How to be Wrong

8 03 2013

I can’t remember when I first heard Dudley Hersbach’s bit about error, but it’s a good one to repeat and discuss in Hegelian terms:

And often, the key thing, if you’re going to be wrong, is to be wrong in an interesting way-because you tried some excursion in thought that took you over somewhere and gave you a new perspective. That’s the kind of thing to try to emphasize.

This plea for a broader notion of science and scientific endeavor applies equally well as a description of the Hegelian vision of specualtive philosophy’s relationship to knowledge in general. It is also, like Hegel, frustratingly vague on the matter of what it means to be ‘wrong in an interesting way.’ What does a ‘new perspective’ entail and why does it even matter?

Hegel’s focus on history and culture can make it difficult to grasp that he has an almost common sensical notion of error. Error is simply a mismatch between our ideas of things and the things as they are. Hegel explores this more deeply than most and with much more technical language, but the core notions of truth and error are ones most of us can accept easily.

The tricky thing is that Hegel also noticed that our ideas influence each other, with standards and values emerging as much from our experience of ideas as from our experience of things as they are. On the cruder levels, we see this in the formation of habits. Often, habits reflect a frequent correlation in our experience, but they do so in a way that is often incidental to the correlation. Our expectation is a form of understanding. As anyone who has had a routine interrupted by malfunction knows, though, the expectation is often not based on a clear grasp of things as they are. The frutration that erupts results from the failure of expectation and its subsequent inability to produce what was expected.

Malfunction, though, also invites re-evaluation. In that re-evaluation, the understanding has an opportunity to learn. Ideally, this is when assumptions can be replaced with a deeper understanding that positions the malfunction within a broader context. So, when the toilet overflows, we have an opportunity to acquaint ourselves with the technical capacities of our toilet. Most of the cases Hegel considers are significantly less pleasant opportunities.

Hegel’s speculative thought seeks to get a little ahead of this process by producing error and malfunction deliberately. When you are wrong, you come face to face with the mismatch between what you think about the world and the world as it actually exists. If you are wrong in an interesting way, that mismatch isn’t complete, and the consequences of your errors give you the means to re-evaluate your ideas, figuring out how to better fit them to your experiences. It’s sure clumsy sometimes because reformulations can be as wrong as the original formulations, but it through the clumsiness we can find some measure of grace, some pattern of thought-informed behavior that works.

This commitment to error is what makes speculative philosophy speculative. Speculation occurs to produce and explore error.  It speculates in order to find the discontinuity between its ideas and the situation in which they are being applied. It is thought about life even where it gets that life wrong. By seeking to be wrong, speculative thinking allows us to ferret out mismatches between our ideas and experience before they explode in full-blown crisis. Historical study provides a backdrop for this speculation, educating it so that its speculations are informed and so more likely to be ‘interesting.’

This is simply a commitment to improvement, not a commitment to constant progress. An ethos of improvement can be preserved even as the fantasies of constant progress are worn down beneath the ever more pressing experience of its failure.

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