To Err, and to Transcend Errors

The maxim “to err is human” expresses pithily the philosophical position known as fallibilism. For the everyday human being, however, to recognize that people are fallible does not provide him with any guidance on what to do when he himself makes a mistake. Indeed, fallibilism may even seem to engender nihilism, because if humans are doomed to err, then any efforts to perfect life or to achieve enlightenment must be doomed to fail. But the impossibility of perfecting life or achieving enlightenment are not grounds for nihilism. Such aims seem attractive in the abstract because life is full of problems and attaining “perfection” or “enlightenment” implies attainment of a state in which all problems are solved. Yet such a state would be a hell for humans if humans could exist in it. (Arguably, humans could not exist in it, because the concept of error is implicit in certain attributes regarded as quintessentially human, which means that imagining humans existing in an error-free state is paradoxical.) Error, the principal concept of fallibilism, may have negative connotations, but it has distinctly positive philosophical implications. For it is our mistakes, our shortcomings, that confer on us the opportunity to create meaningful lives: to solve problems and to transcend our errors. A world without error is a world without joy. And to designate a joyless state “perfect” or “enlightened” is straightforwardly perverse. So, for a maxim that serves, not only as a reassurance in the face of error, but also as a guide toward a rational and joyful life in an error-filled world, we might augment the old maxim as such: “to err, and to transcend errors, is human”.

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