What grounds opinion?

The short answer is that nothing grounds an opinion. If it were grounded, it would constitute knowledge and would no longer be opinion. OK, what settles opinion then? Obviously, there are many opinions and to hold a particular opinion is to settle on one rather than moving on to another. To answer this question, I will rely on the schema of the tripartite soul in Book IV of the Republic. The tripartite psychology articulated there results from Socrates pointing out that the soul is often in conflict with itself, which he takes as evidence that the soul has parts. The city/soul analogy leads him (at that point in the argument at least) to look for three psychological parts corresponding to the three civic parts. The three he identifies are a desiring-part/epithumia, a spirited-part/thumos and a calculating-part/logistikon. (The three correspond respectively to portions of a human body: 1 – the genitals and stomach, 2 – the chest with its beating heart and heaving lungs, and 3 – the thinking head.) In his conception of the well-ordered soul, Plato assigns each of these parts its own particular role and a place in a hierarchy of ruler and ruled. Virtue results from each part doing its proper job and remaining true to its place on the hierarchy of function. Vice results when the order is disrupted or the roles abrogated. This psychology is still helpful for articulating different patterns of human activity. I will give one application: the settling of opinion.

Every real opinion is a motivated opinion and to understand the type of opinion, it is helpful to understand the type of motive behind it. If we use the tripartite psychology as a rubric, it is easy to identify three correlative ways that questions are satisfied, three forms of motive behind opinionated answers. See if you can identify with these types. My guess is that you have experienced all three in some way or another. Actually, I’ll do better than that — my guess is that you currently hold opinions within yourself settled in all of the following ways:

1. Epithumia — the desiring part. I define epithumia as “appetitive urge or craving.” Epithumia settles a question when its irritation, anxiety, or fear is satisfied/allayed -or- if the answer leaves one feeling pleasant. The point is not so much to answer the question as (1) in a fear-motivated version, to ward off the anxious feeling inherent in questions as such or (2) in a pleasure-motivated version, to create a more pleasant mood in the asker. Empty verbal formulations are often sufficient for either version. Here is an example of each subtype:
(a) Fear motivated: A vivid example of a merely verbal answer designed to ward off the fearful question occurred when I was in elementary school. Our biology class topic was “sexual reproduction in animals.” Our elderly teacher talked to us about matters like sperm and egg, ovulation, fertilization and the like — she presented this material very dryly and matter-of-factly, but…she was clearly avoiding the one topic that the 5th graders sitting before her were most clearly waiting for her to reveal. Some of the students were looking down and nervous, others were holding back smirks and giggles. (I was the youngest person in my class by a full year and I was terrified!) Then one seemingly earnest student raised his hand and asked “How does the sperm get from the male to the female?” The class erupted in laughter; our teacher was clearly flustered. After forcefully calming down the raucous laughter, she turned to the questioner and relied, “mating,” and moved on to the next topic in our lesson. I was relieved that the question was answered and that we could move on, that the embarrassing question could just go away. Obviously, my teacher’s answer was no answer at all to the one who had asked the question — if he knew what “mating” was, he could not have asked a sincere question. My point is that the answer was provided to ward off the uncomfortable question. (It worked on me…for a time!) However literally correct the answer may have been, it was really an answer of avoidance. To accept it as an answer is to evade the question.
(b) Pleasure-motivated: An example of this version would be to answer the question of how to fix all the problems in our country with a nice, “solution-ish” word like education, a word which has the connotation of a practical suggestion but which is too nebulous to constitute much of an answer to the question. We like the answer because the word makes us feel good (who doesn’t like education?) and causes the question to evaporate like a misty fog. It too is evasive — it fails to meet the question honestly — but we accept it because it settles us into a state of pleasurable, reflectionless calm that results from avoidance.

2. Thumos — the spirited part. I define thumos as “competitive desire.”The opinion grounded by thumos is always asserting itself against another’s opinion. The answer represents a display of superiority to others and/or an effort to seek honor from those who share your view. If the answer to a question comes bundled with an attack on “the other-side,” then thumos is present. Unlike the previous mode, thumos *never* avoids a question that touches its peculiar nerve. An answer founded on thumos is a scandalized answer. Disagree with a scandalized opinion and you will unlock vast reservoirs of anger. The thumic answer is a matter of active assertion and reactive repudiation. There is a misty-eyed loyalty working in concert with a vociferous polemic against counter-opinions. We might call such a person a dogmatist. People are divided into allies or opponents, with the latter assigned motivated by ignorance or bad-will. “After all,” the thumos reasons, “the answer seems so obvious that someone must be too stupid or too mean not to see it.” The scandalized opinion is engaged in a constant polemic, to fight off threats to itself and to demonstrate its commitment to good and truth. It does its homework — finding evidence to fortify its position or to attack its foe, evidence tainted by confirmation bias. Disagreement will not provide a warrant to the scandalized person to reflect upon and possibly moderate his opinion. On the contrary, to disagree with a scandalized person will produce an intensification of his ardor. The worst solution for countering an opinion born of thumos is to actively disagree with it. Such disagreement will prove counterproductive — a basic feature of scandal. (Socratic irony is a rhetorical strategy adapted to work around this perverse feature of scandalized opinion, or so I hypothesize.) Examples abound in our society so I won’t provide any — just listen for the self-satisfied, shrill partisan denouncing the bad guys on the other side — that’s thumos. (Bonus points for finding the shrill polemicists on your side of a partisan divide.) One confession: I purposely avoided some obvious examples that could be drawn from the polemical spectacle we often call “politics.” I didn’t want to make you angry at me..

3. Logistikon — the reasoning part. I define lokistikon as “calculative reason.” Here an answer arises and an opinion formed at the end of careful comparison/contrast of available options. The logistical form is a coldly-calculative, dispassionate analysis. Appeals to measure and logic, statistics and research form the basis of final opinion. The logistical thinker has transcended the hostility that was a feature of thumos. So far so good. But there are problems. The answer given by logistikon is a relative answer, born of comparison of a buffet of possibilities, none inherently superior to the others. The best is chosen, but its preeminence is merely relative to other options. The norms that govern the distinction between better or worse often remain unexamined. While the logistical thinker is much more aware of the defect in his own opinion, the response to deficiency is usually more data analysis and logic chopping, not the search for noetic motive. The analyst has not learned yet to turn from the data toward the light informing his sense of virtue as such. Also, the logistical thinker has transcended the ardor of the thumic polemicist, as I said, but such passionlessness is an impediment to the carrying out of his virtuous option. Logistikon by itself lacks philosophical eros for the basis of its comparisons.

The tripartite soul remains incomplete because none of its various parts can adequately ground an opinion. Every opinion is settled (if we accept Plato’s division) by one of the three approaches. But if each of the three ways is defective and incomplete, if each can reach for nothing higher than settled opinion, then what could possibly consummate the desire-to-know manifested in opinion?

My answer, if you are curious, is “noetic openness” but that’s a little like saying “mating” — isn’t it?

9 thoughts on “What grounds opinion?

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