Consistency and Con-cis-tency, by Peter Kiernan

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Summary
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In “Consistency and Con-cis-tency”, Peter Kiernan discusses what it means for something or someone to be consistent. Kiernan is of the opinion that human beings, and perhaps philosophers in particular, have overvalued consistency by failing to see it as just one form of relationship a thing can take to itself. This overvaluation, he contends, is harmful.

Drawing on Queer and feminist discourses, Kiernan attempts to give shape to his contention by considering it relative to the transgender community. In an attempt to conceptually expand our understanding of what it means for something or someone to be consistent, he presents two new terms: sistency, and transistency. The latter term may perhaps be defined as the most radical (but also the most useful) of the two. In gross simplification, Kiernan argues that a transistent identity is a type of consistency with an other, or a consistency in difference. For example: whereas cis-women are prima facie consistent with an archetypal understanding of womanhood, transwomen are prima facie inconsistent. Womanhood, however, is not exclusively defined by prima facie values, and it is in this difference that Kiernan situates transistency when he argues that transwomen are consistent in their relationship with womanhood, and in their understanding of themselves.

Offering these terms in the hope that they may somehow be useful, Kiernan invites respective communities to determine the success of his attempt.

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(This paper is indebted to the work of Sally Haslanger and Naomi Scheman.)

As someone who is frequently around the leviathan anachronism (which is working, fetal, within anachronism to overturn it) philosophy there is a word that is never cut from thought; that is  consistent. The value of consistency is primary, at least in the core breadth of the philosophical tradition, because it is a value which an argument can possess distinct from the subjective maker of that argument. The consistency of an argument is a mark of the success of the argument maker in detaching herself from her own ambition just as it is the mark of the potential, in the argument, for success for the argument in this detachment. Much of the beauty of this kind of argumentation, which is lacking from much of what makes up contemporary philosophy, is lost, admittedly, in analytic resistance to originality: reason, as a value which distributes viable philosophical positions, is a limited resource which philosophers are to exploit on clearly established grounds (grounds of viability and intelligibility)[1]. A theory of originality then is what is most lacking in current philosophical approaches to the cognitive stance of philosophers themselves as people who do investigation and a circle has emerged, to close, which can validate the philosopher as such a person only by uniting the character of that cognitive stance with the character of putative philosophical discovery (that is by eliding originality)[2]. What this uniting achieves is the marking out of philosophical investigation as anticipatory of what could actually be the case. As I learned only on a yesterday (Friday the twenty-eighth to be precise) part of proper philosophical scepticism is that philosophical thinking is not anticipatory in this way, the character that comes out of it cannot be said, beforehand, to be a recognizable character, a character which will make us, in all things, not mad[3]. Consistency is to philosophy a value alike imagination or genius to the arts, in that it makes a thought its own.

   As an LGBT[4] person however I also think about the big missing. The big missing being precisely that which might not be there in the basic cognitive stance of the thinker however basic that stance is. The big missing is big because it is not concrete. It is not what is concretely missing which I think about (I am not a woman, I am not transgender, I am not allosexual) for these things touch on what is there (what is so missing can be characterized as missing positively, by stating I am a man, I am cisgender, I am asexual). The big missing is the unmeasured potential absence (unmeasured because potential) in my cognitive stance which keeps me from uniting my personal, subjectively driven interests with the character and drive of my argumentation. Any argumentation (at least in my case) takes place in the context of desperation and in desperation one must keep those camps which go together, apart (the subjective interest in making an argument for such and such an end, the end which is the argument itself, if the argument is successful). They can be kept apart by recognizing a potential absence (of any measurement) not in myself but in my argumentatively directed thinking, which is the unit of that subjective interest and that free argumentation. It could conceivably be the case that for some individual nothing is missing but this will just mean that what is missing is absence, and this will be, (chastise me if you wish), a kind of missing also for I will have, in that case, missed the absence which undeniably makes up some of thinking (and characterizes it) and will learn that[5]. That is I am characterized as an individual who makes an argument in a context of lack, be it lack of understanding or of knowledge (really a lack of knowledge)[6]. It is easier to get from the theoretical ‘big missing’ to concrete issues of what is missing or is present for me as an individual. Easier than moving from what is the case about me (and so what is not the case also) to what is not (where I will end up carrying myself only into imaginary deserts of negation, where I think the feminine lies, or the transgender, or the allosexual). That is I am not trying to think the feminine, or the transgender, or the allosexual, I am trying to think about the mass of not-being which factors in my general thinking already[7].

