No Time for Wisdom

BedOfProcrustes It’s been roughly 20 years since I’ve purchased a book with the intention of gaining insight into life lived wisely. Like nearly everyone else, nearly all of the time, I have read for other reasons: as an engaging diversion, to reinforce things I already believed, to further my knowledge relevant to my career, to get some concrete piece of practical information, etc.

And so it was when I bought Nassim Nicolas Taleb’s latest book, Bed of Procrustes. Since it is a book of aphorisms from the iconoclastic ex-financier, I expected to grab some zingers on the misuse of statistics and economic theory. What I found, to my embarrassment, was a man focused on the problem of wisdom. Not “wisdom” with respect to predicting the future in financial contexts, but wisdom in something close to the classic sense of a well-lived life–a contemporary version of the Aristotelian megalopsychos. And to be clear: I was embarrassed for myself, not for Taleb.

The aphorism as an art form has been malnourished, humbled and neglected long enough that today it lives a life on the margins. In public media, the aphorism is replaced by the soundbite or the slogan: one meant for evanescent consumption and the other meant to preclude thought rather than stimulate it. Where the transmission of aphorisms survives, it is often reduced to the conveyance of a clever or uplifting saying. For millions of managers and executives, their most frequent contact is probably their daily industry newsletter from SmartBrief, where at the bottom of the list of stories every day is an out-of-context bon mot from a philosopher, statesman, famous wit, or business “thought leader.” (Example: “The difference between getting somewhere and nowhere is the courage to make an early start. The fellow who sits still and does just what he is told will never be told to do big things.”–Charles Schwab, entrepreneur)

Given this background, Taleb’s book, with all its crabby scorn, is a welcome effort. It is more than an attempt to rehabilitate the aphorism in the service of a well-lived life. It is also part of Taleb’s self-conscious rejection of common presumptions about knowledge (self-knowledge, business knowledge, academic knowledge) and value (the value of work, qualities of greatness).

The left holds that because markets are stupid models should be smart; the right believes that because models are stupid markets should be smart. Alas, it never hit both sides that both markets and models are very stupid.

The weak shows his strength and hides his weaknesses; the magnificent exhibits his weaknesses like ornaments.

As with Nietzsche, embracing the encapsulated form of the aphorism expresses an attitude towards knowledge of the human condition: as much a rejection of helpless formal systems in philosophy as of false precision in social science. At the same time, an aphorism is itself a bed of Procrustes. It cuts the observable complexity down to a kernel that can be more easily digested and retransmitted. Many of the best aphorisms also contain metaphors; they falsify when taken literally and break down if pushed too hard.

It’s not surprising that aphorisms so often fall flat and that so few have mastered the form. Given the disuse the form has also fallen into, it’s also not surprising that Taleb struggles with it at times. He can’t resist explaining some of his aphorisms with footnotes (always a mistake). He frames some as universal generalizations that really need to be qualified (even the charity of a sympathetic reader has its limits). He makes excessive use of certain terms that have a special meaning to him (“sucker” and “nerd,” for example) but when taken in aphoristic form come across as saying more about him than about our shared world. And, of course, everyone will find some that seem flat out wrong (Atheism treats the dead as unborn, really? Is that what you think an atheist’s world is like?).

Plenty of people offer advice on how to live better. Very little of it could be said to be offered in the pursuit of wisdom. Instead, the goal is likely to be expertise, factual knowledge, or practical tips on how to get ahead. Or, it may be a “wisdom” which each person gets to define for him- or herself: individualistic self-actualization or personal wisdom, not practical wisdom in the classical sense.

The energy of commerce and public discourse is around knowledge, conviction, and passion. I am inundated with literally hundreds of emails a day. I barely have time in my job to keep up with the knowledge I’m expected to acquire and tasks to discharge. In any case, what I am expected to know are facts and procedures. Who has time for wisdom? Can you show a Return on Investment for that?

In politics, Stephen Colbert’s joke is us: the political stage is for the loudest advocates of truths regarded as self-evident to the faithful, strongly felt. Wisdom is for old men who have retired from office and only feel free to speak their minds once their former colleagues feel free to safely ignore them.

The mass media are becoming media of mass participation: reality shows, television news and radio going to the “street” to get the usually uninformed opinions of passerby. Both as a matter of socialization and principle, there is less space today in the popular conception for a wisdom that stands against technical knowledge on the one hand, and poorly informed conviction and passion on the other.

On the matter of principle: If key components of wisdom are the ability to control the passions and reliably judge when general relationships will hold or fail to hold in particular cases (as for Aristotle and Taleb), then the more sophisticated use of statistical methods should in principle crowd out the need for it, as we get better and better at identifying all the patterns there are to be found, measure framing effects and so on. But if the statistical project of understanding and predicting the social world has severe limitations due to, among other things, the contingency in human action, then the call for wisdom will not be squeezed out by scientific knowledge.