The New York Times, December 15, 2013
If there was ever a time to think seriously about failure, it is now.
Costica Bradatan is an associate professor in the Honors College at Texas Tech University and the religion and comparative studies editor for The Los Angeles Review of Books. He is the author of the forthcoming Dying for Ideas. The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers.”
We are firmly in an era of accelerated progress. We are witness to advancements in science, the arts, technology, medicine and nearly all forms of human achievement at a rate never seen before. We know more about the workings of the human brain and of distant galaxies than our ancestors could imagine. The design of a superior kind of human being – healthier, stronger, smarter, more handsome, more enduring – seems to be in the works. Even immortality may now appear feasible, a possible outcome of better and better biological engineering.
Certainly the promise of continual human progress and improvement is alluring. But there is a danger there, too — that in this more perfect future, failure will become obsolete.
Why should we care? And more specifically, why should philosophy care about failure? Doesn’t it have better things to do? The answer is simple: Philosophy is in the best position to address failure because it knows it intimately. The history of Western philosophy at least is nothing but a long succession of failures, if productive and fascinating ones. Any major philosopher typically asserts herself by addressing the “failures,” “errors,” “fallacies” or “naiveties” of other philosophers, only to be, in turn, dismissed by others as yet another failure. Every new philosophical generation takes it as its duty to point out the failures of the previous one; it is as though, no matter what it does, philosophy is doomed to fail. Yet from failure to failure, it has thrived over the centuries. As Emmanuel Levinas memorably put it (in an interview with Richard Kearney), “the best thing about philosophy is that it fails.” Failure, it seems, is what philosophy feeds on, what keeps it alive. As it were, philosophy succeeds only in so far as it fails.
So, allow me to make a case for the importance of failure.
Failure is significant for several reasons. I’d like to discuss three of them.
Failure allows us to see our existence in its naked condition.
Whenever it occurs, failure reveals just how close our existence is to its opposite. Out of our survival instinct, or plain sightlessness, we tend to see the world as a solid, reliable, even indestructible place. And we find it extremely difficult to conceive of that world existing without us. “It is entirely impossible for a thinking being to think of its own non-existence, of the termination of its thinking and life,” observed Goethe. Self-deceived as we are, we forget how close to not being we always are. The failure of, say, a plane engine could be more than enough to put an end to everything; even a falling rock or a car’s faulty brakes can do the job. And while it may not be always fatal, failure always carries with it a certain degree of existential threat.
Failure is the sudden irruption of nothingness into the midst of existence. To experience failure is to start seeing the cracks in the fabric of being, and that’s precisely the moment when, properly digested, failure turns out to be a blessing in disguise. For it is this lurking, constant threat that should make us aware of the extraordinariness of our being: the miracle that we exist at all when there is no reason that we should. Knowing that gives us some dignity.
In this role, failure also possesses a distinct therapeutic function. Most of us (the most self-aware or enlightened excepted) suffer chronically from a poor adjustment to existence; we compulsively fancy ourselves much more important than we are and behave as though the world exists only for our sake; in our worst moments, we place ourselves like infants at the center of everything and expect the rest of the universe to be always at our service. We insatiably devour other species, denude the planet of life and fill it with trash. Failure could be a medicine against such arrogance and hubris, as it often brings humility.
Our capacity to fail is essential to what we are.
We need to preserve, cultivate, even treasure this capacity. It is crucial that we remain fundamentally imperfect, incomplete, erring creatures; in other words, that there is always a gap left between what we are and what we can be. Whatever human accomplishments there have been in history, they have been possible precisely because of this empty space. It is within this interval that people, individuals as well as communities, can accomplish anything. Not that we’ve turned suddenly into something better; we remain the same weak, faulty material. But the spectacle of our shortcomings can be so unbearable that sometimes it shames us into doing a little good. Ironically, it is the struggle with our own failings that may bring the best in us… [+]