A Philosopher’s Diary, #3 — Against Perfectionism.
By Otto Paans
The descriptive sub-title of this blog — Against Professional Philosophy — originally created and rolled out in 2013, is “A Co-Authored Anarcho-Philosophical Diary.”
Now, nine years later, after more than 300, 000 views of the site, this new series, A Philosopher’s Diary, finally literally instantiates that description by featuring short monthly entries by one or another of the members of the APP circle, in order to create an ongoing collective philosophical diary that records the creative results of critical, synoptic, systematic rational reflection on any philosophical topic or topics under the sun, without any special restrictions as to content, format, or length.
This third installment, by Otto Paans, is about and against the monster of perfectionism in Life and philosophy.
Many would say that “practice makes perfect,” and that perfection is the pinnacle of achievement. To support this point of view, Michelangelo’s David, Rembrandt’s paintings, or Schubert’s late piano sonatas are habitually held up as shining examples. But the truth is: they are not perfect. They represent something that points beyond them, a barely apprehensible truth or strong affect perhaps. But they are not — and not only need not be, but also necessarily must not be — perfect.
Practice and perfection are popularly supposed to be the ingredients of that mythical achievement, mastery. One becomes a master by perfectly executing this or that art or craft. But then, if Horowitz performs a Schubert sonata, or Sokolov performs it: which one is perfect? If Horowitz plays a wrong note, then that obviously counts against perfection in the execution. But what if he grasps the artistic expression written down by Schubert with such a force that we cannot help but to be touched by it? Is that also perfection? And what if Sokolov brings out an aspect of Schubert’s composing that we did not even notice was there — is that perfection? It is mastery, so much must be admitted. But if we do so, then mastery and perfection are not straightforwardly connected. We cannot say that the more perfect a thing is executed, the more the person executing it becomes a master.
Such difficulties arise only because we popularly think of perfection as a virtue, as something to be attained. Moreover, we are accustomed to thinking about it in an unfortunately linear way, using banal examples to justify our ossified ways of thinking.
Here’s an example. The more you play piano, the more you achieve perfection, or so the conventional wisdom says. But this is a form of perfection that is entirely concerned with technical execution. You could program a robot to play the piano for you, and the execution would be flawless. And here, the hidden assumption reveals itself: when we say “perfection,” we often mean “flawlessness.”
But according to this hidden assumption, we evaluate only the technical aspect of the performance. That is, are all the notes and chords played correctly? Was the rhythm regular? Was the tempo correct?
But what about all those things that cannot be counted or measured? What about the emotion, the heartbroken chords, the life experience that shimmers through the notes? In short, what about the expressive value of the performance? Is this not also a part of perfection? Those who claim that mastery and perfection are close allies will now haste to say “of course!” But then, we end up where we were started, namely with the conclusion that mastery and perfection are not the same thing. A person may execute some action perfectly but cannot be rightly judged a master merely because of that. A strange situation! And conversely, someone may perform an action brilliantly, but not perfectly, yet still rightly be judged a master.
The truth of the matter lies somewhere else: brilliance and mastery are essentially connected, but both logically independent of perfection. When we equated perfection with flawlessness, we extinguished Life itself. And with Life (with a capital “L”), I mean that quality that animates every action, that sets it apart from mechanical repetition — in short, the practice of creative piety, which alone carries with it brilliance and mastery.[i] “Life” is that quality that stamps it as an act of expression and interpretation. If that quality is absent, we can all go home and have robots take over our jobs. If Life is absent, mere lifelessness and mechanical execution remains.
The world is profoundly interesting because of its imperfections. Do not show me the whitewashed wall, but instead the cracks in it. Do not show me that neatly trimmed lavender bush, but instead the old trunk with a few leaves on it, stubbornly clinging to life. Show me the face with the wrinkles and a complete life written on it. Show me the painting with that brush stroke that does not sit well.
What applies to the world, applies to people as well. The perfect character (the “hero”) is an ultimately boring personality. And so is the helpless princess. You could imagine those two leading a “happy” bourgeois life somewhere in suburbia. The truly interesting person is probably the “villain with a heart”, or the flawed family man, the woman with the short fuse. All these characters reflect to us what makes life profoundly interesting.
There is a parallel with heaven and hell here: heaven is an ultimately boring place. It is perfect, eternal and static. Tune your harps, please — you’ll be staying here for quite some time. Hell, on the other hand, is profoundly interesting. With some glee, we can see that disreputable bastard squirming and roasting on the grill, while in the corner over there some of the more fascinating torturing practices are carried out. Whatever originally inspired Dante, he was artistically right to start the Divine Comedy with the description of Inferno, and Milton was artistically right to make Satan the most fascinating character in Paradise Lost.
In philosophy, things fare in essentially the same way, and we can apply the “heaven-hell” analogy equally well to the state of the discipline. We have perfectionists of all kinds and they not only run the profession of academic philosophy but also ruin the discipline of real philosophy.
Here in one example: conceptual perfectionists in philosophy like to segment the world into neat little boxes. They are the storehouse employees of the human mind. Each concept on a shelf, with a date, label, and serial number. Everything that does not fit this structure is either ignored, denied, or forced into it in a Procrustean way, by chopping its legs off in order to fit into the little box.
