Von Clausewitz a Bayesian?

“Our knowledge of circumstances has increased, but our uncertainty, instead of having diminished, has only increased. The reason of this is, we do not gain all our experience at once, but by degrees; thus our determinations continue to be assailed incessantly by fresh experience; and the mind, if we may use the expression, must always be ‘under arms.'” On War, Carl Von Clausewitz

I like the Bayesian notion that we must constantly be examining our hypotheses against new information. And, if we take it a bit outside the math context (where I am more comfortable), it is our job to find that data. Because as Steven Landsburg put it, under Bayes’ Law “everything that can be relevant is relevant.”

A theory about the world or who you want to be – combining Von Clausewitz and Bayes – is a bit like a battle strategy. It doesn’t mean anything until it comes under siege. The enemy nor the data cares much for your plans. Success requires a certain prescience, sure, but more crucially, it needs a general that closely monitors the feedback from all sources of information and consistently learns from them.

And I don’t mean this is in the generic “can you be flexible?” sense that everyone throws around. We’re talking objectively, can you monitor and track your actions empirically? How quickly can you rewrite your operating procedures? Which of your assumptions are firm and which can be shifted? Do you fear new information or do you welcome it? How active is your pursuit of challenging feedback? Have you identified the false positives so you can avoid them?

From Clausewitz, I am thinking that difference between someone who can launch and learn and someone who can’t isn’t so much a difference in skill level as it is of planes.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.