November 23, 2012


Antifragile: How to Live in a World We Don't Understand by Nassim Nicholas Taleb - review (David Runciman, 11/21/12, The Guardian)

[A]ntifragile jumps around from aphorism to anecdote to technical analysis, interspersed with a certain amount of hectoring encouragement to the reader to keep up. The aim, apparently, is to show how much more interesting an argument can be if it resists being pinned down.

There are two problems with this. First, the book is very hard going. Everything is taken to link to everything else but nothing is ever followed through. Taleb despises mere "theorists" but still aspires to produce a theory of everything. So what we get are lots of personal reminiscences buttressed by the ideas of the few thinkers he respects, almost all of whom happen to be his friends. The result is both solipsistic and ultimately dispiriting. Reading this book is the intellectual equivalent of having to sit patiently while someone shows you their holiday snaps.

The other difficulty is that too many of the ideas contained here appear thin and brittle rather than rich and flexible: fragile rather than antifragile. Taleb is keen on "heuristics" - shortcuts to wisdom that encapsulate human experience - but often these seem simply to reflect his own prejudices. To take just one example: Taleb thinks modern states become fragile when they get into debt, and that a prerequisite of political antifragility is rigid fiscal conservatism. This is nonsense. Eschewing debt makes states just as fragile as having too much of it. The durability of both the British and American states throughout their history has depended on their ability to use public debt to adapt to different challenges. As political analysis, Taleb's heuristic - "when you don't have debt you don't care about your reputation ... and somehow it's only when you don't care about your reputation that you tend to have a good one" - is glib and unconvincing.
Posted by at November 23, 2012 5:07 AM
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