Two Types of Opinion

Much of the time, we talk as though there is only knowledge and its absence with no in- between. But none of us has much experience with either pure ignorance (which would imply an absence of experience too at any rate) or pure knowledge. We spend most (if not all) of time in the hazy mental space between ignorance and knowledge, a space Plato calls doxa, which is usually translated as “opinion.” Doxa is an intermediate between ignorance and knowledge. From the side of greater knowledge it looks like ignorance and from the side of lesser ignorance it looks like knowledge. But to understand Plato’s notion of doxa, it is important to understand that it participates in both sides of the ignorance/knowledge distinction. To hold an opinion is to intend the truth, but to remain still in ignorance. Even “true belief” conceals ignorance; even false belief harbors truth.

Knowledge is only approached by way of doxa. At its most developed, doxa is dynamic, a movement (kinesis) from ignorance toward knowledge. At its least developed, doxa is static, “the residue that remains when thinking has stopped” (Joe Sachs). Plato calls the more developed, dynamic form dianoia, which I translate as “thinking.” He calls the less developed, static form pistis, which I translate as “belief.” Belief is opinion that holds itself against the questions that would undermine it. Thinking by contrast is opinion that focuses on its own defects as an avenue toward greater knowledge.

The type of opinion that is aware of itself as still participating in ignorance is thinking (dianoia). Thinking is thus necessarily bound up with self-knowledge. Every opinion should invite questions (or at least mild qualms) about itself. But these qualms are not focal components of the opinion itself, but are subsidiary components of the holder of the opinion. To bring a qualm out of the murky depths of preconscious irritation into the full radiance of a well-formed question requires an attentive self-consciousness.

Belief represses this awareness of ignorance, abstracts from it, reacts against it as threatening. Belief is an escape from the anxiety of ignorance; it is satisfying in contrast with the dissatisfactions of doubt. This is both a strength and a weakness. It’s strength is that it allows practical perseverance, since doubt and anxiety are in themselves paralyzing to action. Its weakness is that it tends to be allergic to any opinion or question that threatens to reintroduce the doubt from which it has escaped. Belief is deaf to the qualms and doubts that would unsettle it, that would goad it to self-transcend.

All of this makes it sound like we must dispense with belief and pursue dianoia. But we cannot live without belief. All perseverant action requires the steadiness of belief to push through the discouraging headwinds of doubt that oppose it. (In Plato, pistis is related analogically to the virtue of courage.) Even thinking (dianoia) contains a germ of belief at its core, since thinking intends knowledge that it does not yet know. Dianoia has at its heart an active abiding belief in knowledge. Without this pistis, this faith, dianoia devolves into a mere skepticism, self-contradictory and impotent in itself. In the Republic, Thrasymachus is the examplar of dianoia without pistis, whereas Glaucon is one who healthily combines the two, simultaneously critical of his own opinions but trusting of the guidance of Socrates.

Opinion is thus the intermediate between ignorance and knowledge, but dianoia is the intermediate between belief and knowledge and pistis is intermediate between ignorance and dianoia. (See the Divided Line at the end of Book VI of the Republic.)


14 thoughts on “Two Types of Opinion

  1. I think I follow. Question. Where does the “ahh haa!!!” moment fit into this? What I mean is- for example- as a child I might have seen a movie or read a book that referenced something that was so far from my experience I couldn’t even form an opinion or belief about it. It was completely foreign. It wasn’t until I witnessed or experienced it my self that it clicked and I understood it this way.

    Or perhaps as an adult maybe I read many books about various topics of which I don’t understand enough to form an opinion or belief about but just accept the memory of the events or information gathered. Then later in life draw back on the information to use on real life experience…. Say I read some history or even Greek mythology. These are just stories that hold some fascination for the time but I don’t study the hidden meanings behind them and shove the information in the back of my head then they are brought back to surface as I face new decisions. Where I draw upon this information that has meaning now in light of life’s events.

    If we exclude the theory of Forms and noetic knowledge for a brief moment for the purpose of this question, are we not skipping Doxa going straight from pure ignorance to practical/common knowledge?

    If this is so, then are we certain that the highest form of knowledge must be obtained by doxa?

