“Simplicity is a principle of war for a reason.”

For as long as I can remember, that was my mantra when encountering someone who seemed hell bent on overcomplicating something. Maybe it was a memorandum. Maybe it was a presentation. Or maybe it was a war plan. But the tendency toward overcomplication was always hard to miss. No matter how simple the task, someone is going to find a way to complicate it.

Murphy’s Law and the KISS principle both address this phenomenon from different perspectives. While Murphy’s Law – “if anything can go wrong it will” – acknowledges the inevitability of human error, the KISS principle – “keep it simple, stupid” – reminds us that keeping things simple helps to minimize the impact of that human error. Yet, despite literally everyone you know possessing the ability to quote these two axioms from memory, they can’t seem to follow them to save their lives.

But I digress. As often as I cited my own mantra, it wasn’t until more recently that I learned the existence and the meaning of Occam’s Razor. It’s possible that my education may have been lacking – I am the product of the public education system of a mill town, after all – but learning about Occam’s Razor was a light bulb moment for me. Occam’s Razor quite simply (See what I did there?) states that with competing theories (or ideas), the simpler one – typically the one with the fewer parameters – is to be preferred.

And there it is. In all its simplicity.

Cutting to the CHase

In the study of philosophy, a razor is a principle or rule of thumb that allows for the elimination (or “shaving off”) of unlikely explanations for a certain phenomenon. In simple terms, a razor helps you cut to the chase, to get to the heart of a matter in the simplest, most direct manner.  A philosophical razor isn’t a hard and fast rule; in fact, it won’t always be right. But, more often than not, it will put you close to the right answer, and that’s what matters most. It’s a mental shortcut, and we can always use a few more of those.

Ultimately, a philosophical razor helps you to shave off conclusions that have a low probability of being correct. Razors are a common feature in debate and it’s not unusual to see two people try to apply the same razor in the same argument. That’s the beauty of a philosophical arguments: we won’t always agree on what is the simplest explanation, and people have a tendency to break out the same razors.

The 10 Closest Shaves

Discovering Occam’s Razor was only the beginning for me. A notably slow learner, I soon found a number of philosophical razors that were perfectly suited for my needs. Spewing Top Gun lines is kind of my thing, but I’d much rather look a little less like a Tom Cruise fanboy and more like someone who actually paid attention during philosophy classes in college. But I also like top ten lists, and it didn’t take me long before I assembled my own.

1. Occam’s Razor.

“Plurality should not be posited without necessity.” For obvious reasons, this one is my favorite. What makes this one even more special is that it comes with its own polar opposite: Occam’s Duct Tape. That’s when someone comes to a conclusion with a ridiculous number of assumptions. Afghanistan comes to mind.

2. Hitchens’ Razor.

“What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” I don’t care what you read on the internet about space Nazis on the moon. If you can’t prove it with actual evidence, I’m going to ignore you.

3. Adler’s Razor.

“That which cannot be settled by experiment is not worth debating.” Somewhere between “hold my beer” and “watch this” is an inherently human need to prove things through experimentation. If you’re not prepared to prove your theory about the safety of drinking water at Red Hill, then just go away.

4. Hanlon’s Razor.

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” This is a subject near and dear to my heart. Stupid people don’t purposely do the things they do just to annoy you. They do them because, well… they’re stupid.

5. Grice’s Razor.

“As a principle of parsimony, conversational implications are to be preferred over semantic context for linguistic explanations.” That’s a really complicated way of saying that in conversation, we should focus on what the other person meant, not the literal interpretation of what they actually said. If you’ve ever had someone purposely quote you out of context, you know what I’m talking about.

6. Tarzwell’s Razor.

“Where there is passion, the truth cannot be trusted.” With great emotion comes great bias. If James Tarzwell could see us now… or spend a morning on Twitter.

7. Feynman’s Razor.

“Complexity and jargon are often used to mask a lack of deep understanding.” You don’t say. Be wary of the colonel slinging five-dollar words around, or the executive who hasn’t read a business book since Reagan was president. Big words and little minds often go hand-in-hand.

8. The Smart Friends Razor.

“The passions of the smartest people in your circles are a looking glass into the future.” Pay close attention to what interests the smartest people around you. They’re the smartest people around you for a reason.

9. The Grit Razor.

“If forced to choose between two people of equal merit, choose the one that has been punched in the face.” Why? Because it takes an incredible amount of resilience to hold your head high and continue the fight after taking a shot in the mouth. These are people who have failed, only to reach deep and find success.

10. The Serendipity Razor.

“Some of what we call luck is actually the macro result of thousands of micro actions.” We create our own luck by how we live our lives. Live your life right, and luck comes to you.

This barely scratches the surface of the entire library of philosophical razors. It’s difficult to narrow the list to just ten, and there are many more that could easily be included here. If I could add one more, it would probably be Buffet’s Razor (Warren, not Jimmy): “It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. Think about that, you’ll do things differently.” Some razors speak for themselves.

Related News

Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and former board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.