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.


  1. Down this road lies only madness and self-deception. The strategy requires you to ignore your past in favor of a constantly unfolding 'now' where anything goes because nothing is written yet. Further reinvention takes the current now as a starting point and so any hopes of a critique on the grounds of consistency is lost.

    At the end of the day this is a child-like outlook :convictionless, lacking purpose and direction and pretending that the only arbiter of meaning is our current feelings.

    The self may be a raw material for sculpture but it can't be any one thing if all it does is bend to the current climate.

  2. Brandon said that he is *trying* to make a mistake into something meaningful. Obviously, if his position were so simple as the one you critique, there would be no question of attempt.

    The past is not something to ignore--obviously Hegel doesn't think that--and it seems to me that this post's point is simply that we can live better lives if we attempt to make room in our future stories for what might seem, at first glance, a mistake.

  3. I have a lot of thoughts on this, and I'll hardly be able to scratch the surface here. My foremost response is the following general criticism. Let's say provisionally that the meaning of any event (including choices that one makes) depends on the narrative one places that event in going forward. I'm partial to this way of looking at things myself, though attempts to reframe certain past events may be frustrated by the realities of how one's future projects actually play out. But accepting this broad view (with all the subtleties glossed over) I don't see that erases all mistakes, or negates the fact that they were mistakes, or however we might like to describe it. Granted, I could aim to endorse narratives that reduce the major mistakes I have made in my life, but (unless I make strikingly few mistakes) it's hard to believe that I could put together a narrative wherein all my choices are the "right" moves. You could try to finagle a sense of "right" which just means "the choice that coheres with the flow of this narrative" but that seems ad hoc to me and I don't see the value for my own personal perspective. I am okay with criticizing my own choices for their various defects at certain times and places, while at the same time recontextualizing those choices in terms of my current aims and projects. More than that, I feel we do lose something if we sacrifice this form of self-criticism.

  4. npz, I couldn't have said it better myself.

  5. Anthony, your criticism is a good one. I think we can simply replace the self-criticism you speak of with a struggle to make something out of our "mistakes."

    On my view, we can see certain past decisions not as wrong turns, but as problems to be solved. In this way, we still struggle to make sense of our past, but the sense we make need not be in the form of the judgment that what we did was misguided, meaningless, etc.

  6. I just had a talk with the advisor about this point the other day. His take is that our inability to see some past event as meaningful is due to our psychological limitations, not something about the event itself. An event is mistaken or meaningless, on his view, only because we can't figure out how to make it meaningful.

  7. This is kind of what I do in job interviews when I talk about my past.

    Also, doesn't it depend upon being happy with where you're at?

    And are you just interested in teleological theories of history generally? Or just Hegel's?

  8. I took it that the interest of this view was that as an interpretive enterprise we do this with respect to history. I always took it that, say, Marx's view of history was teleological in that he thought there was an objective direction history was going. But then, not like I know my Marx.

  9. Regarding the question of giving meaning to mistakes, I think it is important to realize that we do, indeed, make mistakes, and the world would be better if the mistake were not made. I don't think anyone was well-served, for example, by Lauren Scruggs walking into an airplane propeller. I suppose the "meaning" of this, in an appropriationist sense, might be that she has learned to be more careful, and maybe to not be so concerned with appearances. But whatever lessons she might learn from this (assuming her brain damage isn't severe enough to prevent her from learning lessons), I highly doubt that the benefits of her learning those lessons outweigh the harm caused by this accident. Our world is not the world of Candide, and all is not for the best.

    Ultimately, I think any attempt at fitting all our past mistakes into a coherent narrative is misguided. Many mistakes we make are simply isolated errors with no larger significance to them. I'm sure we have all tripped and hurt ourselves from not watching where we were going. Hopefully we learn to be more careful when we make errors like this, but that doesn't mean it is better that we screwed up, and it doesn't make such screwups a significant part of a larger narrative.

    Where it helps to dwell on mistakes, I think, is when we make the same error repeatedly, or make many similar errors. When this happens, our errors can no longer simply be viewed as flukes, but begin to look like a larger problem with behavior or judgment. Fortunately, identifying deeper character issues is the first step toward improving one's flaws. As G.I. Joe used to say, "Knowing is 1/2 the battle."

    In your case, Brandon, I wouldn't think of going to law school as indicative of any deep-rooted issue or error in judgment. Unless you also regret going to college or pursuing philosophy, the fact that you and law did not get along does not mean you made a mistake. This is exactly the kind of thing people often learn about themselves in graduate and professional programs, and at the time it was probably the right decision.

