The duality of opinion

All opinion is partial. It always treats as the whole true an aspect that seems true. But other aspects are always possible. A particular opinion is prone to wander away from its seeming-true to reveal another face of reality. Opinion harbors a residue — a marker, usually some nagging feeling like doubt or hesitancy — of what has been abstracted away in order to make opinion seem true. For belief there is focal confidence and excluded, affective doubt. In thinking, both confidence and doubt are included and made focal. In any case, opinion is a dual phenomenon — it is always only ambiguously true. This duality is often masked from the one who holds the opinion. It takes a special effort to “see” what is outside its frame.

Socrates often refers to those moments in experience where the repressed other of opinion becomes unveiled and duality revealed. The paradoxes of optical illusions provide good examples. But even our everyday experiences harbor dualities. In one passage in Republic, Book VII (523c-e), Socrates turns to an experiment that I like to call the “three-finger exercise.”  Look at three fingers of your hand: specifically the pinky, ring-finger and middle-finger. Compared to the other fingers the pinky is small and the middle-finger large. This seems so-far unambiguous. But now look at the ring-finger. Is it small or large? It is either small and large, depending on which of the other fingers serves as the ground of comparison. “Large” and “small” are definite features of appearance, and yet they depend on their context, on what is proximate to them. Another favorite example of Plato’s is the one and the two: each of a pair is a one, but within the pair it is a half. Each one only brings oneness to the table, yet when combined with another one, there are emergent properties of two-ness and half-ness.

These examples may seem uninteresting, but they are special cases manifesting the ambiguity present in all opining. Usually, what appears true *seems* to be a property of the focal thing, but the property shifts when the thing is placed in different contexts. These thought experiments of Socrates demonstrate that something else is going on, that seeming depends on context. The examples Socrates gives are trivial, no doubt. However, if we turn our attention to debatable (and debated) social goods like justice and goodness, isn’t it likely that something similar is going on — that what *seems just* from our perspective, may *seem unjust* to another and vice-versa? And isn’t it also clear that the criterion of “seeming-just” is not sufficient to adjudicate between these competing visions? Could it be that we are just adroit at repressing aspects that disturb our comfortable self-assessment?

Socrates calls moments of paradoxical appearance (as in the three-finger exercise), parakletikai, “provocatives”, in that they provoke thought to one’s aid:

The experiences that do not provoke thought are those that do not at the same time issue in a contradictory perception. Those that do have that effect I set down as provocatives (parakletikai), when the perception no more manifests one thing than its contrary, alike whether its impact comes from nearby or afar. (Rep. 523b-c)

Our usual dealings with the world hide duality behind a veil of taken for granted belief. Aporia and paradox are useful for bringing thinking to bear on an issue:

“Yes, indeed,” he said, “these communications to the soul are strange and invite reconsideration.” “Naturally, then,” said I, “it is in such cases as these that the soul first summons (parakalousa) to its aid the calculating reason and tries to consider whether each of the things reported to it is one or two.” (Rep. 524b)

Thinking is the attempted adjudication between competing visions of the true. Thinking begins by summoning into focal presence the otherwise tacit aspects of opinion. The duality that haunts opinion and is avoided in belief (pistis) becomes thematic in thinking (dianoia). Perhaps Socrates has so much interest in sophists because they are expert in exploring this duality and relativity present in all opinion. (The Euthydemus is a particularly good dialogue to take as an example.) Skilled sophists are able to manipulate the seeming-true of opinion by creating the contextual conditions for their preferred seeming-true to gain force. Manufacturing opinion is particularly easy when the job is simply to reinforce the seeming-true of the vulgar, since only a patient exercise of difficult thinking is sufficient to dislodge it. The mob doesn’t think. If it did, it wouldn’t be a mob.

“Partiality” is when we privilege one aspect of this duality to the exclusion of the other. For instance, in giving reasons for a favored political policy, a partisan concentrates on the benefits of the policy to the exclusion of the costs. (Just listen to any partisan debate: one side will speak only of benefit, the other only of cost.) In evaluating our own virtue, our seeming-virtuous will be quite favorable if we contrast ourselves with the morally challenged. This is partiality. We tend to pay excessive attention to villainy, attention mirrored by the scandalizing obsessions of the press, in order to seem good to ourselves and others. Albert Camus wrote that “Each of us, in order to justify himself, relies on the other’s crimes.” There is also a bias called a “halo effect” in which a single fact or characteristic of a person or circumstance colors one’s opinion about the matter as a whole. Politicians who “look the part” have a leg up on the the one who doesn’t, even if the latter has superior political acumen. (We might also call this the Warren G. Harding effect.) Clearly, there are enormous political and moral implications at work here.

