as the mind can’t record the distinctive traits of each human being, such as his colour or his height, it tends to clearly imagine just those aspects that have almost the same effect on the body, i.e. those aspects that hit it with more vividness and that the mind more easily reminds: the term “man” (human being) will be applied to this group of aspects. But Spinoza goes on saying that those aspects that the mind retains with more vividness, can change in each individual according to the particular “ingenium” (temper) of the individual itself or the particular tendency to admire some aspects more than others:

Exempli gratia qui saepius cum admiratione hominum staturam contemplati sunt, sub nomine hominis intelligent animal erectae staturae; qui vero aliud assueti sunt contemplari, aliam hominum communem imaginem formabunt nempe hominem esse animal risibile, animal bipes sine plumis, animal rationale et sic de reliquis unusquisque pro dispositione sui corporis rerum universales imagines formabit.[27]

The word is a sign easy to remember and has a recognising function, which consists of advising that an object or a situation is already been recognised, i.e. that it is already known. This memory process of terms organises itself according to the concatenation of bodily affections:

ut exempli gratia ex cogitatione vocis pomi homo romanus statim in cogitationem fructus incidet qui nullam cum articulato illo sono habet similitudinem nec aliquid commune nisi quod ejusdem hominis corpus ab his duobus affectum saepe fuit hoc est quod ipse homo saepa vocem pomum audivit dum ipsum fructum videret et sic unusquisque ex una in aliam cogitationem incidet prout rerum imagines uniscujusque consuetudo in corpore ordinavit.[28]

The word is a sign that, moreover and above all, tells us about the relationship we establish between things and the use we usually do of them in relation with our needs: “Nam miles exempli gratia vivis in arena equi vestigiis statim ex cogitatione equi in cogitationem aratri, agri etc. incidet et sic unusquisque prout rerum imagines consuevit hoc vel alio modo jungere et concatenare, ex una in hanc vel aliam incidet cogitationem.”[29]

Words belong to the imagination, while language is the product of the immediate knowledge of the first immediate answer to our need. In the interaction with things, the body keeps traces of what more positively answers to the survival effort. In Spinoza’s terms, it increases or decreases its power to act, and we give a name to it. Language doesn’t tell us about the truth of things. We mustn’t search the meaning of words in the content of truth, but in its practical value, in its use value. For example, Spinoza says to us that the first meaning (prima significatio) of “true” and “false” seems to come from narrations: these tales have been called “true” when the told fact had really (revera)  happened; a fact that had happened nowhere, instead, was called “false”.[30] Here Spinoza puts in mutual relation the meaning of a word with an experience. And the experience has not a secondary place in Spinoza thinking, even if the majority of commentators deny the importance of the experience in the rationalist philosophy of the author of E. Returning to the acute observations by P.F. Moreau,[31] it is worth remembering that in his works, Spinoza does not strive to give the experience the lowest place as possible; on the contrary, in all his works experience is often shown with positive traits, and not only as the “vague experience” of the first kind of knowledge. Expressions such as “experientia docet”, “experientia docuit”, “experientia suadet”, “experientia monstrat”, “experientia comprobat”, “experientia confirmat” are frequent in all his works, including E.. Experience theaches, then; but what does it teach?

We have just one excerpt where Spinoza directly speaks about experience. In letter X to Simon de Vries,[32] Spinoza tells us that experience is necessary for that of which essence doesn’t involve existence: the “modi”. In other words, experience let us know facts that can’t be deducted from the definition of the object. It’s not just the existence of the finished modi; it’s something more: our actions, our soul’s affective impulses, all the infinite variations of our being, living and acting that are made by the meeting of our essence with the things surrounding us. We are not able to deduce “more geometrico” the infinite variety of the human events; we can just see them after that experience has presented them to us. However, we must pay a lot of attention: the teaching of experience has got some limits. Since experience does not teach about the essence, it never shows the cause of things, and it’s not able to tell us when such causes cease to act and others intervene. In any case, what experience tells us is always real. Experience does not cheat: it’s the reading that we do of experience that can be wrong. The ideologies, myths, superstitions and prejudices and also the language, with which we human beings redress the facts, prevent most times to take advantage from experience.

Language is also and in the same time the product of interaction of human bodies among them. In other terms, language is a social product. Therefore, Spinoza says, it’s common people who find and invent new words: “vulgus vocabula primum invenit.” Language is a product of collective interaction; it’s the language (langue) of a population. And, as such, it’s immediately in relation with collective experiences and needs of that population. Only later, with a metaphoric translation (metaphorice translata est) do “philosophers” use terms to indicate the agreement of an idea with its object and begin using them to indicate things. “Atque hanc philosophi postea usurparunt ad denotandam convenientiam ideae cum suo ideato”.[33] And so, when we use the terms “true” and “false” about, for example, gold, it’s as the represented gold told something about itself: it told that it’s or it’s not gold. But, as Spinoza continues, from the point of view of the meaning, this is an illegitimate use of words. This way to give meanings to the words is just rhetorical, and it has not a cognitive aim, but only a practical use for persuasion. It can open to manipulation and domination.

A word does not guarantee the correspondence between representations and things. Human beings (all together as vulgus) understand their relation to things not in the order of truth, but in relation to their immediate needs, through bodily affections. The analysis about the terms “true” and “false” of CM is the first example of what P. F. Moreau[34] called an operation of “philosophical etymology” that Spinoza will repeat in the fourth part of his E. for the term “perfect” and in the TTP for the term “Law”. Thanks to this operation of philosophical etymology, Spinoza shows in the appendix of the first part of his Ethics how the finalist prejudice always requires a critical analysis of language based on this philosophical etymology.

