Monday, January 28, 2008

On Opinion

Elberry startles yet again. Commenting on my Private Passions post, he says of my radio performance, 'Was trying to put my finger on how you sound... surprisingly undefended & not trying to hold to a rigid structure (eg 'This is who Appleyard is - be awed!'), as if you locate your strength not in crystalline abstraction but in allowing everything a say, however errant or awkward.' This startles because it is more or less what I had been saying about myself in a discussion with somebody about the holding of opinions - though Elberry was being nice, I was engaged in bitter self-criticism. My problem is I hold opinions without actually holding them in a state of 'crystalline abstraction' or in any other way. I try opinions out, though, to be honest, I'm not quite sure what an opinion is. If I take a view of something based on the balance of evidence, that would not seem to be an opinion, merely a choice forced upon me. If I form an opinion without any evidence, then it becomes no more than a subjective inclination. One could say this becomes less subjective because the view is taken in the light of one's experience of life - so that an inclination becomes more of an opinion the wiser the holder of the view is and, perhaps, the better his track record. But this doesn't seem implicit in the use of a word. We don't call the view of a stupid fifteen-year-old something different from the opinion of a wise sixty-year-old. I suppose 'opinion' is just a way of pretending there is more solidity to the people we meet than there actually is. Certainly a large number of people I know seems to define themselves through opinions and to judge others by theirs. I am incapable of doing this, which is, I'm afraid, a very disabling condition. I console myself that it is the times that are at fault, not me. Sorry to be so introspective, but Elberry did startle.


  1. Yes, but don't beat yourself up about it, Bryan.

    In my opinion, you should only do that if all your (forcefully expressed) opinions are entirely informed by the most recent article you read.

  2. ''...a very disabling condition.''

    I think the opposite is true - but that's just my opinion.

  3. I agree with you. And noticed something similar when I included myself on Facebook recently. They have a list for ones political stance, from libertarian to conservative. When younger I would have listed one thing and held it come hell or high water. While now, I'm much more of a pick and mix sort of chap, taking a position relative to the situation or the changing of the evidence.
    A case in point is the Lisbon treaty, I thought the EEC and the EU to be a relatively good thing, with this new one I'm not so sure. What on earth does Article 46A, -The Union shall have legal personality.'- mean for the future. Or Article 48, for that matter.

  4. A lot of opinions are just prejudices anyway, I try not to have any opinions about anything myself...

  5. Perhaps you are akin to the dipper bird, and recognise the uncertainty of human thought, that 'truth' would presumably be an eternal quality (e.g. if it's wrong to make war for profit it always was and always will be), but that to be human is to be in time, always changing and in a changing world.

    Those who strive for certitude, to make themselves monoliths of rectitude & certainty, alas become like Yeats' fanatics - hearts of stone; meanwhile the river continues about them.

    i think there are eternal verities; but that we see them differently not merely from life to life but even from year to year. As a Russian tramp called Vladimir (who lived under a tree on the cliffs of Dover) said to me in 2001, "if something can be seen by everyone, it will look different to everyone". And i think once one ceases to 'truth test' thoughts, and accepts them rather because of their position in some abstract system, one opens the door to monstrous conclusions, to inhumanity.

    In some peculiar way the strength of your thought & writing comes, i guess, at least partly from that quality which i heard in your voice, that refusing to be other than what you are. While to the monolithic, the certain, the zealots, that may seem dilly-dallying it really just means you're a human being rather than the vessel for a creed or intellectual structure. Or so say i!

  6. There aren't any trees on the cliffs at Dover - just a few stunted bushes. Its far too windy.. and theres no soil much..

  7. It wasn't much of a tree, to be sure. Vladimir may still be there (he was 76 in 2001). He tended to leap out and deliver stunning philosophical monologues at passers-by. Strangely, despite listening to him for about an hour i didn't realise i'd accidentally wandered into Waiting for Godot, i just thought he was an odd sort of tramp.

  8. If you want to be certain about your thoughts-about-the world just pump up the egoism; presumably there's a direct correlation.

    Besides that, for me, I have opinions and not knowledge about the world, not out of any lack of conviction on my side (though its sometimes that I grant), but out of a huge fear of the embarrassment of being wrong.

    How devastating, for example, to state unwaveringly that God does not exist, if he does, or to do the same vice versa, if the opposite be true. Would the laughter never end?

    Why should I presume that the way the univserse arranges itelf, certainly to me, is the way it does so in-itself.

    In any case, saying 'in my opinion' is, if nothing else, just courtesy to another. It doesn't exclude the possibility that I might be as certain about a matter as I might conceivably be.

