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Posts from — April 2014

The Wisdom of Tautologies

The Wisdom of Tautologies

Tautologies are curious things. Operating a bit the way oracles do, they can give you either no information or vital information, point to the simplistic or the essential, and seem banal or profound—all depending on one’s willingness to look beyond the surface, beyond the appearance to the underlying truth, which is what philosophy at its best does. By definition, a tautology is a statement of logically necessary truth in the form of a redundancy. In other words, the truth of a tautological declaration lies in the fact that the predicate asserts what was stipulated in the antecedent. Most of the time, tautologies are regarded as rhetorical manipulations or fallacies of reasoning, or at least as failings of style in the same way that redundancy in writing is viewed as a failing. Here are some examples, which should help make this logical parlance clear:

Nothing changes if nothing changes.
We are who we are.
Is is, isn’t isn’t.

These statements and other tautologies are true “by definition,” meaning by virtue of what the words mean, rather than as a result of inductive investigation or polling or anything else to be found in worldly experience. If we say that “All bachelors are unmarried males,” we haven’t claimed something that one has to go out and prove or disprove by interviewing unmarried males to see if they are indeed bachelors. The statement is true by virtue of what the word bachelor means, such that the statement cannot be false, and any attempt to falsify it will result in a contradiction from the get-go.

I was saying that one can respond to the sort of truths that tautologies assert in either of two ways. The first is with a “So what?” and a yawn, and perhaps a glance at one’s watch. “We are who we are.” So what? Who else could we be? The second way, however, is illuminating, and tremendously useful in the sort of work that applied philosophy allows and encourages us to do, which at the end of the day is the work of improving ourselves, using our tools, talents, resolve for the truth, and experience to live better lives. Considered in this light, tautologies can help make us wise, or at least wiser. But to get to this, we have to be willing to consider that the wisdom of tautologies lies not in their linguistic form or in their assertion of what’s true by definition, but in what these assertions imply for everyday living.

To illustrate this, let’s look at each of the tautological examples, above:

Nothing changes if nothing changes.
The statement throws us back on ourselves, on the responsibility we have to make good choices. It even implies that our life is the result of these choices, and that to expect our life to improve by itself, magically, through divine intervention, and so on is the height of folly. Our life improves in step with our willingness to work on ourselves, become more aware, and make better choices. There’s a joke about a young man who took a position with a company as bookkeeper. After a month, he found a note in his paycheck envelope that said, “We’ve decided to give you an increase. It will become effective as soon as you do.” Many of us want change, even need change, but are unwilling to make the changes within ourselves that the desired change requires. This tautology puts us on notice that the conditions of our life depend on something other than those conditions, something interior. Change the cause, and the effect must follow.

We are who we are.
“Who else could we be?” as it turns out, is a good question, for as human beings, we have the ability to deny who we are, to suppress or trivialize or translate the truth of our nature. Such stances, however, set us against ourselves and never work out well. In this tautology, there is a tacit call to self-acceptance, to begin where we are here and now, and above all, to cease all inner hostilities. In this simple, “We are who we are,” there is the intimation that each of us has a story, a through line, and a destiny, following which we find we can move with a certain ease and poise through the inevitable times of adversity, simply because we are on our own side. It is not such a common thing to find someone established in this state of self-friendship. In philosophical counseling sessions, I often work with people who are masters of self-rejection, self-criticism, self-disparagement—driving through life, as it were, with one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake, and wondering why things aren’t going well. I’ve even wondered if, in the subtle regions where mind, spirit, and body intersect, this might not be a factor if autoimmune disorders. This tautology invites us to trade self-rejection in any and all of its pernicious forms for self-acceptance in the willingness to begin where we are—a profound invitation with potentially life-changing consequences.

Is is, isn’t isn’t.
I have more than once wished I had come up with this one. “Is is” certainly might win the Shortest Tautology of All Time award, with “Isn’t isn’t” taking second place. We know, of course, that what is, is; also that what is not, is not—so what does this tautology offer us, beyond an obvious statement of the most basic ontic truths? Well, the buried treasure here will be well known to anyone who has ever tried to make something happen that life refused to support, or tried to stop something from happening that life required. “Is is, isn’t isn’t” reminds us that life is a collaboration, that there is a time to stop trying, to bow before the inevitable, both in those things that we want with all our heart and those that we would do anything to avoid. Equanimity, release of the will, the importance of timing and of moving with things rather than against them—there is so much in this little, four-word statement that one might be able to follow its star straight down the path of self-work to a real and abiding happiness.

Philosophy’s “lovers of wisdom” know that for the true student, the teacher is everywhere, even in the obvious statements of truth that tautologies express. Our interests lie not so much in the logical as the ontological, in the quality of our being-here and the self-work that allow us to be here skillfully and well. That direction calls us to be mindful, watchful, attentive to details, to be slow to dismiss, to look beyond the obvious to something implied. Every statement, like every person and every situation, has its truth. The truth we reject out of hand often proves to be the truth we most needed to hear.

April 15, 2014   Comments Off on The Wisdom of Tautologies