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Posted by on Jan 24, 2013 in Debate, Philosophy | 16 comments

“Opinionated” – a bit about a philosophical vice

One oddity about the social media, as opposed to real life, is that they are often used to praise people for being “opinionated”, as if being opinionated is a good thing. I wonder whether the word has changed its meaning, so that for many people it now just means something like “being prepared to express opinions”. In many contexts, that sort of preparedness is, indeed, a good thing – there are situations where we ought to stand up and be counted.

But the more usual meaning of the word is something like “dogmatic or unreasonably stubborn, or even conceited, about one’s opinions”. This is the main meaning that I get when I consult the couple of big dictionaries that I have readily at hand, and surely it’s what people have in mind when they say (in a frustrated tone after someone has left the group), “What an opinionated bastard!” or (perhaps with much rolling of eyes) “He/she is soooo opinionated.” What is being objected to here is not that the person has opinions or is prepared to express them. Rather, it is a certain dogmatism or stubbornness as to contentious matters where a bit of epistemic modesty seems called for, perhaps with a certain misguided eagerness to impress with these opinions by raising them insistently, frequently, obsessively, out of context, etc.

Understood in this way, being opinionated is not a virtue of character – it is a vice. Moreover, it does not show strength, but weakness. An opinionated person is someone who is not open to interrogating his or own opinions, perhaps revising or altering them. That sort of openness requires a kind of psychological strength, a capacity to live with doubts and ambiguities. An opinionated person is not interested in the contrary perceptions of others, or in learning from engagement with those who disagree. Such a person can also be driven by a conceited view of themselves to hold forth obsessively, tactlessly, at socially inopportune times, etc. I’m sure we all know people like this, and know how boring they can be at parties. It may be a cantankerous elderly relative who never misses an opportunity to try to dominate discussion. Or it might be an idealistic younger person who doesn’t understand that the rest of us don’t share their naive, if passionate, views on social rights and wrongs.

I think it’s clear enough (though I’m open to other opinions!) that being opinionated is a philosophical vice. Intellectual progress is made by adopting a certain stance where our own opinions are provisional, and are open to revision if we hear strong arguments against them (or even if we just learn more detail about a relevant situation). That does not mean, of course, that we never get to argue our case strongly (at some opportune or appropriate time), but at the very least we should not try to discourage other people when they do likewise, and we need a sense of the right time, manner, etc., if we’re going to do it. We would always do well to bear in mind that much of what we think may be wrong, that often we don’t have the full facts, and that, beyond a certain point, very insistent presentations of our opinions reflect badly on us. They make us look inflexible, self-congratulatory, and… well, opinionated.