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Someone can explain the theory of bike riding badly, yet still ride a bike well

Published: 2019-10-21

In an excerpt from his book Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb lays out a conversation between Fat Tony and Socrates. My gut reaction when reading this was to defend Socrates. But after a few reads this gem soaked in: a person can know a thing well, and still explain it badly in words.

I’ve known this deep down, but ironically, did not have the words to express it until reading Taleb. It’s really a humbling idea – it makes you take serious a whole world of people that you otherwise wouldn’t.

Fat Tony: You are asking me to define what characteristic makes a difference between pious and nonpious. 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 a word like ‘piety’ without knowing what it means, while pretending to know what it means?

Fat Tony: Do I actually have to be able to tell you in plain barbarian non-Greek English, or in pure Greek, what it means to prove that I know and understand what it means? I don’t know it in words but I know what it is.

No doubt Fat Tony would have taken Socrates of Athens further down his own road and be the one doing the framing of the question:

Fat Tony: Tell me, old man. Does a child need to define mother’s milk to understand the need to drink it?

Socrates: No, he does not need to.

Fat Tony: (using the same repetitive pattern of Socrates in the Plato dialogues): And my dear Socrates, does a dog need to define what an owner is to be loyal to him?

Socrates: (puzzled to have someone ask him questions): A dog has… instinct. It does not reflect on its life. He doesn’t examine his life. We are not dogs.

Fat Tony: I agree, my dear Socrates, that a dog has instinct and that we are not dogs. But are we humans so fundamentally different as to be completely stripped of instinct leading us to do things we have no clue about? Do we have to limit life to what we can answer in proto-Brooklyn English?

Without waiting for Socrates’ answer (only suckers wait for answers; questions are not made for answers):

Fat Tony: Then, my good Socrates, why do you think that we need to fix the meaning of things?

Socrates: My dear Mega-Tony, we need to know what we are talking about when we talk about things. The entire idea of philosophy is to be able to reflect and understand what we are doing, examine our lives. An unexamined life is not worth knowing.

Fat Tony: The problem, my poor old Greek, is that you are killing the things we can know but not express. And if I asked someone riding a bicycle just fine to give me the theory behind his bicycle riding, he would fall from it. By bullying and questioning people you confuse them and hurt them.

Then, looking at him patronizingly, with a smirk, very calmly:

Fat Tony: My dear Socrates… you know why they are putting you to death? It is because you make people feel stupid for blindly following habits, instincts, and traditions. You may be occasionally right. But you may confuse them about things they’ve been doing just fine without getting in trouble. You are destroying people’s illusions about themselves. You are taking the joy of ignorance out of the things we don’t understand. And you have no answer; you have no answer to offer them.