Nassim Taleb On What It Means To Be A Philosopher, The Importance Of Antimodels, Words With Bravado, And The Unknown

Nassim Nicholas Taleb tells you not to read anything from the past hundred years. The degree to which one should follow this advice, however, is unclear—if only for the fact that Nassim was born in 1960. He is most known for his book The Black Swan, but others may know him for his occupation (flâneur1), controversial mindspeak, or battles with public figures (e.g., Greenspan, Pinker, Harris). He has written a lot over the years—primarily in the form of essays2—but people have fallen in love with his work (and him, it seems) through his books, Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, Antifragile (my favourite thus far), and Bed of Procrustes.

Just about to be released in his new book, Skin In The Game. The title itself is just revealing enough to tickle ones curiosity: the phrase ’skin in the game’ refers to the idea that if you are going to play a game, make sure you are putting something on the line—otherwise you can cheat, half-ass and bail-out. Of course, the term ‘game’ is a vague one; skin in the game applies to business, relationships, learning—everything.

But it is his book of aphorisms that is the subject of this article. Bed of Procrustes, first released in 2010, is a collection of Nietzscheanesque soundbites—well, soundbites is quite the understatement, and one that Nassim wouldn’t label his work; one-two sentence explosions of wisdom maybe an overstatement, but it is certainly more accurate.

The length of the book is misleading. At 176 pages (paperback), the first though it ahh, yes, short, quick read — but you would be very wrong. For this is a book of aphorisms, which you can think of as sayings, adages, axioms, collections, distilled wisdom; they typically consist of one or two sentences of observations from life, and refer to general or universal truths.3 One definition from the Oxford Dictionary is ‘a pithy observation which contains a general truth’. Nassim, in the Postface, says this about them:

They carry the cognitive compactness of the sound bite (though both more potent and more elegant than today’s down-market version), with some show of bravado in the ability of the author to compress powerful ideas in a handful of words—particularly in an oral format.

And he goes on to elaborate on his use of the word ‘bravado’:

Indeed, it had to be bravado, because the Arabic word for an improvised one-liner is “act of manliness,” though such a notion of “manliness” is less gender-driven than it sounds and can be equally translated as “the skills of being human” (virtue has the same roots in Latin, vir, “man”). As if those who could produce powerful thoughts in such a way were invested with talismanic powers.

Many people either dislike aphorisms (this is what turns some people off about Nietzsche) or totally miss the point. Like poetry, aphorisms force you to think about what you are reading; you must slow down, pause, ponder, imagine—think laterally—in order to grasp what is being said (or just a tad of it, in some cases). You can read them fast, but this usually means two things: mediocre aphorisms and/or bad reading. If the aphorisms are worth their salt, you can’t read them fast; and if you do you are cheating yourself; but even if they are bad you should still read them carefully, for it is often the bad, ugly, and the failures that teach us the most. In fact, one of Nassim’s aphorisms is

Sadly, we learn the most from fools, economists, and other reverse role models, yet we pay them back with the worst ingratitude.

This speaks of one of Nassim’s key ideas: that the failures of entrepreneurs, for example, whilst being bad for the individual, are great for everyone else, because they know exactly what they must avoid. Another Aphorism is about how the growth of knowledge is actually a process of subtraction:

Knowledge is subtractive, not additive—what we subtract (reduction by what does not work, what not to do), not what we add (what to do).

—the marginal note to which is ‘the best way to spot a charlatan: someone (like a consultant or a stockbroker) who tells you what to do instead of what not to do.’

It seems the way we’re inclined to think about knowledge, is backwards.

What follows are a several of the aphorisms that hit a nerve with me. I read this book slowly, as I think you should if you pick it up; the aphorisms of Nietzsche, the same. I would also add the poetry of Goethe to this; as would I another magnificent book of poetry, The Prophet, which I was happy to see mentioned by Nassim in the Postface. These books of poetry, as with all great poetry, are essentially aphoristic bibles: they stack truth on top of truth, connecting the dots, and deliver wisdom in the form of beautiful story. What people don’t seem to realise about poetry is that the value is in the struggle to understand.