    Or in regard to the highest kind of knowledge, is it impossible to break up the path form ignorance to doxa then to doxa to knowledge? saying that this leap form ignorance to common knowledge with out doxa is acceptable but that the moment of acquiring common knowledge is the formation of opinion and belief that then can lead to higher understanding?

    Or simply I guess the question could be, could information with out opinion, belief, or even skepticism but a neutral observation be a better gateway to obtain true or at least a higher kind of knowledge? Maybe I’m backing myself into a corner here because if this was possible I don’t see how it could be articulated but by moving through doxa.

    I hope Im clear enough in my question 🙂

    • You ask a good question about how insights (i.e. the “ah ha” moment) fit into the forming of opinions. Every opinion arises as a satisfaction to the desire to overcome confusion and anxiety of ignorance. To the extent that a perceived “solution” seems to provide a way out of this unsettled doubt, then it will be perceived organically with a feeling of thrill, as if some blockage against against effort is suddenly removed. The problem is that the removal of doubt isn’t a sufficient condition for knowledge, although it is a necessary one. The analogy is to non-nutritious junk food that will “solve” a hunger, but without providing the nutritional value that is the *real* telos of hunger. Plato’s antipathy to the Sophists and poets is similar: that they are able to provide “satisfying” answers to questions/urges/desires without any real requirement to know the truth of the matter — just manipulate the “flavor” of the answer and the people will eat it up. Whatever “tastes” right is doxa.

    • TheEpistemologist brought up an interesting point about the “Eureka” moment. I think perhaps it is more a moment of recollection/recognition rather than discovery of true knowledge. Because we’re making a connection between the current problem and a previous one, which didn’t make sense to us before, but now all of a sudden both ideas become clearer by their mutual reinforcement. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the ideas themselves are true knowledge though.

      • Stick with the notion of recognition. Let’s toy with the notion that knowledge may be a type of recognition. Perhaps knowledge is the recognition that what is before me either agrees or fails to agree with some conceptual understanding that I have. The “Aha” of insight is then a marker of recognition. Or more adequately, perhaps knowledge is access/openness to the light of understanding that allows me to recognize truth in some instance or other. Knowledge is a power of attunement to relevant understanding. Some opinions are better than others in holding on to the proper attunement, but possessing the opinion alone is not enough. Knowledge also includes the posture with which I handle the opinion, such that I understand what it reveals, what it conceals and why. An opinion is analogous to a sextant, which requires skill to be able to navigate by.

      • I’m not sure I understand “attunement”, or how can one tell that he possess “knowledge” and not just another “opinion”.

      • Let me give you an analogy: how can you know you see see more clearly with one pair of glasses than another? What defines “clearly”?

        For “attunement,” maybe it will help if we employ the metaphor of tuning a radio. The signal is there at all times available for us to receive, but we must attune our radio to pick it up. Not a perfect metaphor, but gesturing in the right direction.

      • Thank you for the analogies. Oftentimes analogies are more meaningful to me than words.

        The end of “attunement” seems to be precision, not accuracy. You can “tune” the clock to be precisely 5 minutes late, but the clock is not accurate.

      • No, even precision doesn’t get it right. Accuracy is closer. You are tuning to the object of knowledge (e.g. the meaning of the broadcast) not to some place on the receiver (e.g. 115.8 on the dial). The important thing is that you are tuning to the object of knowledge. The object of knowledge is the final arbiter of whether one knows.

      • But precision vs accuracy highlights one thing, for me at least: you maybe be tuned in to the object, but it doesn’t mean the object is the object of knowledge, not just another opinion. In other words, you can be tuned in to the wrong opinion as well.

  2. “It wasn’t
    until I witnessed or experienced it my self that it clicked and I understood it this way.” — I’ll let other people talk about Plato. A more modern answer to your question is that there is a distinction between knowing how and knowing that. Experiential knowledge is roughly in the camp of know-how, whereas propositional knowledge informs our concepts, facts, logical knowledge, and pure sense knowledge — Kim is in the room. I know because I see her. Now you can question whether you can trust your senses, but reliabilists…people who argue that knowledge comes about through reliable systems such as our five senses, will hold that your senses, when operating normally, provide you with knowledge. I’m trying to think if anyone I’ve read explicitly talks about insight. I can’t think of anyone. It’s a very good question. My opinion, no pun intended, is that an account of insight would be very different if it is an internalist or externalist account, how the account explains belief formation, whether the beliefs formed are voluntary, and how beliefs and thoughts change over time– belief revision. There is also usually a distinction between belief and acceptance. I can’t come up with a short explanation off hand, but the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is always a good place to start. Accounts of insight will differ based on all these factors. You are making me very curious to learn more about it.

