Chapter 14. Were They Right to Put Socrates to Death?
A First Lesson in epistemology from Fat Tony —Piety for the impious –Fat Tony does not drink milk – Why not Harvardify? –Can Socrates out-argue FT?—Mystagogue philosophaster

Fat Tony believes that they were right to put Socrates to death.


As I said in Chapter x, you need to be very intelligent in fragile situations —and can afford to be stupid and ignorant in antifragile ones, like Thales, when you engage in convex betting. The problem is that we may never be intelligent enough to afford to be exposed to negative convexity, and become fragile. At the source of interventionism is the illusion of understanding of the logic of things. So what I discuss here is not the error of being rational, but, rather, incompletely so, the error of thinking that things always have a reason that is accessible to us —that we can comprehend easily. In Fat Tony’s language, that would be what makes us the suckers of all suckers. It is this naive brand of rationalism that move us away from optionality -which makes us denigrate options and trial-and-error because we think we can figure it out by ourselves. Of course, to use Fat Tony’s language, it is the rationalism of the sucker. But let us get a bit into the history of thought.

The reader who is either uninterested in philosophy, dislike nerd things, or who doesn’t need convincing about Socrates’ bad influence on mankind should skip this chapter.

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The first systematic appearance of abstract knowledge, the very notion of idea, started with Plato, particularly with his Forms corresponding to the most ideational, abstract definitions, and with the observable as its mere manifestation. Before Plato, even notions that later became abstract, like God, were extremely anthropomorphic and embedded in some tangible character, embodied in legends and mythical narratives. Plato expressed himself chiefly through his use of the person who no doubt became the most influential philosopher in history, Socrates the Athenian, the first philosopher in the modern sense. Socrates left no writing of his own, so we get direct representation of him through Plato and Xenophon, as well as some side ones in plays making fun of him. Just as Fat Tony has, for selfappointed biographer, this author trying to satisfy his agenda, leading to distortions in his character, and self-serving representation of some of my ideas in his personality, so I am certain that the Socrates of Plato is a more Platonic character than the true Socrates. In one of Plato’s dialogues, Euthyphro, Socrates was outside the courthouse, awaiting the trial in which he was eventually put to death, when the eponymous Euthyphro, a religious expert and prophet of sorts, struck a conversation with him. Socrates explained that for the “activities” with which he was charged by the court (corrupting the youth and introducing new gods at the expense of the older ones), not only he did not charge a fee, but he was in perfect readiness to pay for people to listen to him. It turned out that Euthyphro was on his way to charge his father with manslaughter, not bad a conversation starter. So Socrates started out by wondering how charging one’s own father with manslaughter was compatible with Euthyphro’s religious duties. {reduce ? } Socrates’ used two methods in his conversations. The first aimed at seeking, or rather showing ignorance, not knowledge. The crossquestioning the person, called elenchis, became famous as today’s crossexamination (what we now call , mistakenly, the Socratic method and teach in law school) by which Socrates made his interlocutor, who started with a thesis, agree on series of statements then proceeded to show him how the

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the laws of geometry and was helped by the questioner. Socrates used it mostly to show people how lacking in clarity they were in their thoughts. midwifery. The second method. Euthyphro answered: “piety is what I am doing now. For example. travelled in the opposite direction: One starts with ignorance. So Socrates posed the issue: “tell me how you define piety and impiety”. He applied it across a few dialogues. he catches his interlocutor using the word piety while characterizing the prosecution of his father as a pious act –and so gave the impression that he was conducting the prosecution on grounds of piety. that gods did it. The dialogue that has given rise to the most commentary is Meno. to give gestation to these a priori truths.. called maieutics. Socrates gave birth to the truths that resided in us by nudging the interlocutor into revealing these abstract truths that sat there independent of empirical reality. only helped. Socrates pounced on him: “I urged you not to tell me about one or two of these many pious actions.. as Socrates showed him that the gods were not so always in agreement. . Zeus. and hated by others. The conversation appeared to reach some happy resolution when Socrates made Euthyphro agree that what is pious is what is loved by all the 1/1/12 © Copyright 2011 by N.BOOK FOUR: VIA NEGATIVA. These truths are typically what we call Platonic representations. then progressively attain knowledge. Like a midwife. N. since there were things liked by some gods.” He showed. in support of what he thought was his definition. So in the beginning of the Euthypro dialogue. i. Therefore the same things can be pious and impious. or HOW TO WORK BY SUBSTRACTION 447 statements he agreed on are inconsistent with the original thesis. Euthyphro being the most representative. whom people agree is the most pious of the gods. This draft version cannot be disseminated or quoted. prosecuting a wrongdoer with manslaughter. but to describe the actual feature that makes any pious action pious (. Taleb. Not satisfactory. “What is pious is loved by the god” appeared to Euthyphro a good such characteristic. which makes Euthypro’s definition fail Socrates’ scrutiny. deep-down. put his own father in chains for a crime.) because you said that there is one characteristic that makes a pious action pious”. in which Socrates shows to a slave boy how he already knew.e. thus establishing that he has no clue on what he was taking about. how little they knew about the concepts they used routinely –and the need for philosophy to elucidate these concepts.