Moral perfectionists — sanctimonious moralists — in philosophy are even worse. They go around preaching just so many gospels that will lead to a perfect world: a new heaven, if you will. Without exception, those worlds are ultimately boring, and most of them closely resemble the unsavory combination of heaven and a police state. In short, moral perfectionism, or sanctimonious moralism, naturally becomes coercive moralism. No sooner does the moral perfectionist enter the room than they are already telling others what to think, and especially what not to think, what to do, and especially what not to do, painting the spectre of imperfection in ghastly colours, and then explicitly or implicitly threatening the non-compliant with punishment — or else.
Political perfectionists in philosophy fall into this category as well. They promise Utopias with a capital “U” where all the evils of the world will be gone forever. If only you would sign on the line here, dear citizen! Or else! In their political fanaticism, they preach tolerance as the ultimate social good. And then they censor, ostracize, and punish those who disagree. All these perfect political worlds-to-come are remarkably uniform, essentially similar, and ultimately boring: little fantasy-heavens on Earth, run by the monsters of perfectionism.
Probably the worst, in some ways, are the methodological perfectionists in philosophy. Dante did not travel deep enough into hell to see where they are kept, but it is bound to be an interesting place indeed. The methodological perfectionists know “always already” how to philosophize and will not rest until everyone around them conforms to their lamentably annoying and highly restrictive standards. Rigor, argumentation, humourlessness, definitions, jargon, clarity, distinctness — all these are supposed to be the hallmarks of perfection. Note, as an aside, that all these things relate in some way or the other to professionalism, and especially to academic professionalism, the stoney-faced, stiff-necked, straitjacketed, and mind-manacling proponent of perfectionism.
If something philosophical or someone who is philosophizing does not live up to the impossibly high standards of the methodological perfectionist in philosophy, the arsenal of defamation and disapproval is unleashed. Your essay or book or discourse, after all, must be argued, rigorous, sound, clearly and distinctly presented, it must contain definitions, and it may not showcase any trace of spontaneity, let alone humor. Or else! Irony is to be avoided at all costs, on pain of being not only not tolerated but also and above all punished by the leading philosophical perfectionati.
I wonder, however, whether lack of acceptance and expulsion by such people is actually a punishment, or whether it is really a liberating blessing in disguise. Without the demand for perfection, Life itself extends in an extended play, a creative and spontaneous dynamism that is a joy to behold, and in which the static pseudo-value of perfection has no place. If we wish the world to be perfect — that is, without suffering, without pain, without sorrow, etc., etc. — then we miss the very nature of Life: it is not perfect, but instead thoroughly imperfect.
If this sounds defeatist to you, then you are drawing that conclusion too quickly. I did not state that we should sit back and never improve things incrementally, or here and there. The advances in dentistry over the last 150 years have certainly made things better for millions of patients, and so too have sewage systems, antibiotics, public transport, and streetlights all contributed to an overall better everyday and public life. But all those things only gradually and modestly — although significantly — improve everyday and public life, without perfectionist aspirations.
But once the perfectionists get their wishes granted, that is when the big problems start. Every dark corner is a dangerous place: who knows what could happen! And no sooner has the perfectionist thought of this, then they are already demanding that no darkness remains. More streetlights, they bring safety! You would not want to live in a world where people die in dark corners, now do you?
The mistake of perfectionists is that they cannot face up to and accept the imperfection of the world. In their zeal to improve it, they turn it into a little fantasy-heaven. And before you know it, Life itself has gone. Perfectionists of all stripes, especially including philosophical perfectionists: they are dangerous, precisely because their perfection is no virtue, but instead on the contrary a serious vice to be avoided whenever possible.
Back to brilliance or mastery, that pinnacle of value. Mastery, as we have seen does not consist in flawlessness. To master an art by producing brilliant works, is something different. It amounts to opening up a new perceptual dimension that a machine cannot do, but only a “human, all-too-human” animal can do. That does not mean that machine can’t provide us with amazing vistas and new ideas. We can name data visualization as an example. An algorithm can make connections and correlations tangible with an amazing accuracy and visual impact. But this is fully within the capacity of the algorithm. The effect is stunning, yes, but not unexpected and never brilliant.
And that is where brilliance or mastery comes in: it creates the “expected unexpected”. We expect to hear Beethoven’s Piano Concerto №5 to be performed, but then, the soloist opens up the work in a way that we have never experienced or expected. To equate this with perfection is to impose the cold, bleak, and technical norms of instrumental rationality in areas where these norms add nothing. To do this is a serious vice.
Life itself does not bear the mark of perfection; it is, however, full of unexpected twists and turns. This is why perfectionism, and especially philosophical perfectionism, has no place in Life, and is best regarded as a specimen for teratology — the scientific and/or philosophical study of monsters — whereby its aberrations can be carefully and dispassionately studied, but also passionately avoided. We don’t want perfectionism here, because here we are alive.
[i] See R. Hanna and O. Paans, “Creative Piety and Neo-Utopianism: Cultivating Our Global Garden,” (Unpublished MS, 2022), available online HERE.
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