    I would think about your experience not as trying to "make it meaningful" or part of some narrative. I would think more presently: what do I want to achieve, and how can my current skills and education help achieve those goals. So, if you want to be a law professor because there are issues in the law you want to teach and think about, then by all means use your law degree to become a law professor. Alternately, if the financial compensation of being a law professor, as compared with other career options, is enough to push you into that field, that is also legitimate.

    What I would be wary of is trying to become a law professor just to try and make your law school experience meaningful. If it wasn't for you, fine, but don't let it haunt you by causing you to pursue a career path that you otherwise wouldn't interest you. But your reasons are your own, and I am confident that you will make the decision that fits your interests.

  10. Habitual errors are certainly a good sign that there might be something worth reflecting on and possibly changing about oneself, but these aren't going to be the only times we should take a mistake as a prompt to search for some other kind of meaning. I might sometimes make mistakes so wide-reaching and puzzling ourselves that, even though it's not something I have (or perhaps even could) repeat, I am compelled to consider how I could be the kind of person to act in this way. (Stephen Morse made a similar point in a footnote of the essay we read in Erin Kelly's class years ago using an example from a Nick Hornby novel - I don't know about the example itself but the point is interesting nonetheless.)

    Also, Dustin, I find it remarkable that you warn against going into legal teaching to try to make right a past mistake, but also suggest it would be fine to go there just to make money. That motive seems much more likely to lead to unhappiness than the former, and while I'm sure someone who is attracted to legal academia only because it pays more than alternatives that are available to them might turn out to be a fantastic law professor, most people who are moved just by the money will probably be doing both themselves and their students a disservice. The same might of course be true if one was acting only to make the "mistake" of going to law school somehow right, but on this Hegelian approach to mistakes there might be various interpretations available so that you were able to choose one that did cohere with your present interests and projects.

  11. Anthony, I understand your view that $$ is not the only (or best) reason to choose a career. In an idealistic sense, I would agree, but here I think financial reality strikes home. Many (most?) individuals work just for the money. Personally, if I did not have to worry about $$, I would spend my time playing cards. Under the assumption that one of the primary reasons people work is to make money, it seems reasonable to choose a career, in part, based on the compensation one will receive. Particularly in Brandon's case, where he has enormous student loans and a law professorship would be a similar job to what philosophy makes possible for him, I (and many others I'm sure) could certainly understand him pursuing legal scholarship rather than more philosophical work for a vast increase in pay. One could think of this as the following question: "How much extra would someone have to pay you to work as a law professor rather than a philosophy professor?" For most people, at least those with large student loans, I'm guessing there is some number out there that would be convincing.

    Your critique, however, seems primarily to be that you find this position inconsistent with the view that one should not try to "make right a past mistake." I don't see these as inconsistent at all. Perhaps this is because the kind of mistake I have in mind, and the kind of mistake Brandon made (if he made one at all) is not the kind that can be righted. When I think of righting a mistake, I think of somehow reversing the harm that was done by the mistake, particularly harm caused to others. In Brandon's case, his "mistake" did not hurt anyone, except possibly himself.

    The damage to him seems to be a) wasted time, and or b) wasted $$. If the damage is merely wasted time, then it would not make sense for him to waste more time on law. If it is wasted $$, then it could make sense for him to try to improve his financial situation by using his law degree toward that end. I suppose this could be viewed as trying to right the mistake of going to law school by counteracting the damage to his finances, but I prefer to think of it in present/future terms. Choosing a legal professorship for the $$, in my view, is better seen as addressing a current problem with current resources, and that has nothing to do with trying to right a mistake. Yes, there is a causal link between Brandon's financial quagmire and his decision to attend law school (as there is for many who take that path), but becoming a law professor to pay off his debt need not have anything to do with appropriating, claiming, righting, or any other such notion. It could just be a the recognition that, "hey, I have debt. This will pay it off and easy my mind about it," which seems legitimate regardless of how the debt came to be.

  12. make that "ease my mind." I really wish there were an edit function on here...

  13. I think Bob Ross called this phenomena "happy accidents." And I think all experience, whether a mistake, success, or something in between, requires the application of meaning or reflection for it to be an "experience" at all.

  14. Thanks for all the comments. I've been dragging my feet with respect to replying. A new post is coming soon.