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.

The limits of skepticism

Skepticism is an important component of Socratic/Platonic reasoning, perhaps even its distinguishing part. (A later iteration of the Academy founded by Plato, an iteration which began with a shift of emphasis by its then director Arcesilaus around the middle of the 3rd Century BCE, was called in fact “The Skeptical Academy”.) It must be noted however that the root verb skeptsesthai means something more like “to conduct an investigation” than “to deny all positive assertions.” To be skeptical in the Platonic sense does mean to tease out the negative features, the defects, that haunt all honest attempts to assert what is true. But such skepticism, on discovering the dubious and defective, does not necessitate an unqualified denial. Thinking through opinion, a mode of cognition that Plato called dianoia, requires that we continue to hold the limited positive senses of assertions while remaining open to the anterior norms that make awareness of the negation possible. Opinion is an intermediate, a metaxy, between ignorance and knowledge. Participating in both, opinion always both reveals and conceals, indicates and detracts from knowledge. From the Divided Line, it is clear that as image stands to object, so in dianoia does opinion stand to truth. Both the positive anticipation and the nagging doubts are signs that witness to the true and “we have no power of thinking without signs” (C.S. Peirce).

A failure to understand a medium as a medium, a mistaking a means for an end, does enormous epistemological mischief. This failure is particularly acute when coupled with strong enforcement of the “Law of the Excluded Middle” — the “law” that claims that a proposition is either true or false simply with no third option. Descartes’ chief error is in restricting the realm of truth to those things that could be known with certainty, rejecting as false all statements that are in any way dubious. It is an error to reject as wholly false that which is in some sense true. But the realm of the excluded middle, the realm of what could be true but may not be, is a rejection of doxa as such, a rejection of the the only medium through which knowledge of the existentially vital may be approached. Although the abstract can be known with certainty, even this certainty breaks down when we attempt to apply it to the concrete world. Dianoia is a moderate position between rival errors: to reject as wholly false what is in some sense true, and to accept as uncritically true what is still open to doubt or error. Either of these stances is arbitrary and blind.

Thinking has a from-to character of the type that Michael Polanyi describes: “The subsidiaries of from-to knowing bear on a focal target, and whatever a thing bears on may be called it’s meaning. Thus the focal target on which they bear is the meaning of the subsidiaries.” (Personal Knowledge, p. 35)  To look *at* the opinion without looking *through* it (the “dia-” of dianoia) is a failure to understand what it is. (Plato’s hypothesis of the Forms is often a victim of this type of misreading.) In a Platonic examination — the skepsis of an honest opinion — the misgiving/doubt that inevitably results is not a bug but a feature.


The Republic’s cast of characters and the Divided Line, Part II

This in the continuation of an earlier attempt to assign the major characters of the Republic places on the Divided Line:

Thrasymachus (dianoia as skeptical apistia)Dianoia is the power of grasping the insufficiency of opinion as such. Opinion must be ultimately grounded in a higher order reality or it will wither under skeptical dianoia. Thrasymachus takes the cynical point of view that justice is an arbitrary invention of those in power. In doing so, he grasps the conventional/contingent/malleable nature of opinion as such, which is a defining feature of dianoia. Mapping him on the Cave Allegory, Thrasymachus sees that the puppets are not the realities the credulous masses believe them to be and wants to be a puppeteer. He even thinks Socrates’ “method” is exactly that, and consists of tricks to mold and generate self-serving beliefs in his interlocutors. (338d) Thrasymachus is faithless, i.e. suffers from apistia, and does not see the beliefs as defective images of some higher level reality. His dianoia is downward looking, a means of critiquing (others’) beliefs in order to undermine them and replace them with self-serving substitutes. Yet, his notion of “advantage” must be based on a criterion other than mere opinion in order to provide the infallibility his notion of justice seems to demand (341a). Advantage cannot itself be a product of arbitrary will, if will is to be well-guided by appeal to advantage.

Both Adeimantus (Dianoia trying to secure a better pistis) and Glaucon (Dianoia leading upward to noesis), brothers of Plato, accept that Thrasymachus’ cynical account of justice has some sort of force. They understand and raise questions about the contingent genesis of belief, even their own beliefs. But, unlike Thrasymachus, neither is willing to abandon their belief about justice. The two essentially beg Socrates to help them secure their belief on a securer basis against Thrasymachus’ threat. Both trust that justice must be more than an arbitrary product for the self-service of those in power. Their willingness to expose their own beliefs to testing is evidence of the dianoietic virtue in them. But there is an important difference between the two brothers. At one point in the dialogue while discoursing about The Good, Adeimantus essentially gives up looking up toward noesis and requests an adequate opinion from Socrates:

