Lesson 29 The Realm
It is regarded as sound advice to tell someone progressing on the path of life : « you must form your own opinions ». This is common prejudice. In any case it is understood that we must have an opinion about more or less everything. This enables us to discuss of this, that and the other, give our point of view, make a comment, show that we have a wide range of interests and speak our mind. One good thing about opinions: they enable one to express oneself!
On the other hand however it is not enough to stick to opinions. What is the value of our opinions on technical matters on which we have no competence? Are we to have opinions ready for idle talk? Would it not be better to keep quiet? An opinion is a vague idea about something, it is not yet a founded conviction. To say that one has no opinion would perhaps be more modest, more correct, rather than pretending to have one on everything. In addition there may be areas in which opinion may have some value, and others in which it is out of place.
Is it possible to put all opinions on an equal footing? Do all opinions have the same value?
A. Having opinions, defending one’s convictions.
To begin with, let us be more precise. It is important to know what an opinion is. We say that people nod in assent to show a favourable opinion. An opinion is a point of view we agree with. We say “As for me, I think…” An opinion supposes that I give a verdict in the field of truth by formulating a judgement. It is also this kind of point of view that we recognise when disagreeing with someone: “I don’t agree with his opinions”. When we say that we have an opinion we feel our limitations: we are not entirely assured of its foundations, of the reasons for which we have this or that idea. “To have an opinion is the summary affirmation of the validity of a subjective consciousness, limited as to the content of its truth.” We are aware that someone else might well have a different opinion, just as valid. More, when saying “I think this or that” what are we putting forward? Is it the idea or is it not rather ourselves whom we try to make the most of? An opinion is just as much the need to put ourselves forward as to say something or express a point of view.
There are however two very different situations:
a) most of the time, when having an opinion we are aware of the merely hypothetical character of our affirmation: when someone says that he thinks that the new university seven-storey building may have seven storeys, but this is something that he has been told and he does not know exactly, then the opinion finds itself in its true terrain: knowledge by hear-saying. It pertains to belief. I have heard people say that, so I build opinions on the foundations of what I have heard. If we look at the sum of things we know by hear-saying, what we know without having directly experienced it, without precise reasons, then this will be the sum of our opinions. There is never exactness in opinions. An opinion is not of the order of an observation or an experience we have had. It is even less the result of a founded reasoning. It can barely be thought of as common consent.
b) Yet this is not how racist and brutal opinions function; these are hasty judgements, simplistic and unjustified. « It is something altogether different when someone declares that according to him Jews are just a race of parasites.” This is the kind of statement we encounter in racist jokes exchanged at the café. There judgment is not restrained in any way, and one no longer perceives the purely hypothetical character of one’s affirmations. Such judgments are entirely the fruit of a brutal desire to give importance to one’s own person, it is the ‘I’ that faces another “I” and seeks to distinguish itself by means of this provocation. It is someone pretending that he has the courage to be outspoken and is not afraid to say unpleasant things. In Adorno’s words: “when someone states as his own so fleeting an opinion, with no pertinence, void of any experience or reflection, he confers an authority to it … which is a statement of faith.” Yet what is cynical is precisely that this assertion establishes a perverse complicity with the listener in that it asks him to adopt a similarly racist standpoint. It is because one cannot back up such a statement that one has no other solution than to speak it with authority: “It is my opinion that…” Why? Because that is how it is! This is how I view things. If one could not add the weight of one’s own self to such opinion, one would not be able to state them. We do feel the weakness of our position, and this is the reason we put our own person on the scales, to weigh heavier in the eyes of others.
Conversely, Adorno remarks, when we find an idea that upsets us, and that we do not know how to refute, what then is our ultimate recourse? We then say: “it is just an opinion, one among others”. We underline its relative character in order not to be touched by a truth that would oblige us to question ourselves. Opinions are the refuge for mental indolence, where we rÊtreat in order to escape the effort to investigate, to inquire. They are ready-made ideas that allow one to answer any question without the need to think. It also offers the egocentric satisfaction, the one of belonging to those who think this or that, those who know. It allows one to adhere to the camp who advocates for the same thing. Opinions have their members because they function collectively. No opinion without collective consciousness. This is the voice referred to as One, the voice saying “one thinks”, it is all these ready formed ideas that circulate and confer the feeling that one belongs to ‘the well-informed’. An opinion is trendy, it is the trend of collective consciousness.
