On Judging Facts. Three Quotes Worth Comparing: Hobbes, Mill, Lippmann.

“And as in arithmetic, unpracticed men must, and professors themselves may often err and cast up false, so also in any other subject of reasoning, the ablest, most attentive, and most practised men may deceive themselves and infer false conclusions, not but that reason itself is always right reason, as well as arithmetic is a certain and infallible art. But no one man’s reason, or the reason of any one number of men makes the certainty, no more than an account is therefore well cast up, because a great many men have unanimously approved it. And therefore, as when there is a controversy in an account, the parties must by their own accord set up for right reason the reason of some arbitrator or judge, to whose sentence they will both stand, or their controversy must come to blows or be undecided, for want of a right reason constituted by Nature, so it is in all debates of what kind so ever. And when men that think themselves wiser than all others clamour and demand right reason for judge; yet seek no more but that things should be determined by no other man’s reason but their own, it is as intolerable in the society of men, as it is to play after trump is turned, to use for trump on every occasion, that suit whereof they have most in their hand. For they do nothing else, that will have every of their passions, as it comes to bear sway in them, to be taken for right reason, and that in their own controversies, bewraying [revealing] their want of right reason by the claim they lay to it.”

Thomas Hobbes. J.C.A. Gaskin, Ed. Leviathan. (1651) Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford University Press: New York. Reissue 2008. (Hobbes, 28) Part : 1, Chapter 5; Paragraph 3 (Right reason where)

“[Cf Cicero] He who knows only his own side knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may be able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side: if he does not so much know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion. The rational position for him would be suspension of judgment, and unless he contents himself with that, he is either led by authority, or adopts, like the generality of the world, the side which he feels most inclination. Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. That is not the way to do justice to arguments, or bring them into real contact with his own mind. He must be able to hear them from people who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form; he must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of; else he will never really possess himself of the portion of the truth which meets and removes that difficulty. Ninety-nine in a hundred of what are called educated men are in this condition; even of those who can argue fluently for their opinions. Their conclusion may be true, but it might be false for anything they know; they have never thrown themselves in the mental position of those who think differently from them, and considered what such persons have to say; and consequently they do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the doctrine which they themselves profess. They do not know the parts of it which explain and justify the remainder; the considerations which show that a fact which seemingly conflicts with another is reconcilable with it, or that, of two apparently strong reasons, one and not the other ought to be preferred. All that part of the truth that turns the scale, and decides the judgment of a completely informed mind; they are strangers to; nor is it ever really known, but to those who have attended equally and impartially to both sides, and endeavoured to see the reasons of both in the strongest light. So essential is this discipline to a real understanding of moral and human subjects, that if opponents of all important truths do not do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them, and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skilful devils’ advocate can conjure up [bolding mine].”

John Stuart Mill. On Liberty. New York and Melbourne: The Walter Scott Publishing Company, Ltd. Chapter 2. pp 68-69

“And since my moral system rests on my accepted version of the facts, he who denies either my moral judgments or my version of the facts, is to me perverse, alien, dangerous. How shall I account for him? The opponent always has to be explained, and the last explanation that we ever look for is that he sees a different set of facts. Such an explanation we avoid, because it saps the very foundation of our own assurance that we have seen life steadily and seen it whole. It is only when we are in the habit of recognizing our opinions as a partial experience seen through our stereotypes that we become truly tolerant of an opponent. Without that habit, we believe in the absolutism of our own vision, and consequently in the treacherous character of all opposition. For while men are willing to admit there are two sides to a “question,” they do not believe there are two sides to what they regard as a ‘fact.'”

(Lippmann, 69) Lippmann, Walter. Public Opinion. Dover Publications, 2004. (Original: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922.)

* I recommend five minutes of your time to read Lippmann’s essay entitled “The Indispensable Opposition.” The Atlantic, 1939. Link here.

Categories: Philosophy, Political Rhetoric

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3 replies


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