Adeimantus: But, Socrates, you must tell us whether you consider the good to be knowledge or pleasure or something else altogether.
Socrates: What a man! It’s been clear for some time that other people’s opinions about these matters won’t satisfy you.
Adeimantus: Well, Socrates, it doesn’t seem right to for you to be willing to state other people’s convictions and not your own, especially when you’ve spent so much time occupied with these matters.
Socrates: What? Do you think it’s right to talk about things one doesn’t know as if one does know them?
Adeimantus: Not as if one knows them…but one ought to be willing to state one’s opinions as such.
Socrates: What? Haven’t you noticed that opinions without knowledge are shameful and ugly things? The best of them are blind — or do you not think that those who express a true opinion without understanding are any different from blind people who happen to travel the right road?
Adeimantus: They’re no different. (Grube/Reeve, 506b-d — I have added the character names before each line.)

At this point Adeimantus drops out of active participation until Book VIII, while it is Glaucon who participates in the very heights of the dialogue: the Sun Allegory, the Divided Line and Cave Allegory. Adeimantus is ultimately downward-looking, using dianoia to hone and sharpen belief but never advancing beyond this honing. Glaucon, on the other hand, is upward-looking and never abandons the upward quest towards noetic truth.

Socrates (Noesis) — I am the least confident here, since Socrates continually refuses to own any claim to knowledge and knowledge is located at the noetic stage. But Socrates continually maintains noetic openness to his lack of other knowledge. He is never satisfied with mere opinion as such and never confuses opinion with knowledge. I think that Socrates, in denying any claim to knowledge is really denying any ability to adequately express his knowledge in a way understandable to others. Any logos of knowledge will be only a ready-to-hand opinion, however true. But I am unsure whether Socrates is just the highest stage of dianoia or a full participant in noesis. The Republic, after all, never advances beyond the dianoietic level. It’s claims are all hypothetical, defectively pointing toward realities that it is unable to express directly.

The Republic’s cast of characters and the Divided Line, Part I

This is a continuation of a series arguing for the importance of the Divided Line in understanding the Republic. In an earlier post, I gave some indication of the mapping of the Divided Line quarternity (eikasia, pistis, dianoia, noesis) onto features of the larger dialogue. One of those mappings was of the speaking characters in the dialogue, which can be expanded in the following manner:

eikasia — Cephalus


pistis (right opinion) — Polemarchus
pistis (wrong opinion) — Cleitophon


dianoia (downward-looking, undermining belief, cynical) — Thrasymachus,
dianoia (downward-looking, establishing belief) — Adeimantus
dianoia (upward looking toward noesis) — Glaucon


noesis — Socrates


Let me begin to point out the grounds of these homologies:

Cephalus (Eikasia) — The segment corresponding to eikasia on the Line is the region of images and shadows. Cephalus has been freed from the tyranny of desires (a type of shadow) but is afraid of the shadows of injustices that he may have committed in life:

[When] someone thinks his end is near, he becomes frightened and concerned about things he didn’t fear before. It’s then that the stories we’re told about Hades, about how people who’ve been unjust here must pay the penalty there — stories he used to make fun of — twist his soul this way and that for fear they’re true. (Grube/Reeve, 330d)

His fears take shape in the theater of his dreams:

If he finds many injustices in his life, he awakes from sleep in terror, as children do, and lives in anticipation of bad things to come. (Grube/Reeve, 330e – 331a)

His obsession is with overcoming injustice (which can only be a shadow of some unspoken working notion of justice) but he never gives voice to justice as such. Socrates tries to turn him toward some belief in justice, even puts words in his mouth, but Cephalus departs the scene without pursuing justice. In the Cave Allegory, Cephalus would be like one who is turned from the shadows toward the fire, but finds the light too confusing and dazzling and so turns back to his fears and dreams. His concern is thus fully for images, not the higher reality of which they are the images. He is aware that his fears are shadows of realities, but the realities he pursues are his prior acts of injustice toward which he attempt to make recompense to gods and offended persons.


