Tag Archives: One causal or underlying factor for ambiguity in thought seems to be entertaining or coming face to face with contentious issues.

is it possible (or desirable) to hold two divergent opinions at the same time?


‘is it possible to hold two divergent opinions at the same time’


“I may indeed contradict myself now and then; but truth … I do not contradict.”

— Michel de Montaigne



“I suppose you have forgotten that many weeks ago I promised to send you an account of my companions at the Wells [a city in England]. ….

“One of the greatest men of the society was Sim Scruple, who lives in a continual equipoise of doubt, and is a constant enemy to confidence and dogmatism. Sim’s favourite topick of conversation is the narrowness of the human mind, the fallaciousness of our senses, the prevalence of early prejudice, and the uncertainty of appearances. Sim has many doubts about the nature of death, and is sometimes inclined to believe that sensation may survive motion, and that a dead man may feel though he cannot stir. He has sometimes hinted that man might, perhaps, have been naturally a quadruped; and thinks it would be very proper, that at the Foundling Hospital some children should be inclosed in an apartment in which the nurses should be obliged to walk half upon four and half upon two legs, that the younglings, being bred without the prejudice of example, might have no other guide than nature, and might at last come forth into the world as genius should direct, erect or prone, on two legs or on four.

“The next, in dignity of mien and fluency of talk, was Dick Wormwood, whose sole delight is to find every thing wrong. Dick never enters a room but he shows that the door and the chimney are ill-placed. He never walks into the fields but he finds ground ploughed which is fitter for pasture. He is always an enemy to the present fashion.

“He holds that all the beauty and virtue of women will soon be destroyed by the use of tea. He triumphs when he talks on the present system of education, and tells us, with great vehemence, that we are learning words when we should learn things. He is of opinion that we suck in errours at the nurse’s breast, and thinks it extremely ridiculous that children should be taught to use the right hand rather than the left.

“Bob Sturdy considers it as a point of honour to say again what he has once said, and wonders how any man, that has been known to alter his opinion, can look his neighbours in the face. Bob is the most formidable disputant of the whole company; for, without troubling himself to search for reasons, he tires his antagonist with repeated affirmations. When Bob has been attacked for an hour with all the powers of eloquence and reason, and his position appears to all but himself utterly untenable, he always closes the debate with his first declaration, introduced by a stout preface of contemptuous civility. “All this is very judicious; you may talk, Sir, as you please; but I will still say what I said at first.” Bob deals much in universals, which he has now obliged us to let pass without exceptions. He lives on an annuity, and holds that there are as many thieves as traders; he is of loyalty unshaken, and always maintains, that he who sees a Jacobite sees a rascal.

“Phil Gentle is an enemy to the rudeness of contradiction and the turbulence of debate. Phil has no notions of his own, and, therefore, willingly catches from the last speaker such as he shall drop. This flexibility of ignorance is easily accommodated to any tenet; his only difficulty is, when the disputants grow zealous, how to be of two contrary opinions at once [italics added]. If no appeal is made to his judgment, he has the art of distributing his attention and his smiles in such a manner, that each thinks him of his own party; but if he is obliged to speak, he then observes that the question is difficult; that he never received so much pleasure from a debate before; that neither of the controvertists could have found his match in any other company; that Mr. Wormwood’s assertion is very well supported, and yet there is great force in what Mr. Scruple advanced against it. By this indefinite declaration both are commonly satisfied; for he that has prevailed is in good humour; and he that has felt his own weakness is very glad to have escaped so well.”

— Samuel Johnson, “Scruple, Wormwood, Sturdy and Gentle” (The Idler No. 83), November 17, 1759



“The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, & breeds reptiles of the mind.”

— William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell



“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 contradicts 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, “Self-Reliance,” Essays: First Series (1841)



“Tomorrow we shall receive other hints; it may be an apparent contradiction to those of today, urged likewise as if they were the sole and central truth. … Thus, there is hardly a proposition in [Ralph Waldo Emerson’s] poems, or his prose either for that matter, which you cannot find the opposite of in some other place.”

