Sunday, July 18, 2004

Logical Versus Emersonian Consistency

Consideration of context is crucial for correct interpretation. An often misquoted and even more often misunderstood line from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” reads as follows: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. . . .” This ‘text-bite’ suggests the denigration of logical consistency. But now read the line in context:

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words and tomorrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard
words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.(Ziff, 183)

It should now be clear that Emerson’s dictum has nothing to do with logical consistency and everything to do with consistency of beliefs over time. The consistency in question is diachronic rather than synchronic. A “little mind” is “foolishly consistent” if it refuses to changes its beliefs when change is needed due to changing circumstances, further experience or clearer thinking. It should be clear that if I believe that p at time t, but believe that ~p at later time t*, then there is no time at which I hold logically inconsistent beliefs. Doxastic alteration, like alteration in
general, is noncontradictory for the simple reason that properties which are contradictory when taken in abstracto are had at different times. My coffee changes from hot to non-hot, and thus has contradictory attributes when we abstract from the time of their instantiation. But since the coffee instantiates them at different times, there is no contradiction such as would cause us to join Parmenides in denying the reality of the changeful world. Belief change is just a special case of this. Suppose a politician changes her position for some good reason. There is not only nothing wrong with this, it shows an admirable openness. She goes from believing in a progressive tax scheme to believing in a flat tax, say. Surely there is no logical contradiction involved, and for two reasons. First, the property of believing that a progressive tax is warranted
is not the contradictory, but merely the contrary, of the property of believing that a flat tax is warranted. (They cannot both be instantiated at the same time, but it is possible that neither be instantiated.) Second, the properties are had at different times. A logical contradiction ensues when one simultaneously maintains both that p and that ~p.

Emerson’s sound point, then, is that one should not make a fetish out of doxastic stasis: there is nothing wrong with being ‘inconsistent’ in the sense of changing one’s beliefs when circumstances change and as one gains in experience and insight. But this is not to say that one should adopt the antics of John F. (‘F’ for Flibbertigibbet, or else ‘Flip-Flop') Kerry. Relative stability of views over time is an indicator of character.

Before leaving this topic, let's consider what Walt Whitman has to say in the penultimate section 51 of “Song of Myself” in Leaves of Grass:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Here it appears that Whitman is thumbing his nose at logical consistency. If so, the Emersonic and Whitmanic dicta ought not be confused.