What is Opinion?

A proper understanding of doxa/opinion’s place in human cognition is crucial to grasping the meaning of the Republic. Indeed, it may even be its most important teaching. To get at what Plato means by doxa, let’s look carefully at a passage in Book V in which Socrates is trying to establish the nature of opinion and the opinable. Socrates first points out that two opinions about who (or what) is beautiful can differ — even if they are opinions about the same thing by the same person — so that the same thing can look either beautiful or ugly depending on the circumstances. Let me give you an example of the phenomenon by means of an experiment (very fun with kids):

Line up three pans of water on a counter top.  Fill the left pan with ice-water, the middle pan with lukewarm water and the right pan with hot water, just below scalding. Place your left hand in the cold water and your right hand in the hot water. Leave them there for a full minute, noticing the contrast of feeling between your two hands. Different temperature water, different feelings — so far, so good. After the minute is up, remove both hands from their respective pans and plunge them both into the lukewarm water. Do they feel the same or different? Quite different! The cold-water hand will experience the lukewarm water as quite warm and the hot-water hand will experience the lukewarm water as quite cool. Different experiences in the same person of the same object at the same time! The left hand has one “opinion” and the right hand has another “opinion” about the temperature of the water — which is right? One could say “neither” or “both” with equal authority. And yet the water temperature in both cases *is* the same.

With that example in mind, let’s look at place where Socrates gives something of a “definition” of opinion/doxa:

We agreed that if something of that sort were to appear, [i.e. ambiguity of perception concerning the same thing] it would need to be accounted as matter-of-opinion and not something-known — a wandering intermediate detected by an intermediate faculty.  (Republic 479d, translation mine.)

I want to take this last definition of the opinable (printed in bold) and break it, down word by word.:

(1) “Wandering,” the Greek word planaton.  Opinion is constantly wandering because of either changes in the object or changes in the subject. I meet someone named Smith and she seems nice. You meet Smith later and report that she seems aloof. We argue over whether Smith *is* nice or aloof, each of us convinced we are right. Of course, there are lot of possibilities to account for the difference:

(a) One of us is right (always me) and the other is wrong (always you) — this seems to be the default position in unreflective human beings. You were either lying or are an incompetent judge of character. Notice the opinions generated from the situation are multiplying: I form an opinion of you based on your opinion of Smith and vice-versa.

(b) Both of us are right: Smith behaved differently in the two separate meetings. Smith wandered from her earlier state, from nice to aloof. Maybe so, but I have seen with my own eyes that Smith is nice so that becomes the default setting and the aloofness is a deviation from the norm, or so I opine. But you don’t agree with my opinion, do you? You have a different default; you think of Smith as primarily aloof.

(c) Neither of us are right — each of us went into the meeting with Smith primed to experience Smith differently. I saw Smith as nice because I am usually surrounded by grouches. You saw Smith as aloof because you live among gregariously nice people. (Let’s assume for this case that Smith didn’t change between meetings.) Smith seems to us, if we each accept the report of the other, to be quite a variable creature. Even when we agree, our opinions can lead us astray.

(d) Or some combination of wandering in Smith and/or in my perceptive priming and/or in your perceptive priming.

Here’s the thing: armed only with this evidence, neither of us “knows” which of these cases represent the reality about Smith and neither of us “knows” what Smith’s true character is. Our opinions correspond in some way to the reality of the situation: Smith did *seem* nice to me and (so you say) she *seemed* aloof to you, but the reality in question is just an opinable matter. This seeming is only partly about Smith. It is not and cannot be knowledge.

Notice also that knowledge of Smith depends on self-knowledge of ourselves as wanderers. Until we can account for our own wandering subjectivities, of our status as opinion-holders, we can have no knowledge of anything outside of us. None. That is how important it is to understand opinion — it is a key to both self-knowledge and knowledge.

(2) “Intermediate,” the Greek word metaxy.  Doxa/opinion is an intermediate between ignorance and knowledge. It is more than ignorance and less than knowledge and yet participates in both:

(a) Opinion is not knowledge since one cannot determine what the reality *is* from opinion. Adding opinion to opinion does not improve the situation, as we have seen with our Smith opinions.

(b) But opinion is also not ignorance since it is formed and shaped by the effect of Smith’s reality upon our faculties. You and I experience Smith even if we don’t yet know her.

