Being Opinionated

Is being opinionated a virtue or a vice?  Is it a good trait in a philosopher?  I’m with Socrates in thinking that definitions really come at the end of an enquiry, not the beginning, so I don’t want to pin the notion down right at the start.  There are, though, two philosophical types.  One gets mentioned to prospective students in the promotional literature:  philosophers are open-minded free enquirers, willing to question everything, resolute denouncers of dogmatism, pursuers of the truth, followers of arguments wherever they might lead — at this point you may wish to rise, stare into the middle distance, and allow the wind to blow back your hair.   This creature is mostly fictional.  Maybe it’s just our way of luring easy targets to introductory classes.

The other philosophical type, much more common, is the opinionated philosopher, the philosopher who is entirely convinced of her position, presuppositions, worldview, definitions, arguments, etc.  Such a peron will fight her corner constantly, relentlessly, hammering all intuitions to fit her propositions.  Counter-examples make no sense, other views are incoherent, objections unfounded, and on and on.

Who is the better philosopher?  Different question:  who is more likely to have tenure?

Zoom out a little and think about the wider world.  Those of us with settled opinions are more likely to speak up, take action, and get results in line with our settled views than head-scratchers reading books in the shade of trees.  The movers and shakers, if we still have those, are largely people who think what they think regardless.  Flexible thinkers look weak by comparison.  I’m told by friends in the states that opinions there are so entrenched and divided that rational debate is no longer possible.  You get a view, a blank stare, and the opposing view, another blank stare and maybe an insult or knowing head shake, and on and on.  How can reason get a hearing when opinion shouts so loudly?

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  1. I’ve long considered the distinction between “taking a stand” and observing from the sidelines. By nature and practice, I usually observe from the sidelines. In some fanciful way I feel that this approach is more likely to unite people than divide them. Or maybe this is just a young philosopher’s naivety. There are those who believe, like Howard Zinn, that “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” But why not?

  2. There are issues in which a lot is at stake, those which Howard Zinn speaks of, and in those cases being neutral has ethical costs: being neutral with regard to oppression implies tacit consent to the status quo. If someone explains to me that women are oppressed in Saudi Arabia, it would be heartless to ask her to define “oppression”. On the other hand, there are scores of other issues in which little is at stake, except the life of the mind, to use an old-fashioned phrase: for example, the problem of free will, metaethics, what is quality in art, what is the self, etc. Just as commitment seems a sign of decency (I refuse to use the word “duty”) when something is at stake, suffering, oppression, exploitation, so too an open mind seems a sign of a gentleman (or woman) and a scholar where only the life of the mind is involved.

  3. Why are the two mutually exclusive? (uh oh does that make me the first philosopher?)
    I can be open-minded to new ideas, challenge them against my accepted beliefs, and see if they succeed or fail. If I’m a pursuer of truth, then inevitably challengers to truth should always fail, since I have Truth.

    I think they both can be good philosophers, because good philosophy rests not in necessarily the positions that they take (although ideally the position they take are true), but the arguments and reasoning that supports it. Thats what makes Descartes a great philosopher, even though I disagree with virtually everything he’s written.

    I think the person most likely to have tenure would be the opinionated one, simply because the open minded one would never publish anything. They haven’t really determined what is true. Everything is up for grabs. Its hard to make a name for yourself without taking a position on something.

  4. The effort at being gender neutral is admirable but sometimes the results defy logic.

    You clearly discuss the “philosopher” in the first paragraph, the ideal non-opinionated entity. And in the second paragraph, the opinioned entity is a “her.”

    I wonder about the stereotypes here.

  5. As a philosophy undergraduate I was introduced to the Principle of Charity and Humanity. This entailed amongst other things, an attempt to suspend our own beliefs, and seek a sympathetic understanding of the new idea or ideas. We assume for the moment the new ideas are true even though our initial reaction is to disagree; we seek to tolerate ambiguity for the larger aim of understanding ideas which might prove useful and helpful. This is best done in a non-abusive and civilised manner. I am not so naive as to think this is always the case. As I recollect, when I spoke rubbish as I no doubt still do from time to time, I found the best philosophers or maybe I should say teachers, were at pains to press me further on the point ultimately suggesting how my view could be amended or strengthened. A few others all similarly with impressive CVs were different, they seemed unable to think outside of their own ideas, one could not seem to reach them, they were not dismissive, but seemed to be insulated. I also observed this attitude was not restricted only to undergraduates and post graduates. In my opinion the best teacher I dealt with, was neither opinionated, nor the one with the best philosophy CV.

    So the question remains Who is the better philosopher?  Different question:  who is more likely to have tenure? So far as my experience goes there was so far as papers published and books written and dedication to departmental duties, little difference between the types mentioned, above, age of course was a factor here. I guess it is all a matter of personality, some people whoever/whatever they may be are opinionated. So far as tenure is concerned, I feel all else being equal, the one who shouts loud enough may well get the job.

  6. I can’t wrap my head around this as a problem. Being opinionated or not is not a way of life you decide to take or embrace: it’s the way your brain functions. Some people are more inclined to hold tightly to their positions. Some are not. We have successful examples on both sides and not just successful philosophers (should I mention Wittgenstein’s epochal U-turn?).

    If we ask “Who is the better philosopher amongst these” it’s like asking “Will staying up late make you a good mathematician or a bad one?”. There are piles of other things that matter.

  7. Carson Checketts

    Whoever is lending you insight into debate in the U.S. under-estimates both the vigor and caliber of debates that U.S. citizens have. If you are simply watching our politicians debate, I would suggest you watch the British Parliament and see if you think their debates are any more sophisticated. There will simply always be something debasing and rote about politics.

    I’m inclined to agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson who suggests that everyone “in the room” benefits when two people take a position, speak boldly and clearly and “fight” until the end of the inquiry. Emerson makes the point that either party or both will likely adjust their opinions (privately) at a later date, but attentive observers can learn a great deal when they see a heated, meaningful debate from people who are willing to speak from a place of principle…

  8. I am all for open-mindedness. It is not a perpetual state. At some point one must make a decision. One needs take a stand on some principles or be an ineffetive, wishy-washy individual. Petrified by a multitude of alternatives. The pathways of time divide infinately before us but we must choose a path. On the other hand, by not choosing, one makes a choice, albeit a sad one.

  9. It really is difficult to decide if being opinionated is a vice or virtue; as it has the power to get YOUR views heard more, but also obscures you from taking in other views as well.

    I think having a strong opinion is fine and well, but when you let that cloud your judgment and intake of other ideas, we’ve run into a problem here. Of course, that creates an issue in itself, as nobody ever “admits” to being that kind of person. Even the most narrow-minded person likes to THINK of themselves as being open-minded and free-thinking, even if that’s far from the truth.

  10. If I read him correctly, Michael Polanyi in Science, Faith and Society
    suggests the scientist hold to his opinions against others’ until no longer feasible. Most science is not so cut and dry that you can fit a nice math equation to some set of data.
    The danger, I believe, is when the working paradigm has become so deeply embedded, and so much of many people’s lives are at stake because of it, that it is practically impossible to budge it, e.g. the Big Bang Theory and String Theory.

  11. Very interesting question indeed and very good comments as varied as pertinent. I don’t know what to add to these good views; maybe this:

    Let’s look at this question form a linguistic perspective: whether one chooses to speak his mind or remain silent, his words and silence are subject to interpretation; so, somehow, there is no difference between speaking up or remaining silent because no matter what one does, nobody else can actually “get” entirely what he is saying or what he is saying by not saying anything.

    Moreover, presenting the problem as some kind of competition (Who is a better philosopher?) does, somehow, bias the discussion (from a purely logical point of view) from the start; It assumes:

    1)There is a difference between the two positions.

    2)If ever there was a difference, it assumes there is a hierarchical order between the two positions (one over the other). Some comments for instance were talking about making a name, publishing books…. If there were no readers, there wouldn’t be any need for writers; and if there were no listeners, there wouldn’t be any need for speakers; without students there wouldn’t be any need for professors or teachers… and so on. One part can not exist if the other is eliminated.

