Just thinking out loud; this is only a prompt, a way to introduce questions.
I’ve been reading various reports about the US shifting policy in Afghanistan, and I’d like to say something about what I’ve read, but I’d also like to say something informed and helpful. So I’m staying quiet.
Of course, when one extends this logic fully, it means one can’t comment on national affairs, elections at any level, state or local affairs, media issues, educational issues, or even some personal issues, because what does one really know about anything? To add to the skepticism: note that in what we know best, part of our authority comes from saying “hey, while that’s a field closely related to mine/area of specialization within what I do, I don’t know it all that well.” Part of our authority regarding knowledge is that we can be trusted to confess ignorance.
But another part is that we can refer to others who do know better. And part of the fact we know they know is that we can ask questions and get responses that make sense. We also know whether what they produce, to a degree, is ultimately good or not: Aristotle tells us that you don’t need to be a carpenter to tell whether the house was built well or not.
So there are two sorts of knowledge at work here:
- knowledge that is expertise – a skill, a technique. This gets results, produces things, and can be taught usually via method.
- knowledge that is credible opinion. This is almost the famous “knowledge of ignorance,” except not quite: it does have some of the ability to recognize whether someone knows what they’re talking about, but it doesn’t have as radical a questioning as its ground. It rather complements “knowledge that is expertise” and ultimately defers to it.
This brings up an interesting question: is rule in a democracy really rule by expert? Weirdly enough, the way we’ve set things up, that’s the default – even where a tyrant comes to rule in a democracy, he’s someone who understands best how a people can be manipulated or cowed. This also means that a majority which has come to rule is expert in something, and the character of that knowledge can’t be denigrated as mere passion. There is a “knowledge” at play, and that might be even worse for diversity of opinion or getting at the truth.
The toughest thing, then, is to keep “credible opinion” – not necessarily “true opinion” – afloat. The biggest danger to “credible opinion” is an overemphasis on certain knowledge. This results in a need for everything and everyone to be effective, the only way most people interpret certainty, and the trouble with that criterion is obvious: prophets are far less effective than birth control. What we should strive towards has nothing to do with “effectiveness,” but whether or not we consider our lives well-lived or not.
So how does one comment with authority? It’s actually pretty simple: if you start with other opinions that are effective or that the majority accept, you’re starting from a ground that is a blank: “I don’t know, let me see what some other people have to say.” That “blank” never goes away: if you reach something truer, like a catalog of what’s wrong with every other opinion and a description of why each has adherents, all you’ve done is critique. “Credible opinions,” which are what we’re aiming for, build persuasiveness from the fact of the critique. They don’t try to seriously address the “blank” at base, I don’t think. That would involve asking why any opinions should have been offered on the topic in the first place, i.e. “What is the value of value,” and that’s not the primary purpose of civic life. The main purpose of civic life is to live well, and that means questions come to an end at some point.
It should be noted that philosophy may be an even more radical endeavor than I am letting on: given that most serious questions we ask yield insights about matters other than the ones we began talking about, the very attempt to posit a value of any sort – however thoughtfully or carefully one tries – is an inherently political move.