Varieties of Opinion

“If you cannot make yourself as you wish, how can you expect other people to be entirely to your liking?”—Thomas à Kempis

In one of his essays Samuel Johnson examines the diversity of philosophical judgment. It should be noted here that he is speaking of people who share basic ethical norms; who are “equally reasonable, and equally lovers of truth.” Such individuals start from more or less the same point in their intellectual lives. But over time they undergo different experiences. As they travel the various side paths of knowledge they unintentionally diverge from their neighbors.

“As a question becomes more complicated and involved… disagreement of opinion will always be multiplied; not because we are irrational, but because we are finite beings, furnished with different kinds of knowledge, exerting different degrees of attention, one discovering consequences which escape another… most comprehending but a very small part, each comparing what he observes with a different criterion, and each referring it to a different purpose” (The Adventurer, No. 107).

Such varieties of opinion should not affect what we believe about incontrovertible matters (e.g., murder, theft, dishonesty, etc.). Where there is room for nuance—like the fine points of political or economic theory—it is clear that dissension can easily arise without ill intent. Then there is the fact of our apparent inconsistency: “We have less reason to be surprised or offended when we find others differ from us in opinion, because we very often differ from ourselves…. [W]e see a little, and form an opinion; we see more, and change it.” What he is referring to are prudential preferences rather than questions of principle.

Johnson says that people may agree on the goal but favor dissimilar means of achieving it. In such cases, a dogmatic approach is unhelpful. Nothing is more absurd or futile than watching people who should be natural intellectual allies fiercely denounce one other over  pragmatic differences, and often matters of vanity.

For related comments, see “The Gentle Art of Being Opinionated.”

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  1. Pingback: Thinking about Thinking — and Other Things: Beliefs, Herds, and Oppression | Politics and Prosperity

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