    Now having said this and according to this reasoning, it is up to everyone to either choose to speak up or remain silent for either way one is saying something and participating to whatever is going on around him; Therefore, there is no such position as a neutral one for no Man is an Island (not subject to interpretation from others).

    Sorry for the length of this comment: I don’t know how this will be interpreted; maybe I’d better remained silent 🙂

  12. Alfonso Campbell

    What about a middle ground position? After reading many philosophy books I have made up my mind on certain isms: Aristotelianism, Empiricism, Naturalism, External realism, Non-theism. These are my philosophical views but still I do keep an open mind to other peoples philosophical ideas. If these ideas can improve my own or make more sense than the ones I already hold, then I will adjust accordingly. The idea is not to get in an unchangeable mind-set.

  13. There’s a lot to say about all of this — thank you for the comments. Amos has me wondering when one ought to shout a bit and when it doesn’t matter much.

    Not entirely relevant, but I still have Blair’s performance at the recent Iraq war enquiry in my head. He says, over and over again, that he thought what he did was right. There was the suggestion that it was right, even if it wasn’t justified given the evidence at the time. That’s extraordinary.

    I keep thinking, when I hear that stuff, that I don’t care whether or not he thinks he’s right — I care whether or not it was right. Maybe I’m too entrenched in my own opinions in this case to see what he did with an open mind.

  14. Assuming that Blair acted in good faith (about which I have no evidence one way or another), then the question is whether I prefer a world in which people act in good faith to end injustice (in this case, the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein) and at times make serious mistakes or a world in which to avoid mistakes, people keep an open mind in the face of injustice and act not. By the way, I was opposed to the invasion of Iraq from day one, and it would be easy to avoid the dilemma by claiming, as many do, that Blair and Bush were only after Iraq’s oil resources and that Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship was a pretext to grab the oil wells.

  15. Érdemes-e makacsnak lenni? « Gondolatolvasó - pingback on February 13, 2010 at 7:23 pm
  16. I have been thinking about this for a while, actually. What we are taught in introductory classes (I was!)—that philosophy is meant primarily to uncover the truth and most philosophers attempt as such—is an important thing to get across before evidence otherwise finally does set in. People are naturally opinionated, but this being drilled into us is helpful to offset it for a while. Myself, I am still running on “philosophy aims to uncover the truth, even though it’s taking kind of a long time”. However, the idea of being entirely open-minded is noble but not necessarily useful for our purposes—neither ‘finding the truth’ nor the more practical purpose of being taken seriously (although as far as people without true arguments to support themselves are concerned, they could sure stand to be a little more open-minded).

    I am an undergraduate, but I’ve already figured out which side I’m on for a few issues. That does not mean that I will never listen to anyone else—on the contrary, I often like to argue against my own side—but it does mean that I will not accept an opposing argument as valid unless…well, unless it really is.

    I think the attempt to be ‘open-minded’ at all costs can be really more detrimental than anything; instead of obstinately sticking to our own side against all odds, we may take any side as valid when it may not be. It’s not necessary to renounce your opinions in order to consider others, but it’s necessary not to simply ignore contradictions to your own argument.

  17. Re: Laura 15th Feb.
    You speak of uncovering the truth. Do you mean something which is to a human being, ultimate and absolutely incontrovertible? Apart from religion, which really is a matter faith, rather than truth, I cannot think, off hand, of any philosopher who has arrived at such a conclusion. At best there seems to be many fascinating theories, all of which have their supporters and detractors.

    Truth is a human construct. Outside of the human mind there is no truth or falsity, things just are. Within the confines of human social interaction truth is a useful word but when we apply it to ultimate things its usefulness seems somewhat diminished and philosophers struggle with it.

    The above is my opinion and many will probably disagree; however as with all things I feel it is best to weigh the probabilities. This cannot be measured, it is purely intuitive. Once your state of mind is either one of complete disbelief or complete certainty you shut the door on any further consideration of things conflicting with your view. So what I advocate here is a view such that one asks oneself how likely do I think this is or is not, in fact the case, bearing in mind the above caveat against complete disbelief or complete certainty.