Before I move onto those that struck me, it is important to know that because the author rarely elaborates on the aphorism, the interpretation is left to the reader. This is exactly the point of the aphorism, of course, but it also increases the risk of the original message being lost in translation. There is a cost for everything, and this is the (potentially) very high cost that the author pays for the aphoristic style; hence only bold authors tend to adopt it. Now, this is not to say that the intention of the creator can never be discovered—no, in the case of Nassim, for example, if you wish to fully understand even some of the aphorisms from this book it’s a good idea to expose yourself to his other works. Antifragile: things that gain from disorder, is a good start; but so is his blog.


 

In the first chapter, Preludes, the topic of originality is addressed in, as far as I can tell, an original way. The way to test this, however, according to Nassim, is to look for more than preceding ideas that are incompatible. The is true originality.

The test of originality for an idea is not the absence of one single predecessor but the presence of multiple but incompatible ones.

*

Whilst I am a fan of routine, this following words resonate with me deeply. Without routine things fall apart very quickly: nothing would get done; creatives would go insane; the world would come to a halt—yes, routine is essential and important and a wonderful thing. However, too much routine—or indeed any routine, at least in certain phases of your life—is a perilous business; and it is so in ways that are not so obvious. In the first place, we humans have not evolved—at least our biology hasn’t—to thrive, to feel alive, to live under routine conditions; and in the second place, routine can shut you off from opportunity, possibility, and luck. It goes that routine could be a major contributor to decreased mental wellbeing—and depression. It is easy to say that is it easy to say for someone who is wealthy, independent, self-employed; but whilst this may be true, within it lies the lesson: you want to get to a place in life where you don’t have to live in a routine, where you don’t have everything ‘planned out’, where there is unpredictable variety in your life…

If you know, in the morning, what your day looks like with any precision, you are a little bit dead—the more precision, the more dead you are.

*

A rather hard question is how best to deal with liars—especially if you yourself are involved. Nassim has some simple advice:

The best revenge on a liar is to convince him that you believe what he said.

*

Being completely free of the burden of working for a boss—or free of the chains ye have tied around ye own ankles—does not mean you’re out of the woods. Never. You are never out of the woods. The following falls under the chapter, Chance, Success, Happiness and Stoicism; but another chapter in the book is Counter Narratives, which seems like a better fit for words about the dangers of becoming a master, for on the surface, it does seem rather counterintuitive.

You don’t become completely free by just avoiding to be a slave; you also need to avoid becoming a master.

*

Why would one not want to become a master? First, masters know everything, and knowing everything is not a place you want to be; for omniscience is a quality of God only: no human has ever known everything and no human ever will; and if any human thinks he knows everything, then he knows even less than the man who says he knows nothing.4 But it goes deeper than this, in my opinion. The master in domain X is very likely to see X wherever they go: they will see X as they answer to problems that not only should X not touch, but maybe even that X contributes to. The saying, ’the man with the hammer sees every problem as a nail’ is quite pertinent, here. It is very hard for a master to not be an ideologue.

*

What does it mean to be a philosopher?

To be a philosopher is to know through long walks, by reasoning, and reasoning only, a priori, what others can only potentially learn from their mistakes, crises, accidents, and bankruptcies—that is, a posteriori.

Philosophy touches every single subjects that matters to us—politics, economics, morality, the mind, religion, science, and so forth. For me, philosophy builds the bridge between the known and the unknown—it gives us direction; it helps us avoid terrible mistakes; it teaches us about virtue; it makes us wise. It does all these things—or rather, it can. You see, to philosophise—or in other words, think abstractly—you don’t need a degree, a course in philosophy, or specific genes5—no, you just need to walk a little slower, think a little deeper, meditate often, familiarise yourself with the big ideas, and listen to life; for life is the greatest teacher: always there, always reminding us, always dishing out the greatest lessons, always telling the truth, unbiased, straightforward, strengthening, generous—but all too neglected.

*

Nassim is known for his beef with the so-called new atheists and other scientists, and opposition to the rationalist movement.

It takes extraordinary wisdom and self-control to accept that many things have a logic we do not understand that is smarter than our own.

