The Wittgenstein’s Ruler

Recently I read the book Fooled by Randomness authored by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. This book opened for me such fundamentally new windows to think about various aspects of life that I can safely say that there are two types of people in the world: those who have read Fooled by Randomness and those who haven’t.

One interesting concept he derived from the writings of early 20th-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is the Wittgenstein’s ruler (a term coined by Taleb himself).

Wittgenstein’s Ruler: Unless you have confidence in the ruler’s reliability, if you use a ruler to measure a table, you may also be using the table to measure the ruler.

According to Taleb,

Unless the source of a statement has extremely high qualifications, the statement will be more revealing of the author than the information intended by him. This applies to matters of judgment. According to Wittgenstein’s ruler: Unless you have confidence in the ruler’s reliability, if you use a ruler to measure a table you may also be using the table to measure the ruler. The less you trust the ruler’s reliability, the more information you are getting about the ruler and the less about the table.

There are many implications of this concept, some of which are straightforward and some can be deduced indirectly. Let us discuss the simple ones first.

  • Handling Criticism: It is habitual of most people to hold opinions about and/or comment on other people, situations and ideas. There is no use of getting angry or feeling down on someone’s comments when you are working right and hard in your own opinion. Instead, remember that their opinions are just a measure of their own lack of intelligence rather than your abilities and/or character. In fact, one of the most important lessons in life is to gain incredible freedom of not fearing how others think about you.
  • Throwing Criticism: Flipping it on this side now, never pass quick judgments on persons and situations. It might feel good and fill in a sense of superiority but in reality, it shows a sign of your low intellectual level rather than anything else. Just experience everything as a neutral observer should. If you happen to have some expertise in a particular area, even then remember that intelligence and knowledge are not evenly distributed in the world.

    In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, the first lesson Carnegie mentions is “Don’t kick the beehive (don’t criticize condemn or complain)”. Two important quotes I remember from that chapter are the following.

    1. When dealing with people, remember that we are not dealing with creatures of logic, we are dealing with creatures of emotions and biases.
    2. Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain. But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.

Now let us turn towards deeper inferences from Wittgenstein’s ruler.

  • Not Knowing about Not Knowing: When I hear people telling their opinions about politics, religion and problems with the world (along with their solutions), I smile and smile. Not because I know better myself but because of the realization that I know that I don’t know. By suggesting isolated problems in these complex domains and simplified solutions, the ruler itself is giving its measurements instead of measuring the table.
  • The Human Operating Systems: When we buy a computer, it comes with a complete operating system and software needed to accomplish its required tasks. Anything can be installed if missing and uninstalled if corrupt. The system works as desired as there is no creative processing inside a computer.

    If humans are viewed as intelligent machines, then what would happen if we came with an installed operating system with accompanying software? Or could be plugged into some data port to install or uninstall desired features?

    Well, it is almost like that. From an information point of view, eyes and ears are 2 input ports while tongue and hands with pen or keyboard are the 2 output ports. And whatever we see and hear in our childhood gets registered in our minds as the right way of life: our standard and true operating system.

    This correlation is so strong that if one knows the birthplace of a person, one can predict their life philosophy with a high accuracy. Conversely, if one knows the life philosophy of a person, one can predict their birthplace and/or upbringing with a similar accuracy.

    This means that the weight of history in shaping our personalities is extremely significant. There are 2 steps to escape this trap.

    1. Knowledge: If we acquire newer and newer knowledge in a large quantity, slowly history will start having lesser and lesser effect. Increased knowledge through reading and travel can expand our brains. Then we become capable of wiser choices, compared to our previous selves. Remember to read more, specially what one disagrees with.
    2. Withdrawing the Biases: Accepting that there can be many different methods to look at a problem is equally important. Instead of fitting every reality into the space defined by one’s core concepts, sometimes check if tinkering with some of those core concepts can explain the reality in a better way. Sometimes.

Those who don’t do that behave like a hammer that keeps looking for a nail. And then wonder why the world doesn’t see things from their perspective.


  1. elfin


  2. LedBaron

    Brilliant and well formulated!

  3. Shailesh

    Tremendous method to explain so important moral in so little writing.

  4. Sigmund Krajden

    Brilliant! A principle that applies across all domains – life, work, relationships etc

  5. gui

    Very well written!

  6. Ian

    Unfortunately the grammar is wrong. This about a RULE. The RULER is the person applying the RULE

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