We remember that language is invented by the “vulgus”, i.e. by common people, by ignorant people, and so it’s from the beginning (ab origine) connected to inadequate ideas. The “genetic” or generative cause of language is imagination. That means that it belongs to the order and structure of this kind of spontaneous knowledge; this knowledge that Spinoza calls “cognitio ab experientia vaga”, where “vaga” means wandering, precarious, without a precise direction. Obviously, the word as a sign of an inadequate knowledge conserves a trace of the actual idea, but this idea of affection of the bodies of common people in the interaction with other bodies is an inadequate and confused idea: it’s an image.  And the word as the term that designates this idea is the image of an image. The totality of words leans on the mechanism of memory thanks to some disposition of the body: “verba… prout vage et aliqua dispositiones corporis componuntur in memoria.”[35]

We said that the improper use of words can open to the manipulation and to the subjection. Spinoza warns us that prejudices and superstitions are not only the product of manipulation of dominants over the dominated ones. They can rise spontaneously. Let’s suppose for example a group of individuals that live together. These people are common people who don’t use reason, but live under the yoke of imagination. They impose names to images born from affections of their bodies that interact with each other. As we have already see their imagination is not able to distinguish every specific aspect of each individual, but it will fix in mind those aspects that, for their inclination and habit, strike them most: white skin, size, colour of eyes and hair, etc. This image of human being has characteristics corresponding exactly to the instinctive bent of the group, and to what causes admiration. These individuals are so brought to recognise that sort of human being as the neighbour, and they find the term “man” to designate it. Considering the term as the object they will tend not to recognise as man or human being individuals that don’t fit well with that image. Racial prejudice is thus born.

If then we consider that the effects are an idea of the mind to which an affection of the body corresponds at the same time, and that when the mind has confused and inadequate ideas it’s passive, and that a confused idea is a passion of the soul, then we understand that prejudice is inevitably accompanied by a passion: admiration for the counterpart, diffidence or fear for the different, etc. And since men tend by nature to strictly associate when they fall prey to a common passion such as hope, fear or common desire of revenge,[36] prejudice (which always goes with a passion) risks of being among the natural foundations of political society. However, what characterises a society of human beings, a nation from another, has not its origins in nature. Nature just creates individuals. The habit, the reiterated experience of custom and laws shape the people’s “ingenium”. In the TTP, Spinoza wonders why the Jewish people had moved away so often from the observance of the laws. Was it by nature? No, he answers. The language, the laws and the customs distinguish a community from another and it is just from this the particular nature of a community that its condition and its prejudices derive.[37] Through the language, the customs and the laws, prejudices shape the character of a community, and therefore they participate in the constitutive power of imagination.  At the same time, individual and collective experiences are often misinterpreted by prejudices.

How can we escape from the chain of prejudices? Is knowledge—theoretical, rational—enough to modify prejudices that revealed to be behavioural attitudes, collective affects in addition to illusory tales? Without going back to all aspects of Spinoza’s theory, I’m going to touch upon some suggestions that we can infer from his theory to develop strategies for liberation.

First, we must remember what Spinoza demonstrates in the fourth part of his E.. Till the real knowledge of good and bad remains purely theoretical, it doesn’t modify the human condition; on the contrary, it risks making it worse, because it’s unarmed in front of the power of the affects.[38] It’s therefore useful to develop a strategy of the affects—what Spinoza does in the  fourth part of his E., where he develops what P. Macherey calls “a daily ethics” that  “introduit dans l’espace qui paraît séparer la servitude de la liberté toutes un monde de nuances microscopiques, de determinations intermediaires”.[39] This strategy of the affects can’t get out of being also a strategy of the language. Perhaps this is also the very difficult (perardua) way which Spinoza speaks about at the end of his E.; very difficult because, as we have seen, language is a sign of inadequate knowledge, corresponding the bondage of passions. The dominion of words is such that also philosophy remained prisoner of words and has fallen into a lot of mistakes: “Attamen non miror philosophos verbales, sive grammaticales in similes errores incidere: res enim ex nominibus judicant.”[40] Nevertheless, at the heart of the philosophical project, Spinoza puts the achievement of a Real Good that is communicable.[41]

How can we communicate, speak and, for the philosopher, write, in order to stay clear from illusions, mistakes and prejudices of the imagination, if the language takes root in the imagination?

Spinoza’s answer is not the one to create another language, as for example mathematics did. Neither we can change the language that means to eliminate some words, in order to create others or substitute them with others. We have to transformer the use of the language, by using the same words, the words of common use, to signify something else: “Haec nomina ex communi usu aliud significare scio. Sed meum institutum non est verborum significationem sed rerum naturam explicare easque iis vocabulis indicare quorum significatio quam ex usu habent, a significatione qua eadem usurpare volo, non omnino abhorret, quod semel monuisse sufficiat.”[42]  That’ s what Spinoza does in his E., when he asks himself about definitions. But not only this; the whole of Spinoza’s work urges attention and caution in the use of language: “Caute”. In the whole E., he uses this motto just once and exclusively when referring to human language: “Nam quia haec tria, imagines scilicet verba et ideae, a multis vel plane confunduntur vel non satis accurate vel denique non satis caute distinguuntur”.[43] Caution in the use of words, caution in expressions, caution in the use of metaphors.

Spinoza’s philosophical etymology is therefore a criticism of the use of language, which results into a double consciousness.

First: language is a collective product and it’s meant for the community. Also, the philosophic discourse can be a discourse that really redirects the human being on the real communicable good, when it is within common people’s reach, when language can bond with the common people, and thus prepare them to listen to the truth: “Ad captum vulgi loqui, et illa omnia operari, quae nihil impedimenti adferunt, quominus nostrum scopum attingamus. Nam non parum emolumenti ab eo possumus acquirere, modo ipsius captui, quantum fieri potest, concedamus ; adde, quod tali modo amicas praebebunt aures ad veritatem audiendam.”[44]  Modifying the use of language can’t be just the work of a person or of a group of intellectuals. The wiser person too is always exposed to the danger of the passions and so she’s exposed to the risk of obtuseness; but human beings can also correct their faults by examining the questions, listening, discussing and trying all the intermediate solutions to find what nobody had already thought.[45]

Second: language has an ambiguous strength in itself; words are useful to produce transformations towards the better or the worse. When we make an improper use of it, unknowingly or deliberately, and we manipulate the meanings, the effect can be the loss of individual or social freedom. From here follows Spinoza’s call for caution and attention in the use of words, but at the same time the lack of any specific strategy of and about language divided from that strategy for mastering affects, i.e. the daily morality in the fourth part of his E.



Allport, The nature of prejudice, Reading, MA, USA, Addison-Wesley, 1979

Biasutti, La dottrina della scienza in Spinoza, Padova, Patron, 1979, pp. 140-145

Bove, “La théorie du langage chez Spinoza”, in L’Enseignement Philosophique, 1991, 4, pp. 16-33 and 2005, 1, pp. 24-38

Brunelli, “Religione e dottrina del linguaggio”, in Verifiche, VI, 1977, 4, pp. 755-787

Chiereghin, “Introduzione a Spinoza. La critica del sapere matematico e le aporie del linguaggio”, in Verifiche, V, 1976, 1, pp. 3-23

Descartes, Œuvres, publiées par Charles Adam et Paul Tannery, Paris, Cerf, 1897-1913

d’Holbach,  Essai sur les préjugés ou De l’influence des opinions sur les moeurs et sur le bonh.ur des Hommes. Ouvrage contenant L’apologie de la philosophie par Mr. D.M., Londres: Editeur anonyme, 1770

Gadamer, Wharheit und Methode, Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, 1960

Kant, Logik, in Sämmtliche Werke, bind 4, herausgegeben von Karl Rosenkranz und Fried. Wilh. Schubert, Leopold Voss, Leipzig, 1838

Misrahi, Le désir et la réflexion dans la philosophie de Spinoza, Paris – London – New York, Gordon and Breach, 1972

Moreau, Spinoza, l’ expérience et l’éternité, PUF, Paris, 1994

Moreau, “Langage et pouvoir chez Spinoza”, in P.-F. Moreau, J. Robelin (éd. par), Langage et Pouvoir à l’Âge Classique, Besançon, Presses Universitaires de Franche-Comté, 2000, pp. 57-67

Spinoza, Opera, Hrsg. von Carl Gebhardt Heidelberg: Carl Winters Verlag, Heidelberg, 1925, 4 Bände

Vinciguerra, Spinoza et le signe. La genèse de l’imagination, Paris, J. Vrin, 2005

Volpato & Manganelli-Rattazzi, “Pregiudizio e immigrazione. Effetti del contatto sulle relazioni interetniche”, in Ricerche di psicologia, 3-4, 2000

Voltaire, Dictionnaire philosophique portatif. Nouvelle edition. Avec des notes; beaucoup plus correcte & plus ample que les précédentes, vol. 2, Amsterdam, chez Varberg, 1765



[1] René Descartes, Meditationes de prima philosophia, AT, VII, 9 (“I yet apprehend that they cannot be adequately understood by many, both because they are also a little lengthy and dependent the one on the other, and principally because they demand a mind wholly free of prejudices, and one which can be easily detached from the affairs of the senses.” René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, ed. Stanley Tweyman, Routlegde, New York, 1993, p. 36, translated by Elisabeth S Haldane and G.R.T Ross).

[2] Voltaire, Dictionnaire philosophique portatif. Nouvelle edition. Avec des notes; beaucoup plus correcte & plus ample que les précédentes, vol. 2, Amsterdam, chez Varberg, 1765, p. 216: “Prejudice is an opinion without judgment. Thus all over the world do people inspire children with all the opinions they desire, before the children can judge.” Voltaire, The Philosophical Dictionary, Selected and Translated by H.I. Woolf, Knopf, New York, 1924.

[3] Ibidem. “they are those which are ratified by judgment when one reasons.” Ibidem.

[4] Immanuel Kant, Logik, Sämmtliche Werke, bind 4, herausgegeben von Karl Rosenkranz und Fried. Wilh. Schubert, Leopold Voss, Leipzig, 1838, p. 89. “It is astonishing that in our age such question can still be advanced, especially that concerning the encouragement of prejudices.” Immanuel Kant, Lectures on logic, translated and edited by J. Michael Young, Cambridge University Press, 1992.

[5] See ibidem.

[6] See ibidem.

[7] Paul Henri Thiry d’Holbach, Essai sur les préjugés ou De l’influence des opinions sur les moeurs et sur le bonheur des Hommes. Ouvrage contenant L’apologie de la philosophie par Mr. D.M. Londres: Editeur anonyme, 1770, p. 1.  “Human beings’ ignorance, errors and prejudices are the sources of their evils. The truth is the remedy. …. The truth must sooner or later triumph over error. ” (my own translation)

[8] Ibidem, p. 36.

[9] Ibidem, p. 250; “In order to get morals has ascendancy over human beings, it is necessary to enlighten them on their true interests; in order to make them enlightened, it is necessary that the truth can educate them, for educate them, it is necessary that prejudice is disarmed by reason, then, the nations, free from the childhood  that their tutors strive to make eternal, will engage themselves to reform their institutions, to fight against the abuse of legislation, the false ideas that inspire education, the harmful practices of which they suffer at every moment.”(my own translation)

[10] Ibidem, p. 168.

[11] Ibidem, p. 170 : “Truth has two ways to triumph over error: either by going down from the chiefs to the nations, or by ascending from the nations to their chiefs.” (my translation).

[12]  See cfr  H.G. Gadamer, Wharheit und Methode, Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, 1960.

[13] Gordon Allport, The nature of prejudice, Reading, MA, USA: Addison-Wesley, 1979, p. 9.

[14] See Chiara Volpato and Anna Maria Manganelli-Rattazzi, “Pregiudizio e immigrazione. Effetti del contatto sulle relazioni interetniche”, in  Ricerche di psicologia, 3-4, 2000.

[15] See Ernst Cassirer, Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit. Berlin, Verlag: Bruno Cassirer, 1922, pp. 73 and following.

[16] See Pietro di Vona, Studi sull’ontologia di Spinoza I, Firenze, Nuova Italia, 1960.

[17] See I. S. Revah, “Spinoza et les Heretiques de la communauté judéo-portuguais  d’ Amsterdam”, in Revue d’histoire et des religions, 154, 1958, pp. 173-2I8; Harry Austryn Wolfson, The Philosophy of Spinoza, Cambridge Mass.  2 voll., 1934; Geneviève Brykman, La Judêité de Spinoza, Paris, Ed. Vrin, 1973.

[18] See J. Israel, Radical Enlightenment, Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001.

[19] Toni Negri, L’anomalia selvaggia: saggio su potere e potenza in Baruch Spinoza, Milano, Feltrinelli, 1981

[20] E.I, appendix, G. II, pp. 77: “which might impede the comprehension of my demonstrations”, Elwes,pag 55. The critical edition used in the text is: Spinoza Opera, Hrsg. von Carl Gebhardt Heidelberg: Carl Winters, 1925. 4 Bände. For the English translation of Ethica we have here referred to: Spinoza, Ethics, translated by R.H.M.Elwes, the Floating press publishing, 2009. The following abbreviations have been used to refer to Spinoza’s writings: E = Ethica, Epistolae = Correspondence, CM = Cogitata Metaphysica, TTP = Tractatus theologico- politicus, TP = Tractatus politicus.

[21] See .E.I, appendix, G.II, pp. 77-83.

[22] The attention on the problem of language in Spinoza is quite recent. Robert Misrahi had already dedicated several enlighting pages of this problem in his  R. Misrahi, Le désir et la réflexion dans la philosophie de Spinoza, Paris – London – New York, Gordon and Breach, 1972, pp. 186-206. We also remeber F. Chiereghin, “Introduzione a Spinoza. La critica del sapere matematico e le aporie del linguaggio”, in Verifiche, V, 1976, 1, pp. 3-23; V. Brunelli, “Religione e dottrina del linguaggio”, in Verifiche VI ,1977, 4, pp. 755-787;  F. Biasutti, La dottrina della scienza in Spinoza, Padova, Patron, 1979, pp. 140-145; L. Bove, “La théorie du langage chez Spinoza”, in L’Enseignement Philosophique ,1991, 4, pp. 16-33 e 2005, 1, pp. 24-38; P.-F. Moreau, Spinoza: L’expérience et l’éternité, Paris, PUF, 1994, pp. 307-378, and “Langage et pouvoir chez Spinoza”, in P.-F. Moreau, J. Robelin (éd. par), Langage et Pouvoir à l’Âge Classique, Besançon, Presses Universitaires de Franche-Comté, 2000, pp. 57-67. Lastly let’s remember L. Vinciguerra, Spinoza et le signe. La genèse de l’imagination, Paris, J. Vrin, 2005.

[23] TI, G.I, , p. 33: “as they are in the imagination”.

[24] E.III, def.3, G.II, p. 139.

[25] See L. Bove, cit. p. 18.

[26] See CM. I, 1, G.I, p. 231.

[27] E.II, prop.XL, sch.1, G.II, p.107. “For instance, those who have most often regarded with admiration the stature of man, will by the name of man understand an animal of erect stature; those who have been accustomed to regard some other attribute, will form a different general image of man, for instance, that man is a laughing animal, a two-footed animal without feathers, a rational animal, and thus, in other cases, everyone will form general images of things according to the habit of his body.” Elswer, p. 122.

[28] Ibidem, “from the thought of the word pomum (an apple), a Roman would straightway arrive at the thought of the fruit apple, which has no similitude with the articulate sound in question, nor anything in common with it, except that the body of the man has often been affected by these two things; that is, that the man has often heard the word pomum, while he was looking at the fruit; similarly every man will go on from one thought to another, according as his habit has ordered the images of things in his body.” Ibidem

[29]  E.II, prop. XVIII, sch.G.II, p. 63  “For a soldier, for instance, when he sees the tracks of a horse in sand, will at once pass from the thought of a horse to the thought of a horseman, and thence to the thought of war, &c.; while a countryman will proceed from the thought of a horse to the thought of a plough, a field, &c. Thus every man will follow this or that train of thought, according as he has been in the habit of conjoining and associating the mental images of things in this or that manner.” Elwes, p.102.

[30] See CM, I,6, G.I, p. 246.

[31] See P.F. Moreau, Experience, cit. These remarks on experience are taken from my own work, Paola de Cuzzani: ““Essere donna” e cittadinanza. La differenza sessuale nella filosofia di Spinoza” in Donne e filosofia, a cura di M. Marsonet, ERGA ed. Genova, 2011, pp. 27-37.

[32] See Epistolae, G. IV, p. 47.