Both like to argue. the cause of his enrichment as used free time to retain the mental clarity that office idiots usually lack). When prodded for another definition of what was pious. 1/1/12 © Copyright 2011 by N. in the case of Tony. worst. surprise. though. properly translated of course. Both had time on their hands and enjoyed unlimited leisure. twenty-five centuries later. FAT TONY V/S SOCRATES How would Fat Tony have handled the cross-examination by the relentless Athenian? Now that the reader is acquainted with our hefty character. Euthyphro was honest in his frustration. Socrates required him to show the causal arrow. in a way. The poor man felt that he knew what piety was but could not express it. So we are back at the very beginning. let us examine.BOOK FOUR: VIA NEGATIVA. an equivalent dialogue between Fat Tony and Socrates. . there are similarities between the two characters. free-time was the result of productive insights ( and. Whatever we put forward somehow keeps on shifting its position and refuses to stay where we laid it down”. Nothing should be written in stone. The dialogue ended abruptly. without it bringing us any closer to anything. Clearly. This draft version cannot be disseminated or quoted. as a thought experiment. or is if it is loved by the gods because it is pious —a problem philosophers since have called the Euthyphro dilemma. but the reader is left with the impression that it could have gone on until today. and look at rigorous active conversation (instead of TV screen or concert hall passivity) as main source of entertainment. or HOW TO WORK BY SUBSTRACTION 448 gods. until Euthyphro found some polite excuse to run away. perhaps even as a main reason to live. The dialogue continued with more definitions (what is “moral rectitude?"). Taleb. Until. N. From that. Let us reopen it. Both dislike writing: Socrates because he did not like the definitive and immutable character that is associated with the written word when for him answers are never final and should not be fixated. he was now insecure: “I don’t know how to convey to you what I have in mind. whether something is pious because it is loved by the gods. he derived that what is pious and what is loved by the gods could not the same property.

aware 1/1/12 © Copyright 2011 by N. .BOOK FOUR: VIA NEGATIVA. What Nero was certain that Fat Tony would initially get close to Socrates and make his opinion on the fellow after some olfactory investigation — and as we said Fat Tony doesn’t even realize that this is the part of his modus operandi. Neeero. Daedalus’ statues became alive as soon as the work was completed. thin limbs. N. Now assume Fat Tony was asked by Socrates how he defined piety. {recall the story of the slaves} But the similarities stop somewhere. nobody could observe them in the rigidity of a single position. casting him as a non-Hellene). He looked haggard. You can imagine Fat Tony sneering while pointing his finger at the fellow: “Look. a snub nose (to the point that Nietzsche questioned the purity of his race. for his part did not like writing for other. and even fall madly in some undefinable category of the socalled “love” with him.this”? Or perhaps not: Socrates was said to have a presence. a certain personal confidence and a serenity of mind that made some young men find him “beautiful”. Tony. deprivation of street fights and the lack of intensity in the bedroom take their toll. carbohydrates. This draft version cannot be disseminated or quoted. He might even have had body odor as he was said to bathe much less than his peers. loss of bone density from absence of stressors on the bone. Socrates was repeatedly described as having a protruding belly. it would be much like an encounter with one of those hippies of the 1960s that we run into forty years too late. norepinephrine (stress-hormones). When you talk to one of Daedalus' statues. mortgage worries. unlike the ones you see in the Metropolitan Museum of Arts in New York City. Fat Tony’s answer would have been most certainly to get lost –Fat Tony. For someone with some expectation of what a philosopher would look like. you want me to talk to . no less respectable reasons: he almost flunked out of high school in East Brooklyn. it talks back to you.. had looks beyond unprepossessing. when biology. Of course we can expect a bit of a surprise on the part of Fat Tony standing in front of the man described to him by Nero as the greater philosopher of all times: Socrates.. Taleb. which would be good enough for a dialogue. we are told. bulging eyes. and unlike other statues frozen for eternity in a single posture. or HOW TO WORK BY SUBSTRACTION 449 even literally: Socrates in the Euthyphro boasts for ancestry the sculptor Daedalus.

why do you think that we need to define things?” 1/1/12 © Copyright 2011 by N. Taleb.” Fat Tony: “I agree. FAT TONY: ”Then. N. that a dog has instinct. while pretending to know what it means?” FAT TONY: “Do I actually have to be able to tell you in plain barbarian nonGreek English. my dear Socrates. my good man Socrates. We are not dogs. but that he would be ready to pay for conversation. SOCRATES: “No. Do I really need to be able to tell you what it is to be able to conduct a pious action?” SOCRATES: “How can you use words like piety without knowing what it means. But are we humans fundamentally different to be completely stripped of instinct leading us to do things?” Without waiting for Socrates’s answer (only suckers wait for answers. using the same repetitive pattern of Socrates in the Plato dialogues: “And my dear Socrates. never respond to a question that makes no sense to you with a straight answer. does a dog need to define what an owner is to be loyal to him?” SOCRATES. Does a child need to know what mother’s milk is to understand the needs to drink it?”.. This draft version cannot be disseminated or quoted.. It does not reflect on its life. He taught Nero that an answer is planted in every question. instinct. We are not dogs. or HOW TO WORK BY SUBSTRACTION 450 of Socrates’ statement in the beginning of the Euthyphro dialogue that not only he would debate for free. questions are not made for answers). he does not need to”. or in pure Greek what it means to know and understand what it means?” No doubt Fat Tony would have taken Socrates of Athens further down his own road and be the one to doing the framing of the question: FAT TONY: “tell me. old man.BOOK FOUR: VIA NEGATIVA. But Fat Tony’s power in life is that he never lets the other person frame the question. puzzled to have someone ask him questions: “A dog has . FAT TONY: “You are asking me to define what characteristic makes a difference between pious and nonpious. . FAT TONY. would have claimed one doesn’t argue with someone who is ready to pay you to just argue with him.