“As an LGBT person however I also think about the big missing. The big missing being precisely that which might not be there in the basic cognitive stance of the thinker however basic that stance is.”

   Consistent then struck a nerve of working humour; for I thought that consistency, this core value of philosophical thinking, was in the manner of speech inter-built with cisgender privilege. I thought immediately of all the dratting leaves of twitter posts which excoriate the cisgender privilege of walnuts, national flags, and the moon. I laughed because of the perfection of it, there, built directly in to that favoured term which is supposed to help us sort through the good and the bad of thinking was that term, which cisgender people take needless offense to, namely the ‘cis’ of con-cis-tent. There is a book there and I am certain that if I were as super-moral as those professors of English literature, or English studies, I would have written it by now and found a publisher to boot. Unfortunately I am only moral, and so do not have the super-abundance of knowledge which many of these professors possess and with which they fill in, as in a bee-hive, the walling of our economic modernity, or super-modernity, making it honeyed and rich so as to emphasize just how much thinking they had to do to be either knowledgeable or ‘free’ in it[8]. Super-modernity is where the advertisers cannot invent but that the critics symbolize it for them.

   I know that I sound conservative here, and have even advanced a simulacrum of the old argument against intelligence (that it corrupts, that it self-serves, and so on). I am right however, the conflation of consistent with con-cis-tent is just a happy fluke, a piece of luck, a really bad joke. Really bad because it works out. It is joke then both on the one who could not make it (because they could not think it in the first place, so resistant are they to thinking about others) and the one who would take it seriously (because it works out, but not because society is fucked through with an overbearing power-knowledge superstructure which determines everyone but the accidentally enlightened and the critical an ass and makes it so that it could only ever work out[9]). It works out in the manner of a Joycean pun. For, taking from Parmenides, the originative notion of the consistent runs, so far as I can see, as such “You must learn everything – / Both the steady heart of well-rounded truth, / And the beliefs of mortals . . . . . and come to see how beliefs / Must exist in an acceptable form, all-pervasive as they altogether / are”[10]. The key terms being ‘well-rounded truth’ and ‘acceptable form‘. Well-rounded I take to mean self-consistent, which is how a position is described which does not conflict with itself, self-consistency is frequently seen as key to an argument following (entailing some conclusion) because the mainstay of philosophical objection is the inconsistency, or self-confliction (especially in the case of self-contradiction) of a given position. Acceptability or the acceptable form is the form given to a thought which marks it out as neither the belief simply of mortals or let us say people nor simply the belief of the thinker in a contextual, investigative position as thinker. Both of these are intrinsically valuable to philosophy. Yet it is not hard to see how they could be understood, by the transgender community, as prime sources of the suffering of transgender people. Indeed they could be understood by anyone as embodying a core aspect of the transphobic heartland of our culture. For is it not transgender people who, in our eyes, fail to be self-consistent, who fail to make claims about themselves, about who they are, which take on a self-consistent and acceptable form? Which are articulate in the historical language of ratio? Con-cis-tency then, is a thing. I’ll happily call it a thing, as long as it is understood as the claim that consistency is rightly valued over and above any other kind of sistency[11]. So then, here comes another neologism, the sistent is that which is true, in the sense of being the property any set of interrelated things (such as the interrelated sentences, clauses and so on of this paper) possesses which makes it, as a whole, true. The consistent is that which is true in virtue of being itself such that every integrated part of it is sistent and is sistent a priori. This is the sistency of the object as an object. Consistency then is what I am in what I am (if you see me in the street and take offense at this language you may shoot me, so long as politely, Ivan Karamazov missed it, everything is permitted only where everything is polite).

“I laughed because of the perfection of it, there, built directly in to that favoured term which is supposed to help us sort through the good and the bad of thinking was that term, which cisgender people take needless offense to, namely the ‘cis’ of con-cis-tent.”

