The Strange and the Familiar

I noticed today that Taleb didn’t get the FT/Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award. “Too bad,” I thought when I saw the result, because I like Taleb’s books, especially TBS. On the other hand, it’s understandable since there’s little new in The Black Swan, as Taleb explicitly admits. It’s a long riff on confirmation bias, the problem of induction, and naive (read: ignorant) philosophy of mathematics. Skeptics (like columnist John Kay) generally liked the book, which is not surprising, since it reinforces their skeptical take on the world.

One of the few things I didn’t like about the book was Taleb’s description of the unfamiliar in terms of the unfamiliar or, alternatively, the strange in terms of the strange. Other philosophical writers have this same tick, for instance Douglas Hofstadter (whose books I love, especially I Am A Strange Loop). Hofstadter and Taleb are forever making up strange stories to illustrate (for most readers) unintuitive ideas, like strange loops or the problem of induction.

I understand why they do it; ideas like these are hard to communicate. Moreover, what they want the reader to do is shift his or her world view (this is especially so in Hofstadter’s books). If you get all familiar on the reader, they lapse back into their old way of thinking and you’ve failed to communicate. So there’s certainly method in what they do.

The cost is likely failure to communicate. Generally, if you want to communicate unfamiliar information to a human being, you cast it in terms of something familiar to that person. Suffice it to say that this is not a controversial or new idea; it’s just often ignored. For a primer on this and other basic rules of communication, see Made To Stick, which practices what it preaches.

Much like metaphors, then, an explanation has a source and target domain. You give the new (target) in terms of the familiar (source), like what you do when you make a metaphorical comparison: “When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,/and dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s fields.” Lakoff and Mark Turner would, annoyingly, use all caps here and write something like “THE FACE IS A FIELD,” just in case you didn’t get the connection.

There are other combinations, too:

Familiar Strange

The Strange in terms of the Familiar (Expository Prose)

The Strange in terms of the Strange (Philosophical Prose)


The Familiar in terms of the Familiar (Everyday Prose)

The Familiar in terms of the Strange (Poetry; “Literary” Prose)

The other interesting combination is the familiar in terms of the strange, and this is what good poetry often does, especially forms like haiku (and the related mind-bending but non-poetic form, the koan). The payoff is suprise—usually a good thing, and since the reader is unlikely to be confused (you’re dealing with the familiar, after all), the surprise is all the more delicious.

Some philosophers can put the familiar in terms of the strange and leave you feeling illuminated. Wittgenstein was one. David Pears liked to say that Wittgenstein showed us “the strangeness of the ordinary.” That feels right to me, but Wittgenstein (I’m talking about the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein) stands out and by doing so seems much more of an artist than a philosopher.