Judgment, Part I

I had wanted to write about the subject of "doubt," but found it difficult to say what I wanted to say without first saying something about the subject of "judgment." Specifically, I want to discuss the stage in the cognitional process in which we make judgments of fact, when we decide whether a proposition is or is not so. As usual, I will be drawing heavily on the thought of Bernard Lonergan. (If you are unfamiliar with Lonergan's Transcendental Method, this ridiculously brief explanation [by me] might be worth reading. And, for the more philosophically-inclined, this somewhat lengthier explanation [by someone other than me] will definitely be worth reading.)

Propositions and Questions

In his book Insight, Lonergan first discusses the notion of judgment in relation to propositions. A proposition is not simply a statement that affirms or denies something, but the meaning of the statement. Thus I could have two (or more) distinct statements that affirm the same proposition. Regarding the recent World Cup, I could say, "Italy beat France," or "France lost to Italy," which are separate and distinct statements, but the proposition they communicate is the same, as both indicate nothing more and nothing less than the winner and loser of that particular event.
Now with regard to propositions there are two distinct mental attitudes: one may merely consider them, or one may agree or disagree with them. Thus, what I write I also affirm; but what you are reading you may neither affirm nor deny but merely consider. (Insight 296)
So a proposition might simply be an object of thought, but it can also be the content of an act of judging, that is, "the content of an affirming or denying, an agreeing or disagreeing, an assenting or dissenting" (Insight 297).

Lonergan next relates the notion of judgment to questions, of which he identifies two classes: questions for intelligence, and questions for reflection. To the data of experience -- that is, the scraps of information that we encounter through our senses and in our consciousness -- we put the question, "what is it?" This is the question for intelligence (or understanding). It culminates in a concept. But this is not yet "knowledge," because our concept could be mistaken. So to our concept we put the question for reflection: "is it so?" And this is where judgment comes in.

To the question of reflection there are two possible answers ("yes" or "no"), but one might decide that one cannot answer at all.


Why would one not answer? The most obvious reason is that one might decide that one does not have sufficient evidence to ground a judgment. And this may in fact be the case. Other times, however, there is more than sufficient evidence to ground a judgment, but we avoid making the appropriate judgment because, for example, it may conflict with what we want to believe.

That which we want to believe exercises a strong influence on our judgments if we are not careful. Not only does it sometimes prevent us from making judgments where there is clearly sufficient evidence to do so, it can also lead us to make an irrational judgment, such as when the evidence indicates "yes" and we answer "no" (or vice-versa). Think of the certainty with which people insisted that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, even prior to the U.S. invasion, and one can see how people who really want to believe something will magically "find" evidence to support their judgment, even when such evidence does not, in fact, exist.

Criminal trials, particularly when they involve celebrities, are another example. Many people have no problem deciding for themselves if the defendant is innocent or guilty, even before a trial begins, and it is clear that something other than evidence is ruling their judgment. I would be surprised, for example, if the people who were most certain that Michael Jackson was innocent of the charges brought against him were not also huge Michael Jackson fans.

Read Judgment, Part II

Works Cited



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