Peter Thiel: Uncommon Knowledge

Here are the quotes that stuck out from Peter Thiel’s interview with Peter Robinson on Uncommon Knowledge.

I’ve organized the quotes into discrete sections. And at times, I paraphrased Peter for the sake of clarity. Unless otherwise noted, everything below is a quote from Thiel.

The Enlightenment

You can distinguish the intellect and the will. The medievals believed in the weakness of the will but the power of the intellect. Modern people tend to believe in the power of the will and the weakness of the intellect.

We don’t trust people’s ability to think through things at all anymore in the 21st century.

The enlightenment always white-washes violence. There are many things we can’t think about under enlightenment reasoning, and one of them is violence itself. If you go to the anthropological myth of the enlightenment, it’s the myth of the social contract. So what happens when everybody is at everybody else’s throat? The enlightenment says that everybody in the middle of the crisis sits down, has a nice legal chat, and draws up a social contract. And maybe that’s the founding myth — the central lie — of the Enlightenment. Girard says something very different must have happened. When everybody is at everybody’s throat, the violence doesn’t just resolve itself, and maybe it gets channeled against a single scapegoat where the war of all against all became a war of all against one and somehow gets resolved in a very violent way.

The state of the world

The mania we have around artificial intelligence is that it stands for the proposition that humans aren’t supposed to think. We want the machines to do the thinking, but it’s because we’re in a world where individuals aren’t supposed to have intellectual agency of any sort anymore. We don’t trust rationality.

We’ve substituted the realities of politics for these increasingly fictionalized worlds and that’s probably a very unhealthy thing.

In the last 40 or 50 years, there’s been a shift from exteriority which is doing things in the real world to the interior world, which can be thought of as a shift from politics to entertainment. (Yoga, meditation, video games, etc.)

I’ve always like the quote from Milton in Paradise Lost where “the mind is it’s own place and of itself can make a hell of heaven and a heaven of hell.’ You’re supposed to be skeptical of that because that’s what Satan says when he gets to hell. But its just in my mind. If I just change my mind, I can change where I am. That’s not quite true. There’s an external reality, but somehow the temptation to turn everything into something therapeutic, psychological, and meditative has been a powerful one in the post 1960s America.

Faith and Reason

You don’t want faith to be unreasonable, and you don’t want it to be reasonable because then you could just use reason, so it’s a complicated question of how you get faith and reason to work together.

We always have to go back to intellect, mind, and rationality as core values. There are ways in which we’ve gone too far from them. But at the same time, it can’t just be interiority. We also should be acting on our world, and we shouldn’t be in a yoga, meditative, and psychological retreat. And then there’s all these ways where science and technology were such a big driver of society of progress for centuries. There are so many parts of this that no longer feel positive to people.

The state of the world

From 1989-2017, people in the West read the events of 1989 as what was inevitably going to happen in the East, and China read them as ‘not going to happen because we’re going to learn from history and make sure it doesn’t happen here.’ The exact same events were interpreted in different ways. And they were probably not going to happen because China wasn’t going to let them, and we were oblivious to this because we were so convinced of this determinacy of history.

The free trade theories are correct in theory, but in the real world, this stuff is always super messy. If you’re negotiating a free trade theory, you want the person negotiating it to not be a doctrinaire free trader because a doctrinaire free trader will believe that the worse of a job they do negotiating, the better a job they’re doing because even if you concede everything and get nothing from the other side, there are still these gains from trade. And that’s what free trade always tell you: you don’t need to work very hard on these trade treaties.

There is a Marxist theory that the time for Communism would come when interest rates went to zero because the zero percent interest rate was a sign that capitalists no longer had any idea what to do with their money. And there were no good investments left, which is why the interest rates went to zero, and therefore the only thing to do at that point was re-distribute the capital. It doesn’t mean that zero-percent rates lead us to socialism, but I find it alarming that rates are as low as they are.

If we believed in globalization, the way globalization is supposed to work is the less developed countries are supposed to converge. They converge and grow faster. Therefore you get a higher return for investing in them, and therefore capital should be exported from the developed to the developing countries. That is the direction which capital flowed circa 1900 when the United Kingdom had a current account surplus of 4% GDP and the extra capital was invested in Argentina’s bonds and Russian railroads and all these different things. Globalization ended badly in 1914, but that at least made sense because the money flowed in the correct direction. This time we’re in a much crazier form where the money is flowing the wrong way. Chinese peasants shouldn’t be saving money in low-yielding US bonds or negatively yielding European bonds. They should be investing in China, where they should get a higher return.

The future is something that has to be thought of in relatively concrete terms and it has to be different from the present. And only something that’s different from the present and very concrete can have any sort of charismatic force.

Think a lot harder about the future…try to think concretely what you want to do…there’s always a question, where is the frontier, where are some pockets of innovation where you can do some new things and not be in a crazed competition.

Note: If you enjoyed these quotes, you’ll like my 15,000 word essay on Peter Thiel, which provides context for many of the quotes in this interview. In it, I discuss Thiel’s Judeo-Christian influences and his relationship with philosopher Rene Girard.

Title image: Dan Taylor, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons