Learn From Everyone

The longer I have studied, the more I have begun to feel a suspicion that nearly all of the most intractable and incompatible opinions can be brought into agreement with one another.

We are raised thinking that there is one Truth (generally whatever we happen to believe at the moment, especially if we have lots of friends who agree with us, and even more if some of the people who disagree with us are easily ridiculed) and that contrary to that one Truth there is a vast multitude of Falsehoods all around us.

It seems to me that figures like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, each in his own fashion, modelled a different way of relating to the many unreasonable and mutually contradictory opinions that constantly float around us.

None of these three philosophers said, “You’re all so stupid, and so now let’s just try and forget all those wrong opinions and find the one Truth!”

Instead, each looked around himself and saw, not a jungle of threatening Falsehoods, but a banquet of partial truths.

Socrates famously taught that every action is oriented towards goodness, even if sometimes only in a deeply uninformed way. Based on the manner in which he went out and asked questions of the wise and of those who could represent the views of the many, it seems probable that he likewise accepted that every opinion is oriented toward truth, and must contain at least some grain of insight into reality, simply because of what it means to be human. This is the deeper meaning of Socratic “remembering,” and Socratic “midwifery.”

Plato, by writing in dialogues, and Aristotle, by constantly surveying the varieties of opinions in his treatises, both show their continued acceptance of Socrates’ approach to seeking for truth.

Here’s one implication of that approach. If every opinion is a partial truth, then that means every opinion is ultimately able to be reconciled to every other opinion. Truth does not disagree with itself, and so the truth in one opinion will cohere with the truth in any other opinion, when we are actually able to discern what is truth in a given instance.

Since slowly absorbing that way of thinking, I’ve noticed an unexpected effect. When I encounter two incompatible opinions, whether on social media or in the world of scholarship, I do not think, “Which one is right?”

I don’t think, “What’s my own distinctive solution to the problem, which puts these first two to shame?”

Instead, I wonder how the two views could be synthesized, how the truth revealed in each can combine with the other to give us a broader way of seeing into the matter.

It’s become instinctive to me, but I know very well that it is a rare and odd way of thinking today. Still, I do find myself wondering how the world would be a different place if there were more people exposed to this sort of approach.

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