On Platitudes

by Ouroborus 1 min read22nd Apr 20206 comments


In Scott Alexander's review of Twelve Rules for Life he discusses how Jordan Peterson and CS. Lewis seem to have the ability to express cliches in ways that don't feel cliched.

Jordan Peterson’s superpower is saying cliches and having them sound meaningful. There are times – like when I have a desperate and grieving patient in front of me – that I would give almost anything for this talent. “You know that she wouldn’t have wanted you to be unhappy.” “Oh my God, you’re right! I’m wasting my life grieving when I could be helping others and making her proud of me, let me go out and do this right now!” If only.

This seems like an undervalued skill, particularly within the rationalist community where the focus tends to be on the new and flashy and exciting.

This may sound absurd, but I see it as entirely possible that there may be more wisdom in what we already know than what we don't know and that we just need to learn to extract it. After all, we should expect that almost all the low hanging fruit has been picked by someone in at some point and that if it is broadly applicable, that it'd spread. But if that's too strong, perhaps it might be true after someone has read a few personal development books and spent a few hours on understanding a couple of different religions. In any case, this theory seems worthy of attention as if it were true, then the consequences regarding how we should go about self-development would be truly momentous.

So if platitudes contain deep wisdom, why are they so often derided? Is it that everyone already knows them and so hearing them for the thousandth time is a waste?

I think it is related to idea inoculation. If you are convinced that you already know a concept but your understanding is incomplete then it becomes almost impossible to teach you.

There are many reasons why cliches fail to land:

  • Cliches are favoured by unoriginal thinkers who can't think their own thoughts. The low intellectual status of these thinkers attaches to these cliches
  • Someone who repeats a cliche demonstrates a low social awareness and this low social status attaches to the cliche
  • Unoriginal thinkers and people with low social awareness are less likely to express these thoughts in ways that are either original or which are persuasive
  • Once something is derided as a cliche there is social pressure to dismiss it
  • Many cliches can only be understood with life experience and when people first encounter them they are likely to lack this experience
  • When platitudes become a common response, people are likely to use them in a careless or insincere manner
  • People have an incentive to dismiss platitudes as a way of signalling their greater intelligence and social awareness
  • Even if someone does find a way of expressing a platitude in a way that gets around people's caches, it is very hard for listeners to transmit this to other people since this is usually dependent on communicating this in a very particular way. So these original expressions are unlikely to spread far enough to replace the general understanding of an idea as cliched

Being able to communicate old ideas in a way such that they seem original is an incredibly valuable skill and one worth developing further.