Let us therefore agree that an opinion is an elementary stage in man’s relation to knowledge, but one that one must go beyond because it is just knowledge through hear-saying. It is only justified on probability. We have opinions when we have no first-hand knowledge, no solid reasons, no sufficient justification. We must be aware that we are in the field of pure hypothesis, and therefore of what sort of thoughts we have when these are mere opinions. Once we know this we ought to be able to a) bracket our opinions, b) acknowledge our ignorance. Let us consider some examples:
1. “I think that the new building is seven floors high”. Yet I am not certain, in fact I simply don’t know. Therefore I deem it preferable not to make any statement on this matter.
2. “I believe there are guardian angles”. It is just my opinion, but I admit that I would find it very hard to prove it in any way. So I simply believe it.
3. “I believe there is consciousness, even in matter.” This is a personal opinion, but I would need to reflect on this matter if I am to turn it into a thesis, something that I could uphold with elements for its justification.
4. “I think that the square root of 2 is about 1, 414102”. This too is just an opinion, but I am not altogether sure of myself on this matter and need to verify.
Supposing that we were able to argue solidly in favour of an idea, then this opinion would turn into a conviction. A conviction is an opinion that has been thought about and matured thereby, it is an opinion that one can discuss, that one can share, one belonging to a community of minds because at last provided with justifications. To have convictions is to have good reasons to think that an idea is correct, that it may possess a truth value.
B. Opinions, correct opinions and knowledge.
In the Meno Plato distinguishes between three orders. The opinion, the correct (or right) opinion and knowledge. He gives the example of the traveler asking how to go to Larissa.
A first person may reply: “it is that way, I think, that is what I have been told.” This answer is just an opinion, it is vague, unjustified, except by hear-saying. Plato takes the example of a dovecote in which birds fly in separate flocks. Opinions are without solid anchorage, they are floating and one can change them like one changes shirt.
A second person may say: “it is that way, I believe” and point at the right way. This is still an opinion, but one that gets it right, a correct opinion, even though it does not justify what it states. This, Plato explains, is the case with the dexterous politician who instinctively makes the right decision, but does not exactly know why because they have no political science, only a correct inspiration as to what they ought to do. Had Pericles had a political science he would have been able to transmit it to his children, which he could not do because all he had was his natural gift, he only had the correct opinion without the science.
A third person says: “Larissa is that way”, but he says this because he has already been to Larissa and therefore knows which way goes there; he therefore has solid reasons to think that the way to Larissa is that one. This is the case of science when it sets out to prove a statement with reasoning. The mathematician can prove, within the framework of Euclidian Geometrics, that the three angles of a triangle will necessarily add up to 180°. This is neither an opinion, nor a correct opinion, it is scientific truth. It has its logical reasons. Plato says of science that it is endowed with “reasons of iron and diamond”. Unlike opinions, knowledge is molded in reasons, like a jewel is set in metal. It has such solid fixtures that the mind cannot modify it as it pleases and make what it wants of it. To know is precisely to weave relations between all things. Intelligence is inter-ligare, what relates, the ability to relate in the sense that it is capable of seeing relations. An intelligent mind is one that is able to establish intelligent relations. A brilliant mind makes quick connections, which enables it to understand a phenomenon. What happens then when we don’t understand? We don’t make the connections, we don’t see the intelligible relations, so that things remain in their separate state. Having perceived a link, we become able to formulate reasons in order to justify what from then on appears true to us.
