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Monday, 29 January 2018

Working Definitions

[This article first appeared on the School of Life blog in 2011]

“I'm a bit of a perfectionist… See, for me, it's got to be the best, or it's nothing at all. Like, if things get a bit dodgy, I just can’t be bothered.”

Spud, Trainspotting
The Journal of Modern Wisdom, a new volume of essays of which I am editor, is imperfect. And I don’t care. Don’t get me wrong: I care very much about promoting wisdom. The point is: I believe that doing so is important enough that even imperfect wisdom is better for the wellbeing of society than none at all.  
To judge by the irate emails I’ve received from a few philosophers, you’d think I was working for the Thought Police. Apparently “you can’t define wisdom” – or at least not without, bizarrely, recognizing the impossibility first. That’s funny, because contributors Richard Layard, Theodore Dalrymple, Judith Rich Harris, Stephen Bayley and David Cooper, among others (not to mention numerous lexicographers), have all had a good crack at it.  
It’s tempting to dismiss the pedants by pointing out that if you can’t define wisdom you probably can’t define ‘email’ either, so they needn’t have bothered sending me one. But that’d be to fall into the same trap. Sometimes it’s preferable and more progressive to rise above constricting debates. That, indeed, is the key idea behind the journal; along with the contention that the more intellectuals do the same, the more society as a whole will be becalmed.
Those emails remind me of the scene in Trainspotting in which Danny “Spud” Murphy attends a job interview and tries to give the impression that he wants the job (otherwise the DSS will cancel his benefits) but without actually getting it. A delicate balancing act, which he clumsily fails to pull off. “It's got to be the best, or it's nothing at all”: the joke is that Spud’s ‘perfectionism’ is as unlikely to achieve perfection as anything could be. As Winston Churchill pointed out, ‘success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm’.
If, like me, you’re a recovered philosopher, you’ll see what my analogy is getting at. The definition (oops, there I go again) of traditional philosophizing is to demand perfection, whether in knowledge or ethics or wisdom, while doing none of the usual dirty work necessary to achieve these things in the real world. Scientists get nit-picked, psychologists hen-pecked, activists scoffed at, and politicians sneered at. Anyone who rolls up his sleeves and has a go – armed only with a working definition and a working mentality – can find himself the target of cynicism from phoney perfectionists.
So let’s do some more workaday defining. ‘Spud’s law’ states that if you insist on possessing only the perfect definition of an ideal then you are significantly less likely to bring about that ideal in the real world than if you attempt to do so by means of an imperfect working definition. Let that be the rallying cry of the Journal of Modern Wisdom.

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