Opinion, being an intermediate, is a dual phenomenon. Opinion is the lukewarm water between hot knowledge and cold ignorance. Since opinion in each of us seems to be knowledge, opposed opinions in others seem to be ignorance. And the same is true of the opinion-holder on the other side. The word doxa, which I am translating as opinion, also has a meaning of “reputation.” So let me show this with an image:

IGNORANCE           < ————–    OPINION    ————–>       KNOWLEDGE                                      concerning what has                     based on reputation                based on intimacy
never been met or heard of           or mere appearance               and long acquaintance

Begging the question of whether we can ever have perfect knowledge of another, it is clear that opinion is “truer” the more it approximates knowledge. If the reputation is based on the report of a knower, then that reputation can approach something like “true opinion.” But even true opinion, being opinion, is liable to wander and can never itself be authoritative. Of course, most opinion that is based on another’s report is likely based on just another opinion. My agreement with another seems to be proof to my model that her opinion is correct and vice-versa. The world of opinion is a veritable Hall of Mirrors!

(3) “Faculty” the Greek word dynamis.  This word can also be translated “capability” or “power.” Knowledge and opinion are different capacities since they aim at different ends and bring about different results: knowledge aims at the true being of its object whereas opinion aims at appearances and stops at seeming. *Knowledge is not just a really precise version of seeming* — this is the hardest thing for beginning students of Plato to grasp. Opinion, even true opinion, is not knowledge and never can be. They are distinct powers. Knowledge must transcend mere appearance, and thus opinion. Knowledge is able to distinguish between the reality of the thing itself and its own impression of the same, whereas in opinion, the two are always confused and conflated. The root of the problem is that opinion *seems* to its holder to be true — such *seeming* is what opinion means after all.

And yet, opinion is the natural medium of our cognitive life. We are so immersed in this metaxy, that we can’t imagine being otherwise. We only come to knowledge by going through opinion, however perilous a path. But before knowledge can be revealed, we can only act on the basis of opinion and opinion harbors within itself blind ignorance. Opinion, which *seems* like light to us, blinds us from our blindness, from our defects of ignorance. Any blind exercise of power (imagine performing activities like driving, shooting, accusing, or idolizing in the blind) is a barbaric evil in the world and the cause of much misery. As the Proverb (14:12) says, “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.” Which way out? Grasping that there is a difference between knowledge and opinion is a good first step. But there is simply no rescue from this pitiable condition without self-knowledge, humility and awareness of ignorance, which are three versions of the same thing. Such are the means of overcoming the blindness of opinion. Such are the goals of philosophy.


In an earlier post, I laid out the distinction between self-assertive opinion (belief/pistis) and self-critical opinion (thinking/dianoia) and what it would take to move from the former into the latter. It may be useful to continue the story there.

8 thoughts on “What is Opinion?

  1. I have a dumb question. no surprise. In doxology I thought it is a word of praise, Is Doxa both praise and opinion?

    • The word doxa also has the meaning of “glory” especially in the NT. The root meaning is that of “reputation” — both “opinion” and “glory” are branches from that root. A high and exalted reputation is glory, to which praise is the usual response. So doxology literally translates as “word of glorification”, i.e. praise. Does that help?

  2. Hello again,

    You wrote, . *Knowledge is not just a really precise version of seeming* — this is the hardest thing for beginning students of Plato to grasp. “/i>

    Guess that’s why I can’t grasp it. 🙂

    Knowledge is able to distinguish between the reality of the thing itself and its own impression of the same,

    Could you elaborate?

    (BTW, the link to “the earlier post” what is opinion is broken.)

    • I’ll try. Seeming is always from a perspective, is always colored by our relation to the thing perceived/conceived, is always bound up with our mode of perception/conception. Mr. Smith is nice one day and not nice the other — which perspective is the *real* Smith? If we confuse seeming with knowing, then we take one instance of seeming and assert it to be true and another instance as false. But that can’t be entirely right. Knowledge of Smith is not just of one of his aspects but must somehow comprehend the sum of his aspects. Knowledge of Smith must include within its orbit the reason one aspect appears one way one time to one person and appears otherwise in other circumstances. Reasons aren’t *seen.* A reason is not just a better perspective, not just taking a good look. Knowledge must account for changes of appearance of the thing known, the relationship between the appearances and also be able to control for our biases of the knower. Knowledge must include therefore a modicum of self-knowledge in order to control for biases whereas seeming needn’t consider its own biases.

      • Self-knowledge is another hard subject. Even Socrates couldn’t be sure what he really was, whether he was Typhon or something else.

      • Very hard. And no one besides you yourself can ever fully enter into your soul and show you around the place! Others can help with your investigation with a “Hey, I find this in me. See if you find it in yourself as well,” but it is always up to each of us to perform the actual work. The abstractions and methods of philosophy are useless without concrete performance. The rules of dialectic are what they are to prevent the various evasions that keep us from such self-examination, but in themselves the rules cannot prevent these evasions. Only some resource we cultivate within ourselves with others’ help can ultimately prevail.

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