The Disadvantages of Depth

One of the first attractions of philosophy was that it offered a deeper understanding.  It may not have promised answers, but some things are too big for questions and answers, and philosophy was the one discipline that allowed no limitations on its inquiry.  I took for granted that a deep understanding was superior to a shallow one; that a considered answer would always trump an ill-considered response.  But it turns out that there are realms where a shallow understanding is more than sufficient, and an ill-considered response is by no means disadvantageous.

How is this possible?

It is possible because regardless of the merits of depth, it has the following drawbacks: depth is slow, depth is cautious, depth is elitist.  Depth is therefore easy to decry as unnecessary, wasteful, and inappropriate.  Better still, depth can be characterised as something other than depth entirely – it can be superficially described as uncertainty, hesitation, arrogance, obstinacy, or inactivity.  In fact all of these descriptors may seem entirely justified from the point of view of someone with no interest in depth or appreciation of its value.  So long as one is judged by shallow people, one’s pursuit of greater depth will be entirely unappreciated and disparaged.

In many fields, shallow people are at an advantage.  Why look for greater depth than is required to convince one’s peers?  Greater depth will just slow you down, and when it comes to selling oneself, creating an image, or making an impression: qui prior est tempore potior est jure.  ‘He who is earlier in time is stronger in law’.

As one of the most enigmatic passages from the Dao De Jing explains, he who pursues a deeper understanding finds himself at odds with the rest of humanity:

How joyous the mass of people are, as if banqueting on the sacrificed ox, as if mounting a tower in spring –
I alone am still, without visible sign, like a new born baby yet to smile, all listless, like one with no home.
The mass of people have more than enough –
I alone appear bereft; I, with the mind of a dolt, so slow.
Ordinary men are brilliant –
I am dim.
Ordinary men are perceptive –
I am closed.
Sudden, like the sea, like a tempest, as though endless, the mass of people all have their means –
I alone am obstinate, uncouth.
I alone wish to be different from others, and value feeding from the mother.

translated by Robert Eno


The pursuit of depth separates us from the majority of people.  It brings with it different priorities, different concerns, a different way of perceiving the world.  But for us it is self-evidently the better part of life.  And if the better part of life is ridiculed by others, then as the Dao De Jing states:

When the man of highest capacities hears Tao
He does his best to put it into practice.
When the man of middling capacity hears Tao
He is in two minds about it.
When the man of low capacity hears Tao
He laughs loudly at it.
If he did not laugh, it would not be worth the name of Tao.
Therefore the proverb has it:
“The way out into the light often looks dark,
The way that goes ahead often looks as if it went back.”
The way that is least hilly often looks as if it went up and down,
The “power” that is really loftiest looks like an abyss,
What is sheerest white looks blurred.
The “power” that is most sufficing looks inadequate,
The “power” that stands firmest looks flimsy.
What is in its natural, pure state looks faded;
The largest square has no corners,
The greatest vessel takes the longest to finish,
Great music has the faintest notes,
The Great From is without shape.
For Tao is hidden and nameless.
Yet Tao alone supports all things and brings them to fulfillment.

translated by Arthur Waley



4 thoughts on “The Disadvantages of Depth

  1. “In many fields, shallow people are at an advantage.”
    Is calling shallow people deep in their own way too relativist?
    If depth is cultivated by practise and demonstrated by performance considered sublime by amateurs, then shallow people are experts at reading the signs, not rocking the boat, and following the herd. Harder than it looks.
    Worth study if not emulation.

  2. I think it’s a great observation; not too relativist at all.
    It’s like people say: there are different kinds of intelligence, and what I’m calling ‘shallow’ could be redefined as ‘practical’, ‘pragmatic’, or efficient, etc. I certainly would find it hard to emulate their skills. Perhaps I’m just jealous of their success, even?
    On the other hand, it is quite satisfactory to impose the dichotomy of shallowness and depth, because, as people of depth, this is how we perceive the situation. Of course because of this depth we are also able to view it as ‘different kinds of intelligence’, but in the end we must come back to our ‘native’ view, otherwise the shallow people will overrun us with their cheap culture.

  3. LOL I was trolling. Even the ocean is both deep and shallow depending on your perspective. What is missing from a shallow application of effort is deliberation and mindfulness. So there are absolutely shallow people who spend their time on shallow endeavours. What makes an endeavour shallow? I was hoping to provoke your inquiry.

    • Ah, you see I’m so deep I saw a serious question in your comment nonetheless ; )
      ‘What makes an endeavour shallow?’ Excellent question. I’ll give it some thought and do a new post on it.
      Provocations to inquiry are always welcome.

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