looking at him patronizingly. FAT TONY: “My dear Socrates. “what are morals?”. “what is this?” and “what is that?”. he would fall from it. . You know why they are putting you to death? It is because you make people feel stupid blindly following habits. as we just saw.” PRIMACY OF DEFINITIONAL KNOWLEDGE You can see here that what Fat Tony is hitting here is the very core of philosophy: it is indeed with Socrates that the main questions that became today philosophy were first raised.. courage [andreia] (in the Laches’). we need to know what we are talking about when we talk. in the Euthyphro was ‘what is piety [hosiotês]? Other dialogues address: temperance [sôphrosunê] (in the Charmides ). or HOW TO WORK BY SUBSTRACTION 451 SOCRATES: “My dear Mega-tony. you have no answer to offer them. and why practitioners on both sides look down at the other one. Socrates went even as far as questioning the poets and reported that they had no more clue than the public about their own works. Taleb. and questions such as “what is existence?”. with a smirk. By bullying and questioning people you confuse them and hurt them.. This draft version cannot be disseminated or quoted. In 1/1/12 © Copyright 2011 by N. virtue [aretê] in the Meno I mentioned earlier. An unexamined life is not worth living”.BOOK FOUR: VIA NEGATIVA. While the question. You are destroying people’s illusions about themselves. The entire idea of philosophy is to be able to reflect and understand what we are doing. instincts and traditions. But you may confuse them with things they’ve been doing just fine without getting in trouble. why they don't mix.” Then. FAT TONY: “If I asked someone on a bicycle riding it just fine to give me the theory behind his bicycle riding. And you have no answer. What Socrates is seeking relentlessly are definitions of the essential nature of the thing concerned rather than description of the properties by means of which we can recognize it. To place this in a modern context –the great question of the separation between art and science. You may be occasionally right. and why nerds have difficulties with aesthetics. The question we saw in Euthypro occurs in the various dialogues written by Plato. N. “what is science”. examine our lives. very calmly. “what is a proof”.

I mean theoretical and conceptual knowledge. as some philosophers such as Peter Geach have shown in the 1960s: this reasoning on the part of Socrates. and if you don’t know what it is. and asked what was the meaning of them. This draft version cannot be disseminated or quoted. Formal definitions. And here we can use philosophy and logic to hoist Socrates by his own petard. Some classical scholars call an associated problem “the Socratic fallacy” this insistence that you do not know examples falling under a concept unless you can express it in logical and propositional form. 1/1/12 © Copyright 2011 by N. all knowledge. this attempt to rationalize nature. had many precursors. of course. Taleb.BOOK FOUR: VIA NEGATIVA. until recently. And this priority of definitional knowledge lead to Plato’s thesis that you cannot know anything unless you know the Forms which are what definitions specify. In defense of Socrates. his questions lead to a major result: if they could not allow him to define what something was. for Peter Geach. or HOW TO WORK BY SUBSTRACTION 452 Plato’s account of his trial in the Apology. providing examples will never get you to the truth. Many we will not hear about. build a territory out of the map. you do not need examples. In other words if you cannot get a map from a territory. penetrate her logic. N. Nietzsche as a Precursor to Fat Tony Fat Tony. I can simplify it as follows: If you know what thing is. . then let us start with universals from which these particulars should flow. I am almost ashamed to speak of this. By “philosophy”. because of the primacy of philosophy and the way it got integrated into daily practices by Christianity and Islam. the term largely referred to what we call today science –natural philosophy. For. If we cannot define piety. Socrates said how he crossexamined the poets in vain: “I took them some of the most elaborate passages in their own writings. is fallacious. at least allowed him to be certain about what a thing was not. can be inferior to examplescxxxiii. but still I must say that there is hardly a person present who wouldn't have talked better about their poetry than they did themselves”. the grand reasoner. from working with particulars.

He went after Socrates whom he called the “mystagogue of science” for “making existence appear comprehensible”. hence science is an optimistic enterprise. The young Nietzsche wrote his first book. He sees two forces. Nerdtown indeed. imbued with reason and self-restraint. wild. balanced. the other is darker. The mandate of scientific optimism irritated Nietzsche: this use of reasoning and knowledge at the service of utopia. Taleb. as the so-called Nietzschean pessimism distracts from the point: it is the very goodness of knowledge that he questioned. error is evil. a “typical Hellene”. causing this excessive rise of rationalism. emerging from the inner layers of our selves. through dressed up in literary flight on optimism. untamed. This draft version cannot be disseminated or quoted. visceral. One is measured. and the German soul mean. 1/1/12 © Copyright 2011 by N. N. the Apollonian and the Dionysian. hard to understand. Knowledge is the panacea. This brilliant passage exposes what I call the suckerrationalistic fallacy: Perhaps —thus he [Socrates] should have asked himself –what is not intelligible to me is not necessarily unintelligent? Perhaps there is a realm of wisdom from which the logician is exiled? Nietzsche is also allergic to Socrates’ version of truth. one does not knowingly do evil —an argument that seems to have pervaded the enlightenment as such thinkers as Condorcet made truth the only and sufficient source for the good. largely motivated by the agenda of the promotion of understanding since according to Socrates. Forget the optimism/pessimism business that is addressed when people discuss Nietzsche. pessimism.BOOK FOUR: VIA NEGATIVA. or HOW TO WORK BY SUBSTRACTION 453 A vivid modern attack on the point came from the young Friedrich Nietzsche. until the influence of Socrates on Euripides gave a larger share to the Apollonian and disrupted the Dionysian. The Birth of the Tragedy while in his early twenties. It took me a long time to figure out the central problem that Nietzsche addressed in the Birth of the Tragedy. . Ancient Greek culture represented a balance of the two. This argument is precisely the argument that Nietzsche vituperated against. rational. mixed with a hallucination on what “West”. It is just equivalent to disrupting the natural chemistry of your body by the injection of hormones.

it is indeed Nietzsche who was first to coin the term with reference to Dionysus: whom he called “creatively destructive” and “destructively creative”†. Nietzsche indeed figured out —in his own way —antifragility. see George Steiner’s recurrent theme. Kahneman and Simon are psychologist and cognitive scientists. N. science. The exception is. or in his emotional treatment of the death of Patrocles. it can be the source of stochastic tinkering. or HOW TO WORK BY SUBSTRACTION 454 Apollonian without the Dionysian is. second. Dionysus to whom Nietzsche referred) that gives the seminal power to the continuation of life. particularly in Antigones. Ying without Yang. and third. I read Nietzsche’s The Birth of the Tragedy twice. that growth in knowledge — or in anything — cannot proceed without the Dionysian. . * On the destructively creative death of a protagonist. as he is becoming my best friend and advisor. He too referred to Dionysian and Apollonian. the Bacchic (that is. equating it with the interaction of causes). of course. First. into the picture. Taleb. Richer than Nietzsche. and reason (what for Nietzsche appeared to be the Apollonian). he gives him three manifestations. In other words. Hayek. While many attribute (mistakenly) the notion of “creative destruction” to the economist Joseph Schumpeter (not wondering how something insightful and deep can come out of an economist*). he added strength as an additional dimension. it hit me that Nietzsche understood something that I did not find explicitly stated in his work. It reveals matters that we can select at some point. Let me bring another giant.BOOK FOUR: VIA NEGATIVA. first as a child when I had been properly exposed to real life. a richer version of our human tendencies. the Hercules that contains strength. The second time. Nietzsche’s potency as a thinker continues to surprise me: he figured out antifragility. He appeared to present. † 1/1/12 © Copyright 2011 by N. the “Liber Pater”. Mercury who represented (for Seneca’s contemporaries) craft. while as we saw the more erudite source it to the great Karl Marx. Talking about a God (whom he also calls “destiny”. and the Apollonian can be part of the selection process. given that we have the option (positive convexities). Seneca. Marx was a philosopher. respectively. as the Chinese would say. This draft version cannot be disseminated or quoted. after a life thinking of randomness. in On Benefits. Adam Smith was first and last a moral philosopher.

Hebrew. he made his mark as the first biographer of Jesus the man. is starkly apparent in the history of medicine). the 19th Century French thinker Ernest Renan knew. earlier attacks on “philosophy” in the sense of rationalistic knowledge from the Plato and Aristotle traditions came from a variety of people. Aramaic (Syriac). Renan spent his life denouncing the ghastly mania of certainty. those who attacked academic thinking had little representation (something that we will see. not necessarily visible in the corpus. and far more open minded. a great disadvantage compared to those who study the scriptures in the text as children in Hebrew School and learn Talmudic Aramaic at the family table). while treated like the “parents pauvres” with thick noses and inelegant postures compared to the more aristocratic Greeks (tough a trip to modern Greece would convince you of quite the opposite). or the degenerate distinctions you encounter in Le Monde. But while Renan understood that the Levant was the center of the West. Why forgotten? because structured learning likes the impoverishment and simplification of naive rationalism.BOOK FOUR: VIA NEGATIVA. It is to him that the expression “truth 1/1/12 © Copyright 2011 by N. and Arabic. An even more accomplished. he was quite racist in marking the clear separation of the White man from the African and Asian nations. as I said. And Renan was lucky to have his books banned (antifragility. in addition to the usual Greek and Latin. and mostly in forgotten or rarely mentioned texts. classical scholar than Nietzsche. not the divinity. Syrian. Unlike the rewarmed classicism of his century (á la Byron). he did not indulge in using this notion of the Greeks as a separate cultural and racial entity that legitimizes Europe and separates it from the Levant and Asia Minor. As a Levantine. . or HOW TO WORK BY SUBSTRACTION 455 Renan’ Truth in the Nuances As I said. right there). N. This draft version cannot be disseminated or quoted. He started his life as a professor of Hebrew (yet he was Roman Catholic. He spent considerable time in Lebanon and his sister Henriette is buried there. I found Renan irresistible as he knew what he was talking about. “l'horrible manie de la certitude”. not the rich texture of empiricism and. he was a vastly broader classicist than Nietzsche and understood the lack of boundary between “Hellenism” and the Levant –he was astute enough to realize that European culture has a central component of “Hebrew. Taleb. easy to teach. and Arabic” thought.

