When the opinion is partly true and partly false.


John Stuart Mill in his classic book, On Liberty, considered free speech from one more perspective: namely beliefs that are partly true and partly false. Here too, he said, is another situation in which diversity of opinion is advantageous. In fact this is almost always the situation for invariably any opinion is not absolutely true. First, he considered the case of an opinion that might be false. The second was the case where the opinion is actually true, but a conflict with the opposite error is needed in order to clarify the opinion or preserve or create a deep feeling about that true opinion. In this case the contrary opinion can help immeasurably. Thirdly, Mill considers the case where neither opinion contains the whole truth and nothing but the truth. As Mill said,


“But there is a commoner case than either of these; when the conflicting doctrines, instead of being one true and the other false, share the truth between them; and the non-conforming opinion is needed to supply the remainder of the truth, of which the received doctrine embodies only a part  Popular opinions, on the subject not palpable to sense, are often true, but seldom or never the whole truth. They are a part of the truth; sometimes a greater, sometimes a smaller part, but exaggerated, distorted, and disjoined from the truths by which they ought to be accompanied and limited.   Heretical opinions, on the other hand, are generally some of these suppressed and neglected truths, bursting the bonds which kept them down, and either seeking reconciliation with the truth contained in the common opinion, or fronting it as enemies, and setting themselves up, with similar exclusiveness, as the whole truth. The latter case is hitherto the most frequent, as in the human mind one-sidedness has always been the rule, and many-sidedness the exception. Hence, even in revolutions of opinion, one part of the truth usually sets while another rises.”


We ought never to think in black and white. We should always think in colour or include many shades of gray. Even revolutions usually just add one partial and incomplete truth for another. Hopefully the new truth will be better adapted to the needs of the time than the opinion or doctrine that is replaced. This is the profound point that Mill made which is particularly relevant to the age of extremes in which we live.

It was the glory of English empiricism and liberalism that grew out of the great period after the Religious Wars of the 17th century that produced thinkers willing to acknowledge that truth was not always entirely confined to one side of a discussion. Nowadays, this attitude is sadly rare. Nowadays, both sides often think they have the entire truth and the other side is of the devil. We must recognize that pure truth and pure falsehood rarely find homes on opposite sides of a dispute. That’s why holy truth and pure evil can rarely be found either. We should never expect to find pure truth or pure falsehood. Life is always more complicated than that. Mill was a member of that great British tradition of empiricism and liberalism.

As John Stuart Mill said,

“Such being the partial character of prevailing opinions, even when resting on a true foundation, every opinion which embodies somewhat of the portion of the truth which the common opinion omits, ought to be considered precious, with whatever amount of error and confusion that truth may be blended. No sober judge of human affairs will feel bound to be indignant because those who force on our notice truths which we should otherwise have overlooked, overlook some of those which we see. Rather, we will think that so long as popular truth is one-sided, it is more desirable than otherwise that unpopular truth should have one-sided assertors too; such being usually the most energetic, and most likely to compel reluctant attention to the fragment of wisdom which they proclaim as if it were the whole.”


The thinkers of the Enlightenment were surprised that they did not have the entire truth in their minds. They were shocked because it did appear to them that all proponents of science and philosophy would ultimately agree with them. They thought they had the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but they were rudely awakened from their slumber by one lonely thinker. That thinker was Rousseau. He gave Mills an example of a thinker who opposed the gathering consensus and cut it down at the knees. Mills described this momentous event this way,

“Thus, in the eighteenth century, when nearly all the instructed, and all those of the uninstructed who were led by them, were lost in admiration of what is called civilization, and of the marvels of modern science, literature, and philosophy, and while greatly overrating the amount of unlikeness between the men of modern and those of ancient times, indulged in the belief that the whole of the difference was in their own favour; with what salutary shock did the paradoxes of Rousseau explode like bombshells in the midst, dislocating the compact mass of one-sided opinion, and forcing its elements to recombine in a better form and with additional ingredients.  Not that the current opinions were on the whole farther from the truth than Rousseau’s were; on the contrary, they were nearer to it; they contained more of the positive truth, and very less of error.  Nevertheless there lay in Rousseau’s doctrine, and has floated down the stream of opinion along with it, a considerable amount of exactly those truths which popular opinion wanted; and these are the deposit which was left behind when the flood subsided. The superior worth of simplicity of life, the enervating and demoralizing effect of the trammels and hypocrisies of artificial society, minds since Rousseau wrote; and they will in time produce their due effect, though at present needing to be asserted as much as ever, and to be asserted by deeds, for words, on this subject have nearly exhausted their power.”


This was an outstanding example of what Mill was talking about. One side rarely has the whole truth. Mill, like me, had a lot of sympathy for the thinkers of the Enlightenment who brought reason and critical thought to the problems of the times. This was desperately needed. Mill accepts almost everything the Enlightenment thinkers stood for. So do I. But that does not mean they had the whole truth to themselves and their opponents had nothing good on their side. Rousseau was the outstanding example of exactly thought. He added truth to the other side and hence made both sides richer.

In fact, this phenomenon is extremely common. You can see it clearly in contemporary politics where each side thinks it has the whole truth, when both sides would benefit from a dose of truth from the other side, but is very reluctant to accept such a heretical possibility. Instead of that each sides tries to shut the other down.  Each should be listening to the free speech of the other. Once again, I come down on the side of heresy.



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