Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Getting into Bed with an Aphorist: On Nassim Nicholas Taleb's 'The Bed of Procrustes'

La Rochefoucauld, my penguin edition of the Maxims informs me, ‘shattered the norms that govern polite society’. Nietzsche’s aphorisms, writes scholar Alexander Nehemas, ‘tore down the Western metaphysical tradition’. And Nassim Nicholas Taleb, says the blurb to the newest addition to the aphoristic tradition, ‘demolishes our illusions […] and pre-packaged narratives’. Why is it that this talk of aphorisms becomes so violent when to the general reader they are encountered as elegantly pithy pieces of wit? Yes, aphoristic writing, in some hands, does open up bold new avenues. But surely the great aphorist is in the business not of demolition but of surveying, of pointing out what is so, or what La Rochefoucauld calls ‘laying bare the human heart’.

Rather than casting aside the ‘illusions’ of social relations, aphoristic thinking is essentially mediated through the ambiguities, paradoxes and resulting absurdities that are (sometimes comically, sometimes tragically) concomitant with our socially imbedded existence. The aphorist is no more able to destroy this imbeddednes than any other observer of human behaviour. What is distinct is how the material is registered. Perhaps one ought to be putting this aphoristically. Martin Kusch, a blogging don, does just that when he uses an illustration of the criminal and the criminologist. Whereas the former enters a house looking for the obvious valuables (the laptop, the television, the jewellery), the latter enters with an eye for the minuscule (the fingerprints, the drop of blood, the flake of skin). Kusch concludes: ‘The aphorist is the criminologist, the rest of us are criminals’. Writers such as La Rochefoucauld and Chamfort had the knack of pointing out things that, though not hidden or mystical, were for various reasons unacknowledged –or even obscured- by other discourses.  

If ‘pointing out things’ sounds like one of the most unhelpful definitions since Baldrick’s dictionary entry for dog (‘not a cat’), it is due to an aphoristically-informed suspicion of over-definition. ‘Aphorisms’, writes Taleb in the introduction to his wonderful The Bed of Procrustes, ‘lose their charm when explained’. Were we to summarise the content of the aphorisms of a Nietzsche or a La Rochefoucauld, and in so doing brutally sever form from content, we would in the main receive a number of banal theses exploring various gaps between “ideality” and “reality” and the triumph of self-interest. The most we can say for definition is that they are prose fragments of varying length. The shortest can also be called maxims and axioms, and the longer, paragraph-length aphorisms are like those found in books by the gloomy Cioran. Therefore, would Taleb’s book not be better served by asking what kind of thinking is conducive to this aforementioned charm?

Take one of Taleb’s aphorisms: ‘The fool generalizes the particular; the nerd particularizes the general; some do both; and the wise does neither.’ A summary would seek to neutralise the potential for paradox and ambiguity: Taleb is not “against” the idea of moving between particularity and generality (this is, after all, the space in which aphorisms roam). He is merely opposed to a way of thinking that regards the particular and the general as discrete concepts; both the nerd and the fool seek to impose the form of one onto the form of another, when it is precisely the case that both universals and immediacies are essentially bound up with one another in the same instance. This relates to Taleb’s wider suspicions of the epistemological concepts with which we divide the world into normative states. It only took the discovery of a black swan to disprove the certainties of the concept ‘all swans are white’, thus disturbing our world vision.

However, what such analysis (literally: breaking up) does is itself impose a positivistic formula onto a statement that negates the idea of positivistic formulae. The title of Taleb’s book alludes to the Greek myth of the bed to which the unlucky guests of Procrustes were brutally re-modelled to fit by either stretching or lopping off limbs. This grotesque metaphor for the adjustment of empirical facts into an arbitrary theoretical index is not something that aphorisms can totally overcome. But, just as the underrated aphorist Chamfort sought to show that ‘truth lies somewhere in between’, Taleb belittles both sides of the argument by way of illustrating the limitations involved in taking sides. Whilst there have been aphorists such as Pascal who have written for the purposes of expressing personal commitment in a way that lends itself to doctrinaire moralism, the tradition to which Taleb belongs resists pushing any kind of agenda. 

It is unsurprising that there were so few utopian idealists or anglophone pragmatists who were attracted to this form, and it would be hard to find a famous aphorist who belonged to an organised intellectual movement or subscribed to a popular school of thought. Indeed, the most successful exponents in the aphoristic canon led isolated and often troubled (and even troubling) existences. La Rochefoucauld wrote in old age after a life that had in both public and private been marked by disappointment and lost opportunity; Chamfort led a life of chequered fortunes and, after falling on the wrong side of the revolution, spent his final year disfigured and in constant pain after a series of botched suicide attempts; Nietzsche was, erm, Nietzsche. And Taleb, at once philosopher who maligns the financial and academic worlds and successful wall street trader and university professor, is a man of contradiction and enormous singularity. Each one of them refuses to conform to conventional models in both life and philosophy. What they find in the aphoristic tradition is a space for reflecting on problems and limitations without restricting themselves to a system concerned with generating solutions.            

For instance, look at a terrific aphorism from Nietzsche’s Human All Too Human, ‘A comedy scene which occurs in life’. It describes an instance where a dinner guest desires to impress company with a witty opinion, and thus will go to great lengths to manipulate the conversation for this purpose, but has his thunder stolen at the last moment. ‘What’, asks Nietzsche, ‘will he do? Oppose his own opinion?’ The essence of this aphorism is in the tone. We arrive at the ironic crux not to receive moral guidance but to witness the seemingly illogical logic of social interaction. By ending on a question Nietzsche is showing how the facts of life (and, therefore, aphorisms) do not lend themselves to absolute certainties. How boring life and dinner parties would be, the suggestion goes, if people actually said what they believed in and were not vain and constantly out to impress. Yet if they acknowledged this to others there would cease to be any more sociable occasions.

Nietzsche’s aphorisms in HAH and elsewhere seem to emerge as flashes of revelation out of his musings on what it means to ‘become what you are’; as with the state of his free spirits, the cognition of clever opinions is here shown to be a sociably anti-social product rather than a merely solitary one. As many of his aphorisms illustrate, the great masterstroke of society is that it manages to accommodate and contain everyone’s selfish interests whilst giving off the image of being in a healthy and principled state. The problem is the solution and the solution the problem. Similarly, when Taleb writes that ‘You remember emails that you sent that were not answered better than emails that you did not answer’ the point isn’t that this has been previously unknown to us but precisely that we carry on untroubled by the awareness of the various minor hypocrisies that abound in our thoughts and actions. 

This is not to say that the aphorism possesses a greater amount of truth than is available to others in society. Truth is a commodity that is fought over by politicians, academics, journalists and talkshow hosts. Whilst not arguing that it doesn’t exist in some form, truth is far too tainted by the grubby materialism of the vox pop to interest our aphorists. Rather, as they do not strictly commit themselves to any ideological cause they are free to experiment with pushing ideas further than a discourse troubled by accuracy and neutrality would be willing or able to. Thus, Chamfort can go from criticising the folly of the rich to the envy of the poor and their utopian sympathisers without being tied down by the demands of argumentative consistency.

Linked to this is a major misconception that aphorisms are “throwaway phrases”, written “offhand” (as opposed to…?) to provoke or to titillate. ‘It is waste of emotions to answer critics; better to stay in print long after they are dead’; ‘I take a ritual bath after contact, or correspondence (even emails), with consultant, economists, Harvard Business school professors, journalists’ etc. How can one take Taleb’s “funny little gibes” seriously? I suppose (to use an off-the-cuff prefix) an aphorist would respond by arguing that the whole idea of serious writing is to throw away personal registers and thus, in favouring authoritative objectivism, disown the fact that the writing is coming from the subjective voice of an individual. We are constantly aware when reading Procrustes of Taleb as Taleb. His preferences (to idleness, to poetry) and his prejudices (to economists, to the internet, to academics) are idiosyncratic rather than prescriptive.

