Cultural Psychology

Pseudodoxia – A New Term for an Old Psychological Disorder

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Most educated people know at least a few facts about the life of Socrates, including that:

(1) he claimed to have wisdom only insofar as he admitted his ignorance;

(2) he constantly battled the word-twisting Sophists of his day; and

(3) he was ultimately tried and executed by the ignorant mass opinion of the Athenians.

Knowing just this much one could easily characterize Socrates’ mission as a crusade against false opinion.

In Plato’s Socratic dialogues, the term ‘false opinion’ occurs often and prominently. Interestingly, the actual Greek term used, pseude doxazein is a verb, not a noun. We might translate it in modern English as something like ‘false opinionizing’, ‘false opining’, or ‘the mental process of forming false opinions’. This is significant, for by understanding false opinion as a cognitive process, we can potentially understand and remedy it..

False opinion afflicts us everywhere, and it is no small wonder that Socrates was so committed to opposing it.  Some examples at the individual and collective level include:

  • I know that I’m right.
  • This other person injured me, so I must retaliate.
  • All Republicans are greedy (or all Democrats are soft-headed ‘bleeding hearts’).
  • The only way to counter terrorism is with multiple wars.

We could easily list a hundred other examples.  Not a day occurs that false opinion doesn’t harm us in dozens of ways.  Every human problem, if not caused by false opinion in the first place, is at least made worse by it.

Because of the importance of false opinion, I propose that we supply a better name for the phenomenon.  A plausible candidate is pseudodoxia (pseudo = false; doxia = opinionizing). This has the same form we use for other abnormal cognitive processes, such as dementia, melancholia, mania, and paranoia. A  term like this helps to underscore the nature of false opinion as a real and distinct cognitive abnormality or disorder.

What, then, do we know or what can we plausibly conjecture about pseudodoxia? Plato and Socrates give us clues, including these:

First, it involves a failure to distinguish between a proven fact and mere opinion. Valid reasoning involves (1) a proven or highly plausible first principle (e.g., all triangles have three sides), and (2) logical inferences derived from valid first principles.

Pseudodoxia, in contrast, involves (1) uncritical acceptance of an unproven and completely conjectural first principle (e.g., ‘I really want to smoke this cigarette’) and (2) logical inferences deduced from a such false or merely conjectural first principles.

Second, pseudodoxia involves an intrusion of wants, desires, and needs into the sphere of reason.  That is, wants and fears co-opt reasoning and judgment. In English, we informally call this sort of thing ‘wishful thinking.’  With false opinion or pseudodoxia, such wishful thinking is not distinguished from true, rational logic; one accepts the conclusions of the former as if it were the latter.

Plato and Socrates also outline for us what must happen to overcome this powerful enemy:

Our first recourse is to avoid the dangers of false opinion is to know it exists.  Once a person is alerted to the workings of false opinion, it becomes apparent how much harm it causes, and one develops the motivation to oppose it.

Second, people must understand that there is an alternative to false opinion.  As noted, false opinion develops in connection with faulty, self-serving first principles.  The antidote is to recognize the role of what philosophers call noesisNoesis is a special mental faculty, like seeing, which apprehends truths directly (bypassing verbal or discursive thought).  Not everything is knowable by noesis — rather, it concerns such things as direct insights into one’s own nature, (‘know thyself’) and moral truths.  For example, sometimes in life we have little epiphany experiences, where, either by reflection, or reading, or by noticing something in another person, we are made aware of the real meaning of something like love, friendship, integrity, and so on.  It is these sorts of things that should form the foundations of our logical inferences, not idle opinion that merely enters our mind as a hostile prejudice or wish-fulfilling daydream.

Thus, to take a concrete example, a soldier at war tends to accept uncritically the assumption that “my opponents are evil, demonic beings.”  Yet something may happen that causes him to see the enemy in a different light.  He may see them wounded, say, or interacting with families.  Then he has a valid, noetic insight:  “Wait, these people are no different from me.”  The conclusions he derives from the latter would constitute knowledge.

Third, another alternative, one based on ‘Socratic ignorance’ is to learn to be content simply to say, ‘I don’t know.’  This is also the strategy of Pyrhhonic skepticism.

I will write more on this, either with further posts or adding to this one, but this is enough to get started.


Written by John Uebersax

April 5, 2012 at 4:29 pm

One Response

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  1. […] principal figure, continually expresses concern about what he calls “false opinion” (pseudodoxia).   The sophists with whom he contends symbolize the parts of our own minds that produce false […]

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