Allen Lane, £25 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Antifragile, By Nassim Nicholas Taleb

From the guru of the 'Black Swan' comes a passionate defence of tried and tested values

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the Lebanese-born financial trader-turned-academic-turned-philosopher, in 2007 "foresaw" something very like the global blow-up of the coming year even though his entire method seeks to debunk predictors, forecasters and risk-assessors.

During the post-meltdown hangover, Taleb (predictably?) became the most fashionable thinker on the planet among the burnt and bruised elites of business and politics. Now, he has as little respect for journalists as he does for economists, bankers or professors. All belong to the sort of "phony profession" whose cheap, false talk about imaginary futures makes mischief but brings no downside to themselves. (His new worktakes a cudgel to top columnist Thomas Friedman, who cheerled for the Iraq war but "paid no price for the mistake".)

Nonetheless, the UK edition of Antifragile, his sprawling souk of a book about how we can "live happily" in a world that defies understanding, carries on its cover a quotation from a journalist about his breakthrough treatise The Black Swan. Since I happen to be the phony professional cited there, perhaps I may voice an opinion.

In the midst of the Black Swan cult, when randomness, volatility, extreme events and all the other horsemen of the Talebian apocalypse thundered out of probability textbooks and into workplaces and bank-accounts across our crisis-ridden economies, I called its author "a superhero of the mind". At the time, I was probably thinking of his giant intellectual leaps from subject to subject, framework to framework, as he argued that game-changing, epoch-making shocks and traumas beyond prediction had ruled and would rule our world. This proud son of Amioun spun finance, philosophy, mathematics and homespun Levantine lore into a surprise package that captivated and invigorated readers in the mood for an anti-theory theorist.

Yet superheroes have another signal quality: they don't exist. We invest them with the role of fantasy saviours who swoop to the rescue in moments of peril. So it is with the Batman of Beirut (or Brooklyn). Taleb is an exceptionally interesting mind and Antifragile, for all its trademark arrogance, indiscipline and sheer chutzpah, deserves to stand again in the spot-beam of success. Yet despite his mathematical prowess (on display in heavy-duty appendices here), it ought to alarm us that Taleb now not merely advises an investment consultancy rooted in "black swan" principles (Universa) and teaches "risk engineering" but even lends his contrarian wisdom to the IMF.

"I eat my own cooking," he insists. Unlike the bankers, pundits and politicians who wreck companies or economies and then walk away to reap more ill-gotten gains (take a bow, pet hates Gordon Brown, Alan Greenspan and Joseph Stiglitz), Taleb cleaves to the ancient-Mediterranean values of buck-stops-here courage, accountability and responsibility: "take risks and face your fate with dignity". He has (one of his bedrock concepts) plenty of "skin in the game". Translation: his ass is on the line. Well, chapeau bas, monsieur. But my worry concerns the transformation of this hugely gifted out-of-the-box thinker into the kind of policy-prescription guru against whom his whole oeuvre so passionately warns. You can already sign up for courses (not run by him) at an "Academy of Anti-Fragility".

It's a kind of category error. For he advocates exactly the opposite of busybody "naïve interventionism" - in health, economy, society - and celebrates instead the via negativa that aims to avoid harm and eliminate toxins. He pushes not so much a 12-step as a no-step programme: if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Above all, Taleb excels at literary philosophy and aphoristic thought-bites that shake or skewer modern orthodoxies.

And the dandyish radicalism of his style tends to disguise the deep small-c conservatism - or better, sheer archaism - at his philosophical heart.He is the Nietzsche of Wall Street, not a calculating Warren Buffett-style rich man with a plan. Much as I love Nietzsche (whom Taleb quotes as saying that "Perhaps there is a realm of wisdom from which the logician is exiled"), I wouldn't much care to see him at the side of Christine Lagarde.

Antifragile aims not merely to shockproof us, and our economies, against the unforeseeable upheavals of the age. Those techniques merely belong to the pursuit of "robustness" or "resilience", second-order virtues that in Taleb's comically macho idiom he finds "sissy". Rather, the holy grail of "antifragility" will mean that we grow through and profit from the random black-swan blows of a volatile and disorderly world. For Taleb, Mother Nature practises antifragility, as do her greatest interpreters: "Evolution loves disturbances… discovery likes disturbances."

He rings colourful variations on Nietzsche's "what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger" - noting bleakly that it kills off others, and thus progress occurs. From failed entrepreneurs, who merit honour as "dead soldiers", to the "empiric" trial-and-error medicine that outperforms Big Pharma, fools have heroically rushed in to improve systems and institutions. Antifragility, the capacity to benefit from twists of fate and history, thrives on tinkering, improvisation and bricolage, not on one-size-fits-all high theories that the next storm will flatten like matchwood.

From the Stoicism of Seneca to the Industrial Revolution and the New York trading floors, Taleb hammers home his nails. And the house he builds feels a deeply traditional place. Via fragments of memoir, we glimpse the exile whose "Levantine Christian world was shattered by the Lebanese war". Sure that "the old is superior to the new", this drinker of only wine, coffee and water who shuns even oranges ("post-medieval candy") praises Burke, Joseph de Maistre (scourge of Enlightenment idealism) and our own John Gray.

That last name indicates that Taleb's emotional conservatism has nothing to do with today's right-wing politics. He excoriates too-big-to-fail bankers and plundering corporations with all the vehemence of an Occupy insurgent. He can treat radical activist Ralph Nader as a "secular saint". Yet one always senses the stranded soul from a land of lost content: "We humans got a bit ahead of ourselves in this large enterprise called modernity."

Taleb can be vulgar, silly, slapdash and infuriating. To put it kindly, his scattergun rhetoric resembles the proliferating shapes of his friend Benoit Mandelbrot: "Everything in nature is fractal, jagged, and rich in detail, though with a certain pattern". Taleb is the ultimate fractal author. On many pages I felt the urge to fling this hefty volume (which of course he much prefers to the "fragile" modern rubbish of e-readers) on a non-random path towards his swollen head. Yet time and again I returned to two questions about his core ideas: Is he right, and does it matter? My verdict? Yes, and yes.

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
    The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

    The ZX Spectrum is back

    The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
    Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

    Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

    The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

    If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
    The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

    The quirks of work perks

    From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
    Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

    Is bridge becoming hip?

    The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
    Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

    The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

    Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
    The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

    The rise of Lego Clubs

    How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
    5 best running glasses

    On your marks: 5 best running glasses

    Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
    Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada