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General News    H4'ed 10/25/18

A Philosophical View of Self-Contradiction

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By Manfred Weidhorn

ONE of life's intellectual pleasures is to catch an opponent in a debate contradicting him or herself. If you cannot challenge the person's facts, at least you can disarm him of his logic. Liberals (on forced school bussing) and conservatives (on abortion) have been found guilty of talking one way and acting in another way. Though it is often hard to live up to one's ideals, such inconsistencies are reprehensible and deserve the ad hominem epithet of "hypocrisy."

These deplorable persons give a bad name to all forms of self- contradiction, the good as well as the bad. For some self- contradictions are, believe it or not, defensible. A statement clashing with one's action, as in the above examples, is surely different in quality from a statement clashing with another statement by the same person. The latter form of self-contradiction is, for one thing, more common. It also has a worthy tradition. It was famously celebrated by Walt Whitman, when he declared, "Do I contradict myself?/ Very well, then, I contradict myself." He clearly saw nothing to be ashamed of in his undisciplined verbal ejaculations. Indeed he sounds defiant, implying, in the language of the streets, "So do me something!"

What he was getting at was spelled out with greater clarity by his contemporary, Emerson, in a less streetworthy statement: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Notice the concessions made by the two adjectives, "foolish" and "little." They imply that, normally , consistency is indeed a preferred modus operandi but that exceptional circumstances demand exceptional responses. That is, one should have both the imagination and the flexibility to shift opinions at certain junctures, something that pedants ("foolish," "little minds") ignore. (A parallel aphorism celebrating exceptionalism is, "All things in moderation, including moderation.") Emerson's nuanced statement makes Whitman's look hyperbolic

and simplistic

But Emerson's version of the idea does not provide proof of its validity. Why should we not take a stand in favor of the much-honored virtue of consistency? For the answer, we turn to Montaigne, who, channeling ancient Greek wisdom, said, "I may by chance sometimes contradict myself, but I never contradict the truth." Now at last we confront the stark reality behind these irritating encomiums to inconsistency: People are inconsistent because reality is. Consistency--at the heart of reason--is a human construct meant to unriddle the world. It may be self-validating but often falls short of its mission of reflecting or describing the way things really are. Life is a minefield of paradoxes, ironies, counter-productive actions and counter-intuitive results. Hence to contradict oneself sometimes is in fact to be faithful to the "truth" or to "reality' or to "nature."

Various important intellectual disciplines provide ample proof for this initially dissonant sounding idea. Consider religion. The German philosopher Karl Jaspers says of Jesus: "[He] shows little concern for logical consistency: 'He that is not with me is against me".He that is not against us is on our side.'" Or again, "'Resist not evil".I bring not peace but a sword.'" Jaspers concludes that both Jesus's "actions and his words seem contradictory by the standards of reason".The Christian canon"is so rich in contradictory themes that there is no"key to the Gospel."

People favoring reason, science, and secularism might not be impressed by the example of Jesus, but things are no better in their own realm of inquiry. Science is occasionally as much entangled in self-contradiction as is religion. Consider the observation by Steven Weinberg, Nobel Laureate in Physics: "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless." Just as there is no key to the Gospel, so is there no key to unlock the riddle of the scientific vision of the universe. Our ever-exploding knowledge leads not to understanding or wisdom but to unanswerable questions and persistent puzzlement. We know and yet we do not know.

Indeed modern physics--at least as viewed by an outsider--seems to speak of an entity being both a particle and a wave; of a cat in a box that is or is not dead; of particles that cannot be simultaneously observed and accurately measured; of possible multiple universes; of incomplete systems of mathematics; of warped space and time, curved light, haywire gravity, black holes. All these contradict the pre-modern but still relevant Newtonian system.

In literature, as well, the idea has been forwarded, by Keats and Scott Fitzgerald among others, that simultaneously holding contradictory ideas is a sign of sanity or openmindedness or insight.

Some Shakespeare scholars have borrowed the term "complementarity" (or duality) from physics to show how his plays are in constant tension with each other

Having a limited sense of what is out there and being consequently somewhat disconnected from objectivereality is only one of the two main reasons for the phenomenon of self-contradiction. The other one has to do with subjectivereality. Logical consistency is at the heart of reason, but, as many thinkers through the ages have remarked, reason, while being the one trait that differentiates us from the beasts, is not in control of human nature. It has to contend with emotion--that faculty we share with the animal kingdom from which we arose--and emotions often, despite our wishes, gain the upper hand over reason.

A synonym for emotions is "moods." We all have moods, good and bad, and these alter our perception of objective reality as much as do our own innate epistemological limitations. Hence the objective fact that two and two make four is true no matter the mood we are in, but whether one likes the Second Amendment is for many people a matter of mood: One may be in the abstract in favor of unlimited gun rights until the horror of the Sandy Hook shootings changes one's mind. We are far more under the sway of moods than of the strictures and rules of reason, and experience is a great mood changer. Reason we can master, but moods, not so much.

The absence of a "key," like the presence of distorting moods, turns the idea of occasionally necessary self-contradiction into outright skepticism. Hence Goethe cites approvingly the partly Muslim, partly ancient Greek principle "that there exists nothing of which the contrary may not be affirmed." This fact has epistemological consequences: "After the contrary of any proposition has been maintained," Goethe declares, "doubt arises as to which is really true." Goethe also, in considering Hegel's dialectics, spoke of the "regulated, methodically cultivated spirit of contradiction which is innate in all men." That would of course include self-contradiction. This is the same Goethe, incidentally, who in 1826 stated that Shakespeare, in writing his plays, "never thought of the stage" and, a year later, that Shakespeare wrote "for his theatre"had the stage in view when he wrote."

One might wonder whether this legitimization of self-contradiction does not give President Trump a free pass. The answer is, not quite. His self-contradictions are so frequent and glaring and factually groundless as to make them absurd. On the other hand, in the long lists of his defects, self-contradiction is a minor sin.

I should also note that I myself try to be consistent whenever possible and try not to take shelter in offering this intellectual justification of the reverse.

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For 51 years Professor of English at Yeshiva University. Author of 13 books and over a hundred essays.
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