Negative knowledge is about knowing what does not work and what to avoid. And the value of negative knowledge cannot be stressed enough in a modern world that is so full of noise. One that drowns you with a daily dose of nonsense.
So, knowing what is wrong is vital, particularly in complex domains where what is right is difficult to define. Those domains where positive knowledge — knowing what works — is elusive or must be discovered slowly and carefully.
Knowing what is wrong
Let me try to illustrate with a few examples.
I am not sure how to get rich quick, but I know that get-rich-quick schemes are scams.
I don’t know if “you will succeed if you try hard enough”. But I know that luck plays a huge role in winner-take-all domains, where we are often fooled by survivorship bias.
It is quite tricky to define what self-confidence is in all its fullness. But I know that self-confidence is not about false bravado and hot air. And, that it can be blocked by certain beliefs you have about yourself that stop you from embracing who you are, as you are.
I am not sure exactly what ‘great leadership’ is. But, I can say that it is not about speaking in an authoritative voice and being good at colourful presentations. I also know that leadership cannot arise without skin in the game, courage and service. Such ‘leaders’ are most likely to be bullshitters.
We are not sure what would enable the most economic prosperity. But we may say that it is not supported by Soviet-style central planning that led to food shortages.
Look for what it is NOT
I am not sure what the ‘good life’ is exactly, but I know that it doesn’t involve chasing arbitrary status achievements. Achievements that constantly defer happiness to the future and leave you feeling hollow.
We cannot say precisely what makes something meaningful. But I certainly know to avoid what I find meaningless. I also know that ‘meaning’ has something to do with immersing yourself in what you find deeply inspiring.
I don’t know how to define true success. but I certainly know that fake success worships money, power and status. We may also say that success has something to do with living in your own way.
I cannot say that there is a prescribed path to self-actualisation or even what that is exactly. But I do know that it is not about “developing the self”, like a carpenter building up to the heavens.
We cannot say what Tao/God/Ultimate Reality is exactly. But we can certainly point to it via negativa. We may say, for example, that IT is not to be found through the human ego’s desire for the certainty of fixed definitions.
Hopefully, you are starting to get the idea now.
Embracing the value of negative knowledge
We must remember too that understanding the value of negative knowledge is not about ignoring the value of positive knowledge. If you know how to build a sturdy table, that is valuable positive knowledge. However, not all areas of life are as simple as building a table. Plus, how to build the table was uncovered by understanding how not to build a table!
Unlike the mechanistic table, more complex, often human domains, call on us to seek the ‘truth’ by carefully avoiding what is not-the-truth. These domains are the ones where we accidentally tend to focus on false narratives because they are easier to come by.
This is precisely where we have to be most careful and where the value of negative knowledge comes in to play.
Harsha is a 1:1 coach and independent thinker based in London. He empowers people to find more clarity, confidence and focus in their lives — to cut through the noise, in a world so full of it. Harsha’s new book, Machine Ego: Tragedy of the Modern Mind, is now available in paperback and Kindle through Amazon.