Little Minds

— Julian has a good analysis of that ever-abused Emerson quote: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…,” which, as it is usually used, is the last resort of the incoherent. (Julian is complaining, again, of the NRO crowd.)

I really love the quote, properly understood. (Go see it.) It’s about having the courage to assail your own convictions, and thus your own identity. It’s a little mind that craves so badly to BE something, to BELIEVE a meaning-conferring doctrine, that it cannot countenance the prospect of admitting error or ignorance or limitation and thus cannot do justice to the world by admitting new facts and revising old opinions.

Folks seem to miss the crucial difference between doing one’s best to be consistent at any given time, and being doggedly consistent OVER time, which is foolish. Inconsistency over time is required by the effort to be consistent at a given time. New information comes to light, and that has to be integrated with one’s prior beliefs, and when it is, some of those old beliefs have to be jettisoned or revised to comport with the new information. Emerson is arguing FOR unfoolish synchronic consistency–for holding to what makes for the most coherent story NOW in light of one’s ever-shifting context of evidence–and its incompatibilty with the sort of dogma that rules the little minds of the folks at NRO .

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center