   One objection to this line of thought, which takes con-cis-tency as the claim that the consistent is the highest value of the sistent, is that transgender people are consistent, they are just consistent with who they really are, as opposed to being consistent with who people take them to be. I don’t think this is strictly the case. People identify gender identities, in my view, explicitly as forms of sistency. The sistency of womanhood is that which, regardless of any particular experience of womanhood, brings people together as women. A trans woman is consistent with herself in her pursuit of recognition (of herself as a woman), but her everyday reality is not that of consistency. For in plain truth she is not consistent. Where to be so is to be oneself only through what one is prima facie. What do I mean here by ‘prima facie’? In the one sense I mean what is meant by it in philosophical-cum-academic jargon, that is what is evident from the surface of things. In another more precise sense I mean by it the way in which we are construed as individuals by being prima facie available to others in just this previous philosophical-cum-academic sense of the term.

   Her life is built then, precariously, on the inconsistency of her basic position as a person. Someone who is a woman but is not able to claim herself prima facie a woman. Now there is an argument to be had here as to whether the inability of transgender people to claim prima facie access to an identity is a result of social stigmatization or of an actual reality of underlying inconsistency in the person. Approaches which rigidly separate gender and sex will assert that a trans woman is a woman in just the same sense as a cisgender woman is a woman, and that what is different in their experiences is that a trans woman’s claim to womanhood is not taken, for entirely illegitimate reasons, by others as prima facie valid (even though it is prima facie valid). This is I think a perfectly good approach (there are problems I think with rigidly separating gender and sex, but they can be dealt with). There is an intuitively obvious sense in which a trans woman just is a woman (she belongs, as much as any woman, to the sistency of being a woman). What I dispute however is that the sistency of being a woman needs to be understood as a consistency first and foremost, a sistency in the self (the well roundedness of the object in question). While it is, in other words, just the social situation of human beings which makes for the inaccessibility of prima facie identity claims to transgender people as claims directed at others, it may not be just that situation which makes for the inaccessibility of these claims to transgender people simpliciter (and this is why we have a second sense of prima facie). The inaccessibility of prima facie identity claims might simply be, in this case, in many cases, that the individual in question really is not consistent. That is this individual simply does not conform to the expectation of consistency in herself. So even if the social dimension of this was cleared up, in some ideal sense, so that the prima facie claims of transgender people about their identity were taken as prima facie valid by others, this would not mean, I think, that the value of consistency, as a philosophical value, would be openly available to those same people (the people making those prima facie identity claims) in respect of their gender identity. They would find, I would contend, no comfort in that consistency and that consistency would become, eventually, an erasure of the more complex reality which makes them, as individuals in the world, inconsistent for that world (so long as con-cis-tency is taken to hold true)[12]. Even the claim ‘I am a woman’ can be an equivocal claim. It can be the claim that I simply belong to this identity and should be understood, in an unqualified sense, as belonging to it but it might not be a claim which establishes what belonging to that identity consists in. Women that is (transwomen and ciswomen), do not have to appear as we expect women to appear, and are no less women for it. The value then of consistency, in a con-cis-tent hierarchy, is not in having a or any concrete identity (for the identities of transgender people are as concrete) but in having an identity that is located in a self-fulfilling kind of self-relation, a relation with oneself of consistency, and in accessing that identity from that place of consistency.   What I want to suggest therefore is that a critical discourse on sistency can simply replace previous discourses and do more (it can for example offer an alternative to the fluidity/spectrum model of identity[13]).

“The sistency of womanhood is that which, regardless of any particular experience of womanhood, brings people together as women. A trans woman is consistent with herself in her pursuit of recognition (of herself as a woman), but her everyday reality is not that of consistency. For in plain truth she is not consistent.”

