A Philosopher's Blog

Is philosophy just a matter of opinion?

Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 26, 2007

One of the most common misconceptions about philosophy is that philosophical views are just opinions and hence any view is just as good (or bad) as any other.

An opinion is a belief. In common usage, to say “it is my opinion that X” is to say “I believe X.” An opinion is also typically taken as an unsupported opinion. That is, a belief that is not backed up with reasons or evidence. An opinion can become a fact-a belief that is adequately backed up by evidence or reasons.

This particular misconception involves thinking that all philosophical views are just opinions and can never reach the status of being facts. Those who fall victim to this misconception assume that there are no better or worse opinions on philosophical matters. So, any position is as good as any other and there is really no point in discussing it. From this is generally thought that once you have stated your opinion, that is enough and it should be accepted as being as good as anyone else’s opinion. 

This misconception typically involves two assumptions: philosophical positions are simply opinions and the assumption that all opinions are equally good. These assumptions are appealing, but mistaken.

In regards to the first assumption, it is true that philosophy begins with an opinion-what a person thinks about a particular issue. However, the practice of philosophy involves reasoning about and arguing for the position in question. A position backed up with arguments is not simply a matter of opinion-the position is now supported with evidence and reasons. Given that logic and reasoning are not simply matters of opinion, these supported positions cannot be dismissed as being simply matters of opinion. If someone wishes to disagree with a supported position, they will need to provide arguments of their own-otherwise there is no reason to accept their opinion over the supported opinion. Thus, supported philosophical positions are not simply opinions.

In regards to the second assumption, it is often assumed that since people are “entitled” to their own opinions, it follows that all opinions are equally good. While this view enjoys some popularity, it seems implausible in. For example, in the case of cancer treatments, the opinion of medical doctor seems quite a bit better than that of a 5 year old. As another example, in regards to designing airplanes, the opinion of an aeronautical engineer is better than that of a 1st year PE major. If all opinions were equally good, then there would no sense in paying such high fees to doctors-you could just ask anyone for medical advice. There would also be no sense in companies hiring engineers-any one should be able to design a plane or determine if a building is safe.

The second assumption is also logically self refuting. If all opinions are equally good, then the opinion that not all opinions are equally good is as good as the opinion that all opinions are equally good.  This is a contradiction that arises from the assumption that all opinions are equally good. Therefore, the claim that all opinions are equally good must be rejected.

While this misconception might seem to have been easily defeated, it is often based on sophisticated views of relativism and subjectivism .Relativism is the view that truth is relative-typically to a particular culture. There are specific types of relativism, such as moral relativism-the view that moral truths are culturally relative and not universal. For the relativist, truth varies from culture to culture. So what is true in Rome need not be true in Newark.

A more extreme view is subjectivism.  Subjectivism is the view that truth is completely subjective-it is relative to the specific individual. There are specific types of subjectivism, such as moral subjectivism-the view that moral truths are entirely dependent on individual opinion. For the subjectivist, truth varies from person to person. So, what is true for you need not be true for someone else?

Some people assume that philosophical issues are all relative or subjective in nature, so philosophy is thus a matter of opinion. While relativism and subjectivism are defensible positions, to simply assume they are correct is to beg the question. Begging the question is a mistake in reasoning in which a person actually assumes what they need to prove. So, while subjectivism or relativism in regards to philosophical matters might be correct, such a position must be argued for and defended. It would be an error to simply assume that philosophic views simply are subjective or relative.

 

The conflict between an objective view of philosophy and relativism is an old one and dates back before the time of Plato. In his dialogue Theatetus Plato agrees that some things are relative. For example, a wind that seems chilly to one might seem pleasant to another. But, he argues that relativism is self-refuting. His specific nemesis in the dialogue is Protagoras, a sophist. Protagoras claims that all opinions are true. This must, of course, include the opinions of his opponents who believe he is wrong. So, his belief is false if those who disagree with him have true beliefs. Plato also points out that Protagoras charged for his teachings and justified this by claiming he was teaching people what they needed to know. But once he claims that his teachings are better than those of others, he has abandoned his relativism. In more general terms, when someone starts arguing for the truth of relativism, they certainly seem to be undermining their own position.

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3 Responses

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  1. Nicholas Joll said, on September 18, 2013 at 7:15 am

    This post is nice – but it does contain a few typos. (I thought you might like to know. Feel free to delete this comment after you’ve fixed those typos!)

  2. WTP said, on January 3, 2014 at 2:27 pm

    An opinion can become a fact-a belief that is adequately backed up by evidence or reasons.

    I think you’re already off base in the first paragraph. A fact is already fact before anyone forms an opinion about it or not. In the ancient times, before the tools or supporting ideas were available, it was a fact that the earth orbited the sun and not vice versa aboriginal observers originally opined. This fact did not become a fact as a result of observers discussing their various opinions and then seizing on the one that best fit the evolving evidence.

  3. apollonian said, on January 4, 2014 at 3:14 pm

    Subjectivism, “Good”: Greatest Enemies Of TRUTH

    Mike: u do a good job arguing, and esp. for ur refutation of subjectivism, BUT u still don’t grasp the problem sufficiently, I submit, so allow an Aristotelian to weigh in here.

    The question and issue regards FACT(S)–what would they, could they be?–note then a “fact” could only exist in an OBJECTIVE reality. But then objectivity is an assumption.

    As Aristotle pt’d out, all logic and reasoning begin w. assumptions, and the two most basic come down to whether everything is just all in our heads (subjectivism and Plato) or whether there’s actually an objective reality “out there,” as David Duchovny always liked to say in the old “X-Files.”

    Hence then the only useful thing to do is to assume the objective (Aristotelian) reality. Subjectivism is equally valid assumption, but not very useful–to extent “useful” has any real meaning. But wait–there’s more–for subjectivism is devilish foundation for moralism/Pharisaism, foundation of fascism and satanism.

    Problem then is determinism or “free” will which is important for moralists and Pharisees. For note perfectly “free” will is subjectivist–BUT very useful for the Pharisees who LOVE to intimidate folks w. idea of “moral virtue” and “good-evil” fallacies/delusions.

    Note Christ was (practically) an Aristotelian who insisted upon TRUTH TRUTH TRUTH (see Gosp. JOHN, 14:6, 8:32, and 18:37-8) above all/any other precepts, including “good,” “faith,” “peace,” or “love.”

    And the most popular, practical way of overthrowing TRUTH is by means of pretended “good” which “good” couldn’t exist in an objective, determined universe. Thus note Christ died for our sins which relieves us of any necessity for feeling guilt–perhaps one of Christ’s greatest gifts, eh?

    Observe then in practical reality, all the lies and frauds of socialism, dictatorship, the welfare state, and central-banking (legalized COUNTERFEITING) are ALWAYS justified by “good.” So there’s heavy, huge, and pre-dominant interest in pushing and selling subjectivism, Platonism, and Kantianism–esp. in way of “good” which is always sooooooooooooooo attractive for the weak-minded and children.


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