it would cancel much of the relevance of the so-called “analytic” philosophy that prevails today. In other words. Le syllogisme excluant toute nuance. theory is not rich enough to be used. N. And this not just a problem that applies to philosophy: any claim coming from general principles that is blindly applied on the particular. excluding all nuances. antiacademic sentence I now: The syllogism. does not really replicate life. and since the truth resides almost entirely in the nuances. et la vérité résidant tout entière dans les nuances.BOOK FOUR: VIA NEGATIVA. syllogism is therefore a useless instrument for finding Truth in the moral and political sciences. is acting self-servingly just like my own Fat Tony whom I am fitting for my own purposes. The other biographer of Socrates. Why is this powerful? Because if you accept it. period —physics represents so little that we can use. the most powerful anti-Aristotelian. Let me rephrase: Renan understood rather quickly an idea that led to what we called ludic fallacy in Chapter x: ludic is from the Latin name for games hence artificial and constructed setting. Taleb. . It is not that I am saying that they are wrong: but that they are not relevant: recall the discussion between Nero and the biologist at the Parisian café. or HOW TO WORK BY SUBSTRACTION 456 resides in the nuances” is attributed. he writes. where he realized that much of what matters cannot be formalized. Actually. This draft version cannot be disseminated or quoted. what works in a laboratory what works in an artificial setting. as I said. we are dealing with the Socrates of Plato. le syllogisme est un instrument inutile pour trouver le vrai dans les sciences morales et politiquescxxxiv. like a casino. was 7. ALGAZEL and the FIDEISTS Plato not Socrates In all fairness for the Socratic character. that theory is not rich enough for social science. 1/1/12 © Copyright 2011 by N. in which philosophy has been trying to get itself into the simplification that is necessary to ape mathematics. not even crazy yet). born in 1844. around 1852 (when Nietzsche. which. a point I will delve into in Chapter x. In a passage attacking the scholastic teaching of Padua.

Cato the elder. or HOW TO WORK BY SUBSTRACTION 457 Xenophon. Tradition As Fat Tony said. in the eyes of the Athenian establishment. particularly when one faces destiny while unwavering in his opinions. it has largely to do with conduct). he had some classical critics who believed that Socrates was destroying the foundations of society –the way to do things that is transmitted by the elders and that we may not be mature enough to question. and death is something too small for him.BOOK FOUR: VIA NEGATIVA. figure out how you can use them to navigate. and commitment to moral rectitude. even when they are understood. A hero is someone imbued with intellectual confidence and ego. he talks about the (useless) knowledge of heavenly matters in which specialists disagree. thanks to his death and his resignation to die in a philosophical way. as we will see in 1/1/12 © Copyright 2011 by N. but no more. While most of the accounts we hear of Socrates make him heroic. Death and martyrdom make good marketing. The Socrates of the Memorabilia is no-nonsense down to earth. for Cicero it was Socrates who brought down philosophy from the heavens and integrated it in daily life. sense of mission. use geometry to measure land. presents a different picture. and the experts who study matters without practical consequence when so many useful and important things are neglected (instead of looking at stars to understand causes. the man who perhaps is the best embodiment of Republican Rome and everything associated with it – especially the various Roman qualities summarized by the concept of virtu – was highly allergic to Socrates. Cato had the bottom-line mind of Fat Tony. Taleb. Socrates was put to death because he disrupted something that. Note his definition of usefulness is not just about matters material. respect for tradition. as exhibited in his allergy for philosophers and doctors –an allergy which. . “He regards the phenomena of the heavens as beyond human understanding and irrelevant to the good life.” So this chapter is not so much about the real Socrates but the use of a whipping boy for the introduction of naive rationalism in Western thought. was working just fine. This draft version cannot be disseminated or quoted. In Book I. In fact. He was also allergic to things Greek. N. but with a much higher civic sense. he despises sterile knowledge.

