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  • Writer's pictureFred Guerin

On Being Wrong

A philosopher-friend of mine wrote an interesting piece on how the stupid of the world see anyone with moderate intelligence or critical skills as ‘elitist’. In an emotive world where political correctness disables our capacity to make qualitative distinctions, many students are encouraged to feel that they should ‘pass’ no matter how crappy their schoolwork is. They become emotionally ‘traumatized’ by receiving a poor grade and want to retreat into the sanctuary of a ‘safe space’ where they are protected from all of those who might challenge or critically assess their work.

Clearly, in a culture where individuals are isolated from and competitive with each other, and where the economic ‘super winners’ are distinguished from the ‘loser’ rabble, it is not entirely surprising that they should feel that failure is simply not an option. Moreover, it is also true that everyone who has ever been a student dreads the nightmare scenario of getting an exam or essay back filled with red ink. Nevertheless, it is wrong to be afraid to be wrong! To fail, to be wrong, to make mistakes, to err and then to learn from the latter is what enables us to more deeply understand ourselves, expand our consciousness, amend our flawed ideas and become better persons.

Many centuries before Descartes, St. Augustine said in his work “The City of God”, ‘fallor ergo sum’: ‘I err, therefore I am’. Or to put it in terms that would make George (Bishop) Berkeley smile, “To ‘be’, is to be wrong”. Now, this is quite true--I do not like being wrong! But after being wrong over and over and over again about so many things, I no longer fear being wrong.

What I fear is the deification of a culture where admitting error, or saying “I was wrong”! is considered a form of ‘weakness’ rather than strength. Philosophy is often considered to be the place where intellectual elitists are born and bred. There are, no doubt, many philosophers in history who have considered their own theories, systems or ideas to be virtually ‘flawless’ or believe they have said the last word on some subject. The great thing about philosophy however is that philosophers are invariably not just to be ‘in error’, but profoundly and authoritatively wrong! Not only is it okay to be wrong—there is also is a great sense of freedom and possibility in the idea that we have to go back to the drawing board, that we are perpetual beginners and lifetime students.

Perhaps Alfred North Whitehead was right when he said that “the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Compared to the ancient Greeks our current intellectual state of being-in-the-world is rather impoverished. Moreover, I have a sense that we will never again have a Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Goethe, Mozart, da Vinci or Kant in our midst. Then again, I could be completely wrong!

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