From Blushing to Error

 Posted by on 12 April 2004 at 1:07 pm  Uncategorized
Apr 122004

High though my self-esteem may be, the praise in these comments from Matt on this post is certainly more than enough to turn my cheeks red.

I do strive to write in a clear, straightforward, and engaging style, so I’m glad to hear that I’m succeeding in that to some substantial degree. Of course, much progress remains ahead of me, but at least I seem to be heading in the right direction.

One of the tricks I use is to envision an audience entirely composed of my mother. She’s a smart, sensible, and active thinker and reader, but definitely outside the scholastic world of academia and only somewhat familiar with Objectivism. If I can’t explain some philosophical issue to her, then most likely I’m suffering from some form of rationalism. My husband is also a good focal point, particularly when I’m writing for a more academic or Objectivist audience, since he knows quite a bit about both without being an expert in either. A third target audience is composed of the good folks of Titan Toastmasters, since they are sharp and interested in ideas, yet accept a more standard spread of (often muddled) views found in our culture. Notably, none of these target audiences contains a single philosopher. I’m not much of a fan of philosophers writing for their own profession.

Matt does mention that my papers “vary in quality,” which is certainly true. In particular, they vary in their substantiative and methodological veracity. I am still very much on the steep part of the learning curve in philosophy. So I often approach my graduate papers as serious explorations of ideas, rather than attempts to settle my views for all time. One of my hopes is that, by posting these papers, my errors will come to light through comments from readers. Exposing my known errors to the world — including those found in my undergraduate work — reminds me of and motivates me in all the learning I have yet to do. Reading though my humble beginnings in philosophy might show present philosophical beginners that good philosophizing is a skill that develops over time with knowledge and practice, not an innate talent. Of course, I also think that I made some interesting points in those earlier papers. Really, my only concern about posting those papers is that they might be plagiarized.

Generally speaking, although I do not take a casual approach to my writings, my basic attitude is that I am perfectly willing to err, even in a spectacular and public fashion. Of course, I would prefer not to do so. Of course, I strive to avoid it. But when it happens, I take it as an opportunity to learn and grow, rather than a blow to my self-image. In contrast, when I joined Toastmasters back in 2001, I rather disliked being told pretty much anything other than that my speech was wonderful. Although I understood its theoretical function, I was generally averse to criticism. But in that friendly and supportive environment, I quickly realized that improvement required strong and direct criticism. Of course, some forms of criticism are genuinely destructive. Good criticism aims at correcting errors by noting and encouraging some change for next time. My attitude towards the possibility of error and the value of criticism changed for the better, I think.

That shift in attitude is why I was so thrilled with Greg Salmieri’s critical comments on my paper on false excuses at the UPitt Graduate Philosophy Conference. On the one hand, I learned that my basic approach to ethics and politics, as found in that paper, was all wrong. That’s a bit of an ouch. But at the same time, I also made a huge advance in my understanding. Wow! That’s utterly fantastic! (A post on the substance of that issue is still in the works.)

That shift in attitude is also why the tepid intellectual atmosphere of TOC quickly became unbearable to me. In presenting my two papers to the Advanced Seminar, I was expecting hard-hitting commentary from a deeply Objectivist perspective somewhere in the two hours of discussion. Such criticism, I knew, was necessary for improvement in my work. As I put it the point elsewhere: “I wanted my papers to be raked over the Objectivist coals by scholars who know the philosophy inside and out, not tepidly reviewed from a vaguely Objectivist perspective. I wanted to be respectfully but firmly held to the highest standards, even though failure may sometimes be confusing, painful, and frustrating. I wanted to be quickly and strongly challenged if I ignored some aspect of Objectivism on some issue. Yet such hard scrutiny, high standards, demands for seriousness was beyond the will and grasp of TOC.” (As I’ve indicated elsewhere, I see such as a prime example of bad theory generating sorry practice.)

My shift in attitude toward error also played a significant role in my disassociation from TOC, in that I was more than willing to publicly admit my error, even given ten years of vigorous support and active involvement with the organization. When I saw systemic problems at TOC, I was willing to consider and investigate philosophic origins. When I realized the necessity of departure, I didn’t slink off into the night. Yet my embarrassment has been quite painful at times, given the magnitude and duration of my error.

I should note, however, that I do not feel either guilt or shame, as I did not ever evade as far as I know. Honest error was easier than skeptics might think. I read Truth and Toleration only a few short months after first reading Ayn Rand’s essays. The ARI supporters I knew often acted as if the errors in it were self-evident, such that you were obviously corrupt if you didn’t see them right away. Often these people hadn’t even bothered to read the work at all, let alone understand it in any detail. No knowledgeable critiques of it were available. When I read T&T for only the second time this winter, profound and disastrous errors certainly popped out at me. The first time around, I was simply not in a position to see them.

Speaking generally, my prior fear of error and aversion to criticism seems to have been the result of regarding ignorance by itself as a moral failing. In my experience, that’s a common attitude amongst smart young people, as they are used to understanding so much so quickly. But Rand was right: Evasion is the root of all evil… and there is a world of difference between errors of knowledge and breaches of morality.

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