Plato does not entirely disqualify opinions in general, and much less so the correct opinion in favour of knowledge and science only. We cannot bluntly state that opinions are wrong. One finds all things in them as well as their opposite. Opinions can contain correct ideas, but also gross prejudice, wrong ideas, void and superficial statements. It is a ready-to-think in the same way as one says ready-to-wear. Since opinions may accidentally cross correct intuitions, stumble upon a true idea, we cannot dismiss them as such. Its major flaw is to be unaware of itself as opinion. He who has opinions does not realise that his mind is just full of opinions. At this stage the mind lacks firmness, rigour, clarity. Opinions leave the mind without points of reference, lost amidst floating ideas. Being multiple, and because everything then appears relative, opinions leave the mind in a muddle. In addition the opinion does not enlighten, it gives no intellectual evidence. Sticking to opinions leaves the mind in the darkness. Hence the ignorant mind is in fact never empty. On the contrary it is stuffed with all sorts of opinions. Were it empty it would certainly be more clear and distinct. The ignorant man is not the man who says that he does not know anything, but the one who thinks he knows and who only had opinions instead of knowledge. Opinions lead to complacency that needs to be deflated for the mind to set out to look for truth. In Socrates irony is the art of asking those very questions that challenge opinions by asking for their reason. Irony mocks opinion. Socrates appears a gadfly that stings the pride of those who stick to their opinions and refuse to go beyond. Irony is the pendant of the flattery of pride which makes one think one knows, it unmasks this flattery and guides the mind to a truer awareness: “in fact, it is true, you are right Socrates, what justice is in its essence, I thought I knew; but now I realise that I just don’t know.” Yet irony is not negative since it stimulates curiosity, and gives rise to the sincere desire to know.
The correct opinion, even if it is unjustified, is yet important in the field of action, even if it does not give man certain knowledge. It gives skill where there is no complete science. There are many areas in life in which we have to make do with probable opinions when certitude is lacking. A) this is the case in the field of moral action with respect to decisions we may consider as good or evil. Do we really know which is the right choice? What about virtue? Does it really stem from a knowledge of good and evil? Or does it rest on a moral quality, a gift? When a man throws himself in the flames to save a child he does not need to know what virtue is in order to perform this act of bravery. He may well only have a disposition to be virtuous, a good soul, but no knowledge of what goodness would be. He acts in a fair noble way in any situation. If so, if virtue is of the order of a happy inspiration to do good, one does not see how it could be taught. There might be teachers of virtue – this is something sophists pretended to – were virtue a science or were it the result of a science that could be transmitted and therefore taught. Yet where are the teachers of virtue? Socrates shows hence that one can only push someone to be virtuous, but not teach it. B) Similarly artistic inspiration that gives poets wings to write does not result from any science, but rather from a divine talent. Were it a science it would be possible to teach and transmit it, yet what one teaches are just techniques and methods, and not the genius able to use them. C) the same goes for traditional practices that do not rest on a science, but on a particular aptitude, a know-how that results from a practice: that of the bonesetter who knows how to put a joint back but has not attended medical school.
In all these domains we are dealing rather with correct opinion than with knowledge. Knowledge is therefore the domain of that which can be rationally founded by the mind. The domain of knowledge is just as much knowledge of the self as knowledge of the world.
C. Opinion and the freedom to decide
If the realm of opinions allow us to hold any opinion this is because we choose to do so, and we are free to hold this opinion. We are therefore responsible for our opinions. From where do we get that freedom?
This freedom is ours because our will enables us to take sides even on matters on which our understanding is not sufficiently clear. This act of will it that of judgment. In the Meditations Descartes makes a clear distinction. He calls understanding the faculty of the intelligence to comprehend. The understanding is by nature limited, it is kept within the limits of what it is capable of grasping. The understanding conceives. Descartes calls will the act by which the understanding is freely capable of affirming or denying something. This appears in the form of a judgment. The will judges. The will, contrarily to the understanding, is not forced. We cannot understand everything, but we can want anything. We cannot conceive anything, but we can make the wildest judgments. The will is, according to Descartes, the only power in man that is infinite. This entails that we are naturally lead to judge beyond what we really know. A power that has no natural limits needs to be regulated, otherwise it may mislead us.
