An Opinion For Which I Could Live and Die

For anyone teaching philosophy, one of the most frustrating responses to a question asked in class is ‘it just comes down to opinion’. Variations on this include ‘it depends on your personality’, ‘it depends on your upbringing’ and ‘People believe what they want to believe’. In other words, many undergraduate students (unsurprisingly) reflect a default cultural relativism, in which there are no certainties and absolutes and in which talk of criteria for making valid critical judgements is assumed guilty until proven innocent.

What I’ve found interesting recently is how such sentiments can be combined with a high level of dogmatism. For example, in a recent seminar on Hume’s Dialogues, a student said both these things: (a) how you describe God is a matter of personal opinion and what you want God to be like; (b) Christians who did not believe in a literal six-day creation and a young earth were guilty of a totally illegitimate ‘pick and choose’ approach to their faith.

The student seemed unaware of any contradiction between these statements. Now, maybe they were just being inconsistent, as we often are. However, I wonder if there is something more going on here. For what the combination of the two positions amounts to is this (which I guess is a Zizekian point): all you have is opinion, but you (or someone on your behalf) must hold that opinion absolutely. It is a microcosm of neoliberal ideology: everything is flexible, everything is subject to maximum choice and competition – except the system of flexibility, choice and competition itself.

In this scenario, the only thing to take seriously is the utter arbitrariness of the act of choice itself, to the extent that we become angry with those heretics who presume to make judgements about what choice is. The existence (real or fantasised) of others with non-ironic absolute commitments thus plays an essential role in maintaining the corrosive power of capital. They are the ultimate figures of the ontology of Opinion, whose foundation in naked power and terror we must always keep contained.

10 Responses to “An Opinion For Which I Could Live and Die”

  1. Eric Says:

    That’s just, like, you’re opinion, man. Apologies.

  2. Steven Shakespeare Says:

    It’s ok Eric. Your upbringing must have made you do it.

  3. Eric Says:

    Definitely the upbringing. But I blame the solecism on autocorrect.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    My sense is that students don’t hold to absolute relativism as an intellectual position, but as an attempt to avoid interpersonal conflict.

  5. Charles R Says:

    Why is capital or neoliberalism the corrosive agent? Philosophy demands the students provide arguments. It also demands they provide them for the other sides with just as much cogency and force. Plato modeled that. Mill defined that. We all train for that. We anticipate objections as best we can to make our own side stronger, more adaptable, more logically consistent, more grounded in the soil of certainty and fed by her, the revealer of truths since Parmenides.

    Maybe it’s capital? Maybe, but the story goes the proud were the ones who ended up in nihilistic posturing after learning they could tear apart any arguments from any side, even their own side most of all, using this thing called dialectic, and they tore each other apart in the end like undisciplined, well-trained dogs. The beast turning not upon the trainer, but another beast.

    Maybe it’s the classroom setting. Maybe we’re too busy thinking with sides to teach?

  6. Steven Shakespeare Says:

    Adam, I’m sure that’s right, since none of them really believe their relativism when carried to logical conclusions. What interests me is the way this non-aggression pact is seamlessly combined with an endorsement of conflict at another level. To give another example, many of the same people who affirm non-judgementalism about opinions also affirm ideas about the inherent selfishness of human nature and the inevitability of competition as a way of organising social life. And in our more unguarded and anonymous moments, this lets rip. Think of the comments sections on op-ed pieces, YouTube videos, blogs, etc. They almost function as machines for manufacturing reactive dogmatism in the very name of the free expression of opinion.

    Charles, I don’t really agree with you, because your account of philosophy and dialectic seems too timeless. Dialectic has always been around in one form or another in philosophy, but it does not necessarily entail nihilistic relativism, unless we choose to side with Socrates’ accusers.

  7. Alex Says:

    I’d say the paradox wasn’t within neoliberalism itself but in liberalism (of which neoliberalism is a subtle species). This point is made by John Gray and Alasdair MacIntyre and anyone who has thought about it a bit: liberalism simultaneously claims “there is no right way for humans to live” and “this is the right way for humans to live”. It claims there is no norm but sneaks a norm in naturalised and disguised. This is, of course, also Marx’s point. Of course all the best liberals (those at the founding and those responding to the communitarian critique) have rather deflated this move by saying (quite fairly in my view against this gotcha) “actually we are maintaining the latter which contains the former” or that “no liberalism is a definitive normative form of life”.

