Is Malcolm Gladwell a Philosopher?

After his Tipping Point reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list in 2005, Malcolm Gladwell was named one of Time Magazine’s One Hundred Most Influential People for the year. His domain is essentially the exploration of statistical anomalies, although such an anemic description does not do justice to his highly engaging, conversational style of writing. They are the kinds of books that you read from cover to cover in one or two sittings. He has a wonderful knack for zeroing in on the salient details of a complex process and making it comprehensible in a clear and elegant language. He generally proceeds by introducing a number of superficially unrelated data sets, such as the crime rate in New York City and the sales data for Hush Puppies, and then bringing them together in some novel way. Although there is a great thematic unity between his books, what Malcolm Gladwell himself thinks about the information he presents is, however, not quite clear. His books are hard to classify: is he an essayist? A journalist? An economist? A philosopher?

In spite the wealth of fascinating information and skillful analysis in Gladwell’s books, I have never felt completely satisfied after reading one of them. Something is missing, and I suggest that it is precisely this missing element that would make Gladwell a bona fide philosopher and not just a gifted expositor of intriguing ideas. What is missing in Gladwell’s work could perhaps be described as the big picture, a certain level of abstraction, some sort of an attempt formally to unify his observations into a worldview. Ironically, the “missing big picture” is in fact a great theme of Gladwell’s: in his essays entitled Open Secrets: Enron, Intelligence, and the Perils of Too Much Information and The Picture Problem: Mammography, Air Power, and the Limits of Looking, he addresses directly the paradoxical phenomenon of situations that become more opaque the more precise and extensive our information about them becomes. What is missing from such situations is the privileged point of view that would allow us to see through the information. We might in fact consider this problematic to be present in Gladwell’s work itself: after carefully accumulating and presenting his information, he does not take the final and properly philosophical step of cutting through his work and extracting some central insight. I will use the two articles mentioned above to illustrate the missing level of abstraction implicit in Gladwell’s philosophy.

In Open Secrets, Gladwell introduces a distinction between what he calls puzzles and what he calls mysteries. Puzzles are incomplete, whereas mysteries are too complete. A puzzle is a situation in which certain pieces of information are simply missing; theoretically, once the missing information is discovered, the previously complex or contradictory state of affairs becomes smooth, transparent, and above all legible. Sherlock Holmes solves puzzles. A mystery, on the other hand, is a state of affairs in which the proliferation of information makes things paradoxically less clear: what is lacking is not “the right piece” of information but some element that would trim the information in such a way that it would become coherent. In other words, what is missing is the diagonal slash that would get rid of the “bad” inconsistent information and leave us only with the “good” consistent information. Enron is such an example: the data that were used to convict Jeffrey Skilling were not hidden documents, missing puzzle pieces uncovered by some enterprising sleuth, but documents that had been made public by Enron itself.

After introducing us to this intriguing distinction, however, Gladwell’s analysis abruptly stops. Instead of digging into the appetizing plate of food he has set out for us, he walks away from the table. His conclusion is simply that there are puzzles, and there are mysteries, that it is crucial not to confuse them, and that’s it. There is no moral to the story. Yet it is only here that things truly begin to get interesting from a philosophical point of view. It is as if Charles Darwin had come back from the Galapagos Islands with a careful list of all the indigenous species found there but no theory of evolution. The first path that Gladwell fails to explore is that of the dialectical relationship between puzzles and mysteries: in what way are they connected? How can they be articulated with each other? The second path that Gladwell fails to explore is that of the historicity of puzzles and mysteries: after suggesting that we are undergoing a paradigm shift from a puzzling world to a mysterious world, he elects not to analyze the deeper reasons for such a shift. The third path that Gladwell fails to explore is that of stating the phenomenon he is describing in more abstract terms, which would allow him to establish connections with other disciplines.

In the case of the distinction between puzzles and mysteries, it so happens that Gladwell failed to recognize a model that was discovered by the early 20th century logician Kurt Gödel, that of the relationship between completeness and consistency in any given system. In 1931, Kurt Gödel proved, with the utmost mathematical brilliance, that any logical system can be either complete or consistent but never both simultaneously. In other words, incompleteness is the price of consistency: for a given set of information to make sense, to be legible to us, there must be something missing. On the contrary, if we possess all the information about a given system – completeness – it will by definition contain contradictions. Here we have a much richer picture of the relationship between puzzles and mysteries: instead of simply existing as two of any possible number of paradigms of ignorance, we see that they are rather the eternal Scylla and Charybdis of truth, the two irreducible poles around which knowledge is condemned to organize itself without ever meeting itself halfway.

