An Appropriate Corrective

The issue of “getting it right” is an important one in human life.  This notion of “right” however, can be interpreted in a number of different ways, and it makes a great deal of difference how we understand this notion.  It makes all the difference whether we “get it right” about “getting it right.”

If you give the clerk a $10 bill for an article that costs $3.99, the right change for you to receive is $6.01.  If the clerk gives you $7.01 or $5.51, he has given you the wrong amount.  In our small, day-to-day transactions, we often don’t notice or care about small mistakes like these.  The same mistake in a larger transaction, however, makes a big difference.  If the bank claims that I still owe them $70,100 dollars after I pay off $39,900 on my hundred-thousand dollar debt, that is a serious error.  Fortunately, mathematics is there to guarantee unambiguously that the bank made a mistake, and it will thus be easy to demonstrate to the bank or anyone else concerned that the numbers need to be adjusted.

(Incidentally, we shouldn’t be fooled by this issue of large and small transactions.  In our day-to-day transactions, we often don’t care about a few cents missed here or there, but such matters of “small change” are in fact what astute business types rely upon to make fortunes.  A single text message may only cost you a nickel, but that amount, which seems negligible when taken in isolation, is in fact added to a pile of millions and millions of other such small amounts, and it makes the phone company rich.  You may consider a few pennies here and there “nothing,” but the phone company knows better.  Similarly, the same bank that is responsible for calculating the state of your hundred-thousand dollar debt properly is, like the phone company, intensely attentive to the exact details of number, such that they calculate the exchange rate of a foreign currency to many decimal places: when they calculate the exchange on your U.S. currency, they do it precisely, not confusing an exchange rate of .98457 with a rate of .98332, though both are just “98 cents” to you.)

In the case of such quantitative relations, it is clear what “getting it right” means, and, as we have seen, it is important to be mathematically precise.  The same thing can be said of logic.  Rather than dealing with number, logic deals with the relationship between claims.  If I assert that “I will be there tomorrow unless it rains,” then I have committed myself to being there even if I break a leg or have a better offer from a better friend, provided tomorrow is not a rainy day.  Of course, saying that I will be there doesn’t entail that I will be, but if I make this claim and then don’t show up I will correctly be criticized by my friends as someone whose word cannot be trusted.

In mathematics and logic, we have a clear version of what “getting it right” means.  But though this is perhaps our clearest and most simple vision of “right,” it is neither the only one nor the most important one.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this interpretation of “getting it right”; what is wrong is that this most “obvious” vision of “right” gets imported by us into other contexts where it is not appropriate.

In matters of skill, judgment, and art, the norm of “right” still operates, but “right” in these contexts is not a matter of the “correctness” that pertains in mathematical and logical relations.

A skilled practitioner—a carpenter, perhaps, or a tailor, or a cyclist—knows “how to do it right” when cutting the wood or the cloth, or when pedalling or stopping.  None of these practices, however, is a matter of counting the right number or establishing the correct relation of premise and conclusion.  Relations of mathematics and logic are abstract in the sense that they are rules that apply unambiguously regardless of the circumstance to which they are applied.  The practices of carpentry, tailoring and cycling, however, are not matters of working out the correct form of abstract relation, but are matters of engaging with the unique specificity of this wood and this chisel, this cotton fabric, this bumpy road.  In each case, the skilled practitioner has the educated “touch” that allows her to be responsive to the specificity and to act in a way that is appropriate.

“The appropriate” is not the same as “the correct.”  Both are matters of “getting it right,” but doing what is appropriate is far more demanding that identifying what is correct.  Furthermore, there are no guarantees when trying to do what is appropriate, for one must exercise judgment—one’s active and meaningful engagement is essential and formative of the situation—and therefore one can fail.  Matters of correctness come with a guarantee of exactitude, but this guarantee is won by at the price of a criterion of “right” that is far less meaningful, far less informative about the situation, and far less relevant to our actions.

Indeed, this notion of judgment is one of the most important in human life.  It is good interpersonal judgment, not mathematical correctness, that will allow one to maintain one’s marriage when dealing with matters of money, or when responding to one’s partner’s sentences.  It is good pedagogical judgment, not a mathematically correct knowledge of the textbook, that will allow one to teach effectively.  It is good hosting judgment, not a mathematically correct knowledge of the practices recommended by “Good Housekeeping,” that will allow one to throw a great party.

