It’s good when people agree on something instead of arguing all the time, isn’t it? Otherwise, of course, everyone is allowed to have their own opinion. After all, opinions are a private matter. And as such, they are only of interest to the curious. Certainly not to researchers who - because of their profession – look for things that we can know for sure. Not so Eric-John Russell. As a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow, he conducts research on the role opinions play in our society. And says, “Opinions are experiencing a dangerous boom.”
Hegel and Marx, idealism and materialism – Russell has so far researched various notable philosophers of modern times. He became interested in opinions and their meaning after Donald Trump was elected 45th President of the United States. For the avowedly self-made president, his Twitter account with nearly 90 million followers was enough to initiate or direct political debates at will. Not reports, committees, and lengthy deliberations but short messages of 140 characters marked his politics. And not only his. “Opinions are on the rise,” Russell says. “For many people, they form the basis of what they know about the world. Opinions, in fact, ‘possess’ an astonishing certainty – and a seemingly close relationship to the concept of truth.” The best example, he says, is the discourse surrounding developments in the Corona pandemic. New messages, new information, and new opinions every day. “Suddenly, everyone became an expert overnight, primarily on the basis of opinions.” What’s special about this new power of opinion is that it holds its ground even when scientific evidence contradicts it, the philosopher explains. “It has a tremendous inalienability. When push comes to shove, people say, “This is my opinion. You have yours.”
Opinion vs. knowledge?
Russell wants to examine this seemingly unstoppable boom more closely. His goal is nothing less than a philosophy of opinion. What constitutes it? How can it be distinguished from other forms of thought such as faith or worldview? What are the peculiarities of opinion as a form of communication? What role does it play in our society? And how has it changed in the course of history? After all, (personal) opinion has not always been the ultimate means of self-discovery or self-assertion. One of the first to assign opinion a place in the house of knowledge was the Greek philosopher Plato. In his “Republic”, he contrasted opinion (doxa) with knowledge (episteme), although only the latter enables us to act wisely. Over the centuries, changing sources assumed the task of feeding this knowledge: first the mind, then various religions, and then reason again. Opinion was usually left to sulk in the corner of, by and large, worthlessness. “There is a plague on man: his opinion that he knows something.,” wrote the French philosopher Montaigne in the 16th century. His English colleague Thomas Hobbes followed suit some 100 years later, He wrote that an opinion considered something said to be true, though it sometimes consisted of absurd words that meant nothing and were impossible to understand. Nonetheless, he knew of its influence. “The world is governed by opinion.” 200 years later, the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant enlightened us about its meaning as well. “Opinion is a belief that is conscious of being both subjectively and objectively deficient.” He considered it deficient but tolerable if it acknowledged its own limitations.
Russell begins his philosophical fieldwork a little later: with the heydays of “public opinion”. Starting with classical political theory, he wants to trace the change of opinion first in the 18th and 19th century and then in the early 20th century in order to analyze, in a third step, the current boom of opinion and its peculiarities. In the 18th and 19th century, public spaces emerged in many societies where personal ideas and views were expressed, exchanged, and discussed. In English “coffee houses” and French “salons,” a public opinion emerged from many opinions. The process of its formation became part of the evolving modern democracy. “The contradiction that constitutes every opinion was already inherent in the concept of that time: The basis of public opinion is not knowledge, but a multitude of opinions, which, in the worst case, can also produce a multitude of untruths.” Russell has long worked on the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. That continues to have an effect, he says, laughing. “Hegel would say that public opinion should be respected and at the same time despised. After all, even the will of the people behind it already contains irresolvable contradictions.”
Illusion of security
In the course of the 19th and 20th century, however, these spheres, in which public opinion was gradually formed, disappeared, Russell says. What remained, was the – highly personal – opinion, which, at the beginning of the 21st century, equipped with the megaphone of social media, sounds the charge . “Opinions promise a certainty that we thought was lost, and we can draw them entirely from within ourselves,” the philosopher explains. “When the world around us becomes increasingly uncertain, disasters chase one another, and one day seems worse than the next, it’s quite understandable that people turn inward and trust only their opinions.” But this step is tantamount to a task, the researcher is sure. “Opinions are judgments about the world that we make when we have stopped looking at it.”
Russell himself sees no reason to do so and has already been around a lot. After studying philosophy in New York, the U.S. native went to Frankfurt in 2012 to get a closer look at the famous Frankfurt School and study critical theory. He then moved to London for six years to complete his doctorate. Since early 2022, he has been back in Germany as a Marie Skłodowska Curie Fellow working with Thomas Khurana, Professor of Philosophical Anthropology and Philosophy of Mind. But what could a critical theory of opinion actually do? “It could show that the security offered by the primacy of one’s opinion is deceptive,” he says. “Because opinions about the world are judgments about it without reference to reality. As uncertain as it may be, we should not close our eyes to it.”
Dr. Eric-John Russell studied philosophy in New York, Frankfurt, and London. Since 2022, he has been a Marie Skłodowska Curie Postdoc-Fellow at the Department of Philosophy of the University of Potsdam.
“Certainty in an Uncertain World: A Critical Theory of Opinion”
Funding: European Union (Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoc-Fellowship)
This text was published in the university magazine Portal Wissen - Eins 2023 „Lernen“ (PDF).