31 May 2007

Fruitless vs. Fruitful Mistakes

"That's a seriously mistaken view. It will set scholarship back for years as people try to argue against it."

--So spoke a friend as regards the most controversial thesis in a then recently published book on Aristotle by a very prominent scholar.

Perhaps under the influence still of Popper from my undergraduate years, I was taken aback by his remark. (Popper, you will recall, held that Zeno's paradoxes were among the most important ideas ever put forward by philosophers, since they inspired so many refutations--an unsurprising view for someone who held that science proceeds largely through falsification.)

Isn't it always worthwhile to put forward an interesting idea?, I thought to myself after he spoke. If that scholar's thesis--sharply formulated and controversial--generates attention and discussion, isn't that all for the better?

I couldn't understand my friend's view then, but I think I do now. Surely there can be fruitless as well as fruitful mistakes. Can't a scholarly community take a wrong turn in its discussion, just as an individual can in his research? (And by a "wrong turn" I mean one looks back and thinks that the time was simply wasted.) Doesn't it at least sometimes happen that considerations of soundness and truth outweigh those of ingenuity and originality?

Furthermore, as regards a major scholar in particular: Doesn't he have a responsibility simply to get things right? To the extent that a scholar has prominence, to that extent he is something of a leader: Can he be reproached, then, if he leads a community of scholars down a false path, just as a political leader can be reproached for a bad decision, even if made with the best of intentions?

My thoughts have turned in this direction as a result of reading Luc Brisson's contribution to OSAP XXVIII (which I am reviewing), "Ethics and Politics in Plato's Laws", which is a reply to Chris Bobonich's Plato's Utopia Recast. It's no surprise to readers of this blog that I find Bobonich's book to be misguided (see e.g. here and here). But is it misguided in a fruitful way? Have the various replies and critiques directed against it, such as Brisson's essay, led to new and genuinely sound insights, which would likely not have been achieved but for the putting forward of the mistaken idea that needed correction?

I'll say something more about this in my next couple of posts.