In the shadow of error

I’ve currently been reading Enlightenment aberrations: error and revolution in France by David William Bates. It’s rather interesting. I’ve only gotten through a fraction of it, but so far it’s full of wonderful myths and dramatic perceptions on the notion of error. I’m not sure if I’ve already discussed the fact that the latin root of error, errare, meant “to go off track”, or “to walk at random”, and in 16th Century France, erreur meant “a voyage involving adventures”. In it’s original sense, error had a much more physical definition than the psychological connection to truth we attribute to it today.

During the Enlightenment period fanciful maps were redrawn to be more rational and grid-like

It wasn’t until 17th Century France that erreur began to be connected to the mind, defined as “taking true or false, illusion, mistake” while simultaneously being employed to mean “a vagabonde of the imagination, of the mind that is not subject to any rule.” And it was around this time that the enlightenment philosophers became obsessed with error. They were slightly preoccupied with sensory experience and fantasy as clouding reason and logic. They talked of error as the darker side of understanding; the light of reason and the shadow of error.

A certain Baron D’Holbach, in his Systeme de la Nature, wrote of how errors should be considered more than just obstacles or veils as they were more like ghostlike forms of truth and therefore highly deceptive. Errors did not just refract or obscure light but imitated it. It was compared to feux follets (foolish lights), or Will-o’-the-wisps, lights that were created by phosphorescent particles in the air that appeared to weary travellers at night. These travellers, thinking the lights came from a nearby house or town, would be led off the beaten track, and, in most cases, befall a boggy tomb.

Flammarion, L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire (1888, p.749). via

Later on, the necessity of error was argued to be a necessary misleading on the path to truth.

‘Men have to pass through a thousand errors before arriving at the truth… [and]… like the truths that perfect and enlighten the human mind, errors are the necessary result of its activity.’

So said the french economist, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, in his (not her) discourses at Sorbonne in 1750.

So where is this all leading? Well this does link quite well to my ljuraljud idea, which is more focused on sound misleading someone. But it would be nice to try this with light as well. Lights that mislead you in the city towards new truths. Sounds quite poetic.