[33] CM, I,VI. G.I. p. 246: “later philosophers made use of this signification to denote the agreement or disagreement of an idea with his object” in Spinoza Principles of Cartesian Philosophy: with Metaphysical Thoughts , transl. by Samuel Shirley, ed by S. Barbone and L.Rice, Hackett publishing C.Indianapolis/Cambridge, 1998, p. 107.

[34] See P. F. Moreau, Spinoza, l’ expérience et l’éternité, PUF, p. 366.

[35] TI G. I, p. 33: “we   form many  conceptions  in  accordance  with  confused arrangements  of  words  in  the  memory,   dependent  on  particular bodily  conditions”. Translated by R. H. M.  Elwes.

[36] See TP, III, 9, G.III, p. 284.

[37] See TTP, cap.XVII, G.III, p.217.

[38] See E. IV, 17. sch, G. II, p.177.

[39] P. Macherey, “Ethique IV, propositions 70-71. La vie sociale des hommes libres”, Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, 1994, n°4, p. 459. “…that introduces into space, which seems to separate servitude from liberty, a whole world of microscopic nuances, of intermediate determinations” (my own translation).

[40] CM.I1, G.I, p. 235: “Still, I am not surprise that verbal or grammatical philosophers fall into errors like these, for they judge things from words”, transl. by Samuel Shirley, op. cit. p. 96.

[41] See TI, G. I,  p. 5.

[42] E.III, aff. Def.20, expl. “I am aware that these terms are employed in senses somewhat different from those usually assigned. But my purpose is to explain, not the meaning of words, but the nature of things. I therefore make use of such terms, as may convey my meaning without any violent departure from their ordinary signification. One statement of my method will suffice.” Trans. Elwes, p. 235.

[43] E. II, prop 49, sch, “These three–namely, images, words, and ideas–are by many persons either entirely confused together, or not distinguished with sufficient accuracy or care” Elwes, p.138.

[44] TI.G.II,  p. 9, “To  speak   in a manner  intelligible to the multitude,  and to comply  with  every  general  custom  that  does  not  hinder  the attainment  of  our  purpose.  (17:3) For we can gain from the multitude  no  small  advantages,  provided  that  we  strive to accommodate  ourselves  to its understanding as far as possible: moreover,  we  shall in this way gain a friendly audience for the reception of the truth.” Transl. by Elwes.

[45] TP. 9, XIV, G.III, p. 352.

Inner Speech and Prejudice in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu

The term « prejudice » has two meanings in English: 1) a bias (a partiality) in the judgement, a prejudgement, 2) the harm that someone can do to someone else. One can, perhaps, feel that somewhere and somehow the two meanings are connected. When, to take only one example, Yanko Tsvetkov proposes an Atlas of Prejudice, a book in which he presents an analysis of what people in Europe generally think about other people living in other places of Europe — aka stereotypes —, he uses the term « prejudices » in both senses: i. e. the harm that people do to other people by the bias of some of their judgements [12]. However, the connection remains obscure and while it could be suspected to be only located in the structure of language, it could also have its roots in the experience itself. Where and how are these senses connected? Is it a purely grammatical connection? Or is this connection more profound located in the core of lived experience itself? These are the questions I would like to address in this paper by looking at the work of Marcel Proust in search of some interesting insight that would be dispersed here.


My approach will follow a three-step process. I will begin with 1) some preliminary considerations that will show the importance of looking at « inner speech » to understand prejudice. From there on, 2) I will look at what phenomenologists have said about inner speech. And from there, 3) I will turn to some pieces of literature, namely to the work of Marcel Proust, to explore the concrete meaning of what phenomenologists have shown and I myself will show the relevance of such a turn for the understanding of prejudice in its double aspect (bias and harm).

Inner speech and prejudice

What is « inner speech »? Broadly defined, inner speech covers all the things people say to themselves, the flow of their thought, as long as these thoughts are verbalised (expressed in some way) but not loudly pronounced (and thus inaudible). « Stream of consciousness » is an alternative term that is often used to describe that phenomenon, even though this term is generally connected to a sequence of authors in the history of literature who took interest precisely in that phenomenon (the term has been initially employed by William James in his Principles of Psychology, published in 1890,[6] but it characterizes a literary movement that, according to the novelist May Sinclair, appears with Proust: « Richardson comments that “Proust, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf… were all using ’the new method’, though very differently, simultaneously » [10]. Another term, also frequently used to designate inner speech, is « inner monologue » (it is the term used by Edouard Dujardin, for instance, when he tries to characterise the art of James Joyce, the narrative technique of which is inspired by his own Les lauriers sont coupés, initially published in 1876 [3]). All these denominations are pointing to roughly the same phenomenon, although they each have a particular accentuation. Inner speech can even possibly include forms of inner conversation (one can think here, for instance, at Dostoyevsky’s characters, speaking to themselves in a kind of fight against a part of themselves [2]).

Recently, this « theme » of inner speech (if on can speak about a « theme » assuming that it encompass a very large part of all human activity) seems to have regained an intense interest in the philosophical and psychological community. Indeed, in the year 2016 only, two books dealing with inner speech have been published. One is called The Voices Within: The history and science of how we talk to ourselves, by Charles Fernyough [4]. The book proposes a scientific and psychological approach. It is a broad review of works that have been published on the topic of inner speech. A second book, The Inner Speech and The Dialogical Self, published by Norbert Wiley, also in 2016, proposes a phenomenological approach to the phenomenon. Wiley has developed an investigation tool that allows him to access to some original data about inner speech [13].