We can easily see the biases of others; we are much more blind to our own. This asymmetry creates the common-sense illusion that seeming-true is sufficient evidence for being-true. Thinking requires that we confront this bias, not just in others, but most importantly in ourselves. In order to have any possibility of overcoming the deficiencies of the seeming-true, we must account for our own self-deceptive tendencies. Transcendence of one’s opinion in favor of knowledge requires knowledge of our own biases. There is no knowledge of moral or political matters that can free itself from this demand for self-knowledge. What Plato claims we need is a “conversion” (metastrophe) away from accepting seeming-true as true and begin the slow process of liberating ourselves from our bondage to mere seeming. As Bernard Lonergan puts it, “Objectivity is the fruit of an authentic subjectivity” — i.e. a subjectivity that takes ownership of its own bias. We have to understand the chains that hold us fast before we can ever escape the prison of partiality.

FYI — One book that I have found useful for understanding the various forms of bias that plague our thinking is Rolf Dobelli’s The Art of Thinking Clearly. Most of the biases have their roots in the partiality of opinion as I have articulated above.

Opinion and Intellectual Eros

Another post on the path through opinion toward knowledge.

At the core of all opining (doxa) is eros. Opinion answers an implicit question, a question which expresses a desire to understand and to know. But intellectual eros is fully satisfied by noetic truth alone. Any answer assumed by opinion, its seeming-true, is always partial. All opinion confronts a residual remainder of unsatisfied eros, which opinion confronts in various ways. By nature, the residual eros is a nagging opposition to the seeming-true of opinion. This remnant of unsatisfied eros is polymorphous: doubts, anxieties, qualms. In the Republic, there are four chief dispositions of intellectual eros, each of which may be either personal or communal:

(1) In ignorance/aporia, eros constitutes the entire content of cognition, i.e., felt absence that expresses specific ignorance (eikasia). All frustration is born of desire. In the state of aporia, one is blinded not by darkness but by light, i.e., eros that finds no imaginative expression. This creates the anxiety and paralysis associated with aporetic ignorance.

(2) Belief (pistis) offers relief from the frustrations of aporia. But eros is only partially satisfied by belief and its remainder confronts the opinion as an alien threat, the aftershock of the ignorance that belief thinks it has overcome. The bifurcation between opinion and its erotic residue creates the illusion of an inside opposing an outside. Vigilant defense of the seeming-true requires countering the threat of relapse into the discomforts of ignorance. All offense against another is an encounter with one’s own alienated eros. One is not offended by what doesn’t sting, and the sting comes from tacit recognition of the justice of the other’s criticism.  Opinion then becomes a lust to assert one’s rightness and pursues victory over the critic as a sufficient proof of its truth, to silence (even if not answering) the critics both within and without. This stage is dominated by sentiment and myth when considering its own belief and polemical bluster when countering the alienated eros.

(3) In thinking (dianoia), the residue is a positive provocation, allying with the seeming-true of opinion in a drive toward noetic wholeness. Thinking is always dual and dialogical. There is still a bifurcation, as there was in belief, but the seeming-true of opinion and the residual eros now assist each other in pursuing the truth. Doubt takes the form of a thematic question. In thinking, opinion elicits aid from the doubt, and the doubt from the opinion. Eros is blind without opinion and opinion is provincial and partisan without the leaven of a disturbing eros. Let’s call this comportment, paraklesis, a summons to aid.

(4) Noetic wholeness (noesis) is the transcendent goal of all thinking, the satisfaction of eros in true knowledge. Noesis is the full integration of doubt and belief. All relevant questions are answered and satisfied, without remainder.

Aporia, alienation, paraklesis, integration: corresponding to the four segments of the Divided Line.

NOTE: In a previous post, I related the stages of opinion to the parts of the tripartite soul. As threatening shadows reflect off the walls of our political caves, it may be worth pondering which mode of thinking dominates the public discourse where we are. Shall we resist or assist?

