Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Facts that Teach Us Something

"When you make a mistake, do not be afraid of mending your ways."

People who refuse to admit their mistakes bug Andrew Gelman. They bug me too. But complaining about it is probably just, as he puts it, "railing against universal human nature". The relevant aspects of human nature we are railing against are no doubt laziness, vanity, and cowardice.

I get this from Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave. "Three faults," he writes, "which are found together and which infect every activity: laziness, vanity, cowardice. If one is too lazy to think, too vain to do something badly, too cowardly to admit it, one will never attain wisdom" (20). "Sloth rots the intelligence, cowardice destroys all power at the source, while vanity inhibits us from facing any fact which might teach us something; it dulls all other sensation" (30). The fact that might most straightforwardly teach us something is of course one that we've gotten wrong.

Confucius tells us not to be afraid of correcting ourselves. It is interesting that we should be afraid of such things. Maybe he too was railing against something fundamental in human nature. Actually, I think it's more likely that we are perverted from our true natures by culture. It is something in the way our mistakes are treated when we are students that makes us fear admitting them when we become scholars. And I think I know what it is: our mistakes are too often tolerated, more often simply ignored. Too many scholars don't know what happens when your mistake is corrected. In other cases, perhaps, there is some sort of trauma. Our mistakes were punished too severely.

Wherever it comes from, it certainly is annoying. More than that: it is distressing to think how many false ideas must be in circulation simply because people are too vain to face facts that might teach them something.


Andrew Shields said...

"Actually, I think it's more likely that we are perverted from our true natures by culture."

That's the Heideggerian Romantic in you (thinking of Blackburn's review that you linked to yesterday).

Thomas said...

Yes, very true. I am annoyed by our fallenness into inauthenticity. The main objection I have against Blackburn's anti-Romanticism is that it so often fosters a mean-spirited glibness, or at least that's how it seems to me. As in all things, what is needed is moderation.

Andrew Shields said...

I don't know if I'm anti-Romantic in general, but I'm pretty sure I don't have a sense of "fallenness into authenticity." That said, I'm fascinated by the productivity of the idea!

Thomas said...

Heidegger's section on "Gerede" (idle talk) in B&T really hit me hard. The seemingly inescapable fact that much talk is made without any reference to a factual basis, and that it actually must be that way, left we glum for weeks! Many years later I read Jacob Brackman's New Yorker piece about the "put on", which made me smile about the same thing. (In between there was Norman Mailer's review of Podhoretz' Making It, which cites Brackman.) Heidegger talks about the role of "Schreiberei" in scholarly writing. Surely you have a sense of how far we've fallen there!

Andrew Shields said...

"Out of that decay will come the nutrients of new usage, new forms of expression."