Polemarchus and Cleitophon (Pistis)Pistis means dedication to, and defense of, belief. Polemarchus begins by defending his father and the traditional belief about justice that is implicit in his father’s fears. He is characterized as loyal and courageous. The traditional version is that justice is a matter of “giving back what is owed” (331e); that what is owed are “benefit to friends and harm to enemies” (332d); that “friends” are those who are actually just and “enemies” are those who are actually unjust (334d). But Polemarchus is converted by Socrates to a truer belief about justice: that justice is always a benefit, that “it is never just to harm anyone” (335e). (Note that this amounts to a true belief about justice and not a true belief of justice — there is a difference.) Polemarchus commits to defending this modified opinion of justice. He becomes a loyal ally (i.e. “auxiliary”) of Socrates, and he commits to serve as his “partner in battle” (335e) against any version of justice that has been shown by the argument to be defective. Polemarchus later in fact comes to Socrates’ aid against Thrasymachus and his follower Cleitophon at 340a-b. The brief appearance of Cleitophon as a “believer” in the teachings of Thrasymachus show that pistis is also capable of defending a false belief (that it is “just to obey the orders of the rulers” — even presumably orders that harm the ruled (340a)) to the one unfortunate enough to follow the wrong teacher. In the Cave Allegory, both Polemarchus and Cleitophon are like those who measure the various shadows of justice in accordance with the puppets that produce them i.e. belief in a trusted authority such as tradition, family or teacher. Belief, at this level, is the highest standard of measure. Courage, spirit, steadfastness and loyalty are the virtues of this stage; Polemarchus is the paradigm.



The Divided Line as organizational key to Plato’s Republic

In my last post, I gave a very compressed explanation of the four segments of the Divided Line Analogy. (Republic, 509d-511e) But the Divided Line can be best understood by using it as an overlay for different parts of the Republic — then the parts and whole of the dialogue are mutually illuminating. The Divided Line Analogy is the representative of the whole; it give the logos or ratio of the parts in relation both to each other and to the whole itself. ( It took me about a decade of reading and rereading to figure all this out.) Here is a schematic version of some of those overlays, each of which I hope to unpack in future posts:


First, we need to distinguish the three main levels, each with its own type of object:

1. bottom level — where the prisoners sit shackled. The only “objects” are the shadows and echoes.
2. middle level — the level of the puppets, puppeteers and fire. A partition divides this level in two: (a) a front side in which only puppets are seen; (b) a back side, where one can see the puppets, the puppeteers and the fire.
3. top level — the ground outside the cave opening. The objects of attention here are the animals-themselves, the plants-themselves, and the light of the sun.

Given those three levels, one of which is divided by a partition, we get the following four “stations”:

1. eikasia — (Level 1) — turning from the shadows on the cave wall;
2. pistis — (Level 2a) — seeing the puppets on the front side of the partition wall;
3. dianoia — (Level 2b) — seeing the puppets, puppeteers and illumining fire behind the partition wall;
4. noesis — (Level 3) — emerging from the cave.


The parts of the Divided Line map to the four gradations of city in Books 2 through 5. (These divisions come from Eric Voegelin’s Order and History, Volume III: Plato and Aristotle.)

eikasia — Primitive City (369b – 372c)
pistis — Luxurious City (372c – 375c)
dianoia — Purified City (376e – 448e)
noesis — Philosopher’s City (449a – 541b)


eikasia — justice/dikaiosyne
pistis — courage/andreia
dianoia — moderation/sophrosyne
noesis — wisdom/sophia


eikasia — desiring-part/epithymia
pistis — spirited-part/thumoeides
dianoia — calculating-part/logistikon
noesis — not included. Thus, Socrates calls the threefold scheme, “deficient.” (504b)


eikasia — Cephalus
pistis — Polemarchus
dianoia — Thrasymachus, Adeimantus, Glaucon
noesis — Socrates


IGNORANCE – OPINION – KNOWLEDGE (See Republic, 477a – 478e)
eikasia — ignorance/agnoia/aporia
pistis — opinion/doxa (as belief)
dianoia — opinion/doxa (as hypothesis)
noesis — knowledge/episteme


FOUR “DRAFTS” OF THE REPUBLIC (discussed here)
eikasia — A first aporetic (i.e. unsatisfying) draft, i.e. Book I alone.
pistis — A second poretic (i.e. satisfying) draft comprised of Books I – IV and Books VIII – X
dianoia — The final written draft, i.e. the Republic as we have it.
noesis — The *real* final draft — the teaching of the Republic realized in the soul of its reader.

Ignorance and Pedagogy

This post is something of a coda to my previous slow reading assignment of Book 2 of the Republic. There, two young brothers of Plato, Glaucon and Adeimantus, revisit the Thrasymachus argument that a just life is worse than an unjust one, despite (i) having just witnessed Thrasymachus “losing” the argument to Socrates, and (ii) expressing the firm belief that the just life is better. They do not waver in the belief and yet are willing and ready to put that belief at peril by making Thrasymachus’ argument even stronger. Belief as such always includes a residuum of doubt, and the brothers voice this doubt as a way of encouraging further thinking with Socrates’ help. Socrates is amazed at his students. (So am I when the same thing happens to me among my own.) This has encouraged me to think again about belief and thinking. I hope this isn’t too repetitive, but here goes: