A Short Note on Errancy

Tuesday February 24, 2009

Map of Sumatra

If inerrancy is indeed a virtue (and I’m not sure it is), it is certainly not one of the virtues of which I can be accused. If I was pressed to make a choice, I would usually prefer suppleness of thought to rectitude of thought, and this is reflected by the “wayward” in the tagline of this blog. Perhaps it is for this very reason that I can be found these days not in a philosophy department but in a department of creative writing. When I read – whether I’m reading philosophy, Buddhist texts or anything else – I tend to do so as a writer, as a lover of stories and poems and words and language. And perhaps this is also why I spend rather more time working on writing for this blog than I do writing academic articles for obscure journals, however unseemly this may seem to some of my more upright academic colleagues. Writing blog posts is a liberation from the burden of having to always, at all times and in all places, be right, and when liberated from this burden, it is possible to enjoy once again what might be called the sensuality of language and of thought. Academic articles often come with arguments so well defended (note the martial imagery) that they are about as sensual as grumpy porcupines. Without claims to authority, with a sense of discovery and exploration, pushing towards ideas that are not yet fully formed, occasinally foolish, frequently misinformed, always partially informed: this, it seems to me, is the kind of writing that is possible whilst blogging.

Wandering, waywardness and errancy are much underrated. For most of my education, errancy was considered as something to be stamped out, something to be avoided at all costs. In the classroom, back at school (and even now, in the conference room) it was always better to be silent than to be wrong. But errancy is absolutely central to thinking, which tends to dessicate unless it allows a certain kind of wandering; and wandering, as Michel Serres writes in The Troubadour of Knowledge, “includes the risk of error and distraction”.

No wonder, then, that the drive for efficiency, for the fastest route between two points, for absolute inerrancy, has led to severe consequences in the education system in the UK. As the Guardian newspaper reports on the recent Cambridge review of education, “Learning that requires time for talking, problem solving and exploring ideas is sacrificed for […] a ‘memorisation and recall’ style of learning”, leading to the decline of “natural curiosity, imagination and love of learning.”

To err may be human, perhaps. But perhaps this should not be understood as a complaint about all that is wrong with us. Instead it could be seen as a recognition that we are creatures who are continually questing, who have curiosity born in us from the very beginning (unless it is killed by our education or our circumstances or the manufactured stultifying stupidity of certain parts of the media), who are capable of bringing about newness, of creating, precisely because we are capable of wandering. “No learning,” Serres writes, “can avoid the voyage.” What if errancy wasn’t a fault, but was instead the lifeblood of learning, of knowledge and of creation?

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#1 · Josh

26 February 2009

What’s frustrating to me is that the problem talked about by the Guardian you mentioned has been on the radar and solvable since at least 1964 (see en.wikipedia.org/wik… )… why are we STILL arguing about this, doing the same things we’ve always done, and fretting over the results?

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