March 14th, 1999.
"On Holding An Opinion."
An opinion1 is a belief formed without certain evidence; it is something that is stronger than an impression, but not as strong as a settled judgment, or persuasion. (Of course nothing is certain, so every idea we have is an opinion, hard held or not.) Opinions of some persons are formed by a careful gathering, sifting and weighing of the evidence; some of us take a lot of time and trouble with the process gathering more and more information as we proceed, -- weighing and re-weighing as we go along life's road. Others (a disproportionate number found among the young) form opinions with only the slimmest of margins in hand, or, indeed, on no evidence at all: they simply accept what another says of the matter.
Where one has determined that the area is too complicated (sometimes a legitimate excuse), or one has too little time to devote to the question (for certain matters, we should never pick this as an excuse), then one might well determine to rely on the opinions of others. However, - Take Warning! - Proceed Carefully! First off, you should sort out opinions from pure hokum. Where the opinions are in conflict, sort them further into informed and uninformed opinions. Check, does the opining person have an extraordinary stake in the outcome. It can be, as you will soon see, be just as tricky and time consuming in assessing the opinions of others, as it is to come to your own opinion by relying on your own devices; by conducting your own research; by making your own study.
"... half the opinions and prejudices of mankind, those which they hold in the most unqualified approbation and which have been instilled into them under the strongest sanctions, are of this latter kind, that is, opinions, not which they have ever thought, known or felt one tittle about, but which have been palmed on their understandings by fraud of force, and which they continue to hold at the peril of life, limb, property, and character, with as little warrant from common sense in the first instance as appeal to reason in the last." (William Hazlitt, "On Genius and Common Sense.")
"The habit of mere adhesion to received opinion in any matter is most mischievous, for it strikes at the roof of independence of thought; and in literature it tends to make the public taste mechanical. And a taste that is both mechanical and false is surely not likely to be beneficial to society at large or to the individual reader. The remedy proposed ... is this: 'It is not every one, of course, who has an opinion of his own upon every subject, far less than that of literature; but every one can abstain from expressing an opinion that is not his own.'"2 (Chas. F. Richardson.)
1 I should say, while dealing with this topic of opinions, that I am not one who subscribes to the Protagorean doctrine that since man is the measure of his own sensations and feelings, that, therefore, all opinions have equal value: they plainly do not.
2 The Choice of Books (New York: Alden, 1883).
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March, 1999 (2011)