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Against confidence in opinions – with Glanvill

Date:11 September 2018
Author:Laura Georgescu
Scribner's magazine (1887) (wikicommons)
Scribner's magazine (1887) (wikicommons)

We’re obsessed with confidence. Glossy magazines and their online descendants,  along with social media, YouTube, and the vast self-help literature are all swimming in exhortations to be more confident, and advice as to how. There's plenty of academic research on the topic too. "Well, of course!”, you might say, confidence is, after all, attractive; confidence is how you get ahead. No one thinks they have too much; many, many worry they don't have enough. So it's not at all surprising that a Google search for “how to be confident” shows over nineteen million hits.

Presumably, academics working in philosophy are at least as susceptible to this as everyone else – arguably more so, given the well-documented deleterious effect of the profession on self-confidence. It doesn't seem unreasonable to go further and imagine that all this ongoing societal discourse about confidence influences not just individual academics but philosophy itself. Call the belief that that’s true bCiPh.

For this post’s sake, let’s assume that I am confident in bCiPh. In which case, why have confidence in my belief? Why have confidence in any belief? Well, it might be that the belief meets certain standards, in which case the confidence lies with the standards, and not with the belief. But then I need to ask why I’d have confidence in the standards. And so on…

Maybe it seems like I’m conflating categories here: confidence is a feeling/mood/attitude we have towards beliefs ( if these are well determined concepts) – but beliefs are something entirely different, such that (psychological) confidence shouldn’t bear on their formation or justification. I’d say quite a few philosophical theories take this (or a similar) road. And, in a sense, it is a comforting view to hold: you establish some standards that dictate the assent to a belief. Only then do you get to have the confident attitude. You got it right! Eureka! You’ve got Truth! But didn’t we just used the conflation again? And why assent to these standards? Why have confidence in them? Could it be that no matter how much we want to disentangle ourselves from the process(es) by which we form, assent to, and justify our beliefs, we are never really neutral towards them? We feel and have attitudes about beliefs. Can we really pretend otherwise?

Besides, I’m not actually assessing bCiPh against any set of standards, at least as far as I know. I couldn’t tell you explicitly why I think bCIF is true (it does seem right, though). Why I hold the belief seems to be hidden from me. In which case, we have a solution, don’t we? bCiPh it is just that, a belief, and not one which would qualify as justified. But, I’m still okay with it: we all have unjustified beliefs. More than we think, maybe? (We might worry about that, but couldn’t it be that the bigger danger to knowledge is not that we hold unjustified beliefs, but that we are not prepared to turn beliefs (including those which we take at some point to be justified) into hypotheses?)

Many seventeenth-century philosophers saw no problem in keeping attitudes, feelings, and beliefs entangled. It is, for them, within this entanglement that beliefs can truly be made one’s own, and where the possibility of knowledge lies. And some were less confident about confidence than we seem to be. This is the case for the very much neglected Joseph Glanvill, who, in The vanity of dogmatizing (1661), Scepsis scientifica (1665) (a revised version of The vanity) and Against confidence in philosophy (1676) takes confidence of opinion to be the mark of dogmatism, and the true danger to knowledge (much more so than ignorance, I’d venture to say, but let’s leave this for another time).

Glanvill spills much ink writing against the dangers of dogmatism. And I’m confident (ha) that many of us would agree that dogmatism is, at the least, not desirable. But Glanvill warns us that we are not as well equipped to fight against dogmatism as we might think – that in our “particular opinions” we tend to be quite “assertive and dogmatical”, as if these opinions were “omniscient” (The vanity, 15), despite our supposed awareness of the mind’s “infirmities” and limitations. Recall the familiar myth (and argumentative trope) that we only use 10% of our brains. It's widely held: we can happily believe something like this while maintaining the utmost confidence in our beliefs.

Why is that? Glanvill’s answer is complex and multifaceted, and you can read more about the details of his account, here  and here. But, we can make a stab at it by looking at what he takes the “nature” of dogmatism to be.

For Glanvill, dogmatism is a “disease” the mind suffers* from. And, ultimately, it’s a chronic and incurable one (although it can be mitigated). It is not purely an epistemic disease, in the sense that it is not to be understood as a deficiency of the “intellectual” capacities alone. To say that it is is to hold the belief that the intellectual capacities form, as it were, a self-contained domain that does not mix with the rest of who we are. It means not noticing many scenarios of our epistemic situations. When you have high fever, there is a good chance your ability to defend/explain/give an account of, let’s say, Descartes’ arguments for the mind-body separation is severely diminished, no? There is no vast difference for Glanvill between such a fever and a disease like dogmatism (except the latter’s pervasiveness), and he is not prepared to grant us a separation of the intellect from all of this. Personal crasis matters to knowledge**:

Congruity of Opinions, whether true or false, to our natural constitution, is one great incentive to their reception: For in a sense the complexion of the mind, as well as manners, follows the Temperament of the Body. On this account, some men are genially disposed to some Opinions, and naturally as averse to others. And we love and hate without a known cause of either. (SS, 89)

What we end up believing is thus indexed not only to our previous education, custom, and experiences, but also to the “mixtures” of the qualities of our body. There is something both condemnatory and redemptive to this. It is condemnatory if what we hope for is a both neutral and fully controlled knowledge formation process. Neither is attainable. But there is something redemptive insofar as these “temperaments of the body” can themselves be used to improve our capacities for knowledge – as long as we understand which temperaments are desirable for knowledge and how to attain them (something which Glanvill sees himself as doing). A very integrated account of knowledge acquisition follows the passage quoted above: reading the “major” philosophers (note the irony!) is not sufficient; we need to actively work on understanding and ameliorating our individual constitutions. There are obvious parallels with modern self-help here, but where that so often leads to the maxim “be confident!”, Glanvill sees reducing confidence as precisely one of the goals of this therapy.

He takes confidence of opinions to be more or less synonymous with dogmatism. And we are naturally predisposed to both, because, as I understand it, they are caused by our “drive to certainty”. And the drive for certainty is just what the mind does: it “desires” to unite with its “object”, which is “Truth”, because this was the state it was in before the Fall: it wants to go home. So the drive cannot, realistically, be stopped. The disease of dogmatism comes from combining this drive to certainty with three unjustified and dangerous beliefs: (1) that certainty (or Truth, with capital T) is attainable; (2) that one has actually attained certainty; and (3) that we have knowledge only if we know the whole chain of necessary causes involved.***

On my reading, this is Glanvill’s characterisation of what the dogmatist holds. As to why we tend towards dogmatism, and confidence, that seems to come down to one’s attitude about knowledge. This is why we can hope to be “cured” (even if only partially) of our dogmatism and confidence, and why knowing how it works and what brings it about is so important. We gain control over the disease of dogmatism by avoiding the siren call of confidence, by refusing to take comfort in method.

Now, there are aspects of confidence that Glanvill doesn’t even consider. Think race, gender – confidence might well be a curse of the privileged. But the spirit of his view might still be useful. Being wary of our intellectual comfort might be a good lesson (perhaps even a political lesson?), despite the personal discomfort it may cause. 

Perhaps self-confidence (which includes confidence of opinion for those of us trained to trade opinions) isn’t the fix we seem to think it is, and perhaps the real self-improvement lies in an appreciation of the epistemic advantages captured by Glanvill’s worries:

To be confident in Opinions is ill manners, and immodesty; and while we are peremptory in our persuasions, we accuse them all of ignorance and error that subscribe not our assertions. The Dogmatist gives the lye to all dissenting apprehenders, and proclaims his judgement fittest, to be the Intellectual Standard. […] He that affirms that things must needs be as he apprehends them, implies that none can be right till they submit to his opinions, and take him for their dictator. This is to invert the Rule, and to account a mans self better than all men. (The Vanity, 232)


Talk of “suffering” is particularly apt here because, on Glanvill’s account, the cause of human misery lies in the mind’s distempers

** Crasis is a medical term referring to the mixture of physical qualities that form the “temperaments of the body”.

*** A view shared by many philosophers at the time which Glanvill challenges at length by focusing on its underlying pressuppositions about necessity and impossibility. 

About the author

Laura Georgescu


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