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.

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Ignorance vs. stupidity

Socrates
But if you are bewildered, is it not clear from what has gone before [118b] that you are not only ignorant (ἀγνοεῖς) of the greatest things, but while not knowing them you think that you do?

Alcibiades
I am afraid so.

Socrates
Alack then, Alcibiades, for the plight you are in! I shrink indeed from giving it a name, but still, as we are alone, let me speak out. You are wedded to stupidity (ἀμαθίᾳ) my fine friend, of the vilest kind; you are impeached of this by your own words, out of your own mouth; and this, it seems, is why you dash into politics before you have been educated. And you are not alone in this plight, but you share it with most of those who manage our city’s affairs, [118c] except just a few, and perhaps your guardian, Pericles.

— Alcibiades Major, 118a-c, Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 8 translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1955. Public domain edition available on the Perseus Project website.

In this passage, Alcibiades confesses to lacking the kind of wisdom that he has already admitted is necessary to achieve his political ambitions. Like most who rule, Alcibiades has concerned himself not at all about the proper aims of politics, but has obsessively focused on the means of gaining and maintaining political power. Socrates claims he is “wedded to stupidity” and in what follows, I would like to articulate the difference between ignorance (agnoia) and stupidity (amathia).

Ignorance (agnoia) is simply the state of not knowing something that is knowable. We are born ignorant, and although we are all successful in replacing ignorance with insight in many arenas of life, all of us are still well acquainted with it. There is nothing shameful in this as such — it just points to our limitations as finite human beings. Where ignorance does become shameful is when (1) we are presented with evidence of our ignorance, (2) the matter about which we are ignorant is of great importance,  (3) we make no effort either to cure or mitigate the consequences of our ignorance, and, (4) we continue acting as if we were not ignorant. This more shameful kind is of the type of which Socrates is accusing Alcibiades — the disease of amathia, which our translation rightly renders as “stupidity.”

A-gnoia means literally “not-knowing”; a-mathia means literally “not-learning.” Amathia can mean just the coarse state of being uneducated. However this type of amathia doesn’t really fit Alcibiades, a wealthy aristocrat who has been given access to the finest educators in Greece (including Socrates himself). In addition to the type of amathia that is an inability to learn, there is another form that is an unwillingness to learn. This later state can disguise itself with all the trappings of cultivated speech and manners, and yet still maintain itself in ignorance.  The former type is brutish; the latter, since its owners are otherwise capable and ambitious, can be brutal.

Robert Musil in an essay called “On Stupidity, distinguished between two forms of stupidity, one he called “an honorable kind” due to a lack of natural ability and another, much more sinister kind, that he called “intelligent stupidity”: 

In life one usually means by a stupid person one who is “a little weak in the head.” But beyond this there are the most varied kinds of intellectual and spiritual deviations, which can so hinder and frustrate and lead astray even an undamaged innate intelligence that it leads, by and large, to something for which the only word language has at its disposal is [still] stupidity. Thus this word embraces two fundamentally quite different types: an honorable and straightforward stupidity, and a second that, somewhat paradoxically, is even a sign of intelligence. The first is based rather on a weakness of understanding, the second more on an understanding that is weak only with regard to some particular, and this latter kind is by far the more dangerous.

–Quoted in “Voegelin’s Use of Musil’s Concept of Intelligent Stupidity in Hitler and the Germans” by Glenn Hughes, The Eric Voegelin Institute, 2007. I commend to you all three: the Hughes essay, the Musil essay and the Voegelin book cited within.

It is clear that Musil is talking about the two forms of amathia that I just articulated. He makes a strong moral case against the second, intelligent kind:

The higher, pretentious form of stupidity stands only too often in crass opposition to [its] honorable form. It is not so much lack of intelligence as failure of intelligence, for the reason that it presumes to accomplishments to which it has no right; . . . . This higher stupidity is the real disease of culture . . . and to describe it is an almost infinite task. It reaches into the highest intellectual sphere . . . . Years ago I wrote about this form of stupidity that “there is absolutely no significant idea that stupidity would not know how to apply; stupidity is active in every direction, and can dress up in all the clothes of truth. . . . The stupidity this addresses is no mental illness, yet it is most lethal; a dangerous disease of the mind that endangers life itself.  (Ibid)

It is stunning that a problem like amathia can remain mostly invisible in a culture, given its serious consequences. (Note to the wise: it is still very much with us!) To call it out often requires real courage. Musil wrote his essay in 1937 in Austria. Obviously he had the Nazis very much in mind. On Musil’s reading, the disease of Naziism was due not a lack of intelligence. There were plenty of intelligent and accomplished Nazis. He accused them instead of the sin of stupidity, a moral deafness to the learning they had already received. This points to a real problem in dealing with amathia: since it is not due a lack of intelligence, amathia cannot be cured with “more education” but requires something akin to an existential conversion. Hughes writes in his essay:

[S]ince the “higher stupidity” consists not in an inability to understand but in a refusal to understand, any healing or reversal of it will not occur through rational argumentation, through a greater accumulation of data and knowledge, or through experiencing new and different feelings. Considering Voegelin’s analysis, we may say that the reversal of a spiritual sickness must entail a spiritual cure. It will involve a conversion: from a posture of closure toward the full scope of reason and the reality of spirit, to an existential openness toward the divine ground. And this cannot occur without an anxious and humble renunciation of the pride, the presumptuous hybris, that motivates and sustains existential closure toward the divine ground of being. (Ibid)

Our society is generally allergic to thinking that our ethical problems may be resistant to an increased educational effort and that the cure may require something as religious-sounding as “conversion”.  But Plato, having close access to the prototypical amathic type, i.e. the Sophists, knew better. More teaching of the usual sort just translates into greater forms of cunning and rationalization. As the Persian poet Rumi wrote, “Sell your cleverness and purchase bewilderment.”  (Assuming bewilderment means the humility that follows upon “aporia”)

Philosophy and conversion

One of the chief teachings of Plato is that the aim of philosophical pedagogy is periogage, i.e. conversion. In Book VII of the Republic, Socrates tells Glaucon:

“Education is not the sort of thing certain people who claim to be professors claim that it is. Surely they claim they put knowledge into a soul it wasn’t present in, as though they were putting sight in blind eyes…

But the current discussion indicates…that this power is present in the soul of each person, and the instrument by which each ones learns, as if were an eye that’s not able to turn away from darkness toward the light in any other way than along with the whole body, needs to be turned around along with the whole soul, away from what’s fleeting, until it becomes able to endure gazing at what is and at the brightest of what is, and this, we’re claiming, is the good…

Then there would be an art to this very thing…this turning around, having to do with the way the soul would be most easily and effectively redirected, not an art of implanting sight into it, but of how to contrive that from someone who who has sight, but doesn’t have it turned the right way or looking at what it needs to.   — Republic, translated by Joe Sachs, 518b – d.

One of the frustrations of teaching philosophy in a university setting is the narrowly circumscribed (more…)