    Consistency remains, in all cases, a basic value, and con-cis-tency is taken as a thesis regarding the order of sistency which turns out false. What other kinds of sistency are there? It seems natural to suggest that one other kind of sistency (other than consistency) is transistency. Transistency is consistency with the other. Now the topic of the other in this case is a fraught topic. It might be taken that I am asserting that to a trans woman her being a woman is a consistency not with herself but with an other (that her womanhood is an other). If this is taken in such a way as to imply the invalidity of a woman’s claim to her womanhood or a man’s claim to his manhood, and so on (for a variety of gender identities) then evidently I am in trouble. I maintain however that this consistency with the other need not necessarily be read as asserting any prioritive identity. If we turn back to the above conversation the emphasis was on the possibility of the inaccessibility of prima facie identity claims and viewing this inaccessibility as viable (not everyone need have, in an obvious sense, a prima facie gender identity for example – where prima facie can be adapted slightly again to the idea that an individual with a complex gender identity can, nonetheless, intuitively set out the frame of that identity from an early age (or any age), in the way that a cisgender man can have a complex gender identity as a man but also be comfortable with enframing that identity in that way and can do so before the identity grows into complexity as it were). That is just because one’s identity is transistent, that is consistent with an other, does not mean that there is any consistent identity that stands behind, as it were, that identification with an other. That is identification with an other does not have to occur on the basis of having a prior consistent identity (gender or otherwise) and then moving critically away from it. A transistent identity functions in much the same way that empathy functions, it is an identity across consistencies. Though it may itself (this transistent identity) be prioritive (and this what distinguishes it from empathy). This is worth stressing, a trans woman is not someone who sympathizes with women so sufficiently that this person feels as if she were a woman, for this clearly disregards the actual thrust of the trans woman’s identity claim, the unqualified assertion that she is a woman (and this assertion is not necessarily for her benefit, she knows she is a woman, it is very often for our benefit that the assertion is made) – rather a transistent identity is as ex nihilo as a consistent one, from a philosophical-cum-critical perspective. That is transistent identity can be originative. I can be a person with primary transistent identities. Still, it will be argued, I have defined transistency in terms of consistency with an other. So in what sense is a trans woman’s womanhood other to her? In literal terms it is no more other to her than it would be to a ciswoman. A ciswoman feels that she is a woman because of a consistent relationship of being-as-she-is. A trans woman feels that she is a woman because of a transistent relationship of being-as-she-is (again the transistent/consistent terminology I want to bring is philosophically primitive in the sense of having no further explanation). Seeing as the claims of both are not being disputed both are women in a way that does not distinguish in the sense of their being women. So in terms of something like proximity to womanhood itself (whatever that should mean) there is no distinction. The difference does not touch on the issue of womanhood itself. Rather womanhood, whatever it is, covers both consistent and transistent kinds of relationship. It might be said that a consistent relationship is one determined by an identity which takes shape without relationship to an other, while a transistent relationship is one determined by an identity which takes shape by relationship to an other. Still it is not clear that I have avoided privileging one of these modes; for transistency is still defined in terms of consistency and the ‘other’ has received no characterization. I will start with characterizing the other in this case.

