Practical Knowledge

June 28, 2009 — 13 Comments

The Greeks believed in the telos, the idea that all things had a purpose. The way that this purpose was achieved, the way each objective was served, was with techne. Philosophers like Aristotle and Plato would sit and study something – like a chair – to discover its telos and the techne through which it is accomplished. This process, this intuitive understanding of what something is and why, was known as phronesis. It is the method of real analysis and the mark of wisdom.

This is what we miss from blogs. We have plenty of discussion and speculation, but rarely any understanding of the issues at their most basic level. This happens because too often writers look only at the numbers and theory and never the underlying human transaction. I’m guilty of this too, this internet autism. I remember the time I spent days looking online for a college professor’s info before I thought to try a phone book.

The debate about magazines and newspapers is a good example. Whether newspapers have a grim or bright future is irrelevant, but take note of how brazenly bloggers throw around the idea of going printless. They’ve examined a small part of the equation – that printing is an expensive economic model while digital is cheap – and assume it’s all they need to know. What they’ve lost is that maybe the true telos of printed news isn’t delivery but disposability. Ironically, the experts who coined the “attention economy” lack the human empathy to conceive what it’s like to walk through an airport and pick up something to read, or to pay $80 a year to get the Wall St Journal delivered, even if you only read it maybe two days a month. Not once did they think of a doctor’s office or a waiting room, the places where print media best fulfills its purpose.

Watch Jarvis throw around things like the death of real estate agents or the death of lawyers. He misses the currency that these professions trade on: unfamiliarity, convenience, deference, negotiation. That if you were a busy person looking for a new house, you wouldn’t pay someone to put together a list of those that fit your criteria, drive you to each one and handle the paperwork? And why shouldn’t they get paid proportionally to the size of the sale? Zillow, as great as it is, doesn’t change the most basic underlying condition: that staring at a city of houses and finding the right one by yourself is a daunting prospect. It makes it worse.

It’s funny because on the one hand, these types are incapable of seeing beyond their own reality. On the other, they don’t intuitively understand that reality either. They never sat down like Aristotle and examined the aims and objectives. They used the “what” to distract themselves from the “why.” Like Plato wrote, they grope around in the dark, confusing cause and effect and ascribing both where they don’t belong.

Good analysis requires understanding. Understanding requires thinking beyond the superficial notions of what we think things are and looking at the assumptions and facts that undergird them. To understand news, look at the human and economic conditions that contributed to their evolution. Before you throw out revolution predictions or herald new epochs, ask yourself: which of them have changed? And evolution is a good frame of reference because what often happens in biology is that mutations introduce radical changes which are then worn and shaped by their environment, leaving us with small, incremental progress.

The important thing isn’t that most blogs are worthless. They’re just a good example of how important the right kind of information is – that the type of knowledge that translates into real insight is the type that delves to the core of the issue. And that since the Greeks, we’ve been struggling with charlatans who lack the ability to get there. We would all be better served to break things down, to discern a telos, isolate the techne, and build towards phronesis.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

13 responses to Practical Knowledge

  1. Awesome post-I just finished War of Art and I definitely see a connection between Pressfield’s “Resistance” and the mindset of many bloggers.

    Breaking a concept down and understanding it at a basic level is difficult compared to the mental masturbation that occurs in many blogs. But I think this phronesis process is really a key to converting knowledge from theoretical mind-candy to usable information.

  2. Your writing has really improved substantially. I honestly will not be surprised to see you with a bestseller one day.

  3. JanusthePhoenix June 29, 2009 at 9:35 am

    Good post; I wish more people could grasp these concepts. I have a theory on this, which expounds on the polarization concept from the 33 Strategies. I think our society has been subjected to polarization and the emotional engagement of every minute issue (Pepsi vs. Coke, Apple vs. PC) for so long that most of us don’t know anything else. There is no middle ground, no ‘maybe, maybe not’, no ‘I don’t know’. “You either agree with us on everything, or you’re a filthy communist liberal,” etc. I think we’re so programmed now by our factions and their accompanying biases that understanding like you described has become a foreign and unnatural concept once again.

  4. This is well-written and well-argued. Good post.

    I’m glad you threw the last paragraph in, particularly, “how important the right kind of information is – that the type of knowledge that translates into real insight is the type that delves to the core of the issue.” Part of the problem with blogs is their frequent and astonishingly complete lack of nuance, not to mention their tendency toward argument by assertion.

    For example: Zillow. For many people shopping for a house, Zillow was a gift from heaven. For many house buyers, real estate agents were and are nothing but an obstacle. They were the worst kind of middleman: someone who exploited a lack of access and information to their advantage and to the disadvantage of both parties on either side of the transaction. The idea that the multiple listings should be private information is almost breathtakingly craven.

    That real estate agents provide a valuable service to many people is only one side of the argument. Zillow remedied an enormous problem, which is that people who don’t value the services of a real estate agent were forcibly restrained from carrying out these transactions by themselves. Looking at a city full of properties is daunting to some, not to others. And while it’s true that Zillow and Craig’s List will hand many real estate agents their heads, it will also significantly increase their value (and, I’d venture to say, their price) to those to whom they offer something of value even in a market of free or cheap information. But what’s true about this is that the old model is truly getting murdered, to be reborn in a significantly different form. What’s true is that, as the price of information drops to zero, the value of services that trade solely on information also goes to zero. Real estate agents are going to need to focus on other services to create value, services that don’t rely on controlling access to information. It’s astounding the degree to which newspapers have failed to grasp this fact.

    I’d argue that blogs that argue one side of these arguments also provide value to many readers who want their opinions handed to them fully formed, without nuance or complexity. That is, if you will, their telos. Don’t underestimate the value of yelling louder than anyone else, either.

  5. Really enjoyed this post Ryan. It’s good to read a blog which contains depth and reasoning and isn’t just pumping out volume!

  6. I think it’ll be years before the extinction of print media. I think a certain segment of the population will have to die off first. With major Newspapers such as the Ny Times and the Wall Street Journal giving people access online, perhaps it’ll only be a matter of time before magazines go printless to the internet (i.e. People, SI, etc – I guess they have already in some ways). Maybe they’ll offer their readers Kindle subscriptions.

  7. I think a lot of the problem is that the American school system has become too focused on producing “productive” citizens. It’s all about job skills, and not about the ability to think. Facts are shoved into kids’ heads without context. We want to be able to measure student outcomes, and it’s too difficult to measure anything that really matters, so we measure the bullshit. Even colleges have become nothing more than expensive vocational schools.

    The bloggers you speak of are the product of a society that no longer values intellect. We are the China of the information age: instead of producing cheap, plastic, disposable trinkets, we produce cheap, plastic, disposable information. It’s just too bad we’re so busy basking in the glow of our own grandiosity and proclaiming ourselves “gurus” that we can’t see where all this is taking us.

  8. Dan, that was maybe one of the best comments I’ve seen here ever. As in, you got what I was saying or alluding to, and explained it much better than I ever could have.

  9. Being a philosophy major (with a healthy background in Ancient Philosophy), I’m actually surprised how well you explained and broke down Aristotle and Plato into something useful versus boring philosophy classes where the students mostly see them as old, historical, and worn out thinkers who maybe contributed something to our better, modern ideas.

  10. Thank you for that. I don’t have too much formal training so sometimes I worry I may be getting the specifics wrong.

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