— anonymous reviewer, “New Poetry in New England,” The Democratic Review, vol. XX (May 1847), pg. 397; quoted in Floyd Stovall, The Foreground of Leaves of Grass (University Press of Virginia, 1974), pp. 286



“His [Keats’s] mind had itself much of that ‘negative capability’ which he remarked on as a large part of Shakespeare’s greatness, and which he described as a power of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ ” This is the doubt of one “who prefers the broken fragments of truth to the imposing completeness of delusion. Such is that uncertainty of a large mind, which a small mind cannot understand.”

— Aubrey De Vere, “Modern Poetry and Poets,” Edinburgh Review, October 1849; quoted in Floyd Stovall, The Foreground of Leaves of Grass (University Press of Virginia, 1974), pp. 248-249



“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

— Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”



“Mother, one’s heart grows sick of war, after all, when you see what it really is—every once in a while I feel so horrified & disgusted—it seems to me like a great slaughter-house & the men mutually butchering each other—then I feel how impossible it appears, again, to retire from the contest, until we have carried our points—(it is so cruel to be tossed from pillar to post in one’s judgment).

— Walt Whitman, letter to his mother, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, July 7, 1863 (The letter refers to the Battle of Gettysburg.)



“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up (1945)



“Like any writer worth paying attention to, [Philip] Roth turns out to be the sum of his contradictions.”

— Adam Gopnik, review of Philip Roth: Why Write? Collected Nonfiction 1960-2013 (The Library of America), The New Yorker, November 13, 2017



is it possible (or desirable) to hold two divergent opinions at the same time?

by Roger W. Smith


A friend of mine with whom I have had many deep conversations has asked me once or twice, do I think it is possible to hold two contrary, divergent opinions at the same time? Have I experienced this?

In an email, my friend summarized the topic brilliantly and lucidly in the following words:

Our conversation had to do with staking out a position or taking a position — not necessarily ardently — but stating or indicating a position outwardly while one is in fact holding a position inwardly that is more closely in touch with one’s truer feelings. Such a stance might belie one’s inner feelings, might be subtly or not so subtly meant to provoke or suggest inner conflict about which side of an issue one feels or takes … or, possibly, another meaning.

You hit upon this idea this morning (which I have clumsily attempted to recapture), which immediately caught my interest and attention both as it relates to you and because it is an idea that has broader importance. When you thought there might be a word or phrase to capture it, I thought that would be interesting and helpful.




“A word or phrase to capture it.” Is there, to my knowledge, my friend asked, a word or expression to convey such a notion?

I told him I would look it up.

I got back to him as follows:

You asked me: is there is a word in English for having or holding two contradictory opinions in one’s mind at the same time? It seems that there is not, really.

The idea seems to be encompassed by the term cognitive dissonance. But, as I see it, cognitive dissonance is a concept, not a word.

However, I found a definition of cognitive dissonance online (the web site has, since this was written, been taken down):

“cognitive dissonance; noun; psychology — the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioural decisions and attitude change”

There is a Wikipedia entry on cognitive dissonance at


In the article, cognitive dissonance is explained as follows:

In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time; performs an action that is contradictory to their beliefs, ideas, or values; or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas or values.

Note that, in psychological parlance, cognitive dissonance has the connotation of a mental state associated with discomfort or anxiety. I don’t quite view it that way. Read, for example, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ringing words above. To him a mental state somewhat like what the Wikipedia article describes is a cause for celebration and admiration, not alarm, though Emerson does acknowledge that thinkers of such a mental cast, so to speak, are bound to be misunderstood and, perhaps, criticized and/or persecuted.

An often seen term that expresses such an idea is George Orwell’s coinage doublethink. Doublethink has been adapted into our language, but it is not an autochthonous word. And, in Orwell it is used with a particular slant or twist, with a connotation somewhat like brainwashing.

Some words that kind of hit upon the idea of a person perhaps expressing or having contrary opinions simultaneously are ambiguity, ambivalence, dichotomy, duplicity, equivocality or equivocation, evasion, and two-faced (adjective).

And, then, of course, there is oxymoron, defined as a figure of speech in which apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction.