The uses of aporia: the torpedo-fish analogy in Plato’s Meno


MENO: Socrates, I certainly used to hear, even before meeting you, that you never did anything else than exist in a state of perplexity (aporia) yourself and put others in a state of perplexity. And now you seem to be bewitching me and drugging me and simply subduing me with incantations, so that I come to be full of perplexity. And you seem to me, if it is appropriate to make something of a joke, to be altogether, both in looks and other respects, like the flat torpedo-fish (narkē) of the sea. For, indeed, it always makes anyone who approaches it grow numb, and you seem to me now to have done that very sort of thing to me, making me numb (narkan). For truly, both in soul and in mouth, I am numb and have nothing with which I can answer you. And yet thousands of times I have made a great many speeches about virtue, and before many people, and done very well, in my own opinion anyway; yet now I’m altogether unable to say what it is. And it seems to me that you are well-advised not to sail away or emigrate from here: for, if you, a foreigner in a different city, were to do this sort of thing, you would probably be arrested as a sorcerer. (Plato’s Meno 79e-80b This and future citations will be from the translation of Berns and Anastaplo, Focus Philosophical Library, 2004)

In this passage, Meno likens Socrates to a torpedo fish, a likeness with respect both to appearance (i.e. Socrates’ famous snub nose) and to his numbing effect on those who come into contact with him. Socrates accepts the aptness of the analogy with the proviso that the numbing shock of his questioning be understood as applying to himself as well. Given that Socrates has sanctioned the comparison (albeit in an amended form), how is one to understand it? Is it simply Socratic doubt that is at issue or is the analogy revelatory of other aspects of what Plato is up to in this dialogue?

The fish in question is the crampfish, or electric ray, which administers a paralyzing shock upon would-be predators as a means of effecting its escape. It is this latter aspect of its shock, the purpose of evasion, that Socrates perhaps finds objectionable in the the original analogy. On the contrary, Socrates admits to being as perplexed as his “victim.” Rather, it is Meno himself who, soon after drawing the analogy, attempts a “paralysis-and-escape” gambit of his own with his “contentious argument” (eristikon logon, 80d6-10). Socrates accuses Meno’s argument — that one cannot inquire into that which one does not already know — of creating the same kind of torpor attributed to the torpedo fish, an argument against which he contrasts his own theory of recollection:

So then one must not be persuaded by this contentious argument. For it would make us lazy and is pleasant only for fainthearted people to hear, but the other argument makes us both ready to work and to seek. (81d-e)

Socratic questioning, unlike the shock of the torpedo fish, is not a means of evasion. On the contrary, Socrates’ shock has other uses — uses that get to the very essence of learning itself.

The Greek name for the torpedo fish is narkē, so called because of its power to benumb (narkan). This latter Greek word is the source of our English word, “narcotic.” A narcotic induces numbness and paralysis if applied is sufficient measure and Meno complains of just such symptoms:

For truly, both in soul and in mouth, I am numb and have nothing with which I can answer you.  (80 a-b)

Indeed, his mouth has been paralyzed; he is at a loss to give the kind of speech about virtue he given before to some acclaim. He incorrectly infers however that his soul also has been numbed by Socrates’ questioning. Meno has assumed too close a linkage between voice and soul. He is quite correct to feel his soul numb, but it is the feeling and not the numbing that is the result of the Socratic shock. We may speculate that it is only when he is prevented from talking that he notices the paralysis of his own soul. Meno’s name means in Greek, “I remain.” Meno is the one who stays put, who fails to move, the one who is, in a deep sense and at the level of the soul, paralyzed — paralyzed by its own self-concealed ignorance. The encounter with Socrates makes such ignorance manifest; it forces Meno to “feel” his soul’s paralysis, perhaps for the first time.

Another English word descended from the same root is “narcissism.” Lest this connection appear spurious, notice how Socrates immediately responds to Meno’s torpedo-fish analogy:

SOCRATES: I’m aware of why you portrayed me in a likeness.
MENO: Why, indeed, do you suppose?
SOCRATES: So that I would make a likeness of you in return. And I know this about all beautiful people, that they delight in having images made of them; it pays for them. But I will not make an image in return.  (80c)

This is not the first time in the dialogue that Socrates has remarked on the physical beauty of Meno — he repeatedly invokes a stereotype of the Beautiful One, pampered and indulged by others. Meno the narcissist approaches the Socratic pool with a view to acquiring a reflected glimpse of himself through the reaction of a potential admirer. Indeed, Socartes reflects back quite a lot. We have already seen how Socrates reveals Meno’s torpedo-fish comparison to be a perverse reflection of Meno himself, a Meno who paralyzes inquiry through eristic arguments in an attempt to evade being refuted. But Meno also sees reflected back a person finally ignorant about the deepest concerns of humanity, a reflection painful and yet potentially redemptive. Indeed, Socrates proves to be a crueler mirror than Meno had hoped by so exposing the real man, and not the superficially handsome aspect he had expected.

