Philosophy and Failure

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Plato Some philosophers are nearly unanimously considered great. Plato, Aristotle, and Kant make the short list. But that happy unanimity does not persist when the question is which is right. Of these three, at most one is. Likely none is. And so it is appropriate to ask: How can we consider someone to be a great philosopher yet mostly wrong? By many lights, Plato was wrong about ethics, politics, knowledge, and the basic structure of reality. That is, Plato was wrong on most of the big questions that philosophers try to answer. Yet Plato was a great philosopher. Why?

Some demur. They contend that the only great philosophers are those who get things right; consequently, they hold that being wrong on the big questions disqualifies a philosopher for greatness. Those who take this position tend see another philosopher as getting things right only when that philosopher agrees with their own views. They thus recognize no opponent to their views as being philosophically great. How convenient.

It is, of course, an error not to recognize that there are varieties of intelligent challenges and alternatives to even the best philosophical views. For every great philosophical idea, there is usually a great philosophical opponent. An education in philosophy is comprised not only of knowing those alternatives, but of acquiring the skill of navigating the tensions between views, and of seeing that there can be philosophical value in error. To see philosophical greatness as consistent with demonstrable error is the mark of philosophical maturity.

Richard Gale’s recent book, John Dewey’s Quest for Unity (Prometheus, 2010), is a model of this kind of maturity. We’ve separately reviewed the book elsewhere (Aikin HERE, Talisse forthcoming HERE), and though we’ve disagreed with some of Gale’s substantive contentions, we hold his book to embody the ethic of critical respect essential to philosophy done well.

Read more »