you do not have science. This draft version cannot be disseminated or quoted. the genuine. in combination. with fears of tyranny. in The Republic. . Second. the generator so to speak. A universal turns very easily into a stereotype.” A form is the universal. into a sucker’s game..of course. one of the bed and one of the table. we would not buy a fake Renoir on grounds that better techniques were used). every apple falling from every tree. there are many beds and tables. With Newton you have the mother process. had remarkably modern justifications. introduces fragility. . and the unique (we scorn artists who imitate others.BOOK FOUR: VIA NEGATIVA. don’t you have free will? For what bothers me the most about universals is that by applying it to humans you deprive them of free-will. defines it as follows. But there are only two forms of such furniture. Science is the exact opposite: everything is improvable. it would be our forced positioning between the two antagonistic poles: the universal and the particular. Plutarch quotes him as saying: “Socrates was a mighty babbler who tried to make himself tyrant of his country in order to destroy its customs and entice its citizens into holding views contrary to law and order. But the problem is that universals might not be sophisticated enough to capture all that is. as Peter Medawar presents it. And if I were to present the largest tension we encounter in dealing with knowledge. there lies the difference between art and science. into an autistic-style simplification –one size fits all. First . and universal laws. even when they can “improve”. The Universal and the Particular What is the Platonic Form? Plato. you would have needed to count. or HOW TO WORK BY SUBSTRACTION 458 later chapters. Without universals. The difference between the universal and the particular affects about everything. N. Taleb..” So the reader can see how the ancients saw naive rationalism: by impoverishing —rather than enhancing— thought. in principle. generic enough to squeeze your definition into an equation? And if so. before Newton’s law. reader. Most 1/1/12 © Copyright 2011 by N. there lies the difference between rationalism and empiricism. in order to represent reality. Are you. Art is about the idiosyncratic. Cato’s commitment to democracy led him to believe in both freedom and the rules of custom. the properties of an object. replaceable. “For example.

So the problem is not whether a pure form exists. To me. the wrong model. So the difference between the two methods. The Platonic form of a triangle is real. and looking at events you observe as particular cases of something more general. Empiricism is about putting the particular first. Taleb. is one of emphasis –trying to overly simplify the distinction makes us fall squarely into the error of rationalism. This draft version cannot be disseminated or quoted. There may be a theory. or HOW TO WORK BY SUBSTRACTION 459 people believe that empiricism implies looking at the world without a theory at all –many of my detractors among the autistacademics have leveled the charge at me. So it is a matter to what one defaults to: when in doubt. a practitioner. it is whether we can identify it ourselves. when in doubt. and what triangles you observe are mere copies. 1/1/12 © Copyright 2011 by N. does not exist. the abstract generators. the Platonic Forms are “real”. the rationalist ignore the particulars of the case. the empiricist makes no assumptions. So it is top down. So we tend to use the wrong theory. You go bottom up as much as possible. while the abstract notion. . or at least close. the problem is not whether one should take sides in a debate composed of just words: it is to minimize the effect of the error. with the “you need a theory to observe”. We naturally tend towards naive rationalism. the concept “beautiful”. the theoretical. Nominalists believe the exact opposite: that each objects or the predicate of a concept “is beautiful” exists. it is the very property of our brain to do so. N. and the general later. Members of the empirical school of medicine resisted making any inference beyond data that is identical. rationalism is about starting with the general. The realist (a misnomer) believes that only concepts. Not at all: empiricism means that you resist generalization as much as possible.BOOK FOUR: VIA NEGATIVA. by giving respect to the particular. During the Middle Ages. there was an intellectual opposition between the realists and the nominalists. to what they have seen in the past. and the instantiated objects are not so. the theoretical and the empirical. by limiting the a priori. imperfect of course. the wrong map. rather than accept no map. of such original. it is just not easy to discover spontaneously.

but the conversation drifted into more interesting territory.. There is an asymmetry “hard to explain”. or HOW TO WORK BY SUBSTRACTION 460 The Tacit and the Explicit I mentioned autism early on in the discussion. and on the left the corresponding sort of the opposite. I was alerted to the problems of autism by readers “on the spectrum”. Taleb. i. . I drew the following table. in practice there is. and such asymmetry is best explained by Yogi Bera who once said that in theory there is no difference between theory and practice. I was once discussing the role of autism in research in the office of a physicist. N.Know How v/s Know What and their siblings TYPE 1 Know how TYPE 2 Know what Fat Tony wisdom.e. have some degree of these systematizing traits as the traits are not of the all or nothing varietycxxxv. with the two types of knowledge in separate columns. in Canada –she was interested in the subject as many of her colleagues exhibited the traits of acute Asperger syndrome (a name for high functioning autism). My initial intention was to connect it to autism. Aristotelian Aristotelian logic phronesis Implicit . On the right what is clear and explicit. These traits make the person prone to highly systematized thinking and allergic to any form of ambiguity –which fits the mathematized profession quite well. Tacit Nondemonstrative knowledge Tëchnë Experiential knowledge Heuristic Figurative Tinkering Bricolage Explicit Demonstrative knowledge Epistemë Epistemic base Propositional knowledge Literal Directed research Targeted activity 1/1/12 © Copyright 2011 by N.BOOK FOUR: VIA NEGATIVA. This draft version cannot be disseminated or quoted. Table 5.