One of the chief aspects of the dialogue is to warn against what may be called a “narcissism of learning.” The narcissist is one who tries to love without entering into a relationship with someone or something other. His comportment toward other beings is one of possession rather than relation. This carries over even in his approach to wisdom. Wisdom is an object of possession, something that he appropriates with the purpose of making him shine before others. Meno’s admiration of the sophist Gorgias and his adoration of his own speeches has little to do with the substance of what is said, but rather with its cosmetic value and the effect it has on an enraptured audience. The sophist is one who claims to possess wisdom, whereas the philosopher is the one who claims to love it, relate to it, and to submit to its claims. The style of speech that characterizes the sophist is the monologue, an essentially non-relational form in which the speaker is always in command of what is said. The philosopher, on the other hand, engages in dialogue, a relational give-and-take in which no one participant may claim to be in charge, in which each must adopt a posture of submission to the other and to truth when it appears. The slave-boy proves to be a better learner than Meno precisely because he knows what it means to submit; his learning is in no way bound up with narcissism.

A third English derivative from narkē, besides “narcotic” and “narcissism,” is “narcosis,” a word associated with sleep and drowsiness. After Socrates completes his dialogue with the slave boy, he discusses with Meno the advantage of the narcotic shock to the process of recollection:

SOCRATES: And now those very opinions have just been stirred up in him, like a dream. But if someone were to ask him these same questions many times and in different ways, you know that he will finally understand them no less precisely than anyone else. (85c)

Socrates says that the advantage of the shock is that it agitates the opinion, that it induces a dreamlike state in its patient. Indeed, the myth of recollection, with its cyclical notions of life and death, suggests that one’s life may be a sleep from which one must awake. The difference between opinion, even true opinion, and knowledge corresponds to the difference between dreaming and wakefulness:

SOCRATES: If then both during the time in which he is and the time in which he is not a human being, true opinions will exist in him, which after being aroused by questioning become matters of knowledge, then will not his soul for all time be in a condition of having learned? (86a)

However if the ascent to knowledge is likened to the process of waking up, what is the value of the shock of the narkē, the shock that stirs up opinions as in dreaming? Aren’t dreaming and waking contraries?

There are two ways at least advantages of the sleep-inducing narcotic that Socrates peddles. First, dreams can be a fertile repository of notions that the conscious mind has either failed to see or actively repressed. Consciousness, guarded by an army of opinions, filters experience into a manageable shape. This filtering works perhaps to eliminate those aspects of experience that give rise to the anxiety of not knowing what to do or how to act. A consciously-held opinion is that which allows the agent to act without the paralyzing arising from a complete consideration of those things abstracted from. Consciousness so conceived is designed not to cure doubt but to eliminate it, to bar its disruptive entry into the polis, even, metaphorically, to bar Socrates. When Meno complains of the Socratic shock that paralyzes his soul, perhaps what has been paralyzed is the filter of consciousness. As long as consciousness is given free reign, no new idea is allowed to interrupt the self-satisfied, self-loving torpor of the narcissistic soul. The narcosis introduced by Socratic questioning is an enticement to reverie, which serves as a womb for the birth of rival hypotheses. It is a tiptoed entry into the soul’s garrison past the sleeping guards of consciousness.

Another way of thinking about the kinship between Socrates and narcosis is that the shock is not one that induces sleep but rather makes it evident — the victim of the shock is already asleep, but becomes aware of it after the sting — just as we described the encounter with paralysis. This idea harmonizes with the previous contrast between opinion/sleep and knowledge/wakefulness. The shock does not wake the victim, but facilitates an awakening and it therefore places him in an intermediate position between knowledge and naive opinion — a state of having an opinion that recognizes itself as mere opinion. Thus, the narcosis that Socrates induces serves not only to inspire new potencies for knowing, but also to put one beliefs into question, to ascend from a tenuous belief (pistis) to a self-interrogating hypothesis (dianoia). The shock doesn’t force the abandonment of one’s opinions (since it is clear that one can on act on their basis), but calls them into question, and invites in rival opinions.

There are then, within this one comparison, three different paths of what the aporetic shock of the narkē may make known:

i) numbness, which is (ironically) a sensitivity towards the paralysis of one’s own soul;

ii) narcissism, which has its cure by means of a (again ironic) mirroring effect that Socrates reflects back to his interlocutor; and

iii) narcosis, which is the dream-state (ironically also an awakening) that allows one to detach from the fictions that rule one’s behavior in preparation for new habits of cognitive engagement.

The shock of the torpedo-fish is not an end, but a beginning, which overcomes a complacent fixity of belief that has no occasion for beginning and therefore can strive toward no end. True opinion can only arise if one loosens one’s grip on the false. But in the ascent to true knowledge, once must even release one’s grip on true opinion. The “tying down” of knowledge is an effect finally not of possession, but of relationship.




