The Great Conversation:

By Matt McKeown

Opinion sounds like an easy thing to understand, but it ramifies quickly ...

Opinion is one of the oldest topics in western thought. It is a term in a wide system of closely related, contrasting pairs: opinion versus knowledge, probability versus necessity, assumption versus axiom, conjecture versus fact. Socrates, as depicted by Plato, originally began to conduct his life of inquiry because he wanted to pass from merely having opinions about things to knowing them—which implies not merely a difference in subjective confidence (anybody can have complete confidence in their opinion), but a justified confidence.

This opens onto one of the basic problems of epistemology, or the philosophy of how we know things. What is knowledge? What distinguishes it from opinion?

To begin with, it’s generally accepted that opinion is uncertain—not in the sense that every opinion is equally likely or well thought out, but in the sense that differences of opinion can be legitimate. This may be because not enough evidence has been collected to arrive at a conclusion, or it might be because the kind of thing the opinion is about is, in itself, not the kind of thing we can have knowledge rather than opinion about. For example, no amount of data-gathering or a priori reasoning can predict the future with certainty, even if we can have strong opinions about certain aspects of it (e.g., that the Earth will not be hit by an asteroid in the next week).

This points to the fact that, while there are things we unambiguously know, like the laws of mathematics, most of our daily lives operate on the basis of opinion. This naturally leads to tension, since people have differing opinions on everything from whether we should have a war with another country to whether people should eat cheese. In one sense this is the fundamental problem of all politics: which opinion, if any, should prevail, and on what grounds. At the (loosely defined) authoritarian end of the political spectrum, the issue is resolved by enforcing a specific set of opinions, while at the (again loosely defined) libertarian end, by enforcing as few opinions as possible; most states of course fall somewhere in between. The right to liberty of conscience, speech, and press, embedded in the US Constitution, falls at least theoretically toward the libertarian end of the spectrum here: it does not endorse a right to spread known falsehoods, hence our laws against things like defamation and perjury, but good-faith beliefs of almost all kinds are legally protected.

For the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived, and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. ... We enjoy the comfort of opinions without the discomfort of thought.

Of course, not every strand of western thought has laid an equal importance on reaching knowledge as opposed to opinion. Jewish theology, descending from the Hebrew Bible through the Talmud, takes for granted that there will be a variety of opinions from different rabbis; schools of thought with a range of similarities will certainly emerge, but there is no felt need for a definitive authority, such Catholics locate in the Magisterium or early Muslims found in the Caliphate. The “common law” tradition of English jurisprudence, which we have inherited in the United States, is also patient of a variety of approaches and, though the principle of stare decisis is a formidable unifying force in law, nevertheless, legal opinions remain opinions, and under the right circumstances they can be overturned, as with the Dred Scott case.

Opinion stands in a curious relationship to religious faith. Most religious people would distinguish between faith and knowledge, as in the famous Pauline text, “For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face.” However, very few religious people take kindly to having their beliefs described as opinions—perhaps because their personal confidence of faith is higher than what we attach to opinions, or because the object of belief is categorically different from the sorts of things we have opinions about. C. S. Lewis, in his essay “On Obstinacy in Belief,” proposes something slightly different. Pointing out the relational terms (familial or erotic as the case may be) in which Christian Scripture and mysticism frame faith, he introduces a moral dimension that the word “opinion” usually doesn’t imply:

Complete trust is an ingredient in that relation—such trust as could have no room to grow except where there is also room for doubt. To love involves trusting the beloved beyond the evidence, even against much evidence. No man is our friend who believes in our good intentions only when they are proved. … Such confidence, between one man and another, is in fact almost universally praised as a moral beauty, not blamed as a logical error.

Suggested reading:
Plato, Theætetus
St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ I.84
John Milton, Areopagitica
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason
St. John Henry Newman, Grammar of Assent
Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition


If you liked this post, take a look at some of our other content here at the Journal, like these author profiles of Euripides and Charles Darwin, or these student contributions on combining justice with mercy and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel Cancer Ward. And be sure to check out our weekly podcast on education and culture, Anchored, hosted by our founder Jeremy Tate.

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