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1.2.4: Money Blind
If you can’t see because you have your hands over your eyes, it’s better to remove your hands and adjust to the light than to pay for an expensive guide dog
In discussing the use and meaning of language, Wittgenstein described how we view the world in a distorted way because ‘we look at the facts through the medium of a misleading form of expression’, that standard forms of expression, however common, ‘prevented us from seeing the facts with unbiased eyes.’[i] He likened idealising and ideologising a particular theory of usage or meaning to ‘a pair of glasses on our nose through which we see whatever we look at.’ And, he stated importantly, that ‘It never occurs to us to take them off.’[ii]
Wittgenstein suggested we at least try to take off these distorting lenses, to liberate ourselves from views that held us ‘captive’. We should not replace the glasses, but remove them, on the grounds that our ‘uncorrected’ way of looking at the world was probably just fine as it was. And in any case, it’s impossible to know how messed up our vision may be until we take off our glasses and compare it to an alternative.
We mess up our relationships with money, and our relationships with money mess us up in turn, because we look at money’s role in living a Good Life through distorted lenses. We see all things financial as complicated and scary and in response cover our eyes. When a well-meaning, well-heeled helper offers to sell us a guide dog, we’re so grateful we barely pause to consider how much it costs, or how effectively it works. And it never occurs to us to just uncover our eyes. We remain money blind.
I’m advocating neither replacement lenses, nor scrapping the current set and assuming all will instantly be well. This isn’t a manifesto for a ‘correct’ way of thinking about money so much as it’s a suggestion to think about it at all. However, even if someone’s eyes are anatomically sound, you don’t take away their guide dog until you’ve taught them to see. It takes time for eyes to adjust to new lights. This is as true in modern finance as it was in Plato’s cave.
Becoming wiser with money is a process of internalising aspects of your future self that though you do not yet possess them, can still be a symbol to guide you where you want to go
Becoming wiser with money presents us with a quandary. The skills you are trying to acquire to transform yourself are those possessed not by the person you are, but by the person you are becoming. How does the person you are now know what it will be like to become what you could be? How do you know that becoming that person is even a wise move? We need a way of testing before we can’t turn back. Leaps of faith are terribly exciting, but sometimes it’s better to build a bridge.
We need a philosophical bridge that tempts us with an inkling into a more illuminated world, shows us how to get there, and which, when we have travelled across it, becomes part of our expanded, wiser, self. A bridge that allows something to contribute to and inspire our current experience without actually being part of that current experience. This is the function of a symbol – an aspirational spark that illuminates the path of becoming.
Fortunately, you’ve gone through such a transformation before. Child You crossed a bridge into Adult You by interacting with and internalising the actions of the adults around it. Adult You can cross the bridge into Sage You by internalising and interacting with sages (with the distinct advantage of the choice of sages being under far greater conscious control than the child’s choice of adults). This goes far beyond ‘learning’ the lessons of such sages, reading some quotes and banging them out on Twitter. You do not want to read Socrates; you want to know what it is to think Socratically, to in some sense become Socrates. It is not a lecture, it is a process in which you participate.
Symbols must not be treated as fixed. To do so is to turn a potential source of inspiration into an idol, to worship a product, not a process, and thereby to refuse growing, not aspire towards it. Symbols open us up to levels of ourselves otherwise hidden from view. Idols do the opposite. Think of the archetype of the hero, that sits at the centre of so many stories. For those stories to transform us, we must not see the hero as a fixed image to carry around with us, but as something to aspire towards… something that inspires us to act a little more heroically… that in turn enables us to ever greater transformation. In linguistic terms, symbols are adverbial, not adjectival – they belong with actions, not nouns.
When a child learns from adults, it doesn’t understand what it is doing. It’s following an aspirational symbolic idea of what it could become. Understanding comes later, after the transformation and self-transcendence of growing up.
This book should be seen in a symbolic light. A tempting beam from a brighter future that draws you along your own path to becoming a financial sage. That shines lights on previously unexamined aspects of your financial life, to inspire examination in a way that gradually changes how money is represented in your mind, in an ongoing virtuous cycle.
Plato’s famous allegory of the cave is chock-full of symbolism. We are asked to imagine a group of people living their whole lives underground, chained so that they can see only shadows on a wall cast by the real world above them. Yet, never having known anything else, they take this shadowy puppet show to be truth.
One day, one of the prisoners escapes his chains. ‘What do you suppose he’d say,’ Plato asks us, ‘if he was told that what he used to see before was of no importance?’[iii] And as for the confusing 3D objects around him, ‘Wouldn’t he believe the things he saw before to be more true?’ Wouldn’t he, in short, go on the defensive? Wouldn’t he shield his eyes from the glare, and deny that everything he’d taken for truth were in fact no such thing? We are encouraged to think that our unchained man likely needs to be dragged to the surface. And when he gets there, ‘would he be able to see a single one of the things people call real?’ No, we are told, he would not. Not at first. The light is blinding and the fear is paralysing. He must acclimatise. Perhaps starting with shadows, then moving on to reflections, then the things themselves, then the lights of the night sky, until finally he’s ready to see the sun.
The story goes on, but the key thread for our immediate purposes is the acclimatising acceptance of reality. Reluctance to abandon the illusions becomes reluctance to return to them once the taste for reality takes hold. But the path is painful, and change cannot happen without time and effort.
This cycle of ascent – of coming into contact with clearer patterns of thinking which change the self, thereby making that self better able to distinguish still clearer patterns, which further changes the self, and so on such that we come into ever closer contact with reality, become ever wiser – is a template not only for you working through the lessons in this book, but also for the book’s lessons to continue to work through you. A paced prescription of new patterns of thinking, and a lifetime of application with adjustments to account for growth in your money mindset. You are operating on your mind. It’s time to go to brain-surgery school.
 Referred to in Ancient Greek as anagoge, if you’re into that sort of thing.
[i] Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books
[ii] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
[iii] Plato, The Republic