   One thing that can be said is that this relationship with an other is a relationship which can be prioritive and which not need be a relationship which moves from some consistent identity toward some other consistent identity. That is the ‘other’ in this case should not be understood as an identity constituted through the mutual difference of given consistent identities. So being a woman, as an identity, cannot be fundamentally characterized as either a consistent or transistent form of identity (this raises some open-ended questions, but it really is not my place to answer them, here or in general). The sense then in which a transistent identity takes in or ranges over, to use a handy analytic phrase, the other is just the sense in which difference simpliciter is taken into the relationship. A transistent identity is one of consistency in difference. This difference is not socially produced. A trans woman’s transistency consists in her identification of herself as someone who claims inconsistent relationships as part of her holistic identity; this inconsistency can be realized simply as a social inconsistency (the incompatibility of her identity with her assigned identity), but it may also and I think must also run deeper. Her inconsistency is not an object of horror, anxiety, or ugliness – it should not be thought of as something to overcome. Her inconsistency is a fundamental characteristic of who she is. Someone who is not misplaced (who has not been dropped into the wrong body de re[14]) but whose body is in part the location of her transistency, the place where her difference comes together and it is precisely through her difference, and not her identity or sameness, that she accesses the facticity of her being a woman, that she accesses her her. Does this mean that I am, slyly, taking the body of a trans woman as, in some sense, basically male? Is this where the difference comes in? Again we must be careful, if this were the difference then her transistency would be a uniting of maleness and femaleness into a synthetic consistency (she would turn over her ‘maleness’ into her femaleness and create consistent identity). This is not what I want to argue for. The difference is entirely originative – it is just that transwomen experience themselves as a location of difference as opposed to a location of identity (it really is unclear how I can explain one without privileging the other here). As the rain comes down, and I am walking, and the November chill is priant on my somewhat overburdened bones, that is as the rain hits my face, my very skin becomes a location of transistency, the coming together in that sensation of distinct identities. The contested bodies of transgender people, and I say this with some caution given the vitriol which transgender people face and the incongruity of my position as someone commenting on this contest, are locations of the transistent insofar as they are locations of the coming together of difference and the building of identity out of difference, the flourishing of identity out of difference. My body, my cisgender identity, is the location of identity, nothing comes together there where everything is. My body, that is, is pre-expressive or silent where I stand (at least in regard my gender). These transistent relationships bind difference into wholes and the whole, in the end, the female or male or genderqueer and so on, is not itself characteristically either consistent or transistent, neither made from identity nor difference exclusively[15]. It must be remembered here that consistency and transistency are broad philosophical distinctions, not terms that are there functionally for any particular community (they available in that way, but they do not originate for that purpose) – that is any person may have a range of consistent and transistent relationships in them (a transgender person is not as it were wholly transistent or just the perfect poster child of this philosophical term)[16].

“Her inconsistency is not an object of horror, anxiety, or ugliness – it should not be thought of as something to overcome. Her inconsistency is a fundamental characteristic of who she is. Someone who is not misplaced but whose body is in part the location of her transistency, the place where her difference comes together and it is precisely through her difference, and not her identity or sameness, that she accesses the facticity of her being a woman, that she accesses her her.”

   The other in this case is the same other that was identified in the ‘big missing’ – it is the negative material which goes into our identity and our reasoning even about the world (which comes first I wonder). To anyone at anytime there is otherness (and I maintained, somewhat cheekily, that even the absence of that otherness would constitute a further relationship to otherness), and in our transistent relationships with the world we are carried into it. We make what is not us, in the sense only of what is not consistently us, us. We admit into us what we are not by virtue of consistency or some theory of natural consistency, and we find that it is us. That it is our sistency, our transistency. That this difference makes us up, and that it makes us up where we find in ourselves a relationship to an other. The philosopher is, if we return to how I characterized good argumentation (which has been sorely lacking here – and I apologize for that), someone devoted to building transistent relationships. For the philosopher wants to know what previously she could not have been said to know (simply in virtue of what, prima facie, she is). The other does not determine what we are, but it is still other to us. It is still not immediately accessible, even if nothing could, on discovery (however instant or natural the discovery) be more true of us. To know what is true of yourself only in a secondary sense, a secondary sense which is made primary, is just to be a philosophical being.

   In regard defining transistency in terms of consistency I don’t think this problematic. From a purely formal perspective this does not make consistency prioritive over transistency, it just means that I cannot go about characterizing transistency unless I have some sense of consistency available to me (in a historical sense, that is I had to begin with consistency). Certainly this could do with more good philosophical work (working toward clarity). I don’t intend however to provide that here. I still think there are many, many problems with this trio, sistency, consistency, and transistency. My hope however is that these terms (and consistency reconsidered) can be of use, particularly to the transgender community (but also elsewhere – in regard mental health for example our focus is on expecting people to be consistent in a way that is sometimes very harmful). I turn them over then to whoever might find use for them and hope that in that use they might be far better clarified: I will continue to think of them from an analytic, philosophical perspective but who knows what kind of result that will yield (I think little). More result in life inclines a philosopher’s bite.


[1]Though there are examples of very interesting arguments, such as two private language/rule following arguments (Wittgenstein/Kripke) and Chalmers’ argument against materialism – but these, possibly with the exception of the original private language argument (Wittgenstein) seem intended to persuade us on the grounds of their consistency and viability and not on the grounds that the argument-maker thinks they are true in some motivating sense (and so motivation is obscured).