I will follow this second kind of approach, i.e. a phenomenological approach, to first address the following question: Why is it important to look at inner speech to investigate prejudice? The answer is that comparing what people say overtly to what they say to themselves is like comparing leaves falling from a tree to the roots of the tree: for a single leave falling (let say, a single prejudice, or stereotyped thought actually expressed), one might have many a root embedded in the soil by which the prejudice has been nourished and reinforced. In other words, the prejudice takes its roots in inner speech. Inner speech is its first medium of expression, well before it goes out in overt expressions. A discrete bunch of sentences that might appear fortuitously in public speech could correspond to an abundant and robust formation in inner speech.

According to the definition we just gave, it is clear that people are experiencing inner speech almost all the time — in other terms, it is a very common experience. Noam Chomsky considered that the largest part of what we say — by far — is said to our self: « Now let us take language. What is its characteristic use? Well, probably 99.9 percent of its use is internal to the mind » [1]. If such an estimate is correct, a large part of the being-with-one-another (the occurrence that generally provoke speech acts) is going on through « inner » speech (being with one another is not restricted to the time we spend with the others in question, it extends to the time one speaks to them in inner speech; to say nothing about simple feelings). And this is where inner speech meets rhetoric.

Inner speech in the phenomenological tradition

When I talk to myself, I am — among other things — imagining the presence of others and thus imagining, for instance, what I would say or what I should have said or what I could say to some others. This is why it is not so simple to distinguish between speaking to oneself and speaking to others. Indeed, the others are constantly present in us, even though they are not physically with us.

There are two immediate and important consequences of these remarks. The first one is that, in one sense we are always speaking to others, even when we are speaking to ourselves. And the second one is that, in an other sense too, we are always speaking to ourselves, even when we are speaking to others (we are continuing a dialogue with ourselves).

This characteristic has been recognised since a long time in the phenomenological tradition. For instance, Heidegger writes in Being and Time, §29: « Rhetoric must be understood as an hermeneutic of being-with-others ». And he would add: « It is not a matter of chance that the first traditional and systematically developed interpretation of the affects is not treated in the scope of « psychology ». Aristotle investigated the « pathe » in the second book of his Rhetoric. Contrary to the traditional orientation of the concept of rhetoric according to which it is some kind of “discipline”, Aristotle’s Rhetoric must be understood as the first systematic hermeneutic of the everydayness of being-with-one-another » (En. tr. by Joan Stambaugh [5]).

Thus: when we speak — to oneself or to others, inwardly or outwardly — we are rhetorically convincing ourselves or others regarding the matter of the appropriate way to take things, to understand them, to interpret what happens. In that sense, inner speech constitutes a material that is as valuable as public speech to study the mechanic of prejudice. And it is perhaps even more valuable, since it is, so to say, the birthplace of prejudice.

The phenomenon is particularly intriguing and interesting since it is located at the very birth of each of our thoughts. And this particularity of inner speech has been recognised by Husserl, the master of Heidegger, very early. In his book Logische Untersuchungen (logical investigations), published in 1900, he would write: « one of course speaks, in a certain sense, even in soliloquy, and it is certainly possible to think of oneself as speaking, and even as speaking to oneself, as, e.g., when someone says to himself: ‘You have gone wrong, you can’t go on like that’ » (En. tr. by John N. Findlay: Logical Investigations, Investigation 1, Expression and meaning, Chapter 1, Essential distinctions, §8 Expressions in solitary life).

The piece of inner speech that is proposed by Husserl (‘You have gone wrong, you can’t go on like that.’) is quite limited for an analysis. Indeed, we have only a few words that are given as an example of what people are possibly saying to themselves and of the way they are doing it. As Husserl generally does, he is very short on the empirical examples he is giving.

The examples of inner speech that are given by Husserl are too minuscule to give rise to an analysis of its content. It is only pointing to the phenomenon but not entering into the detailed description of it. If we want to turn to a more general presentation of what is at stake in inner speech, we have to find an other way to enter into the phenomenon itself. Where could we find larger examples that could become the basis for a more thorough analysis? In other terms: the analysis we have presented gives us the methodological basis to address the question I was mentioning in the introduction (where and how the prejudice as bias becomes prejudice as harm). But we need more matter to enter into the question. Where shall we find this matter?

Proust and inner speech

I propose to enter into the problem of examples of inner speech through the work of a writer, Marcel Proust, 1871-1922. Not only because his book, A la recherche du temps perdu can been seen as a long inner speech, but also because it contains many insightful remarks about the way people are talking to themselves. There are two English translations of Marcel Proust’s novel: Remembrance of Things Past and In Search of Lost Time; the first one, by C. K. Scott Moncrieff later revised by T. Kilmartin has been initially published in 1922-1930; the second one has been published in 1992, translated by D. J. Enright. I will use the second translation [9].

The book deals, according to the author himself (as far as one considers, at least, that the narrator is not completely a stranger to the author; for a thorough distinction between the author and the narrator of In Search of Lost Time: [8]), with the general laws of human nature. In Time Regained, the last volume of the novel, Proust would write: « I was soon able to show an outline of my project. No one understood it. Even those who sympathised with my perception of the truth […] congratulated me on having discovered it with a microscope when, to the contrary, I had used a telescope to perceive things which were indeed very small because they were far away but every one of them a world. Where I was looking for universal laws I was accused of burrowing into the “infinitely insignificant”. »

Whether these sentences are those of Proust himself or of the character of the narrator, they indicates a kind of project in which the mechanism of the way a prejudice is built and maintained might receive some light. Moreover, Proust would publish the first volume of his novel before the first world war and will finish after the war. As a consequence, the book contains abundant remarks about the reasons that made the war happen. These reasons are to be found, as one will see, in prejudice itself (in the sense of partial bias) and they produce, of course, abundant prejudices (in the sense of harm).

This war, the first world war, and the one that will follow, constitute the main reason for the construction of « Europa » as a political project. Proust would not give any historical argument. What does interest him are what could be called the « phenomenological argument » about the roots of war which, according to him, are located in the prejudice that is at work.

From small facts to universal law

Proust would thus describe very subtle situations. But the goal, for him, is never to stay at the level of the quiet limited descriptions he first would give. It is always to formulate the general, and even the universal law that is revealed by subtle situations. And there, he would frequently meet the phenomenologists.

The analyses he would provide go, in one sense, further than those of phenomenologists when it turns to prejudice. The passage that I would like to comment to show this is located in The Fugitive. It consists in a long meditation on the suffering experienced by the narrator (and hero of the novel) intertwined with a meditation on art and politics.

The Fugitive is the second-from-last volume of In Search of Lost Time. It comes after the volume The Captive and before the volume Time Regained. The Captive and The Fugitive both deal with the character of Albertine, with whom the narrator is in love, which gives rise, as one can easily imagine, to an abundance of inner dialogue.

From these conversations with himself, the narrator would discover some general law of human nature. The passage on which I would like to focus deals with a minute error that Françoise, the housemaid of the hero, is making all the time. When she speaks about « Madame Sazerat » (a secondary character in the novel) she says « Madame Sazerin ». And she never corrects herself. Even after years of having heard « Sazerat », she continues to say « Sazerin ». Sazerat or Sazerin, that is the question. Here comes the passage:

« Everyone at Combray had spoken to Françoise for five-and-twenty years of Madame Sazerat and Françoise continued to say ‘Madame Sazerin’, not from that deliberate and proud perseverance in her mistakes which was habitual with her, was strengthened by our contradiction and was all that she had added of herself to the France of Saint-André-des-Champs (of the equalitarian principles of 1789 she claimed only one civic right, that of not pronouncing words as we did and of maintaining that ‘hôtel’, ‘été’ and ‘air’ were of the feminine gender), but because she really did continue to hear ‘Sazerin’.This perpetual error which is precisely ‘life’, does not bestow its thousand forms merely upon the visible and the audible universe but upon the social universe, the sentimental universe, the historical universe, and so forth. The Princesse de Luxembourg is no better than a prostitute in the eyes of the Chief Magistrate’s wife, which as it happens is of little importance ; what is slightly more important, Odette is a difficult woman to Swann, whereupon he builds up a whole romance which becomes all the more painful when he discovers his error ; what is more important still, the French are thinking only of revenge in the eyes of the Germans. We have of the universe only formless, fragmentary visions, which we complete by the association of arbitrary ideas, creative of dangerous suggestions. »


Proust if often interested, in La recherche, by the way people pronounce words and he often pays attention to the meaning of a certain kind of pronunciation that may appears somewhere in a conversation. However, most of the time, this interest is directed to a kind of demonstration which is at the opposite pole to the one we can see here in Françoise. Proust would show, for instance, that the way someone pronounces this or that word is influenced by the way someone else pronounces it. For instance, in In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, the narrator changes his way of pronouncing some expressions as a result of his fascination for the Swanns family: « ‘How d’e do?” (They both pronounced it in the same clipped way, which, you may well imagine, once I was back at home, I made an incessant and delightful practice of copying.) » Here, with Françoise, it is quite the opposite: nothing could make her change the way she pronounces ‘Sazerat’.

Analysis of the example

Let us examine the example given here by Proust which is nothing less than a proposition of explanation regarding the causes of the first word war based on the mistake that Françoise refuses to correct in her language.

The (apparently) tiny example The generalisation The general (universal) law
Everyone at Combray had spoken to Françoise for five-and-twenty years of Mme. Sazerat and Françoise continued to say ‘Mme. Sazerin,’ not from that deliberate and proud perseverance in her mistakes which was habitual with her, was strengthened by our contradiction and was all that she had added of herself to the France of Saint-André-des-Champs (of the equalitarian principles of 1789 she claimed only one civic right, that of not pronouncing words as we did and of maintaining that ‘hôtel,’ ‘été’ and ‘air’ were of the feminine gender), but because she really did continue to hear ‘Sazerin.’ This perpetual error which is precisely ‘life,’ does not bestow its thousand forms merely upon the visible and the audible universe but upon the social universe, the sentimental universe, the historical universe, and so forth. [1] The Princesse de Luxembourg is no better than a prostitute in the eyes of the Chief Magistrate’s wife, which as it happens is of little importance; [2] what is slightly more important, Odette is a difficult woman to Swann, whereupon he builds up a whole romance which becomes all the more painful when he discovers his error; [3] what is more important still, the French are thinking only of revenge in the eyes of the Germans. We have of the universe only formless, fragmentary visions, which we complete by the association of arbitrary ideas, creative of dangerous suggestions.

We find three lines of arguments clearly separated. The first one concerns the example itself. The second one is the generalisation of the example. And, finally, the third one, is the expression of the universal law formulated in a way that is not without evoking what one could find, for instance, in the Sentences and Moral Maxims by François de La Rochefoucauld (1665)[7]. Thus, we can decompose the passage as follows and find the movement of the rhetorical wave that goes from Sazerat to the war.

Three situations are grouped under the same general law. First: a social situation ([1] The Princesse de Luxembourg is no better than a prostitute in the eyes of the Chief Magistrate’s wife, which as it happens is of little importance). Second: a love affair ([2] what is slightly more important, Odette is a difficult woman to Swann, whereupon he builds up a whole romance which becomes all the more painful when he discovers his error). Third: a political situation ([3] what is more important still, the French are thinking only of revenge in the eyes of the Germans). And in this last case, it is the destiny of countries that is at stake. All prejudices are commanded by a single law, it is claimed, and this law can even be revealed to a good observer who is looking at the way Françoise is pronouncing the name of Madame Sazerat. Where does all this reasoning takes place? In the inner speech of the narrator which is rendered in the novel. More interestingly, this inner speech contains some kind of reasoning that would have gone unnoticed if we had remained at the examples given by Husserl. And the reasoning leads to a remark that has a general value.