The next step that must be taken is to analyze why we have passed from a puzzle regime to a mystery regime. What has changed in the nature of the human world that our greatest problem is no longer solving puzzles but solving mysteries? Can this phenomenon be articulated with any other phenomena of modernity? Here the answer is very much yes. Borrowing from Gödel, psychoanalysis long ago made the connection between a so-called “paternal” universe and a consistent but incomplete system.1 The traditional paternal social model is one that is organized around a point of exception (father, king, God) who, by virtue of his paradoxical status – simultaneously above/outside the law and the ultimate source of the law – ensures that the system remains complete. A paternal universe is one in which the rules are consistent but not necessarily fair, for “fairness” presupposes a transcendental access to the hypothetically complete “whole story”. But what is the whole story if not an inexhaustible series of facts that never reach a point at which they “judge themselves”? Imagine a criminal sentencing in which the judge refuses to hand down a punishment until he has an absolutely complete account of the factors leading up to the crime: it is clear that such a trial would never end. On the other hand, a criminal trial in which consistency is the organizing principle will always risk falling into the opposite trap, that of the lynch mob, for if you are willing to discard certain pieces of information, there is nothing easier than to come to a consistent conclusion. He did it! A paternal universe is thus a closed but structurally unfair system: why do I have to go to bed at eight o’clock? Because I told you so! Why is the penalty for stealing two years in prison and not three? Because the law says so! Western (post-, hyper-) modernity has, for fifty years now, been typified by the generalized decline of the paternal model. Why? Why now? Why, after thousands of years of choosing consistency over completeness have we finally begun to change our minds? Here is the truly intriguing unaddressed question at the heart of Gladwell’s analysis, which I will attempt to explore further here.

One possible answer lies in technology. Gladwell hints at a development of this idea when he comes to the conclusion that although high-definition mammograms allow us to see more, they also, in the same movement, make it harder for us to know what we are seeing. It could be argued that the incredible advances in science and technology that have taken place over the last century have reawakened in mankind the childish belief that we can know everything, see everything, and have everything. In other words, technology seems to offer us the possibility of total knowledge, of a complete body of knowledge that would not depend on some sort of external authority (such as God) for its consistency but which would guarantee itself. Such a knowledge would be self-sufficient: no knower, no interpreter, would be necessary, because the need for a knower already implies a first gap in the system.2 In other words, we have begun to think that we have finally conquered the basic fact of the human condition, that of being condemned to see things from a permanently biased point of view, that of seeing the world from a singular position. We might here use the Hubble Space Telescope as a metaphor: no matter how far it sees, no matter how much information it collects, it will nonetheless never see God. If it is possible to know everything, it logically follows that we must suspend judgment until we know everything; having abandoned the idea that it is legitimate to pass judgment on a situation without knowing everything, we find ourselves confronted with fewer and fewer puzzles (which are implicitly “paternal” in nature) and more and more mysteries. A puzzle is paternal in nature because a puzzle is by definition a closed system from which a piece of information happens to be missing. As with a jigsaw puzzle, the elements in the picture are already organized around an implicit rectangular frame, only there is a hole somewhere. A paternal universe is a world that comes with a frame, one that separates a consistent inside from an inconsistent outside.

This is also why we continue to see mysteries as puzzles: the fantasy of being able to know everything is profoundly seductive. The more science and technology reveal to us, the more useless the father appears, the more he appears as simply a barrier to increased scientific knowledge. To take another of Gladwell’s examples, that of the release of the PIll in 1960: what good is a strict father who prohibits his children from having premarital sex in the face of a little pill that is so much more effective and involves no sacrifice? Here the father appears as simply an obsolete technology for maintaining a harmonious society. By jettisoning the paternal system we have of course lost a great degree of unfairness. What is far less obvious is that we have also lost the hidden piece of wisdom that the traditional father transmitted (often despite himself), namely that completeness and consistency are mutually exclusive. By incarnating (consciously or unconsciously) the barrier to completeness (”you cannot have everything/know everything/see everything…because I prohibit it!”), he forced his subjects to accept incompleteness (or, in psychoanalytic terms, castration) as the necessary condition of inhabiting a world that would be consistent and legible. The trap that so many people have fallen into (and continue to fall into) is to confuse the excesses and shortcomings of the necessarily hypocritical and fraudulent paternal stand-ins with the transcendental place of exception itself. One of the conclusions that must be drawn from Gödel’s theorem, in fact, is that any “paternal” act, which is to say any act that closes a given system by saying no to the infinite stream of additional information, is by definition an act of fraud, because such an act can never be based on a complete knowledge of the system itself. In other words, fraudulence is not a simple deviation from the paternal ideal but is rather the very condition of paternity itself.

