08/17/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Judge Sotomayor, Republican Inquisitors, and the Fallacy of Immaculate Perception

"You who are immaculate, you pure perceivers.... Behind a god's mask you hide from yourselves, in your 'purity.'" -- Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche is widely regarded as the originator of the philosophical stance known as "perspectivism," which claims that one's perceptions and judgments are never pure or immaculate, because they are always colored by the perspective one brings to the acts of perceiving and judging. Perspectivism was further developed in the philosophy of understanding, called "philosophical hermeneutics," elaborated by Hans-Georg Gadamer. Axiomatic for Gadamer was the claim that all understanding involves interpretation. Interpretation, in turn, can only be from a perspective embedded in the historical matrix of the interpreter's own traditions, the fabric of preconceptions that Gadamer called "prejudice." Such interpretive prejudices cannot be eliminated; finite human beings cannot attain a God's-eye view of anyone or anything. What one can do -- and what judges must do -- is reflect upon one's preconceptions and prejudices so that they do not unconsciously determine one's decisions and actions. It is precisely this self-reflective attitude that Judge Sotomayor has exhibited in her response to her Republican inquisitors:

I was talking about ... the obligation of judges to examine what they're feeling as they're adjudicating a case and to ensure that it's not influencing the outcome. Life experiences have to influence you. We're not robots to listen to evidence and not have feelings. We have to recognize those feelings and put them aside.... I think the system is strengthened when judges don't presume they're impartial, but when judges test themselves to identify when their emotions are driving a result, or their experiences are driving a result, and the law is not.... In every case where I have identified a sympathy, I have articulated it and explained to the litigant why the law requires a different result.

Clearly, Judge Sotomayor's thoughtful, self-reflective perspectivism has little to do with any personal agenda or legal relativism. When Republicans like Senator Jon Kyl accuse her of advocating personal interpretation of the law and of "relativism run amok," they arrogate themselves to the position of immaculate perceivers, blindly enacting their own ideological prejudices in the name of impartiality.