Ralph Waldo Emerson is sometimes used as a weapon by those wishing to impugn adherence to the law of non-contradiction. A recent example of this can be seen here, where a certain "Adomnan" criticizes Rhology's criticisms of certain inconsistencies in his position. This particular case is an example of a more general type of behavior, wherein one denies or impugns the law of non-contradiction in an attempt to evade the force of inconsistencies in one's own position. In this post, I discuss the follies of this type of behavior, as well as why Emerson cannot rightly (or rationally) be used as a cudgel with which to attack logical consistency.
The argument is roughly as follows:
1. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that "consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds".
2. Therefore, bringing up the law of non-contradiction to point out an opponent's inconsistency is a sign that you have a little mind.
Having quoted Emerson, and established one's own cultural and intellectual superiority by so doing, one can then proceed to berate whoever is questioning the consistency of one's position, condescendingly noting their smallness of mind, and lamenting the influence of the hobgoblin upon them. And so it goes, more or less.
Bashing logic with Emerson is an epic FAIL for two reasons: 1) the argument is terrible, and 2) Emerson, as quoted, is not saying anything about logical consistency. We will examine each consideration in turn.
First, the argument is a terrible argument, as arguments go. We could first note that the conclusion does not follow from the premises. The argument can be made formally valid, however, by adding in a few additional premises that are implicit in the original argument. The modified argument is as follows:
1. Whatever Ralph Waldo Emerson says about the subject of logic is true.
2. Emerson said that having a high regard for the law of non-contradiction is the besetting condition of a small mind.
3. Pointing out an opponent's inconsistency implies a high regard for the law of non-contradiction.
4. Therefore, bringing up the law of non-contradiction to point out an opponent's inconsistency is a sign that you have a little mind.
Points (3) and (4) are fine, but point (1) is clearly absurd. Quoting Emerson in this fashion, and then using him as a cudgel against those wishing to adhere to the norms of logic, requires implicitly (or explicitly) elevating Emerson to the position of an authority of logic. But Emerson is not an authority of logic - not because he was not a logician, but because the truths of logic do not rely upon any human authority. The laws of logic are necessary, and cannot be denied without absurdity. Thus, placing Emerson as an authority in this regard is foolishness, and indicative of a poor understanding of the nature of logic itself.
Second, point (2) is very much disputable. The simple fact is, that if Emerson is read in his original context, it is obvious that he is not talking about logical consistency. Rather, he is talking about a consistency that is found in the unwillingness to change one's mind, because it might contradict something that one has said or thought previously. The quote "consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" comes from the essay Self-Reliance. The full quote itself is as follows:
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.
Now, it is good to take an author on his own terms, and let him define them. This Emerson does a few paragraphs higher:
The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them.
Emerson is saying that trust in self is often mitigated by the criticisms of others. According to Emerson, if we feel and think today that X is true, we should not be fettered by the fact that yesterday we thought that X was not true, and that people will judge us as inconsistent for changing our beliefs. Self-reliance involves placing more confidence in what one believes to be true, at this moment, than in the judgments of others, who may condemn us for inconsistency. In this vein, Emerson goes on to say:
But why should you keep your head over your shoulder? Why drag about this corpse of your memory, lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place? Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then? It seems to be a rule of wisdom never to rely on your memory alone, scarcely even in acts of pure memory, but to bring the past for judgment into the thousand-eyed present, and live ever in a new day. In your metaphysics you have denied personality to the Deity: yet when the devout motions of the soul come, yield to them heart and life, though they should clothe God with shape and color. Leave your theory, as Joseph his coat in the hand of the harlot, and flee.
Different aspects of the consciousness may produce different beliefs at different times. A rational belief at one moment may be overcome by a spiritual belief at the next. Emerson's point is that self-reliance involves relying upon what one believes to be true, now, and not worrying about what others have observed one to believe in the past.
The question of whether or not Emerson is correct is not our concern here. There is something to be said for having freedom to change one's mind, though beliefs should not be abandoned rashly - at least not as rashly as Emerson's latter quote seems to imply. Moreover, the whole point of self-reliance is inimical to Christianity, whose foundational truth of daily life is Christ-reliance. Any (so-called) Christians who wish to use Emerson to bash logic should first stop and see if they agree with what Emerson was advocating in this context. But beyond this, it is apparent that with respect to Emerson's usage of "consistency," that there are two possible meanings of the word.
i. Refusing to believe X and not-X at the same time.
ii. Refusing to accept and publicly declare X, though one believes X to be true now, because one believed, accepted, and publicly declared not-X to be true, at some point in the past.
Point (ii) is the only defensible position, of the two, given the above quotes. Emerson is not impugning the law of non-contradiction, but rather the refusal to publicly change one's mind, even though one believes differently now than one believed at a time in the past. According to Emerson,
Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.
Notice that what you say today does not contradict what you say today, but rather what you will say tomorrow. This is point (ii), in essence, and an implicit denial of (i).
Thus, logic bashing with Emerson is a FAIL, not only because the argument itself is terrible, but also because Emerson is being quoted incorrectly and out of context in such instances.
If Inconsistency is the hallmark of a great mind...
Suppose, however, that this mistaken interpretation of Emerson is correct (point (i) above), and that logical consistency is the besetting characteristic of small minds. This is because the law of non-contradiction is not important, and small minds are fixated on small, insignificant issues. In this case, minds that are not small will not be consistent. Thus, inconsistency is the hallmark of a great mind (or at least one that is not small).
Now, suppose that I have a small mind. In this case, the hobgoblin has got me, and there's not a whole lot I can do about it. I will not but seek to be consistent. Any attempts to dissuade me will be futile, because, after all, I have a small mind. I see no reason to be anything but consistent. I do not accept Emerson as an authority, because he advocated contradicting yourself, and that is just plain foolish.
Now, suppose that I have a great mind. In this case, I will not be consistent. If this is the case, then I believe that Emerson said that consistency is not the hobgoblin of little minds. Thus, there is nothing wrong with being consistent, and no basis upon which to criticize those who are consistent. Furthermore, there is no reason why I should not try to be consistent myself. After all, Emerson said that consistency was the hallmark of a great mind...
Thus, even if view (i) of Emerson's notion of 'consistency' is correct, there is no reason not to be consistent, whether one has a small mind or not.
Logic bashing is an exercise in futility, but even more so when this particular quote from Emerson is used as one's cudgel of choice. Impugning the law of non-contradiction in order to escape the force of contradictions in one's own position is a childish and irrational course of action. But it is a sword that cuts both ways - if such a person is right, then he is also wrong. If consistency is bad, then it is also good. Such behavior is self-defeating, but then again, so is any quixotic attempt to take down something which is itself a necessity.