Prejudice as bias and harm

This law of the bias of human judgement, it is suggested, is observable in all judgements. It produces minute errors as well as major errors such as those that constitute the prejudices of people when it comes to the judgement of someone else. We have of the universe only fragmentary visions. Because of this primitive and universal situation, we have to complete our vision by the association of « arbitrary ideas ». And this is creative of dangerous suggestions. The necessity of unifying what we receive as partial is thus the basis of our bias in judgement as well as the dangerous consequence it can have as far as we believe in the associations that we are forced to produce.

Thus, we must, if we follow this analysis, exclude two interpretations that could have been proposed for the link between the two senses — bias and harm — of the term « prejudice ». The first one would have been to consider that the link is only located in a convention of language that would have put together, for some arbitrary reason, the notion of bias and the notion of harm together. The link is located in something else than language itself, since it appears to be connected to perception itself.

The second interpretation that we can exclude is that the connection of the three situations that have been associated by Proust (and that we just detailed, namely  social, emotional and political) are only connected by means of metaphor. In his erudite work, Proust et le roman, Jean-Yves Tadié suggests that Proust incorporates the metaphor as a complete sort of thinking and that this is one of the particularities of the novel[11]. This may be true. But it does not mean that all the occurrences in which one goes from one situation to another are obtained by means of metaphors. In this particular case, it is likely that another process is at stake, since the processes analysed are not only given as similar but also described as based on the same kind of process. It is not a metaphor that ensure the passage from social to emotional and from emotional to political, but rather a community of mechanisms at stake in the description.

One could go even farther and, returning now to Husserl, showing that the bias in judgement is present in situations which are again simpler than the apparently simple example Proust is giving (the mistake that Françoise is still making after many years in pronouncing a name). Husserl might prefer to talk about the fragmentary visions of a table, he would conclude in the same way: « constantly seeing this table and meanwhile walking around it, changing my position in space in whatever way, I have continually the consciousness of this one identical table existing ‘in person’ and remaining quiet unchanged. The table-perception, however, is a continually changing one, it is a continuity of changing perceptions. » Even a simple table is the result of a construction we elaborate from fragmentary visions, from fragmentary pieces of perception, that we can have from it, Husserl is claiming. When one turns to a person or to a country, this can be only truer.

By the same token, this shows how we should proceed to go to from the general law to the analysis of examples. It is neither by the free process of metaphorical association nor by the not-so-free process of grammatical habituation that we go from bias to harm when one follows the meaning of the term « prejudice », but rather by a very general necessity completing our visions. It is the very same law of perception. But now, following Proust, we can understand the danger associated with the law, which is not the case when one follows Husserl. Not because the two descriptions would be inconsistent with each other (as we have seen, far to be inconsistent, they are complementary). But because the law of perception as it is described by Husserl is too abstract to go into such human details as the way people pronounce words (which are, nevertheless, highly significant for human life). Thus, the reading of Proust allows to complete what is perhaps missing in phenomenological analyses but, at the same time, shows also their great value.


The law that Proust (or its narrator) could claim to have identified, while it does not explain why prejudice itself appears, shows, at least, that no thought is free of prejudice and it also shows why a prejudice can stay the same over long periods of time. When one turns to inner speech and performs meticulous descriptions, one can see the way prejudice is maintained, allowing perhaps to see where it is possible to intervene in the process and where it is not. It also allows to exclude two interpretations that could have been proposed for the link of the two senses of the term « prejudice » in English. This analysis, based on a phenomenological approach, can thus well be completed by the art of the novel as far as it shows how the universal laws beneath the surface of words and actions can emerge.


[1]   Noam Chomsky. Language and Mind. Cambridge University Press, 2006, Cambridge ; New York, 1968.

[2]   Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky. Crime and Punishment. Simon and Brown, tr. en. C. Garnett, 1956, Hollywood, FL, 1866.

[3]   Edouard Dujardin. Les lauriers sont coupés. Flammarion, 2001, Paris, 1887.

[4]   Charles Fernyhough. The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves. Profile Books, London, 2017.

[5]   Martin Heidegger. Being and Time. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, tr. en. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson, 2008, New York, 1927.

[6]   William James. The Principles of Psychology. Dover Publications, 1957, New York, 1890.

[7]   François La Rochefoucauld. Maxims. Penguin Classics, 1982, London New York, 1665.

[8]   Joshua Landy. Philosophy as Fiction: Self, Deception, and Knowledge in Proust. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004.

[9]   Marcel Proust. In Search Of Lost Time. Vintage Classics, tr. en. C. K. Scott Moncrieff, T. Kilmartin, D. J. Enright, 1981, London, 1913-1927.

[10]   Dorothy Richardson and Gloria G. Fromm. Windows on Modernism: Selected Letters of Dorothy Richardson. University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA, 1995.

[11]   Jean-Yves Tadié. Proust et le roman: Essai sur les formes et techniques du roman dans «Ã la recherche du temps perdu». Gallimard, Paris, 1986.

[12]   Yanko Tsvetkov. Atlas of Prejudice: Mapping Stereotypes. Create Space Publishing, Louisville, KY, 2013.

[13]   Norbert Wiley. Inner Speech and the Dialogical Self. Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 2016.