Commitment to Commitment

A commitment to the practices associated with commitment is more fundamental than any particular commitment we may have. To say it another way, taking our committedness seriously is more important than the exact content of our particular commitments as to what is good and true, or to what we will do.

A high level of seriousness about commitments does not mean sticking to our guns at all cost. If we truly take our commitments seriously, that ought to mean that we also want to improve them when we have the opportunity, and to fix them when they are broken.

The American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) famously made the remark that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do”. One might hope that he really meant to distinguish between a foolish consistency and a wise one — between a kind of rigid adherence to mere formalisms, and what I might call consistency in substance or essence or deep meaning. The latter would be more akin to personal integrity.

Emerson himself was a bit intemperate in the passage that followed (“Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today”). He further confuses the matter by connecting this message with the theme that “great souls are always misunderstood”. This is all in his essay “Self-Reliance”. The rhetoric is quite memorable and there is a sense in which each of these sayings has validity, but they are both what Hegel would call “one-sided” formulations that are highly vulnerable to misuse. Their combination suggests the dangerous implication that it must be our fault if we don’t understand the one who says contradictory things. This clearly goes too far.

In the course of arguing that it is actually possible for a human to have a kind of general knowledge of being, Aristotle in Metaphysics book IV chapter 3 famously defends a principle of noncontradiction that is not merely formal.

He says in part, “For that which is necessary for one who understands any of the beings whatever to have is not a hypothesis” (Sachs translation, p. 58).

“[W]hat it is, after this prelude, let us state. It is not possible for the same thing at the same time both to belong and not to belong to the same thing in the same respect (and as many other things as we ought to specify in addition for the sake of logical difficulties, let them have been specified in addition). And this is the most certain of principles” (p. 59).

“[T]he starting point… is not the demand that one say something either to be or not to be (for perhaps one might suppose that this would require from the outset the things to be shown), but that what he says must mean something to both himself and someone else; for this is necessary, if he is going to say anything” (p. 60).

Robert Brandom argues that all the most important and valuable parts of Kant’s thought can be reconstructed in terms of the process of synthesizing a unity of apperception. This process is not a sequence of events that happen in the world; it is an ethical task for which we are responsible.

No truths follow from the principle of noncontradiction alone. In particular, it is not a deductive source of metaphysical conclusions.

On the other hand, it is what in Kantian language might be called a moral imperative. To be committed to commitment, I would argue, is to embrace that imperative. Stubborn persistence in self-contradiction destroys the possibility of shareable meaning and dialogue. In real life, self-contradiction happens to good people, but that should be an occasion for learning and humility, never something to proudly affirm.

As soon as we acknowledge piecemeal responsibility for the integrity of our commitments, we implicitly have responsibility for the integrity of the whole constituted by all our commitments. Commitment to commitment is an implicit condition of all our particular commitments, and it involves a responsibility for safeguarding and improving the integrity of the whole of our commitments. However fallible it may be, by its very nature it involves at least the germ of the crucial ability to learn, to improve itself and to correct itself.

This also has important consequences for what Kantian respect for others and the related notion of Hegelian mutual recognition look like in practice. First and foremost, respect for others takes the form of recognition of their implicit commitment to commitment, even when we do not endorse all the others’ particular commitments. (See also Brandomian Forgiveness.)