    I’d wager though in this case it is just the student being inconsistent.

  8. Charles R Says:

    But it’s coming from Socrates himself (Reeves trans.):
    “And isn’t one very effective precaution not to let them taste argument while they are young? I mean, I don’t suppose it has escaped your notice that when young people get their first taste of argument, they misuse it as if it were playing a game, always using it for disputation. They imitate those who have refuted them by refuting others themselves, and, like puppies, enjoy dragging and tearing with arguments anyone within reach.”
    Then Glaucon, “Excessively so.”
    “Then, when they have refuted many themselves and been refuted by many, they quickly fall into violently disbelieving everything they believed before. And as a result of this, they themselves and the whole of philosophy as well are discredited in the eyes of others.”

    Of course philosophical dialectic does not “necessarily entail nihilistic relativism.” We both agree it doesn’t, and this follows from what I wrote. So you don’t really disagree with me, but I wasn’t clear enough to note how we do share a view about the reality, the truth, about dialectic, maybe? I kinda agree with Socrates. When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within us dies, we are more likely to adopt the life that flatters us. Pride and vanity, the ego turned about its reflection for other’s eyes, turn dialectic—and if all life is dialectical by its very material reality, then there is no escaping this—into destruction of truth itself as something one feels, in the flow of life through the world, forcing us to rebuild it as something one cogitates, as the production of sequential gates controlling that flow. It’s been a move we’ve intensified in the early modern period, when Pascal then Leibniz then Babbage demonstrated the machine can also do mathematics, but more importantly do it without an eternal soul; and we’ve just gotten better and better turning dialectic into gates and networks and functors. Control of the truth becomes more fine-tuned the higher the resolutions we can achieve in the detail. We live in a time when this is true for both the information and the material presenting it.

    A truth we can control according to the plan of our vanity— perhaps where either of us can remember arguments against Socrates, and even provide them with some plausibility, and see how they’re also there in Socrates, who plausibly argues for his view, too, then as usual with any decent philosophical training we’ll want to see how to rise above the perceived contradiction, by noting the coincidence of these oppositions, and dissolving them in something escaping our earlier words.

    But that’s hard work, and vanity detests mussed hair, cracking thumbs, sweat down the back. It does want to be seen, smiling at the camera, out into the world, the people who are looking back into it. The mirrors then didn’t have such fine-grained, high resolutions in the imagery as the Internet provides us today, since we’re not simply looking at pictures of our friends’ selfies. We’re reading about ourselves being read by one another at the same time, adding to the detail of the information we are gathering. And everyone’s looking at how to reprogram their sex partners, lovers, or bosses using code words, grammar techniques, and conspiratorial brainwashing. The things we accuse tyrants of doing, every person with social media friendships has the ability to do with one another: surveil, accuse, exclude, ignore, blame, flatter, bully. It doesn’t really matter whose politics it is. You are all acting the same, left to right, the few to the many. And we exclude ourselves only if it means owning how we’ll embrace the truth just a little bit longer, before the truth forces upon us apart from any claim to ownership how enslaved our vanity’s tyranny seduced us.

    So maybe it’s pride that makes the kids like their elders. We are all, after all, our parent’s children.

    But I could be wrong.

  9. Craig McFarlane Says:

    Having taught first year students in a smallish seminar for nearly a decade, Adam’s comment above is absolutely correct. In addition to attempting to reduce conflict, they also seek to avoid responsibility for anything they say. More often than not, young students do want some foundational normative standard. They just aren’t good at explaining why it is foundational and it is normative about it. Given what I teach, I get “nature” as that normative standard frequently.

  10. Paul Reid-Bowen Says:

    “It’s all subjective” is the recurrent refrain that I have to deal with in undergraduate seminars, albeit intermixed with a fair dose of “it’s natural” as a normative/regulative standard, often from the same students and while discussing the same topic. The wish to avoid interpersonal conflict does seems correct most of the time, but as Steven suggests there seems a corresponding desire (not Steven’s term, admittedly) to hold their opinions absolutely. One wonders how much UG philosophy lecturer energy is directed each year towards unpacking the phrases: “it’s all subjective”, “it’s just a matter of opinion” and “it’s natural”? If one could only harness that collective frustration.


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