Opinion is a difficult word in modern English, despite apparent continuity with its etymon opinio in Classical Latin. It is a prominent but unsettled term across fields including political science, marketing and public relations, as well as in both academic and general understandings of human ideas, beliefs and action.
Latin opinio (with related pejorative adjective opiniosus, cf. modern English opinionated meaning ‘dogmatic, obstinate or conceited’) carried a range of senses: supposition that falls short of demonstration; general impression or repute; and report, including rumor. In expressions such as opinione vulgi, mostly cited from Cicero but in widespread use, connection is implicit between opinio and wider Roman social institutions of democracy and rhetoric.
Opinion comes into English via Anglo-Norman and Middle French with broadly the same senses, but is adapted (and then continues to adapt) to different and changing social structures. Three evolving emphases need to be distinguished.
- The epistemological meaning continues of conjecture, disputable belief or conviction that goes beyond supporting evidence. This meaning contrasts with statements based on truth and fact, especially where opinion signifies ‘feeling’ as much as ‘thought’. A closely related contrast is that between subjective and objective; and on some occasions qualification of opinion is offered by reference to a particular source of evidence, framework of ideas, or social authority. It is this broad sense (OED sense 1, atte1ted from 1340s to the present day) which gives rise to modern expressions including a matter of opinion, to be of the opinion that, and pejorative mere opinion. Note that this sense involves interplay, as it develops, between fundamentally different kinds of evidence and authority. An increasingly dominant subjective or personal authority finds itself in tension with dogma or (taught) doctrine, and is sometimes dismissive of such frameworks as ‘received opinion’. Tension between apparently subjective viewpoint and agreed doctrine is similarly reflected in hybrid OED sense 4, also from late 14c: opinion can denote ‘professional advice’, such as a medical opinion or formal statement by a judge or other competent authority, with related more recent expressions get an opinion ‘seek a medical diagnosis’ and second opinion.
- A second strand of meaning extends the dimension of assessment and judgment into ‘reputation or public perception’. This sense, now virtually obsolete, describes what is thought by one person of another: the (especially good) estimation in which a person is held (because they represent something, or possess some quality), a sense readily inflected towards favorable estimates of the self. In turn, a further meaning (now obsolete) for opinion develops: ‘self-confidence, conceit, or arrogance’ (with its then overdetermined links with ‘opinionated’).
- A third strand of meaning (also from late 14c) involves attributed beliefs aggregated from individual views: the perception of a social group rather than of an individual. This sense, which contrasts with opinion as a matter of countable beliefs or views held by individuals, existed in Latin opinione vulgi and its equivalent in early Italian, and enters English usually with a specifying adjective, as in common opinion, general opinion, and vulgar opinion. In each phrase, opinion denotes what is thought or felt either by some designated group of people or by a whole population, hence from late 18c onwards public opinion, an expression whose significance depends on social structures (not always present) which permit and have uses for such reports.
Tension exists between the three intersecting strands, both when used of individual and collective social opinion: whether opinion denotes limited perceptions or ideas (which, as merely subjective, may be dismissed as relatively unimportant); whether the word denotes ideas that, while disputable, are significant because they have the backing of some widely shared doctrine or ideology; or whether, as responses to social experience, opinion foreshadows new ideas and values in the making. Examples of each emphasis can be found, as well as equivocal statements between them, including in formulations linked to political positions that contrast ‘private’ and ‘public’ (or ‘common’) belief and value - emphases whose significance is increased by historical shifts they express from feudal social relations into modern capitalism, liberal ideology, and practical formation of a modern public sphere.
In Areopagitica (1644), John Milton writes that “where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making”. In Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651, Chapter 11), the clash between private and public in defenses of opinion as expression of emergent ideas is explicit when we are told that “They that approve a private opinion, call it opinion; but they that mislike it, heresy: and yet heresy signifies no more than private opinion”. In the dedicatory epistle of John Locke's Essay on the Human Understanding (1690), implications from the ‘private’ nature of opinion, in contrast with ‘common’ belief, are challenged when it is argued that “new opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common”. Almost a century later, striking political contrast is to be found between Tom Paine’s reliance on ‘general opinion’ as political vindication, “When such a time, from the general opinion of the nation, shall arrive...” (Rights of Man 1792, II. v. 170) and Edmund Burke’s reservation about the “coquetry of public opinion, which has her caprices, and must have her way” (‘Letter to Thomas Burgh’, New Year's Day 1780). Half a century on again, J. S. Mill’s On Liberty (1859, chapter 2) foregrounds opinion in his exposition of liberty as protected by a ‘marketplace of ideas’: “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind”. In one political current, opinion signifies progressive momentum; at the end of the 18c, political reference is most likely to democratic impulses associated with the French Revolution and/or US Constitution, as well as political mobilization within rapidly industrializing British society. In an opposing political current, opinion bears superficially the same meaning but connotes danger from masses made confident by open expression of collective experience and values.
In 20c, opinion was increasingly used to describe collected data on patterns in public belief and attitude, in a current leading from Walter Lippmann's Public Opinion (1922), through impact of George Gallup's Public Opinion in Democracy (1939), into a contemporary meaning of opinion, central to the practices of modern representative democracy, as ‘measured social distribution of ideas and values’. Early development of this emphasis was linked to wider arguments during the 1920s over peacetime application to commercial and political activity of mass psychology and wartime propaganda techniques, as well as about the effect of such techniques on established conceptions of democracy. Opinion poll, meaning systematic collection of sampled opinion by means of surveys, develops as part of a cluster of compounds from the 1930s, including opinion former (now a person, earlier in the century an institution such as a newspaper), opinion holder. From 1951, as opinion became more central to electioneering, policy forecasts and marketing, the professional designation opinion pollster is also attested. Also during the 1950s, published formats which offer comment began to be known as opinion columns, and the writing in them as opinion pieces.
With variant meanings and emphases, opinion has now become a guiding concept in consultation processes, transaction ratings, and solicitation of feedback in most areas of public and commercial life. With easier means of data collection, by phone and online, and with broadcast and online media keen to incorporate user-generated comment, ‘opinion’ has also become a form of entertainment with its own requirements of supply and demand: “if you have an opinion, call now..”. Across such usage, however, opinion continues to have unsettled implications. These arise partly because of the traditional contrast with fact and knowledge, and partly on account of the unresolved contrast between private and public. In suitable circumstances, accordingly, calling something an opinion can achieve any of the following: it can dismiss a given viewpoint as merely personal and subjective; it can assert an entitlement to that same viewpoint because it is personal and subjective; it can condemn a widely-held view because it lacks appropriate evidence; or it can urge the merit of that same, widely-held view because it reflects a public reservoir of belief and value, irrespective of the evidence.