On deep agreement

Here is Rene Girard in an interview with David Cayley describing his first discovery of the phenomenon of mimetic desire:

I went to Indiana University with a student visa. And I was doing a PhD in history because I was more of a historian than I was a — I was not at all a literary man — and I was teaching the French language at Indiana University and very quickly they gave me some literature to teach — novels: Balzac…Stendhal…Proust, you know — and much of the time I was just a few pages ahead of my students [laughs]. You know, I hadn’t read the books and I didn’t know what to say. And I decided that I should look — very deliberately — that I should look for what made these books alike rather than for what makes them different from each other, which is what literary criticism, even in those days, was after. You know, a book was a masterpiece only if it was absolutely one-of-a-kind, if you could find nothing in it that would be in another book, which is complete nonsense of course! So I became interested in human relations in the novel, you know — how the vanity in Stendhal, how close it is to the snobbery in Proust…

— From the CBC IDEAS radio show. Here’s a link to the whole series produced by David Cayley called “The Scapegoat.”

What I find interesting is Girard’s decision to look for similarities in novels, rather than differences, as a way of getting at something that would be lost if one fixated on differences. There is a common tendency, one to which Girard alludes, to treat the essence of a thing as that which makes it different from other things. In the history of ideas, we think we understand a thought best when we set it against another — Plato vs. Aristotle or Catholic vs. Protestant — when in fact, the similarities probably greatly outweigh the differences in such pairings.

(Aside: I stumbled across a book at the book store a few weeks ago called The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization by Arthur Herman. It is pretty much as bad as it sounds. I maintain that while there are many differences between Plato and Aristotle, in both style and emphasis, they are in basic agreement concerning what most matters to each. To take Mr. Herman’s approach is to mostly miss what can be discovered in exploring their deep kinship and thus to fail to understand either.)

Let’s entertain the hypothesis for a moment that when it comes to the truth of an idea, deep agreement with other ideas is more vital than open disagreement. Perhaps kinship and commonality are where the real power lurk within ideas. If so, there are two important things to be said:

  1. Such agreement makes communication possible. Diverse minds can only understand one another when they have access to a common reality. As Heraclitus writes “To be thoughtful is common to all.  (Fragment 113: Xynon esti pasi phronein.)  To take a hard perspectival (Protagorean) view and deny that we share a common mental reality is to deny communication at all — a self-contradictory sharing. And since the vehicle of communication is the medium of thought, i.e. the logos, we are attempting to meaningfully deny meaning, another performative contraction. Again we turn to Heraclitus and his concept of to xynon (“the common”): “The logos is common, most live as though they have a private wisdom.”
  2. But where there is agreement, no communication is really necessary. Therefore, what is deeply common usually doesn’t get expressed at all. Common understanding is tacitly assumed and therefore never becomes an object of open reflection or communication. What do get voiced are points of disagreement, which assume the common noetic reality, without ever really expressing it. We notice the points at which we disagree and fail to notice the more fundamental places where we are in unshakable agreement, just our vision is alert to things that move but become inured to what never does. Alfred Whitehead once remarked that “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” What is tacitly assumed, but not spoken of because too obvious, is perhaps more definitive of a society that whatever verbal formulations it may entertain concerning itself. The Platonic/Socratic challenge to adequately define virtue, in concert with all the failed attempts to do so, points toward tacit possession of what cannot be voiced.

All of this relates to my project of defective reading. If the common is usually not summoned in to speech, it underlies all our speaking such that we can recognize that something is wrong/missing in a verbal account without being able to give adequate voice to it.

Did Plato write three drafts?

I mentioned in my last post that a sense of the Republic’s structure attunes its reader to notice certain discontinuities that seem to mar its implicit order. One of these is the transition from Book IV to Book V, which is the opening of the middle (climatic) act of the five act division I gave of the Republic as a whole. The end of Book IV seems, on a first reading, to reach a climax:  the characters were trying to trying to answer the question, “What is justice?” and Book IV reaches consummation with a set of satisfying (or at least agreed upon) definitions of justice and the other (more…)

Anatomy of Platonic Eros

There is a certain guidance each person needs for his whole life, if he is to live well; and nothing imparts this guidance — not high kinship, not public honor, not wealth — nothing imparts this guidance as well as love” [i.e. eros]  — Socrates in Plato’s Symposium, translated by Alexander Nehemas and Paul Woodruff (Hackett Publishing, 1989), 178C-D.

In order to understand how eros can function as a guide for life, I think it is helpful to anatomize eros into four interrelated parts: 1) penia, 2) poros, 3) chorismos, and 4) kinesis (more…)