Taleb. or HOW TO WORK BY SUBSTRACTION 461 Empiricism Practice Engineering Tinkering. N. . Kerygma (the explainable and the unexplainable) teachable part of religion) Esoteric theology and Spinoza) (Averroes Exoteric theology (Averroes and Spinoza) by clearly Regulator as a wise old person Regulation 1/1/12 © Copyright 2011 by N. tinkering Rationalism Scholarship Mathematics stochastic Directed search Epilogism (Menodotus of Inductive knowledge. tractable in textbook Embedded Parallel processing Off-model Causative historiography Diagnostic Neoclassical economics Central Planner Letter of the Law Ideas Design Autistic not Ludic probability. using Nicomedia and the school of Aristotle's teleological empirical medicine) principles Historia a sensate cognitio Autopsia Austrian economics Bottom up libertarianism Spirit of the Law Customs Accident.BOOK FOUR: VIA NEGATIVA. statistics textbooks Abstract Serial processing On-model. This draft version cannot be disseminated or quoted. model based Side effect of a drug as engine National Institute of Health of discovery directed research Nominalism Age as authority Mythos Realism Degrees as authority Logos Dogma (in the religious sense. trial and error Nonautistic Ecological uncertainty.

unlike the thinkers in the right column. leading to much interpretations on the part of the Wittgensteinians. We can easily explain how logic (logical). For him language is something we use in society for a purpose not to convey “meaning” or “understand” things. implicit. and abstract fit together. and cannot 1/1/12 © Copyright 2011 by N.BOOK FOUR: VIA NEGATIVA. This draft version cannot be disseminated or quoted. but I can’t explain it in a compressed form. and denigrating the first type. they would be expected to have little in common. Indeed a kind strange mix of bedfellows: Ludwig Wittgenstein. what is on the right is likely to be robust and antifragile. . N. being very rigorous. Indeed they don't resemble each other. If he is vague. it is precisely because he refused the crispness of explicit definitions and did not trust language to yield answers to philosophical problems. particularly in his later period that some people call “the second Wittgenstein”. All the terms on the right seem to be connected. they rarely influenced each other. engineering. But the terms on the left did not appear to be logically connected. art. or HOW TO WORK BY SUBSTRACTION 462 with no visible rules specified rules The person. but to focus on the error of overestimating the role of the second type. without chronology since. but as one can understand from the physicist’s remarks. In the posthumous Philosophical Investigations he proposes what I can safely say a true bottom-up open0pen-ended philosophy. What connects random. deterministic. *** I remind the reader that my object here is not the set the boundaries between the first and second type of knowledge. Let me throw some names. and figurative? What is the connection between religious dogma and tinkering? There is something. In other words the lecturing birds how to fly effect and its consequences for fragility. noticed the following. accident. The thinkers who are associated with the first type of knowledge are numerous. But what I can most certainly affirm is that what is on the left is fragile. Taleb.

myself. John Gray. hence many philosophical problems only exist because of the inapplicability of language. Furthermore he showed repeatedly how what we call scientific progress can be just a mirage. there is almost nothing explicitly linking them –Hayek believed in progress. My interpretation of his ideas is that. while explicit planning kills true progress. contemporary political philosopher and essayist who stands against human hubris and has been fighting the prevailing ideas that enlightenment is a panacea –treating a certain category of thinkers as enlightenment fundamentalists.BOOK FOUR: VIA NEGATIVA. falling headlong for the error of rationalism: he thought that tacit knowledge was the embedding of propositional and theoretical knowledge. but driven by market forces. Michael Oakeshot. polymath scientist and methodologist. Friedrich Hayek. He also did not believe that history necessarily led to progress. This draft version cannot be disseminated or quoted. instead. He may seem to have an intellectual fraternity with Hayek. Michael Polanyi. N. I was pleasantly surprised by what turned out the best lunch I ever had in my entire life. He explicitly made the distinction between tacit and explicit knowledge. For him there is the informational value of transaction that gets stifled by the bureaucratic forces. There was this smoothness of knowing that the three of us tacitly understood the same point and. When he. in a way Oakeshot treats society the way the Green Party treats nature. counter to the Hegelian thinking that prevailed during his time. 1/1/12 © Copyright 2011 by N. but that we mostly made discoveries using science and theories. but no. Taleb. However Polanyi got the arrow backwards. or HOW TO WORK BY SUBSTRACTION 463 deal with problems outside of itself. and advocate my own. . 20th century conservative political philosopher and philosopher of history who believed that traditions provide an aggregation of collective knowledge. went to the second step of discussing applications – something as mundane as replacing our currency holdings by precious metals as these are not owned by governments. 20th century philosopher and economist who opposed social planning on grounds that the pricing system reveals through transactions the knowledge embedded in society. and the essayist Bryan Appleyard got together for lunch I was mentally prepared to discuss ideas. while Oakeshot believed in habits.