As important as these points are, they are still only surface scratching. As was the case for the aphorism on universals and particulars, it is too crude to speak of subjectivism and objectivism as if they are separate entities (indeed, this objective way of thinking is only half right). Aphorisms have far more interesting things to say about the phenomenology of writing. Their fragmented aspect gives them the aura of words that stand alone and above the historical moment from the which they emerge. Whilst they might not always claim universalism, their stylistically seductive form seems to imply that their singular act of conception sufficiently validates their argument. Whilst raging against other authorities, aphorists nevertheless relish imparting their own codes of conduct, e.g. Taleb’s satirically laced ‘To be completely cured of newspapers, spend a year reading the previous week’s newspapers’. 
Yet, as the above quotation demonstrates, you can’t be completely free of context-specific idiom. References to emails, economics and big pharma counteract the aphoristic form’s tendency towards ahistoricism. It refuses to document experience but cannot help being of product of experience; this is in part analogous to how Nietzsche built empirical observations into an existential ontology that rejected empiricism. It reminds us that even when the maxims of La Rochefoucauld seem their most abstract in discussions of passions versus reason they are ultimately contributions to the philosophical debates on 17th Century that, as the cliché goes, culminated in the age of Enlightenment. This tension is not the fault of the aphorism but its modus operandi. It wants to live its life as an individual but can’t get around the issue of living with, for and because of others. But at least aphorisms find their distinction from most forms of human expression (and book reviewing especially) in understanding the many merits of brevity.   

Some choice aphorisms: 

A good maxim allows you to have the last word without even starting a conversation  Taleb

An idea starts to be interesting when you get scared of taking it to its logical conclusion  Taleb 

Education makes the wise slightly wiser; but it makes the fool vastly more dangerous  Taleb 

If you want people to read a book, tell them it is overrated  Taleb

Usually, what we call a "good listener" is someone with skillfully polished indifference  Taleb  (c.f Tony Blair)

I wonder if anyone ever measured the time it takes, at a party, before a mildly successful stranger who went to Harvard makes others aware of it  Taleb

In most debates, people seem to be trying to convince one another; but all they can hope for is new arguments to convince themselves  Taleb

For pleasure, read one chapter by Nabokov. For punishment, two  Taleb 

Hard science gives sensational results with a horribly boring process; philosophy gives boring results with a sensational process; literature gives sensational results with a sensational process; and economics gives boring results with a boring process  Taleb

Double a man's erudition; you will halve his citations  Taleb --Quentin Skinner is pwn'd. 

We find it to be extremely bad taste for individuals to boast of their accomplishments; but when countries do so we call it "national pride"   Taleb

Academics are only useful when they try to be useless (say, as in mathematics and philosophy) and dangerous when they try to be useful  Taleb

What organized dating sites fail to understand is that people are far more interesting in what they don't say about themselves  Taleb

We are often prevented from appreciating aphorisms proving the falseness of the virtues by our excessive readiness to believe that in our own case these are genuine  La Rochefoucauld

In most men love of justice is only fear of suffering injustice  La Rochefoucauld

When we resist passions it is more on account of their weakness than our strength  La Rochefoucauld 

Physical calamities and natural disasters forced us to live in communities. Living in communities added to these natural problems; the drawbacks of living in society led to our need to be governed and government increases social evils. You've just read a resume of the history of mankind  Chamfort

Before being generous, you must be fair; before adding ruffs to shirt sleeves, you must first have a shirt  Chamfort 

Society can be divided into two main categories: people who have more appetite than dinners and those who have more dinners than appetite  Chamfort

A stupid man showing a brief glimmer of intelligence creates the same feeling of surprise and shock as cab-horse breaking into gallop  Chamfort 


  1. I am a bit more than halfway through "The Bed of Procrustes." Thanks for your thoughts! Have you checked out the Zurau aphorisms of Franz Kafka? They are my favorite.

  2. I loved this page, so I'm not being sarcastic when I say this, but---perhaps the greatest arrogance of all is to believe that our deep thinking should impress anyone else but ourselves.

    (feel free to pass this on in a viral manner if you want. It would be fun to see it randomly pop up on the internet sometime)

  3. Thanks for recognizing this Genius in our midst.

  4. AMAZING analysis of Taleb's latest brainfart, thanks for posting it, and for posting all the other gems!!!!! Well done, consider someone other than yourself impressed ;)))