[2]An ideal example of this possibly the modal realism of David Lewis.

[3]I picked this lesson up at an event at Dublin’s Plato Centre, hosted by Vasilis Politis and – , in a paper delivered by Politis a view regarding the sceptical character of the early Platonic dialogues was advanced that I found very compelling, and that view serves as the inspiration for what I have said, briefly, about anticipation. It is not however the view Politis advanced, which was far more nuanced (though he has a book forthcoming from CUP which I am sure would be the go to place for anyone interested in finding out more).

[4]Gender, Sexual, Romantic Minority – for the sake of clarity I identify as a pan/homo-romantic asexual and am a cisgender man.

[5]This argument can be significantly strengthened by bringing in an account of basic cognitive stances that makes a negative capability integral to them; so that anyone can immediately conceive of themselves as not knowing something. Think of the Gods in the Cratylus (Plato) who always name things in a way perfectly consistent with how those things are. For those with perfect knowledge questions do not arise, but if that perfect knowledge includes the negative and the negative is substantive (it needn’t be) then perfect knowledge itself reeks of the absence of its own context.

[6]I think some of what Sartre says regarding a positive characterization of the negative (or of nothingness) is valuable, and not simply a fallacy of taking negation to have its own content (as opposed to being an operator on positive statements). See Being and Nothingness pp 36 – 44.

[7]I have sacrificed a bull at Cambridge in order to make up for being a shameful philosophical dandy.

[8]If you give freedom to a Hegelian she will fling it back at you and call that freedom instead. She will look like a Dostoevskian character and Dostoevsky will be confused as to whether the irrationality of atheistic, communistic destruction is not irrationality de jure, that is as much irrationality as what is free, by right, and then there will be literal devils and no criticism. As in the present.

[9]Here we have it: NOT ALL THINKING CAN BE CRITICAL. Don’t leave the positive thinking to the scientists either, aren’t they’re hopeless? Who has their scepticism ever defended?

[10]F1 (DK 28BI; KRA 288, 301; C I) – taken from ‘The First Philosophers’ Oxford World Classics.

[11]Here I feel like the little continental philosopher who could. I can write to my mother to tell her that I finally did it, I finally made hackney of language and called it really good thinking.

[12]When I introduce the notion of transistency it will become clear that transgender people are consistent, just in a secondary sense (secondary to their transistency).

[13]Here my problem is not so much with the pragmatics of a spectrum analogy, but with the ontology of it. Generally I think it only obfuscates discussion to introduce scientific terms that are transplanted from the sciences, this goes for ‘spectrum’ and it goes for ‘binary’.

[14]I want to distinguish here that I am not in any sense arguing that transgender people cannot describe themselves in these negative terms, cannot articulate their experience of horror, anxiety, ugliness, wrongness regarding themselves, rather I am asserting that these experiences are de dicto (experiences of how, in the language or culture one is taken to be) and not de re (experiences of how one is). Obviously in light of the essentialist/social-constructivist debate this is a precarious distinction to make, but I make it.

[15]I don’t really know where such an assertion will lead.

[16]Interestingly I think that asexuality is a transistent sexual identity, and is not, as such, primarily consistent. My reasoning here concerns my desire to give a philosophically positive account of asexuality, so as to eliminate the not-a-sexual-orientation objection. Asexuality is transistent, when contrasted with other sexual identities, which I see as mostly consistent, because it is constituted through an othered experience of the sexual. The asexual is in the position mentioned earlier in this paper of the individual who in missing nothing, on the surface, is missing something, underneath. That missing something however is not negative but positive (philosophically). It’s a holistic difference. For allosexuals this difference constitutes the positivity of their sexual lives, their awareness both of the non-sexual and the possibility of being non-sexual. Asexuals however have no sense of what the non-sexual might be. For us the sexual is the non-sexual. It is what is different to us. This is a matter to deal with separately however.


Peter Kiernan is a writer and philosopher who lives and works in Dublin. He has published previously with the Honest Ulsterman and the Bohemyth. Thoughts on this article in particular are very welcome at psjafk@gmail.com.

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