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Via Negativa-By Way Of Negation

Via Negativa

Via Negativa- It’s an ancient Latin phrase, and it means “by way of negation.”

The origins of this term can be traced to a concept in ancient theology which sought to understand God by negating everything that God was not. So naturally, once we remove everything God is not, we get the definition of God itself. 

I came across this idea of Via Negativa in Nassim Taleb’s book “Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder”. It is a prescription for what to avoid and what not to do — subtraction, not addition. Nassim Taleb suggests that it is more beneficial first to figure out what not to do as a decision-making heuristic. In the book, he says, “subtractive knowledge: You know what is wrong with more certainty than you know anything else.” 

This idea of Via Negativa- by way of negation- has interesting implications in our day-to-day life.  

  • If you want to be happy, instead of always seeking things that make you happy, you can focus on avoiding doing things that make you unhappy. 
  • Want to increase your savings? Instead of always looking to increase your income, you can work on reducing your personal expenses.
  • Do you want to be more productive? Think about how you can eliminate a bad habit instead of trying to start a new good routine. 

We don’t have to keep adding to improve- true addition happens when we subtract.

The famous French writer and poet Antoine de Saint-Exupéry expressed the idea of Via Negative very nicely in words when he said, “perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

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