Tuesday, December 31, 2013


Some time ago, deep in the understorey of the internet, I argued that somebody was advancing an intellectually inconsistent position, and was rewarded with the witty reply "consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds".

I was then puzzled about two things. First, how one could be so cavalier about not contradicting oneself; I had rather assumed that that was a necessary precondition for making sense. Second, where that quotation came from, for I assumed that it had not originated with the blogger who was hurling it at me.

Thanks to Ana Mardoll I have now found out where it came from. Wikiquote (accessed 31 Dec 2013) has a large collection of quotes on the topic of intellectual consistency, and they must have been assembled by someboy who is very much of one mind with the guy mentioned above because they pretty much all ridicule the concept:
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 to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — 'Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.' — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood. --- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Well, so it appears at first sight. Of course it would not matter anyway what a bunch of famous people thought on a topic because it is quite possible that they were all idiots honestly mistaken. But if we look closer, we notice that there are actually two sets of quotes here. There are those that proudly declare that you do not have to make any sense if you are just awesome enough (apparently without wondering how we are supposed to recognize awesome people as awesome if they contradict themselves all the time). In addition to the hobgoblin one, for example:
Consistency is a virtue for trains: what we want from a philosopher is insights, whether he comes by them consistently or not. --- Stephen Vizinczey

Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative. --- Oscar Wilde

Consistency is the enemy of enterprise, just as symmetry is the enemy of art. --- George Bernard Shaw

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. --- F. Scott Fitzgerald
No idea who Vizinczey is, by the way. And then there are a few that have a completely different thrust:
If a person never contradicts himself, it must be that he says nothing. --- Miguel de Unamuno

Consistency requires you to be as ignorant today as you were a year ago. --- Bernard Berenson

A silly ass ... wrote a paper to prove me inconsistent. ... Inconsistency is the bugbear of fools! I wouldn't give a damn for a fellow who couldn't change his mind with a change of conditions. --- John Arbuthnot "Jacky" Fisher

The facts changed. Since the facts changed, I changed my position. What do you do, sir? --- John Maynard Keynes
These are quotes in which people defend themselves for having been inconstent not in the same argument, but inconsistent over time. In other words, they argue that being able to change one's mind is a virtue. And it is; it is the opposite of being unreasonable and dogmatic. I do hope that whoever organized that Wikiquote entry is aware that there are two completely unrelated issues.

But even given that being able to change one's mind in the face of new evidence or better arguments is good, I have to stay by my original position in this case. Intellectual consistency in one and the same discussion is not a goblinoid of whatever species (whether hobgoblin or bugbear). It is not an unworthy obsession of those who have run out of arguments. It is the first, lowest hurdle you have to clear for your position to make any sense whatsoever. Only after it is clear that you aren't obviously contradicting yourself is it even worth the effort to check whether your position is also supported by evidence.

For example, those who use 'faith' and 'religion' as insults when discussing other people's beliefs and criticize them for not having an evidence based worldview but then turn around and promote their own religious faith should be laughed out of the conversation. And somebody who manages to write in two consecutive sentences that (1) there is no clear line between the birds and the non-avian dinosaurs that were their ancestors and (2) there is such a strong divergence between birds and non-avian dinosaurs that we should accept the latter as a paraphyletic taxon without realizing what they have just done does not deserve to be taken seriously.

People who contradict themselves within the same line of argumentation may be confused, they may be dishonest, or they may be insane, and at least in the first case pointing the problem out to them may be helpful. But those who are downright proud of making incoherent arguments simply do not have anything to offer to rational discourse. They aren't misunderstood geniuses surrounded by nagging little minds, they are charlatans.

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