  3. Eilish,
    Thanks for your comment. Just to respond to the first part, I think your distinction between “knowing how” and “knowing that” is important. However, let me wonder out loud whether the latter is not parasitic on the former. Is there any “knowing that” which doesn’t depend necessarily on a massive background supply of “knowing how”? Both the pragmatists and phenomenologists (add Wittgenstein too) have contented that this is the case. That is why I try not to abstract the thinking process too much from embodied, personally-involved, active concern.

    • I really like the idea of embodied active concern. You’re helping me see that I need to read more pragmatists and phenomenologists. Many contemporary epistemologists make the distinction, Christa Lawlor is one off the top of my head. The intuition is that in a statement such as “I know that P” you are making a logically quantifiable statement such as “When x and Y obtain, P obtains, I know X and Y are present, therefore I know that P.” Know-how is something like “I know how to do P” such as tie my shoes or walk. But thinking more on what you said, I it seems plausible that from the standpoint of what it is like for me to know that P I have to refer to know-how and to experience, and if you think that our phenomenology of knowledge is just the thing it is to know something, then knowing that will depend on knowing how in most circumstances. Having conceded this point, however, I’d ask a follow-up question about whether there are limits to a phenomenological theory of knowledge. For instance, when a person who is deaf and blind knows that Bach is playing in a room and that people are dancing to it, wouldn’t there be a gap between her knowing that P and having any phenomenological experience of knowing that P, or of directly experiencing P? She would know these things because someone told her and that person is a trustworthy evidential source for instance, but such an account need not appeal to phenomenology or pragmatism at all. Check out Evidentialism by Earl Conee, Richard Feldman. If I’ve overlooked something, let me know.

      • 1. I think I understand the distinction between knowing-how and knowing-that (and please correct me if I use them in a way that diverges from your understanding). My point is that we can’t “know-that” unless we are adept at a certain “knowing-how”. Coming-to-know in the “knowing-that” sense, requires that I skillfully *know how* to clarify my understanding, evaluate evidence, sense when I’m fooling myself, open myself to qualms and criticisms, overcome repressive biases or reactions, etc. Knowing is the consummation of an activity and is never just a disembodied logical state. Every activity requires skill/virtue to perform well, and skill implies a “knowing how,” much of which is tacit and not reducible to propositional logic. Does that make sense? So to theorize about “knowing that” in abstraction from its supporting base of “knowing how” is perhaps to omit something essential that analytic logic can’t quite master.
        2. I suspect that you are taking phenomenology to mean “access to sense data.” Is that what you mean by phenomenology? While I agree that there is such a thing as a phenomenology of knowledge, that is not the same thing as epistemology. Phenomenology of knowledge would be interested in the question “What am I doing when I’m knowing?” whereas epistemology asks a different question “Why is doing that knowing?” Put that way, I think it is clear that any sound epistemology must rest on a sound phenomenological base, yes?
        3. I honestly haven’t read anything by a self-described evidentialist, so please forgive me if I go astray. Let me at least hazard a guess that what is meant by “evidence” is a hotly disputed issue in evidentialism. (Am I right?) Not all evidence is relevant to justify a particular belief, so I would have to have some skill in focusing on just the relevant kind. And we all know that what may seem like evidence in favor of some belief can be often deceptive or misleading. Wouldn’t the ability to criticize what seems like evidence be something distinct from mere evidence? And wouldn’t that skill at discriminating between good and bad evidence be a kind of “know-how”? Again, I’m asking questions ignorant of what the proponents might say or answer — so forgive my impertinence.
        4. Your example omits any reference to questioning. Contra something like “a sufficiency of evidence,” I prefer the criterion of knowledge given by Bernard Lonergan in his magnum opus INSIGHT: we know something when all relevant questions have been answered regarding it. There are a lot of necessary conditions for knowing (including the availability of evidence) but only Lonergan’s seems to be a sufficient condition. Think it through and see if you agree.
        Thanks for the tip on Evidentialism. I learned a new term today thanks to you.

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