Something similar is true in matters of art.  It is good artistic judgment and good taste that will allow one to “get it right” musically or sculpturally.  Though the textbooks correctly indicate that any note of the Dorian mode may be played over a iim7 chord, a good musician relying upon her highly developed musical sense will make a better choice of which note to play than a novice practitioner who relies upon the rule.  The note the novice plays is correct, but it is when the musician plays that we find drawn out of us the recognition that that was “just the right note” for the situation.

Rules of mathematics and logic are crucial to the successful navigation of adult life.  And they are not absent from matters of carpentry, communication or music—indeed, it is virtually impossible to be successful in any of these areas without having embraced the norm of “correctness” at various levels, and having learned to interpret practical, interpersonal or musical situations correctly.  It is also crucial, though, to recognize that correctness is quite a weak criterion of what is right, and that “getting it right” in all important affairs is fundamentally matter of judgment, that is to say, it requires a highly developed responsiveness, which is something that comes only with education and a highly cultivated attitude of caring for the situation in which one is engaged.

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  1. Anton
    Posted March 27, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if this might also be given the tag, “rules,” in that a good technical understanding of available “correct” choices (delineated by rules) might be drawn upon in their application, using one’s judgement. A musician, as you say, a choice of correct notes. A painter, a palette of suitable colours and so on.

    As a master carpenter might say to an apprentice, “First you get good, then you get fast.”

    • Anton
      Posted March 27, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

      and by “fast” I’m saying, metaphorically, “creative.”

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The Toronto Seminar

I am deeply committed to the idea that philosophy is a cooperative activity and an inherently fulfilling one. For this reason, I encourage activities of philosophical study in which, through conversation, a community develops in which each participant experiences her or his thinking to be elevated beyond the level she or he could achieve alone, and in which study and social life are closely interwoven.

Since 2003, I have run an annual summer seminar in philosophy. Each year, roughly 25 invited participants-primarily faculty members and Ph.D. students from universities across North America-gather for roughly one week of intense, group study of a major text from the history of philosophy. Participants meet twice daily for sessions of highly focused discussion of the text and the issues it raises. When not studying in preparation for the meetings, seminar participants also socialize together, generally taking advantage of Toronto's outstanding, multicultural dining opportunities, and taking part in Toronto's vibrant and varied live music scene. Participants in these seminars consistently have the experience of growth in their conversation and conceptual abilities, and typically leave with a transformed sense of the nature and possibilities of philosophy.

Throughout the year, I also often lead smaller private seminars, specially oriented to graduate students, on various texts and topics in the history of philosophy.

Music, along with the other creative arts, is one of the most profound ways in which people express and define the distinctive character of human life. Composing, performing, and listening to music are some of the most fulfilling of our experiences. Listening offers us the opportunity for the sensuous pleasure of listening and moving (in dance), for emotional self-expression, and for bonding with others in shared enthusiasm. Performing brings with it the demands and rewards of communication and cooperation-with band-members and with audience-and supports the development and deployment of highly-refined bodily and expressive skills. Composing can be a powerful intellectual and cultural practice, offering one a route into participating in the rich historical and multicultural traditions of musical expression. Engaging with music, like engaging with philosophy, touches us in every dimension-bodily, emotional, intellectual, interpersonal, cultural, spiritual-of our experience.

My own personal path into music has involved me in the study of jazz music in particular, and since 2005 I have performed regularly in Toronto as a guitarist with my own band, the John Russon Quartet. The band (with the outstanding musicians Nick Fraser, Mike Milligan, and Chris Gale on drums, bass, and saxophone respectively, and, on special occasions, with Tom Richards joining us on trombone) performs my original compositions, as well as interpreting the standard tunes of the jazz repertoire and experimenting with free improvisation. We have just (August 2011) gone into the studio to record our first CD, and it should be available in a few months. It has also been, and continues to be, a major project of mine to develop a community of jazz enthusiasts who will carry on the tradition of appreciating live musical performance in general and jazz music in particular in this age in which recording, downloading, and dj-ing have come to define "music" for most people.

I think of both philosophy and music as communal practices first and foremost, and I regularly try to design community activities involving either or both. Currently, I am organizing one series in downtown Toronto.

"Story and Song Night" is a once-a-month event in which a speaker narrates one of the great stories from the world's religious traditions. Stories are among the oldest and most basic of our ways of telling ourselves and each other who we are as people, and the ancient stories that have been handed down for generations remain powerful and provocative resources for thinking about ourselves and our lives. On the fourth Tuesday of each month, a speaker narrates a story she or he has found personally meaningful, and this is followed first by group discussion and then by a set of live music performed by some of the best of Toronto's musicians. The event is hosted by Naco Gallery Cafe (1665 Dundas St. W.).