owing to this fuzziness that can allow so much nonsense to sneak in. {Many people have wondered what my political ideas would be on the ill-built spectrum. French-language royalist and counterenlightenment thinker who was vocal against the ills of the revolution and believed in the fundamental depravity of men unless checked by some dictatorship. the scholar of religion has focused on a version of the notion of the apophatic.BOOK FOUR: VIA NEGATIVA. it is hard to figure out whether their ideas are just verbiage. and that vague philosophy is invalid. with logical-mathematical precision to their expositions. This draft version cannot be disseminated or quoted.* Edmund Burke. N. coupled with respect for the complex heuristics of tradition. while I firmly stand against the so-called left because of their support of large bureaucracies. rather a practice that we cannot quite understand. and that it is not about belief in a specified. or if there is some deep truth that analytical minds cannot capture. Add to this my profound aversion to the so-called “champagne left” or “caviar socialists”. but for the impatient reader here is a bit: I firmly stand against the right as favoring large corporations that fragilize society and their support for nation-states. . only that in the absence of some clarity. or HOW TO WORK BY SUBSTRACTION 464 Joseph de Maistre. which we saw earlier. He believed that large social variations can expose us to unseen effects and thus advocates the notion of small trial-and-error (in effect. The vagueness of the ideas of the continental philosophers can be suspicious. But this does not mean that a that is vague is nonsense.} ** 1/1/12 © Copyright 2011 by N. are about what words cannot express directly. In general continental philosophers develop their ideas in vague terms. well explained "God". Her idea of religion is that it is a way for humans to go beyond the limit of what language and logic can expresscxxxvi --for her religion is what we tend to express what cannot be formatted in a propositional. some systematic virtue. existentialist philosopher. Martin Heidegger. who also countered the French revolution for disrupting the “collected reasons of the ages”. political philosopher. Karen Armstrong. Taleb. convex tinkering) in social systems. reduced form. Irish statesman. as opposed to the school of analytic philosophers who are squarely in the right side of the table. Now try to reconcile such reactionary thinking with the ideas of Hayek. They are discussed in more depth in Chapter x.

for instance. This draft version cannot be disseminated or quoted. it gave the arguments to save us from mentally challenged aristocrats and royals. accepting the complexity of things and the whims of human actions. a holistic way of thinking about their environment in terms of objects and their “secondary”. . respect for daily activities. can be rich and even richer than ours. Enlightenment Was Not All Darkness A word of caution here. Not least. accepted that certain paths to knowledge could be better explored by fables and literature than by abstract thinking. the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss showed that nonliterate peoples had their own “science of the concrete”. Vico. this illusion that the laws of nature can be easily accessed by just getting a degree from a good university. As we 1/1/12 © Copyright 2011 by N. and Mircea Eliade in the Sacred and the Profane . I have been warning against enlightenment’s side effects. N. Indeed the very same period called enlightenment brought thinkers in line with the ideas of this chapter: Montesquieu considered it vain and arrogant to claim to fully comprehend the world. in many respects. And people like Rousseau.. love of truth. a sibling of tinkering.. Rudolf Otto . Not least. and the lesser known but no less influent Holbach referred to nature as the master to learn from —the argument I’ve used in Chapter 5 about mother nature’s qualities in risk management.BOOK FOUR: VIA NEGATIVA. A DEEPER DISCUSSION OF HEURISTICS There was an interesting differences between Socrates (who was put to death) and the other philosophers Plato and Aristotle (who were not put to death). He adumbrated the notion of “bricolage”.. Taleb. other that they were more elegant (socially and physically). equality. That is not to be mistaken against the enlightenment that brought these great values worth cherishing to the fore: justice. and the notion of “scientism”. or HOW TO WORK BY SUBSTRACTION 465 Other scholars of religion. sensuous qualities which was not necessarily less coherent than our modern scientific approach and.. and the mental mistake of denigrating antifragility and nature. its iatrogenics.

or someone like my own father who was an erudite. and philosophy. we could cure all ills. the Olympian version of humans developed. Simon became a computer science and artificial intelligence pioneer. people only did wrong out of ignorance. This draft version cannot be disseminated or quoted. Some of his collaborators call him a serial monogamous moving from field to field. conversationalist. particularly after the enlightenment. . N. he published in psychology and. Socrates believed that virtue came from knowledge: to him. at the time of writing. Then an insight contradicting both the possibility and practice came from the most diverse scholar in our times: Herbert Simon. plus what else one finds in the kitchen sink. So the idea of “thinking” and what is means for decisions has had various interpretations over history.BOOK FOUR: VIA NEGATIVA. and found a drab accountant —the story of his life was so dull as to induce nausea and discourage me for a while from trying to write scientific articles and almost made me resist accepting an academic 1/1/12 © Copyright 2011 by N. Taleb. Plato and Aristotle had the insight to acknowledge something ingrained in ancient culture. etc. neuroscience. he wrote mathematical papers (one of which got him into a bitter fight with the great Benoit Mandelbrot). So. by learning and studying. revolutionary commando and pilot. polymath and extremely bon vivant. he helped found the new field of cognitive science —a cross between psychology. I mistook him for the most interesting man on the planet. But his peers and followers thought differently. or HOW TO WORK BY SUBSTRACTION 466 said. some still call “Nobel”). art smuggler. In the recent past. He received the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economics (that. Starting with a doctorate in political science. And outside our field of study. computer science. I was expecting the romanticism and charm of high-color adventurers one finds in the autobiographies of such people as my childhood role-model André Malraux (writer. the role of deep emotional drives to our actions — a separate mechanism that may lie outside our awareness. so I had quite a bit of a shock while reading his autobiography.). in which they were deemed to act like a central computer getting information about the environment and making so-called rational decisions. perhaps as a way to reconcile his eclectic interests under one academic roof. or the control of our self that abides by the rules of reason and logic outlined by Socrates. and certainly outside our control.

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