    Richard Dawkins the well known evolutionary biologist and Atheist states in his book “The God Delusion”, “ God almost certainly does not exist” so even he leaves the door very slightly ajar on the question.

    So I do not think it is opinionated to have a view which is supported firmly provided it is not based on blind certainty. I suppose really it comes down to a matter of presentation and the personality of the presenter. Some people come across as very adamant.

    There is an interesting article by R A Lyttleton who was a professor of Theoretical Astronomy at St John’s College Cambridge “The Nature of Knowledge” This has some interesting points in connection with the above. See-

  18. Don—
    If it is not considered ‘being opinionated’ to have a belief you can support when necessary (and therefore dispose of if necessary), then I don’t see a problem. I agree that being too adamant on either side is a problem—leaving an argument open, and not claiming absolute certainty, seems like the most reasonable thing to do. Otherwise, of course, in order to hold one’s belief as it is, it will likely become necessary along the line to block out any forthcoming arguments against your side.

    However, on the other hand, the idea of remaining completely open-minded functions better as an idea than it actually does in practice. It often commits someone to try to appear at any length as if he is not presenting as unquestionably certain, or at the very least it commits him to facing opposing arguments without a disposal of retorts. Although for arguments about which he hasn’t yet heard enough information to even have formed an opinion, trying to form one for the sake of argument might be arbitrary. In that case, open-mindedness is the best choice.

    As far as ‘uncovering the truth’ is concerned, I admit I couldn’t really tell you yet. Lack of information—(see above)—but I believe, at minimum, that the absence of truth without humans shouldn’t render it completely discardable.

  19. Re Laura 16th Feb.

    I agree with what you say. I am wondering if this is not really a philosophical problem but more of a psychological one. For instance some people, more than others, take a lot of convincing so any suggestion however small or insignificant that one may be open to another interpretation of one’s viewpoint is seized upon as a defect in what one is proposing. As you say open mindedness functions better as an idea than it can in practice. I guess one has to be careful to express one’s views in such way that they are palatable to those with whom one is communicating. This of course could entail coming across as opinionated on occasions; again it also depends on the nature of the occasion and to what extent one has the ability to assume these different stances. Personally I have always been a sceptic. It amongst other things it seems to suit my personality. How far does personality shape our beliefs? Some philosophers I have met seem to despise the idea of scepticism to the extent that any ideas put forward in favour thereof bounce off them like arrows hitting an armoured man.

    I just wonder about the earth many millions of years ago before humans were “invented”; where would truth be then? There might be a religious reply to this, but that would probably entail accepting other statements on their face value as true, which would not be satisfactory.

  20. I think the philosopher with an opinionated position will have tenure. The fact that (s)he is taking a position does not mean lack of open thinking – it’s just narrowing the field and scope. By taking a position, the opposing corners will come out to voice their positions.

  21. I guess being open minded about things in theory is important. Though in practical real life decisions are necessary. Its important to understand that were coming from a minute perspective and they only way of engaging in these bigger questions is through practice and choices that are made in your daily life. For instance testing out your opinions by stepping out of your habits this helps to question your fundamental ideas and possible prejudices that your not aware of. However, I can be a right opinionated idiot sometimes but it doesn’t help anyone because they are normally operating from their own experience of life which does not necessary correlate with mine at all. As ghandi said “be the change you want to see”

  22. Struggling withRelationships

    I am very opinionated and have come to the realization that I need wisdom, balance, and to keep my mouth shut but don’t know how much or when to!:( I’m struggling with raising my teenager and my relationship with my husband is taking some blows because I feel that the world rotates around me, my beliefs, desires, wants, my comforts, and so on. Honestly, I feel like an abusive spouse that constantly asks for forgiveness (and genuinely wants it and wants to change) to yet fall in the test of life. I’m praying to change, to have wisdom, to use this strong, aggressive character for good instead of tearing down those around me. Sincerely, the Opinionated New Mexican Woman

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