The Protestant Defence of Prejudice

Presbyterian minister John Grier Hibben published A Defence of Prejudice in 1911. As a professor at Princeton University he gained a reputation as an opponent of university president Woodrow Wilson. In 1910 Wilson became governor of New Jersey and in 1912 university trustees selected Hibben as Wilson’s replacement. Hibben’s known dislike of Wilson’s policies meant his accession was viewed as a victory for Wilson’s opponents. Hibben stated publicly his desire to unify Princeton’s faculty, he faced intransigence from progressive faculty members throughout his two-decade tenure.

            A Defence of Prejudice proposed a rethinking of knowledge’s acquisition. The two generations of intellectual life that preceded Hibben saw academics assail older methodologies and pedagogies in pursuit of empiricism and modernist methods of understanding human knowledge and reason. Hibben was not a reactionary or a traditionalist in the strict sense but he nonetheless used his book to caution against those who threw out the Great Tradition and 2,500 years of Classical knowledge’s transmission throughout the Western world. In particular, Hibben defended what he called prejudice, which he defined as “any impression which we vaguely recognize but cannot justify rationally must certainly be regarded as a form of prejudice.”

            Prejudice’s place in the corpus of human knowledge was far more significant than even the opponents of prejudice ever admitted. Prejudice, according the modernists of the early Twentieth Century, represented unreasoned and unthinking ignorance, but Hibben countered that there was reason active in the prejudices of the Ancients. Hibben proposed in fact that much of what moderns knew about the world stemmed from Ancient prejudices. “We have only to examine our store of knowledge.” Noted Hibben, “in order to discover what a vast amount of it is represented by these remote survivals of past study and travail of mind.”

The principles of a science, Hibben argued, were “remembered and accepted as true, and it may be at times are used by us in some practical emergency; and yet how mysteriously vague and elusive seem the proofs upon which they rest and which we long ago so carefully mastered.” Learned men assent with “complete confidence to the Newtonian law of universal attraction.”They believed “the earth moves around the sun; we are in complete accord with the proposition that the square on the hypothenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares on the two sides.” There was, said Hibben, “an uncomfortable familiarity about these utterances. But when we are pressed for a justification of our belief in statements such as these, then all that we can say perhaps is simply that in a general way there is a true ring about them.”

In other words, Hibben argued, prejudices are “judgments to which we give assent, but which we cannot prove. And yet the fact that prejudices “partake of the hospitality of our minds” should not be “regarded necessarily as a weak concession of ignorance on our part.” Instead, prejudices are “the normal manner in which the laborious processes of past thinking are definitely concentrated and recorded.”

            The lost normality of prejudice and its replacement with a largely contrived and vaporous intellectual aesthetic of “open-mindedness” continues to exercise influence even among Christian intellectuals. Hibbens’ book and its call to recognize the place and importance of prejudice and tradition is valuable in an era when reason and scholarship are replaced by sociologically-driven academic proceduralism. When “well-sourced” books say things that strike readers as demonstrably false they might consider the value of ancient prejudices instead of trying to argue via another round of academic proceduralism.  

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