  9. It's no wonder you have trouble sleeping, Bryan.

  10. I bet he'll deny that any sleep-deprivation was involved...

  11. It should be the case that the older one gets the fewer cast iron opinions one holds. Humility should come with age and experience. If it doesn't, then something has gone wrong. But that's just my opinion.

    I do like the idea of 'trying opinions out'. This points up the importance of dialogue and the spoken word. Often we don't know what we think until we attempt to say it out loud. Writing is different. It's more deliberate and contrived. It can lack passion and spontaneity. We need to speak. And we need someone to listen. And not only listen but to coax and cajole, and to challenge what we say. We need a midwife for our thoughts, as someone once said.

    There is nothing quite like having a conversation. Or just listening to thoughtful people in conversation.

  12. Hmm, you seem to have plenty of opinions to me -- on Gordon Brown, hedge funders, God, etc. Forceful personalities are those with strong opinions. I hope you're not now going to become coy and act like you don't make judgments, defend them, etc.

    Opinions are how we make sense of the world, but Neil is right that they need to be flexible; we need to be able to modify them as more evidence comes to light.

    I have to listen to your musical passions (why do they call it "Private Passions" when they broadcast them publicly?) and see what Elberry, et al, are on about. But I've heard you speak before -- interviewed by that other Brit blogger I can't now remember -- and you sounded amused, intelligent, but also a bit diffident. That last seemed very different from your written persona, so we shall see (er, hear) more today.

    Keep on being yourself, Bryan. You're way cool as is.

  13. Hi Bryan,

    This reminds me of Carl Jung speaking on belief. At 1:25 of the following interview, he says:

    The word "belief" is a difficult thing for me. I don't believe. I must have a reason for a certain hypothesis. Either I know a thing, and when I know it, I don't need to believe it. If I . . . I don't allow myself, for instance, to believe a thing just for the sake of believing it: I can't believe it. But when there are sufficient reasons to form a certain hypothesis, I shall accept these reasons naturally and should say, "We have to reckon with the possibility of so-and-so."

    YouTube: Carl Jung speaks about Death


  14. Nicely said, Bryan.

    I don't have a problem with opinions per se, especially those that can be supported empirically and/or experientially.

    Where I have a problem with opinionating is when it ossifies into a fixed position that becomes impervious to either factual contradiction or closed to any change or challenge. One notes that ossification of opinion often goes hand in hand with a certain closemindedness, which seems to also go hand in hand with a low opinion of oneself. It's amazing how much good a little healthy self-esteem can do for softening oneself up to be more flexible and adaptable.

    Flexibility, it seems to me, is a sign of mental health, rather than the contrary. I don't think you have anything to worry about, Bryan. Quite the contrary.

  15. Another thought-provoking post, Bryan. Much appreciated.

  16. Bryan, I think a sufficient weight of empirical experience can settle in the unconscious and produce a greater degree of rational cogency almost by default, the way that sufficient pressure below the ground can force the earth's crust upward to form mountain ranges. The peaks and valleys are embodiments of the forces which gave rise to them, they speak of deeper truths we might not otherwise discern. You don't therefore need to be perfectly rationally consistent in a very pure, conscious, philosophical way to have something worth saying. We are traversing the mountains of your mind, dear boy. Why? Because they are there. (So don't be alarmed if I suddenly swing an ice axe at your head).

    I think this is how we mostly proceed. People were careful to avoid walking off cliffs long before Newton formulated a rational theory of gravity. People's empirical observation of the fate of unsupported objects was perfectly sufficient to modify their conduct in a useful way ie be careful near cliffs - Newton's more conscious, rational formulation was simply the icing on the cake, the mot juste if you like, which summarised in formulaic terms what most people already grasped intuitively (and therefore unconsciously). Even Newton wasn't perfectly rational for any great length of time.

    The perfect expression of all things would reconcile the unconscious to the conscious, the irrational to the rational, art to science and faith to reason. In the meantime, we live as we must and love where we can. Oh and Bry, please keep still, I'm trying to rappel down your North face.

  17. I'm back. Sigh.

    Bryan, I thought of you while posting on Frank Wilson's blog today. See Clive's piece on science fiction...

    I hope your ADD and moodswings are under control.

    You are going to need it for a cram session in the archives.


    Daniel Scott Buck

  18. Welcome back, Daniel. I've used the story of how I got you to read Marilynne Robinson quite a few times now.

  19. In my (er) opinion, the great thing is that 'opinions' should be entertaining, either in themselves or in their expression - esp in the potentially deadly blogosphere. This great lesson is perfectly exemplified by Auberon Waugh's Diary, a true, pioneering classic and a kind of blog avant la lettre.

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