Via Negativa

The Idea

Contributed by @philhagspiel |  Edited and curated by @philhagspiel

We overestimate the importance of what is and underestimate the importance of what is not.


What we don’t do matters as much as what we actually do. But that which actually happened captures our minds a lot more than that which could have happened — but didn’t.

When studying history, we place more emphasis on what occurred than on what did not. Similarly, when we examine how to solve our problems, we frequently focus on what to do as opposed to what to avoid.

As humans, we typically extract a lot of Via Positiva from data; things that exist or happened, rather than things that don’t or didn’t:

  • Scientific work gets more press if it is about what works than about what doesn't work.
  • Journalists report on significant incidents, not significant absences of incidents.
  • Even if most of the time was quiet, history textbooks are full of conflicts and struggle; these "non-events" influenced history just as much as true events like wars, intrigues, or catastrophes.

Similar to this, when faced with a decision, we tend to focus on what we could do (take action) rather than what we could avoid doing (non-action).

The Via Negativa is equally as significant and important to account for in both the context of comprehending the universe and our own personal choices as the Via Positiva. It’s just a lot less obvious.

"I don’t believe I have the ability to say what is going to work. Rather, I try to eliminate what’s not going to work."

— Naval Ravikant


A few further resources you might like if you find the above idea interesting: