Sunday, April 3, 2011

Contradictions Versus Coherent Philosophical Systems

Karl Marx in his youth
Young Karl Marx
Western philosophical systems are predominantly rational and are supposed to be logically sound and consistent in order to be taken seriously. This is the general norm. If there are inconsistencies or controversies in your philosophy, then you need to revise the problems or discard your system completely. This has been largely the legacy of ancient Greek philosophy with its reliance on rational reasoning and thinking, more particularly going back to the dynamic duo of Socrates and Plato.

Furthermore, when we are looking at individual thinkers, we tend to look for an integrated root philosophy, a so-called common denominator that captures and synthesizes the person's essential thoughts. Accordingly, a philosopher is either Marxist, Kantian, Existentialist etc. We feel the need to classify philosophers into a known and accepted catalog that we believe will provide us information about their stance and main view.

With philosophers and thinkers, this may actually change over their life time. For example, you may start off as an atheist, but then become a theist in your later phase of life, or vice versa. Some thinkers change slightly, while others do so in leaps and bounds because of radical changes in their life, behavior or thought, all of which may have a dramatic impact on or shift in their philosophical foundations and outlook.

Yet we mostly value and give the benefit of doubt to the later not the earlier phases. For example, St. Augustine is not remembered for his contributions to Manicheanism but for his Christian writing, which occurred in the latter part of his life. Was Marx more Marxist in his later writings than what he accomplished at first? The curious question also remains whether Marx indeed was a Marxist and whether Christ was a Christian since leaders are often identified anachronistically with movements they have helped initiate or bring about.

But with what authority can we claim that later is better? For example, in the arts it is the ending that gives the work a decisive genre; comedies end happily and dramas end tragically, while mixed genres, such as comedy-dramas or dramedies remain in no-man's land and can go either way. But what if the latter part of a person's life is senility or madness? We may acquire more knowledge in later life, but, at the same time, we might have reached or surpassed our prime in previous times; in fact, certain artists, such as Orson Welles or Justin Bieber, never seem to reach initial heights of achievements.

One example that has managed to give Western philosophical systems a major twist or kick in the shins is the case of Nietzsche. He did not believe in a unified philosophical system, openly criticized the over-reliance on logic in relation to the realm of feeling and passion, and he proudly and defiantly contradicted himself.

The scientific axiom of either A or not-A goes back to Aristotle. Yet we see in life, and even certain modern aspects of science like quantum physics, many cases where we do not get a clear-cut answer. Instead we get a weak and indeterminate “maybe” or “it depends” or “it could be this or that.”

Maybe that is part of the problem, namely that reason and logic may get far, but not hit the mark completely. When we are considering such weighty and complex issues like the meaning of life, we need to approach it from different perspectives and be ready to concede certain internal contradictions and inconsistencies.

In fact, readers of my blog will find contradictions in my philosophy. I am not ashamed of them because they are reflections of fixed points in my life, where I may have had different views on issues. At the same time, I reserve myself the right not to commit to any one category because one point of view may not be sufficient, and purposeful inconsistency is not necessarily a flaw in itself.


John Myste said...

Many people would argue that “purposeful inconsistency is not necessarily a flaw in itself” is a self-evident contradiction. Oddly enough, there is precedent. The New England Transcendentalists believed exactly that. They thought truth is where you find truth. I tend to agree that one’s arguments, either to himself or to another, need not be consistent. No one can own truth. A thought-provoking argument is a good argument, and a true argument that provokes no thought is probably not that useful.

Was Christ a Christian is worthy to be cross-posted here, where people can comment. Not yet, of course, but after readers have had their chance to digest this article.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of my heroes said you should not stand by your philosophy unless it currently suits your argument:

“Leave your theory, as Joseph his coat in the hands of the harlot, and flee.

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.”

And he said:

“Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else tomorrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.”

So, Arash, I do not seek truth and I do not worry about the accuracy of my philosophical stance. I seek wisdom, and I hope and believe, if I find the object of my search, the truth will follow.

Unknown said...

@ Arash: How could Christ Jesus not be a Christian since to truly be one is to be Christ-like?

@John: How can truth be separated from wisdom?

Francis Hunt said...

As John said, "I do not seek truth ... I seek wisdom."

Consistency is a characteristic of limited, closed systems. There is too much depth to life, the universe and everything to be put in just one box ...

John Myste said...


Wisdom is an attitude and an approach, perhaps an insight. There are lots of really backward people who lack wisdom, but know facts.

The truth is a term for a reality we cannot know, at least not in this life. Mystery is part of the human condition. You can approach the pursuit of “knowledge,” rationally, with an open mind, with circumspection and without delusions of truth ownership. This is what I cause wisdom.

I guess it is all semantics, though, sir.

Arash Farzaneh said...

Thank you all! Very glad to see there is some consensus on being inconsistent and (slightly) irrational!


Of course, Jesus is the model of Christianity. But my point here is that he was turned into a "Christian" after the fact. Similarly, Plato was not a Christian, but his ideas ended up shaping Christian thought and philosophy.

Initially, Jesus was a Jew teaching for Jews of his time. He might have wanted to modify his own religion at the time, but with some help of Paul, it became something something much bigger with incredible impact on the world.