The Black Swan

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable Fragility by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb The Black Swan

This book was recommended to me as an examination of “how to think,” but it would have been more accurate to characterize it as admonitions on “how not to think.” It is a lucid and highly vernacular study of randomness and unknowability, debunking much of what passes for “social science,” especially economics. The author is a statistically-trained trader of derivatives, a friend/disciple of Benoit Mandelbrot, and a foe of the Nobel-Prize-bearing intellectual establishment.

If nothing else, Taleb is a brilliant self-promoter who presents himself as a fascinating character. I can’t imagine a mainstream talk-show producer reading this book without coveting him as a guest. (The fact that other reviewers have castigated him as “arrogant” only enhances this effect.) In an especially clever turn, he introduces the thinly-fictionalized alter-ego of “Nero Tulip,” and describes Nero’s spectacular facing down of his boss in an episode that could have been part of Palahniuk’s Fight Club (98-99). Did Taleb really do that? Maybe.

One little fault I would charge against Taleb is his demonization of Plato. (xxv) He insists that he has read “more material from those I disagree with than from those whose opinion I share,” (304) which is of course the intellectually upright approach for those engaged in argumentation. But there’s no Plato in his bibliography, and his anecdote to demonstrate what he takes as “Platonicity” only cites a recent book on “handedness”. (319) I suspect him of having ingested his distaste for Plato secondhand through Karl Popper. (Taleb lionizes Popper at length.) He insists that to “Platonify” is to see the world through predetermined categories and models. (257) But I think Taleb has a lot in common with Plato in his devotion to intellectual outsiders; and Plato shared Taleb’s distrust of narrative knowledge, to the point of proposing that Homeric epics be outlawed.

A key message, and something of the spirit, of The Black Swan can be found in chapter 22 of Aleister Crowley’s Book of Lies (1912): The Despot [also]. Taleb writes: “Luck is the grand equalizer, because almost everyone can benefit from it.” (222) [via]