And, paradox and paradoxical. The definition of paradox is as follows:

a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true;

a statement or proposition that, despite sound (or apparently sound) reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory; a situation, person, or thing that combines contradictory features or qualities.



The Key Question

So much for definitions. But, what about the notion of holding contrary opinions simultaneously, as it pertains to thought in general? My thought patterns. Perhaps yours.

I would answer, YES. Undoubtedly. It is a common practice — but not one that violates common sense — for a thinking person to entertain contrary, opposing notions simultaneously.

Under what conditions does this happen, and is it propitious?



Hot Button Issues

One causal or underlying factor for ambiguity in thought seems to be entertaining or coming face to face with contentious issues. I am thinking of issues that are always (endlessly; and, one might say, ad nauseam) being debated in public forums and that never get resolved. It seems as if on some of the most contentious, emotionally charged issues which are debated publicly there will never be anything like agreement. For example:

capital punishment;


war and peace.

It appears that this may be, in part, because there are no good answers. Each side may have some right on their side, and neither side is totally wrong. The same arguments and counterarguments are made over and over again.

The real test — the hard part — is when one is dealing with actualities and specific cases. For example:

I am against capital punishment, but when I saw and read news items about beheadings of hostages by ISIS terrorists, I felt that I would like to see the executioner(s) publicly beheaded.

Despite being in sympathy with positions taken by the pro-choice side of the abortion debate, I have always felt unsure and uncomfortable thinking about the issue.

I have historically been a pacifist, or at least a dove, yet I feel that some wars are necessary. About a bloody conflict such as the Civil War, I have never known what to think.

When faced with such issues, I may find myself thinking first one way and then the next. I will tend to lean more one way than the other, but I am never certain about what I think.



Another Hot Button Issue

Another example of a contentious issue which, over the course of time, caused me to doubt my initial, unquestioned views was the controversy over the issue of school busing in Boston, which lasted for a couple of decades following reforms resulting from the civil rights movement.

I remember the controversy well, although for much of the time I was not living in Massachusetts and it did not affect me or members of my family. (My mother was, however, very pro civil rights and volunteered to tutor students from minority neighborhoods.)

Like most liberals, I was initially pro busing, which was natural since I was pro civil rights and supported integration. In the North, that meant integration of neighborhoods formerly all white.

There was a high profile spokeswomen for and champion of the “other side,” Boston School Committee chairwoman Louise Day Hicks (1916 –2003). She was completely against busing and denied that segregation existed in city schools. She was pudgy, did not seem that articulate, and was belittled by liberals, who regarded her as an anathema, an embarrassment, and also (perhaps unfairly), an idiot. I myself thought she and her positions were retrograde, narrow minded (also bigoted), and ridiculous and volunteered (for a very short time) to work for a candidate opposed to her.

Over the years, I have reflected upon busing, which now seems to be in abeyance as a strategy. (I am not sure of this.) It occurred to me as an afterthought as an apt example for this essay because of a discussion I had this week with a liberal professor who said he fully supported busing at the outset, but changed his mind when it was about to occur in the case of his own daughter (now an adult), who was having some problems adjusting to school socially and did not want to have to attend a non-neighborhood school.

I think the busing issue illustrates something that often happens in cases where “social engineering” is involved and is being visited upon the public by policy wonks in the ranks of academia, NGO’s, and government. It illustrates a general point I was making above, that we may think a certain way in the abstract, and then, when it comes down to actual cases, may find ourselves wondering what we really think.



Gut (Emotional) Issues

Then there are gut issues — partly public and political, partly personal — that involve one’s core emotions, sometimes base or elemental ones:

My wife. I love and respect her. Yet, I thoroughly disagree with some of her views on essential matters. (I suspect that I am not alone in this regard and that this is the case with many intimate relationships.)

Two politicians. I am excited about and interested in the campaign. I want one to lose but I don’t want the other to win.

