Being Wrong

Intermittently over the last year, I’ve found myself fumbling around an idea about critical temporalities. That is: ideas keep moving, keep developing, even after you’ve locked them down in print or pixels. You continue developing your own ideas, one hopes, but the others who encounter your ideas also develop them as well, often in very new directions. And given how much critical development takes place in the negative (demonstrating the fundamental incorrectness of previously held ideas, as opposed to building beside or on top of those ideas), the conclusion I keep being drawn back to is that everything that we are today arguing will someday be wrong.1

On the one hand, there’s a bit of a lament in this: the half-life of an idea seems desperately short today; the gap between “that’s just crazy talk” and “that’s a form of received wisdom that must be interrogated” feels vanishingly small. How nice it would be for us to linger in that gap a little longer, to find there some comfortable space between Radical Young Turk and Reactionary Old Guard. To get to be right, just a little bit longer, before those future generations discover to a certainty just how wrong we were.

On the other hand, there’s a perverse freedom in it, and the possibility of an interesting kind of growth. If everything you write today already bears within it a future anterior in which it will have been demonstrated to be wrong, there opens up the possibility of exploring a new path, one along which we develop not just our critical audacity but also a kind of critical humility.

The use of this critical humility, in which we acknowledge the mere possibility that we might not always be right, is in no small part the space it creates for genuinely listening to the ideas that others present, really considering their possibilities even when they contradict our own thoughts on the matter.

Critical humility, however, is neither selected for nor encouraged in grad school. Quite the opposite, at least in my experience: everything in the environment of, e.g., the seminar room made being wrong impossible. Wrongness was to be avoided at all costs; ideas had to be bulletproof. And the only way to ensure one’s own fundamental rightness was to demonstrate the flaws in all the alternatives.

As a result, we were too often trained (if only unconsciously) in a method that encouraged a leap from encountering an idea to dismissing it, without taking the time inbetween to really engage with it. It’s that engagement that a real critical humility can open up: the time to discover what we might learn if we are allowed to let go, just a tiny bit, of our investment in being right.

If time inevitably makes us all wrong, maybe slowing down enough to accept our future wrongness now can help us avoid feeling embittered later on. The position of critical humility is a generous one — not just generous to those other critics whose ideas we encounter (and want to contradict) today, but to our selves both present and future as well.

It’s no accident that I’m thinking about this today, on the cusp of a new year, as I try to imagine what’s ahead and look back on what’s gone by. It’s a moment of letting go of what’s already done and cannot be changed, and of opening up to new, as yet unimagined possibilities ahead. I wish for all of us the space and the willingness to linger in that moment, even knowing how wrong we will someday inevitably have been.

  1. There is of course the possibility of tomorrow’s wrong idea being critically recuperated the day after, when those arguing its wrongness are themselves demonstrated to be wrong. But this happens much less frequently than does utter dismissal, alas.


  1. Both the strength and weakness of our Aristotelian thinking. The Hindu way which rejects any knowledge of absolutes is more intellectually satisfying but less useful as a tool for “progress” (whatever that word means.) Anyway, the older one gets, the more aware of nuances and the less inclined to pontificate he becomes. There will always be the things that we don’t know and don’t know that we don’t know. I’m seventy five; when I was twenty, things that serious historians couldn’t explain were often attributed to the Etruscans, much as the lunitic fringe attributes stuff to Atlanteans today.

  2. This is a great post, full of implications if we’re willing to think about them. Arrogance is built into our professional structures in multiple ways. I think the best challenge to our usual ways of doing business remains Jane Tompkins’s West of Everything, in which, after 200 pages of exploring the ethos of the Western, she calmly and politely points out that it’s is also the ethos of the academy. “I call your attention to a moment of righteous ecstasy, the moment when you know you have the moral advantage of your adversary, the moment of murderousness….”

    Or, in less dramatic terms, consider some of our most common rhetorical tics — for instance, the claim to “problematize.” When you say — as many of us have said! — “I’d like to problematize that familiar reading,” aren’t you very strongly suggesting that you see subtleties and complexities (“problems”) that other people have missed? In the very language is embedded a claim to superior intelligence. I wonder if we can do without that kind of thing.

  3. Enjoyed the post. As my tweet above indicates, I think this is an important topic, and I tend to share your perspective. But in keeping with the spirit of the post itself, I thought I might acknowledge a few things people could say or feel on the other side of the question.

    For one thing, it’s possible that the question of “humility” is inflected by generational politics. There are a lot of reasons why grad school might encourage polemic — but part of the story is simply that it’s a stage of the career arc where there’s a lot of material pressure to distinguish yourself from a crowd. Ten or twenty years later, it becomes easier to make tentative, synthesizing gestures, but if you do that as a grad student there’s a fear (accurate or not) that people will fail to see the novelty of your work. That’s particularly acute in the humanities right now, of course, because the job market is a full-blown paranoid dystopia.

    This might not be a purely generational issue. One could argue (people have argued) that satire or even “rage” are valid and necessary tools for points of view disenfranchised by prevailing institutions. If we followed that thread, we could get into a normative debate about what-is-or-isn’t-justified, but frankly I’m too exhausted by normative debate to want to pursue it.

    What interests me more is the part of this that may be specific to online discourse. Part of what people like about the Internet, after all, is that it permits us to *stop* acknowledging the pressure of other points of view. Interests or methodologies that are a minority in other contexts can create a space for themselves online where they don’t *have* to always be acknowledging the possibility of other perspectives — and can indulge the unfamiliar pleasure of voicing a confident, taken-for-granted, consensus.

    There’s something utopian about that, but it’s a utopia that may be at odds with the norms of academic discourse, and perhaps that’s part of what makes the academic blogosphere a conflicted space.

  4. So here it is, the New Year (2014)–and this post returns me to ideas I’ve had (in 2013 and 2012 before that) about the culture of time we’ve created and which we inhabit as thinkers in the early 21st century. And I wonder if what’s missing is the quality of (and capacity for) both meditative and contemplative discourses that have been relegated to the margins (of no time, no space). Is the problem Kathleen describes so wonderfully–a problem (or maybe it’s a need) that falls to us as a result of our having lost trace of that dimension of our critical engagement with the world that was (oh once upon a time) an essential component of our formulation of ideas that possessed, for lack of a better word, duration. Humility (on our part)? Perhaps. But something else: a lost art of thinking and, with it, the intellectual products our thinking could sustain.

  5. This is a great post on a topic I’ve been working on for some time. Have you read Thomas Docherty’s essay “On Critical Humility”? It says some similar things about stepping back from the idea of “masterful” readings of texts, and acknowledging the limits of our control.


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