The Necessity of Errors

Mistakes and misunderstandings often serve to further human knowledge, finds Alex Danchev

February 2, 2012

"To err is human," said the man. John Roberts seems to think so, too. Notwithstanding his book's title, he is interested in something more than the necessity, something he calls the productiveness of error. (The term is italicised for emphasis. The Necessity of Errors is nothing if not a strenuous text.) "The embrace and inclusion of error and 'not knowing' is a constitutive part of 'knowing'. But what kind of embrace and inclusion is this? What kinds of errors and mistakes constitute knowledge and truth? What kinds of errors and mistakes are constitutive...of science, political praxis, art, philosophy and psychoanalysis? In this book I want to look...at what we might call the different theoretical and practical orders of error. For it is one thing to say that 'not-knowing' is constitutive of 'knowing', it is another to determine on what basis and under what conditions errors produce their effects across the domains of knowledge."

That is the project - "a dialectical theory of error and errancy". As the language might suggest, the proceedings are dominated by Marx, with a freight of Freud, a helping of Heidegger and a fillet of Foucault. "Humans do not fall into error - as if into a ditch, as Heidegger famously puts it - but, in their practice and thought, start from error, in so far as, Foucault says, 'error is at root what makes human thought and its history'." Unfortunately, this is as lucid as it gets. The pity of The Necessity of Errors is that it is expressed in a way that is not readily accessible. An intellectual fog settles over the inquiry, never to be dispelled. "If the error is the onto-theoretical basis of the subject and the growth of knowledge," begins chapter three, "what is the relationship between the error, consciousness, and being?" This is not a book for the onto-theoretically faint-hearted.

At the outset, Roberts distinguishes five "principal areas of errors" - the "epistemological" (in philosophy), the "veridical" (in the philosophy of science), the "lapsidian" (in psychoanalysis), the "ironic and self-ironising" (in what he insists on calling political praxis) and the "actionist" (in artistic practice) - but having done so he makes curiously little of them. Irony is not his forte.

The mode of argumentation is well illustrated by his discussion of artistic modernism as practised by Jackson Pollock, "Jack the Dripper", who Roberts sees as having one foot inside the history of painting and one foot outside. He observes: "As T.J. Clark was to say of the strategies of Pollock and this generation of modernists: 'But insofar as this "outside" has been posited as a new territory with its own rich sources of supply - what resulted was to the bourgeoisie's advantage rather than otherwise.' Now we have to be careful here: Clark's view comes freighted with a Situationist account of how bourgeois culture has consistently locked down the meanings and potentialities of modern art, while at the same time supporting the widest of artistic manifestations (as a source of its own intellectual renewal), 'locked down', in my view, being highly tendentious. Yet, nonetheless, a crucial point is being flagged up: post-war systematic anti-systematicity was to be confronted by the limits of its powers of motility and creative disorganization ... Therefore systematic anti-systematicity as a system was itself sublated by the logic of art's post-Romantic drive to autonomy..."

Just as Roberts sees Clark as guilty of being a Situationist, the cultural theorist Paul Virilio is guilty of being a conservative catastrophist and a Modernist classicist (or a classicist Modernist), to say nothing of his deplorable moralism, aestheticism and endism. Even Nicholas Rescher, author of Error: On Our Predicament When Things Go Wrong (2007), is himself in error, for his pragmatism and his pre-Hegelianism. Indeed, The Necessity of Errors is littered with the mistaken and the misled - hard-line fallibilists and falsificationists rub shoulders with authoritarian restorationists, absolutists, relativists and weak-kneed capitulationists. The pity of necessity rarely gives way to the necessity of pity.

The style of this work is the very opposite of aphoristic. Borrowing from the author's own usage, it might be called stochastic. It would surely benefit from the introduction of some different voices, Samuel Beckett, for example, who dreamed of the day "when I shall not need another hand to hold in my wrongness". Or that master of the aphorism, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, who gave the name Waste Books to his own notebooks. "To err is human," wrote Lichtenberg, as if to anticipate John Roberts, "also insofar as animals seldom or never err, or at least only the cleverest of them do so."

The Necessity of Errors

By John Roberts

Verso, 256pp, £16.99

ISBN 9781844677399

Published 7 November 2011

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