Monday, December 12, 2011

How to Never Make Another Mistake (Seriously)


Folks, I’ve been in full dissertation mode for the past few months, so I haven’t been able to post as often as I would like. I’m writing a dissertation that requires me to call on the training I received in law school and will, hopefully, allow me to land a job as a law professor. My research question: Can the practice of state-sponsored punishment be justified?

For a long time, I considered my decision to go to law school a mistake (a $102,000 mistake). I hated it. I felt that most of my classes were a waste of time. In fact, I actually told one professor that his class wasn’t worth attending (he didn’t take it well). I wanted to leave after the first year and, while in school, I was certain that I’d never use the degree.

This year, I started reading Hegel seriously--specifically, his Phenomenology of Spirit and the Philosophy of Right. Hegel is extremely deep, but that’s a topic for another blog post. One Hegelian idea that I really latched on to was that of viewing historical events as happening for a reason, as furthering some ultimate end. For Hegel, the events of human history all serve the purpose of allowing us to gain a greater knowledge of who we are, as humans.

Hegel doesn’t think that this claim is obviously true. He realizes that one can view certain historical events as senseless and irrational, as serving no positive purpose. In his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Hegel writes “To him who looks upon the world rationally, the world in its turn presents a rational aspect. The relation is mutual.” What Hegel means here ( on at least one interpretation) is that we can only recognize the past as meaningful (rational) if we allow ourselves to both see it as potentially meaningful and make it actually meaningful.

What does it mean to see a past event as potentially meaningful? This: to understand that event as a necessary part of a story that has a happy ending.

What is it to make a past event meaningful? This: to make that story come true.

For Hegel, this happy ending is our coming to a state of absolute knowing (or, full self-awareness). I’ll put off the discussion of absolute knowing for another day. Here I simply wish to exploit the complementary Hegelian notions of seeing the past as potentially meaningful and making the past meaningful.

Thus far, I’ve only discussed these notions abstractly. Let’s think about a concrete example.

Say you and I set off on a road trip to San Francisco. We somehow take a wrong turn and end up in Arizona. We could take this event as an opportunity to lament our poor navigational skills and curse our malfunctioning GPS or we could see our wrong turn as providing us with an opportunity to see the Grand Canyon. We could realize that had we not made the wrong turn, we would not be in a position to have a great Grand Canyon vacation. We would make this wrong turn meaningful by actually having a great vacation in Arizona. By making the story of the Grand Canyon vacation true, we, in essence, make the wrong turn a right turn.

It should be clear now how I plan to make good on the promise I made in the title of this post. We can avoid making mistakes in that we can we can integrate our “mistakes” into progressive stories which we make true. We thereby turn our “mistakes” into right decisions.

This is what I’m trying to do with respect to my law school “mistake.” I consciously chose a dissertation topic and future career that will require me to “use” my law degree. I used to say that going to law school was a mistake. Now I say that I’m actively trying to make it the case that it wasn’t a mistake.

I’ll keep you posted on my progress.