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We have always been wrong: Thomas Browne on the inescapability of error

Datum:04 mei 2018
Auteur:Laura Georgescu
From The Whole Blooming Family, George McManus, 1916
From The Whole Blooming Family, George McManus, 1916

Man errs. And, indeed, man cannot not err… because man is, fundamentally and unavoidably, of a “deceptible condition”, which is the “common infirmity of human nature” and the “first and father cause of common error”. This is the warning that sir Thomas Browne gives in the opening sentence of the first chapter of his Pseudodoxia epidemica (1646)*. According to Browne, man is the subject of deception, man deceives, and, most importantly, man self-deceives**: this is the ultimate cause of superstition, of cognitive impairment, epistemic limitation, referential failure, and falsity, such that man is almost always already one step into “missapprehension, fallacy or false deduction, credulity, supinity, adherence unto Antiquity, Tradition and Authority” (11).

The “ways of error are boundless, and confess no circumscription”, such that we “are almost lost in its dissemination”, and error inadvertently creeps into our epistemic acts and our attempts to advance knowledge. Error will incessantly make itself known in our quests for advancing knowledge – regardless of how much we safeguard against it. But....We could cultivate our minds! We could proceed cautiously! Of course: one should cultivate one’s mind – Browne’s Pseudodoxia itself has this aim. Other philosophers (perhaps Descartes, perhaps Spinoza) took geometry and the deduction it involved to be conducive to error-free inquiry. Bacon might have thought that experimental art is the answer. But, for Browne, all this just treats the symptoms; it does not cure the disease.

Of course, cautiousness is necessary, but it is hardly sufficient. After all, when does one know one was cautious enough? Is it sufficient to just follow methodological protocols, or to rely on the rules of logic or geometry? That’s all well and good, but humans are of a “deceptible condition”! Sure, checks and balances for any project of the advancement of knowledge are needed (careful scrutiny of sources, a skeptical attitude towards testimony, experimental verification, and so on), but the illusion that such checks and balances will keep us safe from our own innate condition is once again an expression of the deceptible condition itself. No effort, singular or concerted, will eradicate error: there can be no global eradication, or eradications, of error. The dream of such a possibility is itself a result of our deceptible condition. The attempt to avoid error is a moral and epistemic duty, but error itself is ultimately inescapable.

The pervasiveness of error, and its wide variety of manifestations, suggests that no single, simplified method to advance knowledge is sufficient. Browne’s Pseudodoxia (published after Bacon’s Advancement of learning (1605) and the New Organon (1620), and indebted to Bacon’s work on the idols of the mind and to the general project of the advancement of knowledge) is a radicalisation of the Baconian program: for Browne, it is not sufficient to devise (methodological, experimental, ethical…) tools to avoid falsity, as Bacon proposed; what is needed is a discipline that constantly reflects on, examines, and disentangles the general and local causes of error. We need a discipline dedicated to the study of error. This is the project of the Pseudodoxia. Browne’s approach is to construct a critical 'encyclopaedia' of errors. Thus, he starts by investigating the innate “infirmity” of human nature, and moves on to the errors of human interaction, and then to errors in knowledge itself, and in specific fields of knowledge. But, as with any encyclopaedic project, which requires constant revision, and because of the cause of error itself, Pseudodoxia never pretends to provide an exhaustive survey of errors; it will have to be reiterated, annotated, and corrected for as long as man will strive to know.

All in all, Browne’s Pseudodoxia wants us to swallow the bitter pill of the constant unavoidableness of error. But we don’t exactly seem ready to do so – for one thing, a quick survey of recent work on Pseudodoxia (e.g. Preston 2005, Mori 2015, Iannaccaro 2017) shows a surprising determination to find in the text a cure, of some kind, for error. This is perhaps also a good indication as to how hard we fight against the image of man as forever epistemically weak, and how much we want to retreat into “method” as a way to prevent or to repair epistemic weakness. 

But, for Browne, there is no safe retreat: human error is not the result of the Fall; human “deceptibility” is the condition that made the Fall possible. The possibility of error was already there, already innate in the Adamic man. Man was always going to err and betray his reason. And man did, even before the Fall, Browne argues. The Fall does not show how the Devil deceived man, or that the Devil is the source of deception. The most important lesson of the myth is that man was “deluded before the fall” (4). Examining the Biblical text allows one to identify the ways in which man had already erred before falling into temptation, to identify the conditions that make error possible (both before and after the Fall), to show that the ultimate source of deception is in humanity itself.***

Deception creeps in in a multitude of ways: the deception of the senses, deception in the power struggle (the stronger unto the weaker, i.e. Satan unto Eve, but also the weaker unto the stronger, Eve unto Adam), deception of self-evaluation (Eve failing to see that the promise of being like gods is an illusion since man was already like a God), deception despite having knowledge (since Adam “was not ignorant of the fall of the angels, and had thereby example and punishment to deter him”), deception by interpretation, deception from “within their own apprehension”, such that men “transgressed the rule of their own reason, and after, the commandment of God” (2), and the list goes on.

Browne’s point I take it, is to show that, even without the devil’s deception, “from the transgressive infirmities of himself [man] might have erred alone”. After all, man’s conceptions could have been deceitful, and “if the conceptions were deceitful”, then man “could scarce speak without an error after” (4). All of this indicates that there is no chance of (epistemic) redemption, since “we derive our being, and the several wounds of our constitution” from the “first and ingenerated forefathers” (2): to err is such a wound of constitution; it is an effect of having been created.

Is there a silver lining to Browne’s philosophy of error? There are many, I’d say, and I’ll finish by pointing out a few wonderfully redemptive ones.

  1. Knowledge is endless: it cannot be exhausted, precisely because it will always be interspersed with error.
  2. The past gains value because it teaches how and why we err (a strategy which Browne himself makes use of in the Pseudodoxia): it helps us in the project of cultivating the mind, such that we can foster the project of advancing knowledge.****
  3. Among the many checks and balances developed to deter error locally, Browne, in a few places, highlights conversation and cooperation as engines of an epistemic exchange more likely to be conducive to truth. It is not through some authoritative and sovereign method that we are best diverted from error, but in discourse. In his own words:

we are not magisterial in opinion, nor have we dictator like obtruded our conceptions […]. And we shall so far encourage contradiction […] that shall only lay hold of our lapses, single out digressions, corollaries, or ornamental conceptions, to evidence his own in as indifferent truths. And shall only take notice of such, whose experimental and judicious knowledge shall solemnly look unto it; not only to destroy of ours, but to establish of his own; not to traduce or extenuate, but to explain and dilucidate, to add and ampliate, according to the laudable custom of the ancients in their sober promotions of learning. Unto whom nothwistanding, we shall not contentiosuly rejoin, or only to justify our own, but to applaud or confirm his maturer assertions; […] if any way, or under any name, we may obtain a work, so much desired, and yet desiderated, of truth.

* Treatises on “vulgar error” were a genre unto themselves at the time, and there hasn’t yet been a study of the extent to which Browne’s Pseudodoxia fits, or departs from, this genre. 

** I’m not going to go into the conceptual relation between error and deception here. But, do notice that, in relating deception to error, Browne is not willing to neatly separate the epistemic and the moral. They run together, for him, in a complex and at times confusing relation.

*** For Browne, reason and faith are blended together: God is the cause of everything created, including reason such that faith can aid and perhaps even perfect the workings of reason.

**** This does appear to turn the past into a resource to be exploited, which might seem a somewhat unhappy position.


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