This is the metaphysical cause of mistakes. “From where do my mistakes arise? From this, that my will being much more ample and more extended than my understanding, I do not contain it within the same limits, but I extend it also to things that I don’t understand.” Hence the will “easily goes astray and chooses evil instead of good, or falsity instead of truth.” The result is that the rule we ought to follow in order to avoid error is to maintain the will within the limits of our understanding. This means that we should not judge beyond what we know. We have the freedom to affirm and deny, which means that we also have the freedom to suspend our judgment on matters in which we don’t find sufficient clarity or distinction. The first rule of method Descartes gives states the following precept:
“receive nothing as true that I do not clearly know to be such; that is carefully avoid precipitation and prejudice.” “Clearly” here means “obvious”, clarity, the clarity that the mind experiences when illuminated by the clarity of an idea. The clear idea is the one that the understanding evidently perceives as such. “To receive as true” means to judge, which is the proper act of the will. What happens when I don’t respect this rule? I fall into prevention or into precipitation. A precipitated judgment is one that is too hasty, the result of merely a superficial examination of matters, one that has not been careful enough. Very often we don’t take enough time to examine attentively, thoughtfully, and we then judge brutally and in haste, without paying attention to detail. This results in errors of appreciation. A prejudice is a ready-made judgment. The judgment has come before any kind of examination. Literally a prejudice is a pre-judgment, one that precedes scrutiny. A good method does the opposite: it comes after a serious examination. If on meeting someone I have already decided that he is a tax inspector or a show business star or a teacher, then the encounter takes place on the ground of prejudice and is artificial because I have fabricated in advance an image of the other person instead of listening to him, hearing what he is and what he has to say. If I consider an aspect of current affairs merely from the viewpoint of what people say about it, then I remain prejudiced. If I stick to the reputation one has given to A, without meeting him, then I am thinking on the basis of prejudice. In order to understand one must first refrain from judging prior to any serious examination. This means that one must keep a certain self-restraint, avoid to make hasty and fleeting statements such as we have too often the tendency to do. The natural processes of life and its complexity cannot be contained within prejudice. They must be given full attention, a lucid understanding, a quick and flexible intelligence. To understand is not to condemn, and it is not to identify with anything. Yet we frequently tend to sort everything into neat categories via rapid judgments. Life cannot be represented in dual simplistic schemes, it cannot be reduced to alternatives such as “brill/rotten”, “it’s good/ it’s bad”, “I had to do it/ I couldn’t do it” and so on.
Because our judgment is freely decided, because it belongs to us, it is possible for us to avoid precipitation and prejudice through suspending our judgment. This is called epoke. Thus it is our responsibility to avoid the mistake that consists in assenting too quickly to ideas that after all are rather muddled. To give one’s opinion is therefore to make an intelligent and rational use of one’s freedom of choice, one’s free will. “If I avoid judging something when I do not conceive it with sufficient clarity and distinction, then it is obvious that I use my judgment very well, and that I have not made any mistake; but if I am determined to deny it or affirm it then I am no longer using my free will as I ought to.” Wrong opinions are therefore in us because we put them there in the first place in the form of erroneous judgments. We are responsible for our opinions. We have mastery over our thoughts and this one supposes that we are able to maintain our judgments within the framework of what we are able to understand. “Our natural light teaches us that the knowledge of our understanding must always precede the determination of our will.”
If our opinions are not enlightened, they risk arising from an irrational bias. The careful examination of our mind can reveal that our judgment functions impulsively, and manifest our vulgar, violent and impulsive side, and this is generally expressed in opinions of a similar sort. We are perfectly able to highlight the content of our thinking and become aware of it. As long as we have not become aware of how our mind works, we are its victims. Since we willing to invest a little more wisdom in our acts then, then we must also invest more awareness in our judgments.
To sum up, an opinion is of course acceptable in the sense that it is possible that we may sometimes have a correct idea, even if we only have an imperfect access to the reasons that found it. Plato calls correct opinion this kind of opinion which somehow encounters truth only as the result of chance. The correct opinion is an intermediary between opinions in general and founded conviction that could request the status of knowledge, even science. Yet if one is content with opinions one remains at an elementary stage of the quest for truth.
We could not put on an equal footing the ignorance that is ours, the necessity to sometimes have to make do with opinions, and the bias of violence often more or less disguised as morals that allows itself to attack human dignity. A racist opinion, an insulting judgment is not an opinion like any other. In any case an opinion is not there without our knowing about it, it supposes that we freely adhere to it, and this is an adhesion of which we are responsible, that we can account for.
dialogue : questions and answers
Home © Philosophy and spirituality, 2004, Serge Carfantan. Translated by Catarinna Lamm