In a neat (non-)coincidence, the two examples Gladwell chooses to contrast puzzles and mysteries are both stories of paternal deception: the Watergate investigation and the Enron meltdown. In both cases we have a father who is a fraud: Richard Nixon and Jeffrey Skilling. The nature of their deception is entirely different, however. Nixon explicitly broke the law and knew it, whereas in Skilling’s case, it is far less clear that he behaved any less ethically than the average greedy CEO. Skilling’s crime, rather, was that he was not deceptive enough. His crime was that he was unable to keep the lie from sticking. Perhaps, if Skilling had been able to maintain the fraud a little longer, Enron would have had the time actually to begin making money. The story of the Enron collapse could be described as an object lesson on the dangers inherent to the belief that we can possess both completeness and consistency. The “smartest guys in the room”, the math geniuses who concocted Enron’s business plan, ceded to the temptation to believe that they finally knew enough to come up with the financial equivalent of a perpetual motion machine, a system in which speculative circulation could finally reach escape velocity and slough off any reference to the “real” economy. This phenomenon is eminently modern because it is a direct reflection of today’s dominant ideology, which could be described as an ideology of completeness grounded in technology.

Following Rene Girard’s mimetic theory, Skilling was only able to make the Enron story legible and consistent by being sacrificed for it. Mesmerized by the spectacle of completeness that modern technology reflects back to us, we no longer have any appetite for the old-fashioned living fathers who continue to dodder that such a spectacle is in fact a mirage, and it is only when the completeness of a given situation reaches a breaking point of illegibility that the father, the stand-in for the place of exception, must be mobilized in his most extreme avatar, that of the human sacrifice, long the “privilege” of kings in the ancient world. We might describe ritual sacrifice as mankind’s crudest and most viscerally convincing technique for closing a system, for creating consistency. Skilling’s sacrifice bears witness to the bad faith that haunts the new “mystery” paradigm: by sending him to jail for twenty-four years, we implicitly admit that we realize on some level that consistent completeness is an absolute fantasy. We live in a world in which the father increasingly appears as a relic, a figure we call upon when we need a scapegoat. Here is the missing answer to the two-part question that is implied in Gladwell’s analysis, namely: how did we go from puzzles to mysteries? Why did we insist on misreading the Enron mystery as a puzzle?

What’s more, by refusing to come to a conclusion about the dialectical relationship of puzzles and mysteries – their mutual exclusivity – Gladwell himself implicitly endorses the modern ideology of completeness. There are puzzles and there are mysteries, he seems to say, and maybe there are also conundrums and riddles and enigmas too. Gladwell’s ontology is one in which negativity has no place: it is essentially a list of the positive features of reality in which the idea of the part maudite, the structurally unknowable, never appears. His refusal to leave a place open for negativity is what makes him blind to the dialectical relationship between puzzles and mysteries.

Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that Malcolm Gladwell touches something real in his writing. For psychoanalysis, the real is defined as that which permanently escapes being symbolized; it is the structural incompatibility of completeness and consistency; it is that barrier to complete knowledge that infuriatingly remains even after we have liquidated the father, who until then had appeared to us as the contingent external barrier blocking our access to the truth. The real that interests Gladwell could be described as the statistical real, the point at which a statistical system breaks down and contradicts itself. Most of his explorations begin with a statistical anomaly, with a datum that “shouldn’t” exist, doesn’t make sense, renders a system inconsistent. In the face of the ideology of the Bell curve, Malcolm Gladwell is a defender of what he calls the power law distribution, in which certain phenomena refuse to get with the program and respect the model that has been painstakingly prepared to predict them. His books are full of stories in which the real irrupts in the most unexpected places. In Outliers, for example, he illustrates the stupid, purely contingent formal details that allowed Bill Gates to become Bill Gates. The profoundly inhuman factors that were a necessary part of the Gates recipe (his luck in being born in 1955, his luck in being one of the few adolescents in the world with unlimited access to a computer in a brief and precise historical period, the late sixties) are a perfect illustration of the real: try as we might to reduce reality to a consistent system in which success is predicated on human values like hard work and talent, the real of luck, of coincidence, continues to break in from the outside. The inverse approach is equally problematic: any attempt to reduce reality to pure randomness is just as much a travesty of reality as the attempt to banish it. Gladwell’s intellectual universe is one in which the real irrupts all over the place, sometimes on the micro level of the individual anomaly and sometimes on the macro level of the mysterious power of statistical systems (itself a manifestation of the real), and the fact that he refuses to liquidate the dialectical tension between these two paradigms that do not overlap perfectly is a great argument in his favor. Although Malcolm Gladwell cannot exactly be described as a philosopher of the real, lacking as he does an ontology in which negativity would have a permanent place, he is nonetheless a friend of the real, an admirer of the real, and this is the most important thing, the necessary starting point for a philosophical understanding of the world.

1 Exposed with particular clarity in Jean-Pierre Lebrun’s excellent “La Perversion Ordinaire”.

2 Hegel illustrates this phenomenon in the preface to his “Phenomenology” when he states that we need to add the “empty” syllable God to the list of positive properties of the world, for otherwise we pass over the dimension of subjectivity inherent in substance itself.


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