This is not just a statement against arrogant intellectualisation, and ignorance and delusion, but on the scientists, mathematicians, and even philosophers, who think their domain of knowledge can explain the world. There is so much we don’t know, and thinking that we do gets us into all sorts of trouble. The illusion of understanding that generates as a result of information consumption (especially the soundbite, shallow kind of most newspapers and social media feeds) is an example of this: information doesn’t mean understanding, or knowledge, and it certainly not wisdom. The illusion of understanding can also be found when people confuse skill with sheer luck—or even unconscious background knowledge with skill.

*

Passionate hate is easily identified. The mistake we make is believing that the subject of the hate—the item, problem, or person in question—is what is causing the hate; that if it’s fixed or removed, the hate will subside. Once again, it seems we have it backwards. Those who hate with a passion are skilled at the art of redirection.

Passionate hate (by nations and individuals) ends by rotation to another subject of hate; mediocrity cannot handle more than one enemy. This makes warring statelings with shifting alliances and enmities a robust system.

*

If the equality argument bores you to death, try this:

In a crowd of a hundred, 50 percent of the wealth, 90 percent of the imagination, and 100 percent of the intellectual courage will reside in a single person—not necessarily the same one.

Those who argue in favour of equality often know not what they are arguing for. If it is total equality, not only is this a display of extraordinary ignorance of total equality entails, it is an argument for something impossible. Inequality will always exist because it of the simple fact that some people are more competent than others—which means some people will be rewarded more handsomely than others. Fact. Can be change this fact? We can try; but do we really want to not be rewarded for hard work and sacrifice? I don’t think so. But even if we try, we will fail. Inequality is a consequence of life.

*

Perfection is a myth, a utopic delusion. Nevertheless we strive for it in sports, business, virtue, wisdom, knowledge, aesthetically, in science, mathematics—everywhere individual effort in concerned, it seems. Whether this is a good or bad thing on balance is another discussion; and one that will perhaps never go away. Certainly, you want your surgeon to be perfectionistic, but if you’re a writer, it may kill you. If not for perfectionism we would never have had Micheal Jackson, Beethoven, da Vinci, Einstein, Plato, the whole technological revolution; but we would also not have had Hitler. Context, the ethics of the intention and the () intendor, the sacrifice in question, probability: these things matter. Part of the problem with the idea of perfection, however, is that it is imperfection that makes life interesting—perhaps why we live at all. If not for the challenges, struggles, problems, would life be worth living? This is somewhat of a faulty question, of course, for we would not be here if not for imperfection6; but it raises the interesting point of whether meaning could be a thing without it.

‘We love imperfection, the right kind of imperfection; we pay up for original art and typo-laden first editions.’

Also, humans are attracted to each others rough edges. If you didn’t ask out your valentine out this past week, read that again.

*

Having a dystopia to run away from is far, far more motivating than having a utopia to run towards. Fear can be used as fuel, too; in fact, is there a better use for it? Burying is a terrible long-term strategy; running from it isn’t a strategy; and pondering it is crippling. Why not turn it into petrol; why not use it in our favour? We can do this by vividly imagining the body we don’t want, the job we don’t want, the state of mind that we don’t want—and that may indeed happen, if we don’t get our acts together. We can also do if by looking towards those who we don’t want to be like…

People focus on role models; it is more effective to find antimodels—people you don’t want to resemble when you grow up.

*

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?, said T.S. Elliot.

The information-rich Dark Ages: in 2010, 600,000 books were published, just in English, with few memorable quotes. Circa AD zero, a handful of books were written. In spite of the few that survived, there are loads of quotes.

Information does not mean wisdom.

*

Nassim finished by reminding us of the power of story.

This discounting of the unseen comes from the human ‘scorn of the abstract’ (our minds are not good at handling the non-anecdotal and tend to be swayed by vivid imagery, making the media distort our view of the world.

  1. ‘I wanted to become a flâneur: a professional meditator, sit in cafés, lounge, unglued to desks and organization structures, sleep as long as I needed, read voraciously, and not owe any explanation to anybody.’
  2. also see his twitter feed
  3. My use of ‘truth’ here is different from the scientific, factual, rationalist truth; more like the truth of empiricism.
  4. See Socrates, 399 (BC).
  5. Though people high in the personality trait of openness tend to have a particular inkling for philosophical discussion—along with a deep interest in general learning, ideas, and the liberal arts.
  6. Learn about evolution, if you don’t understand how.

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