The University of Sussex

Failure is not the spur

Margaret A. Boden

An ill-defined system is one with respect to which some prima facie appropriate theoretical description is not suitable, because it treats the system as being more well-defined in a specific respect than it really is. One way in which the mind is an ill-defined system is that its adaptation is not initiated and controlled primarily by response to failure. The concept of failure is not appropriate to all intelligent behaviour, because it implies an attempt to achieve some specific goal: one can always sensibly ask "Failure to do what?". But organisms do not always aim at a specific goal. Rather, their behaviour is often spontaneously exploratory in nature. Adaptation thus has to be conceptualized in terms of some sort of creative urge. This should be thought of as an essentially structured phenomenon, whereby formal potentialities are explored and/or radically transformed, and the results evaluated for their usefulness or interest.


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