Saturday, December 12, 2009

Kill the Definition of Insanity

Posted By on December 12, 2009, 10:11 AM

"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results."

Argh! This timeworn chestnut is favored by opinionated blockheads throughout the English-speaking world. It pops up again and again and fills me with despair every time I read it. ---

As cliches go, it’s as deadly and mind-numbing as anything you’ll find in a 12-step program -- and, to add insult to injury, this travesty of logic and syntax is often falsely attributed to geniuses like Albert Einstein and Ben Franklin.

Its faults are so numerous, it’s difficult to list all of them.

Definition?

For one thing, “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” is not a definition. Definitions don’t work that way.

It doesn’t describe any conditions or attributes that are both sufficient and necessary to classify something as “insane”.  Nor does it enumerate the members of any class of “insane” objects.

“Doing the same thing over and over …” is just a gerund phrase describing a particular mode of behavior. At best, can serve as an example: Even if some form of mental illness were to manifest itself in the expectation of various outcomes from identical trials, there are lots more ways to go nuts. And vive la différence!

What's Wrong With "Different Results"?

Not only that, but what’s so insane about expecting “different results”? No matter how carefully you replicate an action, there are so many variables -- time, place, circumstance -- it really would be insanity to think any strategy would succeed or fail every single time. You can’t step in the same river twice.

Fly fishermen spend hours at a time casting their lures over and over again into a spot in that same river -- and, yes, it’s a boring sport and mostly they don’t catch anything. But the ways of fish are mysterious, and once in a while fishermen experience a different result: a fish bites.

I’m not saying fly fishermen aren’t insane, necessarily -- I’m just saying that their insanity cannot be judged according to the so-called “definition of insanity.”

Will this hoary old saying never die? Can’t we agree, once and for all, to put it to rest?

Please: Let’s find a better definition of insanity before this one drives us all crazy.

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