I harbor prejudices, some that I am only dimly aware of and some more overt. Yet, I have seen evidences in the behavior of persons I have known that contradict and undermine my biased views. There are parallels, too, in many of my cherished beliefs, which, like most people, I stubbornly adhere to. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes, if not often, another person can puncture them with repartee, contrary evidence, and counterarguments.



Reflection and Research

On an intellectual level, I find that encountering and considering views that may cause confusion at first can be a very good thing, as seems to have been the case with great thinkers who were not afraid to do this.

When I had to come up with a topic for a term paper in college, what I found worked and resulted in a good paper was to try and identify something I myself found to be unclear to me and unresolved in my mind — that, additionally, did not seem to have been resolved by scholarship — and which was muddled or confusing as regards its presentation in lectures, readings, or discussions. Then, investigate and write about it. I have always liked to be challenged to investigate something and think it through for myself. As I explained in a letter to my sister (who was then in college), written when I was in my twenties: “When I had to research papers in school, I always found it best to pick a topic where I had some doubt or unresolved conflict in my mind and then write to resolve that conflict. I often found that that areas where I was in doubt or had some misunderstanding turned out to be a significant one to explore.”

I continue to find this kind of mental effort and “intellectual exercise” productive. It may result from reading something — say, in a newspaper — or from a discussion. It sometimes, if not often, happens that I find myself confused or dismayed, and not sure how to respond or of what I think. Such a situation, I have realized, can provide an opportunity. It often results in reflection and can lead to mental productivity, new insights, and perhaps a new piece of writing.

A similar phenomenon. Sometimes one entertains, is struck by a thought which runs counter to one’s previous thinking, what might be called a heuristic or “pregnant” thought. Heuristic or pregnant means for me: revelatory, inducing reflection and modification of thought and opinions I hadn’t questioned. An idea which makes me think anew about something — not always right away.

Heuristic (adjective): enabling a person to discover or learn something for themselves.



Crime and Punishment

Yesterday (April 22, 2017), I read with dismay that convicted felon and former Weather Underground member Judith Clark has been denied parole after thirty years in prison. An article in The New York Times resulted in comments being posted by readers; there were over 500 of them. The comments made me think earnestly about my own preoccupations about crime and punishment. I didn’t change my views, but I found myself thinking anew about, weighing, and wrestling with, if not changing, them.




Being able to see what the other side has to say is not a sign of weak thinking or of an inferior, easily swayed mind. It is to be desired, on the contrary. I have found that some sanctimonious readers of this blog, convinced of the rightness of their views, often cannot see or appreciate this, nor do they seem to be inclined to do it themselves.


— Roger W. Smith

   April 2017; updated February 2019




A reader of this post emailed me as follows.

I read your personal essay, and enjoyed it. The famous Emerson quotation is on the mark, as are all of them; but I wonder if the idea that a great mind has nothing to do with consistency defines what his critics accuse Trump of nowadays? That is, the inconsistencies of saying one thing one day and contradicting himself the next?

Couldn’t help thinking about this throughout your piece.

The reader has made an excellent and interesting point. In reply, I would be inclined to say that this is intended to be an essay about a mentality where a person has deeply held beliefs, and then finds himself or herself entertaining/considering contrary beliefs and perhaps questioning one’s initial beliefs. Despite this reader’s welcome and pungent comment, I do not believe that the type of thinking described above applies to someone such as Donald Trump, who does not seem to be a profound thinker (I guess I should say, is not) and who changes his views, as one might change one’s shirt, from day to day, tweeting one thing one day and another the next.


— Roger W. Smith, May 2017; updated November 2023




Regarding the never ending debate over abortion, the following comments seems to illustrate well what I said above about feeling ambivalent over the issue:

Americans are collectively pro-choice and anti-abortion. You ask Americans, how do you feel about abortion, they don’t like it.

But a woman forced to make a decision under difficult circumstances, in consultation with her confessor, her conscience and her physician, they’re not going to — they’re not going to criminalize it. …

Abortion is an issue that Americans, quite bluntly, have never resolved. I mean, it remains in every Gallup poll every year the plurality Americans think abortion is immoral. At the same time, they do not want to criminalize it.

— Mark Shields. PBS NewsHour, February 1, 2019